Rehabilitating “Evangelical Obedience”

No, this is not about evangelicals obeying Rick Warren’s purpose-driven popery (whose infallibility is assured not by apostolic succession, but good-old pragmatic results).  “Evangelical obedience” is a grand old phrase, which has sadly faded from use & familiarity in Reformation circles.  It captures the old, Reformed orthodoxy regarding sanctification and its source – not the Law, but the Gospel.

Please turn with me in your Westminster Confessions to chapter eleven, section 1.  There, we meet this phrase in a negative setting.   The divines are confessing from Scripture the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  (By the way, the Greek verb “to justify” means “to declare righteous,” not simply “innocent,” so the imputation of righteousness is implied in the very definition of the word.  That’s free, no charge, for anyone who thinks the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not essential to justification.)

First, they clear away erroneous conceptions of justification:  “God…freely justifieth … [not] by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness…”  This is against the Arminians (not Armenians – who are a fine people), who taught that the Gospel, instead of requiring perfect obedience to God’s Law, now requires the sinner to “simply believe.”  That act becomes your righteousness, which God accepts in place of perfect obedience.

Wrong.  God declares us righteous, as He imputes the righteousness of Christ to us.  But what of this quaint phrase, “evangelical obedience”?  Robert Haldane’s classic commentary on Romans (Banner of Truth) helps us find a positive use of the phrase:  “The great principle of evangelical obedience is taught in [Romans 6:1-14]. Holiness is not the result of the law, but of the liberty wherewith Christ has made His people free. He sends forth the Spirit of grace into the hearts of all who belong to the election of grace, whom God hath from the beginning chosen to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth; and the word of God worketh effectually in all who believe, 1 Thessalonians 2:13” (266).

I like this quaint old phrase.  I think we should revive its use.  It clarifies where Christian obedience – imperfect as it is – comes from.  It is not from the Law, but from the evangel, the Gospel.  The Law guides and defines that obedience.  But only the Gospel produces it.  But stay humble, kids.  Even your “evangelical obedience” has only a “small beginning” in this life – Heidelberg 114 (based on Romans 7:14-15).  Your good works could never stand the severity of God’s judgment apart from Christ – Westminster Confession 16.5 (Is 64:6, Gal 5:17, etc).  You still need Jesus, to mediate your “evangelical obedience” which is defiled by your sin (1 Pet 2:5).  But He makes it a beautiful thing in the sight of the Father, and graciously rewards it.

That’s why evangelical obedience is not a burden, but a joy.  If you find yourself wearied & burdened in your Christian life, you are probably looking for love in all the wrong places.  You will not find God’s love for you in the Law.  So return to the One who said, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30, NKJV).  Jesus does not burden believing sinners.  He gives us rest.  Evangelical obedience is something we learn to love and live from His Gospel.

4 thoughts on “Rehabilitating “Evangelical Obedience”

  1. According to Luther, obedience comes to us through passive faith as part of justification. We have obedience due to the faith given us, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:9-10

    ” Workmanship” is in greek “Poiema(ta)” or “Poem.” So God gets glory for our “walking in them” since he “prepared beforehand” them for us. Obedience is a result of God’s work in us!

    In the Lamb!


  2. Hey SamWise – good to hear from you again. Yes, that’s exactly what “evangelical obedience” conveys – an obedience which results from the Gospel, of God’s grace to us in Christ. I love what Luther says about faith in his preface to Romans: “Faith … is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, … It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”


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