This summer we took a family vacation to the West Coast. Like all good tourists, we took in a day at the beach. And like all good tourists, I demonstrated my ignorance of proper beach precautions. Everyone knows that if you are coming from Iowa to go to the beach, you had better be well armed with sunscreen. We were, but in putting on the sunscreen I neglected to apply it to one part of my body—the tops of my feet. I guess that I thought, “I’ve never been sunburned on the tops of my feet before, why should I put sunscreen there?” Well, I paid the price. Boiled lobster provides no brighter fed than the tops of my feet did by day’s end. The red was replaced by white blisters in the morning. The next three to four days were complete agony as I attempted to put shoes on and walk on those parts of my body that I didn’t think needed protection.
As I reflect on that unwise decision, I am struck by how unwise it is for us to conclude that we do not need to obey every part of God’s Word. Sometimes we conclude that a certain part of God’s Word is not really relevant for us today. Or we imagine that a portion of Scripture was written to address a specific problem in a specific age, and therefore, it is not essential for us to obey that command today. We leave ourselves vulnerable to being burned when we overlook, or neglect even one portion of God’s Word—even a portion that does not seem that important.
James says, “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete by what he did” (James 2:21, 22). What was it that made Abraham’s faith “complete”? It was complete obedience to the command of God that he offer his son Isaac on the altar. Do we suffer from incomplete faith because we are unwilling to obey all of God’s commands—even His extremely difficult and perplexing ones?
Do you think that Abraham eagerly set out to obey the command to: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you about”? Imagine that his whole being cried out in protest at this command: “This is the son that you promised me! How can you now command me to sacrifice him? This command is completely contrary to your very character. The pagan nations around me offer human sacrifices to their gods, but you are the giver of life, not the taker. How can you make such a demand of me?” The inner anguish that Abraham must have gone through when he heard the Lord speak this command may well have been greater than we can imagine. The emotional turmoil was equal to or exceeds any turmoil that we experience today over God’s difficult commands.
Yet, what did he do?
• Did he appoint a committee to study what the Lord really meant by the word “sacrifice”? “Surely the Lord doesn’t mean this literally. I had better study this in the context, to make sure that I know what God really said.”
• Did he conclude: “This command really binds my conscience. I believe that God values life, and now He is asking me to take life. Therefore, God’s specific command is contradicting the general flow of revelation, so I had better go with my general understanding of God, rather than this specific command”?
• Did he say, “That sounds like a command that was intended for my Canaanite brothers with their archaic ideas of placating the wrath of the gods. However, it could never have been intended for me, a child of the Covenant”?
Abraham could have said any of those things. He could have done any of them. And we would probably find people today who would defend his decision. But, then his faith would have been shown for what it was—a shallow faith of convenience—a faith that was willing to obey God when it felt right; a faith that was willing to obey God when obeying Him agreed with his agenda; a faith that was willing to obey God as long as it did not require that he struggle with understanding this incomprehensible God, who could promise one thing and command another.
But that was not Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s was a faith that was willing to lay his son—“his only son, Isaac, whom [he] loved”—upon the altar and raise his knife to offer the ultimate sacrifice, complete obedience. It was for that faith that Abraham heard the angel of the Lord say: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” It was that act of obedience that made Abraham’s faith “complete.” It was that act of obedience for which Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice” (v. 17).
Obedience requires sacrifice—usually a sacrifice of our own wills; often a sacrifice of our own desires; sometimes even a sacrifice of what our understanding of God really is.
One of the most insidious and divisive evils that confronts the church today is incomplete obedience. Incomplete obedience comes in many forms. Those who say, “All that is important is that I love Jesus. It doesn’t really matter how I live.” Or those who say, “Certain portions of God’s Word do not have to be obeyed today, because they are culturally bound.” Of course, Scripture must be evaluated in light of its culture and context. But that does not mean, that if we tend not to agree with the teaching of a passage, that we are free to sacrifice it on the altar of antiquity so that we are free to follow our liberated consciences.
I have heard and read statements that harangue the Majority Report to Synod on the Women in Office issue. They accuse the report of being unpastoral and insensitive in its statements concerning the “clear teaching” of Scripture which prohibits women from holding office in the church. Are the commands of Paul in 1 Cor. 11, 14 and 1 Tim. 2 any less clear than the command of God to Abraham in Gen. 22? I don’t think: so. However, like the command of God to Abraham, these are not easy commands to understand or obey. When God says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), how can He also say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (I Tim. 2:12)? When God is actively destroying “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14b) in the church, how can he reinforce role distinctions within the church in other parts of Scripture? It seems to me that the reason is found in the design of God’s created roles, as Paul determines. However, if someone else cannot accept such a created order, should they not obey God’s clear command, even though they don’t understand it? Shouldn’t they show the faith of Abraham, obeying God even when it doesn’t make sense to us? Can their faith also be shown to be “complete” by obeying God’s commands, even when those commands “bind our consciences”? No, we don’t understand everything that God commands, but we must obey everything He commands. No, we may not agree with all of the “clear” teachings of Scripture, but our obedience must overrule our disagreement. God desires, and God commends complete obedience.
There are many who are calling for unity and oneness within our denomination. That could come if we, as a denomination, would make a renewed commitment to complete obedience to God’s Word. Some are saying that we should just “agree to disagree.” If we agree to be completely obedient to all of God’s Word we will find that we are no longer disagreeing. There are many who are calling the church to be about its task, rather than squabbling over issues. This commitment to the work of the Lord would come if we would all strive after complete obedience.
We need to recognize that God’s ways are not our ways. When we think that doing the work of the Lord will be assisted by making the church more compatible with the world, we need to acknowledge that God’s ways are superior to the world’s ways. We need to admit that sometimes we aren’t going to feel completely comfortable with a command of God, but He wants obedience anyway. Sometimes we might feel that complete obedience “binds our consciences.” But when we practice complete obedience we will find the freedom of being “called God’s friend,” as did Abraham.
Complete obedience, that is what God desires. Anything less will leave us unprotected. Anything less will allow us to get burned!
Rev. Kats is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Austinville, IA.