Discern What Pleases God—Personal Obedience

New Attitude Conference | Louisville, Kentucky

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

First of all, let me give you a link between this afternoon’s message and this message. God is God-exalting in everything that he does. This is not megalomania, and this is not morally defective, and this not unloving, because in exalting himself and calling for praise, he is giving us the one thing that will give our souls eternal and full satisfaction. So his self-exaltation is the most important form of love that God has toward us.

Taste of Glory

And even unbelievers have tasted in this life what it means to experience the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m saying that if we had eyes to see God (as we will one day have eyes to see him and his Son), we would be so thrilled by what we see that we would, as 1 John 3:2 says, “become like him” and experience a deep, deep eternally satisfying joy.

Now I believe unbelievers know what I’m talking about in measure because I saw a Nature Valley Trail Mix advertisement that described this. There’s a pillar of rock rising hundreds of feet into the air, and there are two people standing at the top — little teeny-weeny people. And one of them has his arm stretched out with the rope that, evidently, they used to climb it hanging there, and he looks very precarious. And stretching off into the distance is that magnificent terrain. And what do you think is written at the top here?

When I opened this magazine in my kitchen a few months ago, I was blown away by what they’re celebrating here in this Nature Valley Trail Mix Fruit and Nut advertisement. Listen to this: You’ve never felt more alive. You’ve never felt more insignificant. That’s in a magazine, trying to sell trail mix. What are the on to? What are they on to? Here’s a man — totally tiny, totally vulnerable — feeling massively insignificant, and loving it. And I’m telling you, believer and unbeliever, God has left a mark in you of what you’re destined for. And it isn’t about you; it’s about the greatness that you’re going to see and you’re going to be swallowed up in, and that is what you’re made for.

Oh, how tragic when the devil succeeds in making us think that our happiness comes through our being made much of. Heaven will not be a hall of mirrors. Christ will be exalted. My own opinion is there are going to be no mirrors in heaven. We will see reflections of God, but it will be in each other, and our main orientation on ourselves will be a glorious self-forgetfulness. Oh, how my highest moments of joy come not from liking what I have done or who I am. Those are lower moments of joy. The highest moments are a brief space, all too brief, where, for a season, I am totally oblivious that I exist, and totally taken up in an act of worship, in a beautiful sunset, or any other good and glorious echo of God’s excellence in the world.

So all of that to just say: Believer and unbeliever, what I was trying to say this morning is not a foreign language. If you knew your own heart, you would see it, you’d hear it, you’d know the echo of God’s majesty for which you were made.

Obedience God Abominates

What I said was this in the previous message was this: God’s saving love is his commitment to do everything that must be done, even if it costs him his Son’s life, to make himself the everlasting and all-satisfying treasure of sinners. And the link with this message is that when we see what had to be done so that God could make himself the totally satisfying eternal treasure of fallen sinners, that determines what kind of obedience pleases or displeases God. And that’s what I want to unpack tonight. If you see what he did at Calvary — the center of all his doing — you will know two kinds of obedience that God cannot abide. And you will know two corresponding kinds of obedience that he loves and delights in. That’s where we’re going. What God did through Christ to make sinners like me treasure him above all forever governs the kind of obedience he’s pleased by and displeased by.

Now let me tell you in advance what the two kinds of obedience are that God abominates. And then I’ll try to show you why that’s the case from the Bible, and then we’ll close by making sure that we understand their counterpart in the kinds of obedience that God delights in, smiles upon.

Obeying for Justification

The first kind of obedience that God abominates because of the work he did in Christ to make himself the treasure of sinners is obedience offered to him as the ground of our justification. If you take your obedience to the word of God, the law of God, and commend it to God as the basis or the ground of why he should count you righteous and therefore acceptable, he hates that obedience because it usurps the place of his Son’s obedience.

What he did to make himself the treasure of sinners was to provide his Son as the perfect sacrifice for your sins and the perfect obedience for your righteousness. If you then come up with obedience that you commend to him as the ground of your righteousness, he will say, “No, because it nullifies my Son’s life.” Paul said, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 3:21).

So the first kind of obedience that God hates because of the way he showed his love for us and made himself the treasure of sinners lives is the obedience that commends itself to him as the basis of our righteousness before him. That’s number one.

Obeying to Pay Back

Let me summarize the second one before we go to the explanation. The second kind of obedience that God cannot abide because of how he made himself our treasure in what he did through Christ is obedience that conceives of itself as payback for God’s grace.

And the reason he cannot abide and abominates obedience conceived as repayment for past grace is that what Christ did in order to make God our everlasting and all-satisfying treasure was to provide a rock-solid ground and guarantee of all future grace — including the grace that enables our obedience — so that, if you conceive of your obedience out there in the future as payback for grace, you nullify future grace bought by Jesus at the cross. And you don’t want to nullify what he bought for you forever — namely, all the grace necessary to provide all the obedience that God delights in.

Now those are the reasons why these two kinds of obedience are abominable to God:

  1. Obedience offered to God as the ground and basis of our being counted righteous before him and thus accepted and into eternal life (you won’t have it) usurps the place of Christ as our sacrifice for sin and obedience for righteousness.

  2. Obedience that later is offered up as payback for grace nullifies the work of Christ to purchase free grace to enable obedience.

Now all that needs explaining from the Bible. And so that’s where we’re going.

Why We Can Never Obey for Justification

This is the biblical basis and foundation for why I think God abominates obedience offered as the basis or ground of our being counted righteous in Christ. Listen to these verses.

Hope in His Obedience

  • Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Apart — justified by faith apart from works, from things you can do to commend yourself to God in response to his revealed word. No, they are not included in the ground of our justification.

  • Galatians 2:16: “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” How clear can it get?

  • Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

Offering God our obedience to the law as the ground or basis of our being counted righteous, our justification, nullifies grace because it usurps, takes the place of, Christ in our salvation. It cancels grace, nullifies mercy, because Christ is offered in his life and in his death as the obedience and the sacrifice which I must have. Now where do I get that, that he does that for us?

  • Romans 5:18–19: “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Now that to me is one of the most important statements in the New Testament: “By one man’s obedience, many are appointed righteous.” So, if you want to come to God and be found righteous, you do not come laying claim on, putting hope in, your obedience but his obedience.

  • Romans 10:3–4: “Being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they didn’t submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” In other words, the law was taking us somewhere, and it wasn’t taking us to law keeping as a ground of acceptance with God; it was pointing us away from that by the hopelessness of it. It was taking us to Christ as the end of the law for righteousness, so that Christ for righteousness is the goal of the law for all who believe. (We’ll get to belief in a moment, but I’m just nullifying this whole issue of justification by my obedience.)

  • 1 Corinthians 1:30: “And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Christ became our righteousness.

  • Philippians 3:8–9: “For [Christ’s] sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that comes from the law, but the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” So, in Christ we have righteousness from God.

We Can’t Replace Christ

Now I wonder if you would be able to go to the teachings of Jesus and find this sort of thing. I’ve been spending a good deal of time pondering the flow of thought in Luke 17–18. I just want to share with you a few recent thoughts on whether Jesus ever talked like this, or whether this is a Pauline thing. Did Jesus ever say no to human obedience as the ground of acceptance with God? Consider three passages.

In Luke 17:7–10, Jesus tells a parable. A servant is coming in from the field, and the master doesn’t thank him. The master says, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat.” And then Jesus says, “Does he thank the servant because he did was commanded?” Verse 10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants.’” I mean, could it be clearer? “I don’t care how many commandments you keep, when you’re done, they don’t count for acceptance with me.” I mean, that is a stunning statement. You, fallen sinner, if you could keep everything you were commanded, it wouldn’t count. Why? Now that’s not in the parable, but it’s coming.

Next story, Luke 18:9–14. This is a parable Jesus made up: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (verse 9). That’s who he’s talking to. He’s talking to people who look at their obedience and say, “I will offer this as my righteousness.” Now listen carefully how it goes forward.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”

This man believes that his freedom from adultery and his obedience as a faithful husband is a gift of God: “God, I thank you that I’m not an adulterer.” So we’ve just upped the ante to obedience conceived of as God given. Does that count? Keep reading.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

The man who thanked God that God spared him from adultery and stealing and offered to God the God-wrought obedience did not receive justification. That should sober us. No obedience that I perform in my strength or God’s strength will be offered to God as the ground of my justification. We still don’t have Jesus as the ground yet, though we have mercy: “God, be merciful. God, be merciful.”

The flow of thought continues in the chapter. The next story after the one in between: the parable of the rich young ruler. And now we’re going to hear it.

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack.”

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Luke 18:18–22)

Now I spent a long time pondering these three things and how they are one thing, because Jesus said, “One thing you lack, and here’s what I want you to do: (1) get rid of your money, (2) give it to the poor, and (3) follow me. Here’s the way I think the unity of that works. The man has a hand, and the hand is grasping great wealth. And Jesus says, “You lack one thing: in that hand where you hold so fast must be me. So, in order for me to be in there, you’ve got to let it go. And do you know where it drops? On the poor. And then follow me.”

I think that’s Luke’s way of putting together chapters 17–18 to say, “When you have done everything you’re commanded, say, ‘I have no claim on God.’ When you have done everything by the power of God, as far as you know, you have no claim on God. One thing is needful: ‘Follow me. Take me.’” Of course, Jesus in his own life isn’t going to unpack the full-blown, blood-bought covenant promises. That awaits for post-resurrection, Pauline theologizing, but this is it right here, warning all of us: There is one kind of obedience God is not pleased by: obedience that is offered to God as the ground of our being counted righteous because it usurps the place of Christ. One thing: “Don’t replace me.”

Gospel Obedience

Let’s talk about the positive counterpart on this first one: Well, what does please God? When it comes to justification, when it comes to being counted righteous, when it comes to being accepted on the basis of a righteousness, what pleases God? Is it obedience? Now this is delicate. The New Testament calls faith in the gospel obedience, at least twice. For example:

  • 1 Peter 4:17: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” I take that to mean: comply with the gospel summons to trust the obedience of another.

  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7: He will “grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

Now be careful here. Oh, how you could go wrong here. The gospel is: Christ died for our sins. Christ provided a perfect sacrifice for our sins. Christ provided a perfect obedience for our righteousness. Cast yourself totally on him rather than on your own sacrifices or obedience. And when you do that, you are obeying the gospel. And the paradox is: That’s not obedience like any other kind of obedience. The obedience to the gospel is the renunciation of dependence on all obedience in me. The obedience to the gospel is the renunciation of all of my obedience as the ground of my acceptance. Can you handle that?

So when you see the phrase “obedience to the gospel,” don’t begin to mix in your works as the ground of your acceptance. Know that what you’re obeying is the demand that you forsake all of your own works and depend wholly on the works of another: Jesus Christ. So, now we’ve got clear that there is an obedience that pleases the Lord, and the name of it is: faith. Obedience to the gospel means faith.

What is faith? Faith is unique, there is no other act of the human soul in the same category with faith. It is in a class by itself. Unless you get this, and if you start stirring other stuff in there — “Faith is like that and “Faith is like that — instead of faith as being absolutely unique, you will stir works and your obedience in, and God will not be pleased.

So mark this definition: Faith in Christ for justification is a receiving of an alien obedience, not an offering of my own. It is a turning away from my obedience and my sufficiency and saying, “I’m undone. Even if I did everything I could do, I’d be undone. And I will embrace, I will receive, the sacrifice and obedience of another. Faith is unique. It is a totally receiving act. It is not a pushing out act. It is a receiving of Christ and all that he is for us. So yes, there’s an obedience that pleases God: the obedience to the gospel, called faith.

Debtor’s Ethic

Now I’m on to number two: the second kind of obedience that displeases God. This is more relevant, perhaps, for your daily life. The first one was: obedience offered to God as the basis or the ground of being counted righteous so that we could be accepted by God. Don’t do it; he doesn’t like that kind of obedience. The second obedience he doesn’t like is conceiving of your life as a Christian as payback for grace.

Every Good Work Is Grace

Why is God displeased by that effort to pay him back? Because what God did in Christ, in love, to make himself the everlasting, all-satisfying treasure of sinners, was not only to provide a ground for their perfection, but to provide a ground and guarantee of all future grace, bought, secured by that redemption, by that act, by that obedience and that sacrifice. And that means that as you walk into the future tonight, tomorrow, the rest of your life, if you try to think, “Okay, I must do this and this and this because, as I do these things, I show him how much I appreciate what he did, and I can repay some of what he gave to me” — if that mindset is in your brain, that obedience will be displeasing to the Lord because it will nullify the grace bought for you at Calvary. Now here are texts to prove, as much as I am able, that that’s the case.

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Do you see Paul’s conception of his work, his obedience? “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

Let me walk it out for you: “Behind me is a cross, the consummation of perfect obedience and a life laid down in perfect sacrifice, so that all my punishment is offered and all my obedience is provided. And I am really happy, and have a life to live. And I want to live it in a way that pleases him, so I want to take steps of obedience and pay him back. And as I take this step of not looking at that pornographic picture, not lying on my tax returns — whatever your temptations are — step by step, I’m not doing them. And he’s seeing how much I love him, and I’m paying back grace.”

Do you know what’s happening if you think that way? What happened to that grace that Paul said, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” When Paul saw his leg go forward in obedience, do you know what he said? “Grace is enabling that. Grace is enabling that. Grace is enabling that.” And do you know where that grace came from? Christ crucified. Therefore, if you try to think of your path, your walk as payback, you nullify what he bought for you. He has gifts for you tonight, triumphs over temptation. You do not commend yourself as paying him back.

The hymn “Come Thou Fount” has a line that says, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.” Do you know what you just said? Daily I am constrained to go deeper and deeper in debt. Are you okay with that? Are you okay to be a debtor to grace forever? Frankly, as far as my own self-identification goes and what I’m very happy to be, “Debtor to grace” may be written on my tombstone, and it will be true forever.

So get it now: Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am. His grace towards me was not in vain, but I worked harder than any of them; nevertheless, it was not I but the grace of God that was with me.” Which means he’s magnifying grace, he’s magnifying the cross, and he’s pleasing God by depending on grace. The obedience that pleases God is the obedience that banks on the ever-fresh arrival of future grace. That’s my way of saying it. Past grace at the cross is magnificent, unparalleled, and foundational, and guarantee and ground. But guess what it bought? A reservoir of ocean-like grace flowing on to me for the future as I walk into my days. And what he wants from me when I get up in the morning is not payback but increasing debt. He wants me to say, “God, what do I have that I did not receive, and if I received it how can I boast?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Cup of Salvation

Sometimes people at this point will sometimes raise: What about Psalm 116:12–13? “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Take a deep breath. Is the debtor’s ethic? Is this payback time? Sounds like it. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Now I want to be biblical, so if the Bible teaches payback, then let’s pay God back.

But do you know what the next verse says in answer to that question? “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation . . .” Now there’s one more phrase, but let me get this one clear first. What’s going on here? There are two possibilities, and it can go either way. One is a toast. And the other is: the cup needs to be poured into. It’s full and I’m toasting, or it’s empty and I’m needing. I’m okay with either one of those. But it’s the next line that makes me think the empty is the right answer: I’m lifting up the cup of salvation because I need help again and again and again.

What shall I render to the Lord
     for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
     and call on the name of the Lord.

For what? More grace! This is glorious. All you unbelievers that are here get this. This is so magnificent: How do you pay back God? Answer: ask for more. We have a kind of God who is glorified, not when we take the buckets of our gratitude up the mountain and pour them into his all-sufficient spring; rather, this spring is magnified when we take our empty buckets and fill it and go down the mountain and pour it on people. He doesn’t need any of our payback, and he’s glorified for you devoting your life not to payback, but rather to every day going deeper in debt to grace.

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

Oh, I love this. So where do good works come from that please God? So when you think, “God, I want to please you by my obedience today,” hat should you think? What should you do? Let’s try to draw this to a close. You should devote you mind and your heart to seeing Christ for who he is and savoring him for how much he’s worth. In other words, the real battle for obedience that pleases God is receiving grace, being satisfied with grace, delighting in grace, seeing Christ, knowing Christ, loving Christ, being satisfied with Christ. Because when that happens, you are weaned off all the other treasures and all the other prizes of life, and you find yourself walking in freedom and doing what he wills.

Wealth of Generosity

Maybe the best way to end would be to take you to an illustration of obedience that pleases the Lord in this way. We’ll let this be a closing illustration of what I would like to happen in your lives because of what I’ve said here. I’m not mainly interested in stocking your head with theology, though I do want to do that. I am mainly interested in your becoming radical Christ-displaying lovers of needy people. In 2 Corinthians 8:1–2, we have a picture of love that pleases God — obedience that pleases God. And I just want you to see how it’s constructed, how it happens, and how it can happen in your life. So listen carefully and we’ll be done.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

That’s it. That’s all I want my life to be. I want grace to come down — blood-bought, secured, rock-solid — by Christ grounding my justification and guaranteeing future grace. I want that grace now to come down on this sinner who deserves nothing but hell. I want it to come down, and it doesn’t have to take away my affliction. So grace comes down, the joy comes up, affliction may not go away (probably it increases), poverty may not go away (which is why I don’t preach the prosperity gospel), and what happens? This grace-dependent joy overflows in a wealth of liberality. And do you know where it’s going? To the poor saints in Jerusalem, the poor. That’s what theology is for.

If all I did was to make you argue about justification and sanctification and grace and a debtor’s ethic, I would have failed. We have prayed, thousands of us, “Holy Spirit, come.” We have prayed, “Give us focus,” and I thank you for your focus. And we have prayed for you, “Open their eyes to see.” This is the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, and may all of us see that the fight to obey as a sinner, a justified sinner, so that God is pleased, is not a fight to commend our obedience to God as the ground of our acceptance, and it’s not payback time; rather, it is a receiving of Christ as my sacrifice and my righteousness. And then, it is a continual receiving of the grace that was bought by Christ, so that every day, I am having joy abound and love overflow to the glory of God.