This study was written by the English Puritan pastor and author Thomas Watson. It comes from the introduction to his exposition of "The Ten Commandments", which is part of his work entitled A Body of Practical Divinity.
"Take heed, and hearken, O Israel; this day thou art become the people of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt therefore obey the voice of the LORD thy God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command thee this day." (Deut. 27:9-10).
What is the duty which God requireth of man?
Obedience to His revealed will.
It is not enough to hear God's voice, but we must obey. Obedience is a part of the honour we owe to God. "If then I be a Father, where is my honour?" (Mal. 1:6). Obedience carries in it the life-blood of religion. "Obey the voice of the Lord God" (Deut. 27:10), and do His commandments. Obedience without knowledge is blind, and knowledge without obedience is lame. Rachel was fair to look upon, but, being barren, said, "Give me children, or I die;" so, if knowledge does not bring forth the child of obedience, it will die. "To obey is better than sacrifice" (I Sam. 15:22). Saul thought it was enough or him to offer sacrifices, though he disobeyed God's command; but "to obey is better than sacrifice." God disclaims sacrifice, if obedience be wanting. "I spake not unto our fathers concerning burnt-offerings, but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice." (Jer. 7:22). Not but that God did enjoin those religious rites of worship; but the meaning is that He looked chiefly for obedience--without which, sacrifice was but devout folly. The end why God has given us His laws, is obedience. "Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances" (Lev. 18:4). Why does a king publish an edict, but that it may be observed?
What is the rule of obedience?
The written word. That is proper obedience which the word requires; our obedience must correspond with the word, as the copy with the original. To seem to be zealous, if it be not according to the word, is not obedience, but will-worship. [Religious] traditions which have no footing in the word, are abominable; and God will say, Quis quaesivit haec? "Who hath required this at your hand?" (Isa. 1:12). The apostle condemns the worshipping of angels, which had a show of humility (see Col. 2:18). The Jews might say they were loath to be so bold as to go to God in their own persons; they would be more humble, and prostrate themselves before the angels, and desire them to present their petitions to God; but this show of humility was hateful to God, because there was no word to warrant it.
What are the ingredients in our obedience that make it acceptable?
(1) It must be cum animi prolubio, free and cheerful, or it is penance, not sacrifice. "If ye be willing and obedient" (Isa. 1:19). Though we serve God with weakness, it may be with willingness. You love to see your servants go cheerfully about their work. Under the law, God will have a free-will offering (see Deut. 16:10). Hypocrites obey God grudgingly, and against their will; facere bonum, but not velle [they do good but not willingly]. Cain brought his sacrifice, but not his heart. It is a true rule, Quicquid cor non facit, non fit; what the heart does not do, is not done. Willingness is the soul of obedience. God sometimes accepts of willingness without the work, but never of the work without willingness. Cheerfulness shows that there is love in the duty; and love is to our services what the sun is to fruit; it mellows and ripens them, and makes them come off with a better relish.
(2) Obedience must be devout and fervent. "Fervent in spirit," etc. (Rom. 12:11). Quae ebullit prae ardore. As water that boils over; so the heart must boil over with hot affections in the service of God. The glorious angels, who, for burning in fervour and devotion, are called seraphim, are chosen by God to serve Him in heaven. The snail under the law was unclean, because a dull, slothful creature. Obedience without fervency, is like a sacrifice without fire. Why should not our obedience be lively and fervent? God deserves the flower and strength of our affections. Domitian would not have his statue carved in wood or iron, but made of gold. Lively affections make golden services. It is fervency that makes obedience acceptable. Elijah was fervent in spirit, and his prayer opened and shut heaven; and again he prayed, and fire fell on his enemies (see II Kings 1:10). Elijah's prayer fetched fire from heaven, because, being fervent, it carried fire up to heaven.
(3) Obedience must be extensive, it must reach to all God's commands. "Then shall I not be ashamed" (or, as it is in the Hebrew, lo Ehosh, blush) "when I have respect unto all thy commandments." (Ps. 119:6). Quicquid propter Deum fit aequaliter fit [All God's requirements demand equal effort]. There is a stamp of divine authority upon all God's commands, and if I obey one precept because God commands, I must obey all. True obedience runs through all duties of religion, as the blood through all the veins, or the sun through all the signs of the zodiac. A good Christian makes gospel piety and moral equity kiss each other. Herein some discover their hypocrisy: they will obey God in some things which are more facile and may raise their repute; but other things they leave undone. "One thing thou lackest," (Mark 10:21). Herod would hear John Baptist, but not leave his incest. Some will pray, but not give alms; others will give alms, but not pray. "Ye pay tithe of mint and anise, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith." (Matt. 23:23). The badger has one foot shorter than the other; so these are shorter in some duties than in others. God likes not such partial servants, who will do some part of the work he sets them about, and leave the other undone.
(4) Obedience must be sincere. We must aim at the glory of God in it. Finis specificat actionem; in religion the end is all. The end of our obedience must not be to stop the mouth of conscience, or to gain applause or preferment; but that we may grow more like God, and bring more glory to Him. "Do all to the glory of God." (I Cor. 10:31). That which has spoiled many glorious actions, and made them lose their reward, is, that men's aims have been wrong. The Pharisees gave alms, but blew a trumpet that they might have the glory of men (see Matt 6:2). Alms should shine, but not blaze. Jehu did well in destroying the Baal-worshippers, and God commended him or it; but, because his aims were not good (for he aimed at settling himself in the kingdom), God looked upon it as no better than murder. "I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu." (Hos. 1:4). O let us look to our ends in obedience; it is possible the action may be right, and not the heart (see II Chron. 25:2). Amaziah did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, but not with a perfect heart. Two things are chiefly to be eyed in obedience, the principle and the end. Though a child of God shoots short in his obedience, he takes a right aim.
(5) Obedience must be in and through Christ. "He hath made us accepted in the beloved" (Eph. 1:6). Not our obedience, but Christ's merits procure acceptance. In every part of worship we must present Christ to God in the arms of our faith. Unless we serve God thus, in hope and confidence of Christ's merits, we rather provoke Him than please Him. As, when king Uzziah would offer incense without a priest, God was angry with him, and struck him with leprosy (see II Chron. 26:20); so, when we do not come to God in and through Christ, we offer up incense to Him without a priest; and what can we expect but severe rebukes?
(6) Obedience must be constant. "Blessed [is] he that doeth righteousness at all times." (Ps. 106:3). True obedience is not like a high colour in a fit, but it is a right complexion. It is like the fire on the altar, which was always kept burning (see Lev. 6:13). Hypocrites' obedience is but for a season; it is like plastering work, which is soon washed off; but true obedience is constant. Though we meet with affliction, we must go in our obedience. "The righteous shall hold on his way." (Job 17:9). We have vowed constancy; we have vowed to renounce the pomps and vanities of the world, and to fight under Christ's banner to death. When a servant has entered into covenant with his master, and the indentures are sealed, he cannot go back, he must serve out his time; so there are indentures drawn in baptism, and in the Lord's Supper the indentures are renewed and sealed on our part, that we will be faithful and constant in our obedience; therefore we must imitate Christ, who became obedient unto death (see Phil. 2:8). The crown is set upon the head of perseverance. "He that keepeth my works unto the end, I will give him the morning star." (Rev. 2:26,28).
Use one. This condemns those who live in contradiction to the text, and have cast off the yoke of obedience. "As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee." (Jer. 44:16). God bids men pray in their family, but they live in the total neglect of it; he bids them sanctify the Sabbath, but they follow their pleasures on that day; he bids them abstain from the appearance of sin, but they do not abstain from the act; they live in the act of revenge, and in the act of uncleanness. This is a high contempt of God; it is rebellion, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.
Whence is it that men do not obey God? They know their duty, but do it not.
(1) The not obeying God is for want of faith. Quis credidit? "Who hath believed our report?" (Isa. 53:1). Did men believe sin were so bitter, that hell followed at the heels of it, would they go on in sin? Did they believe there was such a reward for the righteous, that godliness was gain, would they not pursue it; but they are atheists, not truly brought into the belief of these things; hence it is that they obey not. Satan's master-piece, his draw-net by which he drags millions to hell, is to keep them in infidelity; he knows, if he can but keep them from believing the truth, he is sure to keep them from obeying it.
(2) The not obeying God is for want of self-denial. God commands one thing, and men's lusts command another; and they will rather die than deny their lusts. If lust cannot be denied, God cannot be obeyed.
Use two. Obey God's voice. This is the beauty of a Christian.
What are the great arguments or incentives to obedience?
(1) Obedience makes us precious to God, his favourites. "If ye will obey my voice, ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people;" you shall be my portion, my jewels, the apple of mine eye. (Exod. 19:5). "I will give kingdoms for your ransom" (Isa. 43:3).
(2) There is nothing lost by obedience. To obey God's will is the way to have our will. [i] Would we have a blessing in our estates? Let us obey God. "If thou shalt hearken to the voice of the Lord, to do all His commandments, blessed shalt thou be in the field: blessed shall be thy basket and thy store." (Deut. 28:1,3,5). To obey is the best way to thrive in our estates. [ii] Would we have a blessing in our souls? Let us obey God. "Obey, and I will be your God." (Jer. 7:23). My Spirit shall be your guide, sanctifier, and comforter. Christ "became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him." (Heb. 5:9). While we please God, we please ourselves; while we give him the duty, he gives us the dowry. We are apt to say, as Amaziah, "What shall we do for the hundred talents?" (II Chron. 25:9). You lose nothing by obeying. The obedient son has the inheritance settled on him. Obey, and you shall have a kingdom. "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32).
(3) What a sin is disobedience! [i] It is an irrational sin. We are not able to stand it out in defiance against God. "Are we stronger than He?" Will the sinner go to measure arms with God? (I Cor. 10:22). He is the Father Almighty, who can command legions. If we have no strength to resist Him, it is irrational to disobey Him. It is irrational, as it is against all law and equity. We have our daily subsistence from Him; in Him we live and move. Is it not just that as we live by Him, we should live to Him? that as He gives us our allowance, so we should give Him our allegiance?
[ii] It is a destructive sin. "The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that obey not the gospel." (II Thess. 1:7,8). He who refuses to obey God's will in commanding, shall be sure to obey His will in punishing. While the sinner thinks to slip the knot of obedience, he twists the cord of his own damnation, and he perishes without excuse. "The servant which knew his lord's will, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes." (Luke 12:47). God will say, "Why did you not obey? you knew how to do good, but did not; therefore your blood is upon your own head."
What means shall we use that we may obey?
(1) Serious consideration. Consider, God's commands are not grievous: He commands nothing unreasonable (see I John 5:3). It is easier to obey the commands of God than sin. The commands of sin are burdensome; let a man be under the power of any lust, how he tires himself! what hazards he runs, even to endangering his health and soul, that he may satisfy his lusts! What tedious journeys did Antiochis Epiphanes take in persecuting the Jews! "They weary themselves to commit iniquity;" and are not God's commands more easy to obey? Chrysostom says, virtue is easier than vice; temperance is less burdensome than drunkenness. Some have gone with less pains to heaven, than others to hell.
God commands nothing but what is beneficial. "And now, Israel, what doth the Lord require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, and to keep his statutes, which I command thee this day, for thy good?" (Deut. 10:12,13). To obey God, is not so much our duty as our privilege; His commands carry meat in the mouth of them. He bids us repent; and why? That our sins may be blotted out (see Acts 3:19). He commands us to believe: and why? That we may be saved (see Acts 16:31). There is love in every command: as if a king should bid one of his subjects dig in a gold mine, and then take the gold to himself.
(2) Earnest supplication. Implore the help of the Spirit to carry you on in obedience. God's Spirit makes obedience easy and delightful. If the loadstone draw the iron, it is not hard for it to move; so if God's Spirit quicken and draw the heart, it is not hard to obey. When a gale of the Spirit blows, we go full sail in obedience. Turn His promise into a prayer. "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes." (Ezek. 36:27). The promise encourages us, the Spirit enables us to obey.