Theology 101

How to Think Biblically About Obedience at Work

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The word obedience does not carry a very positive connotation for me. In my youth I was told to brush my teeth, finish my vegetables, and do my homework. As I have gotten older the list has changed: get your yearly physical, get your income taxes in on time, and do your expense report at work.

However, the thoughts or images “obedience” conjures up are still just as negative. Obedience often means doing what’s necessary, but not fun. By the time we all reach adulthood, we have been heavily programmed to think of obedience as unpleasant but necessary.

The reality is that scripture actually teaches that obedience is good for us. And knowing what the Bible says about obedience is critical. Without a biblical view, it’s easy to turn obedience into something that has nothing to do with living out our Christian life.

Obedience and Our View of Sin

Truth is not often taught in the evangelical church today, particularly when it comes to the concept of sin. A low view of sin leads to a low view of obedience and a low view of grace, all of which has consequences for our work.

This, however, is not a new problem. Paul addresses it in Galatians 5:13 when he writes,

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

The Greek word that Paul uses here for flesh, sarx, refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

Ken Wytsma, speaking at The Justice Conference in 2013, sharply defined this problem in our current age:

Christians can become “intoxicated” with the “hero part” of justice. There is a temptation to “look good without being good.” Being a true “hero,” though, is not about the single acts that bring glory to oneself, but persistence, determination and hard work.

We need to do more than look obedient. We need to actually be obedient. Eugene Peterson explains what we’re seeking when we abandon obedience in his classic book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment.

Embracing obedience to the teaching of God’s law is in the own best interest of the Christian seeking to avoid sin. It is the path that God has provided us to find true joy. Throughout the Bible, God could not be any clearer on this point: He blesses for obedience and curses for disobedience.

Obedience brings joy. One of the verses that talks about this concept in the Bible is in Hebrews 12:2:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross (obedience), scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This has great implications for us in our work. To quote again from Peterson,

The curse of some people’s lives is not work, as such, but senseless work, vain work, futile work, work that takes place apart from God.

Our obedience in the long haul, even in the most mundane area of our work, not only provides a sense of joy, but is also what God uses to give our work great satisfaction and significance. It is this higher view of obedience that leads us to a higher view of “grace.” It is this higher view of “grace” that enables us to do the “good work” to which we have been called.

Taking Obedience to the Extremes

A negative attitude towards obedience can also manifest itself in two extremes that theologians call legalism and antinomianism. These also come from a low view of sin and thus a low view of grace.

  1. Legalism is defined as any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our just standing before God instead of grace. Tim Keller often calls it “Religion,” and defines it this way: “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” This approach to obedience is exemplified by the older brother in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. This white knuckled approach to the Christian life robs us of the joy God intended and leads to a hard self-righteousness.
  2. At the other extreme is antinomianism, the idea that because God is gracious and forgiveness is a free gift, obedience to God just doesn’t matter. We can live our lives however we want, believing that there is no place for God’s law in the life of a Christian. Antinomianism leads to a low view of sin and therefore a low view of grace. It goes against much of what is written in the scripture.

Obedience to God matters to God and it should, therefore, matter to God’s people. John 14:15 and 1 John 5:3 both point to this reality when they speak of love and obedience.

If avoiding sin and embracing obedience to God is in the Christian’s own best interest, how do we live this way while avoiding the dangers of legalism and antinomianism?

The answer is only found in the gospel. We do not produce fruit to be able to get into the True Vine (John 15). We produce fruit because we are already in the True Vine, having been placed there by God alone, not by our own works.

Our love of God and gratitude for what he has done for us should be the motivation that drives us to obey his call in every sphere of our lives. This is why the Apostle James can write that faith begins by hearing about God and Jesus Christ and believing certain things about them. However, a faith that saves you is a faith that goes beyond just hearing and believing. You must have a faith that trusts and obeys God. Even the demons fear and believe in God. Faith without works is dead, as James declares in James 2:14-19.

So what does obedience have to do with work? It’s easier said than done, but being obedient to God involves a desire to honor and obey him even if we’re partaking in difficult work, work whose value to the kingdom might not be immediately apparent to us.

Chuck Colson once wrote for Breakpoint,

Knowing that we are fulfilling God’s purpose is the only thing that really gives rest to the restless human heart.

We gain that knowledge by small steps of obedience in even the most mundane acts of our lives, including our work.

Editor’s note: Learn more about living a life of obedience in our calling to work in How Then Should We Work?

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