What is pleasing to our Savior? Simply that we trust (believe) in Him and His mercy that He has obtained for us at the cross (Eph. 2:8-9), apart from any merit or good deeds on our part (Rom. 3:23-28). However, we often forget that trust/faith is made complete through obedience (James 2:18-24). In fact, faith is not even the real thing without repentance and obedience. Rather, such a “faith” is a lifeless imitation (1 John 1:6).
The Psalms often reflect just how inseparable obedience is from a real faith. Psalm 51 begins where it should – with a plea for mercy:
- Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
A relationship with God cannot be founded upon anything short of mercy and confession of sin. Real blessedness cannot be based on our achievements or entitlements, as David reflected:
- Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2)
David equated blessedness with the forgiveness of God and not our moral attainments. In fact, the blessedness, this mercy of our Savior, mysteriously transports us to righteousness. According to tradition, this Psalm followed David’s sins of adultery, murder, and cover-up. However, David understood the profound and over-riding nature of God’s mercy – a mercy that was able to over-ride all of his sin:
- Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him. Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalm 32:10-11)
David concluded that although our sins might be as red as scarlet, trusting in God’s mercy could reverse them all. As a result, he now understood that he stood among the “righteous” of God. As presumptuous as this might seem, this is the very assurance of God!
However, the Gospel doesn’t just stop there. It makes demands upon every aspect of our lives. Although the Gospel starts with God’s mercy – His grace – which enables us to stand, we are made to stand so that we can walk His walk. David understood that that this grace would enable him to “teach,” “sing” and “declare your praise”:
- Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:12-15)
We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:10). Without the assurance of His love we cannot reciprocate love. Without grace, we cannot even begin to live the Christian life. David based praising God upon the mercy of God. Even the performance of the most rudimentary tasks depends on His grace (Psalm 127:1-2).
Although obedience is commanded, is it optional for salvation, as some argue? If we are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from any good deeds or obedience, doesn’t this mean that obedience isn’t necessary for salvation? After all, if salvation is a free gift (Eph. 2:8-9), obedience shouldn’t be required, right?
Instead, Jesus taught that a “born again” faith would invariably produce the good fruit of obedience:
- “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mat. 7:16-19)
If someone is a child of God, there should be some fruit. We should not profess Christ with our mouths unless we also profess Him with our lives. Our lives should reflect what our mouths profess, even if the fruit is merely a matter of confessing that we have wronged another and asking for forgiveness.
John puts it like this:
- Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (1 John 2:9-10)
Walking in darkness is not a biblical option. If we live in the darkness of hate, we do not have the light or any connection to Jesus. We are just lying to ourselves:
- Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. (1 John 2:4)
Obedience is not optional for the Christian. To refuse to live obediently is to refuse to trust in the teachings of the Gospel and the words of Jesus. Such a refusal demonstrates a lack of real faith. A real faith is fertile soil which produces a crop. If there is no crop, there is no fertile soil.
Faith and obedience are inseparable. If we trust in our Savior, we will do what He tells us to do. Likewise, if we trust our doctor, we will follow his recommendations. If we refuse to, it means that we never really trusted him.
The fruit is almost inseparable from the tree that bears them. Therefore, we can judge the tree by its fruit. If a tree bears apples, we know that it is an apple tree, and we can judge it as such. In the same way, we are salvifically judged by our works, as Jesus taught:
- “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” (Mat. 25:41-43)
These unfortunates will be judged and condemned by their works. This seems to suggest that salvation is not a free gift. However, it is! Faith/salvation is a free gift that produces obedience. Therefore, our obedience is a necessary sign of our faith as apples are a sign of the apple tree, which bore them. If the tree doesn’t produce apples, it is not an apple tree. If our faith does not produce fruit, we do not have a living faith.
The Apostle James affirmed that his obedient life was the fruit of his faith. Therefore, he didn’t have to boast about his faith. He could merely show it off through his life (James 2:18). This is because a real faith produces fruit. They are inseparable. Therefore, if we are judged by our works, we are really being judged by our faith, which is reflected by our works.
However, this can be a very troubling teaching. Christians might wonder:
- How much obedience do I need to demonstrate that I have a real saving faith? I fail in many ways. How then can I really be confident in God’s mercy – that he really has accepted me?
We all fail in many ways. This painful awareness should bring us back to the mercy of God and His promise:
- If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Our soiled deeds will never be sufficient. Instead, our hope resides in the mercy of God, from beginning to end. And He is truly gracious. I think of the highly compromised but “righteous” Lot, who had offered his daughters to the perverted mob and later impregnated his daughters in his drunken stupor. From our superficial perspective, Lot failed to show signs of having a living faith. However, God saw something else in him:
- He rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless, for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard. (2 Peter 2:7-8)
We have no indication that Lot had ever tried to reform his home town of Sodom. Instead, it seems that he had been content to live there. Although his life seems to have lacked fruit, God saw something else.
Our God sees things that we don’t see. The false prophet Balaam had come to Moab to curse Israel before God. This should have been a cake-walk. Israel had no shortage of sin, but not in the eyes of Israel’s Redeemer. Instead, according to God’s revelation, Balaam proclaimed:
- He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. (Numbers 23:21; KJV)
This incredible revelation instructs us to never underestimate the mercy of God for His redeemed. Israel had stood by the Red Sea as the Egyptian chariots approached for the kill. Their faith failed them and they rebelled against Moses and God. However, mercifully, they are recorded as exemplars of faith:
- By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)
“By faith?” Israel had been in rebellion, but Israel’s God saw something else – a faith that enabled them to walk through the waters!
What does God want from us? He wants to save us! He has already paid the supreme price and seems to want to maximize His investment. He therefore stoops low for broken but sin-confessing lives. And that’s us!