‘From’ Christ, not ‘For’ Christ: “Why don’t you have a category for obedience?”

I have lots of people email (instead of comment) me about my various posts here at the blog. Recently I received an email from someone who wondered why I didn’t have a category (in my categories for the blog) designated as “obedience”? I haven’t emailed this person back yet, but I thought before I did that I would respond to this rather interesting observation here at the blog first (it seems fitting for me to do so).

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-1To start with, I do have a category entitled “ethics,” which deals with issues and instances of concrete instantiations of Christian obedience (or disobedience); and then I do deal with Christian obedience in many posts, but they aren’t under a specific category of “obedience,” but instead those can be found under the category of “salvation” (and then a lengthy process of weeding through this posts will ultimately yield results that show I have dealt with questions that are oriented around Christian obedience). But I would like to answer this question with more particularity, and clarity on why my blog does not emphasize this category (as important as it is!). My blog does not emphasize this category (in the way my interlocutor is wondering, I presume) because the way I think of our relation to God in Christ, has Christ in the way; and I mean in the way of you and me (logically, theo-logically). Historically, and classically, Evangelicals (given their hybrided dependence upon Reformed/Covenant theology) have emphasized relation with God through a mode of emphasizing law-keeping conditioned by forensic categories of thought (just read an Evangelical systematic theology if you don’t believe me). And insofar that I have eschewed this classical mode, I have abandoned emphasizing law-keeping (code for ‘obedience’, usually) as the emphasis by which I understood relationship with God, and how I conceive of Christian holiness (or obedience as its subsequent expression). To provide an example of where the Evangelical heritage comes from, theologically, in this regard; let me quote Kim Riddlebarger (a contemporary advocate of Covenant Theology, and member of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, along with Michael Horton), as he sketches the original and lasting relationship and way that he (and the classically Reformed) think of how God and man (God/world) relate to each other through the Covenant of Works (or Creation):

[A]s redemptive history unfolded, the first Adam—the biological and federal representative of all humanity—failed to do as God commanded under the terms of the covenant of works. The Lord God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This covenant of works or, as some Reformed writers speak of it, the “covenant of creation” lies at the heart of redemptive history. Under its terms God demanded perfect obedience of Adam, who would either obey the terms of the covenant and receive God’s blessing—eternal life in a glorified Eden—or fail to keep the covenant and bring its sanctions down upon himself and all humanity. Adam’s willful act of rebellion did, in fact, bring the curse of death on the entire human race. This covenant of works is never subsequently abrogated in the Scriptures, a point empirically verified when ever death strikes. This covenant also undergirds the biblical teaching that for any of Adam’s fall children to be saved, someone must fulfill all the terms of the covenant without a single infraction in thought, word, or deed (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). [Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 47.]

Much could be said in critique of this conception of things (and I have already said much, just check my category “critiquing classical Calvinism”), but in order to not get side-tracked from the point of this post, let me stay particular to my intention. In predictable form (since Covenant theology has Creation preceding Covenant), Riddlebarger allows Creation to condition Covenant instead of seeing Covenant (God’s life of gracious love) conditioning Creation (one serious fall out of this theological ordering is that Jesus becomes conditioned by creation instead of conditioning creation himself as homoousion—I digress!). In other words, when Reformed thinkers like Riddlebarger, and his whole tradition, start theologizing and biblical exegeting they start where Riddlerbarger starts, with Law (or the Covenant of Works/Creation). And yet, as Ray Anderson has highlighted (along with others), what should be understood (first), is that God spoke and created (which is an act of grace as corollary with His overflowing life of Triune love). So what grounds any relation with God, first, is not Law-keeping, but the fact that God spoke (which is grace)! This might seem to be a subtle shift, but it is profound!

Following this shift of emphasis, what becomes primary is not my personal obedience (and Law-keeping), but God’s in Christ for us. As Thomas Torrance has written (as I just quoted this in a post below this one),

[…] Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. [see full text here].

This does not mean that personal obedience is not important, but it frames it in a way that allows me to keep my eye on Christ instead of first looking at myself (and then reflexively looking at Christ: i.e. reflexive faith], as if I, myself, can somehow be abstracted out of the only true humanity which is Christ’s. So I “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then all these other things will be added unto me” (and I only seek first, because He first loved (and sought) first that I might love Him, through Him by the Spirit). My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, but Christ’s obedience for me (us); and so this ought to go along ways in illustrating why I don’t have a separate category (apart from Christology) for obedience in my sidebar. Thomas Torrance in his (posthumously published) book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ really captures the import of this shift and way of framing things from God’s gracious Self directed life for us in contrast to the Legalistic emphasis that the classical Covenant of Works flows from:

(iii) The holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s holiness

 This holiness is actualised in the church through the communion of the Holy Spirit. He only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Since the holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s act of self-consecration for the church, then that is the only holiness, the only hallowing of the church there is. That is the holiness which was actualised in the church when it was baptised with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the union of the church with Christ was fulfilled from the side of the church as well as from the side of Christ.

The church is not holy because its members are holy or live virtuous lives, but because through his presence in the Holy Spirit Christ continues to hallow himself in the midst of the church, hallowing the church as his body and the body as his church. Thus the true holiness of the members is not different from this but a participation in it, a participation in the holiness of Christ the head of the church and in the holiness of the church as the body hallowed by Christ. Participation in this holiness however involves for the members of the church a life of holiness, just as it involves a life in Christ, of faith relying upon his faithfulness, of love that lives from the overflow his love, of truth that comes from the leading of the Spirit. Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore personal holiness, and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, edited by Robert Walker, 386-87.]

There is a lot to comment on here as well, but I must limit myself. I will just say that it is this reversal of things (i.e. placing the Covenant of Grace [God’s life Pre-destined]) from Law to Grace that explains why I don’t have a category explicitly labeled “obedience”. It isn’t because I don’t think Christian obedience is important, it is because I think the gr0und of this emphasis is roundly rooted in Jesus Christ for us (and thus I have a category for Christology instead). It isn’t that I don’t think personal obedience or holiness are important, I do! Instead, it is because I am persuaded that focusing on Christ and God’s Triune life of gracious love, and participating in that from the Spirit’s unioning activity will produce obedience and the life of Christ through the members of our bodies as they are constantly given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our body. We obey, only because Jesus obeyed for us first. We don’t obey to ensure that we are one of the elect that God purchased from the mass of “perdituous” humanity; we obey because God loved us first that we might love Him back through the mediating and priestly Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. It is only through this framing of things that I feel I can live out this exhortation from St. Paul:

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1

Without the freedom of God for us in Christ I live under a burdenouss yoke that really ends up being hell; which, I am pretty sure this is what Jesus came to save us from (ourselves), and for Himself (and His shared life in the Monarchia or God-head). So obey, but only from Christ by the Spirit, not for Christ so you can find God’s approval.

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20 comments

  1. Thanks for your reply Bobby, I am most of the way through Myk’s chapter on “God behind Jesus’ back” and I am realizing exactly what I suspected from the start of this journey, a lot of my disillusionment in myself (for being a rotten sinner) and in God for still expecting an awful lot out of me (all the imperatives in Scripture) and more disillusionment in myself for failure to meet these imperatives, seems to come from the logical conclusion of much of my pseudo (or maybe confused?) Calvinistic/Reformed understandings of how God is to be understood

    Never a full on Calvinist (always believed in unlimited atonement) and yet patently anti-arminian (too much free will!) I am convinced I missed the boat somewhere.

    I feel a long way from grasping the fundamentals of what you are putting forth here but it seems my captive spirit is finally finding some wings of hope.

    (Can’t you at least put THIS post under the category of “obedience?” 🙂

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  2. Hi Steve,

    Well I wasn’t going to identify you, but since you don’t care … hey :-)!

    Myk’s chapter is excellent. Another thing you should be picking up as you read through this stuff in our book is that we don’t follow the usual deterministic “logico-causal” way of thinking of things; which is how both classical Calvinist and Arminian theology operates.

    My guess is that the boat you got on is the same one you are still trying to navigate from; it is a metaphysic that we all we taught in our Evangelical Bible Colleges and Seminaries. Read this post, and tell me if this sounds somewhat or vaguely familiar to some of the ways you think of God: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/what-is-classical-theism-and-what-impact-does-this-have-on-the-american-church/

    There is a lot to work through to come to appreciate some of what we are trying to communicate. If I might make a suggestion for your reading of our book; I would skip to the last chapter 15 that Myk and I co-wrote. This is where we offer 15 definitive theological statements that Myk and I both agree are central to our style of Evangelical Calvinism. After reading through these you might find the rest of your reading more fruitful as you engage the rest of the essays in the volume.

    I thought about creating an obedience category, but then that would seem to undercut the rationale for my whole post 😉 … i.e. explaining why I don’t have that category :-).

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  3. By the way I grew up in Southern California (Temecula, and Long Beach). When I attended Linfield Junior High and High School (while living in the Temecula area) we used to travel up to Hesperia and play Hesperia Christian High School and Apple Valley Christian School in sports (Basketball, Baseball and Cross Country for me). I know right where you are, up there in the high desert :-).

    I only came to the Pac NW to attend school, and then got stuck here because it is too expensive for us to live back in the mother land ;-).

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  4. Okay that last post identified me a little too completely!

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  5. Yes, this approach used to identify me too closely as well :-). (Although I have been moving away from this for the last 10 years now, and have definitely broken lose of it).

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  6. Bobby, thanks for making an important point about the relational nature of obedience. I find it interesting that in Biblical Hebrew, with all it’s mitvahs (commandments) there is no specific word for “obey.” The term appropriately translated “obey” because of context is shema – “to hear.” To hear God in the context of lover speaking to those who are the objects of love makes responding not an obligation but a joyful delight – a point made over and over by John (Peterson captures it well):

    “So Jesus tried again. “When you raise up the Son of Man, then you will know who I am—that I’m not making this up, but speaking only what the Father taught me. The One who sent me stays with me. He doesn’t abandon me. He sees how much joy I take in pleasing him.” …
    Anyone on God’s side listens to God’s words. This is why you’re not listening—because you’re not on God’s side.” – John 8:28, 29; 47 Message

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  7. Hi Paul,

    Thank you!

    Thankfully Jesus was both on God’s side (as God), and our side (as man vicariously); and that as both the Subject (electing God), and Object (elected man/humanity) of election He placed us on God’s side through His ‘Yes’ for us.

    I think the concept communicated by Herman Bavinck of Deus Dixit ‘God Speaks’, and later developed by Karl Barth through his Christologically conditioned manifesto of theology (his Church Dogmatics) coheres well with you point about “hearing”; which implied in that “hearing” is “doing” and the “doing” is grounded in the gracious activity of the God who both speaks, and who first hears for us in Christ; and thus our hearing and seeing (i.e. “eyes to see and ears to hear”) come from our Spirit created participation with and from Christ’s Priestly humanity for us.

    I believe my brother, in the past, has taken part in your ministry; keep up the good work! Blessings.

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  8. Hi Bobby!
    I think that Christians who go about with “obedience” on their lips are blinded to just how dis-inclined we are to obey the law. Further more, EVERY TIME someone preaches about or argues that “a person has to show fruit, growth, a committment, commit your life to Christ”, much more “give you life totally to Christ”, they set up a “give to get” mentallity.

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  9. “Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will.”

    agreed – but doesnt Paul through a wrench in this somewhat by warning us to live in the light of weaker brothers? God’s will is that I take care in my actions in front of others.

    1 Corinthians 8:13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

    How does Torrances attitude fit in with my freedom in Christ being restricted by my responsiblity to my brother? (BTW I’m not giving up meat for anybody!)

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  10. @Duane,

    Yes, I repudiate a duty driven Christianity as well! Amen to that.

    @Steve,

    I don’t know how Paul’s point throws a wrench into what Torrance is saying; Torrance is saying that as we are overcome with the love of God in Christ by the Spirit that the natural overflow of this will be to put God first, His kingdom etc. and thus we will be sensitive to others and in the proper order as well. I don’t understand why you think what TFT has written would contradict Paul; why do you think that?

    Plus, I don’t agree that my freedom in Christ is restricted by my brother. I think my freedom in Christ should be sensitive to my brothers and sisters, but that does not mean I am restricted; if that was the case, and that was what Paul was ultimately teaching … we would be paralyzed, because everything we do is bound to offend some one.

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  11. I read it and imagined a Christian who skips through life
    “He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked.”

    Now maybe this seeming thoughtless living is tempered by “he is only concerned with doing God’s will” – but isn’t it true that God’s will is that we be very careful about our morality – plenty of lists in Scripture about who (those claiming to be Christians) will and won’t get into heaven – example: practicing homosexuals who go to church claim faith in Christ and misinterpret Scripture in order to justify thier sin. (Jennifer Knapp would be an example)

    Don’t we have to think before we act? Aren’t we compelled to search the scriptures diligently? (2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.)

    I guess my fear is that we have this culture today of Christians who think of themselves as so free in Christ that they can live any way they want (making Mark Driscoll get up and curse at them :)) and churches that teach Scripture so shallowly that people don’t know the truth and and aren’t being “instructed” to get into GOd’s word themselves.

    I have “graceaphobia”!

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  12. Actually Steve, it is simply a matter of seeing the Covenant of Grace preceding the Covenant of Works; and thus our lives are only conditioned, as Christians, by participation through the Spirit as they are in Christ and all that implies.

    I don’t see anywhere that Torrance or anyone else like him (me) is even coming close to suggesting that we don’t search the scriptures; the question is behind that though. What informs the way we search the scriptures? It is a question of hermeneutics, at that level.

    Why are you so afraid of God? Why does Law and obedience seem to dominant your life, Steve? Why not have a focus on Christ’s life and obedience for you, and understand that your relationship with God is thoroughly conditioned by the grace of adoption through participation in God’s triune life? Why not let that ambit, that reality so thoroughly saturate your heart that the obedience of Christ to the Father, which is one motivated by pure self giving other focused love dominates? To me your questions stem from an pietistic shaped, introverted obsessed concern with personal performance which is directly contrary to the kind of “saved” life we have been invited to in Christ’s which is other focused. That is not to say we aren’t responsible for our bad choices etc., but it is to say that the dominate theme is God’s grace and how that reverses our fleshy choices on a day to day basis.

    Being afraid of grace when it is misused as a license for sin should be avoided, no doubt! But that is reacting to an abuse of grace, and building your views from that distortion. Why not start with a properly proportioned understanding of grace as it is revealed in through the giving of Jesus Christ for us, God for us, God with us?!

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  13. Why are you so afraid of God? Why does Law and obedience seem to dominant your life, Steve?

    Wish I knew.

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  14. Okay, well I would like to suggest that it is because you are still operating under a conception of God who impinges on your life this way; and we all still struggle through misconceptions etc. But I will say that the kind of Trinitarian theology EC is forwarding, I believe offers real life liberation from the kind of dread that you and Martin Luther (before he had his break through sola fide) are (or have) experiencing/ed.

    I understand, Steve, that it will not be easy to make the kind of move that you desire; i.e. to experience God in the kinds of gracious and loving and self giving ways correlate with who He actually is. But the good news is that there is a way to move beyond the impasse that you currently find yourself in, and a way beyond the kind of depression that it produces. I went through this process (not realizing I was, actually) for a long time. I have not arrived, of course, yet; but I have a view of God that I think offers a perspective of him that is grounded in his own vision of himself revealed in Jesus Christ.

    Remember that post I linked for you; the one on “Classical Theism?” I would be willing to bet that it is because this version of God is still quite embedded in your understanding and experience of God, and this is why God is someone to be feared (and I mean afraid of), more than love (and rested in).

    I don’t want to come off as caviler or trite, Steve; I know you are genuinely struggling with all of this, and it is having a real affect on you personally. I will continue to pray for you as you walk through this season; and I will try my best to continue to be a sounding board for you (if you will be one for me). Blessings.

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  15. Absolutely – send me a copy of EC for dummies before it comes out and I will tell you if it is dumbed down enough 🙂

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  16. May I throw an observation in here about the challenge of “internalizing” grace. There is both an intellectual grasping of grace that is challenging (more so for my recovering fundie thinking) and an emotional challenge (emotional intelligence may be more challenging to shift). Short version: to the degree we have internalized shame/disgrace (heart wounds) we will be challenged in internalizing grace. Shame/disgrace wounds resist grace at a deep emotional level that defies tight logical reasoning. It is the source of The Lie that whispers “you are not _____enough.” Lewis Smedes said it well that no one can shame you more deeply than someone from who you expect to receive grace, Therein lies part of the theological wounding for many of us that keeps grace as a good idea but not a lived experience – turning God into the ultimate shamer. The good news is that grace is healing as well as freeing.

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  17. Steve,

    Our next volume of EC won’t be the ‘for dummies’ version (not yet), but it will be much more pastorally applied; and focusing especially on the implications of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and what it means to be participate in God’s life in Christ’s mediatorial humanity for us.

    I would say that the thing that really helped me through all of this, Steve, was (as Paul rightly emphasizes) the internalization of Scripture (just being a reader through Scripture … I have read thru the Bible 2 or 3x a year since 1995), and then good Trinitarian theology as what finally produced the “break through” for me. Prior to that, and in the process of all this, I went through many years of deep depression, anxiety, and other tough emotional and mental things. So I can totally empathize with where you are at, Steve! The difference between you and me is that you are being exposed to Trinitarian theology early on in your dark nights of the soul; it took me years tell I was exposed to such.

    I think Paul’s points are well taken; first we have to recognize our problem (a version of AA, maybe we could call our’s BTA Bad Theology Anonymous 😉 ), and then work through the painful process of deconstructing our crusty old and wrong beliefs about God, and then begin the joyful process of worshipfully and constructively engaging with God on new and sounder grounds. I think this is a dialectic process, and/or a spiraling one; something that is ongoing, with all the growing pains felt.

    Anyway, keep pressing on Steve; I will be here as I can for any questions you have as you continue down this exciting road!

    The fundamental thing (as I’ve said before somewhere), is that ‘if we get God wrong, everything after that will be wrong too’. So the focus needs to be on getting God as right as we can, and we can with the Spirit’s guidance. Not that we can create a box to fit God into, on the contrary!; instead, that the terms through which we think of God must be imposed upon us through His own Self revelation provided through Jesus Christ. We need to avoid conceiving of God philosophically (classical theism) prior to meeting Him in Jesus Christ. And when we read the OT we need to do so as Christians, which means in light of Jesus and His fulfillment of all of the OT which is the prefigural preincarnate reality of salvation history. Another words, the point and purpose of OT redemptive history, and all of creation is Jesus Christ. So we are best advised to start all of our thinking there (methodologically, not just by assertion).

    I will respond to your email hopefully tomorrow.

    Blessings.

    And Paul thanks for your insight!

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  18. Thanks Bobby and thank you Paul, that is where I am at. There are old wounds (self-inflicted) and I realize that I fundamentally (pun intended) have to change thinking patterns, an open a heart that has been walled up.

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  19. Steve,

    I understand.

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  20. not a fan of the new look, miss the themes being on the right side of the screen, you are making me scroll!! also I must be doing something wrong – I am not getting emails when new posts are added and I can;t remember where I posted!!

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