There is a wonderful example in the New Testament of the enemy’s challenge and the proper response: Acts 4:17–31. The apostles’ response was first according to God’s directive. “But Peter and John answered them: You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight, to obey you or to obey God. For we cannot stop speaking of what we ourselves have seen and heard” (vv. 19–20).
They were then threatened again. The apostles’ response to this second threatening was to present this challenge from the enemy to the Lord: “‘And now, Lord, take notice of the threats they have made, and allow us, your servants, to speak your message with all boldness…’ When they finished praying, the place where they were meeting was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness” (vv. 29, 31). The apostles did not respond to the challenge in the flesh; they obeyed God and gained His power to be obedient.
Obedience is a willing or an unwilling carrying out of an order or a command. Most of our own experience from childhood up has been of the unwilling kind of obedience. This is one of the reasons “volunteer” has a better reputation than “obey.” In our experience volunteering always means being willing. Obedience always means to be unwilling. If, however, we had known something of willing obedience, then volunteering would be out completely. God does not ask for volunteers, nor does He challenge His own children. When Jesus called His disciples, He did the choosing. He said, “Follow me.” It was a simple imperative. There were also a great many volunteers who followed Jesus. The volunteers did not last.
Perhaps you think that volunteering is a greater expression of love than obedience. What is your basis? Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commands, and the man who has received my commands and obeys them—he it is who loves me” (Jn. 14:15, 21). He made simple, absolute, and authoritative statements. These were not challenges seeking volunteers, nor were they goals or landmarks to stretch our reach, to make us try harder. They were imperatives of an absolute nature. Not to obey them was sin. Every imperative from God since has had an absoluteness in its character that defies improvement of the commandment or satisfaction if one falls short of the requirement.
In order to get men into the armed forces, they put out recruiting posters. “Be all that you can be,” “Aim High,” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” These are challenges to appeal to the pride of men so that they will volunteer and join the army. However, once the man volunteers, the whole system changes. He is no longer appealed to. He is commanded, and he obeys. The army could not command him into the army, so they used the challenge in order to get him to volunteer. Once he is in, it is a different story. Enlisting is the beginning of a command-obedience relationship.
There is also an upper limit to this obedience, not as clearly defined as the enlistment at the beginning. In fact, it is always defined after the fact. For instance, an Army captain calls for his own position to be bombed with napalm in order to destroy the enemy who has his company outnumbered and is overrunning his position. He receives the Silver Star and is recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for “danger above and beyond the call of duty.” In the Army, there is a beginning to obedience, and there is a place above and beyond obedience. Between the lower limit and the upper limit the relationship is command-obedience. Is there a lower limit to obedience in our relationship with God? There may be a lower limit in our ability to obey, but not a lower limit in the requirement to obey. This ability begins when we know Jesus Christ. In 1 John 2:3 we are told, “If we obey God’s commands, then we are sure that we know him.” But before we knew Jesus Christ, we were under the command of God. And 1 Timothy 1:9 says, “It must be remembered, of course, that laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who are not religious or spiritual, for men who kill their fathers or mothers.” Even our repentance into life was commanded by God. In fact, it is a command to all men. Here it is in Paul’s declaration at the University of Athens: “God has overlooked the times when men did not know, but now he commands all men everywhere to turn away from their evil ways” (Acts 17:30).
No, God does not have a lower limit to obedience. He does not challenge us to volunteer for Christ. He commands all people everywhere to repent.
*Excerpted from Principles of War. To purchase, visit ccmbooks.org/bookstore.