“Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe”

One of the most memorable quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Nachfolge (“Discipleship”) is this little ditty:

“Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe”.

In the summer theology reading group I was leading with a group of college students, this statement provided the most heated conversation we had all summer. No one, of course, had a problem with the first side of the equation “only the believing obey”. But the other side, “only the obedient believe”, was a hard theological pill to swallow and most of our 10 students just couldn’t do it. They did not agree with sequencing obedience before faith and they thought Bonhoeffer was just being contradictory. Dialectic theology is hard!

I think the point Bonhoeffer was making in that section of the book was to dismantle attempts to sequence faith and obedience and dispense once and for all with the distinction between the two. While Bonhoeffer adamantly denied work’s righteousness, he asserted the necessity of works in a disciple from the very beginning of the process.

In preparing to teach chapter 3 of John this semester, I noticed something I’d never seen before. I realized that Bonhoeffer’s assertion is actually Johannine. My discovery is largely to be credited to  J. Ramsay Michael’s comments on this passage. Here’s the passage (3:19-21 NIV 84):

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

The idea Jesus (or perhaps John) presents here is that those who believe in Jesus (“come to the Light”) do so because they are “truth” doers. They come to be “exposed” or “revealed”.  You could say that “coming to Jesus” is the telos of a life of faithful obedience. The present tense verbs in the passage however remind the reader that these deeds of truth continue so that the goal does not imply an end to good works. What’s more, from beginning to end these are works “done through God”. I don’t like how the new NIV translates the Greek preposition “in the sight of God”. Much more likely is the instrumental sense of the preposition en, which the NIV 84 got right (“through God”). Nathanael is just such an example. He was a “true Israelite in whom there was no deceit” (1:47).

As Michael’s puts it ” Here by contrast good works precede faith, just as evil works precede unbelief, and we prove our works by our faith. This suggests that the purpose of Jesus’ coming in in John’s Gospel is not so much “conversion” as “revelation” of who belongs to God already and who does not” (207).

  • Rick Wadholm

    I know that particularly teaching of Bonhoeffer’s was revolutionary for my own life and ministry. I have often used that passage of Discipleship in conversations and sermons with those of my congregation. Thanks for sharing the commentary insight on John.

  • Rick Wadholm

    I know that particularly teaching of Bonhoeffer’s was revolutionary for my own life and ministry. I have often used that passage of Discipleship in conversations and sermons with those of my congregation. Thanks for sharing the commentary insight on John.

  • William Lietz

    I’ve always had a difficult time understanding the true relationship between faith and works. It makes logical sense that someone engaging in good works (and “truth” seeker) could be guided to Christ. Very interesting insight. Thanks for posting, Joel.

  • William Lietz

    I’ve always had a difficult time understanding the true relationship between faith and works. It makes logical sense that someone engaging in good works (and “truth” seeker) could be guided to Christ. Very interesting insight. Thanks for posting, Joel.

  • William Barto

    1 John 2, as well. This has been a stumbling block for me (as well as your students).

  • William Barto

    1 John 2, as well. This has been a stumbling block for me (as well as your students).

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/goodandtruth/ Coleman Glenn

    I think the same concept is presented in the story of Cornelius from Acts 10. It seems important to the author of Acts that *before* his conversion, Cornelius was “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). The angel who appeared to him said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God” (Acts 10:31) – again implying that he was brought to faith in Christ *because* of his faithful obedience to God. Finally, Peter says, “But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35). I think all of this can be seen as an illustration of that teaching from John, that those who do the truth come to the light.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/goodandtruth/ Coleman Glenn

    I think the same concept is presented in the story of Cornelius from Acts 10. It seems important to the author of Acts that *before* his conversion, Cornelius was “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). The angel who appeared to him said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God” (Acts 10:31) – again implying that he was brought to faith in Christ *because* of his faithful obedience to God. Finally, Peter says, “But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35). I think all of this can be seen as an illustration of that teaching from John, that those who do the truth come to the light.

  • John Andrew Kossey

    Joel,

    Your insight on good work reminds me of a parallel that John M. G. Barclay discusses in “Paul, The Gift and the Battle over Gentile Circumcision: Revisiting the Logic of Galatians,” in *Australian Biblical Review* (2010) 36-56.

    Professor Barclay portrays the Christ-gift as “unconditioned” because “unconditional” has a connotation “without either prior condition or subsequent obligation.” In contrast, “unconditioned” focuses upon the sense, “without prior conditions” (p. 50 n. 45).

    He explains why in Galatians 5:6 Paul treats both circumcision and uncircumcision with indifference; they have equal worth:

    “What does matter now is ‘faith working through love’ (5:6), because the Christ-event has established a new orientation, a new regulative framework for life, in which the new criterion for worth is faith directed toward the Christ-event, together with the practice of love that springs from that event (cf. 2:30; 5:14; 6:2)” (p. 53).

    Whether the concept is the revelatory light of life or Christ-faith, a Spirit-transformed life generates good work.

    –John

  • John Andrew Kossey

    Joel,

    Your insight on good work reminds me of a parallel that John M. G. Barclay discusses in “Paul, The Gift and the Battle over Gentile Circumcision: Revisiting the Logic of Galatians,” in *Australian Biblical Review* (2010) 36-56.

    Professor Barclay portrays the Christ-gift as “unconditioned” because “unconditional” has a connotation “without either prior condition or subsequent obligation.” In contrast, “unconditioned” focuses upon the sense, “without prior conditions” (p. 50 n. 45).

    He explains why in Galatians 5:6 Paul treats both circumcision and uncircumcision with indifference; they have equal worth:

    “What does matter now is ‘faith working through love’ (5:6), because the Christ-event has established a new orientation, a new regulative framework for life, in which the new criterion for worth is faith directed toward the Christ-event, together with the practice of love that springs from that event (cf. 2:30; 5:14; 6:2)” (p. 53).

    Whether the concept is the revelatory light of life or Christ-faith, a Spirit-transformed life generates good work.

    –John

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  • Josh

    One of my favourite quotes from Institutes 1.6.2 “For not only does
    faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience.”

  • Josh

    One of my favourite quotes from Institutes 1.6.2 “For not only does
    faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience.”

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  • John Thomson

    Yes.

    And we may say too, only the gracious have grasped grace… only the merciful receive mercy.

    In John, this is not simply a kind of objective way of knowing if one is truly saved but is primarily a subjective assurance. That is, I do not simply look at myself from outside and ask if I exhibit grace and mercy or love and if I see these conclude that I am converted. It is this, but it is more. It is that as I am merciful in heart I have the capacity for grasping the mercy of God towards me; as I love, I know the love of God shed abroad in my heart. How can a bitter heart ‘know’ God’s love in any real way? How can a hard heart realise mercy? ‘Knowing’ is profoundly experiential in Scripture.

  • John Thomson

    Yes.

    And we may say too, only the gracious have grasped grace… only the merciful receive mercy.

    In John, this is not simply a kind of objective way of knowing if one is truly saved but is primarily a subjective assurance. That is, I do not simply look at myself from outside and ask if I exhibit grace and mercy or love and if I see these conclude that I am converted. It is this, but it is more. It is that as I am merciful in heart I have the capacity for grasping the mercy of God towards me; as I love, I know the love of God shed abroad in my heart. How can a bitter heart ‘know’ God’s love in any real way? How can a hard heart realise mercy? ‘Knowing’ is profoundly experiential in Scripture.

  • Wu Siu Yan

    Read

    (*) The Book of Mormon
    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17
    which is history of part of Joseph/Judah/Benjamin from 600 B.C. to 420 A.D.

    Note that I AM AGAINST THE MORMON CHURCH AND ALL DOCTRINES FROM JOSEPH SMITH, BRIGHAM YOUNG, … but I believe the Book of Mormon as true history, just as I believe the Bible to be true history of Israelites.

    Time is fast running out. WATCH AND PRAY.

    Wu Siu Yan from Hong Kong
    http://wjesus.org
    Encl.
    THE TESTIMONY OF THREE WITNESSES

    Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God.
    Amen.

    OLIVER COWDERY
    DAVID WHITMER
    MARTIN HARRIS

    THE TESTIMONY OF EIGHT WITNESSES

    Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.

    And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.

    CHRISTIAN WHITMER
    JACOB WHITMER
    PETER WHITMER, JUN.
    JOHN WHITMER
    HIRAM PAGE
    JOSEPH SMITH, SEN.
    HYRUM SMITH
    SAMUEL H. SMITH


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