“There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus,” we are told, “than to trust and obey.” These two responses are deeply intertwined but the way we understand their relationship has massive implications for our Christian faith. Faith is not passive, but faith must precede obedience.
The Book of Hebrews is helpful in understanding the dynamic interplay between faith and obedience. The book itself is an extended homily on remaining within the faith. Its primary theme is perseverance, enduring to the end, avoiding apostasy or “falling away.” The author develops this theme through exposition of the Old Testament and demonstration of the superiority of Christ over all. He develops the theme through exhortation to action, to faithful response and to endurance. He builds his case through stern warnings against departure or relapse to “dead works.” The purpose of the book, ultimately, is to call readers to faith and obedience, and both of those responses matter.
The relationship between the two concepts is most clearly seen when one considers the various warning passages of Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:26-31; 12:25-29). The warnings litter the text and call the reader to action. They are not to “drift away” (2:1), or harden their hearts (3:8, 13, 15; 4:7). The wilderness generation serves as an example of what not to do, because their disobedience kept them from entering God’s rest (4:2-3). There is a serious call to obedience, to remain faithful, to keep God’s Word, to live rightly before God.
How should we understand this emphasis on obedience? These calls to action are not affirmations of mere moralism. Rather they are intertwined with faith. obedience is, throughout the book, a demonstration of faith. So, New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner observes:
The dynamism of faith is evident. Faith acts, obeys, and endures. The author of Hebrews does not fall prey to moral rigorism that demands perfection of his readers. He summons them to believe in God’s promise secured in the death of Christ, to trust in the cross until the end. Faith is not mere passive acceptance of the gospel; rather, it reaches into the very soul and transforms one’s life. According to Hebrews, such active faith saves, and it is those who believe who will avoid destruction at the last judgment. (New Testament Theology, 591)
Saving faith is an active faith. That is to say, faith and obedience are intertwined in that genuine faith responds to God, it obeys, it perseveres in believing. We see this concept of faith in several additional ways in the book.
For starters we see that apostasy is an issue of unbelief. At the root of “falling away” is not merely disobedience, but an unbelieving heart. So, Hebrews 3:12 tells us:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
It is unbelief that leads to falling away. It was the same case for the generation that wandered in the wilderness. They failed to enter God’s rest because of unbelief (3:19). Faith has the priority position in the relationship with obedience. It is not disobedience that leads to “falling away” but rather unbelief.
Furthermore, it is faith which drives the action of obedience. In the famous “Hall of Faith” chapter (11), we see the description of countless faithful people who responded to God’s call of obedience. Abel offered, Noah constructed an ark, Abraham obeyed, entered the land of promise, and offered up Isaac, etc. Yet, in each example it is said that they acted “by faith.” It is faith which drives their obedience. Again, Schreiner notes:
Hebrews 11 also supports remarkably the inseparable relationship between faith and obedience, and at the same time it verifies that faith precedes obedience, so that all obedience derives from faith and is rooted in faith. (590)
Faith has priority in the relationship, even while obedience is a necessary outworking of such faith. Faith precedes, obedience follows.
The significance of this relationship cannot be understated. The Christian church has struggled with this dynamic and often we tend to vacillate towards extremes on these two fronts. Some have so emphasized faith that we make works of obedience almost optional. It matters not whether you live for God, only if you’ve put trust in him. So, as long as you have prayed a prayer, walked an isle, signed a card, or thrown a stick in the fire you are saved. No question! It doesn’t matter if you show no evidence of being a believer today; if you can state the right doctrines then you have the seal of approval. It was this sort of easy believism, or “cheap grace,” that prompted both Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to write rather scathing remarks about the state of the church in their own days. Their works still hold relevance for us today (see Christian Practice and The Cost of Discipleship) Such an imbalance on the faith/works dynamic results in an anemic church, and a dead faith (James 2:14-26).
On the other hand, if we do not get the right priority of relationship in this dynamic we will wind up with a sort of works-based-salvation. Faith precedes works and drives them. I am not saved by obedience, nor is my faith obedience per se. Salvation is all of grace, through faith, and not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). If we misunderstand this relationship we will put all the weight of our salvation on our own performance and tend towards either pride or despair. Obedience and faith belong together, but faith always precedes work.
Christians today need to regularly evaluate how they are understanding the dynamic relationship between faith and works. We bounce between poles on this front and as a result we end up with legalistic congregations or antinomian congregations. We end up with easy-believism or self-righteousness. Faith and obedience are inter-related, but how you understand that relationship matters.