Obedience or Righteousness: Which Comes First?

Image: Orion Nebula - NASA

God delights in those who worship him in willing obedience (See 1 Samuel 15:22). But to many within the church, obedience is a struggle; even a lifelong conflict. Often there are fleeting moments of victory, and many more defeats. Does God actually require perfect and consistent obedience from us though, and if so, how is it possible? I will assume you understand the answer to the first question is a simple yes. Let’s then look at the dynamics of obedience as related to righteousness by faith.

Why People Struggle to Obey

Obedience is a struggle only when we love to disobey. In such a state of mind, we read verses such as, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” and “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” and because we fear the consequences of disobedience we take it as a cue to just try harder. We see terms like holy and perfect as things we do and achieve rather than a state of being that God creates. The result is that our Christianity then becomes a failed endeavour rather than a Divine accomplishment.

We also have a tendency to think that if we just try hard enough and if we just have enough faith in Christ, our obedience will be acceptable in the sight of God. My past experience proves me right. And perhaps you feel the same way about yours.

Our Only Hope

One thing the fall of Adam and Eve showed us is that God requires obedience to all of His commandments always. It would have been at least natural for Adam and Eve to render obedience such as this because they were morally upright and they desired only good. But since the fall, humanity regularly finds that obedience is a drudgery; it conflicts with desires we know are wrong. It is for this reason that Christ proposes to change our natures.

“[Christ] was to bear the penalty of the transgression of the law of God, not to give men liberty to continue in sin, but to take away their inclination to sin, that they might not desire to transgress. Those who receive Christ are obedient to his commands; for his mind is given to them. He imbues them with his spirit of obedience, and they return to their loyalty.” The Youth’s Instructor, April 6, 1899, par. 3.

Our only hope then, is for God to change who we are on the inside and restore the moral uprightness within us that Adam lost through sin.

Which Comes First: Obedience or Righteousness?

“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Romans 5:19.

The above verse tells us that the obedience of Christ alone makes men righteous. What it also tells us is that we are sinners by inheritance, not because we sinned, but because Adam sinned. In other words, we inherited the “sinner” nature of Adam before we ever disobeyed. If it were true that we are sinners only after we sin, then it would follow that we are made righteous only once we obey, but this idea destroys the truth of righteousness by faith in Christ and turns it into righteousness by works of obedience.

Romans 5:19 tells us however, that we are made righteous not through our obedience, but by the obedience of One, even Jesus Christ. Those whom God makes obedient, He first makes righteous, and righteousness comes by faith alone (Galatians 2:16). The state of being righteous makes the tree good, and therefore the fruit is good also. Notice how the Apostle John described this,

“Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” 1 John 3:7.

Doing righteousness (obedience) then is a result of being righteous and not a means to achieving it. It is this truth that God has made known to His children ever since the world began.

Learning From the Past

Ever since God promised Adam and Eve that He would introduce a divine principle of conflict with sin within the heart of man, He has sought to teach the race lessons of obedience.

Remarkably, God has selectively preserved sacred history specifically to teach those living in the last days of earth history these important lessons.

“Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” 1 Corinthians 10:11

Revelation 14:12 describes the last generation of people. They are said to have three identifying traits: the faith of Jesus, they keep the commandments of God, and they are patient. These people have the relation of faith and works just right. In fact, to them, it is not a matter of faith and works, but of faith that works. Their patience proves they have a tried faith. Their works prove they have a genuine faith. They have learned from the past, especially form the experience of ancient Israel.

Unconverted Israel

When it came to obedience, ancient Israel displayed a natural deficiency, revealing the depravity of the human heart. When God condescended to meet with them at Mt. Sinai, the people of God felt uncomfortable in His presence. Despite this, they rashly promised obedience to all His requirements. But after hearing God’s own voice utter the Ten Commandments, they urgently requested of Moses,

“Go thou near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it .” Deuteronomy 5:27.

How often do we attempt to obey, and yet feel no delight nor peace in God’s presence? Are we also exerting our own obedience, yet lacking any type of a meaningful relationship with God? Such obedience is cosmetic. It fades away just as easily as it was put on.

Why The Old Covenant?

God let Israel enter into a covenant of obedience with Him. We know this as the “Old Covenant”. Under the terms of this covenant, Israel had to render perfect obedience, and no forgiveness was offered if they transgressed (Leviticus 18:5; Exodus 23:20,21; Joshua 24:19). It’s not hard to see why such a covenant was broken by the people just a few days after it was ratified. In the book of Hebrews, this covenant is described as transitory, old, decaying and “ready to vanish away.”

Overconfident Israel desired such a covenant. The people didn’t realise the weakness of their own hearts and this was the best way God could reveal it to them. What better way was there? Maybe parents can sympathise with God when they see no other way but to let their children do what they please so they can see their great need for themselves.

But God was wishing all along to make an Everlasting Covenant with Israel which was based upon better promises. This Covenant would no longer be based on a fickle promise of obedience, but upon infallible promises of grace and mercy: grace that changes hearts, and mercy that forgives transgressions (Hebrews 8:10–12).

Notice God’s reaction to Israel’s pledge of obedience at Mt. Sinai:

“And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken.” Deuteronomy 5:28.

Here, God does not agree with what they said, He just asserts that what they said was fluent. In other words, their commitment to obedience was admirable, but coming from hearts so fickle!

The very next verse reveals God’s profound yearning for a different state of things:

“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” Deuteronomy 5:29.

In one brief sentence, God singles out the point at issue, the fickleness of the human heart. You see, our problem is that we either obey God’s law sometimes or some of it always. But God declares that in order for us to enjoy an eternity of wellness, we must obey all the commandments always.

Like ancient Israel, Seventh Day Adventists have had their fare share of an “Old Covenant” spirit. Ask yourself this question: is your faith and obedience based upon the Old Covenant or is it founded upon the Everlasting Covenant? Let’s take a little tour of Adventist history to better answer this question.

1888 & The Covenants

Conflicting views of the Covenants formed part of the bitter controversy that pervaded the Minneapolis General Conference of 1888.

Prominent among those that resisted the light of righteousness by faith at that conference were George Butler (the President) and Uriah Smith (Editor of the Review and Herald). These two men exerted enormous influence upon the denomination. A few months after the conference, Ellen White summed up the sentiment of many of the lay members in a letter she wrote to two Elders,

“Some have said,” she wrote, “If this message that Brother A. T. Jones has been giving to the church is the truth, why is it that Brother Smith and Brother Butler have not received it, and have not united with him in heralding it? These good intelligent men would surely know if this was the message of truth.” EGW 1888 Materials, p. 417:1.

Butler and Uriah Smith held to a view of the Covenants that smelled strongly of righteousness by works. The tenor of their writings expressed an emphasis on righteousness by obedience, just like ancient Israel, very much opposed to the messages God sent through Elders Waggoner and Jones.

On April 14 1902, A.G. Daniells (acting President) wrote a letter to W.C. White. He mourned over the circulation of ideas opposed to the message of justification by faith. He described the undercurrent of opposition he faced originating from a “brood of old-covenant men who are continually raising doubts and unbelief regarding the light that came at the Minneapolis meeting.”

Daniells’ choice of words described a long held perspective of salvation, cherished by men like Butler and Smith.

Just a few months after the 1888 General Conference, Uriah Smith – incensed at what he thought was an attack upon the law of God – published an editorial in the Review and Herald entitled, “Our Righteousness”. Smith attempted to correct the “error” some had circulated in suggesting that any attempts at keeping the law of God were as “filthy rags”. What he wrote reveals the Old Covenant theology held by the majority of Adventists at that time:

“The law is spiritual, holy, just, and good, the divine standard of righteousness. Perfect obedience to it will develop perfect righteousness, and that is the only way any one can attain to righteousness.”

…In Deut. 6 : 24, 25 we read : “ And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God for our good always, that he’ might preserve us alive as it is this day. And it shall be our righteousness if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us.” The Lord would not command them to do what he had not made adequate provision for them to do ; and if they did do it, it would be their righteousness. And “our righteousness” cannot in this case be filthy rags. How would it sound if we should read it thus: “ And it shall ’be filthy rags, if we observe to do all these ’commandments … as he hath commanded us” ?

…Suppose we try the “filthy rag” construction on Matt. 5: 20: “For I say unto you that except your filthy rags’ shall exceed the filthy rags’ of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no ease enter the kingdom of heaven.” That surely would not be very edifying reading to any one. There is then a righteousness that we must have, to be secured by doing and teaching the commandments. And the scribes and Pharisees did some things which were righteous, or Christ could not have introduced the comparison he did, and said, except yours shall exceed theirs.” Uriah Smith, Review and Herald, vol. 66, no. 24, June 11, 1889.

A week later, Ellen White preached a sermon in Rome, New York entitled “Christ and the Law”. She urged the people to receive the light of the righteousness of Christ by faith. Some in the audience couldn’t harmonise what she was saying with what Smith wrote a few days prior in the Review. She said to them,

“Brethren, do not let any of you be thrown off the track. ‘Well,’ you say, ‘What does Brother Smith’s piece in the Review mean?’ He doesn’t know what he is talking about; he sees trees as men walking… It is impossible for us to exalt the law of Jehovah unless we take hold of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Sermons and Talks, vol. 1, p. 116.1.

There were a couple of leading flaws in Smith’s and Butler’s view of righteousness:

  1. An incorrect reading of Romans 5:25 led them to believe and teach that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to our account for sins that are past only. They taught that once a man is justified by faith for sins that are past, they must now through faith in the power of Christ’s strength reach a level of obedience that would be acceptable enough to get them through the time of trouble.
  2. They reasoned that the Pharisees’s ignorance of God’s righteousness consisted only in their persistence in keeping the ceremonial law after Christ had already come. In other words, whatever good they did in keeping the Moral Law, was good enough.

On the other hand, Waggoner and Jones, inspired by the simplicity of the gospel, declared that the righteousness of Christ alone was sufficient to meet the demands of the law of God and that His righteousness was both imputed and imparted to us by faith alone.

When Waggoner taught this truth in the context of the Everlasting Covenant during his lectures at Minneapolis, Ellen White recognised it as light sent from heaven. In a letter to Uriah Smith dated March 8, 1890, Ellen White wrote,

“Night before last I was shown that evidences in regard to the covenants were clear and convincing. Yourself, Brother Dan Jones, Brother Porter and others are spending your investigative powers for naught to produce a position on the covenants to vary from the position that Brother Waggoner has presented…”

…Had you received the true light which shineth, you would not have imitated or gone over the same manner of interpretation and misconstruing the Scriptures as did the Jews…” Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 328:3.

On the same day she wrote the letter, she delivered a sermon to the leader ministers of Battle Creek church. She told them:

“Now I tell you here before God, that the covenant question, as it has been presented, is the truth.” EGW 1888 Materials, p. 596:2.

The Obedience of Faith

In Romans 16:26, Paul writes of the “obedience of faith”. We put the cart before the horse when we attempt to obey without genuine faith. Faith believes God and it moves the soul in response. Galatians 5:6 speaks of a “faith which works by love” – what does this faith look like? It looks like Noah, when he believed God would send a flood, and that belief moved him in response to obey and build an ark. It looks like Abraham, when he believed God would make him a father of many nations when he offered up Isaac, believing God would resurrect him. Faith first believes the Word and then moves the soul in response.

To the word of command, faith responds in obedience. To the word of warning, faith responds in preparation. To the word of exhortation, faith responds in promptly heeding. To the word of reproof, faith responds in acceptance and humility. To the word of encouragement, faith responds in being comforted. Obedience is a natural response of faith. It should never be isolated from it, “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” Romans 14:23.

Saved by the Sacrifice & Intercession of Christ

The Everlasting Covenant alone provides sinners with the assurance of salvation. It provides us with:

  1. A sacrifice for sins that are past, present and future: Hebrews 8:12; Hebrews 10:14; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 5:6.
  2. The perfecting righteousness of Christ to cover all imperfections of the obedience of faith.

Conclusion

The possibility of rendering God acceptable obedience is placed beyond the realm of doubt, when we understand how the righteousness of Christ completes us. Let us remember that all in terms of faith and obedience is made acceptable only through the merits of Jesus Christ. After all is said and done, we are yet “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10).

“The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary; but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God…All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ’s propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable.” SDA Bible Commentary [EGW Comments], vol. 6, p. 1078.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*