Saving faith is a divine gift, not a human work. But that doesn’t mean true faith is passive or unaccompanied by good works.
The faith God graciously supplies produces both the volition and the ability to comply with His will (cf. Philippians 2:13: “God . . . is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”). Thus faith is inseparable from obedience.
Louis Berkhof sees three elements to genuine faith: An intellectual element (notitia), which is “a positive recognition of the truth”; an emotional element (assensus), which includes “a deep conviction [and affirmation] of the truth”; and a volitional element (fiducia), which involves “a personal trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord, including a surrender . . . to Christ.” Augustus Strong argues similarly concerning the volitional element of faith, saying that it involves “surrender of the soul, as guilty and defiled, to Christ’s governance.” Modern popular theology tends to recognize the intellectual and emotional elements of faith but dispenses with the volitional aspect. Yet faith is not true faith if it lacks this attitude of surrender to Christ’s authority.
Writing about the verb “to obey” (peithō), W. E. Vine says:
Peithōandpisteuō, “to trust,” are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies the obedience that is produced by the latter, cp. Hebrews 3:18–19, where the disobedience of the Israelites is said to be the evidence of their unbelief. . . . When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God. . . .Peithōin N.T. suggests an actual and outward result of the inward persuasion and consequent faith.
So the person who has believed will yearn to obey. Because we retain the vestiges of sinful flesh, no one will obey perfectly (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:10), but the desire to do the will of God will be ever present in true believers.
Romans 7 is the classic text describing the believer’s struggle with his sinful flesh, and in that passage Paul acknowledged his changed attitude to sin despite the ongoing struggle. He wrote that the desire to do good was his consuming passion as a believer:
I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
The willing [to do good] is present in me. (Romans 7:18)
I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man. (Romans 7:22)
I myself with my mind am serving the law of God. (Romans 7:25)
Although the apostle Paul described himself as the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), those who love reveling in debauchery will not find a kindred spirit with him.
Paul spoke of the gospel as something to be obeyed (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Here is how he characterized conversion: “Though you were the slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17). The result he sought in his ministry of evangelism was “obedience . . . by word and deed” (Romans 15:18). And he wrote repeatedly of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:26).
Clearly, the biblical concept of faith is inseparable from obedience. “Believe” is treated as if it were synonymous with “obey” in John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life.” Acts 6:7 shows how salvation was understood in the early church: “A great many . . . were becoming obedient to the faith.” Obedience is so closely related to saving faith that Hebrews 5:9 uses it as a synonym: “Having been made perfect, [Christ] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” Hebrews 11, the great treatise on faith, presents obedience as the natural consequence of faith: “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed” (Hebrews 11:8). And it wasn’t only Abraham. All the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 showed their faith by obedience.
Obedience is the inevitable manifestation of true faith. Paul recognized this when he wrote to Titus about “those who are defiled and unbelieving. . . . profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (Titus 1:15–16). To Paul, their perpetual disobedience proved their disbelief. Their actions denied God more loudly than their words proclaimed Him. This is characteristic of unbelief, not faith, for true faith always embodies righteous works. All Christians are justified by faith apart from works. But saving faith will always produce works that demonstrate obedience to the object of that faith. As the Reformers were fond of saying, we are justified by faith alone, but justifying faith is never alone. Spurgeon said, “Although we are sure that men are not saved for the sake of their works, yet we are equally sure that no man will be saved without them.” So-called faith in God that refuses obedience is pure and simple unbelief.
Righteous living is an inevitable by-product of real faith (Romans 10:10). Of course, that is not to say that faith results in anything like sinless perfection. All true believers understand the plea of the demon-possessed boy’s father, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Those who believe will desire to obey, however imperfectly they may follow through at times. And that desire for righteousness and obedience is the distinguishing mark of true biblical faith.
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