I’ve just listened to Bonhoeffer’s book, The High Cost of Discipleship. Here are a couple of quotes that caught my attention. This first one illustrates our innate problem with obeying – we want off the hook!
“Who is my neighbor? Does this question admit of any answer? Is it my brother, my compatriot, my brother Christian, or my enemy? There is an element of truth and falsehood in each of these answers. The whole question lands us into doubt and disobedience, and it is a veritable act of rebellion against the commandment of God. Of course, I say, I want to do his will, but he does not tell me how to set about it. The answer is: ‘You are the neighbor. Go along and try to be obedient by loving others.’ Neighborliness is not a quality in other people, it is simply their claim on ourselves.” loc. 1108.
Bonhoeffer also wrote, “only he who obeys can believe and only he who believes can obey.”
This led me to reflect on the difference between true obedience and the kind of “good-works salvation” that much of the world depends upon.
We who hold fast to salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), struggle with the way we deal with obedience. We often say to people, first believe, and then obey. When we try to divide faith and obedience, we infer that obedience to Christ as Lord is optional. Obedience is something we should try to do because there are blessings in it. But we are careful to say again and again, that obedience must follow belief. We want people to make no mistake, their salvation is a gift from God, not a result of their good works.
As I’ve been listening to Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, I am confronted again, that we may have created a message that truncates the gospel of Christ, and thereby, it’s power. The call to faith is a call to follow Jesus, as his disciples. The act of believing is an act of following, which at its core, is an act of obedience.
For those who want to quote John 3:16 right now as a simple argument for belief without obedience, it reads “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Let me also quote John 3:36 “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.” John clearly equates belief and true obedience. This fits with Bonhoeffer’s words, “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”
As I’ve been contemplating Bonhoeffer’s words, I’ve had to ask the question. “What is the difference between the good works someone does to earn their salvation and the works of true obedience to Christ?
- Works require human initiative. vs. True obedience is a response to God’s initiative in Jesus Christ.
- Works rely on human strength. vs. True obedience can only be lived by and through God’s grace.
- Works adhere to a list of laws. vs. True obedience is an answer to Christ’s call to follow Him.
- Works keep one from faith because they breed self-sufficiency. vs. True obedience is an act of insufficiency and increases a sense of dependency.
- Works always have a limit. vs. True obedience is single minded and with complete self abandon.
- Works are an exercise in self-protection. vs. True obedience is self-sacrifice.
- Works exercise loyalty to a code, or law. vs. True obedience is a response to follow the law-Giver.
And a second question, if obedience and faith are intertwined, Where is grace? Grace is in the call of Christ to follow. Grace is in the cross that offers the call to all who repent. Grace is in the resurrection that assures our victory. Grace is in the Spirit who is our strength to respond. Grace is in the forgiveness that is offered in our failing. In all this, grace never undoes, nor overrides the essential relationship of faith and obedience.
What has God commanded you in Scripture, that you have tried to wiggle, argue, or interpret your way out of (I think I can think of a few for me)? What would obedience look like? Our follow through is essential to our faith. It is in obedience we exercise faith. And it is in faith we discover new ways to obey the Savior who loves us so.