Most of us at some point in our lives have sat in math class, staring at a sheet of paper containing all kinds of equations, some of which quite literally looked like Greek to us!
We spotted one of the problems, and we just happen to remember that the teacher worked it out on the board a while back, and the answer was 144. So we wrote “144” in the answer blank. But the problem was we knew the teacher wouldn’t accept the answer. She told us we had to show our work.
The reason for that, looking back, is pretty obvious. It’s not about just knowing the answer; it’s about understanding how to get to the answer. Because we probably won’t memorize the answer to every single math problem that comes our way in the future, and at some point, we’re going to have to work through the reasoning processes that help us figure out the answer on our own.
The case study in an obedient faith
So what does any of this have to do with following Christ?
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “ Abraham!” And he said, “ Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” — Genesis 22:1-2
To fully understand the gravity of this statement, you have to go back even farther, to chapter 15, when a childless, aging Abraham is reminded by God of the promise that he would become a great nation. Abraham asks how this is possible.
And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. — Genesis 15:3-6
Abraham believed against any rational expectation (Romans 4:19-21) that God would bless him with a child. This wasn’t just Abraham saying “Well, I guess it might happen, and if it does, that’s great.” He was convinced that it was going to happen, and it was going to happen the way God told him it would take place.
He was so convinced, that when God told him to go offer that son on an altar, he got up early the next morning and went to do just that. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham was so sure of God’s promise that he believed that if he killed Isaac, God would simply raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19).
When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he told the servant that accompanied them, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” One way or another, Abraham was planning to come back down the mountain with his son, alive. And God rewarded that faith: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”
Faith leads us to obedience, not rationalization
There are so many lessons here that it’s hard to pick just one, but the easiest is the one that we often don’t seem to understand from a theological standpoint. God expects us to show our work. And if we refuse to show our work, He is not going to consider us faithful.
The idea that we don’t have to do anything in order to please God other than to “believe” is one that has taken root over time in religious circles to the point that many think God expects nothing more from us than to acknowledge that he’s there, and maybe try not to kill anyone. Aside from that, they say, God saves us regardless of what we do, what choices we make and whether we do what He asks us to do or not.
The reality is that the belief/faith that the Bible speaks about doesn’t allow for this. Because first and foremost, belief is actually a work. It is something that we do! Jesus calls it a work in John 6:29. And over and over, Jesus insists that faith and inactivity are incompatible:
Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like:he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great. — Luke 6:46-49
“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. — Mat 7:21
The fruits of the spirit are not described as actions (Galatians 5:22-25), but they each inspire action. Does a long-suffering person lose his temper on a regular basis? Does a person who is kind sit back and do nothing when someone is in need of help and he has the means to assist? When the Spirit of Christ is working in us, those actions ought to be part of our lives not because they are works that earn us approval, but because it’s who we are. And if those works aren’t taking place – if we’re not bearing fruit – then the obvious question is, “what is missing?”
If my faith doesn’t feel like work, it likely isn’t really faith.
Faith accepts God’s terms of salvation
Second, faith does not dictate terms. It does not impose on God the idea that He must save in a personal, unique way for me, as opposed to the way in which He has said He will save all who seek Him.
If Jesus taught that we must be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16) and we tell people, “Actually, he that believes and is NOT baptized” will be saved, how are we showing faith in the teachings of Jesus? Would we not simply say “Maybe I don’t understand everything about how grace, faith and obedience work together, but I know Jesus said do it, and so I’m going to do it and not question him?”
Instead, many teach that we can simply “invite Jesus into our hearts” with a simple sinner’s prayer, which is never once found or taught in scripture. (Please respond to this post if you can find it anywhere, I’d be happy to have that discussion!) The idea is that if Paul says we are saved from faith “apart from works,” then that must mean that there’s nothing I can do to affect salvation.
Faith and obedience can’t be separated
When we start discussing salvation with the premise that all acts of obedience should be lumped under the term “works”, and then say that as a result, Paul is discussing obedience in the book of Romans, and he is therefore talking about “salvation by faith apart from obedience” (as opposed to “faith apart from works”, Romans 4:5), we’ve made a false assumption and our entire premise is now flawed. I know this because in the same letter, Paul says as much:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. — Romans 6:16-18
Paul again says that the ministry of the gospel of Christ is to “bring the Gentiles to obedience” (15:18). To make it even more clear, Paul goes so far as to spell out in Romans 10 how the concept of “calling on the name of the Lord” works through an active and obedient faith, or as he says in Romans 1:5, “the obedience of faith.”
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. — Romans 10:12-17
Over and over, the Bible speaks interchangeably of the concepts of unbelief and disobedience (Hebrews 3:18-19, for one). James talks about the idea that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26).
So why the apparent contradiction? Because so many use Paul’s treatise on faith as a theological discussion on the method of salvation, when what Paul is really discussing is the reason for salvation. We are saved not because WE willed it, or because God looked at our lives and considered us worthy of salvation, but because God made a way for us through Jesus Christ—”not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9).
The obedient conversion of Paul
Paul didn’t nullify Jesus’ command that his disciples be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16). In fact, he confirmed it in the story of his own conversion, when he recounted Ananias’ statement: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
That’s not a “sinner’s prayer.” Paul had been saying the sinner’s prayer for three days (Acts 9:9), fasting and begging forgiveness for his blasphemy and murder. The answer to that prayer was a man from God telling him to give his life over to Jesus, submitting to his will. That submission started by obeying the command of God without getting into a debate over whether it should really be required of him or not.
It’s God’s plan, and God gets to dictate how it works. He is not bound by the theological conclusions that men come up with because they cannot reconcile a salvation that is not earned and yet still requires obedience—a salvation that offers mercy and forgiveness for those who walk according to the spirit and not according to their own will and sinful impulses.
God does not expect us to be perfect. But He expects that when He says something, we believe it and we do our best to follow it. Submit to God’s will—all of it. Allow the word of God to shape you, rather than you shaping the word of God. Seek the will of the Father, just as Jesus did.
Show your work.