If we could obey God, we would not need Christ, we would not need
forgiveness, and we would not need to be saved. However, when the Bible
tells us that “all have sinned” and “there are none righteous,” it is
telling us that none of us have obeyed, and we are all disobedient in
the sight of God — that is, apart from the forgiveness that ours
through faith in Christ. [Romans 3:10-23 and 10:4]
This brings up the fact that there are two different kinds of obedience. The obedience of works, and the obedience of faith. Everyone seems to understand the obedience of works, yet works are the great delusion that keeps the world in darkness (Romans 10:3). All of the false religions urge their members to seek righteousness through works. In contrast, our righteousness is the righteousness of faith, and the only obedience acceptable to God is the obedience that is imputed to us when we look to Christ for forgiveness (Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:6).
To better understand what happens when we come to faith in Christ, try to picture yourself standing before God, filthy from head to toe with sin. Then, as you look to Jesus for mercy, picture the blood of Jesus Christ flowing all around you and through you, so completely washing away the filth of sin that you begin to glow with all of the righteousness of heaven (1John 1:7, Romans 10:4). That is the “obedience of faith,” and that is the only kind of obedience that makes us righteous in the sight of God.
The Apostle Paul used the phrase “obedience of faith” in both the first and last chapters of his epistle to the Romans, because it is justification by faith that makes us obedient in the sight of God (Romans 1:5, 16:26). In other words, only those who have been declared righteous in the sight of God through faith in Christ, are truly obedient (Romans 3:28, Galatians 3:6). Furthermore, in that epistle he tells us that the Jews failed to obey God, because they tried to make themselves obedient through works, instead of confessing their sin and looking to Christ for mercy (Read Romans 9:30 through 10:4).
The Jews thought that they were obeying God. After all, they kept a lot of rules. However, as far as God was concerned, they were doing the opposite of what He wanted. Instead of confessing their sins and seeking forgiveness, they denied their sins and tried to cover them up. What they failed to understand, was that all of the animal sacrifices required by the law were instituted as a way of telling them that they needed to confess their sin and seek God’s mercy (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13). If they had just sought God’s mercy as He intended, He would have assured them of His mercy by assuring them that His Messiah would make everything right. Instead they turned the act of sacrifice into a work, and tried to earn His favor through their own obedience.
Because our carnal mind thinks of obedience in terms of works, Satan continually uses that weakness to undermine faith, and blind people to the truth of the gospel (2Corinthians 3:15 and 4:3-4). The delusion of works righteousness [obedience by works] was such a serious problem in the early church that the book of Galatians was written to deal with it. Nevertheless, because human nature has not changed, it is still a problem. All of the cults indoctrinate their members with the belief that faith is not enough, and that works are needed in addition to faith (trust and obey).
Worse yet, because that insidious philosophy has crept into many churches, young people who ought to grow up being taught the folly of trusting in works, often wind up believing that their standing with God depends, not on what Christ did, but on their own ability to “obey”. Even those who believe that they are saved by grace often either live under a burden of guilt, or cut themselves off from God’s grace by believing that their own works (obedience) make them acceptable to God (Galatians 5:4).
If that is not bad enough, that soul-destroying error is drummed into the hearts of people by a catchy tune, along with the false promise that “not a sigh or a tear” will remain if we “trust and obey”. The truth is, that Christians may be called on to endure many hardships. However, we have Christ’s own promise that he will never leave us, or forsake us, not because we are able to “do his good will” but because we trust in Him (Hebrews 13:5). [The problem with the song “Trust and obey” is that it makes God’s favor depend on works in addition to faith, and God has placed a curse on everyone who teaches that doctrine (Galatians 1:6-9).]
If you wonder why many Christians act cold, austere, and unloving the answer lies in the satanic delusion of “trust and obey”. Although the Bible makes it clear that it is futile for us to try to make ourselves righteous, when believers look to Christ, not only for salvation but also for righteousness, the Holy Spirit lusts “against the flesh… so that you cannot do the things that you would” (Galatians 5:17). However, when someone who looks to Christ for salvation is trying to make himself righteous, the Holy Spirit cannot help him without deceiving him (thus destroying his soul). Therefore, the harder a person tries to make himself obedient the less help he receives from the Holy Spirit. That is why those who seem most religious in the sight of the world are often contentious, legalistic, involved in church splits, or even immoral (Galatians 5:19-21).
As a young man, I fell into the trap of trying to make myself righteous
(obedient) through keeping the law. However, the harder I tried, the
harder the struggle seemed to become. The problem was not with the
works, but with what I believed. In order to motivate myself, I was
deluding myself into thinking that my efforts were making me righteous
(obedient), or making God like me. However, that very delusion cut me
off from the help of the Holy Spirit. I was trusting in Christ for
salvation, but as long as I was trusting in my own efforts to make me
righteous (obedient) I was not trusting in Christ to make me righteous
(obedient). I thank God that I did not fall into sexual sin, however,
as I look back I can only wonder at how blind I was. I was looking only
at the act, but God saw that my heart was full of lust and impure
thoughts. Even though I hated such thoughts and tried to keep them out
of my mind, they would intrude into my thinking and it was a constant
struggle to get rid of them. Therefore, while I was deluding myself
into thinking that I was “obedient”, God saw a heart that was
“Deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
When the Bible tells us that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes,” it is telling us that Christ is the end of the law for OBEDIENCE to everyone who believes (Romans 10:4). If the blood of Christ makes us righteous in the sight of God, then it also makes us obedient. Those who are trusting in works to make them obedient, are just as deluded as those who trust in works to make them righteous (Galatians 5:4). God is not even interested in our righteousness. As far as He is concerned, all of our righteousness is as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). What He wants is a repentant heart (Psalms 34:18 and 51:17). And, those who truly have a repentant heart never sin willfully (Hebrews 10:26).
Because we have a repentant heart, we want to do what is right! Our faith in Christ is rooted in the fact that we do not want sin in our life. On the contrary, we want to be delivered from sin. The problem comes with trusting in works, rather than faith in Christ, to make us obedient.
Those who are trying to make themselves righteous cannot conceive of doing right without believing that their works will bring God’s favor. However, that is where the problem lies. As long as they think that their works bring God’s favor, they are trusting in those works to bring God’s favor instead of trusting in Christ.
It is only as we trust in Christ for righteousness, walking in the confidence that God accepts us for Christ’s sake (not because of our own obedience), that the Holy Spirit is fully active in helping us overcome the flesh (Galatians 5:17). Moreover, the importance of His help can be seen in the difference between the legalism of those who seek obedience in the flesh, and the love, joy, peace, and kindness radiated by those have the fruits of the Spirit in their life (Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 4:32).
In short, what we think does matter! If we think that our works make us righteous, then we are trusting in those works to make us righteous. Likewise, if we convince ourselves that our works make us obedient or bring us God’s favor, then we are trusting in those works to make us obedient and bring us God’s favor. There is no difference between believing that your works make you righteous, and believing that your works make you obedient. There is no such thing as a disobedient righteous person, or an obedient unrighteous person.
The world cannot seem to understand that just because willful and unrepented sin brings God’s condemnation does not mean that avoiding sin will bring His favor. As far as He is concerned, there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10-23). This error keeps cropping up because works righteousness is deeply rooted in the self-deception of our sinful heart (Jeremiah 17:9). If the sinful heart is not allowed to believe that works make us righteous, then it will simply change the terminology and claim that works make us holy, or obedient. Therefore, let me address that change in terminology by listing synonyms for certain Biblical words.
It was the false doctrine of obedience by works and its corresponding denial of sin that led the Jews to reject Christ, led imperial Rome to persecute Christians, and later led the church of Rome to torture and kill Bible believing Christians. One important difference between the theology of Luther and Calvin, is Calvin’s emphasis on obedience (austerity and self-denial), an emphasis that led Calvin to rule Geneva with an iron fist, and later produced the legalism that gave Puritans a bad name. In short, the fruit of seeking obedience by works has not changed, from the time of Cain to this very day (Matthew 7:20, Hebrews 11:4, Matthew 23:35).