Sola fida, sola gratia—faith alone, grace alone. This salvific concept codified by Martin Luther became the rallying cry of the Reformation Movement. In response to the sacramental, indulgent peddlers of the Catholic Church, Luther desired a return to sola scriptura—scripture alone. Commendably, Luther sought to use Biblical authority as the foundation for his beliefs. And, while his initial intention was not to abandon his Catholic faith, he progressively discovered that his study was taking him farther and farther from that mooring. The culmination of that study came to a head within his study of Romans in which he discovered the sweet release of faith in Christ apart from the traditions and works of men.
Since that time (really, since the beginning of the church) Christianity has sought to discover the balance between three central truths of Christianity: faith, grace, and works. Many of our religious neighbors of the Reformed tradition would contend that we are saved simply through faith and grace, apart from obedience, and that from a work of the Spirit. On the other end, some may act as if works alone, blind rule keeping apart from intention or motivation, is at the center of Christianity. Yet, what is the scriptural answer? What is the relationship between grace, faith, and obedience?
Some of the confusion surrounding obedience stems from our misunderstanding of the nature of obedience itself. The reality is that scripture presents a rich theology of Christian obedience; one which perfectly intertwines faith, grace, and works. An understanding of this doctrine will not only clarify a highly debated issue, but also motivate us toward greater fidelity to God. So, how does scripture view obedience?
First, it views obedience as an expression of genuine faith. In James 2:14-26, James deals with the very issue we struggle with today: the relationship between faith and obedience. For some reason we have a tendency to create a false dichotomy between these two spiritual truths. But, James informs us that this isn’t an either/or decision; rather, faith and obedience are so inseparably linked that to rip them apart is to render them lifeless (v. 17, 26). To James, faith isn’t obedience and obedience isn’t faith, but they are two sides of the same coin of grace. Obedience is what gives faith substance (v. 14-16). Obedience gives hands, feet, a warm belly and a full heart to faith. Imagine this relationship within the context of an automobile: a car cannot run without gasoline, but gasoline cannot get you to your destination. There must be a combination of combustion and locomotion—so too is it with faith and works. Obedience is how faith takes form. In fact, faith has no form apart from the actions of the individuals who acted on their trust in God. It is only within the human characters by which we are able to witness the reality of faith (v. 21-25). If we didn’t have such examples of obedience, how would we even know what faith is? It is through obedience in which faith becomes an evidence for the reality of God (Heb. 11:1). As people genuinely believe the truth of scripture and live it, their life becomes an evidence for God’s existence.
James finishes the discussion by explaining that our faith is “active along with” and “completed” through our works of obedience. The obvious implication is that faith without obedience is incomplete, inactive, and incapable of pleasing God (v. 24).
Secondly, scripture views obedience as an act of divine love. The world often characterizes love as spontaneous, emotive, uncontrollable, and sometimes selfish; whereas scripture defines love as willful, intentional action for the betterment or appreciation of another. It is a heart that is moved toward substantive action because of their appreciation and value of another person. That isn’t to say that love isn’t emotive or spontaneous, but that the heart of genuine love is driven by meaningful works.
The question then is “How do you love God”? How do you love someone you can’t see? The Bible’s answer is a simple one: faith driven, love motivated obedience. In fact, our obedience is so closely connected to our relationship with God that lacking it renounces that fellowship (1 John 2:3-6). The reason being that this is at the heart of the love that sustains the Trinity (John 17:23-24). The submissiveness of the personalities of the Godhead (specifically that of Jesus and the Spirit to the Father) is how they demonstrate and commune their eternal, transcendent love to each other. The action of Jesus crying out, “Not my will but yours be done!” was not simply a matter of blind rule keeping, but an expression of divine love for the Father. And so, as we learn to faithfully submit our will to the Father, we too are drawn closer and closer into that same communion of love (Jam. 4:7-8). Within this life our obedience becomes a channel of transcendent, shared love with the eternal Creator of the universe.
Thirdly, obedience is seen as an intersection of realms. Within scripture there are two realms: heaven and earth. We often think of heaven in terms of location; almost as if we could take a rocket ship there is we flew high enough. Yet, heaven isn’t simply another place in this universe, but a completely different realm—the spiritual realm.
Throughout the Old Testament these realms intersect at various points but are culminated within the Tabernacle and later the Temple. These particular locations were viewed as the place where God’s land intersected with men. Of course, within the New Testament Jesus is seen as the intersection of realms, and thus the new temple. Later, Christians are described in this same manner (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Yet, how is this intersection displayed? How do we see the heavenly realm within the earthly realm in our daily life?
May I suggest that it is within faith driven obedience? In Matthew 6:10 Jesus prays for the coming of God’s kingdom. In connection with this plea, he says, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Notice the parallelism: The kingdom comes as God’s will is done. That is, Jesus is praying that God’s reign and rule will be witnessed within earth. That earth will be a reflection of heaven; a realm where perfect obedience is witnessed. The point then is this: Our obedience to Christ is not only an expression of love, but the intersection of the spiritual realm into our daily life. It is when the perfected submission of Heaven is witnessed in our actions and the kingdom comes in its fullness. So, as I look to God in faith and am saved by his grace, my obedience becomes a bridge for God’s kingdom to insert itself into this realm. The veil between the worlds becomes “thinner” as I learn to reflect heaven in my life.
Finally, scripture views obedience as an avenue of pleasure for God. Sometimes we may think of God as a distant king, uninterested in our daily lives. Yet Paul presents a picture of God in which he is not only keenly aware or our daily actions, but takes immense pleasure in working in our life (Phil. 2:12-13). God takes pleasure in working through and in the lives of His people for His glory. How does this occur? According to Paul it happens within the framework of our obedience. Many times we like to think that God is working at certain points in our life (and that is true) but the greatest way He works in our life is through our obedience. What a joy to think that God takes pleasure in working through my obedience; ultimately culminating in the phrase, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
This is but a small section of the Bible’s theology of Christian obedience: an expression of genuine faith, an act of divine love, an intersection of realms, and an avenue of pleasure for God. How frustrating it is to see people twist the scriptures to promote the view that faithful obedience is nothing more than mindless rule keeping or legalism. Obedience is always found at the intersection of God’s grace and man’s faith (Heb. 5:9). And, if we truly want to be Christians, then we must allow scripture to shape our theology so that we are Christ centered and Christ-exalting in all that we do.