Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Christian Duty: An Oxymoron?

Is the concept of "christian duty" an oxymoron? To hear many people in Evangelical Christianity today it seems so. Just mention the term in sermon or conversation and see if people don't start to squirm and mutter about "legalism" and "phariseeism." Recently there has been a resurgence of the whole "Lordship Salvation" controversy. It touches on this issue. Do I have a duty to obey God as Lord and Master and is that duty somehow tied to my salvation or assurance of salvation?

I do not think that I can conclusively solve this debate when great men have fought across the field without victory. But, I will wade in with my little two cents!

The concept of duty is definitely a New Testament one. We find the word in the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ when he tells his disciples that men ought to pray and men ought to worship (Lk 18:1; John 4:20). The word is used 104 times in the NT and it is frequently translated as ought, should, or must. It comes from another Greek word that is often translated as "bound." Sometimes these are references to things that need to be done like, "I must work the works of Him that sent me…(Jn 9:4). But there are plenty of things that we must do. They are duties. We are bound to do them.

Here is a brief list:
•We must be compassionate and forgiving (Mt 18:33)
•We must not be troubled by the world situation around us; we must preach the gospel (Mk 13:7-10)
•We must speak the gospel (Lk 12:12; Ep 6:20; Col 4:4-6)
•We must observe the sabbath (Lk 13:14)
•We must pray (Lk 18:1; Ro 8:26)
•We must worship God in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24)
•We must obey God rather than men (Ac 5:29)
•We must go through trials (Ac 14:22)
•We must be generous (Ac 20:35)
•We must be humble (Ro 12:3)
•We must know some things (1 Co 8:2; He 2:1; He 11:6)
•We must encourage those who minister to us (2 Co 2:3)
•We must walk in a way that is pleasing to God (1 Th 4:1; 1 Tim 3:2-15; Ti 1:7; 2 Pe 3:11)
•We must follow godly leaders (2 Th 3:7)
•We must be gentle (2 Tim 2:24)

Here is the rub. By what are we bound to these duties and what do they accomplish. Doing duty can never accomplish any form of salvation. Throughout scripture we are reminded of our inability to please God or measure up to His standard of righteousness. The best verse is Is 64:6 where the prophet posits that even if we could be really righteous it would not be enough to earn favor with God. Our only hope for salvation is Christ. So what then is this duty?

The fact that our duty does not save us in no way obviates us from that duty as some would simplistically have it. The idea that we can partake of God's saving grace and mercy and yet be unchanged is absurd. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. But the work of Christ is to save us from the sin that separates us from God. So this saving faith must perforce include repentance from the sin or else we have nothing from which to be saved. And the evidence of this saving faith is revealed in how we do our duty to God and others.

The Westminster divines state, "The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in … their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind." This is not the drudge duty of slavery but the joyful duty of the family. I do not need to instruct my children of their duty to receive gifts from me. I rarely need to be reminded of my duty to eat my supper that my wife has prepared. My wife does not need to remind me of my husbandly duty to her. These are duties that we willingly perform.

So Christian duty is no oxymoron! It is what a heart that has submitted itself to Christ will joyfully and willingly perform. The reason that we have these duties enumerated to us is that, in the bent of our natural man, we do not know these duties. We are like children who have never seen a wrapped present and so do not understand the joy that comes from unwrapping and receiving the gift inside.

Christ is the Lord of all the cosmos. We must come to Him in belief that He is able to save us as the one that He is. As we enter into His Kingdom we take upon ourselves duties. They may look just like the duties that our previous religious background had saddled us with. The difference is in the heart that informs our obedience.


Kris Stephens said...

Some great points here, Jon. I think what a lot of people react to, though, is the heart of a person who does "his duty" out of a mere sense of duty rather than out of love. For instance, you mentioned the duties that you have in your relationship with Jen. Do you perform those duties out of a sense of duty or out of love for your wife? The motive of love is certainly higher than the motive of fulfilling a duty/requirement.

Inherently tied with performing the duties of a Christian out of a motivation simply to do your duty, I think, is the idea that performing my duty to God gains favor for me in the eyes of God. As if I am wholly responsible for the ability to perform such duties!

As with so many things, the right view is somewhere in the middle. Yes, there are duties for the Christian, yet his motivation for doing them must be love and devotion to God.

C.S. Lewis has a good quote on this. I posted it on my blog here.

Jon from Reidville, SC said...


You are right but too many Christians have moved beyond the point of worrying about heart-felt obedience and moved right on to questioning anyone who tries to talk about duty.

Try and talk about the sabbatical principle some time. I was told by someone at my church that, "that is an OT thing and only applied to the Jews." What I am seeing is a lot of people who want to talk about holy living and obedience but are afraid to talk about specifics like the Ten Commandments and clear issues of worldliness.


ricky said...


Great post! I know that this is an area that I struggle to achieve a balance. I don't want to be driven by legalistic duty, nor do I want to want to fall into "gracious" liberalism. I know that God desires that we be driven out out of our delight for Him - our love for Him. But, also, He wants us to keep His commands. His commands are non-negotioble. "If you love me, keep my commands." You have once again challenged me to eveluate my motives. Thanks.


Jon from Reidville, SC said...


Thanks for the good comments. I think you stated it very well. We need to love God AND keep His commandments. Too often our flesh wants to make it a one or the other thing. I have often found it true that we "stumble over happiness in the path of duty!"