Imagine a scenario where a pastor says to a congregation, “You must be righteous, you must live a holy life, you must obey God’s commands.” Probably such a statement would result in some head nodding and some head shaking among the congregation. The head shakers would proclaim that the pastor has abandoned salvation by grace alone; the head nodders would affirm the importance of obedience in the Christian life.
What are we to make of this word “must”–particularly as it applies to Christians. Can we say that a Christian must obey, must be righteous? As it stands, it may be true, or it may be false, depending on how that phrase is understood. Let’s imagine some true and false endings of the phrase.
You must be righteous, in order to earn eternal salvation from God. FALSE. Salvation is based on grace, not works.
You must be righteous, or God will stop loving you, or will love you less. FALSE. God’s love is based on Christ, not us.
You must be righteous, because this is God’s calling for you as a Christian. TRUE. We have been recreated in Christ, to do good works.
You must be righteous, because a life of continual disobedience reveals an unsaved heart. TRUE. True Christians truly obey.
It is true that Christians must be righteous, but why this is so is crucially important as well. Let’s make a comparison to a much greater “must” in the Bible.
Jesus Christ must return to gather his bride, the church, and make her spotless for eternity. Now, we can affirm that this future event is a certainty. There is no chance Jesus will fail to return. It is as certain as if it had already happened. Yet, does this truth mean that Jesus need not actually return for his bride? Since he will return, does that mean any less that he must return?
In a similar way, we can say that truly saved Christians must obey God. Some Christians and even some teachers are uncomfortable with the word must (or some similar phrase) in talking about the responsibilities of Christians. They might prefer to say that Christians “may” obey or perhaps even that Christian “will” obey (and therefore discussing it is unnecessary). But acknowledging that Christians will obey as an increasing pattern in their life, or even that they will disobey in some ways until the final day, does not contradict the truth that they must obey. Jesus must return, even though we know he will. Christian must obey, even though we know they will, and that their occasions of disobedience do not cost them salvation or alter God’s love. God has so arranged it that his people must do things that he will not punish them if they don’t do. The consequence of failing the “must” is, for the Christian, failure, but not punishment, sin, but not wrath, disobedience, but not alienation. For true Christians, this consequence is consequence enough. In increasing ways, they will do what they must do.
To the Christian who asks, “Must I obey the commands of the Scriptures in the way that they apply to me as a new creation in Christ?” We must respond: God will love you no less when you don’t, you’re not saved by your works when you do, you will increasingly obey through the power of the Spirit, and……yes, you must.