Obedience a Christian Virtue
1 Peter 1:13-16
Why gird up the loins of your mind, be sober…

The idea of the Christian life, as a new sphere in which hope is predominant, and into which by virtue of our Lord's resurrection Christians enter by a second birth, leads the apostle to address those to whom he wrote as "children"; and among the typical excellencies of children he selects the virtue of obedience. Now it may be noticed, first of all, that obedience is not in our day one of the more popular Christian graces or virtues. There have been days in the Church when men have been possessed by nothing short of a passion for putting themselves under rule — sometimes, it must be granted, not being sufficiently careful as to the sort of rule they put themselves under. Those days have gone by; and While we hear of Church Temperance Societies and Church Purity Societies devoted to the enforcement of these particular virtues, we do not, as yet, hear of a "Church Obedience Society." Now the neglect into which obedience has fallen is apparently part of a larger neglect — that of the passive virtues generally; because, although obedience has an active, sometimes a very active, side, it is in the main a passive excellence. As the soul loses touch with the great Master of love, humility, self-repression, obedience it falls back on the old pagan ideal of regulated self-assertion, and a virtue like that insisted on by St. Peter — child-like obedience — is apt to be very soon at a discount. And there is another characteristic of our time which makes obedience a more or less difficult virtue. Obedience is said to be the virtue of older social conditions, such as accompanied feudalism or absolute monarchy, older conditions to which democracy has succeeded. It was natural, we are reminded, for arbitrary rulers to make much of a temper of mind which buttressed their power, but in a democratic age liberty takes the place of obedience: liberty is the typical virtue of free, self-improved, self-governing man; obedience, as a virtue, has had its day. Again, we are reminded that we are living in an age of liberty, nor, can it be denied that the difficulties of doing justice to the virtue of obedience have been aggravated by the abuses which have gathered round the ancient centres of authority? Nothing discredits the claims of obedience like the exaggerations of the rightful claims of any who ought to be obeyed. The Monarchy of France, as Richelieu contrived to make it, was the natural forerunner of the great Revolution; the Papacy, when, among other causes, the false decrials had exaggerated a legitimate supremacy of order into a spiritual absolutism, led by reaction into that enfeeblement of Church authority which is the weakness of our part of Christendom. We have accordingly fallen upon times when, both in Church and State, the rights of liberty have been pleaded against the duties and the instincts of obedience, and pleaded more or less successfully because of abuses in the support of which obedience has been, or might be, conceivably enlisted. And, further, as a consequence of these three tendencies, attention has been in modern times largely concentrated on those parts of Holy Scripture, to the neglect of others, which lay stress upon the rights, as distinct from the duties, of a Christian; Upon his freedom from the Jewish law as distinct from his obligations to the eternal moral law; upon the liberty with which Christ has made him free, as distinct from that service which he owes to God and which is itself perfect freedom. It is impossible to mistake the charm and power which attach to this word "liberty." There is, we feel, something in our own human nature which at once responds to it; it appeals to sympathies which are universal and profound. Liberty is even in one particular sense the excellence of man as man — that is to say, of man as being endowed with a free will. To attempt to crush the exercise of this endowment of freedom is regarded as a crime against human nature, while the undertaking to strengthen its vigour and to enlarge its scope appeals to man's profound desire to make the best of that which is his central self; and hence the indefinite, the magic charm which always attends upon the word and the idea of liberty. But, when in this connection we use the word "liberty," two different things are often intended. The liberty to choose between good and evil, with, it must be added, in our fallen state, an existing inclination in the direction of the evil, is one thing; the true moral liberty of man is another. True liberty is secure when the will moves freely within its true element, which is moral good. Moral good is to the human soul what the air is to the bird, what the water is to the fish. Bird and fish have freedom enough in their respective elements; water is death to the bird, as the atmosphere is to the fish. A bird can sometimes drown itself, a fish can leap out of the water and die upon the bank; but the liberty of fish and bird alike is sufficiently complete without this added capacity for self-destruction; and so it is with man. Every Christian who is living in a state of grace will understand this. He knows that he would gain nothing in the way of moral freedom by a murder, or an adultery, or a lie; he knows that our Lord Jesus Christ, who did no sin, who could have done no sin, was not, therefore, other than morally free, since it is His freedom in giving Himself to death which is of the essence of His self-sacrifice for the sins of the world: "No man taketh My life from Me, but I lay it down of Myself." Nay, a Christian knows, too, that God could not choose evil without doing violence to His essential nature. But is God, therefore, without moral freedom? Is not God rather the one Being who is perfectly free because His perfections make it impossible for Him to choose evil; and would it not follow that the more closely man approaches to the holiness of God, the more closely does he approach to the true idea of liberty? We may look at this fundamental truth from another side. The sense of liberty within the soul of man is the conscious energy of the will, its felt vigour its power of making straight for the aim before it. But what is more certain than that the will acquires this two-fold excellence — strength and directness of purpose — by the discipline of obedience? The man who has never obeyed is not the man to know how to command. The steady drudgery of an apprenticeship is the necessary training for the conduct of a great business. The submissive and persistent industry of the junior clerk is the true preparation for a partnership in the firm. He would be a poor general of division who had never served as an ensign or a lieutenant, if not in the ranks. Nay, we see the operation of this law, that the strength and freedom of the will is secured by obedience, in the very quarter where we might beforehand perhaps think that it might have been dispensed with. We are told that the Divine Redeemer of the world went down to Nazareth, and was subject to His mother and His foster father until a period long past the age of manhood; and when his ministerial life, which from first to last was a life of obedience, was ended, it was ended by a supreme act of obedience. For He "became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross; wherefore also God hath highly exalted Him." The obedience which St. Peter recommends is, let us observe, the obedience of children. It is not the obedience of slaves, of slaves who are slaves against their will. The kingdom of heaven is not fashioned on the lines of an Oriental court in which a crowd of unwilling servitors tremble before a master whose word may at any moment bring to any one of them sentence of death. There have been Christians who have understood the service of God in some such sense as this, but it is not the tendency or a danger of our time. We should perhaps do better to remember that the use which a true Christian makes of his freedom is to become willingly a slave of Jesus Christ. This is St. Paul's favourite way of describing himself, "Paul, a servant" — it should be, "a slave of Jesus Christ." He means that he has freely surrendered himself, his soul, his body, his understanding, his affections, his will, his passions, his entire liberty, to the will, to the commands of Jesus Christ. But then this slavery is the highest expression of freedom, and it differs vitally from the involuntary slavery which has nothing to do with, though it may have at times been mistaken for, Christian obedience. In the current sense of the words, "Christian obedience" is not the obedience of slaves, nor is it the obedience of mercenaries. A true Christian does not serve God for the sake of what he can get from Him; he does not serve God only or chiefly even for the sake of gaining heaven, or of escaping hell. But here do not let us exaggerate. If God is to be served because He is what He is — infinitely perfect and lovable — it is not less true that a recompense does follow on Christian obedience. The picture in St. Matthew 25 of the King sitting in judgment and making the eternal awards to the blessed and to the lost is not an illusion. If the recompense is not the first motive of service, it is a motive which our Lord Himself has sanctioned. Nay, in the last resort obedience to God for His own sake and obedience for the sake of the reward which He gives so blend as not to be distinguishable from each other, since God Himself is the only true and adequate reward of the human soul. He says to each true servant now, as He said to the Patriarch, "I am thy exceeding great reward." And yet it remains true that the obedience which keeps an eye only or mainly on what it will get is not in keeping with the higher temper of the Christian life. Every time we say "Our Father," at the beginning of the most authoritative of all prayers, we bind ourselves to a life of obedience. Of this let us be sure, that no true obedience neglects orders and duties which God has clearly prescribed. If God says by His apostle, "Pray," even "pray without ceasing," a true obedience does not say, "My heart is cold, my prayer will be formal, lifeless, resultless" — it does its best. If God says, "In everything give thanks," true obedience does not say, "God knows all about me and He will take my thankfulness for granted; I need not say grace after meals, or thanksgiving after Communion, or go out of my way to render praise to Him for some special deliverances and mercies" — it does its best. And if God bestows on us the treasure of His Holy Word, and bids us "Search the Scriptures," true obedience does not say that the Bible will not help us until we are aroused by literary curiosity, or some other sort of eagerness, to read it; it resolves to train the spiritual taste by earnest daily study — it does its best. If God desires us again and again to bear witness before the world to the faith that is in us, true obedience does not dwell on the feeble hold of the great unseen realities which is all that as yet we have, on the danger of saying more than we feel or mean, on the shifting, uncertain character of our present impressions — it goes straight to Holy Scripture and does its best. If God bids us remember the poor, visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction — in other words, look after hospitals, orphanages, homes, penitentiaries, deserted children, tramps, lone women, and the like — true obedience does not say, "There is no knowing, after all, how many of these institutions are doing any real good." It does not say, "We cannot possibly decide how many of these poor people are not gross impostors." It goes to work with the love of God in its heart, and, expecting to make a full percentage of mistakes, it does its best. Obedience cannot hope to be always and everywhere the product of a sustained enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a great gift of God which visits souls and visits churches at intervals, but there are also intervals when there is little or no enthusiasm abroad, but during which the persistence of obedience is not the less necessary; and it is during these colder periods that we learn the value of living by rule. No obedience worth anything is to be secured without rule. "Moral force," it has well been said, "is like running water in a narrow channel which confines it on this side and that; it rushes onwards towards the fields of duty as the dispenser of fertility and of life; but if it has no barriers to confine its energies and to direct its course, it will presently sink away into the sands and will do no good to any living thing." Not that child-like obedience is always, indeed chiefly, active. In the majority of human lives it is passive. It consists in acceptance of what is ordered, in submission, in resignation, rather than in anything demonstrative; and obedience of this kind is at once harder and more sublime than active obedience: it is the obedience of Gethsemane and of Calvary, rather than that of the preceding years of labour and of miracle. The Holiest, we are told, Himself learnt obedience, not by the things which He did, but by the things which he suffered. The best and most fruitful obedience may in some cases be that of the confirmed invalid, that of the closing weeks of a last illness. Obedience is the joy and glory of the great intelligences who move and worship around the eternal throne; and here below on earth the souls which grace has fashioned after the likeness of the pattern Man — aye, the finest natures among us — have a thirst, nay, they have a passion, for obedience, for they know that in freely obeying they touch nearly, or quite, the secret of moral victory and spiritual joy.

(Canon Liddon.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;

WEB: Therefore, prepare your minds for action, be sober and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ—

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