Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Faith is Obedience

How do you tell if two words mean the same thing?

Imagine we didn’t know what “the Bible” or “the scriptures” meant, and we came across sentences that said:
“The Bible is a collection of religious writings”
“The scriptures are a collection of religious writings”
“The Bible was written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago”
“The scriptures were written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago”
“The Bible is holy to Christians”
“The scriptures are holy to Christians”
It would reasonable to think that the Bible and scriptures are two different words for the same thing. The more pairs of sentences we have that attribute identical information to both words, the more and more certain we can be that the words are identical in meaning.

Here I will use this method to argue that the word which is translated “faith” or “belief” (pistis) in the bible is a synonym with obedience. I have argued before that the correct translation of pistis is “faithfulness” (and not “faith” nor “belief”).
Red coloring indicates a verse containing “obey” and blue indicates a verse containing pistis (“faith” or “believe”). Headings indicate what each section is saying.

Blessed is the one who hears the gospel and believes/obeys it.

Luke 11:28 But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"

Rom 10:14b And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Gal 3:9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
The Spirit comes to those who believe/obey.
Acts 5:32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.

Gal 3:2b Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?

There will judgment on those who are not faithful to/obedient to the Gospel.

Rom 2:8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

2 Thess 1:8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

1 Peter 4:17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Col 1:21-23 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

John 3:36b whoever does not believe the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.


Some people have behaved praiseworthily in their faith/obedience to the gospel

2 Cor 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,

Phil 1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,


Salvation comes from faith/obedience.

Heb 5:9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him

1 Cor 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,

Rom 4:5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,


Slaves are described as faithful/obedient.

Rom 6:16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Heb 3:5 And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward,

Mat 25:21 His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'


Through evangelists God won the faith/obedience of the Gentiles.

Rom 15:18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,

Acts 14:27 Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.


Everyone has heard of some Christians’ faith/obedience.

Rom 16:19 For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.

2 Cor 7:15 And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling.

Rom 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.



Blogger Katherine said...

Hm. The ones about the obedience/faithfulness of slaves are certainly hard to argue with - I agree it's hard to know how that could be read as 'belief'.

Would you mind please explaining your reading of Rom 4:5, which you quoted: 'But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness'? It appears that works and faith are contrasted; as are righteousness and faith. Is it another one of those things that looks like a contrast but isn't meant as one? Or does 'works' perhaps imply mere deeds without the heart being engaged? But then what does righteousness mean?

Could it be that pistis contains shades of both meanings? One of you guys described it once as the kind of faith a soldier has in his commanding officer, which I found to be a helpful illustration (though not perfect). The soldier believes that his allegiance is to the officer, ie. accepts the actual state of things (which in our case is a slightly more difficult step as the evidence for us is not so clear); he is glad of it because he happens to trust this officer's wisdom; he proceeds to act on this in obedience. So it's more than just 'obedience', in that it involves the engagement of the mind, the intellectual and heartfelt assent to one's own obedience based on one's belief in the trustworthiness of God. Which could explain how it is confusable with 'belief'. A possibility anyway.


Incidentally, are you going to write a book about all this one day?

Blogger Andrew said...

Rom 4:5
As always in Paul, when he's contrasting "works" and "faith", he's talking about a full observance of the ritualistic works of the law (works), as opposed to a faithful adherance to the spirit of the moral law (faith). According to that definition, faith is necessary and works aren't. However today our meaning of "works" is quite different and far more in line with what is describe in James 2 - morally good works done out of obedience to God.

I am absolutely convinced that pistis means faithfulness, and as such is a synonym with obedience.

One day I may write a book.

Anonymous guile said...

guileless.. i love that word..

Blogger Nichthus said...

Stop the press...

Hi Andrew,

Your thesis makes good sense on the surface, but there are a few issues you may want to consider before seeking a publisher! I agree that pistis can infer 'faithfulness', but I struggle with your next assumption.

My main objection is that words cannot be simply divorced from their overall context. When the word 'faith' is used, many Christians associate the term 'salvation' with it. Your citing of Romans 1:16 is, I think, inappropriate as an illustration of your thesis because of this association. So, we are saved if we are obedient? Or consider the thief on the cross; he didn't have the opportunity to demonstrate obedience. He just believed. While the word 'faith' is not used in the context of that narrative, the concept of faith is demonstrated.

It is my opinion that, as with the terms 'faith' and 'works', what you are dealing with here are words that are complementary, not synonymous. The term 'obedience' implies submission to a commandment. 'Faith', on the other hand, is a belief in something. While it may seem that the two are interchangeable, the fact that two words are used throughout the Scriptures (and by the same authors in some of your citations) must surely demonstrate that there are differences, no matter how subtle. Comparing pistis with terms such as peithomai, eulabeomai, hupakouo starts to show some clear distinctions. Obedience comes from submission and understanding; faith could be thought of as the means of entry into a relationship of obedience, and that which maintains that relationship. With these definitions in mind it can be seen that the Scriptures you cite make perfect sense without making faith and obedience synonyms.

All the very best – enjoying your blog!


Blogger Andrew said...

Mark, my thesis is not as simplistic as this post in isolation makes it out to be. I have written several posts on the subject in the past exploring the some of the different nuances of the word, this post was merely concentrating on the one aspect of the parallelism between obedience and faithfulness.

The main thing I am critical of in the mainstream understanding of pistis is the idea that it can be interpreted as an intellectual "belief" and as such be divorced from and set against "works". It seems to me that it was exactly this kind of idea that James was tring to guard against in James 2. I believe that when Paul (or John for that matter) speaks of "faith" he means not "belief" but commitment, faithfulness, following. It is not a mere belief in Jesus as the Lord that Paul seeks, but a turning over of your life to Christ - a faithful commitment to Christ as your Lord and sincere following of him.

It gets back to a question of "what is Paul thinking of when he speaks of 'works' and sets it up in opposition to 'faith'?" I think the only legitimate answer to that question is that Paul is speaking negatively only of "Deeds of the Torah" and taking for granted that what we call moral good works are an inherent part of faithful obedience to Christ.

It boils down to the fact that I see more and more reason to think that the post-reformation opposition to "salvation by works" is fundamentally unfounded and rests on the misreading of Paul that takes him to be criticising the salvational ability of morally good works. Far from that, I think moral good works are something that Paul takes as essential to a life of faithfulness and are an important part of "faith".

This blog post was simply one of many pointers to the fact that "faith" is not a direct synonym for "belief" and good works should be understood to be an essential part of faith.

You ask: "we are saved if we are obedient?" I would say "yes".

Blogger Nichthus said...

Thanks Andrew. Without getting too far further into debate, I think I will continue to see faith and obedience as partners, rather than one homogenous unit. I share your concern about "belief vs works" however as you note James 2 seems to hit that one on the head. There is (Biblical) value in the distinction.

Pistis, after all, DOES mean belief and simple trust, whether it is a term abused by Western Christians or not; but only real belief will result in real obedience. I fear that there are aspects of the word 'obedience' in English that do not do adequate justice to the term 'faith'. I also would like to clarify your final sentence. You say we are saved if we are 'obedient'. Do you mean this in your hybrid sense, or my "obedience = works" sense? I hope you can see the riskiness of the semantic overlap that has developed even in this small exchange!

Anyway thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I have appreciated your thoughts - and I do admit that I have not taken the time to investigate what must be a thorough defense of your thesis throughout your blog.



Blogger Andrew said...

Pistis, after all, DOES mean belief and simple trust,

No. My whole point was that I totally disagree with this. I believe that translating pistis in the NT as belief or trust is just plain downright wrong, incorrect, and a mistranslation. I believe that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that pistis should be standardly translated as "faithfulness" (there are two exceptions:
1. pisteuw + eis + person(X) = "follow X". It would literally be "faithful to X" but the Greek seems to have more of a sense of following a cult leader or an example.
2. pisteuw + hoti + idea(X) = "believe that X". When pisteuw is followed immediately by hoti it seems to alter the meaning to being "a commitment to the intellectual belief that X".)

I think the theology of Paul would become significantly clearer to most people if pistis was consistently rendered as "faithfulness", pistis christou as "faith like Christ's", and pistis eis christon as "follow Christ". Trying to put "belief" and "trust" in is just wrong.

You say we are saved if we are 'obedient'. Do you mean this in your hybrid sense, or my "obedience = works" sense?

I'm not sure I understand your position well enough to answer. I believe it is true in my understanding of obedience.

I hope you can see the riskiness of the semantic overlap that has developed even in this small exchange!

Um, not really... what riskiness?

Blogger Nichthus said...

Hello again Andrew. We will certainly have to disagree on this. Pistis, in every Greek lexicon I have, means faith, trust, confidence (in fact, more than the "intellectual belief" you mentioned earlier). In the NT it does need to be understood in the context of obedience however it does not seem to me that the two can be fully equated as you claim.

By "semantic overlap" I mean that the term 'obedience' can be understood in the sense of 'works' - hence by equating faith with obedience you could be seen to (though I know you are not) be endorsing a works-based gospel, where you don't need to have faith, trust or confidence in Christ - your obedience will be enough (see how it can be twisted?) The NT authors made a distinction between faith and obedience. We may be best to respect that.

After all, it is perfectly possible to obey someone without having confidence or trust in them. Can such obedience save you?

You may want to raise your thesis in the B-Greek listserv, you are bound to get some scholarly feedback. My own Greek is not up to the task.

I've enjoyed this exchange - thanks!



Blogger Scott said...

I find it a bit strange that you can have a discussion about faith is without reference to what that faith is in. It's unhelpful to discuss Christian faith in a vacuum, because it is always aimed towards something God has promised/done/acheived. Abrahams faith was in God's promise of blessing to Israel (and ultimately the world, through Christ) - faith only made possible by God's Word of promise coming to him. And that faith's efficacy rests in the promise of God, and in our case, the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross.

If it is established that the object of faith is the important thing, then I agree completely that faith and obedience are strongly related, and oftentimes are almost synonymous in scripture (John 3:36). Faith that does not produce a radical change of lifestyle is not real faith; it has not understood the wonderful gospel that must be embraced with heart and soul and mind and strength. But the embracing is not what saves us, it is the object of faith which saves - Christ's sacrificial death on our behalf which made a way for God to be the just justifier of the ungodly. This is why there can be no boasting on account of faith, because the power rests in faith's object.

It is interesting that the Calvinistic theologian/pastor John MacArthur has written on this very topic in The Gospel According to Jesus, along the same lines as you. Some quotes from his book.

"A concept of faith that excludes obedience corrupts the message of salvation... Clearly the biblical concept of faith is inseperable from obedience. "Believe" is synonymous with "obey" in John 3:36 ... Faith and faithfulness were not substantially different concepts to the first-century Christian ... Righteous living is an inevitalbe by-product of real faith (Rom 10:10)"

"Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The fruit of one's life reveals whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever. There is no middle ground. Merely knowing and affirming facts apart from obedience to the truth is not believeing in the biblical sense."

Blogger Andrew said...


I have been thinking that I misunderstood your previous comment. I didn't mean that pistis cannot anywhere mean "belief" or "trust", the lexicons say they do sometimes so they probably do. I was only challenging this with regard to faith in the Bible. Consider it this way: Lexicons generally list "faithfulness" as a meaning of pistis, so it's plausible that for the most part whenever a Bible author wrote pistis they meant "faithfulness". I have found many good reasons to think that this understanding is the correct one.

As far as "works-based salvation" goes, I would have no problem with saying I endorse a works-based gospel nor with saying I endorse a faith-based gospel... I believe they are both the same thing. I think the protestant idea of separating them and slandering anything that is a "works based gospel" is wrong and unbiblical.

The NT authors made a distinction between faith and obedience.
I don't think they did - their use of the words seems to me to be largely interchangable (which was my point in the blog post) and their use of one or the other is generally pretty much random.

Blogger Andrew said...


I can have a discussion about faithfulness without discussing what it is in, because faithfulness is general to (and not always even that) not in. Abraham's was faithful to God, leading him to faithfully obey and God to justify him for his faithfulness.

I'm sure you know by now how wrong I think the notion is that we are supposed to be saved by trusting in the sufficiency of Christ's work, so we don't need to argue it again.

Faith and faithfulness were not substantially different concepts to the first-century Christian.
Very good, so when I say that I think "faith" is generally better translated faithfulness, then you have no objection?

Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The fruit of one's life reveals whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever.
If you read that using "faithfulness" rather than belief/faith then it becomes quite an obvious tautalogy. This is one of the reasons I think we should just translate it "faithfulness" in the first place - if it was right there in the words of the bible that people were reading then we wouldn't need theologians to constantly remind us of the fact that "faith" really means what "faithfulness" means.

Blogger Scott said...

MacArthurs comments are not a tautology because he believes faith expresses itself in obedience. The idea is that faith trusting entirely in the trustworthiess of God, throwing yourself at his mercy, and of course this sort of trust and love towards God will result in obedience. This is because all of your hope for salvation lies in him.

Perhaps i can put it this way. If someone is obedient/faithful to what God commands, there has to have been a shift in the way they see God, and their relationship towards him. In other words - obedience doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from a heart which loves and is satisfied in God. It is this wellspring of obedience that I would call 'faith'.

Maybe Romans 1:5 sheds some light on this discussion. Paul speaks of his missionary task this way...
"Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith [obedience of faith]"
So he says that for the purpose of God's fame among the nations, he is calling people to obedience, and faith. Not completely synonymous, because the one springs from the other. It's an obedience which flows from the love and trust they now have in their Saviour and Master Jesus.


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