“Following Jesus is about a relationship, not rules.”
That was the statement made to me years ago when I was teaching on obedience to Christ. When I spoke of humble surrender and spiritual discipline, the knee-jerk response of one person was to label my remarks as being legalistic because he “operated from a place of freedom.”
“I agree with you. I’m not emphasizing rules, but our response to a relationship with Jesus,” I said. I then asked, “Could you define how you understand ‘freedom?’”
“Being able to do whatever I want to do,” he replied.
I shook my head. “But that is not freedom. Freedom is being able to do the things you should do.”
His first statement is true: Christianity is about a relationship, not rule-following. But if we are not careful in defining what is meant by the terms, we will unintentionally lead others astray.
We can never achieve right standing with God by following rules but only by receiving the righteousness of Jesus (Philippians 3:9). So then, some would say that all the rules and regulations of the Bible are bad or even evil. But all those restrictions and requirements and rules are there for a reason: they show us just how holy God is and how fallen we are (Romans 7:12-13). It’s not that we are good people being held to a bad standard; we are bad people being held to a perfect standard. God’s standard isn’t the problem; we are.
So then we lay aside any works or any ability of our own as a means to be made right with God (Isaiah 64:6). We receive his gift of salvation knowing that we did nothing to gain it and can do nothing to keep it. God loves us in Christ, and we no longer seek to achieve the impossibility of earning his love. All of it is by God’s grace, and by that grace alone we enter into a relationship with him.
The Bible sees this relationship as being between a father and child (Romans 8:15) as well as between a master and his slave (Romans 1:1, 6:18; 1 Corinthians 6:20). Many people have had hurtful or absent fathers, and slavery is condemned around the world, so some may bristle at those particular metaphors, even though they are both found throughout the Bible. The illustrations drive home some important points: God is a perfect, loving Father and Master (unlike humans), and we are under his care, provision and reign.
In Christ, we have the freedom and the desire to follow him as we walk in relationship. In other words, if we have a true relationship with him, we will pursue surrender, obedience and holiness. We do not work for salvation; we work from salvation.
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:23-24).
“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).
How can we live in that kind of radical obedience? By submitting to God’s power and will as he works in us (Philippians 2:13).
It is about a relationship, not rules, but love doesn’t eliminate lordship. Love is surrender of our own desires for those of another, and the proof of love is how we respond when Jesus says, “Follow me.”
We will always remember that salvation is a gift of grace. – Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
We will show evidence of our faith by our works for God. – James 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
We will embrace that we were created for good works for the glory of Christ. – Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.