You Cannot Obey God Without God
Years ago, I was pondering the Great Commission, especially the second half of it and it occurred to me that the Great Commission has a second half. It says: “And teach them” — those people that you have made disciples — “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
It did not say: “Teach them all that I have commanded you.” There’s an important difference. It says, “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” My responsibility as a discipler of the nations is not just to inform them what Jesus commanded. Rather, it is to speak in such a way, to teach in such a way, to pray in such a way that people actually do what he commanded.
That makes us feel absolutely helpless, right? How can I so teach that people are transformed so deeply that they can do the radical things Jesus commanded? Do we even know all that he has commanded us?
The Five Hundred
I asked, “Father, how do you do this commission?” And over four months, I read the Gospels over and over, pouring over all the words of Jesus, collecting all the imperatives, all the commands, all the demands. I think I found 500 of one kind or another.
The answer to my question seemed clear: Keep the demands connected to the person. Keep the demands connected to the work of Jesus. He died for sinners. He conquered death. He conquered Satan. He conquered sin. He was perfect. He poured out his Spirit. All of this came out of the Gospels.
I don’t think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John intend for any part of their Gospels to be read or understood apart from all the other parts of their gospels. Think about that, especially the last part of each Gospel, where Jesus dies — “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Gospel writers do not mean for us to read any part of the Gospels apart from Jesus’s person and work.
The answer for how to bring people into an observing of the demands, not just a knowing of the demands, is to keep the demands close to the person, close to Jesus. Keep the demands close to his work.
You Must Be Born Again
That leads us now to one of those first primal commands that connect us to Jesus and his work in John 3. This is the most important place in the Gospels about the new birth. Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, comes to Jesus and says, “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” And before he can get a question out of his mouth, Jesus says, “Unless you are born again, you will never see the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s mind-blowing that he would go straight to the heart of the matter like that. To make sure that Nicodemus realizes what’s at stake, he says, “Unless you are born again, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). Your eternal life is riding on your new birth.
Nicodemus is flabbergasted. He, like so many of the people that interact with Jesus, doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is saying. He thinks he has to crawl back up into his mother’s womb and be born again. Jesus clarifies, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. And that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The first time you are born, Nicodemus (or John Piper), you are just flesh, meaning just human — no divine reality alive in you at all. Your spirit is dead. But that which is born of the Spirit, a second birth, is spirit, meaning alive.
Two Types of People
Once your spirit was dead. You had no communion with God at all. You didn’t have eyes for things of the Spirit. You didn’t have a love for God, a delight in God, a love for the Bible. Everything was dead, boring, blank. And then something happened. You were touched by the Spirit and you are alive. Your spirit is alive.
Jesus has two categories for human beings, right? Dead living people and living living people. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he said in Luke 9:60. When the prodigal son came home he said to the older brother, “Don’t you know your brother who was dead is alive?” (Luke 15:32). How did that happen? It happened by a new birth. The Spirit gives life to the spirit.
Everybody needs that. I need it. Everybody in the world must be born again or they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We are all born dead, just flesh. And Paul said, “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God” (Romans 8:7). It cannot do the things that God tells it to do. We are not getting anywhere with the demands of Jesus without being born again.
Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wills. You don’t know where it came from. You don’t know where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). This is a sovereign free work of God. You don’t make it happen. One day you are bored by the Bible. You are blind to the beauties of Christ. Next day, you can’t get enough of this book and he is your precious Savior and Lord. What happened? A miracle happened. The new birth happened.
What does the new birth have to do with your faith? We get an answer in 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” If you are a believer, you have been born of God. It’s not the other way around. If I need to be born of God, I in my deadness do not now believe, as if a miracle will happen because I have now believed. No, the faith is the miracle. You have seen him as infinitely worthy, and you now embrace him and trust him. That is the miracle.
What Can We Do?
If it is of God and he blows where he wills and it brings about my faith, what can we do? Doesn’t faith come by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17)?
It does — and so does the new birth. First Peter 1:23, “You have been born again not of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God.” And then that Word of God is defined: “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). This brings us full circle back to the work of Jesus and the person of Jesus.
As we come to the demands of Jesus, what’s clear from the beginning is we can’t do them. Dead people don’t obey the demands of Jesus. We are just flesh. We hate the demands of Jesus. We like to do things our way. So if we’re going to obey, we have got to have life.
And so we pray with Augustine, “God, command what you will and grant what you command.”