I have a love-hate relationship with check marks.
If I’m not careful, those little asymmetrical Vs can have the sneakiest way of measuring my worth—or lack of it—on a given day. I’ve got my running tally of to-dos. Go to work. Buy groceries. Make dinner. Do my devo. Write. Swing by Target. Go to the gym. Call this person. Email that person. Sleep?
At the end of a long day, I’ll take inventory, weighing out the success of my day based on how many check marks I see. If I started out with ten tasks on my list and only completed six of them, the six that I accomplished don’t matter nearly as much as the four that I didn’t because those undone tasks register as failure. Maybe you can relate.
But here’s what I’ve realized. Operating under this work-equals-worth mindset will lead me down a very slippery slope. And the only things that wait at the bottom of it are self-doubt, disappointment, emptiness, exhaustion and separation from God.
Today’s question challenged me to think through this mindset even further. Here it is: What motivates you to obey the rules in the Bible? What do you gain from following them?
The list-writing perfectionist in me would say to obey God's rules because you’re supposed to or because you’ll get more check marks if you do. She’s wrong, so I try not to listen to her much, but I can’t deny that she’s constantly nudging at a little corner of my heart. Because let’s be honest: making detailed lists with check marks is much easier than doing the work to truly discover the heartbeat of God and make it your own.
In Christian circles, we’re constantly talking about “the heart.” It’s all about the heart, we tell each other. Where was your heart at when you made that decision? or I need to check my heart in this area. This is basically a Chistianese way of saying that motivation matters. Your reasons for choosing to honor God are an important aspect of your faith. And those motivations flow from your heart.
So what is it that motivates us to obey God’s law?
The free gift of salvation in Christ
Jesus is where our freedom from sin begins and is therefore where my response to this question begins. Romans 3:23-25 reads: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”
A speaker at the local Bible study that I attend summarized the message of this passage in a way that made perfect sense to me: “God requires 100 percent righteousness, which can only be achieved through the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus.”
Salvation in Jesus is the free gift that atones for every moment of sin in our lives. Every shortcoming, evil thought and poor decision is covered by the blood of Jesus. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Through Jesus, we are fully reconciled to God. His perfection pays the price for our imperfection. That is the great exchange.
Gratitude for that free gift
When we truly accept this reality, our posture toward God shifts.
In attempting to follow His law, we’re no longer grabbing at straws to prove our own worth or earn our salvation through good deeds. On the contrary, we are humbled by the certain facts of both our own insufficiency and Jesus’ total sufficiency.
Out of this humility comes an earnest desire to lead lives that honor the selfless sacrifice of Jesus. Our actions become an outpouring of our gratitude for His saving grace, which both frees us from the debt of our sin and binds us in perfect unity with God.
Our desire to be sanctified
To truly reconcile the biblical imperative to follow God’s law with the assurance that salvation is by faith alone, we need to understand sanctification.
It’s a process that begins the moment we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and continues for the rest of our lives on this earth. Sanctification is a product of our salvation, not a means of achieving it. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes, “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (2:12-13).
Accepting Christ as our Savior constitutes a core change in our identity. We are no longer slaves to sin, so why would we still act like we are? (Romans 6: 1-2). There’s no doubt that we will make mistakes and fall short of God’s commandments—that’s the whole reason Jesus had to come in the first place. If we could be perfect in our own right, Jesus wouldn’t be our Savior because we wouldn’t need saving. But through the strength of the Holy Spirit, our active decision to resist our sinful nature is a testament to the power of Jesus in our lives.
What do we gain from following His law?
In Mere Christianity—I know, I cite that one often—Lewis writes, “But the truth is that the right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help build the internal quality or character called ’virtue,’ and it is this quality of character that really matters.” He then goes on to say, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas He really wants people of a particular sort,” (Lewis 80).
That sounds a lot like the process of sanctification that we looked at a moment ago. This idea that through the work of the Holy Spirit, our lifetime of actions—the good and the bad—will actually form us into people who embody the kind of virtue that pleases God.
Let’s take it one step further. In Romans 16:25-27, Paul writes about “the obedience that comes from faith.” And in an exegesis of this passage, John Piper shares his commentary on the connection between faith and obedience. He says, “The gospel strengthens us in faith so that we will live obedient lives. This is called ‘the obedience of faith.’ The gospel is the means to obedience because it is the means to faith and obedience comes from faith,” (Piper, par. 9).
Faith gives us the strength to be obedient. And that obedience helps us draw closer to God which in turn makes our faith stronger. The second we start to think of our actions as the end in themselves, we’ve missed the point entirely.
Today, I challenge you to truly reflect on what drives you to obey God’s rules. Is it the desire to be “good” or “right”? Maybe you do it because it's how you were raised. Or maybe you just love lists and check marks.
And be honest with yourself. Our motivations tell us what we value. Once we identify them, we can begin the work of aligning them with the heart of God.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity