Before considering some of the more specific ways obedience works in our lives, let us review the foundation. We must see clearly that God has brought us into a place of freedom where we can obey Him. Before our union with Christ by the Spirit, we all found ourselves in a state of spiritual death, unable to please God. We had no ability to meet the requirements of a holy God. We agreed that the law of God was holy and just, but no matter how hard we tried, we found that we could not control our own hearts. Romans 7 is Paul's commentary on his experience before he came to God. His cry was, "Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24).
We may question this, since God gave the law. Why would He give the law if man could not obey the law? I believe that there are at least three aspects to the law which may help to answer our questions. First, there was the civil law which controlled the outward actions of Israel. The law could judge and condemn a murderer. Men could obey that part of the law. Fear of the penalty of the law provided a restraint. Obedience to the law purged the outward expression of sin and lawlessness from the society and restrained its "leavening" influence.
A natural man with proper training can be a good citizen of this world. He can be taught to respect the laws of the land. This is the meaning of the scripture that says: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). Although this is proper, and every child should be so taught, this is not the righteousness that God requires. It was the righteousness that was possible under the law, but it falls short of dealing with the heart of man which is sinful. If this were the righteousness that pleases God, then Christ died in vain.
Secondly, there was the ceremonial aspect of the law. By this we mean all of the law that pertained to the tabernacle, the sacrifices, the temple, and the priesthood. All of this could be obeyed, because it dealt with outward actions. All of these parts of the law were types that pointed to Christ. Men who obeyed these laws as unto the Lord pleased God as much as they were able to without the life of God. The "heroes" of the Old Covenant such as King David and the prophets went as far as they could, but actions that were approved of by God at that time cannot even be imagined in the New Covenant. David was called a man after God's own heart, yet God also called him a man of blood, and for this reason did not allow him to build the temple. Can we imagine a prophet today taking up a sword and cutting off a man's head? We mention these things only to remind us how far away from the purpose of God men under the law really were.
Finally, there were the statements of God's heart in the law, possibly summarized in what is known as the Ten Commandments. Although many of these had outward expressions that could be judged, they also pointed to the heart of man. It is here that man begins to fall short. Man apart from God can be restrained from committing physical adultery, but the lust in his heart cannot be controlled. Up until the time of Christ, man was not judged by the law for what lay within his heart. But when Jesus came, he put outward and inward on the same level. "You have heard that it was said, to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27,28). Here is where man's inability is revealed. The law "Do not covet" only awakened the sinful heart, and in Paul's words, "I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died" (Rom. 7:9). Thus we see that this aspect of the law only revealed man's inability to meet the demands of a holy God, and left him condemned. This is important, however, for why does man need a savior if he is alive and doing very well in his own eyes?
When Paul said that concerning the righteousness which is by the law, he was blameless (Phil. 3:6), I believe he was speaking of the first two areas above, the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law. But when he said "that which he wanted to do he did not find the power to do," he was referring to the weakness of the flesh to affect the matters of his heart, before he came to Christ (Rom. 7:19). When we speak now of obedience, we are referring to these areas of the heart, for this is what God is after. If the heart is changed, then obedience flows from a pure heart.
When we are given a new heart and are united with Christ by the Spirit through new birth, then we have entered into what Paul describes in Romans 8. "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:2-4).
What then is the meaning of all of this to us? It means that although in ages past God overlooked some of the ignorance of men (Acts 17:30), He does not do so today. Christ has come and opened the door to life. Men today are not judged by their right or wrong actions but on their relationship with Christ. We no longer have an excuse, and we cannot say, "I just can't obey." In Christ Jesus, God has brought us into a place of liberty. We have been freed from all that held us in bondage. We have been freed from the law (Rom. 7:6) and from the body of death (Rom. 6:6). We have been set free from that which made us sinners, namely death. We have been brought into life where we can be led by the Spirit and do the will of God from the heart. We have new hearts, on which God is writing His commandments by the Spirit.
Christ did what we could not do. He raised us from spiritual death to walk in newness of life. It is a place of glorious liberty! We are free from sin, death, and the law. We are no longer held captive; we are now free to obey God and do His will. Because of what God has done in Christ Jesus, He can now hold us responsible to abide in Him.
Are we convinced that in Christ we can do all things? Are we more than conquerors? Are we living in the victory that Christ has won for us? Are we standing fast in the liberty? This is God's place for each one of us from the first day until the last, here on this earth. Let us be convinced of what God has done for us in Christ and not make excuses. We can obey God. Not only can we obey God, but our obedience is the evidence that His love is finding expression in us (John 14:21).
If we find ourselves lacking, instead of making excuses, let us get on our knees before God and thank Him for His provision in Christ. Then let us turn away from our weakness and begin to draw in faith upon His strength. The glory of the New Covenant will grow in our hearts, and God will be glorified as we bear much fruit for Him.