A Relationship Without Obedience Is No Relationship At All

As part of a devotional I’m doing with my family, I’m reading selections from Oswald Chamber’s book My Utmost for His Highest. In one place, Chambers speaks about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus in our lives:

When we are born again, if we are spiritual at all, we have visions of what Jesus wants us to be. It is important that I learn not to be “disobedient to the heavenly vision”–not to doubt that it can be attained. It is not enough to give mental assent to the fact that God has redeemed the world, nor even to know that the Holy Spirit can make all that Jesus did a reality in my life. I must have the foundation of a personal relationship with Him. Paul was not given a message or a doctrine to proclaim. He was brought into a vivid, personal, overpowering relationship with Jesus Christ. Acts 26:16 is tremendously compelling “… to make you a minister and a witness …” There would be nothing there without a personal relationship. Paul was devoted to a Person, not to a cause. He was absolutely Jesus Christ’s. He saw nothing else and he lived for nothing else. “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

The statement that “Paul was devoted to a Person, not to a cause” is a helpful one for me, and it is clear from what Paul wrote (c.f. Galatians 1:21, “To live is Christ and to die is gain”; Philippians 3). I am often tempted to reduce Jesus to a Philosophy. Making Jesus a Philosophy smooths out his quirks (read: difficult sayings) and allows me to think of Jesus as a set of concepts and ideas that can be merged with my preexisting assumptions. It is also wholly dishonest to how Jesus lived his life and what he taught.

Despite Chambers highlighting this truth, I get a little leery when he or others emphasize our “personal relationship” with Jesus. The reason is not that it is not important, but because people can often separate a “relationship” with Jesus from obedience to what Jesus commands. As an example: Chambers says that “Paul was not given a message or a doctrine to proclaim.” While Paul preached Jesus first, that certainly came with a message. When you actually read Acts 26, Paul says “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.” That sounds like a message or doctrine to me!

Yet this message is intimately connected with the person of Jesus. 1 John 5:1-5 is a scripture I think of often when I consider what it means to have a relationship with God, but the primary scripture I think about is John 14-15. Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, and he repeatedly defines what it means to love him. His definition? Love to him is obedience to his commands. Some examples:

If you love me, keep my commands.

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

You are my friends if you do what I command.

This is a simple principle, but it is often lost when people emphasize a “personal relationship” with Jesus, a nice-sounding phrase that often centers around an emotional experience. To be sure, although the word “relationship” doesn’t appear in scripture, the concept is all over the place. In John 15, Jesus calls his disciples “friends!” But he defines very clearly the conditions of that friendship: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” A relationship without obedience is no relationship at all.