Obedience Based Discipleship, Part 2

Mentoring_MenIn the previous article, I argued that our evangelism has gone seriously wrong. We proclaim Jesus as Lord, yet don’t spend much time talking about what he taught. In particular, we typically ignore the centrality of the message of the Kingdom of God and the need for repentance and obedience, which is the hallmark of discipleship according to Jesus.

Faith and Works
The immediate objection that Evangelicals will raise to this understanding of the Gospel is that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Eph. 2:8-9). The question of the relationship between faith and works is one of the most fundamental issues we need to deal with and has been the source of endless arguments in the church, with Pelagians on the one hand saying that we are saved by works and antinomians on the other saying that once we are saved, nothing we do matters.

This argument shows up in biblical theology in the supposed contradiction between Paul, who taught salvation entirely by grace, and James, who tells us that faith without works cannot save us (James 2:26). While many prominent scholars have suggested that these represented a serious split in the theology of the apostolic and post-apostolic church, read carefully, there is really no significant difference. James never says we are saved by works; he says that our works demonstrate our faith (James 2:18). Similarly, Paul tells us that while we are not saved by works, we are saved for works (Eph. 2:10). Our faith may save us, but if this faith isn’t accompanied by a changed life and good works, it isn’t true faith. This is why Paul always follows his discussion of salvation with a “therefore” and teaching on how we are to live in light of the Gospel. In other words, James and Paul differ in emphasis but not in substance.

Further, this objection that obedience based discipleship contradicts the doctrine of justification by faith betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of faith. True faith involves three things: notitia, or knowledge, assensus, or assent, and fiducia, or trust. Notitia deals with content: we must know what it is that we believe. Assensus points to the fact that we have to agree that it is true. For example, it is possible for an atheist to understand Christian theology but not to believe it is true. That atheist has notitia but not assensus. But even that is not enough: demons have both notitia and assensus but they tremble in fear of the truth (James 2:19). What is missing is fiducia, which is personal trust and reliance on what is believed. There is no true faith where that kind of trust is missing.

So now we need to expand our understanding of the word faith to include not just “believe” but “trust,” and for that, we need to turn to the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the same word that is used for “believe” in the New Testament is typically translated as “trust.” For example, Prov. 3:5 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”

What this tells us is that if we trust God, if we truly believe Him, we will also accept that what He tells us to do is genuinely the best way to live, and that when our way of thinking about things leads us in a different direction, we are the ones who are wrong. We need to submit to Him, acknowledge Him, and follow His ways even when our reason or our emotions tells us to do something else. To put it differently, faith involves trusting that God loves us enough to tell us the truth about ourselves and the world, and that His instructions on how we are to live are given to us for our good. And if we truly believe that and trust God, we will respond by obeying Him even when it goes against our desires or what we think makes sense.

This means that every time we fail to obey what God tells us, we proclaim that we don’t believe or trust Him. We are saying either that He doesn’t love us and want our best, or that we know better than Him about what we should do and how we should live. Just as our faith is demonstrated by our works, our unbelief is demonstrated by our disobedience.

The Law of Love
We can look not only to faith but to love and we find the same thing. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, He replied quoting Deut. 6:4-5: “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The point of this verse is easy to misunderstand today since we live in a very different historical and cultural context than the Israelites did. In the ancient Near East, loving one of the pagan gods meant obeying that god. If you did not obey the god, you did not love the god. This is why in Deut. 6, the passage Jesus quotes is bracketed by commands to obey God and to remember what He has done for the people.

But we do not need to look at Old Testament culture to understand this. All we need to do is look to Jesus’ teaching on loving Him: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments;” “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” “… if anyone loves me, he will keep my word….” (John 14:15, 21, 23) So loving Jesus means obeying Him, and not obeying him means not loving Him. It is as simple as that.

In our focus on the greatest commandment, however, we must remember that Jesus’ answer is the one every even mildly observant Jew would have recognized. After all, they were supposed to recite that verse several times every day. The real punch line in Jesus’ response was what He said about the second commandment. He cited Lev. 19:18b: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was the first person to have highlighted this verse; no Jewish commentator before him focused on it. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was the point He really wanted to emphasize, since the greatest commandment was so well known and widely recognized by His audience.

Jesus further emphasized the necessity to love our neighbor in the commandment He gave his disciples at the Last Supper: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). Since loving Jesus means obeying His commandments, we are obligated to love our neighbor if we love Jesus. As John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates1 his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

But what does it mean to love our neighbor? Jesus tells us in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which he gave to explain this second commandment. In essence, loving our neighbor means taking concrete actions to meet our neighbor’s needs. This is echoed in 1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” This parallels the description of true faith in James 2:15-17: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

So love is action more than simply feelings, just as faith means action, not simply intellectual beliefs or emotional experiences. Living in love means living a life of obedience to Jesus and doing good works.

It doesn’t matter where we look, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, in Paul, in James, in John, all point to the centrality of repentance, transformation of life, and obedience as essential to the life of faith. So how does our evangelism line up with this, and we align our evangelistic efforts with this understanding of disciple making? That will be the subject of the next article

1In 1 John, we are not given any middle ground: we either love our brother or we hate him. There are no alternatives.

Next Steps

How well do you understand the difference between being saved by grace not works, and being saved for works? Explain as best you can to a friend, and see how you do.


Further Reading:
In the Online Bookstore you might like to purchase this title: The Least of These: A Street Level Theology. For an article on how we are to serve the poor, download from the Colson Center Library this article: “Shining Light on Our Obligation to the Poor.”

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.


1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully balanced article, Glenn! Well done!
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