A gracEmail subscriber asks, “Must we merely believe to be saved, or do we also have to obey God? Some say that faith is enough by itself, and others say that faith in the Bible includes obedience.”
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If we think of “faith” as something we do, one item in a checklist containing other items as well, we are ripe for the error of thinking that we contribute something to our reconciliation with God, whether it be one item (faith) or several (repentance, baptism, etc.). The fact is, while all these things are commanded and are to be expected, not one of them contributes anything to our right standing with God. That depends entirely on God’s grace, which is the undeserved kindness he has demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Because God set us right with himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the basis of our right-standing with God is something that happened totally outside our own experience or performance. Because this saving activity occurred apart from us, nothing we ever do contributes anything to it. We are set right with God by a divine work entirely outside ourselves. This means we are saved by a grace that we can only trust and receive.
Saving faith means trusting God, relying on God to save us based on Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection — entrusting ourselves fully to God’s grace with no back-up plan if that should not suffice. This is the sense in which we are justified by faith alone — that we must trust God in Christ exclusively and altogether. It is not that we must bring one chip to the table, which chip happens to be faith. Our faith is no more a part of the work that set us right with God than is our repentance, our baptism, our charitable deeds or anything else we do. All these things have their place in the process of turning to God and walking with him. But none of these things — or anything else we ever do ourselves — is part of the activity by which God’s grace bridged the divide between himself and sinful humans and restored us to fellowship with himself.
The plain truth is that those people who trust in God’s grace alone are also those most likely to obey God. For while “obedience” which does not spring from trust is indeed “dead,” as Hebrews says, James makes it plain that the vitality of living faith manifests itself in the full flower of obedience, praise, thanksgiving and work — to which genuine spiritual life inherently and inevitably aspires.