Imagine this scenario. It’s Monday morning and you’re at work or school. An unbelieving friend comes up and asks, “How was your weekend?” You heard recently that talking about church can open a door for spiritual conversations, so you reply, “It was great. I went to church yesterday and heard a couple of good sermons.” “Church!?” your friend exclaims, “Why would you go to church?” What should you say?
You might respond like this: “To me that’s like asking why you might go to the dining room for a meal. You go because you’re hungry. There’s food and your body needs it. Similarly, at church there’s spiritual food for hungry souls. My soul needs to be fed with the Word of God. I need to be nourished with what Jesus Christ has done for me.”
Or you could respond like this: “To me that’s like asking why you would go and spend time with someone you love deeply. You go because you love them and you love spending time with them. Similarly, when I go to church I can spend time with the God whom I love. I can experience his love towards me in the good news of what Jesus has done. And I can also express my love towards him in our songs, prayers, and offerings.”
This is also a possibility: “To me that’s like asking why you’d listen to a beautiful piece of music over and over again. You listen because it’s delightful and fascinating. When I go to church, I learn more from the Bible about how beautiful and delightful God is. I hear more about his nature and his works and I just can’t get enough. His glory captivates me, especially when I hear about Jesus.”
Each of those responses reflects what’s called evangelical obedience. It’s called that because it’s rooted in the gospel (the evangel) – the good news is what drives and motivates our obedience to God’s call to worship him. It comes out of the love and thankfulness generated in our hearts in response to the gospel. It might also be called evangelistic obedience because it has the effect of witnessing to the unbeliever about who is important to you (God/Christ) and why (the gospel). Certainly the examples I gave above aren’t exhaustive; I’m sure one could think of more responses rooted in the gospel.
However, there’s another approach. One could also answer this unbelieving friend by saying something like this: “Uh, I go because I have to. If I don’t, I’ll get in trouble with my parents and my grandparents.” Or maybe: “I go because if I don’t I’ll get nasty text messages from my elders.” Or it can take a slightly more pious form: “I go because God commands me to go and if I don’t, I’ll go to hell.”
Those responses (and others like them) reflect what’s called legalistic obedience. It’s rooted in legal compulsion. The law hangs over you and forces you to do what you don’t really want to do in your heart. You don’t really want to worship God, but because people are pressuring you, you do. You don’t really want to worship God, but because you’re afraid of hell, you do. Legalistic obedience is begrudging obedience. It’s a chore. It’s a duty with no delight. As such, it also has nothing to commend it to your unbelieving friend. Would you want to worship God and hear the gospel if it sounds like going to the dentist?
When children grow up in the church, legalistic obedience can sometimes be the training wheels they need to develop good habits. Legalistic obedience in church attendance puts them where they’ll hear the gospel and, we pray, believe it for themselves. New adult converts can also sometimes go through a time of legalistic obedience in certain areas. However, it’s a sign of growing Christian maturity to be motivated to obedience by the gospel. Evangelical obedience should be the bullseye for which every Christian is aiming.
So when a friend asks why you go to church on Sunday, an answer grounded in evangelical obedience is best. It best serves the glory of God and it best serves the good of your neighbour. It showcases God as delightful. And it beckons your neighbour to come, “taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:18).