Even the quickest, most cursory (and honest) read of the four gospel accounts makes it clear—even uncomfortably clear—that Jesus demands a lot from those who would follow him. “Take up your cross and follow me” isn’t exactly a low expectation. Jesus is asking us to follow him. To do something. To do what he himself did. Yet we often reduce what Jesus requires of us to simple agreement as if we can simply agree with Jesus while not following him at all.
One of the reasons for our hypocrisy is that we have completely misunderstood the nature of faith. We understand that faith is important. We understand that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11.6) and that “only faith working through love” accounts for anything (Galatians 5.6) and that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14.23). Jesus himself, in telling the parable of the persistent widow, wonders if he will find faith on the earth (Luke 18.18). We understand the importance of faith so much that the Reformation mantra still echoes today, “Sola fide!”—faith alone! We understand that Jesus requires us to have faith. We just don’t understand what that faith actually is. Or what it does.
We have traded Luther’s distinction between faith and works in salvation for a restraining order against works in the life of the believer.
Time for a quick history lesson. The Reformers, particularly Matin Luther, were bent on severing the heretical marriage of faith to works in God’s economy of salvation. In other words, the doctrine of sola fide champions that salvation is God’s gracious acting to save sinners who cannot by their works merit their own salvation. The church should be grateful for the work of Luther to distinguish that faith alone, not faith and works, gives new life, but we have since forgotten Luther’s clarification: “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Luther understood that you cannot wholly separate faith from works any more than you can “separate heat and light from fire.” But we have traded Luther’s distinction between faith and works in salvation for a restraining order against works in the life of the believer.
This sounds absurd. But consider how we tend to think about faith. We like to define our faith by a list of propositional statements. We say we have faith in Jesus because we can roll off all the things we believe to be true about Jesus. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus never sinned. Jesus died on a cross. Three days later he rose from the dead. And we think that because we merely believe these things and hold them to be true, we have faith in Jesus. This is not at all different from what we believe and hold to be true about nature. The sky is blue. The ocean is big. Grass is green (except mine). And we would never say that we have faith in nature. There is nothing about the sky being blue, the ocean being big or the grass being green that motivates to do anything. This proves we have reduced faith in Jesus to information about Jesus. We need to recover a category for faith as transformation by Jesus.
We are so terrified of doing anything out of legalistic, self-righteous duty that we are often content to do nothing at all.
Further, we have a tendency to prioritize knowing over doing. We think that right knowledge is necessary to produce right behavior. For example, if we want to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples, what we need to do first is think right thoughts about who Jesus is, who we are apart from him, who he has made us to be and the reality of hell. If we can actually believe these things, we think, we will obey. And when we don’t obey Jesus’ commands, we tend to excuse our disobedience because what Jesus really cares about is that we have “faith” (the know and believe as true kind). We are so terrified of doing anything out of legalistic, self-righteous duty that we are often content to do nothing at all. Surely, the faith that Jesus demands of his followers is different and more than this.
So what is the faith Jesus demands of his followers? Or, what does the faith Jesus demands from his followers do? In short, the faith Jesus demands obeys. It does not simply agree. It follows. There are very few places in the gospel accounts where Jesus commands belief in the sense of “I command you to believe…” John’s gospel does record a few of these incidents. For example, Jesus says in John 14.1, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” However, in the same discourse, Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14.15). So even in Jesus’ commanding belief, he assumes that belief in him will be proven by keeping his commandments—not by remaining in the storage of propositional knowledge. This is what the entire books of James is about. “I will show you my faith by my works.” Faith does. It works. It follows.
This is the essence of the faith that Jesus approves. Consider all of those whose faith Jesus commends. The prostitute who was so brazen to crash a Pharisee’s dinner party and wash Jesus’ feet with her tears of desperation. The friends who were so bold to open the roof of another man’s house just to lower their crippled friend to the feet of Jesus. The centurion who knew Jesus could heal his servant with just a word. What is fascinating, and should be convicting for us, is that Jesus commends not their obedience but their faith. “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells the prostitute. Obedience is not simply the byproduct of faith, it is the essence of faith. It is what faith does. It is what Paul calls in his letter to the Romans “the obedience of faith.”
We don’t need to accumulate more knowledge or even more enjoyment of Christ before we obey. Perhaps we do not know and enjoy Christ more because we are not obeying him out of faith in him.
Jesus demands the obedience of faith. Not because he is some tyrant who wants to wield his authority as some sort of divine power play but because he is the only Sovereign who promises to wield his authority for our benefit. In this way, in demanding our obedience, Jesus is demanding our good. Imagine if you were about to bungee jump off a bridge. If that sort of thing is exciting to you, it is one thing to say you have faith in the bungee cord in the sense that you know about the mechanics of the bungee cord, the physics of your jump (fall, really), and even the thrill of the feeling. It is another thing all together to actually jump. It is one thing to sit and rehearse propositional statements and wait to be convinced of their truth before you jump. It is another thing to jump and really know them to be true. In the same way, we don’t need to accumulate more knowledge or even more enjoyment of Christ before we obey. Perhaps we do not know and enjoy Christ more because we are not obeying him out of faith in him. Perhaps we just need to jump.