CoD Part 3, Faith and Obedience

As was pointed out in my first post on Cost of Discipleship, much of what Bonhoeffer has to say deals with the apparent disconnect between our confession of Christ and our lack of obedience to the commands of Christ. Given his historical context (Nazi Germany) and the actions of so many ‘Christians’ in the Third Reich, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why he began to ask some of the questions he does. One of his more poignant assertions (and one that made me stand back and scratch my head for a while) on the subjection of faith and obedience is this:

Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

Perhaps our natural reaction is to read this as two separate assertions, but Bonhoeffer won’t let us read it that way. “It is quite unbiblical,” he writes, “to hold the first proposition without the second.” Though it may be unbiblical, I think it is our first reaction to do just that. There is much talk in Evangelicalism about obedience as the fruit of faith, about judging a person’s confession by the fruit of their lives, about so-and-so being a ‘fruit inspector,’ and so on. Many times these discussions revolve around the topics of justification by grace, progressive sanctification, or ‘carnal Christians.’

When discussing justification, we must separate faith and obedience, as Bonhoeffer rightly points out. He is not content, however, to accept a chronological separation between the beginning of faith and the beginning of obedience in praxis because he had seen first hand how sinful people (i.e., all of us) will use such a distinction as a license for sin. These two assertions serve to address both works righteousness and cheap grace…

  • To the Pharisee who is trying to earn favor with God by his good works performed apart from a penitent and faith-filled heart, we teach that only he who believes is truly obedient. In other words, your good works are like filthy rags and will gain you nothing if you look not to Christ for your righteousness (cf. Is 64.6)
  • To the self-deceived one who professes to believe yet lives a life that is outwardly no different from the heathen of the world, we teach that only he who is obedient truly believes. In other words, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas 2.17, ESV).

Bonhoeffer’s assertions, while difficult and at first perplexing, challenge us to steer clear of the deadly traps of self-righteousness and dead faith and look, of course, to the cross of Christ to find our righteousness, hope, and assurance. Thanks be to God for these poignant but truthful words!

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