There is a scene in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ in which the father of the olympic athlete Eric Liddell is being questioned by a family friend. The subject under discussion is God’s commands and our response to them. The friend, who is not a Christian, is told by Mr Liddell senior that the commands of God are not negotiable. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Right and wrong is not decided by referendum. The friend clearly feels this is unacceptable and says rather accusingly to the athlete’s father: “So God is a dictator then?” And the father replies: “Yes, but a benign and loving dictator.” But that doesn’t satisfy his friend who continues to protest.
It’s a discussion that illustrates the fact that deep in the heart of each one of us there’s a resistance to being told what to do and what to believe – even by God. The truth is left to our own devices. Our ignorance of God and his will is almost complete because we’ve closed our eyes to the message of creation and hardened our hearts against the truth that’s planted in us. But God has acted to change that by revealing himself to us in Christ. And he reveals Christ to us through his Word, the Bible.
We can no longer excuse the way we live by saying: “Well, God hasn’t told me.” God has spoken in his Word. And we are to believe it and obey it.
“Obey the word” is my title. In this evening series we’re taking a look at what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and we’re using as a framework our JPC mission statement: Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. If we’re living Godly lives, there’ll be two things we’re doing: trusting in Christ and obeying the word. Last week we spoke about trusting in Christ. This evening my theme is obeying the word. If we’re going to play our part in the growth of the church, then we’ll be telling the world and serving the church. And to change Britain we’ll need to be caring for needs and contending for truth.
So in these evenings we’ll be covering those six interdependent aspects of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means trusting in Christ and obeying the word; telling the world and serving the church; caring for needs and contending for truth. If our lives display those things, then our church will be marked by Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. And God will be glorified – which is our ultimate purpose as disciples of Jesus.
I’d like us to take a look at a few passages of Scripture as we consider this theme of obeying the word. And I have three headings. First, BUILD YOUR LIFE ON OBEDIENCE TO THE WORD OF CHRIST. Secondly, CHRIST HAS LIBERATED US FOR OBEDIENCE. And thirdly, BELIEVE AND OBEY THE TEACHING OF THE BIBLE, WHICH IS THE WORD OF GOD.
First, BUILD YOUR LIFE ON OBEDIENCE TO THE WORD OF CHRIST
Look again at that passage in Matthew’s Gospel that we heard earlier. Matthew 7.24-27. Jesus has been teaching his disciples – what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. He has just said (verse 21):
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is heaven.”
Is that teaching that we are saved by our good deeds? No, because it’s the Father’s will that we find salvation by grace through faith – that is, by trusting in Jesus. We cannot earn our way to heaven. But that faith is itself a Holy Spirit inspired act of obedience. We trust Christ because God calls us to do that. Then see how Jesus continues in 7.24-27:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Foundations are important for buildings. I know – I’ve recently seen the Holy Trinity Gateshead building going up. The first thing that had to be constructed was, of course, the foundation. And the foundation has to be solid and reliable over the very long term. It’s obvious, isn’t it? And yet too many of us try to build our lives without a foundation. But I also know about foundations because I used to be a foundation engineer. I used to tour around the country assessing problems caused by the faulty foundations of buildings.
I remember once I went to see the home of a couple who were in a state of high anxiety. A few nights before they had been asleep in their bed when they were woken by an almighty bang like a cannon going off in the next room. Full of fear, they investigated. When they went into the living room they saw, to their horror, running diagonally across the brick wall a crack about 8 cm wide. You could see right through into the next room. The day before, there had been nothing evidently wrong at all. But under the ground, the foundations had been gradually moving. And the moment came when the walls above could no longer withstand the pressure. Bang. The couple moved out because they were afraid the house would collapse around their ears. If foundations are removed, you’re in trouble.
And Jesus says that the foundation our lives need if we’re not going to be vulnerable to falling with a great crash (both in this life and for all eternity) is hearing and putting into practice his teaching. Not just hearing it. It’s no good if it goes in one ear and out the other. We have to live it as well. Or as James 1.22 puts it, following his master:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says… ”
And later in James 2.26 he says:
“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
So that’s point one. Build your life on obedience to the word of Christ. But that raises a crucial question, which is this: Can we obey the word? Can we hope for more than an endless round of disobedience, confession and forgiveness – disobedience, confession and forgiveness? Well for a start, confessing our sins (and yes, we will continue to sin) and finding forgiveness is a vital part of the obedience of discipleship. God commands us to do that, for our blessing. But that is not the whole story. And that brings me to my next main heading.
Secondly, CHRIST HAS LIBERATED US FOR OBEDIENCE
The question here is: what has God forgiven us for? What is the nature of the new life that Holy Spirit enters us on when we receive him into our hearts as we trust in Jesus?
To help us with that, I’d like you to take a look at the beginning of Romans 8. The apostle Paul has been describing the impact of the death and resurrection of Christ on the life of a believer. Then this is what he says. Romans 8.1-4:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
Now, we need to think about this carefully. There are three different ‘laws’ being spoken of in those verses.
First, there is in verse 2 ‘the law of the Spirit of life’. Put simply, that means the power of the life-giving Spirit of God. So, for instance, we might speak of ‘the law’ to refer to the power of the police, backed by all the authority of the state. That’s the law of the Spirit of life.
Then secondly, at the end of verse 2, there’s ‘the law of sin and death’. Similarly, that means the power of sin, which leads to eternal death. The power of sin controls the life of unbelievers rather as the power of some war-lord might control territory from which a lawful authority has been pushed out.
Then thirdly there is ‘the law’ mentioned at the beginning of verse 3, which says ‘what the law was powerless to do…, God did…’ This third law is the Law of God, in the sense of the commands of God, the moral law written in the Scriptures, but also on the hearts of all mankind – so no one has any excuse.
Verse 3, then, is saying that those commands of God could never set us free from the hold that sin and death had on our lives. Not that there was anything wrong with God's Law. If we had obeyed it, we would have been OK. But we never have obeyed it. None of us. The power of sin has spread like a cancer through our moral muscles to the point where we’re incapable of obeying God and living lives that please him. We’ve been paralysed by sin, and no amount of being commanded can rebuild our destroyed moral and spiritual muscles.
It’s no good just saying to an ungodly sinner, ‘be Godly’. We can’t do it. It’s like saying to somebody with two broken legs, ‘run a marathon’. We need to be remade. And that’s exactly what God is in the business of doing. So Romans 8.3:
“For what the law [that is, God’s moral law] was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man… ”
Through Jesus, all of our crimes against God have been wiped from the record. God now regards us as innocent. He sends his Spirit into our lives to remake us, so that we can obey God. The law can’t change us. He can.
So, if we just back up to verse 2 in the light of that, verse 2 is saying: Through all that Jesus has done, the power of God’s Spirit has set me free from the power, the deadly grip, of sin.
This is a real freedom experienced in the life of every individual believer. Are you a believer? Are you trusting in Christ? Then you, you individually, you personally, you – insert your own name – have been released from the stranglehold of sin that was hatefully and determinedly squeezing the life out of you. You are now in the safe, secure and invincibly strong hands of the Holy Spirit. And why have we been liberated so wonderfully? Why has Jesus done this for you? Verse 4:
“… in order that the righteous requirements of the law [that is, God’s commands again] might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
Put another way, God has done this for us, so that we can become Godly – so that we can obey the word.
Now one righteous requirement of God’s law is that the sinner must die. That requirement has been met for us by the death of Jesus as our representative and substitute. God has freed believers from the guilt of sin, by grace, through faith.
The other righteous requirement of God’s law is that we live holy lives, Godly lives, lives pleasing to God, Christ-like lives, lives of self-sacrificial love and service, lives that are obedient to his word. And the Holy Spirit has freed us from the power of sin so that that requirement of the law might be fulfilled in our lives.
A Christian life is a changed life. The transformation will not be complete this side of death. Paul has just left us in no doubt, in Romans chapter 7, that there’s a continuing and intense struggle between sin and holiness in the believer's life. But it’s an unequal struggle. Sin is done for. God has wonderfully freed believers from both the guilt and the power of sin.
As believers, we’re no longer under compulsion to sin. We’re free to obey God. We’re free to please him. We can never any longer say, ‘I couldn’t help myself’ or ‘I had to do it’. It’s vital that we understand this – because our habits and our feelings tell us otherwise. They often scream at us to keep sinning. And again and again we do. But that’s because we choose to. Thanks to the work of God’s Spirit, we don’t have to. We can choose the Godly way instead. We’re free to do that. What are the patterns of sin that are deeply ingrained in your life? The chains that once bound us to our sin have been cut. We can walk away from it. We can say no to sin and yes to God. We can hear his word, and we can put it in to practice. We can obey Jesus.
Of course we fail. There is a continuing struggle. And we always need forgiveness through the cross by faith. But we begin to find that the whole tendency of our thinking is different. Instead of tending towards rebellion against God, we tend towards obedience to his word. We find more delight in pleasing God than in anything else. That’s a miraculous transformation. That’s the power of God’s Spirit within us.
So those who have trusted in Christ and received the Holy Spirit by faith can and do submit to God’s law; they can and do stop sinning. They don’t do that perfectly yet – and they can always find forgiveness for the failures. But the whole direction of their lives has changed. They can and do live to please God.
Christ has liberated us for obedience. So,
Thirdly, BELIEVE AND OBEY THE TEACHING OF THE BIBLE WHICH IS THE WORD OF GOD
Take a look at one more passage – classic verses on this theme – 2 Timothy 3.16-17:
“All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Speaking personally, I have found in the Bible the information about my destination in life, and the map, compass, torch and guide that I need. What are my reasons for that far reaching decision?
My ten reasons for staking my life on the Scriptures as God’s truth are these (in brief). One: I was told to by people I trusted. Two: Christians always have. Three: the Bible claims to be the Word of God. Four: the Bible is an astonishing unity. Five: the Bible shows me the real world and the real me. Six: the Bible shows me Jesus. Seven: Jesus took the Scriptures as God’s Word. Eight: the Scriptures imposed their authority on me. Nine: the Bible transforms people. Ten: it works.
Let me expand on a couple of those.
The Bible claims to be the Word of God. This passage is a classic example 2 Timothy 3.16:
“All Scripture is God-breathed… ”
In other words, the words of Scripture are breathed out of the mouth of God. Scripture is spoken by God.
That is not to deny the human character of the Biblical documents. The Bible was written by men. But they wrote under the direction and inspiration of the Spirit of God in such a way that God is the primary author of the Bible. It is his book. How God inspired people is another matter. That he inspired them is what counts.
And what impresses me is that the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God is not just in a few isolated texts like this one, significant as they are as summaries of what the Bible says on this. The claim runs right through from beginning to end. Over and over again it is implicit or explicit. And that applies to both the New and Old Testament.
Two quick examples. Here’s the prophet Jeremiah (from Jeremiah 1.9):
“Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth…’”
And the apostle Peter, in 2 Peter 3.15-16, brackets Paul’s letters with what he calls ‘the other Scriptures’ and describes them as having been written ‘with the wisdom that God gave him’. He regarded Paul’s letters as Scripture and expected others to do the same.
So it seems to me that we only have one of two options. We can accept the Bible on its own terms, as the written Word of God. Or alternatively we can reject its authority altogether. Either you take it or leave it. Either it’s the Word of God, or it’s a fabrication – the product of deluded or deceiving minds. For the life of me I cannot see how there can be any middle way between those two.
I find it impossible to conclude that the Bible is a fake – so I conclude it is what it claims to be: God’s Word. So our lives are to be built on obedience to the teaching of this book.
The Bible claims to be the word of God. Another reason for building our lives on obedience to the Bible’s teaching is that Jesus took the Scriptures as God’s word. And there is emphatically no one else I would rather trust on this matter.
Here is one example of Jesus’ attitude to the Bible. It’s taken from Matthew 19.3-6:
“Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus] to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’”
Jesus quotes from Genesis. And according to Jesus, who said what is written in Genesis? The Creator said it. God said it. According to Jesus, what is written in Genesis is God’s Word. And that is his consistent attitude to the whole Old Testament. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me. If we’re going to obey the teaching of Jesus, we have to obey the teaching of the whole Bible.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
All of Scripture, properly used, moulds both what we think and also what we do.
‘Teaching’ and ‘rebuking’ relate to doctrine – what we believe. The Bible shows us what is true, and shows us where our thinking is up the creek.
‘Correcting’ and ‘training in righteousness’ relate to ethics – what we do, and the kind of people we are. The Bible lets us know when we are taking a wrong turning, and shows us the right way to go.
I was thirteen when the Holy Spirit first ignited a fire in my heart as I began to learn from the Bible. I found that I really had no option. Without the Bible, I knew, I would be out on a rocky and hazardous mountainside in the dark, utterly lost, with no idea where home was or how to get there; alone with no map, no compass, no torch, no guide. I thank God that by his grace I heard the voice of Jesus calling in the pages of the Bible. This burning desire to learn from and live by the Bible’s teaching is a fire that never goes out as the Holy Spirit makes us aware that the Bible is Jesus himself speaking to us, telling us about himself and teaching us how to live.
If that fire is not yet burning within you, then ask Jesus to give you his Holy Spirit and teach you about himself as you get to grips with the Bible.
Read it on your own. Notes like ‘Search the Scriptures’ give you useful questions that will help you to get to grips with what you’re reading.
Find a small group with whom you can learn together, and get stuck in to studying the Bible.
Keep on coming to church Sunday by Sunday to hear the Bible read and taught.
If you stay with those three disciplines, and put into practice what you hear from Jesus, then your life will be built on a rock and nothing – absolutely nothing – will be able to bring it crashing down.