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).