How Do We Obey the Gospel?

“Obey” is not one of the verbs we typically connect to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We talk about preaching the gospel, sharing the gospel, and believing the gospel. But we don’t hear much about obeying the gospel.

And yet, this must have been a phrase used in the early church, because it appears in at least two places in the Bible. In the context of talking about eternal punishment, Paul writes of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). In a similar manner, Peter refers to “those who do not obey the gospel of God” as being outside the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).

What did these apostles mean when they used this phrase?

News That Demands Action

The word “gospel” means “good news,” so on the surface this phrase doesn’t make much sense. After all, how can we obey news?

The gospel is not just any news. It is good news announced by God. Such news requires action.

The ministry of Jesus answers our question directly.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)

Because the kingdom is at hand—meaning that the king (Jesus) is here—repent and believe in the gospel. This is confirmed in other places in the New Testament.

Paul ended his sermon in Athens this way, including the command for all people to repent.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)

Paul also wrote this to the Romans, where he equates obeying and believing.

But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Romans 10:16)

Using these passages, we can take a swing at what it means to obey the gospel. Obeying the gospel means repenting of sin and believing the gospel.

This definition still demands an explanation “the gospel.” But, in an effort to keep the length of this post reasonable, I’ll leave that to another source.

We still have one question to answer. If the Bible speaks this way, why don’t we?

An Invitation or a Declaration (or Both)?

One reason we don’t talk about obeying the gospel is because we don’t view the message as authoritative. The good news about Jesus becomes one option among many. It might be our favorite option, but this mindset turns Christianity into one choice on a religious buffet. When we talk to our friends about the gospel, we’re hoping they’ll pick the potato salad like we did and sit at our table.

We have (rightly) understood the gospel to be an invitation, but we have not seen it as anything more.

To be clear, the gospel is an invitation! Jesus did not (and does not) coerce anyone into faith, and we won’t force or argue anyone into the church. Jesus was (and is) gentle and hospitable, welcoming all who call on his name.

But as we have seen, the gospel demands action. Turning away from Jesus is not just making a different, individual choice—it is disobeying and rejecting God. Our evangelistic efforts should emphasize both the call to obey and the invitation.

Ongoing Obedience to the Gospel

We need the gospel every hour of every day, not just at the beginning of our Christian lives. Therefore, the obligation to “obey the gospel” is not just for unbelievers—it’s for Christians too.

We get a hint of this in a letter from the apostle John, who was writing to Christians.

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23)

And in this same letter, we are not only urged to believe in the name of Jesus, but also to confess our sins and repent (1 John 1:8–10).

We enter into faith by the grace of God, and we are sustained in faith by this same grace (Gal 3:1–6). This glorious grace of God helps us to repent and believe in the gospel and to invite others into this same obedience.

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Obeying the Good Law of Our Good God

Every house has its rules, and ours is no different.

For example, our children must brush their teeth twice a day. In earlier years, this rule prompted lots of tears and plenty of resentment. But as my kids have gotten older, they have (hopefully) started to understand our reasoning.

We don’t make our children brush their teeth just because we can. We enforce this rule because we love our children and want good things for them. We aim to teach them how to care for their bodies and how to love other people.

God the Law-giver

Many people think of God’s law as harsh, inflexible, and designed to eliminate all fun. In this understanding, God the law-giver is a cruel dictator and Jesus kindly delivers us from an outdated model of morality.

Perhaps the errors of this thinking are obvious. God is both holy and loving, he is both just and merciful; the nature and goals of the Father are not opposed to those of the Son.

Even when we correct that error, Christians often stumble in the ways we think about God’s commands. We tend to picture the law as a strait-jacket rather than an invitation to blessing.

Consider how James writes about the law.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22–25)

God’s law is not only perfect, it is “the law of liberty.” The law frees us, and those who obey will be blessed.

Blessing for Obedience

As part of our reorientation to the law, we must revisit the word “blessing.” God’s promises of blessing in the Old Testament are frequently linked to obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1–14). We commonly think of blessing as either simply God’s approval or as a reward God has arbitrarily tied to following certain laws.

Because God is the Creator as well as the Law-giver, he has constructed the world so that the consequences of obeying him are good for us. It’s not just that God approves of our obedient actions. Rather, it is objectively better for us to obey than to disobey.

God calls us to obey him because it is good for us to submit to the true, good ruler of the world. But in addition, what God commands is actually good for our bodies, minds, and souls. His blessing for obedience is found both in his fatherly smile as well as the natural and supernatural consequences of doing what is good for us.

The Passions of the Flesh

Let’s turn to an example. When we commit the sin of gluttony, we eat to excess in the way that a drunkard drinks alcohol to excess. We seek comfort and a blissful haze through food. Our appetite controls us instead of the other way around.

God commands us not to be gluttons (Proverbs 23:19–21). We are blessed when we obey this part of God’s law not because we are following one of his arbitrary commands. He has our good in mind! God’s blessing for us in resisting gluttony comes in greater health, a better relationship with the created order, a measure of dominion over our appetites, and finding ultimate satisfaction in God instead of food.

Consider this from the other direction. Disobedience is not only offensive to God, it is bad for us. Hear the apostle Peter.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

God doesn’t want us to entertain the passions of the flesh because they wage war against our souls! He’s not trying to kill our joy, he wants us to truly live!

Our Good King

Why should we obey God? He is our king, and we should do what our king commands.

But let’s ask the next question: Why does our king command what he commands? Because he is a good king and wants what is good for us!

The way of obedience is the way of blessing, because that’s how God set up and governs the world. This doesn’t make obedience automatic or easy, but it does shine the spotlight on our hearts as the battlefield. Part of the reason we disobey is because we don’t trust that God wants what is best for us. We believe the old, old lie that we know better than God, that he is withholding what is good.

Friends, Jesus came for this reason! He was crushed for our disobedience and our lie-chasing. And in the new life he gives us, we are free and empowered to think and act in accordance with what is true. Because we are beloved children of God, we are being transformed into people whose hearts align with God’s good intentions for our lives.

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Obeying God’s Commands as the Body of Christ

This part of the Bible wasn’t written for me.

I’m not an older woman, so why should I pay attention to Titus 2:3–5? I’m not a preacher, so what relevance does 2 Timothy 4:1–5 have for me? It almost feels like opening my neighbor’s mail.

The Effect of Individualism

We have a great temptation toward this thinking in the United States, as we breathe the air of individualism from an early age. Our sinful hearts hardly need any help, but our culture insists at every turn: be true to yourself, take care of yourself, believe in yourself. It isn’t long before our lungs are full of that toxic cloud and we lack the oxygen to think about others.

But God has called Christians to a different reality. We are the body of Christ, a people vitally connected to each other and to Jesus.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

The books of the Bible were composed for all the people of God. Even when a letter was written to a church or an individual, the intention was public reading and instruction for the whole church.

So when we say that a part of the Bible wasn’t written for us, we’re actually wrong. If the Bible applies to anyone in the body, it has implications for all of us. We must not check out.

We Need Help From Others

Christians readily acknowledge that we need God’s help to obey his commands. (Though we always do well to remember!) It’s easier to forget how much help we need from other saints.

We need others praying for us, encouraging us, and giving us counsel. We need to talk with older saints who have stood in our shoes. We need the bold, clear-eyed enthusiasm of younger Christians to strengthen our wills to do what is right.

Finally, we also need correction from Christian friends when we sin. A gentle, loving rebuke is not often what we want, but we should seek and embrace this discipline. (See Proverbs 12:1.)

We must also view this truth—that we need others—from the other side. Others need us too. The experiences and wisdom God has given us are not just for our benefit; they’re also for the church.

An Example: Husbands

Let’s look at an example from 1 Peter. This command for husbands is found in 1 Peter 3:7.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Husbands need the prayers of the saints to obey this command. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, husbands will not love and sacrifice in the ways God requires.

Husbands should also talk to married men and women of all ages and experiences. Though understanding and honoring one’s wife will look different from one marriage to the next, husbands can learn of helpful habits to develop and dangerous pitfalls to avoid through the counsel and stories of others.

Each husband needs a few close friends who will ask him difficult questions. Are you honoring your wife? How are you living with her in an understanding way? Good friends will remember a prayer request or a confession of weakness and ask specific follow-up questions the next week. These friends will offer encouragement when they see fruit. A husband may also need a loving rebuke when neglect or selfishness continues without repentance.

And, of course, husbands need to listen to their wives. A wife will know if her husband is working to understand her and live with her accordingly. She will feel the presence or lack of honor.

None of this help is easy or natural to give, and none of it is possible without the work of the Spirit within us.

Called to Obey as a Body

The key to this obedience in community is love. It takes seeing and experiencing God’s love to lift our eyes off ourselves and recognize our corporate calling.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)

God didn’t call us just to each other, he called us to himself. Through the atoning work of Jesus, God has forgiven his people and the Spirit is working to change us. Though withdrawal may be our default mode—wanting neither help from others nor to give aid ourselves—we are no longer slaves to this sin.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24–25)

The wounds of Jesus have set us free and given us a new identity. We’ve been healed of our sin so that we might live to righteousness.

By God’s power, let’s do just that. Together.

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Amplify the Power of the Sermon in Your Life

amplifier

During his earthly ministry, Jesus had a lot to say! He comforted some people, exhorted others, and preached far and wide about the kingdom of God. One of the brilliant aspects of Jesus’ preaching was the vibrant images he used.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24–27)

For disciples of Jesus, hearing him is only our first step. What happens after hearing makes all the difference. What produces an unshakable life that stands on a rock-solid foundation is hearing followed by obedience. Without obedience, we will be washed away in the storm.

I’ve often tried to apply this warning to my personal Bible study. But I’ve missed another obvious context for applying this passage.

The Sunday Sermon

I suspect that, as a people, we do not heed Jesus’ warning with regard to the preaching we hear at church. We pay little attention to the weekly sermon outside of Sunday. For some, the sermon only comes up over lunch as a way to praise or criticize the preacher.

Yet God, through his ministers, puts his Word in front of us every week. Pastors put in long, difficult hours during the week to study, pray, and prepare the sermon. They think carefully about what the Bible says and what their congregation needs to hear.

If we routinely forget the Sunday sermon by Monday morning, I fear we are building our houses on sand. The preacher must interpret God’s Word rightly, explain it clearly, and help the congregation understand it—but then we must build our house on the rock.

Are we doing after hearing the Word?

One Way to Build Your House on the Rock

I’ve been neglecting this area for too long. And with the help of a friend from church, I’ve been working toward change. Here’s one way I’m learning to build my house on the rock that I hope will inspire you to do the same.

My friend and I take one day each week to pray about the issues raised in the previous sermon. For me, this has produced rich prayer times, full of conviction and thanksgiving. Here is a description of our practice, which you might apply with your spouse, friend, or children.

1. Take notes during the sermon.

We capture the preacher’s outline of the passage along with the main interpretive points. We write down applications. I’ll also record any questions the passage raised for me.

2. Prepare the prayer guide.

On Sunday or Monday, while the sermon is still fresh in our minds, one of us will take their sermon notes and produce a prayer guide. We include the Bible text and then five to ten ways to respond in prayer.

Sometimes the passage calls for praise, thanksgiving, or petitions. But we’ve also seen the need to remember what God has promised and to lament the state of our world, our city, and our own hearts. We ask God to show us our doubts, sins, biases, and unwillingness to obey. This leads to confession and pleas for God to change us.

While we talk with God as individuals and ask him to work in us personally, we also think about our church, our community, and our neighbors:

  • Where is there corporate disobedience?
  • How should we thank God for his broader work?
  • Where can we work to apply the gospel to these groups and the institutions that affect them?
  • How can our church respond?

3. Pray.

We usually pray on Wednesdays. We pray with and for each other, using the prayer guide, throughout the day. (This practice also pairs well with a day of fasting, but that’s a topic for another time.)

4. Follow up.

My friend and I haven’t taken this step yet, but it would close the loop nicely. Sometime after the prayer day, either over the phone or in person, talk with your friend, spouse, or children about the sermon again.

  • What did God show you during your time of prayer and reflection?
  • What are some ways you were called to obey?
  • What implications do you see for your church?

Don’t Forget Jesus

Jesus is the key to all biblical interpretation. If you’re trying to understand a passage without the work of Christ in mind, you’ll probably miss the point (see Luke 24:25–27).

But Jesus is also the key to biblical application! We cannot claim that we have been saved by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and then insist that our obedience or spiritual growth will come because of our own effort or discipline or zeal (see Galatians 3:3).

All of our application must find its purpose and power in the work of Jesus. So when my friend and I apply God’s Word to our lives with this exercise, we try to remember these four truths.

1. Obedience is not optional. In addition to what we have seen above, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

2. Obedience is impossible on our own, apart from the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).

3. Obedience will not make God love us more. (Neither will disobedience make him love us less.) We are perfectly loved by God our Father; thus we obey.

4. Our obedience will be imperfect, because of our mixed motives and uneven desires. We will always need the finished, perfect obedience of Jesus to please God. And this is exactly what is credited to Christians by faith!

When we focus on application, it’s easy to think exclusively about discipline, methods, and details. But we must view all of our repentance and obedience in the light of Jesus’ work.

Let’s Get to Work

Not every sermon will be a five-star masterpiece, but God will use our every encounter with his Word for his good purposes (Isaiah 55:10–11).

In the sermon, God gives you a passage of Scripture each week upon which to meditate. Then he invites you to build. Brick by brick, board by board, come away from the sand and construct your house on the rock.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Kai Oberhäuser (2016), public domain