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Faithful Obedience

Faithful Obedience

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Call and consecration are two powerful aspects of holiness and they relate to our status in relation to God. Through God's call and our consecration to God, we have been drawn into a special relation—we are God's possession and are dedicated to God's exclusive service.

We have been spiritually transferred from the fallen world into God's presence. Through the Holy Spirit, we have been introduced into the fellowship between the Father and the Son.

But our view of holiness would be inaccurate if we thought of it only in terms of our standing in this relationship. As with our other relationships in life—relationships of love and friendship and business—our relation to God would be superficial if it were not joined to concrete deeds.

Because of this, we need to note that a third vital aspect of holiness pertains to our faithfully and obediently responding to God's command. The biblical word for this conduct is righteousness.

Leviticus 19 shows us the connection between holiness and righteousness. The scripture first notes that Israel was to be holy because God is holy (19:2). But this only meant that Israel stood in a special relation to God. Sadly, the history of Israel shows that Israelites often took their holiness to mean only that they enjoyed this special relation to God. They forgot that holiness also meant Israel has obligations that it must fulfill because it is holy.

These obligations included revering parents and keeping the Sabbath (19:3), turning away from the worship of images (19:4), providing for the poor (19:9-10), avoiding stealing and lying (19:11), and so on.

Perhaps the greatest mistake God's people can make is to believe that holiness is only about their status as God's people, and to think that they possess a holiness without obligation.

In truth, an essential connection exists between holiness and righteous deeds.

We should remember that these acts of righteousness alone did not make Israel holy. Israel's holiness rested first of all on God's call. But these acts, along with acts of consecration, were the faithful response to God that God required if Israel was to be the holy people that God intended.

Although deeds alone do not make us holy, no holiness exists without these deeds.

Why are righteous deeds an essential part of holiness? Israel could not stand in relation to God without developing God's character, which is not only holiness, but is also righteousness. Not only did Israel have to maintain a state of purity, but Israel also had to share God's concerns for justice, for equitable treatment of the powerless, and for right conduct in every sphere of life. To the extent that Israel failed to conform itself to God's righteous character, its relation to the holy God was threatened.

First Peter succinctly states the implications of Leviticus 19: "Do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct" (1:14-15, NRSV). These verses show us, first, that our holiness is grounded in God's call and, second, that holiness must result in righteousness—"be holy yourselves in all your conduct."

This passage also helps us see the nature of righteousness. Negatively stated, righteousness involves resisting the world and its evil desires ("Do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance"). Positively stated, righteousness is being holy, as God is holy, in every aspect of our conduct.

If we affirm that holiness requires faithful obedience in the form of righteous acts, aren't we in danger of saying we are saved by works? Doesn't holiness become a human accomplishment? The answer to these questions is "no," for two reasons.

First, as already noted, our holiness and righteousness are grounded in God's call upon us. Anything we do is a response to God's previous movement toward us. The theological term for this movement of God toward us is grace. Righteousness is possible only because of God's grace.

Second, whatever we do in the way of righteousness is the effect of God working within us. As Paul stated, "It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13, NRSV). Paul explained this important point further when he spoke about "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5).

This phrase ("the obedience of faith") says two things. First, it says that faith in Jesus Christ is an act of obedience to God. Faith is not merely believing something. It is also an act of trusting and submitting to God. Abraham is our example in this matter. In obedience to God, he believed and trusted in God's promises. His obedient response to God was an act of righteousness (Romans 4:18-22). Second, our continued obedience to God flows from faith. That is to say, our righteous deeds are characterized as acts of faithfulness to God.

The Thessalonians provide an example. Paul described their turning away from idols and their subsequent faithfulness to God as their "work produced by faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3). We are on the right track if we see all of our righteous acts as the result of our commitment to live faithfully to God.

Faith, then, is an act of obedience and faithfulness to God.

It sums up of our response to God's call and God's grace. Jesus Christ is the paradigm of faithful obedience to God. Jesus is the one human in history who obeyed God to the uttermost and in an exemplary way. But He is a model for us precisely because He was human—after all, a righteous being who was only divine and not human would not be a helpful example for us. Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the eternal Son, but as a human, He had to learn obedience through suffering, just as we all do (Hebrews 5:8).

Yet, He displayed perfect obedience, even to the point of death, without revealing bitterness or hatred or grudging reluctance. In other words, He not only fulfilled His Father's commands but also did so as an act of faithful response to God. In this way, Jesus is the ultimate example of life in the Spirit.

Those who live and walk in the Spirit fulfill the requirements of God's law (Romans 8:4) but, like Jesus, do not experience that law as a burden or obligation. Instead, they affirm with Jesus that their food is to do God's will (John 4:34). For those who walk in the Spirit, acts of righteousness are not so much the fulfillment of an obligation as they are the faithful response of God's children to God's kindness and grace.

Holiness, then, signifies several things, including God's call and our consecrating response. It also includes our obedient and faithful answer to God's call in the form of a righteous life of good works. Because God's life is a life of holiness and righteousness, there is no higher existence for us than, in the words of Paul, to become "imitators of God" (Ephesians 5:1) by entering this life of holiness.

Samuel M. Powell is professor of philosophy and religion at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Holiness Today, July/August 2005

Please note: This article was originally published in 2005. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.