“Aren’t there times when we do the right thing… just because it’s the right thing?”
A thoughtful Christian posed this question to me last Sunday in response to my sermon on Matthew 5:20: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” A number of my recent sermons have tapped the themes of holiness, obedience, and virtue. And I’ve consistently made the claim that true obedience – the kind that flows from the gospel of grace – is motivated by love and delight, not duty and obligation.
On Sunday, I quoted the magisterial Reformer Martin Luther, who observed: “To fulfill the law . . . is to do its works with pleasure and love . . . [which are] put into the heart by the Holy Ghost.” All this talk about pleasure and love rubs some people the wrong way – for good reason. Anyone who has walked with God for any length of time knows that obedience doesn’t always feel like pleasure. Sometimes it just feels like… well, obedience.
My answer to the question was to say: “Yes. Sometimes a Christian does the right thing just because it’s the right thing. And that’s not something different from doing it ‘with pleasure and love.’”
I don’t think Luther is talking about pleasure and love in obedience. I think he’s talking about pleasure and love in God. Because I love and enjoy God, I want to obey him. And my love for him causes me to obey him even when I don’t “feel like it.” Indeed, even when my obedience is a dutiful, grit-your-teeth discipline, it’s possible that it’s still done “with pleasure and love.” Love for God and joy in him causes me to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
But of course, there is another sort of dutiful, grit-your-teeth obedience: the joyless, religious, moralistic kind. That’s the kind many religious, moralistic Americans are accustomed to. So we have to talk about it. And we have to show why it doesn’t create free, joyful people, but self-righteous, sour, entitled ones.