Saul And The "Spirit Of Obedience"

Mike Willis
Dayton, Ohio

From time to time one reads that a person who does not obey the letter of God's law is nevertheless acceptable in God's sight because he has the "spirit of obedience." In periodicals which I have read, application of this has been made to those pious unimmersed who are honestly and sincerely mistaken about water baptism but who have a sincere and honest desire to please God. These articles state that such men who have not complied with the letter of the law but have complied with the spirit of the law are acceptable in God's sight. Other periodicals which are not so consistent in the application of the premise stop short of application to water baptism but relate it to those issues which have divided brethren. They assure us that many of those who participate in churches which support human institutions (missionary societies, benevolent societies, hospitals, old folks homes, etc.), practice the sponsoring church form of ecclesiastical organization, engage in church sponsored recreation, and other unauthorized items are sincere and honest (which I do not deny). Hence, they comply with the spirit of the law in spite of violating its letter. Since they manifest the "spirit of obedience," they are acceptable in God's sight in spite of their failures to comply with the letter of the law.

In such teaching, the "spirit of obedience" somehow supplies the deficiency of failure to comply with the letter of the law. The "spirit of obedience" is not the same as obedience. We need to ask whether God will accept the "spirit of obedience" in place of obedience. As a means of studying this question, let us examine 1 Samuel 15, the record of King Saul's mission to destroy the Amalekites.

The Historical Record

In 1 Samuel 15, God is recorded to have sent King Saul on a divine mission of Judgment against the Amalekite people. He commanded, "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (15:3). The command must be understood in the context of God's moral government of the universe. The Amalekites had apparently degenerated beyond any hope of redemption (they are described as "sinners" in 15:18 and the conduct of King Agag is described in such a way as to imply wickedness in 15:33). The principle of God's moral government is this: "Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people" (Prov. 14:34; cf. Prov. 16:12; 21:31; 29:2,4,14; Jer. 18:7-10)(1) Specific reason also given for this judgment was the assault of the Amalekites upon Israel when she was just leaving Egyptian bondage (15:2; cf. Exod. 17:8-16). Hence, King Saul was sent to administer God's judgment against this wicked nation.

Saul went to obey the Lord's command. He attacked the Amalekites, smiting them from Havilah to Shur (15:8). He slew all of the Amalekites, except King Agag. He killed all of the cattle except the very best which was brought back to Israel for the purpose of offering sacrifice (15:9).(2) Then he returned from his mission, convinced that he had obeyed the Lord's command (15:13). Indeed, he had obeyed the "spirit" of God's commandment, even if he had not obeyed the "letter."

The Lord spoke to Samuel, telling him of Saul's disobedience. He said, "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments" (15:11). God sent Samuel to rebuke Saul.

When the judge and the king met each other, Saul said, "Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandments of the Lord" (15:13). Samuel retorted, "What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" (15:14). The facts demonstrated that Saul had not obeyed the Lord's commandment.

In his defense, Saul justified himself on two bases. (1) The people had pressured him to bring back the very best cattle for sacrifice to God (15:15,21,24). (2) The cattle were to be used for the purpose of sacrifice (15:15,21). Saul seemed fully persuaded that he had obeyed the Lord's commandment (15:13,15,20-21).

Here is proof that a man may be blinded by his own self-will, and that he may imagine that his own way is right, while it is leading him to the gate of death (Prov. xiv. 12; xvi.25). It is not enough for a man to be approved by his own conscience; but is necessary to regulate the conscience by God's Will and Word (Acts xxvi.9; 1 Tim. 1:13) (quotation of Wordsworth reproduced in Lange's Commentary on I Samuel, p. 213).

And so he had in the half-way in which men generally keep God's commandments, doing that part which is agreeable to themselves, and leaving that part undone which gives them neither pleasure nor profit . . . . Saul's justification of himself is remarkable, as he seems entirely unconscious of having done anything wrong (E. Payne Smith, Pulpit Commentary, IV, p. 266).

Samuel replied to Saul's defense saying, "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?.Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbomness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou has rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being King" (15:22-23).

Upon hearing that he had been rejected as King, he said, "I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice" (15:24). Nevertheless, his "repentance" seemed more intended to keep the kingdom than to be reconciled with the Lord (cf. 15:30). The Lord did not change His mind about taking the kingdom from Saul and giving it to another man.

Lessons From The Narrative

1. The spirit of obedience is not accepted in the place of obedience. Saul's intentions in bringing back the best of the cattle were the highest - to offer them in sacrifice to God. There does not appear to have been any selfish motive in his disobedience. Hence, one could surely argue that Saul manifested the "spirit of obedience."

The probability is that he was conscious of uneasiness, but had no true conception of the enormity of his sin. His feeling was that he had no wish to disown the authority of God, that it was a mere matter of detail, that his general conduct was exemplary, and that he followed the inner light which seemed just then to indicate another way of ultimately and substantially carrying out the command. So do men tone down their sins and regard them as venial (C. Chapman, Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 274).

Samuel charged him with disobedience (15:22). The modern religious concept that the letter of the law is unimportant so long as one manifests the "spirit of obedience" stands in stark contrast with the words of Samuel. For Saul had indeed obeyed the "spirit of the law"; he had destroyed the Amalekites. Yet he had violated the letter of the law in bringing back King Agag and the best of the cattle alive. Despite his good intentions - his desire to offer the best of the cattle in sacrifice to God, his act was wrong. The end did not justify his means.

2. Disobedience frequently springs from having too exalted opinion of oneself. Samuel called Saul's sin rebellion and stubbornness, comparing it to witchcraft and idolatry. In what Saul had done, he had manifested sinful human pride. While returning from his conquest, he set up a monument to himself at Mt. Carmel (15:12). When Samuel rebuked him, he said, "When thou wast little in thine own sight . . ." (15:17). This was in contrast with his present estimation of his importance.

Most human disobedience springs from having too exalted opinion of oneself.

Opposition to God is compared by Samuel to soothsaying and oracles, because idolatry was manifested in both of them. All conscious disobedience is actually idolatry, because it makes self-will, the human 1, into a god (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, p. 157). It makes man a worshiper of himself rather than of God (C. Chapman, Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 274).

Men elevate their own personal thoughts higher than God's spoken revelation. We have seen the same thing duplicated in our day in the Lord's church with such things as involving the church in recreational activities as a means to reaching greater numbers with the gospel. Human pride is evident in subtle form when man thinks that he can devise a better way to win the world to Christ than the great God of heaven has revealed. Like Saul, many who comply with the "spirit of obedience" (they bring the masses into captivity to Christ) have not obeyed the letter of the law and for the same reason, they have too exalted an idea of their own human ideas, projects, and plans.

3. Men are reluctant to accept personal responsibility for sins. Saul blamed the people for his sin (15:15,20-21). Yet, Saul was the king, not the people. This was but a device of Saul's defense mechanisms to avoid acceptance of his own personal responsibility for his sinful conduct. The same ploy was followed by Adam in the Garden of Eden when he blamed Eve for his sin (Gen. 3:12). Each of us is ready to blame someone else or the circumstances for our own sinful conduct. Human nature has not changed.

4. Men sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that they have done God's will when they have only done the desires of their own hearts. Saul's case reminds us that "all the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes" (16:2) and that "there is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (16:15). This seems to be forgotten or not believed by some who think that so long as a Christian (why limit it just to Christians?) is good, honest, and sincere that he is acceptable in the sight of God.


The gospel which is being preached by some is a watered down substitute for the real thing. Instead of preaching that obedience is necessary for salvation (Heb. 5:8-9), some preach that the "spirit of obedience" will suffice.

There is a gospel which is often preached in our day that divests God wholly of the rigid, judicial character; it clothes Him with no attributes but those of kindness and love; it presents Him in a countenance ever smiling, never stern. It maintains that the great work of Christ in the world was to reveal this paternal aspect of God's character, to convince men of His fatherly feelings towards them, and to divest their minds of all those conceptions of indignation and wrath with which our minds are apt to clothe Him, and which the theologies of men are so ready to foster. But this is a gospel that says, Peace! peace! when there is no peace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed reveal, and reveal beautifully, the paternal character of God; but it reveals at the same time that judicial character which insists on the execution of His law. That God will execute wrath on the impenitent and unbelieving is just as much a feature of the Gospel as that He will bestow all the blessings of salvation and eternal life on them that believe (W.G. Blaikie, The Expositor's Bible: The First Book of Samuel, p. 242).

I am convinced that much which is approved and defended under the "spirit of obedience" is nothing other than rebellion and disobedience of the same nature as Saul's.


1. Some of this conclusion is based on inference, not specific statement. My process of reasoning is this. One can learn God's method of dealing with the nations from such studies as the flood (Gen. 6-8), His action toward Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), His dealings with the nations in Canaan during the Israelite conquest (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-25; 20:21,-27), His conduct with Israel throughout the Old Testament, and passages in the prophets. Once one has learned the principle of God's conduct, it applies in every case, whether specifically mentioned or not (unless some exception is mentioned). A comparison which might illustrate this is the purpose of water baptism. We learn the design of water baptism from such passages as Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; etc. We deduce that the purpose of water baptism was the same in every case, even though that purpose might not be specifically stated in the text, unless some specific reason for concluding otherwise is mentioned (such as in the case of the baptism of Jesus in Matt. 3).

2. The conduct of the Israelites stands in stark contrast to the general practice of plundering by invading forces. None of the booty was taken for selfish purposes based on greed or avarice. Saul and his army conducted themselves as an army under a divine mission.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 7, pp. 194, 212-213
April 5, 1984