While listening recently to a Christian radio station, I heard the call of a man to a Christian counselor. The man who called was a doctor, an anesthesiologist, who professed Christianity and who also worked part time in an abortion clinic. He said to the counselor that, although he personally opposed abortion, he felt that the women, nevertheless, needed medical care and the alleviation of pain. While he did not perform abortions personally, he would medicate women having an abortion. He felt, as a Christian, this was a great good and a good deed. He believed that he was rendering a service of alleviating pain in the Lord’s name.
The counselor whom he called spoke it straight: “A Christian has no place involving himself in the murder of children.” Yes, I thought, exactly! To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
How common it is for men, and for ourselves, to use what is supposedly a sacrifice to the Lord as an excuse for disobedience. How common to parade before God what appears to be some service He has commanded as an excuse for rebellion and disobedience. Whether that is the young person who busily cleans his father’s workbench because last night he disobeyed with his car; or whether that is the church which makes a great ado about worship services and all that goes on but does not teach the doctrines and commandments of God. How easy it is, of course, to think of others. We must turn to ourselves and we must examine our own lives.
Those words, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams,” are well-known words of Scripture. They are the words that Samuel spoke to Saul in I Samuel 15. Samuel declared this to Saul who supposed that the very opposite was true – that sacrifice and great deeds were better than obedience. God had given, you remember, to Saul a commandment: Destroy the Amalekites utterly. The reason was that the Amalekites, who were descendants of Esau, had attacked Israel when God was leading them out of Egypt and had attacked them from behind. Saul was commanded that he was to destroy them utterly. God gave a clear and an unmistakable command. “Go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Saul disobeyed. He kept the best of the cattle and oxen for himself. He kept alive Agag, the king of the Amalekites. When he was confronted by Samuel, Saul excused what he had done in terms of his intention to sacrifice. He said to Samuel, “I disobeyed so that I might sacrifice. I disobeyed so that I might do something more important than obedience. I might render to God a great sacrifice of beasts.” Now, of course, he lied. Saul did not keep the best of the cattle alive for sacrifice. That came to him as a good line when the prophet stood before him. He kept them out of greed. Even as Samuel is going to say to him, “You kept them in order that you could fly upon the spoil for yourself.”
Right now that lie does not concern me. There is a deeper issue. That deeper issue is this: What delights the Lord? Sacrifice or obedience? Those are the alternatives, are they not? Obedience is to do what God tells us to do: to carry out His will, to obey His commands, to go the way that He makes plain. It is of grace. Obedience is of grace. It is the desire ( Rev. 14) to follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. Or, in the words of Jesus, “to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and follow Him.” Obedience is expressed in those words of the apostle Paul upon his conversion: “What wilt Thou have me to do?”
Now belonging to obedience is that we obey fully and completely as the Lord commands. Saul thought that if he did almost everything right, that would be good enough, and that would be counted as obedience. But that was not obedience. It was not obedience to slay all of the Amalekites except one. It was not obedience to slay all of the animals except the good ones. Obedience is to do all that the Lord commands. This is not perfect obedience. We do not have that obedience perfectly. Yet God requires exact obedience. His commands are not negotiable. To obey means that we hearken to the voice of the Lord. We listen to the Word of God. In that Word, God tells us what His will is. We listen carefully and we do what He says. We do that out of love.
The other alternative to obedience is sacrifice. Sacrifice here refers to the outward and formal activities of worship or the ceremonies of religion. In the Old Testament the people of God brought their rams to offer to God as a sign of devotion and love to Him. They were supposed to sacrifice. As you know from the Old Testament, God says that they were to bring sacrifices before Him. God did not despise that in itself. He says in Psalm 50: “I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me” (v. 8). But, as you know, this whole idea of sacrifice and offering soon fell into a dead custom, a mere formal, external activity. Today sacrifices and burnt offerings are the acts of worship that God requires of us: the public gathering on the Lord’s day, the sitting under His Word, the use of the sacraments, the singing of the Psalms, prayers, gifts, devotions in family and individual life – all of this is sacrifice. Now obedience is better than sacrifice. Again, that does not mean that sacrifice is worthless and rejected of God. God Himself makes plain that He has a great delight in sacrifices of worship. But God says, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offering and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” The point is that sacrifice without obedience is spoiled, is corrupted.
More. The contrast between obedience and sacrifice is that this sacrifice would be given at the expense of obedience. Sacrifice given in disobedience, sacrifice devoid of obedience, sacrifice given to cover up disobedience – that was Saul. He was going to sacrifice. He was going to perform a public act of worship. Why? To cover up his disobedience. He was going to worship. But he was not going to worship in the way of obedience. He was going to bow and pray and offer sacrifice to cover up his disobedience.
God says that that kind of sacrifice is an abomination to God. God delights in obedience. God says, “You cut obedience out, and all activity of worship is a weariness to God.” God says in Isaiah 1, “It is an abomination to Me, I cannot away with it, it is iniquity.”
Remember that Saul was not just an individual but he was king over God’s people. When Saul did not obey, he disqualified himself from being king. Samuel says, “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord hath also rejected thee.” The disobedience of Saul, therefore, opened the way for the king after God’s own heart – David. And David was after God’s own heart because he ruled in obedience. He sought God’s will and he carried God’s will out exactly, even though he did it imperfectly.
In thankfulness, we too are to lay before God sacrifices of obedience. That is true of the church. Today there is a great deal of emphasis on worship. Elaborate rituals and liturgy of worship. Many delight in sacrifice – elaborate worship services – but not in obedience. Instead of a thorough catechism instruction for children and young people which God has commanded – feed my sheep (John 21:17) – instead of instruction of the children and young people in the history and doctrine of holy Scripture, the church replaces this by skits, movies, and concerts. Why? Not because movies, concerts, and plays in the church delight the Lord. But because these things delight young people and children. The renewal in worship, so called, which replaces the preaching and teaching of God’s word is not because the things which replace the preaching of God’s word delight the Lord, but they delight people.
Samuel says, “It’s not what delights us, it’s what delights the Lord that counts.” Obedience is better than sacrifice. God says to the church, “Preach, administer the sacraments, exercise Christian discipline, teach the young children and young people. These things delight Me and in these things I rejoice. Obedience to these marks and calling of the church – that’s what counts.” God says that the offices of the church are to be held by men who must feed the flock with the word of God. God does not delight in the sacrifice of women using their gifts in these offices. The same word of God is to be spoken to women in church offices. When the claim is, What about their gifts? What about the wonderful things? Hath the Lord as great delight in sacrifice as in obedience? God is not fooled by the sacrifice, by the pious talk of gifts. He delights in obedience from His church.
But this applies also to our personal life. God delights in the obedience of repentance and holiness and spiritual separation from the world. How soon we can think that sacrifice will cover everything. If we render one day, Sunday, at the Lord’s house, then we can return to six days where disobedience is found in our life. We can offer the sacrifice of prayer and devotion upstairs on our knees when we go to bed and pray to God, yet downstairs, just before we came to our bedroom, husband and wife sinned against each other. Somehow we think that a prayer, rather than seeking proper reconciliation and forgiveness, will patch things up. We can maintain a form of religion. We can entertain besetting sins which we cater to and we leave uncrucified within us. Yet we go through the actual rituals of our religion thinking that those rituals are more important than obedience.
Obedience is better than sacrifice. Why? First of all, because of the evil of disobedience. Samuel said to Saul, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” That is serious. If we minimize disobedience, it is because true humility and faith in God are not consciously dwelling in our hearts. It is because we are stubborn, self-willed, insistent upon our own way. Disobedience is not confusion. Disobedience is not that we get ourselves into a position where we get all mixed up and cannot tell what we should do. Should we tell the truth? Should we do what we are told? Should we have ungodly friends? Then we say, “Oh, I’m confused.” No, we are not. We are not confused at all. Disobedience is because we are proud. We will entertain the thought that our desires are more important than listening to God.
Samuel brings out the seriousness of this disobedience. He says, “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” Disobedience is rebellion against God. He says it is witchcraft and stubbornness. And it is as the sin of idolatry. Now witchcraft and idolatry are forms of disobedience to the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Witchcraft is the sin of seeking supernatural power and knowledge of the future from somewhere other than the Word of God. Idolatry is the worshipping of another god. Disobedience is just like witchcraft and idolatry. That is what disobedience is. It is witchcraft and idolatry. Just as the idolater and the one who goes to a witch is seeking someone or something other than God to be his guide, so the one who disobeys God is doing the same thing – seeking to guide his life by something other than the Word of God. Therefore, it is witchcraft and idolatry.
Would you practice witchcraft? Would you practice idolatry? You say, Oh, no! Well, God says that disobedience is born of the same sin. Disobedience is denying the sovereign authority of God to rule my life and setting up myself alongside of and over God to determine what I will do and be. Disobedience is to refuse to confess from the heart that God is the God of my life. It is to say that there is something better than God to follow. For Saul it was the people. Saul’s god was the people and himself. He says to Samuel, “The people took the spoil, and the people did this, and the people did that.” He had more thought and concern for the people than for God. But he also wanted it for himself. In reality, ultimately, it was not the people that swayed Saul. Saul obeyed his own will, his own voice, and his own desires.
God delights in obedience because it is good. God delights in obedience. God is happy. And why is He happy? Because, as disobedience is a denial of God, obedience is the most beautiful confession of God that can be made. Obedience to the Lord is saying, “The Lord is God! He is my God. I confess and submit to His authority and Lordship. He is my God, I trust Him and love Him. I want to obey and honor Him. How much I love Him my actions will show.”
The way of disobedience may appear very grand and sparkly. It is said, “Oh, we love each other so much and God would not want us to deny what we are feeling for each other and therefore lust and adultery are permissible. That’s disobedience to God but we love each other so much.” And, “I can make so much more money for the church with this job that takes me away from the church and brings me to a place where I don’t even know if there’s a solid, biblical, Reformed church. But it’s OK because I can make so much more money in this job and with that money I can contribute more to the church.”
That does not please God. That is covering up disobedience.
Obedience is doing God’s will in your life. And God says, “I delight in that because no sermon and no poem and no piece of music is so beautiful as a life of obedience to God.” How excellent is obedience. It is excellent because it is evidence of the grace of God powerfully working and moving within our souls.
Hear the Word of God: Obedience honors God. Sincere, from the heart, obedience. Repentance glorifies God. This is His delight. The fruit of the cross of Jesus Christ is a life of principled obedience to God now in our hearts, and one day, in glory, perfectly. The sense of God’s delight in obedience is precious. Therefore, for Him to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” oh, what words for mere mortals to hear. Oh, for the grace, then, for each day to live a life of obedience to Him. Christ has saved us so that we might show forth our praise and thanks. And nothing so expresses praise to God as obedience.
Let us pray.
Father, we come before Thee as disobedient, self-willed, idolatrous sinners. We do confess that we desire to obey ourselves and the lusts within. Forgive us. Strip from us through Thy Word all of our pious excuses. Give us not, O Lord, to take the acts of sacred worship and to weave them into a cloak for a sinful life. Cause, O Lord, that our acts of worship may be performed out of an obedient heart, through Jesus’ name, Amen.