In our last time together, we considered the meaning and the doctrinal implications of Heb. 5:9. The main doctrine that is being preached in this verse is that obedience is a necessary fruit of genuine Christianity, and that you cannot justifiably say that you belong to Christ or are a participant in his saving blessings if you are living in total neglect of his authority over your life. But as I continued to think about this, I realized that more needs to be said. It’s one thing to say that obedience is a necessary fruit of the Christian life. But that begs the question: what does obedience to Christ look like? How do we actually apply this to our lives, especially given the fact that we are still sinners? To answer the question, how do we obey Christ is essentially to answer the question, how do we deal with the sin in our lives? This is what we want to deal with this morning.
I believe that it is necessary to do this, because there are all sorts of wrong ways to implement the Biblical call to obedience. Let me put it to you in the words of a hymn that we sing:
We need to be rescued from pride on the one hand, and from despair on the other, and these are both temptations to which we are prone, though we may tend more to one than the other. Let me show you what I mean.
First, we can seek to apply the exhortations to obedience with an attitude of pride. What does this look like? Well, I think the best illustration of this comes from our Lord’s description of the Pharisees of his day: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:27- 28). The Pharisees were proud (one thinks of another description, that of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:9-14, which ends with the words, “for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”), and this pride worked its way out in their religious life in a shallow and superficial obedience. The problem with pride is that keeps you from being honest with yourself. It keeps you from coming to grips with the evil that is there in your heart. And so instead of seeking righteousness in the inward man, we end up being satisfied with external obedience and a rotten heart. Pride glosses over inner sin and is satisfied with an external display only.
This is dangerous because this is obviously not what God is looking for. He looks at the heart. This is what I think is behind our Lord’s words in Mt. 5:20, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” He is not saying, as some argue, that unless you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ that you will not be saved – true though that is! What he is saying is that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is only external and God expects and demands more than that.
An attitude of pride is dangerous because it warps things. It warps our understanding of the true condition of our own heart and glosses over the evil therein. And it warps our understanding of the demands of God’s law by reducing it to a razor-thin veneer of external religious busyness without ever dealing with obedience at the level of the heart. You can see how these two things go together. Reducing the call for holiness to external obedience clearly helps us to evade the corruptions of the heart. And on the other hand, an unwillingness to come to terms with inward sinfulness inevitably leads one to define obedience in terms of outward duty only.
Where does this pride come from? I think it comes from the fundamental problem in the human heart: our tendency to worship ourselves rather than God. And this inevitably means that when we hear verses like Heb. 5:9, instead of looking away from ourselves and to the grace of God for the power and strength to obey, we begin by looking at ourselves and saying, “I can do this!” And that is really bad, because it not only robs God of the glory, but in order to keep up the charade, you will have to ignore the true state of your heart as well as the true depth and breadth of the call to holiness.
So that is one temptation we are faced with when we hear a call to obedience and holiness. But that is not the only temptation. As the hymn puts it, we are not only in danger from “rocks of pride,” but also from “quick-sands of despair.”
Here’s how this works. A person hears the call to obey Christ, and he or she thinks, “How can I do that? I’ve got so much corruption in my heart! I’ve failed so much! It’s impossible!” And they sink down in despair. This person is almost the opposite of the prideful person we’ve been describing above, although we shouldn’t think this person has no problem with pride. But it is different, because whereas the Pharisee won’t deal with the inward corruption of the heart, the despairing person can’t get away from the corruption of the soul. They are obsessed with it. They look within and that’s all they can seem to do.
Well, if you’re only looking inward, and you’re being honest, there is not going to be a lot of hope there. I know that a lot of folks say that Romans 7 doesn’t apply to the Christian, but I disagree. These are the words of the apostle Paul in the present tense: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:18). No wonder that we can often identify with the apostle’s mournful cry: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).
So that is another danger we want to avoid. There is no hint in the New Testament that the call to holiness is a call to despair. Nor is it a call to pride. We need to avoid both. The question is: how? That’s what we want to consider together today.
The way I want to approach this is with the phrase a posture of obedience. The word “posture” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a conscious mental or outward behavioral attitude.”1 I used this phrase in my sermon last Sunday, and I think it’s a helpful way to look at the Biblical teaching on obedience in the life of a Christian.
Here’s what I mean by this, first negatively and then positively. By “a posture of obedience” I am not describing sinless perfection. I am not saying that the Biblical commands to obey mean that unless I am doing this perfectly then I am not a Christian. What I am saying is that a Christian is someone whose overall outlook and basic attitude is one of imperfectly but consciously pursuing holiness in the fear of God. And although we certainly ought to have perfect obedience as our aim, that doesn’t mean that we will ever be perfect this side of heaven. As I said last time, we will never be able to say this side of heaven that we have become the Beatitudes, but we certainly ought to be saying that we are becoming the Beatitudes, however slowly that process is taking place.
Let me say it again: no Christian can say that they are without sin. The Bible gives us no grounds upon which to say that. In fact, it says the opposite. It tells us that we are to ask forgiveness every day for our sins (Mt. 6:12). The apostle John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). And, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:10).
So posture does not mean perfection. Rather, posture points us to the overall pattern of our lives. However, the question presses in upon us: how do we evaluate our obedience in light of the sin in our hearts and lives? Do we conclude that because we sin we are not Christian? Do we conclude that since everyone sins, it’s no big deal? That I shouldn’t be concerned about the sin in my life? Do we respond with pride and think that we’re okay, no matter how much we sin, or do we respond with despair and throw in the towel? Are we supposed to be constantly doubting our salvation because of the remaining sin in our lives? Surely there must be a better way. And there is, and the Bible helps us to navigate between the twin dangers of pride and despair. Here are some questions that I think can help us maintain the posture of obedience in a Biblical, humble, and hopeful way: where are we looking, what are we doing, and to what are we listening?
Where are we looking?
One of the main obstacles to the pursuit of holiness is looking for motivation in all the wrong places. In particular, I’m talking about where we are looking for motivation and inspiration in dealing with the sin in our lives. What drives our response to the sin in our lives? Are we motivated by a merit-based mentality or are we motivated by love of God toward us in Jesus Christ? We should never look to our obedience as the ground of our acceptance with God. Rather, we look solely to Christ and to the grace of God in him. This is a dangerous thing because it can lead to both pride and despair. Those who take a superficial view of the demands of God upon us will end up proud. On the other hand, those who take a more realistic look at themselves will end up in despair, for they will soon realize that there is no way any of us can commend ourselves to God on the basis of our goodness.
But this is not where Scripture tells us to look. We are not to look to ourselves, but to Christ. Remember what God says to us through the prophet: “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the end of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22), and that means there is really nowhere else to look. We are not to look to ourselves out of pride, nor are we to look in ourselves and despair.
In particular, we are not to be motivated by our works but by his grace. This is how the apostle Paul consistently argues. In Romans 1-11, he unpacks for us the glorious gospel of grace. It is about the righteousness of God, the grace of God, the power of God, the purpose of God for us. And then he gets to what some might call the “practical part” of the epistle. How does he begin? This way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). What are the mercies of God? They are contained in the gospel which tells us that we are not justified on the basis of our works but on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ freely given to those who believe. That’s what ought to motivate you. Are you? Am I? Am I motivated by the mercies of God in the life of obedience or am I more motivated by the demands of the law which I am desperately trying to live up to and therefore merit God’s favor thereby?
You see it in other writings of Paul as well. Ephesians 1-3 are all about God’s sovereign purpose of election, Christ’s saving redemption, and the Sprit’s work in our hearts, raising us from a death in sin and giving us good hope through grace. When we get to the second half of the epistle, again the “practical part,” he begins it with these words: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1). Note that word “therefore.” It is there to point us back to chapters 1-3. We are to be motivated by what God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ, in whom every spiritual blessing is found (Eph. 1:3).
One indication that we are looking too much to ourselves instead of the grace and love and mercy of God as the primary motivators in sanctification, is that we have become fixated on our past. My friend beware of looking too much to your own past. When we become obsessed with the past, it is probably because we’re trying to weigh whether or not we have messed up too much for God to save us. But this means we are trying to relate to God on the basis of merit instead of grace. This is not the Biblical way to look at it. For there is no sinner too far gone that God cannot save him or her. There is no amount of sin that can make you unfit for grace. For it is still true that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20). Grace did and it does.
Remember what our Lord said to those who rebuked him for ministering to the publicans and sinners, these people on the margins of society, the despised, those who were considered too far gone. But these are the ones that Jesus brought into his kingdom. And his response to those who rebuked him was this: “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Mt. 9:12-13).
Then we have the testimony of the apostle Paul, a man who had been a persecutor and a murderer of God’s people. But God saved him and made him one of the foremost apostles. Remember how he put it? “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). Now Paul wrote this under the inspiration of the Spirit, and so I take it to mean that he really was the chief of sinners. And if that’s the case, there is no one in this audience who can say that Christ can’t save them because they are too bad. In fact, Paul goes on to say this: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (16). Even if you feel yourself to be worse than others, that doesn’t matter for God saved the chief of sinners and did it as a pattern. In other words, this is not a rare thing; it is what God normally does. Do you believe that?
It is hard to please God and pursue holiness when you think he is against you. But the only way we can truly have confidence that he is for us is if we really believe that all our sins can be forgiven, not on the basis of our goodness but on the basis of the grace of God toward us in Jesus Christ. It is freeing to realize that the only sins we will ever fight as children of God are forgiven sins. Think about that! It’s as the hymn puts it:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.
If we really are looking to Christ alone for our salvation and our acceptance with God, we won’t become proud and superficial and hypocritical like the Pharisees, nor will we become despairing and hopeless.
What are we doing?
The next question is: what are you doing right now with the sin in your life? We should neither ignore it out of pride, nor should we despair over it. The proper response to sin is to immediately confess it and repent of it. That is what obedience is: it looks like repentance from sin and faith for cleansing on a daily basis. When you get up in the morning, you believe the promise of God toward you in Christ and repent of your sins. As you go through the day, you repent and believe. And when you go to bed at night, you repent and believe. You confess your sins daily. This is very important: it doesn’t matter how many times you have messed up or how many times you have had to confess the same sin. It doesn’t matter how successful you have been in the past or unsuccessful. The answer is still the same: you need to confess your sin to God and then repent of it.
The point I really want to make here is that a life of obedience to Christ does not mean perfection; it means a lifestyle of faith and confession and repentance. It doesn’t mean that you have to have gone 40 days without any big slip-ups in order to qualify for walking in the light. Let me remind you again of these very important words in 1 John: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:6-7). Do you hear that? Walking in the light doesn’t mean you are without sin because in that case we wouldn’t need this ongoing cleansing from our sin! Now clearly, it also doesn’t mean that we are living in sin, or walking in darkness, as it is put in verse 6. It means that our fundamental posture is towards the light, and that means that we are constantly availing ourselves of the cleansing that is in Christ – and that means repentance and faith.
Then there is verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God does not say that if we sin, we are out of the game. Instead, he says that if we confess our sins, he will forgive us and cleanse us. That is the promise.
It is important for us to understand this because otherwise we are going to end up in despair if we are honest with ourselves. But the presence of sin in our lives is not a reason to despair: it’s a reason to repent and come to Christ anew for cleansing and forgiveness. As we just saw in 1 Jn. 1:9, confessing our sins is a part of walking in the light. It’s important for us to hear that. It saves us from pride because it reminds us that confessing sin is a normal part of the Christian walk, and it saves us from despair because it reminds us that confessing sin is a normal part of the Christian walk!
What then is the difference between walking in the darkness and walking in the light? I think the primary difference is our fundamental attitude (posture) toward God and our fundamental attitude towards sin. If we are walking in the light and not in the darkness, God is the one we want most to draw near to, he is the one we want to have fellowship with. Those who walk in darkness are not wanting fellowship with God, they are trying to hide from him. They are trying to hide their sins from him. Does that describe you? Are you trying to hide from God and your sins from God? That is not obedience. But if you are willing to be honest with God, if you can say with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24), if you are truly confessing your sins and seeking cleansing from them and repenting of them, then you can say that you are walking in the light.
The question is not what have you done or what are you going to do; the question is what are you doing right now? Are you dealing with your sins or are you ignoring them and hiding them? Oh, may God give us the heart of the Psalmist, who said, “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119:59-60).
Do you see how this posture combats both pride and despair? It combats pride because you cannot foster a lifestyle of confession and repentance without coming to terms with your absolute and constant need for God’s free and sovereign grace. And it combats despair because taking this posture means that the answer to our sin is not to give up hope but to come anew to the throne of grace, confessing our sin and turning from it in the real and steadfast hope that God will forgive and cleanse.
To what are we listening?
What is guiding us as we lean into the task of obedience to Christ? What are we listening to? Well, we need to be listening to Scripture, rather than our own hearts. We need to be listening to the word of God rather than a world in rebellion against God. And that means we need to hear both the warnings and the promises in Scripture and hold them together in our minds. We must hear the warnings in light of the promises so we don’t despair. But we must also hear the promises in light of the warnings so we don’t presume. Now I don’t deny this can sometimes be difficult! But it is necessary.
Here’s what I mean. There are warnings all over the Bible that tell us that if you abandon a commitment to Christ and never come back, you were never truly saved to begin with and that you can expect future judgment. The book of Hebrews is filled with such warnings. We saw some of them in chapters 2 and 3, and we are about to come face to face with another one in chapter 6. The writer will return to the warnings against apostacy in chapter 10. So this was clearly something they needed to hear, and since God has inspired Hebrews and preserved it for us, these are warnings we need to hear, too. But we should also recognize that alongside the warnings are all these amazing and wonderful promises that foster hope. What this tells me is that we need to hear the warnings with the promises and not one without the other. For example, Hebrews 6:1-8 which is a frightful warning is followed by Hebrews 6:9-20 which is one of the greatest hope-giving and comforting passages in all the Bible!
But how do we do this? I am to hear the warnings so that I understand the seriousness of sin and the reality of judgment against those who do not obey Christ. If I take them seriously, I am not going to play around with sin, I am going to flee from it, as Scripture tells us to do again and again. But if I only hear the warnings and don’t remember the promises, I will get a warped view of God and a warped view of myself. I will end up with a warped view of God because then I will only see God as judge and not as Savior. I will only see his severity and not his mercy. As the apostle Paul puts it in a different place, we are to behold both the goodness and the severity of God (Rom. 11:22). I will also end up with a false view of myself because I will end up thinking that it is up to me to avoid judgment and make it to heaven. But this is false, of course. God is a God of grace and we are people in need of grace.
So I take warnings at face value, but I also am looking to the promises, promises which are promises of grace and help and strength. The promises remind me that God gives what he requires. The promises remind me that God will not suffer me to be tempted beyond what I am able (1 Cor. 10:13). The promises remind me of what God has done, is doing, and will do for me in Christ Jesus. The promises remind me that salvation is not a matter of works but of free grace. We are reminded that in Christ God’s throne is a throne of grace and that we are invited to come boldly to this throne and there to expect help and mercy (Heb. 4:14-16). We fight pride and presumption through the warnings, and we fight despair and hopelessness through the promises.
This is what obedience looks like in the lives of imperfect and struggling sinners saved by grace. These are not perfect people. These are not even people who only sin little sins. But these are people who can say with John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still, I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” How do we obey Christ in this world? How do we deal with the sin in our lives? We do so by steering away from the temptations to pride and hopelessness. And we do that by looking to Christ and to God’s free grace to us through him. We do it by a lifestyle of faith and repentance. And we do it by trembling at the warnings and rejoicing in the promises.
And no matter how many setbacks we have had, we continue forward. We say with the apostle Paul, “Not that I . . . am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14, ESV).
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