Are “Should” and “Ought” Condemning Words?
In recent years, there have been wonderful insights emphasized about the identity of the believer in Christ, and what the believer has in Christ. Many have come to embrace the reality that our acceptance by God and our right standing with God is not based on our human efforts or on our performance. Many have joyfully transitioned from a sin-consciousness to a righteousness-consciousness. They have enjoyed the benefits of knowing that they are in right relationship with God, not because of their perfection, but because of God’s grace.
A multitude of Christians can tell you what Romans 3:23 says—they have it memorized—that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. That is a fact, and we need to know it. But how many believers can tell you the verses that immediately follow? Contextually, Paul writes:
ROMANS 3:23-25 (NLT)
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.
Some people spent years thinking that they would only be right with God if they were good enough, did enough good works, measured up, were religious enough, etc. People still ended up feeling like they didn’t measure up because ultimately, they were depending on themselves and their own efforts rather than really trusting in Jesus and his finished work. Because of this background, some developed a negative mentality toward all works, toward all effort, toward anything that could be considered “performance.”
Because of previous misunderstandings, an unhealthy over-correction took place in which they began to deem any kind of admonition toward obedience, duty, commitment, or works as a reversion to a legalistic mindset. People swung from one extreme—thinking they were earning acceptance by their works—to another extreme—rejecting all works and “obedience” aspects of the faith as a form of legalism. It is vital, if a Christian is to have a mature view of Scripture, to not only accept the free gift of forgiveness and acceptance that comes by grace through faith, but also to embrace the responsibilities that God sets before us as we endeavor to live obedient lives before him. This balance, both sides of the issue, are portrayed so powerfully in Paul’s writings. For example:
EPHESIANS 2:8-10 (NASB, emphasis added)
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Notice the flow here. We are not saved as a result of our works, but we are saved in order to do good works. In other words, works are not the cause of our salvation, but they are to be a result of our salvation. Works are not the root of our salvation, but they are to be the fruit of our salvation.
A minister once told me, “I don’t believe that we should tell believers what they should do. If we do, they get into legalism.” He believed that we should simply tell believers who they are in Christ and how much God loves them, and then they will automatically do the right things. The problem with his statement is that it is entirely unscriptural; it doesn’t square with the New Testament at all. I’m not saying we should beat people over the head telling them what to do, but the New Testament is absolutely loaded with admonitions about how believers should live and conduct themselves, and what they ought to do. If we really aren’t supposed to ever encourage or instruct believers regarding godly conduct, the Apostle Paul really missed it big-time, as did Peter and John!
- We should walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4).
- We should bear fruit to God (Rom 7:4).
- We should serve in the newness of the Spirit (Rom 7:6).
- We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord (Rom 15:2, NLT).
- We should examine ourselves before eating the bread and drinking the cup (1 Cor 11:28, NLT).
- We should no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and rose again (2 Cor 5:15).
- We should do good to everyone—especially those in the family of faith (Gal 6:10, NLT).
- We should be holy and without blame before him in love (Eph 1:4).
- We should no longer be children (Eph 4:14).
- We should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk (Eph 4:17).
- We should be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:27).
- We should abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thes 4:3).
- We should know how to possess our own vessels in sanctification and honor (1 Thes 4:4).
- We should be rich in good works and generous to those in need (1 Tim 6:18, NLT).
- We should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12).
- We should be obedient, always ready to do what is good (Titus 3:1, NLT).
- We should be gentle and show true humility to everyone (Titus 3:2, NLT).
- We should be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8).
- We should follow in Jesus’ steps (1 Pet 2:21).
- We should live our lives as Jesus did (1 John 2:6, NLT).
- We should love one another (1 John 3:11).
Understand that God does not ask us to do these things in our own strength or ability. I also recognize that that we are empowered to do fulfill God’s will as we abide in him; it is a result of having received his very life in us. Jesus states, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 14:4-5).
While we are on this topic, there are some “oughts” in the New Testament as well:
- Husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies (Eph 5:28).
- You received from us how you ought to walk and to please God (1 Thes 4:1).
- I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God (1 Tim 3:15).
- …What manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness (2 Pet 3:11).
- We also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).
- It is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it (James 4:17).
To make a point, I have isolated and singled out several of the “shoulds” and “oughts” of Scripture. However, it is important to realize that New Testament authors did not write that way; they did not make a list of all the things believers should do. They wanted believers living out of a vibrant relationship with Jesus, not by a mere set of rules. New Testament authors wrote comprehensively of God’s love, of his redemptive work through Jesus, and of the Spirit’s empowerment in our lives. Intermingled among these glorious truths, the authors also presented directives of how God wants his people to live. The harmony and blend of all these complimentary truths settled believers in their identity and directed them to fulfill their God-ordained responsibilities.
Jesus is no harsh taskmaster, but he does communicate standards and expectations to those he has freely redeemed, accepted, and forgiven. He said, “my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matt 11:30). He didn’t tell his apostles to merely teach people that they are loved and forgiven; Jesus directed, “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matt 28:20). The Beloved Apostle writes, “Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
I have no interest in laboring under a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts and should’s and must’s. Neither do I want to be a part of what Leonard Ravenhill described years ago: “Today’s church wants to be raptured from responsibility.” That is not a right approach either. I want to live out of a vibrant relationship with God in which he empowers me to do those things that he has clearly instructed and commanded in His word. That is not legalism; that is liberating!