RPM, Volume 15, Number 8, February 17 to February 23, 2013

The Test of Obedience

1 John 2:3-6
(Series on First John: No. 4)

By Robert Rayburn

In his letter the Apostle John is telling us how to distinguish between genuine faith in Christ and its spurious imitations, between true salvation and its counterfeits. Two Lord's Days ago, I said that the first such test which John teaches us to apply to ourselves and others is that of the conviction and the confessing of sin to God. John speaks of that in chapter 1, vv. 8-10. That is a test of genuine life in Christ, but, to be strictly accurate, it is not John's first test. Chapter 1 is, as he has constructed his argument, introductory. It is concerned with exposing the errors of the false teachers. The phrase 'If we claim...', which occurs three times in those three verses at the end of chapter one, introduces the viewpoint of the false teachers who were troubling these Christians. John introduces their viewpoint briefly and condemns and contradicts it.

John is actually going to provide us with three great tests of Christian genuineness, three tests by which we might know that we have eternal life. [One legal, one social, one doctrinal.] Each of the three is briefly introduced in chapter 2, and then each test is elaborated further in the remainder of the letter. Of course, as in chapter 1, along the way, John will say much more of great importance which will also help us to recognize true and living faith in Christ, whether in ourselves or others; but, clearly, he has three main themes in his discussion of what marks or identifies a true believer in Christ.

The first of these tests and the first of the letter's major themes is that of obedience to the law of God.

'We know that we have come to know him, if we obey his commands.'

A true Christian can be identified by the fact that his life, his behavior, conforms to the commandments of God. He or she is a person who lives according to God's law and can be counted on to obey God's precepts. Obedience is contrary to fallen human nature; it is against the impulses of sinful man. He cannot, he will not, Paul says, subject himself to the law of God. Only the person who is made new by the Spirit of God, only the one whose nature has been transformed by the power of God, can love the law and love to obey it and seek to obey God's commandments as a basic purpose and intention of life.

Now, it is precisely because man without Christ inevitably disobeys the law of God and chafes under it, that obedience makes such a good test of salvation. Only genuine believers love the law of God and intend to obey it really and truly. Now because sin makes all men and women rebels against God's Law and because sin still remains in a Christian's life there remains in even genuine Christians a remnant of opposition to the law of God, the echoes of our former rebellion against it.

You find the marks of the left-over antinomianism--that, 'against the law -ism' in otherwise Christian views that set the law over against the gospel of Christ and maintain that keeping the ten commandments somehow interferes with someone's faith in Christ. These views are always mostly incoherent--for being Christians, they do not, of course, mean that we can lie, steal, and commit adultery; they mean only--whatever this means--that we should not tell the truth and practice sexual purity as acts of obedience to commandments; but rather, as the practical expression of love for God and man. Somehow, to these Christians, if you do something in obedience to a commandment, you cannot do it from love. Law, they think, is a negative, oppressive thing; it only knows force and coercion; the commandments of the law of God are dark, gloomy orders which come down from the fire and lightening of Mount Sinai: 'Thou shalt not...!' But life in Christ is bright and happy and full of love, [...it can have nothing to do with the law.] It is a very odd view--this view of the law of God--but, strange as it may seem, this view has dominated American Christianity in the 20th century. Christians, it is said, have got beyond the law and the ten commandments; and John, they must then say, is speaking in vv. 3-6 not of the ten commandments, but of only such general commands as 'to love God' and 'to love our neighbor,' which, they somehow think, are not real commandments at all.


Did God not say through Isaiah: 'It pleased God for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious.' Are we now to believe that that great and glorious law has become something small and useless to us?

Did God not say through Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with his people and that as part of that he would put his law--he is speaking of the law he gave at Sinai--in our minds and write it upon our hearts? And do we not partake of that new covenant ourselves? We do if we are Christians. Jesus said that the bread and wine of the Supper are the bread and wine of the new covenant. 'Now that which the Spirit engraves upon the heart, would Christ come to deface and abolish?' [Manton]

And does not Paul say explicitly that the gospel of Jesus Christ, far from abolishing the law, instead establishes the law; and does he not say that the law of God--he is then speaking of the ten commandments--is holy, just, and good; that God saved us so that the righteous requirements of the law might be met in us who walk according to the Spirit; and does he not tell his Gentile churches again and again that neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters?

And do not Jesus, Paul, and John agree that the ten commandments are not contrary to love--they are in fact, the path of love, and that the God-ordained way to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves, is just to keep the ten commandments in all that they forbid and still more all that they require?

Indeed, here in these three verses, John tells us that to keep the commandments of God--by which he obviously and certainly means the law of God, the ten commandments in their biblical elaboration and application--is simply the same thing as having the love of God made complete in our lives; and that is the same thing as living a Christ-like life. Live a life of love; live as Christ lived--these are just two other ways to say: keep the commandments of God.

We most heartily and categorically reject, therefore, any attempt to set the law of God over against the gospel of Christ or the Christian life--the law of God is, as it has always been, God's direction for the life he wants all of his children to live. No one can become a Christian by keeping the law of God--the NT rings the changes on that point!--by the works of the law, Paul says, shall no one be justified! Indeed, one great function of the law of God is to convince us of the enormity of our sin and the utter impossibility of our ever putting ourselves right with God by our own efforts. But once a Christian by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then the law shows us how to live out our gratitude to God for his unspeakable gift.

When once the fiery law of God,
Has chas'd us to the gospel road;
Then back unto the holy law,
Most kindly, gospel grace will draw.

But there is another way in which the remnants of our natural rebellion show up in even our Christian lives. We find ourselves obeying the law of God because we know we are supposed to and because we know we have to, not because we want to and love to and see it as our life and our joy to keep the commandments of God.

We know that the Psalm writer spoke of delighting in the law of God, and loving God's law and of the commandments of God being sweeter than honey in the honeycomb and more precious than gold; and we know that in the NT Paul also speaks of delighting in the law of God in his inner man; but for us, the Law--true as it is, important as it is, undoubtedly to be obeyed as it is--is very often more a matter of necessity than of this pleasure and exhilaration. As painful as obedience is to us, often--as hard as it is to do what God requires against the inclinations of our sinful desires--we often, as C.S. Lewis once put it {Reflections on Psalms, p 55}: might rather compare obedience to God's law to the dentist's forceps or the front line in warfare than to anything enjoyable or sweet. Absolutely necessary, that is, but hardly the exquisite pleasure the Bible writers seem to make it out to be.

We will speak more of other aspects of this test of obedience as we move further into First John, but now, at John's first mention of the fact that Christians are those who keep the commandments of God, I want to commend obedience to you all, beloved, and remind you of what a high privilege it is to know the law of God and, by the Spirit of God and the new birth, to love that law and to live by it. We do not delight in the law as we should; and one reason we do not keep it as well as we might, is just this: that we do not appreciate how wonderful that law is and how good it is to obey it.

I think, unwittingly, we often allow ourselves to drift into feeling that God gave us his commandments to make our lives difficult, to test and try us. But the whole Bible teaches us emphatically and unmistakably that God gave us his law because he loves us deeply and wants to do us good. Let me mention then some of the ways God does us good by giving us his holy law to obey.

I. First, by obedience to God's law, our lives become beautiful.

If you read through the great 119th Psalm, you will be struck with the fact that the author of that Psalm obviously thinks God's commandments to be marvelous, and delightful, and extraordinarily fine. He speaks this way:

'I rejoice in following your statutes as one
rejoices in great riches'
'Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever
I lodge'

'The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.'

And this--which is the summation of all such statements: 'Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.'

Well why is that? The Bible's answer from beginning to end is always that the law is so fine and good and lovely a thing because it is God's law and is the reflection of his character. This is what John Newton meant when he referred to the law as 'a glass to behold God's glory.' We are to be holy because God is holy. Therefore, when a man or a woman, boy or girl, lives by the law and in obedience to the law, he or she is more and more reflecting the glory and the holiness and the character of God himself; and his or her life takes on more and more of the beauty and glory of God's own life.

Jesus' life is so enthralling, so beautiful, so compelling, precisely because he kept the law perfectly, and so perfectly reflected God's glory in his own life. And in a lesser way, but still a real way, the more you live in obedience to the commandments of God, the more your life will take on the beauty and the glory of God.

Why, for example, is Mother Theresa's life universally regarded as something beautiful. Is it not precisely because she has in such an undeniable way lived her life according to God's law? And is it not so with you, brothers and sisters; that the lives you admire the most are noteworthy for the same thing. Show me a man or woman who lives to a noteworthy degree according to the commandments of God--with reverence for God as the only true God, worshipping him according to Holy Scripture, honoring him in speech, remembering to keep his day holy, loving one's parents deeply and practically, caring for the life of one's neighbor and for one's neighbor's property, pure and chaste in all one's ways, always to be relied on for the truth, and keeping worldly desires so in check as to be able to rejoice sincerely in the blessings of others--I say, show me such a life, and I will show you a beautiful life...a life which is beautiful precisely because it reflects so well the character of God, and partakes so much of what we love, admire, and worship God for.

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law, the Psalmist prays; and we might pray, help us to live in obedience to your law, that many might see wonderful things, beautiful things in our lives.

II. In the second place, by obedience to God's law our lives become fruitful.

How often the Bible speaks of this:

'If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands...the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock... You will be blessed when you come in and when you go out...' [Deuteronomy 28:1-6]

Now obeying the law makes our lives fruitful not only because God is pleased with his children who keep his commands and rewards them for it; but because the law is the means to a fruitful life itself.

For example, when we read: 'How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your law.' Or, when we read: 'The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple; by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.'

When we read these and many statements like them we understand that the law is the transcript of a productive, useful, worthy life; people who live according to its commandments are good and do good.

The law is, as it were God's owner's manual. If you buy a new car, you will find in the glovebox a manual which tells you how to use and how to care for the automobile. If you follow its directions you will get years of trouble free service from your car. But, if you misuse the car; if you hook it to a heavy plow in a field and use it as a tractor within a few hours you will have a piece of junk. The law of God is the owner's manual God wrote for human life: live by it and, not only will God bless you for it, but your life will work as it is designed by its maker to work.

III. Third, obedience to God's law keeps our lives safe.

There is a great danger in disobedience. Sin is a poison, a germ, a virus. If it is given reign in a life, it is corrupting and destructive. The evidence is all around us and, alas, even within our hearts. We know what harm our sins do to us, to our relationship with God, and to others. And sin, as John will tell us in chapter 3, v 4, is simply the breaking of God's commandments. Every time we fail to obey God's law, we put our souls, our spiritual well-being, our soul's strength and vitality at risk. The longer we accommodate disobedience, the harder it becomes for us to turn from it to righteousness. We can slide further and further from God and the life of faith, and, so insidious is the working of sin that we do not even recognize the drift. It is the Christian who practices obedience to God's law as the fundamental principle of his new life in Christ who gradually forms that resistance to sin which will protect him when temptations come to which he or she might well otherwise have succumbed.

Or, to use another way of speaking; The law of God is a lamp to our feet. You use a lamp on a dark night to keep from stumbling or losing your way. And so the law of God directs us along that straight and narrow road which leads to life. The law of God is the road map that takes us safely through the swamps, the minefields, and the wildernesses of this world.

It may seem, at times, that keeping the law is rather a dangerous thing than a safe thing: but in God's cosmos, appearances to the contrary, it is always safe to obey, always dangerous to disobey. Daniel might have thought that having no other gods before the living and true God was taking a terrible risk--when in Babylon keeping the first commandment meant the lion's den; but, in fact, if he hadn't prayed to God as he always did and had by disobeying the first command he escaped the lion's den altogether, the plaster would probably have fallen on his head and killed him as he lay in his own, comfortable bed. As it was, he was safest where obedience to God's law put him, there with the lions, picking out a nice big soft lion for a pillow.

IV. Then, finally, obedience to God's law makes our lives happy.

It is true! Nothing brings so much happiness in Scripture or in Christian experience than keeping the law of God and living according to God's commandments.

'I rejoice in following your statutes...'
'I delight in your decrees...'
'The precepts of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart...'

These and many other such statements like them can be found in God's Word.

Sin, of course, is very deceitful. And we are always inclined by sin to think that obedience will be painful drudgery while sin will be pleasure. But it is not so in the real world. Simone Weil put it in this arresting way:

'Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it's the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm.'

We know, do we not, the temptation to succumb to the deceitful pleasures of sin, as the Bible calls them; a little pleasure at the first with all the coming bitterness, guilt, trouble, and weakness hidden away, to be revealed only when it is too late to go back. The truth of God's Law is in nothing so powerfully demonstrated as in the misery which eventuates when it is disobeyed.... And we are speaking only of this life; how much more when one reckons with the judgment of God upon the disobedience of unsaved men in the world to come.

But contrarily, show me a man or a woman who faithfully walks according to the law of God--and I will show you a happy person, with a clear conscience, a life of real usefulness and importance to others, and of the calm assurance of eternal life. So, I say, though we sometimes fall into the habit of thinking of God's law as a tiresome, though necessary, constraint upon our natural desires; if we would be true to God's truth and our own well-being, we would study to see it as it is: one of God's great gifts to us, and his way of making us and keeping us beautiful, fruitful, safe, and happy.

Well what ought we to do, hearing first that obedience to God's law is one of the great characteristics of genuine followers of Christ, and that obedience is, in fact, the path to every good thing we seek. We should do what the Psalmist did, who knew as well as John how good a thing it was for God's people to have God's law and to obey it and live by it. He pondered it; 'Oh how love I thy law; it is my meditation all the day.' He studied the commandments until he saw through them to the bottom of all that they forbad and all that they required. He studied his own life in relation to those commands, to see where he fell short; where he had not even begun to keep the law of God and where he had begun but not gone nearly far enough. For example, he studied the sixth commandment against killing until he saw the height and depth of that law--and how it forbad even unkind thoughts and hateful speech and how it required acts of love, of care, of help, to nurture, to protect, to ennoble, to enrich the lives of others. And then he studied that out still further until he saw how happy he would be and how happy others would be made if he should live according to that divine commandment for the life of his neighbor; and how false and full of deceit the Devil is when he urges us to think instead that such a command is unreasonable, that it requires to much, that it is too hard. And then when he had finished the Sixth Commandment, he did the same for all the other nine.

He poured over that road map until he saw clearly the way he should travel if he would see all the greatest sights in this country and still get home before dark. That is what we ought to do, hearing John this morning; and one thing more. Every morning and evening, as we take out our road map to see where we must travel next, we should remember God's promise:

'I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.'

And as we unfold our map and later fold it up again, we should pray: "Lord, more of your Spirit; always more of your gracious Spirit, that we might follow your decrees and be so careful, so very careful to keep your laws.'

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