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When I was a new Christian, I learned that I owed the Lord obedience in every sphere of life. Yet I was a bit muddled as to why I obeyed. If asked to explain, I answered three ways, which we can call the way of wisdom, the way of trust, and the way of gratitude.

The way of wisdom says it is only reasonable to obey God’s law. He created all things, so he knows how they work. Therefore, we expect his commands to be effective, to bring us good. As Moses said, God gave Israel his commands “for your own good” (Deut. 10:13).

The way of trust says God loves us and would never mislead us. We should behave as he directs and trust him to make it work. If we do what is right for him, he will do right for us.

The way of gratitude judges that it is fitting for us to obey God without reserve because God first gave himself without reserve to us when he redeemed us. Because he has done so much for us, we should be willing to do much for him.

These perspectives contain profound truth. They are certainly superior to the way of merit, where people obey God in order to earn or retain his favor. And they surpass the way of servile or craven fear, where people obey God to avert punishment (there is, of course, a proper fear of God, the awe of our great Father and King). It is always good to obey God’s law, yet he cannot be pleased with anyone who obeys him strictly to merit rewards or avoid penalties. Such obedience can be selfish, even manipulative.

Noblest Motive

Yet, if we pause, we see that even in the ways of wisdom, trust, and gratitude we obey both for God’s sake and also for self-seeking reasons. There is trust and gratitude toward the Lord, but there is also desire to gain benefits and to relieve debts. Thus they fall short of the noblest motive for obedience, the desire to obey God for his sake, out of love for him.

Bernard of Clairvaux said we cajole the unwilling, not the willing, with promises and rewards. Who, he asked, offers men rewards for doing what they want to do? Do we pay hungry men to eat? Do we pay thirsty men to drink? So, Bernard says, if we demand a reward to obey God, we love the reward rather than God. In his words, “The soul that loves God seeks no other reward than that God whom it loves. Were the soul to demand anything else, then it would certainly love that other thing and not God.”

Let’s put this teaching in contemporary terms. Suppose that three men go running five days each week. Suppose, further, that we ask each one why he dedicates himself to running.

  • The first answers, “I run because my father died of a heart attack at 54, and I want to live long enough to retire and to see my grandchildren grow up.”
  • The second replies, “I run because I can eat anything I want when I run and I still don’t gain weight. Running also makes me nice and tired, so I sleep soundly at night.”
  • The third says, “When I run, my legs soar over the ground, the wind brushes my face, my heart beats like slow, heavy thunder in my chest and I feel alive.”

The first man runs out of fear; he worries about the consequences if he stops. The second runs for its benefits; he eats and sleeps better when he runs. But for the third man, running is its own reward. The first and second men love health, food, and sleep. Running is an instrument they use to gain what they desire. Only the third man loves running, as an end in itself.

Our obedience commonly resembles the motives of the first two runners. We obey to avoid what we fear or to get what we want. How many serve God and seek no reward other than God himself? Ideally, believers love and obey the Lord for his sake. We heed the command, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). We love God as he reveals himself in history and Scripture. We love him for his grace and his gospel.

We may wonder if any sinful human can love God with perfect purity, but that’s a topic for another day. For now let’s admit that the idea of loving God for his own sake is daunting. But he does not leave us to “work up” love for him. Rather, he draws us to himself through the gospel of his Son and the work of his Spirit.