Motivation for Obedience

The Apostle Paul commands children, in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, to obey their parents in the Lord so that it will go well with them and so that they will enjoy long life on the earth. Paul forcefully argues in this same book that salvation is exclusively obtained by the gracious gift of God to those who do not deserve it. Is this a contradiction? Is he offering long life in exchange for obedience? No, there is no contradiction here. Paul clearly teaches that it is not possible to earn good standing with God, so the long life cannot be understood as achieving some kind of merit. Obedience is a response to God, rather than the source of goodness. The submission that children are to yield to parents is in the same vein as the mutual submission that all are to have to God (5:21), the submission that wives are to have to husbands (5:22), and the submission of slaves to masters. None of these opportunities for submission have any sense of earning credit. Rather, submission is a response of honoring God and living life according to his direction. In this context, God promises blessing to children who obey; he encourages them with the promise that life will go better when God’s order is followed. This is often construed as a “lesser motivation.” It is often taken that way, but I believe it is more consistent with biblical teaching to distinguish between the primary motivation of gratitude to God on one hand, and the encouragement of promised blessing on the other hand. When we begin to motivate our children with specific rewards, we quickly develop a system of rules and manipulation. The biblical reward offered for obedience, by contrast, is the broad, general encouragement of the rich blessings that will attend obedience.

This understanding matches the reason that Christ gives for obedience in Matthew 5:14-16:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

This is true obedience in the Lord – which is the direction given to children in Ephesians 6:1. Even though you can never be certain of your child’s salvation (just as you can never know anyone else’s heart), the Bible gives no other basic motivation for encouraging children. The ultimate goal of bringing honor to God is always the reason for obedience:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. I Cor. 10:31
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Col. 3:17

There is no thought in Scripture which indicates that it is appropriate to give motivation for other reasons than bringing honor to God. If there are verses that indicate an immediate benefit, such as a soft answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1), the benefit is always set in a larger context of bringing glory and praise to God. Otherwise, the desire for a soft answer becomes an end in itself, and thus this good thing becomes something that is desired for selfish reasons–that is not a good thing. This is the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:6-7. These words of God are to be taken from the depths of the parent’s heart and impressed on the children. This is why every opportunity to speak, teach and discipline children is an opportunity to present the gospel!

Give this some thought and let me know your thoughts.

Shepherd Press