There is a lot of emphasis on obedience in discipleship today and rightly so. Obedience-oriented discipleship has its roots in the Great Commission. Jesus said part of making disciples is, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a ESV). However, some advocates of obedience-oriented discipleship seem to minimize knowledge and belief. The dominant question in many discovery Bible study approaches is “What do we need to obey?”. I suggest that we add the question: “What do we need to believe (trust)?” I believe it is reductionistic to separate these questions. It can lead to misunderstanding, specifically leading to merit-based religion. It is a false dichotomy to center discipleship either in trust (faith) or in obedience. Both doctrinal knowledge and practice are part of healthy discipleship.
The Bible keeps faith (trust) and obedience together. In Romans 1:5, Paul says the aim of his apostleship was to bring about “the obedience of faith.” Douglas Moo, commenting on this verse, writes,
Paul saw his task as calling men and women to submission to the Lordship of Christ (cf. vv. 4b and 7b), a submission that began with conversion but which was to continue in a deepening, lifelong commitment. This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, both as an initial, decisive step of faith and as a continuing “faith relationship” with Christ. In light of this, we understand the words “obedience” and “faith” to be mutually interpreting: obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience. They should not be equated, compartmenta-lized, or made into separate stages of Christian experience.
Douglas Moo, 1996, The Epistle to the Romans, 52.
Trust (faith) and obedience are linked together in Scripture. It is trust (faith) in the gospel that puts the wind in the sails of our obedience. Obedience without faith in the gospel becomes a self-help project.
Jesus was asked,
“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.” (John 6:28, 29 ESV)
Doing the works of God (obedience) starts with and is empowered by trust (faith) in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Obedience apart from trust does not lead to the righteousness of God. Paul writes,
… Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works, they have stumbled over the stumbling stone. (Romans 9:31,32 ESV) For being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish a righteousness of their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:3 ESV)
Since the Fall of mankind, the default religious impulse has been to attempt to appease God by works and ritual. Most, if not all, non-Christian religions teach a merit-based obedience to gain favor with God. If we only ask, “What do we need to obey?” and not also “What do we need to believe?”, the Bible will be interpreted from the merit-based worldview of their past. This merit-based confusion is common in churches in North America. Michael Horton’s comment about the relationship between justification and sanctification speaks to the relationship between trust and obedience:
… it is not simply that justification and sanctification always go together in the application of redemption, as if they were parallel tracks; justification is the only reason that there can be any sanctification of sinful believers. And both are granted in our union with Christ. The real question, then, is whether justification is the source of new obedience or its results. In fact, presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, according to Paul, is “our reasonable worship” in the light of “God’s mercies” that have been explored to that point (Rom. 12:1). It is the Good News that yields good works. Salvation is not the prize for our obedience but the source.
Michael Horton, 2009, The Gospel-Driven Life, p. 155.
My chief concern is that we don’t emphasize obedience to the neglect of trust (faith) in our evangelism and discipleship. As Moo stated, “obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience.” Trust (faith) requires knowledge of doctrine. We always trust something and that something has a cognitive aspect. But knowledge of Christian doctrine should never be just head knowledge. Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier write:
Doctrine tells us what has been, what now is and what will be “in Christ.” Doctrine tells us what we should believe, hope and do. It is a special kind of instruction that teaches the head, orients the heart and guides the hand.
Vanhoozer and Treier, 2015, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account, p. 107.
Christian obedience is rooted in and empowered by our trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Trust and obedience are tied together in the gospel. Neither should be neglected. As the old hymn says, “There is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”