If you were ever asked to explain why you obey God (assuming that you do), what answer would you give? I can think of three main reasons. First, would you say, “I do what I do as a believer because God has told me to, and He has the power to reward and destroy?” Is that why you don’t lie and murder? It is good you don’t do those things, and such obedience might be all right for a beginner or for a little child, but it makes God’s laws seem so arbitrary. It implies that they make no sense in themselves. That kind of obedience does not speak well of God’s character and government.
Second, would it be better to say, “I do what I do as a believer, because God has told me to, and I love Him and want to please Him?” Is that why you don’t steal or commit adultery? You don’t see anything wrong or harmful in these things, it’s just that God doesn’t like it when you do that. He has been so good to you, surely you owe it to Him to do the things He has asked you to do, whether or not they make sense. It might be an improvement on obeying out of fear or the desire for a reward, but it still smacks of arbitrariness. It still does not speak well of God, though the second motivation is often thought to be the antidote to the first one.
Third, what would you think of saying this instead? “I do what I do because more and more I am finding it to be right and sensible to do so. I would want to do it even if He didn’t tell me to. I admire and revere the One who advised and even commanded me in the days of my ignorance and immaturity. Being still somewhat ignorant and immature, I am willing to trust and obey the one whose counsel has always proved to be very sensible, even when He tells me to do something beyond my present understanding.” That attitude accepts that God is not arbitrary. Everything He has asked us to do makes such good sense, we would want to do it anyway. If you can say that, then truly God’s law is not a threat to your freedom, and you will thank Him for it.
In this context, we should look at the book of James. James is thought by some to be the legalist among the New Testament writers. But look at what he says in James 2:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,“ you are doing right. . . . Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom (Jam 2:8, 12, NIV).
Even Luther didn’t understand James in that way. But James knew that true obedience is no threat to our freedom.
I am adding a quote from Ellen G. White, whom some of us regard as a real friend of God. This is one of her many descriptions of real obedience:
The man who attempts to keep the commandments of God from a sense of obligation, merely because he is required to do so, will never enter into the joy of obedience. In fact, he does not obey. . . . True obedience is the outworking of a principle within. It springs from the love of righteousness, the love of the law of God. The essence of all righteousness is loyalty to our Redeemer. This will lead us to do right because it is right—because right doing is pleasing to God (Christ’s Object Lessons, 97-98).
I believe that someday we will be able to stand in the presence of God and say: “God, we would do all these things from here on, whether You asked us to or not—because we agree with You that they are sensible and they are right.” And God could say, “That is good. At last
you’re free. You have learned the truth, and the truth will set and keep you free.”