Imperfect Obedience and Disobedience

by Todd Deaver

One of Dad’s True/False questions to us was, “Obedience to Christ is essential to salvation.” We answered,

True, if obedience is properly understood. Perfect obedience is not essential to salvation.

Dad objects to this answer in his response:

Regarding obedience to Christ being essential to salvation, Todd and Jay say that such is true but that “perfect obedience” is not essential. Of course, they need to wrestle with what they are claiming. I would at this juncture raise the question: Exactly how is imperfect obedience distinguishable from disobedience. If a man imperfectly repents, does he repent or not? Can a man maintain faithfulness to God while imperfectly walking in the light? If he is in the light, he is in the light. I do not quibble over human weakness. We all have already admitted such.

Do we really disagree?

This reply is confusing. On the one hand, Dad seems to insinuate that there is no difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience – which is why he says, a few sentences later, that we are on the verge of “explicitly denying the essentiality of obedience altogether.” He believes that our answer creates huge problems for us.

And yet, in the same paragraph, he admits that perfect obedience is not essential to salvation! “I do not quibble over human weakness,” he says. “We all have already admitted such.” In other words, Dad knows that because of human weakness we all sin (per 1 John 1:8) and thus do not perfectly obey. So, what is the objection? Dad himself teaches that perfect obedience is not essential to salvation, but he castigates us for saying that God will save those who imperfectly obey. Where is the consistency here?

Would Dad really deny our answer that “Perfect obedience is not essential to salvation”? If so, he contradicts his own teaching and affirms the impossible standard of absolute perfection. On the other hand, if he agrees with our answer (and he repeatedly implies that he does), why the strong objection?

Dad believes as much as we do that there’s a huge difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience. It’s the difference between a Christian walking in the light but regularly falling short of God’s will (1 John 1:6-10), and a person who has left the faith and returned to a life of sin (2 Pet. 2:20-22).

All of us agree that obedience to Christ is essential to salvation. The only question is, must that obedience be perfect? We all answer no. So we are all left with imperfect obedience. Thus Dad’s claim that Jay and I are here advocating “strange stuff” is itself more than a little odd.

The difference explained

What, then, is the difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience? I’ll use myself to illustrate. I’ve mentioned before that I have always had difficulty staying completely focused when I sing, pray, and observe the Lord’s supper. I do these things because I believe God wants me to — I want to do them because I know they please him. So I am being obedient. But I also know he wants me to worship totally from the heart, without becoming distracted and letting my mind wander from what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Yet, despite all my efforts to improve, I never do this perfectly. So, is my worship an example of disobedience or imperfect obedience? I say it’s the latter.

Disobedience would be someone who doesn’t care what God wants and is only “worshiping” to keep up appearances. He’s merely going through the motions. Disobedience would also be someone who refuses to worship God altogether. Surely we can all see the difference here. And surely we would all grant that it’s a difference that really matters.

Dad writes,

The fact is that Saul’s partial or “imperfect” obedience was taken by God to be disobedience, and Saul lost the kingdom over it!

Dad is referring here to 1 Samuel 15. The Bible makes it quite clear that Saul was guilty of rebellion. He didn’t sin merely through weakness or ignorance, nor was it just a temporary lapse. Notice:

  • Saul was explicitly told by God to destroy Amalek completely – all the people, all the animals (v. 3).
  • Saul and the people spared the king and the best of the animals because they “were not willing to destroy them utterly” (v. 9). Saul didn’t misunderstand God’s instructions. He was simply “not willing” to obey.
  • God then says that Saul “has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands” (v. 11). The faithful of Hebrews 11 wouldn’t be described this way, even though they often violated God’s laws. Why? Because they were not in rebellion against God.
  • Samuel specifically identifies Saul’s disobedience as “rebellion” and “insubordination” and says he has “rejected the word of the Lord” (v. 23).
  • Saul finally admits his sin and confesses that he did it because he “feared the people and listened to their voice” (v. 24).
  • In contrast to the case of David, who committed sins that most would consider worse than Saul’s (2 Sam. 11-12), God rejected Saul from being king (v. 23) and withdrew his Spirit from him (16:14) – which indicates that Saul’s rejection of the Lord was ongoing.

These facts show that Saul was truly disobedient. He rebelliously ignored God’s word. To blur the distinction between this disobedience and the imperfect obedience of Christians walking in the light is a major mistake. If Dad is arguing that because “Saul’s partial or ‘imperfect’ obedience was taken by God to be disobedience,” then all imperfect obedience is regarded by God as disobedience, he is again contradicting his own position and affirming that nothing short of perfect obedience will do.

There are other passages that clearly demonstrate the difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience. Consider, for example, the violations involved in Hezekiah’s Passover, in which many Israelites “ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed” (2 Chron. 30:18). They knew there were rules they weren’t following, but their hearts were set on God and they were trying to honor him. The Bible says,

…Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord pardon everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” So the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chron. 30:18-20).

As this example shows, the difference is one of the heart. In both cases (Saul and the Passover participants) the obedience was not perfect. So why is it that Saul lost God’s favor and the others didn’t? We answer: those in 2 Chronicles 30 had penitent faith and were not in rebellion; Saul lacked penitent faith and was rebelling against God. If that’s not the difference, we would be glad to hear Dad’s explanation.

Conclusion

We stress again that Dad agrees with us that no one keeps God’s word perfectly. Imperfect obedience is the only kind any of us offers. Therefore, if salvation for the imperfectly obedient is a problem for Jay and me, it is equally problematic for Dad and Phil.

We have now explained what we believe to be the difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience. It comes down to the presence or absence of penitent faith. How does Dad explain the difference?

If Dad believes there is no difference between imperfect obedience and disobedience, as some of his comments (including his statements about Saul) suggest, he needs to explain how this is consistent with his view that perfect obedience is not required for salvation.

Teaching the Ignorant-but-Saved

We have already responded somewhat to Dad’s remarks about the newly-converted couple engaging in premarital sex because of ignorance. Before going any further, let me say that if Dad could convince us that these individuals really knew that what they were doing is sinful and were acting out of rebellion against God, we would agree with him that they weren’t truly converted because such would mean they didn’t have penitent faith.

We just have difficulty believing that everyone who practices this common sin really knows that it’s wrong – especially someone without a religious background who has, all his life, been inundated with the message from our sex-saturated culture that this behavior is perfectly normal and acceptable. We believe in the moral law written on the heart. But we also believe that, through overwhelming and unrelenting indoctrination, a person’s innate sense of right and wrong can become skewed. Therefore, we take the couple at their word and accept that they didn’t know premarital sex was wrong.

Now, there’s another point Dad makes about this couple that we need to address. He says,

if the couple in their illustration is “in grace” following their immersion in water while they continue to practice fornication, then why should the minister have told them to repent of it. If a person can live immorally at the same time he is in grace because of his alleged ignorance of the immorality, why not allow the couple to remain in ignorance? Wouldn’t Jay’s and Todd’s concept of “grace” covering continued immorality imply that the less taught the greater the good accomplished? Why? Because if they ignorantly remain in the grace covered immorality, they are bound for glory. What if upon being taught that fornication is sinful (per Todd’s and Jay’s claim that they didn’t know it before they were baptized), they reject the information and refuse to leave the sin? Now, they are lost according to Jay and Todd. Why not rather leave them in safe ignorance rather than place them in risky knowledge if grace covers the continued practice of immorality?

First of all, let’s point out that earlier in this same post, Dad writes,

Now, I am willing to grant that in some cases, some people may obey the gospel without comprehending that certain sins in their life are actually sins. Todd and Jay raise the possibility of a sinner who upon conversion keeps on buying a lottery ticket because he is unaware that this is unscriptural. You could argue the same for people who buy “chances” on various items. Some things appear innocent to those in the world. You could argue the same for some who evidently at baptism were unaware of the sinfulness of certain words that they often used and continue to use following baptism.

In light of this admission, let’s turn the question back on Dad. In the cases you just described, wouldn’t you be in favor of teaching these converts about the sinfulness of these behaviors, even though they are currently in grace while they practice them? Now, if you’ll reflect on why you would do so, you’ll have the answer you seek from us.

Why teach them? Because God says to (Matt. 28:20), because God expects Christians to grow (1 Pet. 2:1-2; 2 Pet. 3:18), because sexual immorality has no place in the church (1 Cor. 6:12-20), because we don’t want other disciples to think that sin is ok or be influenced to participate themselves (1 Cor. 5:6-8), because God wants to transform his people into his image (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:1-2) so that we become holy like he is (1 Pet. 1:14-16), and because the couple loved God and wanted instruction about how to best serve him. Faithful Christians aren’t interested in finding the absolute minimum requirement and then setting up camp there, never to advance further. Anyone with that mentality does not have a penitent faith.

Dad asks,

What if upon being taught that fornication is sinful (per Todd’s and Jay’s claim that they didn’t know it before they were baptized), they reject the information and refuse to leave the sin? Now, they are lost according to Jay and Todd. Why not rather leave them in safe ignorance rather than place them in risky knowledge if grace covers the continued practice of immorality?

We could ask Dad the same question about converts who continue to practice certain forms of gambling or use words they shouldn’t use – people that Dad admits can be in grace though practicing these sins in ignorance. The answer is the same we gave above. You don’t truncate God’s instructions for fear that Christians may not submit to them. If they have a penitent faith, they will submit (like the couple in our illustration did). If they don’t have a penitent faith, they aren’t saved anyway.

(As we noted in the discussion of 1 John earlier, penitent, faithful Christians listen to apostolic instruction (1 John 4:6), but that doesn’t mean they necessarily interpret God’s word exactly as their preacher does. After all, many of the most able preachers and professors disagree with one another.)

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13 Comments on “Imperfect Obedience and Disobedience”

  1. Zach Cox Says:

    Todd,

    The fact that your answer is almost verbatim what mine would have been let’s me know I’m not off my rocker (unless of course you’ve fallen off as well). Good response.

  2. Rich Says:

    todd,

    Thank you for providing this discussion.

    Over the years, I have seen many good people passionately argue opposite ideals but when put in the exact same situation end up making the same trade-off decisions.

    Mac’s word choices are reminiscent of the teacher trying to inspire all of his students to strive for an ‘A’. Your word choices are reminiscent of the academic counselor trying to coach the failing student to pass the class and move on to the next.

    Depending on the situation, either advice may be the best.

  3. randall Says:

    Great post Todd! Mac must agree with you though it won’t be easy to admit it. After all he walks as a man like the rest of us and no doubt has his own struggles.

    I suppose all of us are spiritually immature when we first coem to Christ. After more than 45 years I can se a lot of progress in my own walk, but could easily give you a long list for the category of “much improvement still needed.”

    So suppose the young couple knows church folks have always thought sleeping together out of wedlock was wrong, but in their immaturity they don’t immediately conform to a lifestyle like that of Jesus or his most mature follower. They may not see it as being all that wrong and we all make distinctions between sins we need to get rid of and the ones we want to keep a while longer.

    May we assume God will continue to sanctify them in their walk and should we pray for their day by day spiritual growth? Are they any worse than the teen that comes to faith in Jesus (goes through the conversion process with all five steps for the sake of this point and audience) yet continues to gossip though they have been taught it is wrong? What about the person that continues to be arrogant, or spiteful or unforgiving, or selfish, or lacks discipline in prayer and bible study or walks contrary to any other scripture commnad.

    It is my belief that is the case for each of us when we initiailly came to faith and it continues all the days of our lives, though God is continually cleaning up his children. None of us gave up all our favorite or secret sins right away. It wouldn’t be circumspect to say that fornicators could be forgiven b/c fornication is one of the big sins – not like the little ones us church folks still take pleasure in.

    Oh how we underestimate the nature and power of sin in our lives and rationalize our own little pecadillos while condemning the insuficient walk of our sisters and brothers.

  4. Rich Says:

    Perhaps mentioned here somewhere and I missed it, but according to the ESV the word ‘grace’ was never in Jesus’ vocabulary. He never used that word.

    However, He did say, “Go and sin no more.” and “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (English Standard Version)

    Perhaps while discussing ideals we should keep it simple and use the words of Jesus.

    Just a thought.

  5. Jay Guin Says:

    Rich,

    Jesus also said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and “Judge not that you be not judged.”

    Jesus taught the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

    In John, Jesus repeatedly taught that all with faith would be saved.

    The New Testament all fits together neatly even though different authors use different vocabularies and attack questions from different angles.

  6. Rich Says:

    Good points, Jay.

    It seems like what’s happening here is Mac starts with an ideal that is rightfully shown to be impossible to achieve (as he admits). Then Todd and/or you propose a different ideal that also needs qualifying to be plausible. Yet, Mac is the one who is labeled inconsistent.

    The one ideal advocates high accountability. The other advocates patience with rookies making mistakes. Are these ideals really that mutually exclusive?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    So Rich are you a rookie, if not do you not make mistakes, or are you the know all save all?

  8. Jay Guin Says:

    Rich,

    Mac is not inconsistent for asserting that no one is perfect. He’s inconsistent for saying that all doctrinal errors that lead to sin damn and then saying that not all doctrinal errors that lead to sin damn. And for saying that God gives new Christians grace to allow them to learn his commands and then harshly criticizing Todd and me for asserting that God gives new Christians grace to learn his commands.

    There is a great difference between accountabilty and being damned for not knowing God’s will as well as the holder of doctorate in theology. Someone can be held to account without being damned. Indeed, I think the scriptures are quite clear that we are to hold our brothers and sisters accountable — and discipline is an important doctrine that both Jesus and Paul discuss. It is, a huge mistake to think that if someone is not damned for a mistake he is not accountable.

    I don’t know if you’re married, but if you are, I hope you consider yourself accountable to your wife even for mistakes that won’t cause her to divorce you. Surely the pain of causing her to be disappointed in you matters. I don’t know if you’re a parent, but I hope you consider your children accountable even for mistakes that won’t result in your disowning them. Surely you can find a way to get their attention without putting them on the street.

    And these are the Biblical models we’ve been given for our relationship with Jesus and God. Parents can disown their children, and husbands can divorce their wives, but this is not how you hold your children or spouse accountable. Rather, that’s what happens when holding one another accountable no longer works.

  9. Rich Wells Says:

    Jay,

    I thank you especially for your time to answer my inquiries.

    Being married and having adult children, I think about this analogy quite frequently. The irony is that my children have often said I was far stricter on them than others their age yet they also know I will stick my neck out for them for more than I ever did for others.

    I just haven’t found the evidence that supports the following:

    “He’s [Mac] inconsistent for saying that all doctrinal errors that lead to sin damn and then saying that not all doctrinal errors that lead to sin damn.”

    Perhaps if I was an outsider and was reading Mac’s (and others) comments cold I would better understand your claims. However, I have heard/read similar to these before and discussed enough to conclude I understand what is believed and practiced and I just don’t see an inconsistency.

    The absolutely most loving, forgiving, encouraging and patience Christian leader I know (an elder in Ohio) would probably use similar wording to that of Mac. He and I have discussed this years past. He constantly gives people the benefit of the doubt as individuals but will be very vocal against belief systems contrary to scripture.

    Perhaps that’s the real difference here. Jesus quite freqently would openly criticise groups like the Pharisees for their belief systems and at the same time be very patience (and eat) with Pharisees as individuals.

  10. Glenn Dowling Says:

    Dear Church of Christ brothers, You earnestly struggle to iron out your theological differences. I applaud you for it. However, there is ONE BIG stumbling block that always gets in the way. Check me on this…it’s important.

    It’s called ORIGINAL SIN. Your theology ignores or denys it…and you will never “make the pieces fit” until you see it. Man is UNABLE to come to the Savior without the “drawing” by the Father. Christ said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.

    When you research “NO ONE” …you will find it means…no one! When you research “UNLESS” you will find it means…unless!

    Man is born one of three ways: 1)Neutral (neither good nor bad, 2) Good (inclined to do good), OR 3) sinful (inclined to sin).

    Did you have to teach your child to be selfish, lie, or throw a tantrum? Then how did they learn it? It was in their nature.


  11. […] Imperfect Obedience and Disobedience, by Todd Deaver […]

  12. konastephen Says:

    Glenn, though I don’t follow how you arrived at your proposition regarding ‘original sin’, I think you are on to something. How did we in the churches of Christ arrive at our current ‘Pelagian’ position? Perhaps we should reread Campbell’s ‘the Christian System’ again, chapter VII—there he seems to describe quite clearly an orthodox view of sin…How did we forget this???

    http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/acampbell/cs/ac4c7.html


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