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Grace & Obedience

Note: The following is article #13 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here

Chapter 12 of Future Grace starts by reminding us that although the new covenant relationship we have with Christ is by grace, this grace does not mean that God has done away with His commandments for us.  God never intended for grace to bring His commandments to an end, but rather to a fulfillment. 

Ezekiel clearly saw that the new covenant for God’s people would bring a new obedience for God’s people:

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:27)

Piper states:

The commandments of God are not negligible because we are under grace. They are doable because we are under grace.  The new covenant gift of the Spirit is the power to obey the revealed will of God.

It is true that God loves His children under the new covenant, but He also lovingly tells us His will and then gives us the power to keep it.  Piper mentions that John is considered the disciple whom Jesus loved, and yet over a third of all the New Testament references to God’s commandments were written by John.

So, how does God give us the power to obey His commands?  Through the love that comes through faith through the new birth.  Jonathan Edwards once wrote,

Saving faith implies in its nature divine love…Our love to God enables us to overcome the difficulties that attend keeping God’s commands; which shows that love is the main thing in saving faith, the life and power of it, by which it produces great effects… true faith embraces Christ in whatever ways the Scriptures hold Him out to poor sinners.”

This love enables us to obey even the hardest of commands.  Citing a missionary’s death, Piper asks how could someone love the man who had murdered their father? He said that even in such an extreme circumstance Jesus would say,

Love them.  If they kill you, love them.  If they take away your father, love them.  If they destroy your family, love them.  Love your enemies.  Be that kind of person. Be so changed on the inside that this is really possible.

Piper then asks, “How can we do this?  Where does power to love like this come from?”  He answers,

The key to radical love is faith in future grace.  We must be persuaded in the midst of our agony that the love of God is “better than life”(Psalm 63:3). Loving your enemy doesn’t earn you the reward of heaven.  Treasuring the reward of heaven empowers you to love your enemy… the mandate is clear: let us devote ourselves to cultivating stronger faith in the “great reward” of future grace.  This is the power to love.

Having faith in God’s grace for tomorrow is the key to obeying God commandments for today.  Like the old hymn states, there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey. May we see clearly God’s grace in our lives, trust Him, love Him, and obey Him with a radical world changing love as we walk with Him.
 

God’s Castor Oil, or Something Else?

Note: The following is article #12 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

Chapter Eleven of Future Grace has a curious title: ”A Love Affair with God’s Law.”  What in the world is Piper talking about?  All of us would say we have a respect for God’s law, that it must be holy & righteous and a good idea and all, but maybe we think of it as ”God’s castor oil”  —something actually pretty yucky but that we should take anyway because it’s ”good for us.”  Certainly not something we would have a “love affair” with!

Why do we see God’s law this way? Maybe we see the commandments as outdated, deficient, or made superfluous by Christ’s life and death, but the Scriptures say otherwise.  Piper states:

The old is not deficient because it was a commanding covenant, or because it commanded wrong things.  It was deficient because it was not accompanied, by and large, with inner, tranforming, enabling divine power.

He then asks us to look at Romans 8:3-4:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Think about what Paul is saying here:  The law is a good thing, a righteous thing, but we can not fulfill it because of the weakness of our inborn nature (what he calls “sinful flesh”).   Part of the reason that Jesus lived and died was not to do away with the law, but that it “might be fulfilled in us.”  The law is so wonderful and important that part of the reason Jesus died was that we could obey it and fulfill it.

When was the last time you thought, “Wow, because of Christ, now I have the privilege, the joy, the honor, and the ability to obey God’s commands & fulfill His law”?  Yea, can’t admit it was at the top of my wish list either.  But the point is that it should be.  Piper says that the whole Old Testament could be summed up by Psalm 37:3— “Trust in the Lord and do good.”  Two commandments: trust, and then do good.  And the first, trust (to have faith in God future grace), is really the key to the second, to do good.

The Old Testament is filled with a heart-felt passion, joy, & gratitude for God’s commandments which are very foreign to most churches today.  We often take God’s commandments out of the spotlight of our lives, preferring to dwell on His love and His grace.  But Piper emphasizes how the saints “received His commandments as blessings not burdens.” (see Psalm 119:47-48; Psalm 19:7-10). 

We must have a consuming desire and love for God’s law, just as driven and energetic as a love affair with a spouse.  We must realize that we cannot separate God’s love and grace from His law.  Piper states:

If good news depends on God not demanding, there is no gospel… God is far more to His people than One who commands.  But He is not less. His Fatherly love for His children does not make Him less caring that they do His will.  His commandments hold fast for His children, and they are an overflow of love, not a craving for power.

God really does want us to treasure, trust and obey His commandments. The commandments of His law really are a glorious and integral part of His whole plan for His beloved children.  We need to dig deep into our soul and cultivate a fervent love for and devotion to God’s law in our lives.

The Heart of Esther

This week’s Bible study looks at the book of Esther, specifically the first two chapters. To approach studying Esther or any book, it’s helpful to consider its type or style, technically called genre. The book of Esther is historical story: it contains accurate historical facts, but it is much more than just a news briefing: it highlights plot twists, constructs parallels, brings out ironies, and masterfully interweaves other elements of good story-telling into one of the truly great writings of the ancient world. It is not prophecy or law or theology: in fact, God’s name is not even mentioned in the book.

So, we need to realize that Esther is not a theological tome to be dissected, but a story to be enjoyed, pondered, and applied to our lives. And that is indeed how God wants us to see historical sections of Scripture. Paul speaks of God’s purpose for historical narrative in 1 Corinthians 10 when he says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did….they were written down for our instruction.” So, we need to ask what examples, what lessons, what principles about the nature of man and the nature of God are contained in this book that God wants us to understand.

Another important question to always ask is who the original audience was— who originally read the book and why? The Book of Esther was written to the Jewish nation to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. It still occupies an important position in Judaism, being one of only five books that are ceremonially read aloud every year by every orthodox Jewish family.

Finally, when you approach any passage from the Bible, you try to discern its purpose. “Why is this passage in the Bible? Why did God sovereignly choose this information to become part of His inerrant Word?” Now, obviously, we cannot fully know the mind of God in this matter, but at least framing our minds to seek out what God is trying to teach us in a passage is a sound foundation for study.

With that background, let’s plunge into chapter 1. The first eight verses describe a six month long party given by a guy named Ahasuerus, which is a Hebrew name corresponding to the Greek name Xerxes I. Now why spend eight verses just to describe a party given by one man, when the Bible only spends one verse to describe the party his wife gave in verse 9? I think that God wanted to make clear what kind of man this Ahasuerus was. When you try to picture who Ahasuerus was, just think Donald Trump. No, really, think about it. Guy with an ego the size of a planet, filthy rich, loved to let everyone know how rich and powerful and special he was, threw lavish parties, had a trophy wife, and get this: enjoyed firing people. And to top it off, both of them had major setbacks which left them with big chips on their shoulder. The Donald has had all his financial near collapses, and Xerxes had the Battle of Thermopylae: yes he was the king that got his 2 million man army’s butt kicked by 300 Spartans. That had to have left a nasty bruise on the old ego.

So, how does this story start out? Donald, err, Ahasuerus throws a six month long party celebrating…himself. At the end, he commands the trophy wife to come out and parade in front of his drinking buddies. Now, here is a crucial juncture, and one that we would do well to think about. Was this a righteous, honorable ruler? No, and God wants to make sure we understand that fact. Was he asking his queen to do something that offended her? Yes. So what was the Queen’s response? She said no. And here’s another interesting thing to note: the Bible doesn’t say why she refused. There’s all kinds of theories, but we don’t actually know. Whenever the Bible is silent on something, even a little thing, it means one thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. She might have had a very “good” reason, or a petty one, but God didn’t put it in because he didn’t want us debating on the supposed merits of whether she had a “good” reason or not to disobey her husband and king.

See, here is where this whole “these things took place as examples for us” theme kicks in. The point of the story is not whether she had a “good” reason to disobey the king, but rather the point is that she chose to disobey. There is a basic Biblical principle of obeying authority, even evil authority, if it does not cause us to disobey God. Our natural man, however, wants to buck on this, just like the Pharisees tried to buck Jesus in Matthew 22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in His words. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.

Check it out: the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into giving them a “good” reason to disobey evil Roman authority, but Jesus would have none of it. Queen Vashti’s response to her evil authority was ungodly, and even the ungodly king and his court saw it. And what was the consequence for Vashti’s ungodly response? “You’re fired!”

In fact, the Bible spends the rest of the chapter going into great detail of this very concept, and how Vashti was a poor example of obeying authority and that this example would affect not only her but many others. This whole concept of giving honor and respect and obedience to authority seems foreign and backward and simplistic and offensive to 21st century ears, but Jesus and the apostles clearly established it as not just cultural, but Biblical and God-honoring behavior.

If Chapter 1 of Esther looked like The Apprentice: Persian Edition, then Chapter 2 is definitely the very first season (like, from 2500 years ago) of The Bachelor. Here we had dozens, perhaps hundreds of women gathered from all over the kingdom obviously strictly for their physical beauty, and this young woman Esther who the Bible plainly states “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” was among them.

But verse 9 says something very important in the Hebrew which is not obvious in English: Esther won the favor of Hegai, the administrator of this whole contest. This word favor is the Hebrew hesed, which is a very powerful & rich word in Hebrew that describes the covenant loyalty love, mercy, kindness, benevolence & devotion that God has for His people. Esther did not win the hesed of this powerful man just by her looks. It is evident that she won his hesed by listening carefully to his words (verse 15) and the words of her cousin Mordecai (verse 8 & 20).

So, verse 17 shows the result of God’s work—His blessing Esther with beauty, both of soul and body, His placing her “in the right place at the right time” and her heart responses of respect and obedience to authority. She gets five responses from Xerxes: First, she gets love, which in Hebrew is a broader word than mere sexual desire: the word is actually first used in Scripture in Genesis 22:2 to describe Abraham’s love for Issac. She gets grace, the word first used in Genesis 6:8 “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and she gets Xerxes’ hesed favor. She gets the crown, and lastly she gets a great feast.

So, just to make sure, let’s review the contrast: Vashti has feast, disobeys authority, loses crown, bummer. Esther obeys authority, gets crown, has feast, ends up saving the entire nation (read the rest of the book!).

So what does God want us to learn from the book of Esther? Not that she had a beautiful body, but that she had a beautiful heart, for this is what God looks on (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Peter 3:3-4). Esther teaches us that God wants us to glorify Him by showing the difference between living in a imperfect, sinful world among corrupt authority figures with a human, self-centered heart versus a God-honoring, submissive heart. The Greek word hupataso (click the hyperlink to do a word study), submit, is used in the New Testament in multiple books to describe a believer’s response to authority. It is used to describe our relationship to God, to employers, to parents, to government, to husbands, and to other members of the body of Christ. The application is pretty clear: where in our lives do we need to have the heart of Esther to glorify God by submitting to authority?  Where can we advance His kingdom by giving up our own way?

Faith: Grace’s Channel of Power

Note: The following is article #3 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

In chapter Two Piper looks further at the inadequacy of gratitude to serve as the foundation of obedience in a Christian’s life.  He states “There is a divine power for future obedience.  But gratitude is not designed for carrying this high voltage current of future grace.”  Grace, by its very nature, needs another channel of power. 

Again, the problem is that if you try to let grace flow through gratitude to supply the power to obey God, you slide into the trap of trying to pay God back for His grace through obedience.  It just won’t work, and it isn’t in the Bible.  You will search in vain for the phrase “they obeyed through gratitude” in the Scriptures.

But what does the Bible reveal as grace’s channel for the power to obey?  Faith.  Hebrews Chapter 11 is the “hall” of what? Faith.  By faith Abel offered, by faith Noah prepared, by faith Abraham obeyed, by faith all the saints were able to please God. 

Indeed, what does that same chapter teach?  That it is impossible to please God without faith.  It is, in effect, a converse of “whatever is not of faith is sin”— in order to live in any obedience that pleases God, we must use His appointed channel of faith. We live by faith, we walk by faith.  All is of grace, and all is through faith.  Piper states:

The infinite, never-ending, inexhaustible, uninterrupted flow of future grace from this moment to eternity…is there…to be trusted and lived on.  It is there to give the motivation and power for our obedience.  We…appropriate it by faith in future grace.  Gratitude is not designed for this. Faith is.  Past grace is glorified by intense and joyful gratitude.  Future grace is glorified by intense and joyful confidence.  This faith is what frees us and empowers us for venturesome obedience in the cause of Christ.

God’s grace is available to you, in all its miraculous power and beauty, but it comes through faith.  Will you by faith take hold of it so you can live a life of radical obedience for the glory of God?

 

Gratitude: A Faulty Foundation for Obedience

Note: The following is article #2 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

In Chapter One of Future Grace Piper deals with gratitude—what it is, what God designed it to be and what God did not design it to be.

What is gratitude?  It is a response to something we have received gratis, for free.  Thus, all that we have through God’s grace should trigger gratitude in the heart of a child of God.  It is “a central Biblical response of the heart to the grace of God.”  God both honors it and commands it in the Scriptures.

So far, so good.  But what Piper forcefully considers is the problem with what many in the Church want to use gratitude for—a foundation for obedience.  In sermons, in songs, and even in our own hearts we hear phrases like, “God has done so much for you; now what will you do for Him?”  Even though we know we can never “pay back” God, we think we should at least try.

As Piper says, this sounds noble and righteous.  But is using gratitude to power obedience actually what God intended?  Is it what the Bible actually commands?  And what are the results?  When you actually search the Scriptures, you find that “this most common way of talking about motivating Christian obedience is scarcely mentioned in the Bible.”  Whoa now—if God wanted us to use gratitude as a foundation for obedience, wouldn’t he have spent some time telling us about it?  Piper gives several examples (such as Numbers 14:11) where the nation of Israel disobeyed in spite of what God had done for them, and God points to lack of faith, not lack of gratitude, as the root of their disobedience.

What the Old Testament does point to, however, is the mixture of fear of the Lord and faith in the Lord as the foundation for our obedience.  When we fear God we in essence are trusting that God is God, and that He has power that He can use to bless us (faith in future grace) or that He can use to discipline us (if our actions show our lack of faith in His goodness).

True, God-honoring gratitude looks at God’s past grace and is then transformed into faith in God’s future grace, joyously enabling obedience.  It has no thought of enslaving our wills to the false & fleshly foundation of trying to pay God back, but roots our obedience in the dynamic, grace-filled faith which God wills that we walk in.

Piety vs. Pietism

Douglas Wilson has a short but insightful post that makes clear the difference.  Piety needs to be the aim of every follower of Christ, but pietism is a deadly trap.  Here is an excerpt:

Pietist homes may have rejected all kinds of things—cards, movies, slang, spicy foods, fiction, and all the rest of it, but these same homes are filled with anger, self-importance, lust, and ungodly abuse. Pietism is a white-washed tomb.

What about your home?  Is it marked by piety, pietism, or neither?  Read the whole post here.

What Jesus Demands From the World

What Jesus Demands from the World: Thoughts on the Infinite Value of Jesus\' Absolute Authority

What Jesus Demands From the World is not the right title for this book.

Instead, Crossway should re-title it:

The Demand-Driven Life: Finding a Life of Incredible Joy by Following the Demands of Jesus

Why? Because living a life of incredible joy is the result of reading this book and following it.

What does it really mean to be a follower of Christ?  You would think it would simply mean looking at what Jesus commanded us to do and then doing it. And this is what Piper does in 400 pages: taking what Jesus actually said in the gospels, and then simply but profoundly expounding on why and how Jesus demands that we live it out.  Starting with Jesus’ demand to Nicodemus “You must be born again” and then continuing through loving and abiding in Him, taking up our cross, praying, humility, service, marriage, witness, and others, in fifty short chapters Piper covers all of Christ’s demands upon our lives.

I’ve read hundreds of fine books that gave me valuable insights into the Christian life, but this magnum opus brings it all into one volume.  Truly, if you could give a person only one book in his entire life besides the Scriptures, only one book that would tell him all he would need to know to understand what Christianity is and then how to walk with Jesus, this would be the book.  Seriously.  This book, like no other, lays everything out, in impeccable theology but brought down to a rubber-meets-the-road level.  Chapter after chapter will have you saying stuff like, “Well, that’s the best short explanation of what prayer should be in a Christian’s life that I’ve ever read.”

It really is not hype or my typical John Piper fervor to say to you that this book needs to be read by every Christian.  Here’s the link to Amazon, go there or go somewhere but get this book.

Two Sizes Too Small

I will run in the way of your commandments
when you enlarge my heart!  (Psalm 119:32 ESV)

As everyone remembers, the Grinch was, well, a grinch, because his heart was “two sizes too small.”

He needed to have his heart grow.

So do we.

Being able to run the race that God gives us, being able to obey His commandments, doesn’t come from willpower or guilt or fear or greed or any such thing.

This verse says it comes when God enlarges our heart.

Why is that?  Take a look again at what Jesus told us about the greatest commandments:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40 ESV)

The commandments are all about love and all about heart.  Our fallen hearts are tiny and shriveled and only filled with thoughts of ourselves.  It is only when God comes in and enlarges our heart through the work of the Spirit that we become able to truly obey His commandments.

Lord, enlarge my heart.
 

 

No Conditions

Let’s play fill in the blank:

Jesus    unconditional   __________

What word did you fill in?  Was it love?

Certainly we often talk of Christ’s “unconditional” love.  And it’s true that Christ loves us not because of anything we have done, but despite what we have done, in spite of our sins. 

But would you have put in another word, the word obedience?

What does Jesus say about how we should respond to His unconditional love?

To another Jesus said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.  And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 9:59-62 ESV)

Just as there are no conditions to Christ’s love for His children, there should be no conditions to our obedience to Him.  We cannot say “I will follow You if…”  “I will obey You as long as..”  “I will be faithful under the following conditions…”  Jesus is not an enlightened being or wise sage that we can follow when we want to, according to our schedule or our plans or goals. 

We can’t “have our cake and eat it too”—we can’t say that we love Jesus completely without obeying Him completely. Jesus is very blunt about the relationship between our love and our obedience:

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.  (John 14:21 ESV)

Christ has freely given us His love and His life.  How can we hold anything back in our obedience to Him?  Let us stamp “no conditions” on every thought, every word, every decision in our lives, let us strive to be wholly and fully obedient to our Savior and Lord.

What it Takes to Follow Jesus

And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me”     Matthew 4:19

 

What does it take to follow Jesus?  If our goal as Christians is to follow Him, then we ought to have some idea what it will take, lest we be guilty as the builder in the parable who had to stop because he did not realize what he needed to finish.

There’s no better place than the Bible to see what it takes to follow Jesus, and there’s no better place in the Bible than when Jesus first said “Follow Me” to Peter, which is recorded in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 5.

From reading the accounts, it is evident that the first thing it takes to follow Jesus is a calling.  This is not mere esoteric reformed theology; recognizing our calling is eminently practical in the life of a Christian.  There were many fisherman along the Sea of Galilee that day, but Jesus chose Peter to speak to and say “Follow Me.”  Those two words, that personal invitation, were embedded in Peter’s soul for the rest of his life.   Many were the months later in prison that Peter must have thought back to that day, and those words gave him strength–”Jesus Christ the Messiah called me, he invited me to follow Him.”  Peter knew that he was called to follow Jesus, and Peter knew that because of that calling all the power of God was behind him.  Do we take the same comfort as Peter did?  Paul urges us to make our calling and election sure, to have in our minds a foundation firmly fixed that Christ has indeed called us to be his disciples.

From Luke’s account we see that the second thing a follower of Christ needs is humility.  When Peter saw who Christ was, and who he was, his immediate response should echo our own, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  Proverbs instructs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the Beatitudes say blessed are the poor in spirit.  A profound paradox of life is that only those who admit their utter inadequacy and unworthiness to be in Christ’s presence can ever truly enter into His presence.  Isaiah had a similar reaction to the presence of God, “Woe is me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

The third thing a follower of Christ needs is cleansing.  Although the gospels do not record all that Jesus said to Peter on that day, He must have dealt with Peter’s guilt and sin. We cannot go with Jesus without our sins being forgiven.  God dealt with Isaiah’s sin immediately after his recognition of it:  “Then a seraphim touched my mouth with a live coal from the altar, and said: Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”  As Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress found out, once we know that we are sinners, the burden of our sin is intolerable until Christ himself takes it away.

The next thing that Christ offered Peter was vision.  “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Christ could have just said “follow me”—but he was gracious enough to give Peter a vision for his future.  His vision, like his calling, gave him the strength and resolve to endure many trials in the years ahead.  God is in the business of vision—to Abraham he spoke “I will make you a great nation”, to Jacob he promised “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go”, to the people of Israel he said “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God”.  To us as followers of Christ God declares that we will one day be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

After vision comes forsaking.  Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets, their means of livelihood.  James and John left their boats, their earthly possession, and their father, their earthly family. You can’t follow anyone without leaving something or someone else; it is physically impossible.  You cannot follow Jesus without forsaking.

The last step of Peter was obedience.  Jesus commanded “Follow Me”, and Peter obeyed.  All the humility and forsaking means nothing without obedience.  As Jesus later told Peter and the disciples, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word”.  If Peter had not “instantly” obeyed Jesus and followed Him, all the rest of his life would have been for naught.

Calling, humility, cleansing, vision, forsaking, obedience.  Peter had to step through all of these to begin to follow Jesus.  We do too.  And these are not discrete events, but rather form the stones of the path that we must follow with Jesus every day.  Each day Christ wants us to walk farther along with Him by our calling, our pride broken through humility, our sin washed away through cleansing, our hope deepened through vision, our lives separated from the world through forsaking, our steps closely matching His through obedience.