Magazine Article

When Obedience is Freedom

A commitment to obedience is not restrictive

Sikhululekile Daco
When Obedience is Freedom

In our fear of legalism, many of us have come to mischaracterize obedience, as though obedience, in and of itself, constitutes legalism (it does not). Without the necessity of obedience in a life of faith, the cross loses its value. Think about it: Were obedience not required for eternal life, then Christ would not have needed to die in our place to fulfill the requirements of the law. No, obedience is not the problem in legalism. The problem is thinking we could ever fully obey God’s holy law in our own strength.

But that is not what I would like to focus on in the next few paragraphs. With the anti-obedience rhetoric out of the way, a different and, I would argue, more subtle mischaracterization emerges, in which we too narrowly define obedience.

When it comes to our actions, is there a black and white, a right and wrong, so to speak? Well, yes, of course! But does that mean there’s only ever one option for what we ought to do in every situation? Well, no, not at all. How do I arrive at that conclusion? Let me explain with my favorite portion of Scripture: Genesis 3.

God had placed Adam and Eve in the pristine Garden of Eden with but one prohibition: They were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was this singular restriction that the devil amplified in his temptation of Eve. “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1) he quipped, magnifying the stipulation as though it outweighed what God had permitted.

In reality God’s command was phrased first in the positive, highlighting all that humanity could do in obedience. He had said, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat” (Gen. 2:16). By the sheer proportion of permissible fruit to forbidden, the opportunity to obey far outweighed the temptation to sin. With respect to the forbidden fruit, there was only one right choice: do not eat it. But when it came to options for what to eat, the garden was filled with more possibilities than Eve could exhaust in a day!

It is too narrow to define obedience by what we must avoid doing. As long as we live our lives on the edge of what God has forbidden, we will find His prohibitions too restrictive. But if we determine, by His grace, not to disobey, if we stay away from the forbidden tree, then our minds are opened to the plethora of possibilities before us. In other words, a commitment to obedience is not restrictive. Rather, it is productive of the greatest freedom possible. A freedom free of guilt, grief, and fear, and one that is bursting with possibilities. That’s how it is possible to be “the strictest observer of [God’s] law,” as Ellen White says of Jesus, and yet move “in perfect freedom.”*

* Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1967), p. 54.

Sikhululekile Daco

Sikhululekile Daco serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.