McDonald's Theology of Obedience
by Daniel Koehn
One of the most important themes of George MacDonald's teaching is that of obedience. It would be difficult to find any work of MacDonald's in which the theme of obedience was not touched upon in some way. From poetry to novels, from fairy tales to essays, George MacDonald labored the importance of obedience in the life of the believer. In this essay, I would like to explore MacDonald's theology of obedience as found in his three series of Unspoken Sermons,1 and compare that theology with the teachings of Holy Scripture. MacDonald's theology cannot easily be "proof-texted," but is nonetheless quite in harmony with the major themes of Scripture.
With MacDonald, the starting point of all theology, and especially that of obedience, is in the personal loving relationship of the eternal Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Their relationship is the antecedent reality behind all human relationships, and the person of Jesus is the one through whom that relationship is revealed. He also stands as the model of God's intended and desired relationship with all humankind. Jesus was, for this reason, the true starting point for all mankind. He is the way back to the Father. As Jesus walked, so are we to walk. As Jesus thought, so are we to think. As Jesus obeyed his father, so are we to obey. Jesus is indeed the starting point and the way back, for he says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."2
Willing and Being
MacDonald's teaching emphasizes the importance of the will with regard to ontology, or being. For MacDonald, Jesus' will, in response to the Father's will, is foundational to his own ontology as the Son of God. He is not the Son of God because he cannot help it, but because he chooses to be. MacDonald says it like this: "It was the will of Jesus to be the thing God willed and meant him, that made him the true son of God. He was not the son of God because he could not help it, but because he willed to be in himself the son that he was in the divine idea."3 MacDonald also notes that "this active willing to be the Son of the Father, perfect in obedience-is that in Jesus which responds and corresponds to the self-existence of God."4 So, inseparable from the ontology of the Son is his willing to be the son his Father wants him to be. From all eternity, the Son has never existed without this activity of the will in obedient response to his Father-without this crying out of his soul, "Thy will, not mine, be done." MacDonald asserts that in this obedient willing, the Son "completed and held fast the eternal circle of his existence….He made himself what he is by deathing himself into the will of the eternal Father, through which will he was the eternal Son."5
MacDonald believed that Jesus revealed to us the very nature of eternal sonship by his willed obedience. There is no other kind of sonship to the Father. So when MacDonald applies Jesus' example to us, he says,
It was to take a step on this journey of free, willing obedience, to progress into the divine obedience of the Son, that man was given the tree in the garden as an opportunity of exercising such obedience. But our parents chose the empty path and stepped out of fellowship with the eternally obedient Son, out of fellowship with the eternal God. MacDonald called Jesus "the obedient God"7 and asserted that because Jesus was no less divine than the Father, obedience and submission are as divine as ruling and willing.8 We would have grown by obedience into a further participation in the divine nature, but we cut ourselves off from God when we chose to disobey. When we are reconciled and restored to God, we are brought back into the eternal obedient life of the Son, where we may abide forever.
To reiterate, the will is very important in MacDonald's theology. It is inseparable from divine ontology, and from our own participation in the divine nature, from the ontology of our being sons and daughters of God. No one participates in the divine nature in a strictly passive sense. Any participation of man in the divine nature must include the will, both of God and of man. This does not simply imply man's effort, but man's enabled response to the grace of God. MacDonald writes,
It is the writer's conviction that these concepts regarding the will are biblical. MacDonald supports the need for our willing obedience with regard to sonship by explaining John 1:12. He points out that to those who received him and believed in his name, Jesus gave power to become sons of God. He did not make them sons, according to the text, but enabled them to become sons. They had to share in the process by responding in obedience. As for Jesus, he did not "become" the Son of God by his obedience, as though there was a time when he was not the eternal Son of God, or was of a disobedient spirit. He did, however, learn obedience in the flesh through his sufferings, and having been perfected and made High Priest forever, he has worthily become the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.10 He is therefore able to sympathetically guide and assist struggling believers into that relationship of faithful obedience to the Father that is co-essential with his own sonship, thus "bringing many sons to glory."11
The point of this concept is that willing is an indispensable part of the divine nature that God invites us to share. When in obedience we will his will, we participate in the very nature of the Son of God, who willed the Father's will, and "humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."12 Notice the biblical importance of the will as seen in the prayer in Gethsemane, which is at the very heart of God's revelation of his nature to us. The prayer centers on the will of the Son in relation to the will of the Father. Jesus yields his will to the Father: "Not my will, but thine, be done."13 When Jesus, in the submission of his own free will, wills the will of the Father, we see into the very heart of the divine nature, and perceive there the turning point of human history.
The tree in the garden was also an issue of the will-an issue of obedience. It was through the commandment that man received the opportunity to take a step up and participate in the divine nature by willing the will of God, and thus sharing a new and further fellowship with the Son. We had come into existence by God's will, not our will, but we would remain in fellowship with God only by submitting our will to him in uncoerced, loving obedience. This was the eternal nature of the Son. Thus, the "bondage of the will" is not at all God's design for mankind. In fact, MacDonald asserts that "the freer the man, the stronger the bond that binds him to him who made his freedom."14 God made us in his own image, able to choose freely. He wants to set us free from the bondage to sin brought about by the fall, that we may once again walk in utter freedom before him and offer up a willing sacrifice of worship to him.
Obedience and Actual Righteousness
MacDonald's understanding of righteousness plays heavily into his teaching on obedience. In fact, he could not conceive of human righteousness without obedience. He believed that the righteousness offered in the New Testament is indeed an actual, not an "imputed" righteousness, in the common use of the term. He expounds this in his sermon entitled "Righteousness" in the third series of Unspoken Sermons, in which he explores the nature of Abraham's faith.
MacDonald strongly rejected the doctrine of imputed righteousness, calling it a sort of legal fiction in which "Jesus was treated as what he was not, in order that we might be treated as what we are not."15 MacDonald explains that the primary use of the word imputed, from which the doctrine most likely sprang, is connected with Abraham's faith being "reckoned" or "imputed' to him as righteousness. He says, "What was it that was imputed to Abraham? The righteousness of another? God forbid! It was his own faith. The faith of Abraham is reckoned to him for righteousness. To impute the righteousness of one to another, is simply to act a falsehood; to call the faith of a man his righteousness is simply to speak the truth."16 As MacDonald understood it, there was no such thing as a wicked person being credited with the righteousness of another, being counted other than he was, being considered righteous when he was not righteous. And to believe that God employed such false scales was unthinkable to MacDonald. On the other hand, a person who believes in God and takes him at his word in such a way that he will step out in faith in response to that word, is actually righteous. There is no fiction or divine pretense about it. The man may not be perfect in righteousness, but he has the germ of true righteousness in him. MacDonald explains that "the very act of believing in God after such fashion that, when the time of action comes, the man will obey God, is the highest act, the deepest, loftiest righteousness of which a man is capable, is at the root of all other righteousness, and the spirit of it will work till the man is perfect."17
MacDonald was deliberate to say he believed that man is saved by faith, but he was just as deliberate to rightly define biblical faith. He believed that faith could not be rightly understood apart from obedience. To him, "faith and obedience are one and the same spirit, passing, as it were, from room to room in the same heart: what in the heart we call faith, in the will we call obedience."18 If a man does not obey God, then he does not have faith in God. A man's real faith is that which he lives by, not the religious theory or intellectual interpretation he espouses.19 It is this living by faith, this obedience, that plants righteousness in the realm of the actual for the believer.
Does MacDonald's emphasis on obedience suggest that man's salvation is achieved by a particular brand of "works" rather than received by grace? No, it does not. God in his grace is the originator of the possibility of our becoming his sons and daughters by the obedience of faith. Had Jesus not called to Peter to come to him on the water, Peter could not have come. Had Jesus not had authority over the elements, Peter could not have come. Jesus originated the possibility for Peter. Peter's faith must rest entirely on Jesus himself, not on Peter or anyone else. But MacDonald would not have us forget that Peter had a role of his own to play. Jesus' ability to sustain Peter on the surface of the water would have gone undemonstrated had Peter not in faith risen and stepped out of the boat. Jesus will not disregard or trump the free will he has given us. Our own response affects his work among us. "And he did not do many miracles there, because of their unbelief."20 MacDonald never ceases exhorting believers in light of this crucial element of human response. MacDonald explains that "if a man is to be blamed for not choosing righteousness, for not turning to the light, for not coming out of the darkness, then the man who does choose and turn and come out, is to be justified in his deed, and declared righteous."21 The human response of faith toward God is praiseworthy, and God considers it righteousness.
Obedience and Relationship
MacDonald saw obedience in terms of relationship. Obedience opens the way for a particular kind of relationship to God, a oneness with God. He says, "To do his words is to enter into vital relation with him, to obey him is the only way to be one with him. The relation between him and us is an absolute one; it can nohow begin to live but in obedience: it is obedience."22 He goes on to say, "What!" have I the poorest notion of a God, and dare think of entering into relations with him, the very first of which is not that what he saith, I will do? The thing is eternally absurd."23
For MacDonald, obedience is not just the doorway into oneness with God; it is the very nature of true relationship to God. It is more than a single decision or act; it is a whole way of thinking and responding. It is a posture of relationship. MacDonald writes, "When a man can and does entirely say, 'Not my will, but thine be done'-when he so wills the will of God as to do it, then is he one with God-one, as a true son with a true father."24 When we are in an obedient relationship with God as MacDonald understands it, we are no longer outside, but rather, inside, participating in the divine life. It is through this participation in the divine life that we are empowered to continue in obedience.
The actual righteousness described above is nothing but a participation in the very righteousness of Christ. Just as he was righteous by obedient faith in his Father, so all who follow him in obedient faith are righteous just as he is righteous. This righteousness is never autonomous. It is always shared. Christ was never righteous apart from his Father, but rather in his Father. So we are never righteous apart from Christ, but only in him. We are righteous as branches that remain in the vine, as bodies that remain connected to the head. If we disconnect from the Source, we cease to be righteous. But if we remain connected, we ourselves are truly righteous with the very righteousness of God. We walk as he walked,25 inhabited by him and inhabiting him. We were made for such, made for true and righteous fellowship with the Father and the Son.
MacDonald's understanding of obedience requires the indwelling of God himself in the believer. It cannot be sustained by merely seeing the Son as our divine role model and trying to follow his example (though obedience indeed includes that). In speaking of our living the life that God intends for us, MacDonald cries, "Hopeless task!"-were it not that he offers to come himself, and dwell in us."26 We need more than just a role model. Our obedience is made possible by the grace-radiating presence of Jesus, who offers to us a vital relationship with himself to sustain us.
One of the marvelous benefits of coming into harmony with God through obedience is that we thus also come into harmony with our own nature, with our own being. Disobedience to God thwarts and crosses our nature. There are laws he has written into our very natures that we frustrate when we disobey him, but that we come into harmony with when we obey him. This is similar to E. Stanley Jones' assertion that when we align ourselves to Jesus Christ, we come into line with the whole universe.27
The relationship of obedience to God is the womb in which trust in God can grow. Trust cannot grow in relationship to God without obedience. To refuse, or even to neglect to obey God, is a primary hindrance to trusting God, because, as MacDonald says, obedience is "the very thing to make you able to trust him, and so receive all things from him."28 Disobedience severs the umbilical cord, as it were. It brings trouble and death into our circumstances, just as it did for our first parents. Again, the trusting relationship to God is important, and obedience is inseparable from it.
The concept that obedience is the doorway into and the nature of true relationship to God is biblical. Ultimately, of course, Jesus himself is the Doorway into fellowship with God, and the Way of remaining in fellowship. But obedience is that needful response in man that, when given the gracious offer to pass through the door, says, "I will arise and go to my father." When the believer comes to the Father, it is the obedient nature of the Son that holds him in continued fellowship with the Father. This is in line with Jesus' words, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."29 The apostle Paul supports this theme when he writes to the Philippians that the source of his ability to persist in both abundance and in lack is his relationship with Christ. It is through "the One strengthening me" that Paul can do these things and more.30 Likewise, Paul urges the Colossians, on the basis of their relationship to Christ-their having been co-raised with him, and seated above with him-that they put to death the earthly ways of evil walking and relating in which they used to live, and instead, clothe themselves with the righteous character of God.31 Such would not be possible apart from the relationship they enjoy with him. Furthermore, their relationship with Him transforms their relationships with one another as they obey, and thus gives further sustenance for their continuing obedient walk. Paul teaches the Ephesians that grace has been poured out in order that the body of Christ may reach unity in the faith and in the full knowledge of the Son of God, growing up into Christ in all respects. From this vision of the mature body of Christ, in loving communion with Christ its head, and with each other, Paul exhorts the Ephesians not to walk any longer as the Gentiles walk, who have lost relationship with God, but to walk in righteousness toward God and each other.32 Again, the key to such walking is the relationship with Christ, in whom there is provision for continuance.
Obedience and Thought
Obedience and Theory
MacDonald believed that theorizing was one of the main obstacles to obedience. He evidently found himself in the midst of a society that placed imbalanced emphasis on assenting to certain teachings, holding certain doctrines, accepting certain theories. MacDonald saw obedience as the primary duty of believers,33 but it seemed very easy for the place of obedience to be usurped by "theorizing." MacDonald regarded theorizing as the product of those who desired to understand before obeying. They had a hunger to understand with the intellect, but not with the whole being, which comes only through obedience. Obedience must always precede theory or understanding. MacDonald writes, "Theory may spring from life, but never life from theory."34
What is the attraction of theorizing as opposed to obeying? Beyond the simple pleasure of philosophical or theological thought, there is the allure of praise from self and from others. Often there is a certain self-gratification that comes with being able to fit the pieces of the theological puzzle together, and being able to articulate that fit. There is a kind of honor or respect to be had for persons who can fit and articulate in this way. A person may think he is pleasing to God because he has "knowledge,"-not the knowledge of Christ that comes from obedience, but an ability to systematically understand how religious concepts fit together. The great danger is that the satisfaction that comes from such knowledge may become a substitute for obedience in the man. He may come to rest in that satisfaction, and fail to give God satisfaction through his obedience.35 A man may come to believe that theorizing is enough-that it is, in fact, what most pleases God. But the theorizing often enables him to stay "safe," to not have to get "down and dirty" with obedience. It is an escape. The man who theorizes does not necessarily have to surrender his will. He doesn't have to come under the authority of another. He may recognize a kind of authority of the Scriptures in his mental exercises, but he does not recognize the authority of the Living Word over the mainspring of his actions-over the whole course of his life and decisions. Theorizing allows a man to appear devout by his words while neglecting the corresponding righteousness of heart and deed.