Friday, October 1


In an earlier post about balancing Knowledge and Obedience, I stated that following Jesus should be about obedience and not about knowledge. I also said the phrase "Obedience Based Discipleship" is a misnomer that can be misleading. This post will clarify that statement. It might all go down smoother if you re-read the post, called "Balance" before you read this post.

Those whose eyes have been opened to the power of radical obedience to God's word have a generally similar experience. They are immediately awed at the simplicity of putting God's word into immediate, measurable action. They quickly see improvement in their walk with God as they devote themselves to studying with a mind to obey. They also have an eagerness to share this discovery with others. Then comes a feeling of frustration because many of the people they tell either don't get it or pick it apart until they find enough faults to dismiss it.

For example, I recently spoke in chapel at Harding Grad. I presented the ideas in the "Balance" blog and an accompanying application of Matthew 7. Afterward, a faculty member politely noted that what I said sounded a tad legalistic. I was not surprised. I had heard it before. My internal response was, "What I said was no more legalistic than what Jesus said."

When we are communicating to other nonbelievers about obedience, they hear (rightly) that Christianity holds a high standard. When they make an acquaintance of Jesus in the context of his demands of obedience, they understand him (correctly) as someone who gives much and expects much. However, when we are communicating with believers about obedience, a red flag is lifted at the sheer mention of the o-word. Phrases flash through their minds like, "saved by grace through faith." To base discipleship on obedience, in their minds, is to strive to save oneself by works.

To their credit, there are some pitfalls to the obedience based mindset. For all its strength, it can be a slippery slope to some unbiblical attitudes.

1. Pride. I have seen this in others and been guilty of it myself. When we have this life-changing epiphany and realize that measurable obedience should replace a premium on knowledge, there can be a tendency to look down upon the "uninitiated." I'm not talking about lost people, but people beside us in the pews and in our Bible classes. We can forget that we were once where they are. We shake our heads sometimes because they have not arrived. We forget that although we may be a little further down the road, we also have not yet arrived.

2. Legalism. When the pendulum swings away from knowledge and toward obedience, the momentum can carry it too far. By legalism, I am referring to earning salvation and favor from God as well as making a false idol out of literal obedience. We have to remember that God loves the obedient and the disobedient. We are obedient not because we want to earn his love, but because we want to show our love and because he commanded it.

3. Weakening Scriptural Mastery. That sounds ridiculous, but I couldn't think of a better way of wording it. Often there are trade-offs when we do something a certain way. Before I began studying the Bible with a mind to obey, I studied for facts, facts, and more facts. My Bible time was about quantity, not quality. I considered volume a measure of success (hence the "read the Bible in a year" programs). After I changed my study approach, however, my sights narrowed significantly. Determined to obey everything I learned, it became more and more critical to read in small chunks. If I read five chapters, for example, I could never keep up with my obedience to all of the imperatives. As a result, I focused more on small sections of Scripture. Over time, this had a negative affect on my familiarity with the whole of the Bible. The trade-off of quality over quantity has its drawbacks.

The above warnings do not discredit Obedience Based Discipleship. Until I am introduced to a more biblical way to live, I will not change. As I disciple nonbelievers, I will continue to emphasize, as Jesus did, that obedience is not an option. We do the lost no favors when we make Christianity look easier than it really is. The above is simply a caution for anyone, including myself, who would attempt to place a premium on obedience.

On to the misnomer. I mentioned that the word "obedience" can be a turn-off to some believers because to them it reeks of legalism. Upon realizing this, I toyed with a few other names for it. "Faith Based Discipleship." "Discipleship of Faithfulness." "Radical Discipleship." In the end, though, they all sounded a little redundant. So, from now on, when I share with my fellow believers this way of life I am so passionate about, I will call it what it should have been called all along...



  1. I appreciate your words. We are currently studying a book in our Bible class (actually written by the man teaching it) about the Sermon on the Mount called "Invitation to a Spiritual Revolution". I think you might like it. The teacher constantly reminds us how radical the teachings of Jesus are and how, if we are to be followers of Him, we have to be radical too. It's a hard reality to swallow, but it is definitely the truth.

  2. Dear Mike,

    What is required in order to have Jesus ABIDE in us and we in Him?

    Can we do it:

    1. By accepting Him as our our own personal Lord and Savior ?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    2. By the grace of GOD only? Sola Gracias?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    3. By faith in GOD alone? Sola Fides?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    It is simple common sense that since He commanded that we must do something, then doesn't it stand to reason that He would also tell us how to do it?

    Jesus was very clear in what we must do in order to have Him ABIDE in us and we in Him.

    Jesus left this command for us in John 6:53-57:

    53 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (the taken away branch);

    54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.


    57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me."

  3. That's solid insight explaining how we arrive at obedience being so essential. In China we had that understanding because we were in such an intentional time of discipleship and it makes sense that many here wouldn't catch that.
    What I'm just now discovering is the simple truth that obedience is not only hand-in-hand with discipleship but also an eternal perspective or hope. I think of it as shedding our current cultural influences & their customs/expectations/way of life for those displayed by Jesus (like a "Christian culture"). Obedience over time creates new custom/expectations/way of life within the body of Christ. I don't know if that makes sense, but it does in my head.

  4. Michael, thanks for the post. It saddens me that a seminary professor would automatically go to legalism. Years ago, I heard Randy Harris say that legalistic churches need to discover grace and grace-centered churches need to discover discipleship.

    The phrase "obedience-based discipleship" was coined in an attempt to grapple with the fact that many in the West have a deficient (if not non-existent) understanding of discipleship. Before you will be able to communicate what you mean by just using "discipleship" you may want to ask some questions to see what connotations your audience attaches to the word.

    You have correctly identified three potential pitfalls. Being part of a discovery study group can be helpful with the first two. I still read through the Bible each year to help with # 3. But I do 3-column studies and DBSs to keep me obedient, too. Like the old VBS song, our study needs to be Deep & Wide!

    Blessings! Keep up the good work and thanks for writing!