What Does Obedience Have to Do with Faith?

I think I did a decent job of blasting theological liberals with my last post regarding the integrity of the Scriptures. There are times, however, when I find it necessary to be an equal opportunity offender; this week I will take a loving shot at some of those in the evangelical camp.

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“What” I might ask, “was the apostle Paul’s primary mission in life?” The expected evangelical answer would be, “to help populate heaven by seeing lost souls saved.” It all sounds very noble—and very spiritual—but that isn’t quite what the Bible teaches. By no means am I saying that saving souls is unimportant. The Bible itself tells us that all of heaven rejoices when a person’s name is added to the Book of Life. But notice what Paul wrote in the introduction of his letter to the Roman believers:

. . . Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake. . . .  Romans 1:4b-5 (NASB)

Paul was stating that the primary purpose of both grace and apostolic ministry is to “bring about the obedience of faith.” This is no fluke as Paul uses the same terminology at the end of his letter (verse 26):

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 16:25-27 (NASB)

Paul's Letter to the RomansDo you see it? Paul’s letter to the Romans—the premiere book of the Bible that illuminates our understanding of the gospel—begins and ends with an emphasis on the “obedience of faith.” Salvation isn’t just about accepting Jesus so that we can join a heavenly chorus of believers. Genuine faith is revealed by very practical obedience to God’s commands.

Once again, we find ourselves exploring a deeper understanding of grace. If the grace of God is unmerited favor and nothing more, then we are excused to live as we please as long as we have made some type of decision for Christ. But if grace is something more–if grace enables as well as favors–then it makes perfect sense that a growing faith would lead to increasingly favorable life changes. It’s not about measuring up to some type of religious standard, but rather living by a new and different paradigm.

The Great Commission, in many evangelical circles, has been minimized to mean something very different than what Christ commanded His disciples.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

Our call, as recorded by Matthew, is to “make disciples” of Jesus. This means that our salvation message must go beyond God’s willingness to forgive our sins. We speak not merely of a salvation prayer, or of a decision for Christ, but of a changed lifestyle which faith and grace will bring about. Any gospel that fails to call for a total surrender of one’s life to Christ is, at best, only an incomplete version of the genuine article.

I believe we do a tremendous disservice to people when we undermine the credibility of the Scriptures with liberal thinking, but I am also convinced that evangelicals make a huge mistake when they simply regurgitate concepts that they’ve been taught by their religious leaders. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand the Bible but it does take effort to seek God’s wisdom for a clearer comprehension of Biblical truth.

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I know that most evangelicals are well-intentioned but so are most liberals. In light of Galatians 1:6-10, if there is one thing that requires extraordinary attention on our part, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ!

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The Manifest Presence of God

Steve, a student who occasionally attended our campus ministry meetings, found himself in the midst of a year and half long struggle with depression. On one particular evening I spoke about the importance of Christians seeking the presence of God. Steve seemed a little skeptical, but proved determined nonetheless. He knew he needed something more from God. Later that evening Steve spent 2-3 hours in prayer doing nothing more than crying out for God to reveal Himself. That night our heavenly Father touched Steve in such a real way that his depression completely lifted! An instant in God’s manifest presence can do more than a lifetime of human effort.

Even though He dwells within us, even though our spiritual senses have been brought to life, experiencing God’s manifest presence is not automatic. (Many of us have actually been taught that God no longer relates to humans in tangible ways.) This is where I believe it is essential for us to seek Him by faith. God wants to have a dynamic relationship with His children in this life. But do we really believe that?

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Recently I received a gospel tract that included this sinner’s prayer:

“Dear God, I admit I am a sinner on my way to Hell. I believe that you died for me. Please save me from my sin and take me to Heaven when I die. Thank you for saving me. Amen.”

There was nothing of a personal relationship with a living God, only a distant hope for a blissful eternity. Any gospel that seeks to proclaim a message of salvation apart from a very real relationship with God in this life, certainly isn’t the full Gospel.

But even when we do present the Gospel in light of a personal relationship with God, do we give any indication of what that means? How do we have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe? Does He stop by for an evening stroll like He did with Adam & Eve? Does His presence overtake us and we fall to the ground as with Abraham or Daniel? Do we see Him high and lifted up on His throne as Isaiah did? Does He speak to us audibly the way He did to Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus? While all of these are possible, it’s safe to say that they don’t represent the everyday norm for a New Covenant believer.

The Apostle John recorded some fascinating words spoken by the Christ prior to His crucifixion:

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” John 16:7 (NASB)

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Wow! Could He really mean that? What Christian wouldn’t give an arm and a leg to walk with the incarnate Christ for three and a half years? But if the words of Jesus are to be trusted, and we supposedly believe they are, there is a path of life even better than seeing and walking and talking with Him in the flesh.

Is this a relationship we have by faith, believing that He’s there, but not really having any type of interaction? While faith is always integral to walking with God, it seems to me that this wouldn’t be a relationship at all. Prayerful communication going only in one direction is more of a monologue than anything else. No, there’s something more that God has for us. It’s the very real manifestation of His presence by which He makes Himself known to His children in ways that we are able to perceive.

When we are born from above, our spiritual senses are brought to life; meaning we can learn to hear His voice, at times feel His presence in a very tangible way, and in a spiritual sense, see His face.

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I suppose this is where the Gospel begins to move from comforting to scary for some people. The idea that God will always be with me comforts me greatly. But to think that I can hear His voice, well that changes things. I mean, how do I know when it’s actually Him speaking? Will I end up like the crazy guy who shot people in the mall because “God told him to do it”?

Let’s be bluntly honest; many of us prefer a form of religion over a relationship with God. Religious form is neat and tidy, like a basket tied up with ribbons and decorated with pretty bows. Relationships are unpredictable—especially a relationship with God.

The importance of God’s written Word cannot be overestimated when it comes to learning to accurately hear God’s voice, but we also need to understand that there is more to the indwelling presence of God than simply believing by faith that He is there. Our loving Lord wants to manifest His presence to us in so many ways. But do we want Him to?