The Priority of Obedience
By Fred Zaspel –
“To obey is better than sacrifice.”
(1 Sam. 15:22)
We all know the story. King Saul was commanded to take no spoil from the Amalekites but to destroy everything, including even the animals. When the prophet Samuel discovered the many animals Saul had kept for his own use he roundly condemned him for his disobedience. King Saul attempted to justify his actions by saying he had kept the best of the animals in order to use them for sacrifice offerings to God. Unimpressed, Samuel speaks for God: “To obey is better than sacrifice.” And as a result of Saul’s “rejection” of God, God rejected Saul — his throne would be taken away and given to another.
But note Samuel’s words — “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Now of course on one level, thinking on this with the fuller revelation of the New Testament, we realize that if there is no sacrifice for sin we have nothing at all. In that respect nothing is more important than sacrifice.
But that is not what Samuel has in mind. Saul has offered sacrifice to the Lord — and that is a good thing! But in this instance God refuses the sacrifice. Saul’s worship was unacceptable. Why? Because Saul’s disobedience to God’s command showed his “worship” to be a sham. God will not accept the worship of the disobedient.
Two major points of application arise from this. First, God expects us to obey him, and he holds us accountable accordingly. God does not offer suggestions. He gives commands. And we, his creatures, are bound to obey. We must not pick and choose — we must obey.
Second, we must not pretend to worship God if we will not obey his commands. We may go through the motions — go to church, give our money, sing the songs, pray — but if we are otherwise disobedient, our worship will not be acceptable.
This is fascinating and of immense significance, and it is a very needed corrective to our natural thinking. When we sin — disobey God’s Word — our tendency, rather than repent, is to justify that sin by involving ourselves more heavily in worship. We make very sure that we go to church. We sing the songs heartily. We even give extra money in the offering plate. And perhaps subconsciously we want to think in it all that we have compensated for the sin, that somehow our good worship will make up for our disobedience. But we may be sure that God is not so easily fooled. Nor is he so easily bought off.
Later in Israel’s history the prophet Isaiah condemned the nation for their worship. He condemned their sacrifices and offerings — all of which God had commanded! But it was all a sham, an empty and insincere ritual, for they were otherwise a disobedient people.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul does the same. He tells the Corinthians that their observance of the Lord’s Supper had brought on them the displeasure and discipline of God. The way they were treating one another in the congregation was sinful, and so their worship was unworthy of God. Here again is worship according to God’s command, but it is rejected because of disobedience.
All this to say that God expects sincerity in worship. We dare not trifle with him. We cannot pick and choose what laws we will obey. And having disobeyed him we dare not pretend to worship him. God demands sincerity in worship.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.