Love = Obedience


by John Ellis

As a child, obedience was a pragmatic activity for me. Navigating the tension between my desires and the possible punishment if I got caught fulfilling my desires, my decision to obey or not was rooted in a cost/benefit analysis. If the reward from my desire was greater than the risk of the punishment, obedience was jettisoned. On the other hand, if the reward was less than the risk, I was an obedient child. Not to mention the many times in which obedience enabled me to do what I wanted. As an example of how my pragmatic obedience worked, refusing to sing Patch the Pirate’s song “Obedience” with the rest of the students brought with it punishment not worth the reward of not singing. So, I dutifully sang the lyrics “obedience is the very best way to show that you believe” many times throughout my childhood.

It’s only as an adult that I get the irony.

My childhood’s pragmatic hypocrisy aside, is the song correct? Is it true that “obedience is the very best way to show that [we] believe?”

I posed that question while teaching the adult Sunday school class yesterday. Several answers were given, but almost all of them were a yes or a somewhat-qualified yes. However, if I were to pose that question in a room filled with progressive “Christians,” the answers would be markedly different.

The mantras “God is love” and “love your neighbor” dominate the worldview of progressive “Christianity.” Theological concepts like personal sin and eternal judgment are minimized or outright discarded. Instead, tenets of Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel, liberation theology, and intersectionality are canonized, and those who call for the pursuit of holiness through obedience are denounced as legalists and unloving. If I were to ask a room filled with progressive “Christians” if it’s true that “obedience is the very best way to show that [we] believe,” I would most likely receive answers along the lines of, “No, serving and loving others is the best way to show that we believe.”

It’s not that that answer is wrong in and of itself. When he was asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).”

So, yes, we demonstrate that we have faith by loving God and loving our neighbor and by serving others. The question becomes, then, how is loving God defined by God in the Bible? Thankfully, God is very clear in His Word about how loving Him is defined. In fact, Jesus himself said in John 14:15 that, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Mercifully, Jesus continues and says in verses 16-17, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

If we love Jesus, we’ll obey him. But we don’t have to obey Jesus in our own strength. The Holy Spirit empowers us to obey. But, the fact remains that loving Jesus means obeying Jesus.

The Apostle John isn’t finished connected loving God with obeying God, though. And in his first epistle he writes:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth (1 John 1:3-6, NIV).

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments (1 John 5:1-3, ESV).

The Apostle John goes so far as to label those who claim to love God yet who don’t obey God as liars. That may sound harsh, but it underlines the Bible’s teaching that love equals obedience. Making it even more explicit in 1 John 5:3 John bluntly puts it, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”

That verse is so explicit as to potentially render any commentary redundant. As in, John is saying that, well, loving God is keeping his commandments, which is exactly what the verse said using almost the same words.

As far as Jesus’ second greatest command, loving our neighbors is secondary to and stems from loving God. And loving God is synonymous with obeying God. If we don’t love God (obey God), we can’t love our neighbor the way Jesus commands.

To be clear, our obedience is not what restores our relationship with God. We are not made right with God through our actions. Only faith in the saving work of Jesus can do that. In fact, our righteousness is not earned through obedience. Theologian Thomas Schreiner explains:

It is incontrovertible that [Paul] rejects righteousness by law. He proclaims in Galatians 2:16 that righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ and states three times that it is not available by works of law. Similarly, Romans 3:20 and 3:28 affirm that righteousness cannot be gained by works of law but only through faith (see Rom. 3:21). Galatians 3:2 and 3:5 indicate that the Spirit was received and supplied by “hearing with faith” and not by works of law, while Galatians 3:10 says that “those who are of works of law are under a curse.”[1]

Confessing Sola Fide is not contradicted by recognizing and teaching that the Bible views loving God and obeying God as inextricably connected, though. Furthermore, as the Apostle John wrote, claiming that you love God while disobeying God proves that you’re a liar. The children’s song is correct, obedience is the very best way to show that we believe. This means that the opposite is true – disobedience provides evidence that you do not believe.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 41.


4 thoughts on “Love = Obedience

  1. Hey John –

    I’ll be preaching 1 John 2:7-17 this weekend, and between that passage, 1 John 4 (in a month or so), and John 13:34-35, you’re clearly on to something that needs to be discussed more. I don’t know that I’d go as far as to argue that progressives talk about loving God to the exclusion of obedience, but I have to think there is a reason why Jesus lays down loving one another as the ‘greatest’ commandment for his disciples, and it’s obvious from a cursory reading of John that the apostle felt that way as well.

    One of the points that I’m making is that our love for God (and others) should provoke us to the kind of gentle but firm confrontation, whether with a salvific offer or between believers over sin issues. But I wonder if we have overemphasized obedience without love more than love that drives obedience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Overemphasizing obedience without love is one of the most prominent dangers, right? It feeds our own self-serving perspective that pushes us further up the Temple steps in order to loudly proclaim that we’re not like the disobedient people darkened by our “righteous” shadow. I pray that my article isn’t a hand rail making it easier for some to go up those steps.

      Thank you for your thoughts. I pray that God will be pleased to encourage your heart as you study the passages and to cause you to love Him more. Likewise, I pray that God will grow those who hear your sermons into a greater love for Him and for others.


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