Sin and Shin–Motivations to Obey

There are several possible motivations for obeying a command, whether a positive command (“do this”) or a negative one (“don’t do that”). First, we might be motivated by fear of punishment. Now clearly we would prefer if someone obeyed the “thou shalt not murder” command for nobler reasons than simply to stay out of jail, but nonetheless, it is both logical and appropriate to fear judgment, especially the judgment of God. Though the believer need not fear final condemnation, there are plenty of New Testament passages reminding us that the fear of the Lord remains just as important in the new covenant era (e.g. 1 Pet 2:17, Acts 9:31).

A second possible motivation is desire for reward. This is the inverse of fear of punishment. A person can be persuaded to obey a command they might otherwise ignore if sufficient incentive is offered. Like fear of punishment, this is hardly the most noble of all motives for obedience. And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to see a problem with holding out rewards as encouragements for us (e.g. Matt 6:4,6,18).

A third possible motivation is a sense of duty. It may be that you do not particularly want to obey a command, but you do so out of a sense of obligation, because of the authority of the one who gave it. But a sense of duty is not a bad thing; and obeying God because it is your duty finds scriptural support (e.g. Luke 17:10). In fact, one of the main ways the New Testament presents the believer’s relationship with Christ is that of a slave and master. We belong to Jesus, and it is our duty to obey him.

So all three of these motivations are in one sense appropriate and biblical. Yet they fall short of being the highest and most noble motivations for obedience. I want to consider two final motivations, both of which crop up in Psalm 119.

The first of these is that we sometimes obey because we are in agreement with the command. If someone commands you to do something you already want to do anyway, or forbids you to do something you don’t want to do, obedience is effortless. In fact, we hardly perceive it as being obedience. If our goals are perfectly aligned with the one we need to submit to, then submission is not a burden, but a delight. The Psalmist expresses this in several places. For example in Ps 119:128 he says “I consider all your precepts right”. In other words, he has become fully convinced of the rightness of God’s commands. He has reached the place where he genuinely wants to do what God commands, not because he is being told to do it, but because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

However, I would say that the highest and greatest motivation for obedience is love (in fact, I have previously blogged that obedience is one of Jesus’ “love languages”). Ultimately, the Psalmist obeys God because he loves God. It is this love for God that has led him to love God’s commands. He delights in obeying God because he desires to please God. This theme crops up a few times in the delightfully named “Sin and Shin” section of Ps 119, but most notably in verse 167:

I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly.

All five of the motivations I have listed are valid, but it seems to me that love must come right at the top of the list. The believer should be able to agree with all five of the following statements, and not just stop after the first few:

I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who lovingly disciplines me when I disobey
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who graciously rewards me when I obey
I obey your statutes, for I know that you are my Master and I am your servant
I obey your statutes, for I am convinced that they are the best and most blessed way to live
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly, because I love you greatly

Persevering Love

I have been reading an excellent book on the perseverance of the saints by Tom Schreiner (review will follow soon). He shows just how pervasive the call to persevere and endure is throughout the New Testament as well as warnings of the solemn consequences of apostasy. This morning I was struck by the closing words of Ephesians:

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible (Eph 6:24 ESV)

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. (Eph 6:24 NIV)

As Schreiner points out from a study on Galatians, perseverance is not to be confused with works-righteousness, where we are required to perform acts of obedience in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we persevere by continually trusting in the cross of Christ.

Apostasy in Hebrews, then, as in Galatians, occurs when believers cease clinging to Christ and his atonement. Believers persevere by continuing to find their forgiveness and final sanctification in Christ instead of themselves.

Despite the Bible translators all translating Eph 6:24 in terms of our love for Jesus being undying, many commentators (e.g. Peter O’Brien, John Stott) seem cautious about accepting this as the meaning of the verse. Would it not undermine Paul’s message if grace were only applied to those who keep on loving Christ?

Having read Schreiner, I am inclined to think not. Just as we are called to persevere in holiness, and to persevere in faith, so here we are called to persevere in love for Christ. Jesus himself links apostasy with our love growing cold in Matt 24:12,13

"And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. "

If this is true, there can be no greater priority for us than to guard our hearts that our love doesn’t grow cold. Prioritise spending time in God’s word and in his presence. Prioritise spending time in worship with his people. The good news is, he is able to keep us from falling:

Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. … To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 21, 24, 25)

The “Love Languages” of Jesus

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of the “five love languages”. The idea is that different personality types appreciate different ways of love being expressed. These are:

  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch

The idea is that if we discover what someone’s “love language” is, we can better communicate our love for them. Now I am sure there is a certain amount of truth in this, but what would you say that Jesus’ “love language” was? In what way does he wish us to express our love for him, and in what way does he show his love for us?

You could probably find occasions in the gospels in which Jesus either ‘spoke’ or was ‘spoken to’ in each of those five languages. But in John 13-17, which I have been working my way through recently, two “love languages” stand out that don’t make it into the list of five.


“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
(John 14:15 ESV)

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.
(John 14:21a ESV)

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word,
(John 14:23a ESV)

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
(John 15:10a ESV)

The main way that Jesus asked his disciples to express their love for him was through obedience. This is not legalism, it is the outworking of love. Jesus has told us plainly that his love language is obedience, and if we love him, we will demonstrate it by keeping his commandments.

Jesus himself demonstrated his own love for the Father in exactly the same way:

… I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. …
(John 14:31 ESV)


Obviously, Jesus did not express his love for his disciples through obedience to them. He certainly gave them quality time, and performed acts of service for them. He promised that he would show his love by “making his home” with his disciples through the indwelling of the Spirit (John 14:23). But the ultimate way that Jesus expresses his love for us is through sacrifice.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
(John 13:1 ESV)

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
(John 15:13 ESV)

Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life demonstrated the extent of his love both for his Father, that he would obey even in this, and for us, that he would willingly die to save us.

Concluding thoughts

I guess I would sum up these verses about love in John with two observations:

  • Claiming to love Jesus is hollow if we are not willing to obey him.
  • We can’t love like Jesus loved, if we are not willing to sacrifice on behalf of others.