Is Obedience Just Legalism?
Is obedience just legalism? Saving faith is trust in Jesus. No believer will argue with that. John 3:16 says, “Whoever believes in him has eternal life.” Either that statement stands as it is, or we must qualify it in some fashion. But the Bible does not qualify it. Furthermore, the Bible makes an open invitation to all, regardless of background, to come. Jesus was well known to have been a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But in this, we must not confuse the issues. Where one is the open invitation to all, the other is what is required of the one who would come in order to be saved.
Consider the case of Paul before King Agrippa. Paul is presenting his defense for his ministry before the king. Two passages catch my attention. The first is Acts 26:19-20:“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Paul, the great teacher of justification by faith alone, is making a case for what it actually means to believe. For Paul, it meant confessing sin, turning to God and acting in a way that properly displays that genuine repentance has happened. That, for Paul, is repentance.
The second passage that catches my attention is in verses 27-28: “‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’” I notice that while Paul affirmed Agrippa, he does not assume that he is a Christian – and even Agrippa himself knows it. And that brings me to the central issue. In the Bible, there is believing – and then there is believing. What do I mean? Consider John 2:23-25:“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” From this passage, it is clear there is a kind of believing that is not acceptable to God.
And that brings me to one of my favorite verses from Romans. Romans 1:5 states the central message of the apostle Paul: “…through whom (Jesus) we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among the all the nations.” So, let’s try to understand that key phrase, “the obedience of faith.” The New International Version, which often paraphrases statements, translates this same phrase as, “the obedience that comes from faith.” I think that is a very good attempt to get at the heart of what Paul is communicating here.
Throughout Romans, and for that matter, throughout the New Testament, there is a difference between an obedience that comes from works righteousness; a faith which contains no obedience; and an obedience that comes from faith. In my last of this four part series, I will attempt to define what is true saving faith.