John Owen on Obedience as Sons

owen-communion-with-god-2It should go without saying that believers in Christ have an obligation to obey God’s commandments. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament provides more than ample evidence of this truth.

Read through the Gospels, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands. There you will often find the Lord Jesus quoting, explaining, and applying the commandments to His hearers. A lengthy section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) explicitly deals with a right view of God’s commandments.

Read through the Epistles, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands, even citations and quotations from the ten commandments. There is not the slightest hint that God’s moral law as expressed in the ten commandments has somehow been set aside or abrogated.

For just one such example, both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught the continuing validity and importance of obedience to the 5th commandment. (See Mark 7:8-13; Ephesians 6:1-3.) Honoring one’s father and mother is still a basic and essential part of the life that God’s redeemed people are expected (commanded!) to live. That has not changed.

The gospel of Christ has not reduced or done away with our obligation to obey God’s commands. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, tells us the following:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5, italics mine)

So in the gospel of Christ we have even more reason (not less) to obey God’s law! Christ, in the gospel, ‘much strengthens’ our obligation to obey. (When was the last time you heard anything like that in a sermon?)

But what does such obedience look like? What is the essence of truly Christian obedience? In his book, Communion With God, the English Puritan writer John Owen (1616-1683) offers a helpful (and thoroughly biblical) analogy:

“Slaves find freedom when released from their duties. Children find their freedom in doing their duty. There is no greater mistake in the world than the idea that the freedom of sons in God’s house lies in choosing whether they will obey or not, whether they will do their duty or not. This is a freedom stolen by slaves, not a liberty given by the Spirit to sons.

“The liberty of sons is in the inward spiritual freedom of their hearts gladly and willingly obeying God in everything.” (p.160)

In Christ we are not freed from obeying God’s law, but rather for obeying it! The “liberty given by the Spirit to sons” (to use Owen’s phrase) leads us to obey God as sons, not slaves. Sons obey their heavenly Father out of love and gratitude, not out of slavish fear or for the expectation of wages, as a hired hand. As 1 John 5:3 says,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

We are to keep the commandments out of love for our heavenly Father. And in Christ, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are both enabled and led to truly love and obey God for the first time. As sons we may at times find keeping His commandments difficult, but not burdensome. And that is because, as sons, we no longer view God as a tyrant, or as a difficult taskmaster, but as our heavenly Father!

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