In several of my previous pieces examining the Christian life and message we have tried to emphasize the unprecedented reality of God literally living within you, the believer in Christ (“Seek First the Kingdom”, “Hearing the Good News”, “Recovering the Gospel – I”, “Recovering the Gospel – II”).
In “The Grace of God”, and also “Being a Disciple”, we make the point that the principal function of this indwelling of the Spirit within the believer is to enable the believer to live the life Christ desires for him. The character of that life is obedience to Christ through love of God and love of neighbor. The Spirit enables our obedience to Christ through the dispensing of grace to the believer to sustain his obedience to the Spirit (2 Tim 2:1, 2 Cor 9:8, Eph 4:17, 1 Pet 4:10).
In this note we’ll look at this imperative of obedience to Christ as portrayed in the Bible, and uncover some insight into what the Bible means by “obedience” and “believe”.
A Survey of the Scriptural Admonitions to Obedience
Given the paucity of teaching in the modern Church on the importance of living in obedience to your Lord — as a result of one’s conversion — we might not expect to find much emphasis on it in scripture. And, we don’t find the literal phrase other than in Romans. But what it represents – Christians living in obedience to Christ through their faith that Christ was their risen Lord and Messiah — permeates the New Testament.
The Apostle Paul coined the phrase, which we most likely equate with his introductory greeting to the Romans:
1Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 4who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, 6among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ;
A couple of things to note here. Paul says in verse 5 that he has been supplied grace to bring about this “obedience of faith” among the Gentiles, as they were his “mission field”. But, in verse 4, he confessed that it was the (indwelt) “Spirit of Holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord” who was the source of this grace. It’s also interesting that after opening Romans with these verses defining his mission as bringing about this outcome, he closes it similarly (Romans 16:25-26), underscoring the importance he placed on achieving this goal.
Now Paul here seems to be implying that bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles was to be deemed successful when they had been transformed (by the Spirit) to live in obedience to Christ born of their newfound faith. In other words, and stretching a bit further, that living this way was how bona fide “Christians” were anticipated to live. Obedient living was normal living for the Christians in Paul’s world.
It might be a bit surprising to learn that James was on the same page as Paul on this issue, as can be seen from James 2:17-20:
17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
18But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
In expecting an “obedience of faith” from believers of his day, Paul is expressing the same expectation James articulates here (possibly against the Gnostics): that if there is no obedience (i.e. in charity, in worship, in care for the least fortunate) then one’s claim to have saving “faith” is hollow.
And James is effectively taking it one step further. When he says that “faith without works is useless” he’s saying that it is not effective for salvation – it has no use and is thus “use-less”.
It’s somewhat ironic that Paul and James support each other’s position here since they have been pitted against one another since at least the Reformation over their use of the term “works”. The early chapters of Romans are a polemic against “works” (or “works of the law”), which has been understood (incorrectly in my opinion) to refer to deeds intended to demonstrate moral worth in an attempt to “earn salvation”. (I agree with NT Wright and others that “works” to Paul were those practices followed by Jews and early Jewish Christians that had the effect of maintaining their identity with the ethnic nation of Israel under their Mosaic Covenant, and so, in their mind, continually in God’s favor, as His chosen nation.)
Poor James! He made the mistake of terseness in his writing. So rather than elaborating on the context of the “works” he was arguing for in the Christ-follower’s life – say “works of faith” or “works of obedience”, he just left it at “works”: 2041. ἔργον, ἔργω ergón, ergō, er’-gon;
From the second form (a primary but obsolete word; to work); toil (as an effort or occupation); by implication an act.
And this word is identical to the word Paul uses with his Jewish and Jewish Christian brothers in his famous statement on soteriology in Ephesians 2:8-10:
8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Both of the occurrences here in v9 and in v10 are James’ ἔργον, though obviously in v10 he qualifies it with “good”. James didn’t even use that one extra word. He let his context say it for him. Somehow we just haven’t gotten that Paul was talking to the Jews and Judaizers seeking to preserve Jewish culture as a condition of New Covenant faith, while James was talking about all Christians following their conversion.
Luke also, in Acts 6:7, comes very close (in the ESV) to using the same phrase, but his is just slightly different:
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Obedience And Good Works
There is one other text we can look at briefly to help us understand the equivalence between belief and obedience. This time it’s John’s gospel.
In John 3:36 (ESV) we read:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Translators have had some disagreement on how to render the word here translated “not obey”. It is: 544. ἀπειθέω apeiqeō, ap-i-theh’-o;
From 545; to disbelieve (wilfully and perversely). To disobey, rebel, be disloyal, refuse conformity.
This is the word from which we get our word “apathetic” – uninterested, uninvolved.
Somehow the ESV translators (and those of e.g. NLT, BLB, NASB, ISV, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, NAS, ASV, ERV, etc.) came to equate ‘not obey’ with disbelieve. The translation found in the KJV and NKJV use the more literal “not believe” or “disbelieve”, while other versions may use “reject” or “refuse to believe”.
One insight from this fact is that a significant fraction of New Testament Greek bible scholars seem to equate obeying – obedience – with “believing/belief”. The idea is: One who is obeying believes, and; one who believes obeys. It’s one-in-the-same state of faith.
Now you may know that the Greek word translated ‘believe’ is closely related to the Greek word translated faith – pisteuō and pistis. In fact, they are sometimes translated interchangeably.
- πιστεύω pisteuō, pist-yoo’-o;
From 4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), that is, credit; by implication to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well being to Christ).
- πίστις pistis, pis’-tis;
From 3982; persuasion, that is, credence; moral conviction (of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher), especially reliance upon Christ for salvation ; abstractly constancy in such profession; by extension the system of religious (Gospel) truth itself.
This perhaps helps us understand a kind of subtlety that James, despite his terseness, was using in his letter by essentially saying that “faith without (John’s equivalence of belief/obedience) is useless”.
I think I have sufficiently covered the failure of the modern church to properly present the Gospel in other notes. So I won’t belabor the point again other than to summarize that the institutional church in general (there are exceptions) is not interested in teaching Christians to live in obedience to Christ, and to teach others to do so as well (to become “followers of Christ”, Disciples). This was an integral part of the Gospel of the Apostles and Church Fathers but has not been in the institutional church ever since their day (though some denominations, e.g. some Anabaptists, emphasize Christian service).
The Reformed denominations, additionally, are so focused on teaching their legacy doctrines focusing on God’s sovereignty over all aspects of life and salvation, that they are left with little interest in expending effort to make Disciples (the only command Jesus gave the Church) who are obedient to their Lord.
Perhaps John is telling us that we moderns don’t really understand what the first century Apostles meant by “believe” or “faith”. Perhaps the Apostles understood these words to have much more of an “action word” connotation that somehow, through translations and the passage of 2000 years, has been lost. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons that we’ve excluded poor ‘ole James from serious biblical study and scholarship. It isn’t simply because he authored only one book while Luke and Peter authored two each, John four and Paul 7-13.
No. It is because James’ message isn’t compatible with our understanding of the “grace by faith” taught by Paul. If we don’t even understand what Paul meant by the word “faith” (or its cognate “believe”), it is entirely possible that we can’t possibly see Paul and James as presenting the same gospel: “Faith is not apathetic!”
In characterizing this state of the institutional church, NT Wright quotes a common tongue-in-cheek saying within his Anglican Church that the average Christian life is “An awkward and embarrassing gap between one’s baptism and his funeral.” This is exactly what Paul, James, John, and Luke are preaching against. Yet, this is exactly what we have.
I don’t think we understand the same meanings that Paul and the Apostles understood when we read the words they used for obedience, faith and belief. Some purposeful Bible study can shed light on our problem, and give us a glimpse of what they were trying to teach. The Bible abounds with clear examples of living out an obedience of faith, explaining the idea in lives, not words: Noah, the Prophets, Esther and Mordechai, Ruth, the Apostles, and of course the poster-boy for obedience through faith, Father Abraham (Gen 15:6).
But it is also true that our understanding of the Spirit’s purpose and ability to enable us to live the life Christ bought for us, by His grace in obedience to Him, is also woefully lacking. The Spirit is not simply the enabler of the obedient life in Christ; it is the inspiration and motivation for it. I have tried to cover this topic elsewhere and will only close here with a quote from the piece entitled “Living Christ”:
“Perhaps most revealing and instructive of the distinctions between the sincere and insincere, is the overwhelming compulsion of the Christ-follower to obey his Lord. This is the guiding intention of his heart. This is the animating force in his life.
At one point, the Christ-follower purposely and consciously committed himself to follow. Christ called it to “strive” (to enter in by the narrow door (Luke 13:24)) – Ἀγωνίζεσθε (Agōnizesthe), from which we get our word “agonize”. Initially, for a time (brief for some, longer for others), the Christ-follower consciously agonizes to maintain his focus on and intention to live for Christ (see also Hebrews 12:11-13). Eventually, he becomes unaware of this intention. It is just what he does – his first nature, which he does through the influence of God living in him.
This is what Paul is speaking of when he talks of being “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14). For Paul, the active agent is the Spirit of God, while the passive agent is His follower. The follower is literally following – going where and doing only that which his leader leads him to do, but doing so, as it were, un-self-consciously. He is not making individual conscious decisions on this or that. The decisions are being made by his Lord and he is simply accepting and reflexively acting on them.
He is unconcerned with the prospect of being seen as odd or detached by his family, friends or acquaintances. He is simply focused, perhaps to a degree some would call “compulsive”, on his Lord and what He wants for every situation in his life. There is only One he is attempting to serve and please – and that is his Lord.”