Obedience: The lost truth of Christianity

It is a sobering experience to reflect on the plight of lost civilizations. Those once-great  human empires whose disappearance from the face of the earth seems to be shrouded in mystery. Civilizations like the Khmer  of Cambodia, the Mayans of South America, and the Mississippians of North America; sophisticated civilizations whose immense power and grandeur can only be imagined as we look in wonder at the ruins of their elaborate stone temples. But what led to their demise? The records of ancient history are vague at best, but we can piece enough together to suggest that their downfall was probably initiated by a crisis relating to their religious beliefs; beliefs usually oriented around a deified ruler who was venerated as a god–the source of their prosperity and security.

The failure of these civilizations may have been precipitated by the influences of a competing religious ideology and/or a catastrophic disaster that caused the subjects to question the religious ideology under which they served– a severe drought, a cataclysmic seismic event, a military invasion, or a unstoppable pandemic. Unable to mitigate these destructive events with his ‘divine power’, the deity ruler was shown to be what he really was, a mere fallible human–just like  them. Once the source of the ideology that animated their life was proven false, the civilization simply disintegrated.

Despite a lack of precise evidence on the nature of their demise, it is nevertheless true that when a people get caught up in a social, political, or religious system that promotes: Endless power, perpetual prosperity, ongoing security, and wanton immorality without accountability, their world is destined to fall. Its only a matter of time before external forces of some kind challenge the  integrity of the fragile ideology on which they have founded their delusion.

But is this simply a problem of the ancient pagan world? Might future generations look upon the great edifices of Christendom  and ponder the meaning of their existence and wonder in amazement at the demise of the powerful  ideology that animated their use? Might it be too much to suggest that Notre-Dam is really no different to Angkor Wat?

Christianity grew from a grass-roots movement oriented around a humble carpenter who proved himself to be the Son of God. Unlike the Khmer emperor, he didn’t exalt himself as a god, only to fail his followers in their hour of need. On the contrary he sacrificed himself for them and then returned from the dead offering them an transcendent hope– a hope unrelated in anyway  to material prosperity. Jesus’ way was a way of self-denial, humility, and self-sacrifice; a way anticipating the glory of a future heavenly kingdom gained through self-abasing obedience to his heavenly father’s will. By extension, the  first Christians were simply a group of ordinary people who followed Jesus Christ and his teachings, captured by the truth of his teachings they lived out their lives with a radical faith-based obedience to Jesus’ will. Jesus did not encourage, nor did his first followers seek to build a world empire–their ultimate hope was heavenly. 

Yet, what started as a grass roots movement soon became enveloped by a human empire, in fact the Roman empire. Embraced by Constantine the Great in 312 AD , Christianity quickly evolved into a highly structured religious system, with grand cathedrals and powerful institutions. Drawing on the doctrines of Holy Scripture, it promoted a religious ideology that exercised political power at the highest levels and shaped civilizations for 1800 years. Christianity represented the ideology that under girded the values and practices the built the Western World.  

But nothing in this world lasts forever. The great Cathedrals of Christendom share the same fate as the pagan temples of old–devoid of genuine worshipers they are given over the ravages of natural decline and in some  cases commercial tourism.  Moreover, as this once-great empire falls in ruin, those remaining within it and on the fringes of its sphere of influence are increasingly questioning the doctrines and beliefs that shaped human lives for millennia, under its influence.  Of course, those entrenched within its halls of power,  try and hang on to that former social influence, attempting to revive its fortunes with ideologies of: doctrinal purity, material prosperity, political/social justice, and supernatural experience. They fight tenaciously to hang on to the reality that once made the Christian empire great. But, as with those lost civilizations, the tide is running out on their time of favor; its only a matter of time before a great catastrophe shatters the fragile integrity of these pseudo revivals.

Oh God, how did it come to this? Well, to put it bluntly, Western Christianity got caught up in the same delusional quest that has bewitched every human empire that sought to rule the earth. Those embracing and empowering Christendom forgot where they came from, they forgot their grass roots savior, and what really mattered to their God.

So, what really matters to ‘their’ God?

Actually, its not that hard: Simple heart-felt obedience. A willingness to trust God and resolutely obey ‘His’ will, despite the allurement of making Christ’s cause great in the eyes of the world and despite the potential persecution that would arise out to taking such a radical stance. Obedience represents an abandonment to self and giving oneself fully to God, it means denying a reliance on human understanding and power, and taking God at his word in faith,  obedience means doing God’s work his way; wanting what he wants, trusting him for the outcome–nothing more!

Yet, for many in the modern world the term obedience seems all but offensive. Too many memories of ‘forced obedience’ haunt their collective consciousness. Indeed, the notion of obedience is now heavily freighted with negative overtones within almost every quarter of society, usually in reaction to the abuse or perceived abuse of power–much of it ecclesiastical power. Not only so, but when the subject is raised in Christian circles and cited with reference to a person’s relationship with God, almost immediately notions of : mindless duty, religious legalism, burdensome rule-keeping, or fear based ritualism are conjured up.

Subsequently, set in the contemporary cultural climate, Christian faith and obedience are viewed as mutually exclusive truths; polar opposites in any conversation that broaches a person’s meaningful engagement with God.

Yet, as repugnant as the concept of obedience has become in the popular consciousness, I believe reviving the biblical understanding of  obedience is the key to reviving the cause of Jesus Christ in our time. It is the key to recapturing that grass roots movement that empowered the first Christians to radically live for God and courageously advance his kingdom in the face of harsh opposition. For in a true understanding of obedience we find the key to an authentic, joy filled life. It in truly obeying God that we discover we are most alive and free.

A correct understanding of  biblically based Christian obedience could not be more different to the perceptions currently infecting the popular religious consciousness.

Contemporary Christianity has embraced a view that faith in Jesus Christ is somehow disengaged from obedience to him.  Yet, we read in the gospels, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” John 3:36 (ESV) In this verse believing in Jesus results in eternal life, but disobeying him results in denial of that same life and wrath. How so? Simply this that faith and obedience are wedded. To trust in Christ is to abandon self-trust and give oneself over to trusting and obeying Jesus. Obedience is the validation of one’s faith, to truly obey is to believe; to disbelieve is to disobey.

Do you want further proof?  The epistle of Romans has long been considered the apostle Paul’s primary doctrinal text. In systematically laying out the gospel in that epistle, Paul relies on the foundation principle of  ‘obedience of faith’.  It first occurs in the opening preamble of the epistle: “…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…” Romans 1:5 (ESV) Then it reappears near the end, ” … has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith...” Romans 16:26 (ESV)  These occurrences form a doctrinal parentheses, encapsulating Paul’s understanding of the gospel and colouring everything within this primary frame.

For Paul obedience is a necessary aspect of a genuine engagement with God; not an obedience based on law, but on faith. Obedience is animated by faith, faith proves its legitimacy in obedience. That is why he can write, ” Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” Romans 6:16 (ESV) How can faith be the foundation of righteousness, as Paul expounds elsewhere in Romans, if he suggests here that obedience leads to righteousness? Because, in Paul’s estimation the two are intricately bound. Practical obedience proves the substance of faith, even as faith animates the outworking of obedience. With an obedience grounded in faith, the Christian disciple is no longer a slave to sin destined for death; but a servant of righteousness, willingly rendering themselves for God’s cause though a life of holy obedience–proving their faith!

Now, what I am about to write will boldly challenge the false paradigm of obedience that many people unwittingly embrace. Obedience is wedded to love!  How do you express love to God? How do you express your deep appreciation for his benevolence toward you? You guessed it–obedience!

Jesus said, ” If you love me, you will obey what I command.” John 14:15 (NIV) He then goes on, validating this prior statement from the opposite direction, ” If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” John 15:10 (NIV) As you can see, Jesus is saying that love toward him is expressed in obedience to his commands; if a person obeys his commands he will remain in this love relationship with Jesus. Indeed, in essence,  his commands are love:   ” My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” John 15:11 (NIV) So, to come to Jesus, in faith, a person will enter into a love relationship with him, and this love will necessarily generate obedience, which is simply to pass the same love you have received onto others. In this radical paradigm, obedience is certainly no burdensome duty, but a natural expression of love.

Moreover, this love/obedience symbiosis is further elaborated on in John’s first epistle to the early church. John says, ” But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” 1 John 2:5-6 (NIV)  So, to obey Jesus’ word is fully express the reality of God’s love in a person’s life; such a person is described by John as being ‘in him’ (intimately bound to Jesus). But what is the proof of this state of being ‘in him’ ? Simply this, to walk as Jesus did; and how was that? Well in perfect obedience to the fathers will, joyfully and willingly loving and serving others in a self-sacrificing way: ” This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 3:16-17 (NIV)

Love and practical obedience are necessarily bound. To love God is to practically live like him, and we live like him in obeying his command to love others, and in obeying this command we reflect the love that was shown to us, to others.

Imagine the difference it would make if Christians recaptured the wonder and power of obedience? Imagine what would happen if they broke off the hard and crusty shell of negativity that enshrouds this lost beleaguered truth, and revive its true meaning by joyfully employing it through expressing God’s love in powerfully practical ways? Do you think it would turn around the slide into extinction that Christianity is currently experiencing in the West?

Somehow I think you already know the answer to that question. All that remains is to do something about it!

 

 

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