Motivation matters to a Bible teacher. We need to know why our students—or anyone—would decide to obey God.
There are an increasing number of Bible teachers (myself included) who say we hope to spur our students to serve God out of thankfulness for all Jesus has done for them. We see gratitude as a chief motivation. We realize we won’t get far just nagging kids to be good, so we teach the gospel—God’s saving goodness—knowing that grace drives obedience.
We have good reasons to operate this way. Time-tested resources like the Heidelberg Catechism frame our obedience to God as acts of gratitude, and the Bible itself commands us to serve God in thankfulness. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Some teachers have gone so far as to suggest gratitude is the only legitimate motive for obedience. They note that the greatest commandment is to love God. They are rightly concerned that if their students try to obey out of obligation, but never develop a loving gratitude to God, such “obedience” will be both weak and woefully incomplete.
But consider the case of a friend of mine. He says that although he’s thankful to God on some level, he doesn’t always feel thankful. He does, however, retain what we might call a reverent fear of God. He finds himself obeying out of respect for his Creator and concern for the consequences of sin. Isn’t this a valid motivation for obedience, too?
It surely is. We would all do well to have more reverence for God and his commands.
This doesn’t soften the importance of gratitude; rather, it should complement it. A full understanding of the gospel actually gives several powerful motivations to obey God. Gratitude is just one of them.
The gospel tells believers that God chose us before we were born to become his dearly loved children. He came to us as Jesus and took the punishment for sin we deserve, giving us credit for his righteousness. He rose from the dead, giving us new life, and sends his Spirit to guide us in holiness. And he will come again to fully defeat evil in us and in the world, and to be with us forever. Look what motivations sprout from this gospel when our students believe it:
- First, it certainly does produce gratitude. Our students will be thankful if they truly see how helpless they were and how freely and fully Jesus has loved them. It will make them humble, and humility breeds a grateful willingness to obey.
- The gospel also brings comfort. Our students need assurance that their status as God’s children is due solely to being joined to Jesus and not dependent on their performance. Without this comfort, they’ll feel condemning pressure every time they hear God’s commands. They’ll end up trying to soften those commands, or ignore them, just to escape the dread. To obey with any gusto, they need to be sure God loves them even when they fail. So comfort is a key motivator too.
- The gospel gives confidence. When our students believe they’re alive in Christ who’s helping them to obey, they have courage to undertake even tough service and difficult repentance. There’s a world of difference between obeying for God, in an attempt to impress him, and practicing obedience with God as a helper. The gospel says the latter is how believers grow—trustingly and confidently.
- The gospel produces hope. Setbacks and struggles will tempt our students to despair, but they should be motivated to carry on because Jesus is the victor. Joined to him, they will win in the end. Faithfulness will be worth it, final joy is assured, and they are part of God’s magnificent plan to reclaim the world!
- And yes, reverence for God and a healthy fear of sin are gospel motivations, too. When we show our students the horrible cost Jesus incurred to save us from sin, and the greatness of his love especially at the cross, they learn how terribly dangerous sin is and how beautiful holiness is. They become driven to kill sin and worship Christ.
I’ll go even further and mention that the gospel also gives motivational warnings. When we set all these gospel blessings before our students, it’s sensible to point out the stark contrast between life with Jesus and life without him. Outside of Christ there is no comfort, no confidence, no hope, nothing to be thankful for, no beautiful Savior worthy of unguarded love. We must present the urgent gap between life and death, blessings and curses—lest our teaching about grace become a bunch of sappy happy-talk.
All these motivations have one thing in common: they flow from looking at Jesus. They are not burdensome. They spring from God’s abounding compassion and fatherly goodness, and in the Spirit’s ministry they cause those who believe to erupt in good deeds. They come together in the heart and prove that we love God because he first loved us. I teach the gospel because my students need every one of them.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like. Your email address will not be displayed.)