Years ago, when my family and I were under the teaching of a well-known legalist teacher, we learned that believing and obeying were the same thing. The idea was that those who truly believed or had faith would, of course, obey. Obedience was simply the working out of your faith. So, those who wanted to show others how much they believed would work hard to obey the commands of the Lord.
But is this right? Is obedience the same as faith? It seems obvious that the two are connected, but isn’t there more to faith than obedience? And what are the consequences of thinking they are the same?
Well, what the legalist does not understand is that faith and obedience are first opposites, then one proceeds from the other. You see, you can come to the Lord in obedience or in faith. Under law or under grace. By your works or by trusting in His work. This is an “either/or” proposition. The Bible does not say that if you obey then you must have faith.
…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. Galatians 2:16
In fact, those who come to Christ by their obedience, their works, will find them to be insufficient—always. There are not enough works for you to do to be saved. Nor is your life long enough for your good works to overcome the effect of your sin. The simple truth is that our faith is what opens the door to salvation, not our obedience. The two are quite different.
In fact, our faith looks to Someone else’s obedience. Jesus is the One who obeyed and won the victory for us. We can only look to Him. In this sense, our faith and our obedience are opposites. They take our focus in different directions.
However, many legalists point to the letter of James where we are told that faith without works is dead. They say, “See, faith and obedience are bound together as one.” But that isn’t what James says. James says that works/obedience proceeds from faith. Faith is dead without works, like the apple tree is fruitless without apples.
Obedience is the natural fruit of faith. If we trust Jesus, we will do what He says. We ought to cultivate faith first, if we want obedience to result. The legalist seeks to cultivate obedience and thinks that obedience and faith are the same. That error leads people to discouragement and resentment.
When legalism pushes people to obey and disregards the priority of faith in the work of Jesus, it teaches them to focus on their works instead of Him. Their only hope, His work for them, is forgotten in the striving. Their peace, their joy, their rest, their assurance—are all to come from His work, but they will never have these things by setting their hearts on their own obedience.
So the goal of the Christian life is never to obey. The goal of the Christian life is to grow in faith, in relationship with Jesus. As we draw near to Him and walk with Him, we will find ourselves obeying almost without thought. It will be natural for us.