In one sense the question, “Is obedience optional,” is merely a variation of the question Paul asks in Rom 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” It is a question I have heard often.
Of course, we should not be surprised when people who do not believe in eternal security ask this question. According to such people, good works are necessary to gain and maintain one’s salvation. If one’s obedience falls below some vague standard, then salvation is lost unless and until the person confesses and repents and gets back on track.
However, when we hear someone who believes in eternal security ask this question, we are naturally surprised. If someone believes that once anyone is saved he will always remain saved, then how could he possibly wonder if ongoing obedience is necessary in order to go to heaven?
Earlier this fall I presented a seminar in Moline, Illinois. There I received variations of the question, “Is obedience optional,” from a young man just entering the pastorate. He believed in eternal security, yet he kept asking me questions, such as: “Can a person who believes in Christ and is an alcoholic go to heaven?” “Can one who believes and is an adulterer go to heaven?” “A homosexual?” “A murderer?”
Receiving that kind of question from one who believes in eternal security causes me to be both saddened and amazed. Modern Reformed thought has garbled the Gospel so badly that it is a wonder anyone ever gets saved under such preaching.
Obedience Optional for Salvation
If when one asks, “Is obedience optional?” he means, “Is obedience optional in order to go to heaven?” the answer is a resounding yes. Otherwise no one would be saved. No one!
Think about it. If disobedience excludes one from the kingdom, then only those who are never disobedient would get in. And, according to verses like 1 John 1:8, 10, there is no Christian alive who is completely obedient in his or her Christian walk.
Some will object that what they mean is that habitual disobedience excludes one from heaven, not occasional disobedience.
If believers never arrive at a point where they can truthfully say that they are without sin, then they are habitual sinners. There is no such thing as a believer who avoids habitual sin.
Some may further object that Scripture says that murderers, adulterers, homosexuals and the like will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21). Thus while all believers sin habitually in the sense that they sin daily, true believers never habitually commit big sins.
This argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny either. For one thing the vice lists of 1 Cor 6:9-11 and Gal 5:19-21 contain sins which many don’t think of as “big sins.” Those lists include, for example, the sins of strife, envy, jealousy, covetousness, hatred, and selfish ambitions. I have never had anyone ask me if a covetous or jealous or selfish person could get into the kingdom. Instead they ask about sins on the list like murder, drunkenness, and homosexuality. Why? The answer is because it is easier to feel smug about one’s performance in external areas than it is in matters of the heart.
For another thing, the verses in question do not concern kingdom entrance. Rather, they concern kingdom inheritance. That is a big difference. I have discussed this elsewhere (see, for example, my article on Gal 5:19-21 in the Autumn 1991 issue of the journal). Space doesn’t allow more than a statement of conclusions here.
Inheritance refers to what parents leave their children. A true child may be disinherited. In fact, I had a relative (who has since died) who was disinherited by her parents because of her disobedience. Yet she remained a child in the family, attended family get-togethers, etc.
Believers whose lives are characterized by things like covetousness, jealousy, murder, and the like will not inherit the kingdom in the sense that they will not rule with Christ. Compare 2 Tim 2:12 and Rev 2:26.
Obedience Not Optional for Sanctification
If when one asks, “Is obedience optional,” he means, “Is obedience optional in order to please God and grow in the Christian life?” the answer is a resounding no.
Many things are conditioned upon ongoing obedience for the Christian. They include: progressive sanctification, the fruit of the Spirit, present blessings, eternal rewards (including eternal treasure, rulership, special garments, special abundance of life, etc.), pleasing God, being praised by the Lord Jesus at His Judgment Seat, feeling confident and not ashamed of ourselves at His Judgment Seat, and being in fellowship with God and with committed Christians.
I marvel at those who charge us in the Free Grace camp of teaching that obedience is optional in the Christian life. That is a ridiculous charge. We strongly and repeatedly teach that God commands us to obey Him and that many blessings come with obedience and many unpleasant things come with disobedience.
At the bottom of this question is a fear that those who know with certainty that they are eternally secure will go out and live like the devil. However, that is just not so.
Grace permits the possibility of abuse, yes. However, grace in no way encourages disobedience. God’s grace in eternal salvation does not cancel the biblical teaching that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7). A believer who walks in darkness will stumble and fall and hurt himself every time. There is no such thing as sinning with impunity. Sin never pays.
In addition, grace promotes obedience because of the gratitude it engenders. Those who understand and accept God’s grace are filled with a strong feeling of gratitude for what the Lord has done for them. This gratitude prompts us to loving obedience. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Similarly John wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The beauty of God’s saving grace is that while obedience is not required to gain or keep it, yet that very grace powerfully motivates those who have received it to loving obedience!