By Alec Hill, President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA

The Obedience Imperative

Of all the characteristics of a disciple, none is more basic than obedience. Jesus is emphatic on this point: “Follow me”1; “my sheep know me and listen to my voice”2; “only he who does the will of my father will enter the kingdom of heaven”3; and “when you have done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”4

Throughout church history, mature disciples have submitted to our Lord in humble obedience.

Three Exemplars

In the early 1940s, Andre Trocme served as pastor of a backwater Huguenot (Protestant) village in southern France. His life, and those of his parishioners, changed radically when the Nazi-controlled Vichy government took control.

Over four long years, Trocme and 3,000 villagers risked their lives by hiding 5,000 Jews, mostly children, and leading them to safety in Switzerland. What could possibly motivate these poor farmers to daily expose their families to Nazi reprisals for the sake of total strangers?

In a compelling historical account, author Philip Hallie struggles to find an answer. A secular American Jew, Hallie is struck over and over again by the villagers’ simple responses – they were merely obeying Jesus. As his disciples, they saw no other option.5

A second exemplar is also grounded in World War II. As the war was about to expand in 1939, friends of thirty-three year old Dietrich Bonhoeffer hustled him out of Germany. For the next month, safely in America, Bonhoeffer anguished over his calling, his sense of discipleship.

Only two years earlier, Bonhoeffer had penned his now famous book, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he wrote: “Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience . . . faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”6

Despite learning that a leading German pastor had just been beaten to death, Bonhoeffer felt called to return home. A mere five weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he re-entered Germany. Over the six next years – before his martyrdom – the Lord used him to build up the German church and to undercut Nazi evil.7
A final example of obedient discipleship involves a young American, Adoniram Judson. In 1813, at the age of 25, Judson received a clear call to be a missionary to Burma (today known as Myanmar). Obediently, he assembled a team of students.

But hardships waited at every turn. The youngest member of the team – a mere 17 years old – died en route. Shortly after landing in Rangoon, Judson lost all of his donors over a denominational issue. Suspected of being a British spy, he was thrown into a “death prison” where he was hung upside down in leg irons every night for a year. Then his wife died.

During his four decades in Burma, Judson led twenty-five Burmese to the Lord. Perhaps only ten of these displayed a real living faith. Over this time period, he also buried two wives, six children and eleven co-workers. Yet, even during these difficult times, Judson obediently persisted. He did not walk away.

Obedience, Not Success

God cares not a fig for our success. What he craves is our obedience. When we follow Jesus, we squarely place ourselves on the pathway of the cross. As his followers, we echo his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done.”8

Our call is to faithfulness, not outcomes. Cotton Mather prayed several hours every day for twenty years, but didn’t live to see the Great Awakening. William Wilberforce fought to end slavery in the British Empire for half a century, but lay on his death bed as Parliament enacted the legislation.9 Adoniram Judson didn’t live to see the six million Burmese who eventually came to faith as the result of his long obedience.

Just so, we in InterVarsity will continue to be true to God’s call for our mission – to plant, build, and share the Gospel on campus. Whether successful or not, we will obey our Master. Whether welcomed or rejected, we will submit to the will of God. That is what disciples do.

My thoughts could easily conclude here, but I simply can’t resist sharing some marvelous quotes from several great saints. Be blessed!

Select Discipleship Quotes:

  • Charles Finney (19th century American evangelist): “What if God should send me to hell, what then? Why, I would not object to it… For hell could no longer be hell to me if I accepted God’s perfect will.”10

  • Mother Teresa: “I am God’s pencil. A tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes.”11

  • Bob Pierce (founder of World Vision): “I promise that I won’t say no (Lord). I give you a license to do your will with me, whether I like it or not – irrevocable for the rest of my life. . . . I give you authority forever.”12

  • Jim Elliot (missionary martyr, 1956): “Consume my life, for it is thine. I will not seek a long life but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.”13

  • Charles Spurgeon (19th century English preacher): “The peerage of Christ’s kingdom is ordered according to obedience.”14

  • Blaise Pascal (17th century French mathematician and philosopher): “Why is it so hard to believe? Because it is so hard to obey.”15

  • Jesuit constitution (16th century): “Behave as if you are a lifeless body which allows itself to be carried to any place and to be treated in any manner desired.”16

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only he who believes is obedient; only he who is obedient believes.”1

1 Mathew 4:19
2 John 10:14-16
3 Matthew 7:21
4 Luke 17:10
5 Hallie, Philip, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Good Happened There, Harper, New York.
6 Bonhoeffer, Deitrich, The Cost of Discipleship, McMillan, New York, 1963, pp.69 & 219.
7 Metaxas, Eric, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010, p.345.
8 Luke 22:42
9 Colson, Charles, Loving God, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1983, p.36.
10Finney, Charles, The Autobiography of Charles Finney, Bethany Fellowship, Minneapolis, 1977, pp.197-8.
11Aikman, David, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century, Word Publishing, Nashville, 1998, p.191.
12Graham, Franklin, Bob Pierce, This one Thing I Do, Word Publishing, Waco, 1983, pp.23-24.
13Sittser, Gerald, Water From a Deep Well, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 2007, pp.278-9.
14Stott, John, Christian Counter Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1978, p.74.
15Tucker, Ruth, Walking Away from Faith, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 2002, p.146.
16Lowney, Chris, Heroic Leadership, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2003, p.159.
17Colson, p.19.