This article borrows heavily from Walter Henrichsen’s A Layman’s Guide to Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978).
There are four ingredients essential to the assimilation of Scripture: knowledge, understanding, experience, and application.Of these four, the one most heavily emphasized in Scripture is application.1
The Bible consistently emphasizes faith as a commitment to what God says—and acting on it. Those mentioned in Hebrews 11, often called the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Scripture, illustrate this definition of faith. From Abraham and Sarah to Moses, Joshua, and others, the evidence of Scripture shows that a life of obedience is a product of the life of faith.2
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
Salvation and obedience are two complementary themes that are intertwined throughout the Scriptures. Obedience is the loving response of a soul set free by the saving grace of God. Christ emphasized the importance of obedience repeatedly. For example, in Matthew 7:21, he said:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.
Obedience is the loving response of a soul set free by the saving grace of God.
Why Obedience Matters
Obedience is important for several reasons:4
- It is an indication of our love for God: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him,” Jesus says (John 14:21).
- It prepares us for our time with God in eternity. What we take with us to heaven is a product of how we have lived on earth. (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:11–15 and Matthew 16:27.)
- It requires faith, which is important to God and pleases Him (Hebrews 11:6).
- It is the proper response to what Christ has done for us (cf. Ephesians 5:2).
- Love for others can only be demonstrated through obeying the Scriptures (2 John 6). And, of course, loving others is one of the two greatest commandments.
The Process of Obedience
Obedience is a process, not a crisp, clear product that we can measure and compare with a standard. We must look at a person’s growth in light of his or her background and future direction. From God’s perspective, the process prepares us for heaven, not for outstanding citizenship in this world.
Whereas God is interested in the process, people are more often interested in the product. This is often because we are insecure when we cannot measure and control. But when we focus on productivity (in our marriages, jobs, etc.), we will evaluate circumstances on the basis of what we perceive to be productive and lose sight of the fact that God is bringing us through the process of preparing us for heaven.5
Legalism vs. Obedience
Legalism is the act of defining the process as a product. It’s an endeavor to walk by sight rather than by faith. This is contrary to how Scripture tells us God judges:
For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7).
The outward appearance is measurable; the heart is not. When we measure, we define the finished product and short-circuit the process. People may be able to live up to certain standards of performance, but this can lull them into believing that they have “arrived” with God. Measurement also causes us to compare ourselves with one another. Paul warned against this when writing to the Corinthians:
For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. (2 Corinthians 10:12)
Furthermore, legalism sets up extrabiblical requirements.6
God’s Main Concern
God is not concerned with where we are in the sanctification process compared with other people. He is interested in what we are doing with what we know.
Consider two different followers of Christ (both fictional examples):
- A new Christian curses when praying out of the intensity of his emotions.
- A mature Christian is convicted of a lie to a friend but resists the Spirit’s prompting with the excuse of expressing contrition to the Lord to make conviction go away rather than endure embarrassment of telling the friend.
The former is obeying while giving the appearance of disobeying. The latter is disobeying while giving the appearance of obeying. These anecdotes show the danger in judging only by what we can observe on the outside.7
Disobedience & Rebellion
Disobedience is the temporary suspension of the process of our faith response. When we disobey God, we’re choosing to omit what God has commanded or to commit what God has forgiven.8
King David in the Bible understood that he had willfully transgressed the command of God in his adultery with Bathsheba (which precipitated additional, grevious sin—murder of the woman’s husband). His “great sin” is recorded in 2 Samuel 11 followed by his rebuke and confession (2 Samuel 12). We also see his heart of repentance in Psalm 51.
While disobedience is a temporary suspension of the true application of God’s Word in our lives, rebellion is the redefinition of the process of applying God’s Word. Disobedience is a problem of weakness; rebellion is a problem of willfulness.
Case Study: King Saul
Saul (whom David succeeded to the throne) demonstrated this redefinition of God’s commandment (see 1 Samuel 15:2–3, 13, 15, 20–21). When Samuel calls him on the fact that he did not obey God’s instructions, Saul insists, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me” (1 Samuel 15:21). Unlike David, Saul did not believe that he had disobeyed God’s Word until he was cornered into admitting that he did wrong (1 Samuel 15:24–25). Even then, his preoccupation was with the loss of his reputation in the eyes of the people: “I have sinned; but please honor me now …” (1 Samuel 15:30). We know there’s trouble when a confession is followed by that little word “but”!
Attitudes and Actions
Rebellion can take the form of an attitude as well as an action. The commandments of God are boundaries around our lives. Disobedience takes place when a person breaks the fence, but rebellion occurs when we begin to challenge the legitimacy of the fence. With rebellion, we’re considering the law as something negotiable.9
Disobedience takes place when a person breaks the fence, but rebellion occurs when we begin to challenge the legitimacy of the fence.
Don’t Drop Out!
It’s possible to stay in the process of obedience and resist the temptation to drop out. The Old Testament prophet Daniel did so when he resisted the temptation to do away with King Nebuchadnezzar as prime minister (Daniel 4).
Although he faltered with Bathsheba, David resisted the temptation to disobey at other times—for example, restraining from killing Saul not once but twice, when he easily could’ve called for his head (see 1 Samuel 24 and 26).
One can drop out by manipulating the process of obedience, presuming on it, or rebelling against it:10
- Rebekah sought to manipulate the process to ensure the product (Genesis 27).
- Joshua presumed on the process at Ai and with the Gibeonites by failing to ask the Lord’s counsel (Joshua 7 and 9:14).
- Jonah rebelled against the process (Jonah 1:1–3).
Phases of Obedience
Henrichsen lays out four phases in the process of obedience; each is summarized below.11
- Recognition of who and whose we are: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
- Response to the truth we’ve been given: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:23–24). The Spirit will hide further truth from the person who resists obedience. When we respond, we must be careful not to follow our own instincts; rather, we should look for (and heed) the road signs God gives us both in the Bible and through godly counsel. In addition, we must resist the temptation to respond according to what is culturally acceptable. We should filter our culture through the Bible rather than the Bible through our culture.
- Results of obedience may be hidden from us on this side of eternity or revealed (one way God encourages us, in His grace, that we are moving in the right direction); in addition, it may draw negative or positive feedback from others (or no feedback at all!). Negative feedback comes in the form of persecution or insults (Matthew 5:10–11). When others see our obedience and give glory to God, this is a form of positive feedback (Matthew 5:13–16). Because others’ responses vary, we cannot do the right thing in order to seek the recognition or praise of others. We have to realize that many of the rewards of obedience accrue in eternity rather than on earth (hence the need to walk by faith), the Lord periodically encourages us by revealing the fruit of our labor to assure us that we are moving in the right direction.
- Rewards of obedience are accrued in eternity rather than on earth, though God will periodically reveal its results in this life. Because so much of the impact of our obedience is hidden from us, we must focus on eternal, not temporal results. Jesus urged us to store up our treasure in heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:19–21; John 14:1–3). If we fail to do this, we will be tempted to manipulate circumstances and look to people’s recognition rather than to God’s promises.
For Further Study: Read Matthew 5:17–6:34. Examine the tension between the product orientation of the Pharisees and the process orientation toward obedience that Jesus advocates. Make a list of the ways each is discouraged/encouraged in the passage. In your own life, do you tend toward a product or process orientation? If the former, ask God to help you entrust yourself, and the process of sanctification, to Him, instead of always trying to measure, control, or manipulate your obedience.
Paul wrote that we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). When it comes to obedience, we have to stop expecting the encouragement of positive feedback at every step. If we are always looking for others to praise us, we’re walking by sight (product) rather than faith (process).
Our culture tells us that results are an end in themselves; God tells us to respond to His revelation rather than results.
The believer’s earthly lot is often pain, misunderstanding, rejection, and persecution. Yet, if our hope is in what God promises in the world to come, not in what we receive on earth, then we’ll still be able to count our blessings even if we’re dealt a lap full of suffering.12
Check Your Filter
All permanent change in a person’s life begins with a change in perspective. Each of us has a “filter system” through which we see the world. These filter systems are shaped by individual and larger social, economic, cultural, political, and religious assumptions and contexts. If we’re going to pursue obedience to Christ, we have to allow his Word to alter our filter system.13
Those who focus on doing over being may fail to recognize the presence (or influence) of these filter systems. We should all be suspicious of the validity of our own cultural grid! By contrast, those who concentrate on being focus on the filter system. In the end, we need to filter our culture—and everything—through God’s Word, not God’s Word through our culture. His Word should become more and more dominant in our lives in shaping our perspective.
We need to filter our culture—and everything—through God’s Word, not God’s Word through our culture.
Both doing and being are important and inclusive, but being precedes doing. Being is the heart of the application process: a person can do the right thing (e.g., attend church) without an underlying, permanent change taking place in his or her life.
This is truly a lifelong process that will never end this side of eternity.14 That’s why Eugene Peterson’s enduring classic on discipleship is so fittingly titled “a long obedience in the same direction.”
And with His help, we won’t give up; we’ll keep pressing on.
Next Steps: Read Romans 12:1–2 (below). Meditate on it and ask God to make this mindset, of presenting yourself to Him as a living sacrifice, day by day, a reality in your life.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. —Romans 12:1–2
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 19–21.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 26.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 26–27.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 27–28.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 32–33, 39.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 39–40.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 40, 35.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 34–35.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 35–38.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 44–50.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 50–57.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 57–58.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 61–68.
- Henrichsen, Layman’s Guide, 69–70.