For some reason, there has been this lingering debate among those who profess Christianity. Some point to passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 and say that all you must have for salvation is true faith in Christ. Others will look to passages like James 2:24 and emphatically claim that works of obedience are also required to accompany the faith.
So which is it? Does a focus on obedience nullify my faith? Does a focus on faith mean I don’t have to follow the rules? Is faith more important, or is obedience more important?
What if I told you that neither faith nor obedience is more important than the other? According to the scriptures, faith and obedience are so closely connected that you can’t have one without the other. Arguing which one is more important is somewhat nonsensical. Let’s look at some passages that will help to explain.
“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides in him.” (NKJV)
You may be thinking, “OK, Jonathan, you picked a really bad verse to start with. It talks about faith, but never mentions obedience.” To that, I quickly say, “Not so fast!”
The phrase “He that believes” comes from the Greek word pisteuo. This word means exactly what it appears to mean. It is defined as thinking that something is true, to be persuaded of something, or to place confidence in something. However, the phrase “he who does not believe” is not the same Greek word. It is the word apeitheo. It could mean to not believe, but it can also mean to not comply with something. In fact, of the 16 times this word is used in scripture, 7 of them mean to be disobedient. Examples are I Peter 3:20, Romans 10:21, and I Peter 4:17. The ESV actually interprets John 3:36 with “does not obey”.
So, the second time the word “believe” is used in John 3:36, change that word to “obey”. Do you see a connection starting to form?
Life of Saul
Anyone who reads I Samuel finds out very quickly that Saul had a really hard time doing what was right. Around every corner, he was breaking God’s law. Take I Samuel 13 for instance. After his son Jonathan attacked and defeated a small Philistine garrison, Saul found himself in a predicament. Not only did the Israelites hear about the victory, but so did the rest of the Philistines. They came in droves ready to squash Saul. He needed Samuel to get there in a hurry so he could make a sacrifice to God on Israel’s behalf. However, when Samuel was delayed and didn’t show up at the appointed time, Saul took matters into his own hands and made the burnt offering himself. Since Saul was not of the tribe of Levi, this was a direct violation of Leviticus 1.
Two chapters later, we don’t find things any better for Saul. In I Samuel 15, Saul was commanded to attack and utterly destroy the Amalekites because of the way they had treated Israel. Saul must have thought that seemed wasteful because he held on to king Agag, as well as a host of the best animals to use for sacrifices. Even if Saul had noble intentions, he directly disobeyed the command of the Lord.
So Saul disobeyed. That’s evident, even with only these two examples. However, I Chronicles 10:13 says something very interesting about Saul. The ESV reads like this: “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance.” Saul died because he did not remain faithful to the Lord, which happened because he didn’t keep the command of the Lord. Again, see the connection between faith and obedience?
I could go on and on. However, these two examples alone are enough to show that faith and obedience go hand in hand. They are connected at the hip. You can’t have true faith without obedience, and you won’t be obedient unless you are faithful.
So when someone asks you which is more important, faith or obedience, you can simply answer “Neither”. The question alone shows a lack of understanding of faith and obedience. Neither is more important than the other because they must go together.