Characteristics of True Obedience

Richard W. O'Ffill

Through the years there has been a lot of confusion about the relationship between faith and works. We have tended to go from one extreme to the other. At times we emphasize faith; other times we emphasize works. There is no doubt that we are saved by faith and faith alone. The problem, I believe, is most of us either don't know what salvation by faith is or we have a wrong idea of how it works.

Personally, I think that it is a mistake to believe that a person is saved by a simple affirmation of faith or by accepting some intellectual truth or by repeating a sinner's prayer. Many people seem to have mistaken knowledge for Christian faith. They get some new views of religious truth, which gets them excited, or someone convinces them that faith is a formula. They are led to believe they are saved by repeating some magic words.

I like how one person put it, "Don't let any person tell you that you are saved. You know your heart!" But then, let's go back to the question of faith and works; or, to say it another way, let's talk about the question of faith and obedience.

It is absolutely true that salvation is by faith alone. "By faith alone" simply means that we cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us. However, it is also true that you can know when a person has received salvation by faith, because he will always, and there is no exception to this, desire to be obedient.

Faith and true obedience simply always go together. You can't have one without the other, because obedience in the final analysis is what salvation is all about. A person who is not converted cannot obey God, because the carnal heart is not subject to the law of God. This is the reason a person who has not accepted Christ cannot be obedient in the true sense of the word. Obey is what people who have received salvation by faith in Jesus do. What I am saying is that it is impossible to truly obey God without faith in Jesus.

In a sense, we can say that the first step in salvation is that the lost are called to come to Christ, and then, that having come to Christ, they are called to a life of obedience in Him. Obedience is the objective test as to whether a person has really received salvation. Jesus said, putting it in plain English, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." In another place He says that "a tree is known by its fruits."

The title of this sermon is "Characteristics of True Obedience." I am going to begin by saying that:

True obedience is not an act, but an attitude.

You hear me refer to "true obedience." You may ask, "But is there such a thing then as false obedience?" Not really, but the word obedience is often used rather loosely. The fact is, a person is either obedient in God's eyes or he is disobedient. You see, God does not measure obedience like we do. We look on the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.

For this reason we need to understand that obedience is, first and foremost, something that comes from the heart. Obedience is an attitude. I say that because a person can appear to be obedient on the outside and actually be hating every minute of it.

Many of us have been somewhat confused in respect to obedience. We have thought that obedience was somehow our part in salvation. We have thought salvation had two parts: God's part and our part. The fact is that all of salvation is God's part. He not only forgives my sins, but He, in a miraculous way, gives me an attitude that actually wants to obey whatever He asks. The whole plan of salvation has as its primary purpose to create in us a new heart--that is, a new attitude--which says, "I delight to do your will, O my God. You have written Your commandments in my heart."

If there is anyone here today who doesn't enjoy obeying God or feels that God's will--His commandments--are not fair or is asking too much, do not pass "Go," do not "collect two-hundred dollars," but go directly to your knees and acknowledge to God that you have not let Him give you the greatest gift of all--the gift of obedience.

Jesus said, "He that has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me." (John 14:21). And in another place He said, "If a person loves me they will keep my words." (John 14:23).

Some people think that in the Old Testament a person was saved by obedience, and in the New Testament we are saved by faith. Jesus didn't do away with obedience. He made obedience an even greater issue then Moses ever did. The Old Testament said don't run off with another person's wife. Jesus said don't even think about it.

I am thrilled as I realize Jesus is giving me a heart that loves to obey. A new attitude is necessary though, because a person persuaded against his will is always of the same opinion still.

A person who does not have an attitude of obedience will tend to play what we might call "obedience games." That is, he will be obedient in some things and disobedient in others. But true obedience is nondiscriminatory. It is an ongoing attitude that operates all the time. A person who knowingly obeys part of God's commandments and not others is not 50% obedient or almost obedient--that person is simply disobedient.

When we talk about what it means to be "true to God" or "faithful to God," what are we talking about anyway? Think about it. How can a person ever be true to God or faithful to God unless he is obedient to what God requires? So the first characteristic of true obedience is that it is an attitude that God puts in our hearts.

Another point that we need to understand about true obedience is that:

God measures obedience in a person's life by his capacity to obey.

As I have already pointed out, true obedience is an attitude that comes when a person accepts Jesus as His Savior and the process of salvation begins to impact his life. Does this mean then that a person who has an attitude of obedience will obey God in the absolute sense of the word? A life of obedience must not be confused with a kind of absolute perfection.

The Scripture is clear that God takes into account where a person was born (Psalm 87:6), that is, where he is coming from, his background, who he is and what opportunities he has had.

It is an eternal truth that the Ten Commandments are, and always have been, the standard by which absolute obedience to the will of God is measured

But remember, God looks at the heart. A first grader goes to school with an attitude to learn. He makes mistakes along the way, but his attitude to learn makes it possible for him to grow. In the Christian life, it's a little like going to school. Obedience is an attitude. Along the way we make mistakes, but the mistakes are committed by an obedient attitude, which will acknowledge the mistakes and learn from them.

Using the illustration of school again-a good student tries to get 100% on his examination. When he misses a question, he is not satisfied. But knowing that this is his area of weakness, he will actually give special attention to the matter until he is able to get the question right next time.

I believe that God judges a person in relationship to who the person is and where he is coming from. God does not hold us all equally accountable. That may not be fair, but it is just.

By the way, we tend to see things from a point of view of "is it fair?" Fairness says that, if you have a dollar and there are four people, each one gets a quarter. But God acts from the principle of justice. Fairness gives to each person equally. Justice will divide the dollar up among those with the greatest need. Although God uses the same yardstick on all of us, He doesn't hold us all equally accountable.

The standard by which a first grader gets A's would, if applied strictly to a person studying for a PhD, be absurd. In the same way, the standard that applies to a PhD candidate would completely crush a first grader.

Obedience must be seen from God's point of view. He says, "To him who knows to do good and doesn't do it, to him it is sin." (James 4:17). In other words, a person is held accountable by God according to the light he has. Does this mean ignorance is bliss? Not at all. I will say more about that later.

A child of five can be as implicitly obedient as a youth of 22. But the difference between the two lies in what is expected of each one.

Another aspect that we must take into account is that:

Disobedience is about voluntary sin.

In order to be able to understand what obedience is, we need to pay attention to the difference between voluntary sin and involuntary sin. When God talks about disobedience, He is talking about voluntary sin.

It seems to me that a student who is trying to get 100%, but missed a few points, is different from the student who says that he doesn't care and is just trying to get by. In the same way, there is an enormous difference between the person who prays everyday to be obedient and the person who believes that obedience is unimportant or unattainable.

The obedient Christian is always sensitive to his failures and mistakes, and by prayer and the engrafting of the Word of God by the Holy Spirit, he is ever pressing on toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

You might be saying, "But it sounds to me like you are saying that obedience is a relative word." In a way it is. Remember there will be no one saved from any generation who in his heart of hearts was knowingly disobedient to God. Everyone in every generation who was fully committed to the Lord was filled with a heartfelt desire to please and obey Him.

Let me point out that when we realize that obedience is an attitude of the heart, only God, who can read hearts, can determine who is obedient or who is in their hearts disobedient. We cannot be judges of each other. To do so is in itself to be disobedient, because we have been commanded to judge not that we be not judged (Matthew 7:1).

Another aspect to bear in mind concerning true obedience is that:

Temptation is not disobedience.

Let me interject at this point a comforting thought, and that is, temptation is not disobedience. Our natural man, the flesh, and the Devil will continually call us to pride, impurity, and unloveliness.

We will come to realize that there is in all of us a carnal nature, which delights in disobedience. We need to continually stop our ears to the siren song of the disobedient nature and die to this part of us, which enjoys doing its own thing. I repeat, the temptation to disobey is not disobedience. We need to understand this, otherwise we could think that we were insincere or something.

Let us remember, too, that:

True obedience can never come from fear, guilt, or duty.

True obedience is an attitude that a person has who is truly born again. A person who truly loves God would never obey Him for fear of the consequence. The Scripture says perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

A person who tries to obey God because they are afraid not to has not learned, nor are they enjoying, the blessing of obedience. A person who is seeking to obey God and keep His commandments, because they would feel guilty if they didn't, does not enjoy the blessing of obedience either. A person who is trying to obey God in every particular, because they feel it is their duty to do so, is not enjoying the blessing of obedience.

A person who lives under grace obeys for that very reason. A person who lives under law cannot obey in the true sense of the word inasmuch as obedience is an attitude of the heart. True obedience is heart deep. However, the obedience that comes from fear, duty, or guilt is false obedience and is only skin deep.

Does a born-again Christian keep the commandments? Of course, but the issue is how and why, not what. The Ten Commandments will tell us what not to do, but not do anything to help us obey. A Christian is not driven, if you please, by a desire to keep the Ten Commandments, but by a desire to please God.

You can love the rainbow, but it can't love you. You can love the Ten Commandments, but they only tell us what we ought to do and show us where we are wrong. True love, to be meaningful, must be placed on something that has the capacity to return our love. Don't love the commandments; love God. Don't pray to obey the rules; rather let's pray to obey Jesus and do His will.

Some people say that they want the will of God for their lives. Others even say that they are doing God's will. But there may be a certain dishonesty involved. You see, many people reserve the right to decide for themselves what God's will is or isn't.

They are like the man who said he could speak every language but Greek. When a friend asked him to prove it he replied, "They're all Greek to me!"

There are people who say that they are praying to do God's will, who in practice have often decided for themselves what part or which of God's commandments are important for them. In reality they are doing their own will rather than what He asks them to do. You've heard the type of person who, when they run off with someone else's wife says, "But my God wants me to be happy."

We must ever be aware that the issue is obedience, pure and simple. And obedience means that we will do what He asks us to do rather than what we have decided He wants us to do. Some people are willing to do anything for the Lord except what He asks them to do.


The hue and cry these days is that God loves us, and so He does. But the relevant question in the 21st century, the message of warning for the nations, is the question, "Do we love God?" An even greater issue, even than which day should we go to church is...does God have a right to tell us which day to worship Him? It is truthfully said that perfect love will cast out fear, but perfect love will not cast out obedience. In fact, on the contrary, it is only perfect love from the heart, which is a gift of God, which makes perfect obedience from the heart, which is a gift of God, possible.

It is conceivable that there might be a test in school where it was impossible to get all the questions right, because they were trick questions or they were questions that were not covered in the course. But this will never happen in the life of the Christian and his relationship to true obedience. Because God's commandments are never grievous (1 John 5:3). All of His requirements are covered in the course, and best of all, it is an open book test!

By now someone might be saying, "But if obedience is only an attitude, what about eating pork?" Think again. It is easy not to eat pork, but only the Holy Spirit can give us true obedience from the heart.

God has had obedient (in attitude) Sunday-keeping, pork eaters in other generations. But the gift of obedience that prepares a living people to meet a living God will thrill you through and through and bring glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Where, in other generations, God has worked with the ignorance of His people and accepted their attitude of obedience by faith in Jesus, the people of God in the 21st century will be well informed. They will be a people educated in the will of God for the 21st century, and they will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, enjoy a blessing of obedience that has never been experienced by people of God in other generations. After all, we claim the promise that God, who has begun the good work in us, will finish it (Philippians 1:6).

The promise that we claim in the 21st century is that the Holy Spirit will lead us to all truth. Let me say it another way: God's people in other generations were disobedient. In fact, though they were obedient in attitude, Satan had dug a big pit of lies by the time of Martin Luther, and it has taken time for God to pull His people out. Remember, once we have an attitude of obedience, we must then learn how to obey using the knowledge that is available to us in a particular generation or time.

In the case of God's people in the 21st century, we are no different that God's people in the 15th century. That is, we have received from Jesus the attitude of obedience. But in the 21st century, things are different than in the 15th century. Satan's lies are now unmasked. We have been pulled out of the pit of ignorance. God has placed our feet on solid ground. In the 21st century we know the truth as it is in Jesus our Savior, and the truth has set us free (John 8:32).


  • True obedience is not an act, but an attitude.
  • God takes into account where we are coming from.
  • When we talk about disobedience, we are talking about voluntary sin.
  • Temptation to disobey is not disobedience. Those whose hearts are obedient will still be tempted to disobey.
  • True obedience is not motivated by fear, guilt or duty, but by love.


Is our obedience "just going through the motions?" Obedience is just as much a gift of God as is forgiveness.


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