Is our salvation conditioned upon anything that we must do? What happens if we disregard what the Scriptures reveal of God’s will? These questions concerning “obedience” are important, and answering them requires an honest inquiry into the Scriptures.
Since the gospel is a message (it’s a proclamation of “good news”), some have concluded that there is nothing for us to do except rejoice. If it is the “glad tidings” of God’s salvation, we should simply give thanks for it. When I was writing the book called Obeying the Gospel, for example, some objected to the title, arguing that the gospel is totally about what God has done and we shouldn’t even use the word “obedience” in connection with the gospel.
But although the gospel is a message, it is a message that requires a response, and the Scriptures point clearly to the response which we must make. When the gospel was first preached in its fullness on the Day of Pentecost, many of those who heard it “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 2:37,38).
The fact that God has chosen to require a response on our part is not inconsistent with His grace. It was sheer grace that moved Him to provide for our salvation, in any way at all, and whatever terms or conditions He attached to our salvation, our compliance with these in no way diminishes from His grace. He didn’t have to save us on any terms — and if we accept the terms which He has set, we will spend the rest of our lives saying “thank you” in every way that we can.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul used the expression “obedience to the faith” at the beginning of the letter (1:5) and at the end (16:26). The ESV translates this as “the obedience of faith.” Either way, the connection between “faith” and “obedience” is strong. Unlike a legalistic obedience in which the outward action is thought to be enough, regardless of the heart, the gospel calls for an obedience that comes from faith in God. And unlike the faith which presumes that it alone will save a person, the gospel calls for a faith which obeys God. Neither the faith nor the obedience is optional: (a) the obedience must be motivated by faith, and (b) the faith must show up in obedience.
In the Scriptures, faith and obedience go hand-in-hand; the two can’t be separated. For one thing, the person who does not obey God is not telling the truth if he says he has faith. “True faith commits us to obedience” (A. W. Tozer). As James put it, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). But it is equally true that our obedience must be motivated by faith. Like Noah, Abraham, and many others, we must do what God says because we trust Him.
The problem which the gospel proposes to fix is the problem of sin — and the problem of sin is that of disobedience. Our deeds are produced by our heart, obviously, and our heart must be brought back to God if we are to be saved. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we’ve given our “heart” to God while our deeds are still showing no regard for His commandments. If we think that way, Jesus would say to us, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
The fact of the matter is, our will (and not just our intellect and emotions) must be brought into subjection to God or it can’t be said that we’ve been saved from sin. The rebellion that separated us from God has not been put down until our deeds have become loyal to the King — in other words, until we have become obedient to Him. The old hymn “Rock of Ages” got it right when it said, “Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.” It is not just the guilt of sin that must be removed; its power over us must be broken — and that is measured by our actions, our actual obedience.
When we are baptized into Christ and begin our lives as His disciples, one way of describing the difference between what we used to be and what we are now is to say that we are now living under the “lordship” of Christ. He wasn’t our Lord before, but now He is. We’ve given up our self-will and begun submitting ourselves to Him, trusting that His will can always be counted on to be in our best interests. But whether Jesus is truly our Lord is determined by the reality of our situation: have we or have we not actually begun doing His will? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
As in all things, Jesus is our example when it comes to obedience, and one of the most important lessons we can learn from Him is that of voluntary obedience. Even with His unique relationship to the Heavenly Father, Jesus still had to choose to obey: “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:8,9).
Even when we’ve become mature in the faith, of course, our obedience will not be perfect. Writing to his fellow Christians, John said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8,9). So we must remain humble before the Lord, honestly acknowledging our sins and thanking Him for His forgiveness. Our salvation depends on His grace.
It is possible, however, to live a life that is characterized by obedience. The Scriptures make a clear distinction between those who are obedient to the Lord and those who are not. One passage that makes this distinction is Romans 2:6-8, where Paul wrote that God “will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness — indignation and wrath.”
So the gospel confronts us with a decision that is nothing less than life’s biggest decision. If we refuse God’s terms of pardon, we will have condemned ourselves by the stand we’ve taken. Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48). The gospel is a gracious invitation from God, and it is open to every person. But the invitation has to be accepted, and God has not left it to us to decide what the conditions of that acceptance will be.