Jesus Teaches Meaningful Obedience to Commandments
The Bible tells us we must be saved in order to live with God forever. It instructs us to develop faith in God and in Jesus Christ, to be baptized, and to keep the commandments in order to live with God again. However, doing these things just to win a reward has no impact on our eternal life. Unless they are done for the right reasons, they don’t really change our hearts and so they don’t really change our behavior.
A young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments and the young man asked which ones he had to keep. The Savior began listing the commandments we must keep in order to be saved. The man stopped him and said he had done all those things his whole life. Jesus responded that in that case, if he really wanted to be perfect (and He commanded us to be perfect), the man should give all his possessions to the poor and come follow Jesus.
The young man was not willing to go quite this far to follow Christ. The other things were easy, and didn’t require any serious sacrifices, but he had great possessions and didn’t want to give them away. He left, choosing to follow a route that might be more satisfying in the short run, but that would have important consequences eternally. You can read this story yourself in the Bible, in Matthew 19.
As I read this story, I found the young man’s second question enlightening. When told to obey the commandments, he asked which ones he had to follow. Someone who was truly converted and who loved Jesus Christ would not have asked which ones. He would want to obey them all out of pure love. It seems to me this young man wanted a checklist of the bare minimum requirements for the reward so he wouldn’t have to make any more sacrifices than necessary to get what he wanted. He made me think of college students double-checking graduation requirements in order to finish school as efficiently as possible.
There is no question the commandments are required in order to spend eternity with God. They are not suggestions. The New Testament tells us again and again that we must keep the commandments and when this man asked Jesus how to be saved, Jesus did not tell him to have faith and nothing else. He listed commandments to be kept.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 7:21).
It is true that in Acts, we see people being told to have faith in order to be saved:
30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts 16:30-31).
However, these verses did not mean a person could believe and then live a carefree life of sin. When studying the scriptures, we must study all of them, not just the ones that appeal to us. So if one book says to believe and another says to keep the commandments, what are we supposed to believe?
I suspect the solution to this problem is found in the book of John and was given by Jesus Christ. The Lord said,
If ye love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15).
God gave us commandments because He loves us, just as parents make rules for their children because they love their children. Good parents know children—and adults—need rules for their own benefit. Without them, there is danger, sadness, and sorrow that is entirely unnecessary. God, being a perfect parent, knows even better the dangers of living a life without rules. We can choose to avoid rules, but we can’t choose to avoid consequences. Deciding a rule is unpleasant , unnecessary, or untrue doesn’t make it untrue and doesn’t free us from the consequences of the rule.
God wants to protect us—not from all trials, because trials can help us grow—but from the trials that are not needed and could easily be avoided. He wants us to develop self-discipline and to learn to sacrifice for the right reasons.
Jesus asked us to keep God’s commandments and then gave us a good reason to do it—not to get a reward, but because we love Jesus and God. While rewards come for doing the right thing and punishments occur when we do the wrong thing, those should not be the focus of the truly converted. They are to help us because we are mortals with mortal weaknesses, including being motivated by rewards and punishments.
If we only obey at that level, however, we are losing out on some truly amazing things. If we obey only for the rewards, that obedience does not have the power to change our lives or to bring eternal life. Our obedience must be done of our own free will, not pre-ordained goodness as some teach. Labeling our good deeds as pre-ordained renders them meaningless and robs us of our God-given agency. It must, however, be done because we love God.
This is why Jesus suggested the man give all his goods to the poor and take up a life of unpaid service. He knew the man was doing only those things which required no real sacrifice. He wanted to do the bare minimum and doing the bare minimum is not an act of love. It is a selfish act that cannot bring the highest blessings God has to offer. It can’t change us because it doesn’t come from deep in our hearts—it is an external behavior only.
In the next article, we will examine what happens when a person is truly converted.