A Question arises when speaking about conduct and God’s attitude towards a believer. Can God be satisfied by my actions? Can I please or displease God by my actions? To some the answer to both is an obvious yes, to others the answer is an obvious no. Those who say yes say there are actions that are more pleasing to God and actions that are less pleasing to God. Those who say no point to the work of Christ, and that his work standing for ours means that God at no point loves us more or less than with the love of His Son and so is always perfectly pleased with us.
If you noticed the two questions, you may have noticed there is a change of language from inquiring of God’s “satisfaction” to wondering about God’s being “pleased.” Such a difference in language is intentional. I wish to show why my answer to those questions is different:
1) Can God be satisfied by my actions?
My answer: No. Our actions cannot satisfy God.
Lewis S. Chaffer was known for saying to his students in class over and over again: “God is fully satisfied.” He wanted to ingrain to them that they were not in seminary or going into the ministry to satisfy God, and if they were, they were there for the wrong reason.
Satisfaction has a particular meaning referring to the justice of God. By that standard, we required the substitution of the work of Christ, Such as Described in Romans 5:17-19. Our Catechism describes the blessing of justification in such a way that “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ,”
Christ has fully satisfied the justice of God. The only righteousness that causes us to be just in the sight of God is the righteousness of Christ and our actions cannot satisfy God more or less than the work of Christ.
But to the second question:
2) Can I please or displease God by my actions?
Yes. We are specifically told that our actions and our walk relate to God’s being pleased:
1 Thess 4:1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.
Other places contain instructions encouraging us to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Eph 5:10) So this leaves us wondering, do these things contradict? To say God cannot be more satisfied, but that I ought to work towards pleasing the Lord?
These do not contradict, but sweetly comply. Satisfaction refers to the legal judgment of God. Thus, in justification we are taught that Christ’s satisfaction stands for us, that God is perfectly satisfied in his divine justice in the work of His Son taking our place and penalty. However, pleasing in the sense of the believer acting towards God does not refer to that legal aspect. We do not add to or take away from our justification. In justification, God related to us as a Judge. Now that justice has been satisfied before that Judge, we are told that we have been adopted (Gal 4:6-7). Notice, for instance, that in Galatians that while Paul lays our justification by faith (Galatians 2), that before Paul gets to our Christian walk he must pass through our Adoption at the end of Galatians 3 and beginning of Galatians 4. This is reproduced in our Catechisms where we are told that we walk through the benefits of salvation first in justification, then in adoption and finally in sanctification. That particular order is very important. Sanctification, the Christian Life, Walking in the Spirit is a process done in light of Adoption. We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as a Father.
How does that relate to satisfy and pleasing? One must satisfy justice before a judge. One works to please a Father.
Some may object, saying that our status as sons of the Father means that God only looks on us in love and pride and would never be either angry or displeased. This formulation, however, is not the treatment we see in Scripture. God is very angry with his people, many of them true regenerates, over the sin of Achan in Joshua 7. God was angry with the generation of the Exodus, though they were his children. [Deut 1:34-37] God as a Father can be displeased with the acts of his children. We do not have a senile grandfather in Heaven, but a good Father. A good Father does not merely send his children out to live however they want without discipline:
Hebrews 12:5-11: And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
We forget this passage. We forget that a Father disciplines his children. We forget that God can be displeased in the acts of his sons, even when he loves them and his justice is satisfied. The regeneration of a believer, and indeed the union of the believer to Christ is not the end of God’s rod and staff. This rod and staff continue to discipline his children but in love. He disciplines for it teaches us righteousness. He disciplines us to do what pleases Him. And when we worship God we do not worship a neutered God, but one for whom we have reverence and awe, and for whom we do fear to displease, for we fear to displease our Father, though when we do we remember his acceptance and the satisfaction of Christ, not to placate our passivity, but to spur us on to actively pursue God’s character and face as given in his commands, for if we love God, we will endeavor to follow his commands.