Don’t Let Go. Don’t Let God.


or Commanded, Not Controlled

“Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem… And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” 2 King 22: 1-2

As a very young Christian, I remember being disappointed that the Spirit of God didn’t immediately make obedience to God’s Law easier, well actually, totally easy. Getting into Jordan et al opens up to you the biblical theme of maturity, of God’s desire for us to become wise judges, turning neither to the right nor the left. This takes practice (Hebrews 5:14).

The apostles’ use of the words “obedience” and “disobedience” when it comes the gospel is mysterious to many evangelicals. Is this not works?

“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision…” Acts 26:19

“Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith…” Acts 6:7

“But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” Romans 10:16

We use passive words like “receive” and “accept.” I have heard God’s work in us described as a hand in a glove. That’s exactly what I was looking for — an overridden will. But that short circuits God’s work of maturity. Yes, He works in us, but as A. W. Tozer observed somewhere, He never works in us against our wills.

The only instant change of this nature is at death, and as Jim Carey’s Riddler wisely observed, when given the opportunity to kill an unconscious Bruce Wayne: “Don’t kill him. If you kill him, he won’t learn nothin’.”

The New Testament uses the words obey, obedient and obedience a lot. The New Testament history is a replay of Genesis 6 and its consequences. Jesus and Paul align the Jewish leaders with the sons of God and the Gentile believers with Noah’s animals who willingly submit.

At the bottom of this confusion concerning grace and obedience is ignorance of the structure of Biblical Covenants. This has transformed much of evangelicalism into something new entirely, and tainted the church’s witness and credibility. Phillip Carey, in his new book Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do, calls this distorted thinking “the new evangelical theology.”

The Obedience of Faithful Servants

It’s a good thing to be given good work to do, and the new evangelical theology tries to deprive us of that. It tries — and fails, because it is fighting against God. But what it’s trying to do nonetheless does real harm. It causes us to forget the dignity we have as creatures made in God’s image, and the authority he has given us over the world he has created (Gen. 1:26). Our authority is meant for the good of other creatures, and we will be held responsible for how we use it. Yet it is a good gift, leading not just to our honor, but to the honor and glory of God. And it is a gift which the new evangelical theology would refuse. This rejection is disobedience and it is bad for us.

The problem, it seems, is that we hardly understand obedience anymore. We talk as if it means letting someone else do things (“let go and let God”), or we replace it with unbiblical words like “yielding,” where the idea is you yield up” your heart and will to God. The word “yield” came into the new evangelical theology from the King James Version of the Bible, where one way of describing obedience was to “yield your members” — which means the members of your body — to God, as in Romans 6:13. In more recent translation the passage is rendered, somewhat more accurately, as “present your members” — it’s actually the same word used a little later when Paul tells us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice,” in Romans 12:1.

This unbiblical talk of yielding your heart or will makes no sense of the fact that we irrevocably have hearts and wills of our own: we can’t simply bypass or get rid of them. Obedience does not mean surrendering or yielding up these parts of ourselves, which lie at the core of who we are, but rather using them. We are to use them to do what our Lord commands, like a servant eager to use his mind to learn how to invest his talents well.

Obedience does not mean letting the master do your work for you — it means doing the work he’s given you. It does not mean yielding up your will, but willingly doing what he’s commanded, like a faithful servant or a loving son. Obedience is for responsible adults, such as the son who goes to work in his father’s vineyard (Matt. 21:29) or the servants in the parable of the talents. These servants are slaves, owned by the lord (the original Greek of the parable makes this unmistakably clear) and yet they have dignity and authority, being given control over their master’s property. For a slave to be a slave in the ancient world did not mean you had to be miserable and unimportant, as if you weren’t human. The slaves in the parable of the talents are powerful people, and their obedience is the loyalty of people in a position of high authority, ruling over other servants in the household.

This is the very heart of dominion by Covenant. Obedience is not a drag. It is a privilege, an opportunity to reflect the glory of the obedient Son in Whom the Father delights. And it is a challenge, the flaming sword handed to us as a tool that will continue to fill the world that was spiritually “without form and empty” until the incarnation.

The good news is that those in whom the Spirit of God dwells will persevere. I’ve seen many godly people fall away over the years. I don’t know what went on inside them. What I do know is what goes on inside me. My understanding of the grace of God, and my own “scumhood,” grows daily. Often it all seems too hard to keep fighting, but there is something in me that won’t let me quit. I am constrained, held in orbit, by the love of Christ.

God will complete the work begun in you. It is all of grace because — and I personally testify to this — He gives us a miraculous desire to please Him. It is personal. The obedience-to-death of His Son for us constantly disarms us, and the church multiplies that obedience, responding as a bride to a bridegroom. A response is not passive but active.

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4 Responses to “Don’t Let Go. Don’t Let God.”

  • Dan Says:

    Well said. How do we get people beyond equating “works” with “merit”? That is such an unhelpful paradigm…

  • Kelby Carlson Says:

    I’ve been reading a ton about this recently. Your post ads to what I’ve been reading As I get older, I realize that–like I did when i was younger–just praying that God would make it easier to obey won’t work. We can obey him, but we have to *want* to and we have to try.

  • Trev Says:

    Great, refreshing article Mike. I remember hearing Jim Jordan state that obeying the OT law (10 commandments) was/is easy. John the Baptist’s parents did so perfectly (Luke 1). I think, as westerners, we come to the word perfect and load it up. We often forget that perfectly obeying the Law also included doing what the Law said when one sinned – i.e. be covenantally faithful – by confessing, repenting and making restitution when necessary.

    I believe the trouble we have today in understanding works is solved in a correct view/understanding of the covenant and how it practically effects all of life. Maybe it is even bigger – the Bible is a big book and every story/detail is not about how someone sinned and was forgiven ~ it includes salvation, the holy war and God taking us from infancy to maturity (think that’s a J Jordan thing). In other words -western Christendom has a very narow view of the narrative and needs to grow up a little (actually a lot)!

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks Trev – very helpful