Obedience is so much easier when I feel like obeying. When I contemplate God’s grace until I feel delight toward God or feel grateful for what the Lord has done for me, it doesn’t take as much determination to do what I otherwise didn’t want to do.
While gratitude is a good motive, obedience based upon stirred up feelings of gratitude or delight is not more acceptable to God than obedience by the power of the Spirit apart from feelings, obedience by a choice of the will simply because He so commanded. The reality is that most of the time we don’t feel like denying ourselves. Killing the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13) does not feel delightful. Obedience to God requires struggle and striving.
What Christians sometimes don’t understand is that striving to obey does not mean that the deed is only of self any more than delighted obedience means that the deed is by grace.
Love for God is not an option dependent upon feelings of gratitude; it is the greatest commandment. Love is shown by obedience. “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:2). John didn’t mean that a feeling of love is the means to get ourselves to obey. Rather, love obeys. Obedience is the Christian’s rightful duty of love to God.
Duty? Doesn’t “duty” smack of legalism? Legalism is the view that a person, by his own efforts, can earn a right position before God. Therefore, it counts Christ’s sacrifice as insufficient.
Christian duty, on the other hand, is the fulfillment of one’s rightful responsibility, not to earn merit but because obedience in faith by the grace of God is love to God. That isn’t legalism. Certainly, one may appear to fulfill duty in a legalistic attempt to earn God’s favor. But then, that is not true duty because it is self-serving and independent of the Holy Spirit. It does not rely on God’s enabling grace.
The Christian is obligated to obey God for at least two reasons–his existence and his redemption.
First, man is a creature, one created by Another. He is made of mere dust, and that far from gold dust. Furthermore, each clay creature is dependent on his Creator for every next breath (Acts 17:25), for every moment of continued existence. So then, by his very existence each owes allegiance to his Creator.
Thinking back to the Creation, we observe also that God demanded obedience before there was a gospel message on which to meditate for gratitude. Also, the unsaved, who cannot depend upon the motive of gratitude for a salvation they don’t possess, still owe Him obedience.
Second, those who are saved have been purchased. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Believers are privileged to be granted forgiveness in salvation. They are privileged to be children of the most tender Father. And purchased, they are also privileged to be slaves of the most kind Master. Slaves obey whether or not they talk themselves into feeling grateful.
It is a delight to obey out of gratitude. The thing is, gratitude is not man’s benevolent response to God. We aren’t doing Him a favor. Furthermore, gratitude is itself commanded (Eph. 5:20). Therefore, even gratitude is man’s duty.
“Duty” is a very good word. It refers of the Christian’s rightful service to the God of the universe, fulfilling the very purpose for which he was created and redeemed. What an honor duty is!
Duty can be freeing. We don’t have to wait on or crank up feelings to get self to obey. Self-discipline to duty (by willful choice in faith that God is giving the grace for that choice) takes us beyond our feelings of the moment, beyond ourselves, and carries us to obedience when feelings protest. It is indispensable for growth in godliness.
God deserves our obedience regardless of whether we feel grateful, regardless of whether we remind ourselves of what He has done for us, regardless of whether we want to. In fact, in many cases we won’t feel a want to until we step out in obedience; then the Holy Spirit supplies the grace to obey and often the desire also, after the obedience begins. So if we preach the gospel to ourselves, then let it also remind us that we are by that gospel doubly indebted to He who commands, first as creatures created and second by purchase. (I have written more on “preaching the gospel to yourself” here and here.)
In the 1800s, Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) dealt with this issue. In God’s Way of Holiness he says,
Is obedience a matter of option, not of obligation? If it is answered, No; we will love God with all our heart, but not because the law enjoins; I answer, this looks very like the spirit of a froward child, who says to a parent, I will do such and such a thing because I please, but not because you bid me.
The word duty is objected to as inconsistent with the liberty of forgiveness and sonship. Foolish and idle cavil! What is duty? It is the thing which is due by me to God; that line of conduct which I owe to God. And do these objectors mean to say that, because God has redeemed us from the curse of the law; therefore we owe Him nothing, we have no duty now to Him? Has not redemption rather made us doubly debtors? We owe Him more than ever; we owe His holy law more than ever-more honor, more obedience. Duty has been doubled, not canceled, by our being delivered from the law; and he that says that duty has ceased, because deliverance has come, knows nothing of duty, or law, or deliverance. The greatest of all debtors in the universe is the redeemed man…What a strange sense of gratitude these men must have who suppose that because love has canceled the penalties of the law, and turned away its wrath, therefore reverence and obedience to that law are no longer due! Is terror, in their estimation, the only foundation of duty, and when love comes in and terror ceases, does duty become a bondage?
Bonar, Horatius, God’s Way of Holiness, (Lexington, KY: Legacy Publications, March 15, 2012), 56.