Small Beginnings of True Obedience - Part 2

Small Beginnings of True Obedience - Part 2

Small Beginning of Obedience

Part one ended with us asking whether Christians are close to perfection with just bits and pieces of indwelling sin left to kill, or if they begin to make real progress in his practical holiness, but are still nowhere near perfection?

The Heidelberg Catechism takes the latter position:

Question 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?

Answer: No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

What a shocking statement! Think of the person you consider to be the most godly person in the whole world. Maybe it is your neighbor, or coworker, a well-known pastor, or one of your own local church pastors. This catechism is saying that even the holiest person in the world has only a small beginning of obedience. In other words, they are much closer to a one on the hypothetical goodness scale than they are to a 99.

We should not take the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement lightly, since Bible-believing, Christ-loving men and women have affirmed this as one of the most respected catechisms for hundreds of years. But the Bible alone is our ultimate authority, so we must prove our positions from Scripture. Does Scripture teach this same thing? I believe it does. First (and most importantly), when the catechism says even the holiest men have only a small beginning of obedience, what standard of obedience is it referring to? Nothing other than the perfect holiness of God himself! “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16). Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). When people in the Bible (converted or unconverted) see God rightly in his holiness, their response is always to recognize their own sinfulness and how far short they fall of God’s standard, like when Isaiah sees something of God’s holiness and he says, “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Isa 6:5). Or when Peter saw a glimpse of the holiness of Christ and he “fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8). Or when Job said to God, “now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6; c.f. Rev 1:17; Ezek 1:28; Judg 13:22; Dan 10:8-9; etc). This is why the Apostle Paul can describe himself as the foremost of sinners using the present tense (1 Tim 1:15) even after he becomes a Christian. He was well awareness of the holiness of God. He knew how, even after his conversion, his motives, actions, and affections fell far short of the perfect holiness of Christ.[1]

Second, the Bible explains that the life of a converted person is a great war against sin and the flesh. Paul says,

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom 7:13-25).[2]

Paul acknowledges, in the present tense, that in his flesh he is still a “wretched man” and that “nothing good dwells in him.” The Christian life he lives is a massive battle against sin. Although he has been declared righteous by faith alone (justified) and is defined by his new status as a child of God and a saint, the war has just begun (Gal 5:17; Jas 4:1; 1 Pet 2:11). The old sinful nature is only beginning to be done away with in practice when compared to the holiness of God, and compared to what we will become when we are glorified (1 Jn 3:2; Phil 3:21; Rom 8:29). This is why Paul says that “now we see in a mirror dimly” and “now we know in part” (1 Cor 13:12). It is why 1 John 1:8 says, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” It is why James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (Jas 3:2), including everyone (“all”) and quantifying the amount of stumbling as great (“many ways”). And in context James is merely referring to sins of the tongue! Later on, he even calls Christians “sinners” (Jas 4:8) and “adulterous people” (Jas 4:4), not because that is their deepest identity as Christians, but because that is how they were living.

Third, a multitude of biblical texts remind us that God desires a contrite heart and a posture of humility before him because we are unrighteous in practice and undeserving of his favor. Isaiah 66:2 says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” And not only does God look to those who are continually contrite in spirit, but he dwells with those who know they are broken. This is for the purpose of encouraging us with his love: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa 57:15). Christians are commanded to mourn over their sin and to continually humble ourselves before God (Jas 4:9-10). The Gentile woman who saw she was unworthy because of her sin was then commended for her great faith (Matt 15:26-27), just like the tax collector “who beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 17:13). It is hard to imagine these people, even after some time passing, beginning to see themselves as overall good people in light of the holiness of God.

Fourth, what do we see when we look at what the Bible teaches regarding what the lives of God’s people look like in practice? Old Testament saints had such extreme issues with sin that if they would have been Christians in the 21st century, many professing Christians would certainly be casting them off as unbelievers (Gen 3:12; Gen 9:20-21; Gen 12:10-19; Gen 16;  Gen 20; Gen 27; Gen 30;  Num 20:10-13; Judg 16;  2 Sam 11; 1 Kings 11:1-8; etc).[3] Similarly, it is quite obvious that the New Testament Christians still fell far short of the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ even after conversion.

For example, consider Jesus’ words to the seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. Five out of the seven churches receive very harsh rebukes. Zechariah the priest, the chosen father of John the Baptist, was struck mute because he failed to believe the words of an angel (Luke 1:18-20). Even one of the leaders of the entire Christian church, the apostle Peter, committed the extremely grievous sin (Matt 10:33) of denying Jesus Christ three times (Matt 26:69-75). Later on, he committed a sin so grievous (and led Barnabas, another strong Christian, astray), that Paul had to publicly rebuke him (Gal 2:11-14). We have already considered Paul’s understanding of himself (1 Tim 1:15; Rom 7:24). Furthermore, in the New Testament we also see statements written to Christians like:

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” Hebrews 5:12

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Galatians 3:1-3

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?” 1 Corinthians 5:1-2

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?” Colossians 2:20-22

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4:1-4

Paul had to write to Christians to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). They still had these sins inside of them. But Paul makes a distinction between having this sin in them and what he calls “walking” and “living” in the sin (Col 3:7).[4] Similarly, the fact that Paul had to exhort Christians to “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom 6:12), necessarily implies that Christians can and often do let sin reign in their mortal body in their practice. By the grace of God, Christians seek to fight and continually repent of sin, but it is by no means even close to eradicated, especially when compared to God’s perfect standard.


In Part three we will look at some biblical objections that are often raised against this concept.

-1689Society Contributor: David T


[1] See Ligonier Ministries, “The Difference Between Our Sanctification and Our Glorification,” YouTube Video, 4:50, January 17, 2013,

[2] I am aware of the minority view that Romans 7:13-25 is not describing a Christian. See this article summarizing John Piper’s biblical views on why this text is referring to the Christian’s experience: Nicholas T. Batzig, “John Piper’s 10 Reasons Why Romans 7:14-25 Is About The Christian’s Experience,” Feeding on Christ, April 2014, accessed January 14, 2019,

[3] For further study see Robert Gonzales Jr., Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).

[4] The apostle John calls it making a “practice of sinning” (1 Jn 3:4-9).

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