Whoever keeps the commandment keeps his life; he who despises his ways will die (Proverbs 19:16).
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:5).
In going through the Ten Commandments, as we are this summer, with each commandment we are implicitly confronted with a question: what is the relationship between obedience and our peace with God? If we are saved by grace, and not by our obedience, then what is the purpose of the law? Why would we bother going through the Ten Commandments anyway?
The proverb above is helpful in this regard, as is today’s reading from Romans 4 for those of you who are going through the One Year Bible. Whoever keeps, or guards, the commandments guards his life. The image is one of watchful care on the part of the one who would tend well to his life. The association between the commandments and life is close indeed. The proverb does not say that the commandment is his life, but it comes awfully close. In the words of Psalm 119, “give me life in your ways” (119:37).
The law of God is life-giving because God created the heavens and the earth, and us. From the beginning he established the world with an order that served life, and abundant life at that. Each day God creates He orders—separating and gathering, ordering the world so that it is good, and in the end “very good.” In other words, the boundaries are good. For instance, the boundary between the land and the sea is good, and if that boundary is transgressed, destruction follows, as anyone who has experienced (or even seen a video of) a tsunami can testify. Just as the boundary between the land and the sea sustains life, so does the boundary around a marriage. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a guardrail, so that we can have life abundantly, in this case that a man may rejoice in the wife of his youth. Just as a tsunami brings destruction and death, so likewise does adultery. And the same is true of breaking any of God’s commandments. The wages of sin really is death (Romans 3:23).
So what then is our relation to the law? Perhaps it can be said this way—we are not saved by obedience, but we are saved for obedience. Our peace with God is not through our obedience (which of us is obedient enough to merit peace with God?). Rather, our obedience is the fruit of our peace with God. Why would peace with God lead to our obedience? Because when we believe that God has justified the ungodly in Christ, we learn to trust Him. Love begets love. Dying love begets dying love. Believing that Christ laid down His life for me begets the desire to lay down my life for Him. Yes, this desire can wax and wane. Our growth in Christ is often uneven, and often far too sluggish. But a Christian who believes that God has loved him with an everlasting love in Christ will desire to follow Christ. He will want to love the Lord with all his heart. He will want to keep the commandments. He believes that God’s commandments really are for our good. Paul’s logic becomes inescapable: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). And while his obedience is sometimes halting and imperfect, he is never satisfied for it to be so. Those satisfied to continue in sin, in hopes that grace may abound (Romans 6:1), simply show their lack of faith in the goodness of God. In other words, they lack faith in God Himself.
Why is our faith counted as righteousness? Is it perhaps because that in the end faith all that God wants from us—to trust Him? To love Him with all our heart, and therefore to love His image in others as well? To trust that His love for us in Christ is an everlasting love, and that it is available to us apart from our deserving? In the end, it’s not quite right to say we are saved for obedience, as if what God wants from us is simply compliance with His law. Rather, God wants us. We are saved for fellowship with and in Christ. Which means we increasingly share His own heart, as we grow in Christ learning to love what He loves and hate what He hates. We learn to delight in His ways (Psalm 1).
Those saved by Christ will obey. Not because they believe that their obedience can win them salvation, but because they have come to believe that God’s ways are good because God is good. Obedience is the fruit of faith.