by Mark Horne
The queston has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance –John Murray (Redemption: Accomplished & Applied p. 113).
Obeying God is often contrasted with trusting him.
There are good reasons for this. Many people have thought (and still think) of God or of themselves in such a way as to entirely pervert the concept of obedience to God.
We misunderstand God by sometimes thinking of him as someone who we could put in our debt for our good works, as if these could possibly benefit God. The ultimate end of this view is paganism like that which the Apostle Paul had to confront in his own day: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served [literally: "healed"] by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things” (Act 17.24, 25). Like a panhandler who goes up to a car stopped at a traffic light and begins spraying and wiping off a windshield that is already perfectly clean, we act like God owes us because we are such good people.
Sometimes we come to our senses and realize that there can be no bargaining with an infinite God who made us and sustains us every moment. What does he need from us? Nevertheless, since God is a gracious loving God and made us for that reason, we see some hope that he will continue to take care of us and bring us to a glorious future.
This is a good beginning, but it always gets sidetracked by how we misunderstand both God and ourselves. This double-edged misunderstanding involves underestimating the wickedness of our evil deeds and overestimating the purity and value of our good deeds in the sight of a pure and holy God. Going back to the analogy of the windshield, we’re wiping an already clean windshield with a vile and filthy rag with nothing but urine in our spray bottle.
Trying to claim that we can obey God “enough” to stay in his favor is a perversion of the idea of obedience as it is found in the Bible. Only Jesus, God’s own co-eternal Son, made like us in all respects except for sin, could obey God in a way that was consistently pleasing to him. We are called not to trust in our own attempts to win God’s favor or be “good enough” to remain in it, but to trust in God through Jesus to continually forgive us, to adopt us as his very children, and so to bring us to everlasting resurrection glory.
This future of immortality is doubly undeserved. First of all, God made us for no other reason than his own grace toward us, so that all his promises of greater exaltation are as undeserved as was our original creation. Second, because we have offended God by our evil thoughts, words, and deeds, we deserve a very different destiny. God shows some infinitely greater grace by giving them the faith to trust in what he has done in Jesus and thus declaring them part of his forgiven family.
Nevertheless, even though faith and obedience can and must be contrasted with one another in such contexts, the fact remains that the Bible does not always oppose them to each another. Luke can describe the process of conversion as “becoming obedient to the faith” (Act 6.7). Unbelievers who will face wrath are “those who do not obey the gospel” (Second Thessalonians 1.8; First Peter 4.17). Believers can show “obedience to your confession of the gospel” (Second Corinthians 9.13). “Faith without works is dead” and cannot save anyone (James 2.14) so that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2.24). Paul testifies that his evangelistic commission is to bring the nations to “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1.5; 16.26). And this only scratches the surface of merely the New Testament, let alone the whole Bible.
The fact is that, once we get rid of the perversions briefly mentioned above, faith and obedience are virtually the same thing. The author of Hebrews has no problem stating that the Israelites in the wilderness died because of “unbelief” or “disobedience”–practically treating these two words as synonyms (3.18, 19). Indeed, he tells us that Jesus is salvation “to all those who obey him” (5.9). Likewise, Paul thanks God for the Roman Christians, “that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (6.17, 18).
In trying to understand all this, we should meditate upon Psalm 111.7: “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy” (Psalm 111.7). All God’s precepts are trustworthy. How can one possibly believe that God’s precepts are trustworthy and not seek to obey them?
Because God is a faithful God who makes promises to us through Jesus Christ, the same faith by which we trust him to forgive us and glorify us also motivates us to obey his commands. When we go “another way” we show we are not trusting him or what he says to us.
Our faith is weak and thus our obedience is marred every moment by sin. Christians sometimes fall into great scandals. Nevertheless, God’s promises are trustworthy and it is impossible to respond to them without taking action. Indeed, to respond is to take action. If someone thinks he has sinned too much for God to forgive him, so that he does not repent and return, he is refusing to believe in God and the Gospel by refusing to obey his command in the Gospel to repent and return. The only real faith (however imperfect) is an obedient faith, and the only real obedience (however impure) is a believing obedience.