Reasons vs Motivations for Obedience

Check out this fascinating and helpful discussion by Tullian Tchividjian on the reasons vs. motivations for obedience, originally posted here at the Gospel Coalition.


My friend Matt Smethurst interviewed me about the themes in my new book One-Way Love. I always appreciate Matt’s thoughtful questions. One of the questions he asked me had to do with whether the Bible includes exhortations that appeal to a wide variety of motivations. In short, my answer was “no.” But you’ll have to read the full answer below to see what I mean. I think the distinction between “reasons” to obey and “motivations” that produce obedience is absolutely crucial. Read on:

Matt: The Bible includes exhortations that appeal to a wide range of motivations. As a pastor, how do you determine when it’s time to counsel someone not only to “run to the cross,” but also to “run away from sin” or to “run for the crown”?

Me: I want to push back a little on this one, or at least challenge the choice of words. I think the Bible includes exhortations that appeal to a wide range of “reasons,” but I’d like to suggest “reasons” are very different from “motivations.” For instance, we might say that a reason to follow the law is to simply please God. After all, Hebrews talks about our good deeds being pleasing to God (perhaps we could call this “running for the crown”). But there’s a distinct difference between a reason to be obedient and a motivation that actually produces obedience. It’s all well and good to say there are many reasons to obey, but what actually motivates you to be obedient? The idea that we act based on reasons—we act to please God because it’s “the right thing to do”—presupposes that we act rationally. But that’s the very idea that the Reformers rejected! Just because we have a reason to be good doesn’t mean we’ll do it—we have to want to. As John Piper says, we always choose according to what we desire most. We need more than reasons, then—we need motivation.

A lot of preaching these days is too theoretical and disconnected from reality when it comes to the human condition and how real change happens. We use language like “indicatives” and “imperatives.” We love phrases like “faith alone saves but the faith that saves is never alone” and “grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” And all of those categories and phrases are good. I affirm them all theologically. But none of them answers this question: how does change actually happen?

When it comes to real heart change, we have two options: law or grace. That’s it. Two. At the end of the day we either believe law changes or love does. I can tell people all day long about what they need to be doing and the ways they’re falling short (and that’s important to keep them seeing their need for Jesus). But simply telling people what they need to do doesn’t have the power to make them want to do it. I can appeal to a thousand different biblical reasons why someone should start doing what God wants and stop doing what he doesn’t want—heaven, hell, consequences, blessing, and so on. And I do. But simply telling people they need to change can’t change them; giving people reasons to do the right and avoid the wrong, doesn’t do it. Both are necessary, but neither can actually change the person.

Paul makes it clear in Romans 7 that the law endorses the need for change but is powerless to enact change—that’s not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin but it cannot transform the sinner. The law can instruct, but only grace can inspire. Or to put it another way, love inspires what the law demands.

Think about it: beneath your happiest moments and closest relationships inevitably lies some instance of being loved in weakness or deserved judgment. Someone let you off hook when you least deserved it. A friend suspended judgment at a key moment. Your father was lenient when you wrecked his car. Your teacher gave you an extension, even though she knew you’d been procrastinating. You said something insensitive to your spouse, but instead of retaliating, she kept quiet and didn’t hold it against you the next day. One-way love is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience—a person loved in weakness blossoms.

So we might say reasons answer the “why” question and motivations the “how.” As I mentioned earlier, we love God because he first loved us. God’s command to love him is all the reason we need to love him, but it’s not what causes actual love for him. What causes actual love for God is God’s love for us. His love for us is what motivates love from us. Reasons, therefore, can differ, but the true motivation always remains the same. As a pastor, I always counsel people to “run to the cross” because the love found there—the one-way love of God in Christ—is the only truly motivating factor toward Christian obedience.