A Question of Obedience
Does not the biblical emphasis on obedience lend itself to
legalism (e.g., Deut. 4:1)?
The biblical emphasis on obedience goes against the grain of our fallen human nature. Obedience is often perceived as a curtailment of one’s freedom. We tend to associate it with subjection to someone or some law. But in the Bible obedience is something positive.
1. Obedience and Hearing/Listening: Biblical religion is a religion of the ear. It is based on the fact that God addressed humans through His Word, revealing to them His person and will. This divine speaking lies at the very foundation of human obedience. This explains the fact that in the Bible the verb “to hear/listen” often means “to obey” (e.g., Heb. shama‘, “to hear, obey” [Ex. 24:7; Isa. 42:24]; ’azan, “to hear” [Ex. 15:26]; Gr. akouo-, “to hear, obey” [Mark 9:7]). We could not properly speak about obedience without a previous divine speaking. Therefore obedience is dialogical, that is to say, we hear God speak, and we are expected to respond. Our answer is not simply the emission of a spoken word, but more important, it expresses itself in the form of obedience. Obedience is a way of talking to God, our partner in dialogue.
2. To Whom Should We Listen? Why do we have to obey God? This is an important question. But the more fundamental one is: Whom should I obey? By nature we exist under subjection to some power (Rom. 8:6-8). Only through the action of the Spirit is the possibility of choosing real (verses 12-14). When empowered by the Spirit, we hear the divine speaking and answer through obedience, and we are indeed free.
If the question of why persists, then we must acknowledge two things. First, in biblical theology there is only one ultimate and lawfully established authority, namely, that of the Creator and Redeemer. As the source of our lives, He calls us to listen to Him. Second, we submit to Him because His will for us, based on His knowledge as Creator and Redeemer, is always good. It is therefore absurd to oppose His divine speaking. In obedience to Him we become what He intends us to be, and what we deeply seek to be.
3. Obedience and God’s Cosmic Plan: Scripturally speaking, there is a unified, divine plan for the cosmos (Eph. 1:9, 10; Col. 1:19, 20). Everything in it was created by God to function according to His speaking: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps. 33:6). By listening to Him, the cosmos is reconstituted into oneness. Therefore our obedience is indispensable in order for the cosmos to be fully integrated around the oneness of the divine speech. True obedience presupposes intelligence and freedom.
Nature is governed by the divine will through natural law. This law works from within the systems of nature; consequently there is no direct divine speaking to nature. Occasionally God does speak to nature because evil has damaged its proper role and chaos seems to prevail. This is not, technically speaking, obedience. But His intelligent creatures, endowed with freedom, need to hear the Lord speaking to them as He expects a response from His partners in dialogue.
The human response, as well as the submission of nature to the will of God, essentially seeks the same goal: service. Every element of the cosmos serves. Only intelligent creatures could have broken the circle of service; and they did. The result has been the disintegration of the cosmos and a ridiculous concern for self-preservation. Obedience is only possible by being reintegrated through Christ to the original intention of the Lord for us. Obedience is service.
This understanding of obedience is, to a large extent, based on a wholistic view of human nature. We are an indivisible unity of life in bodily form. Whatever takes place in our hearts when the Spirit speaks to us happens to the whole person. The “yes” of our lips should be the “yes” of our eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and feet. It is an action-driven response of the whole person to the diving speaking. Obedience is a privilege; it is not legalistic.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez lives in active retirement in Texas, United States, after serving many years as director of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute.