Obedience and Salvation: A Question for Evangelicals

“Though he was a Son, yet he learned obedience through the things which he suffered. And being made perfect, [Jesus] became the author of eternal salvation to those who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).

“We [apostles] are his witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those that obey him” (Acts 5:32).

This question is for evangelicals. How do you interpret these verses?

I would like to suggest that Jesus’ interpretation of these verses would be something like this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna when he was martyred around AD 160. He was at least 86 years old at the time according to his own testimony, and he was bishop of Smyrna at least as far back as AD 116, when Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, sent him a letter. Ignatius’ letter may date back to AD 107 (the emperor was near Antioch in those two years, which dates Ignatius’ letter).

That great saint was purported to have been appointed by the apostle John and known other apostles. I submit that he would have interpreted the verses above in this way: “He who raised [Jesus] up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do his will, walk in his commandments, love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness, etc.” (Letter to the Philippians 2).

It is important to point out that in the first chapter of his letter to Philippi, Polycarp wrote, “… by grace are you saved, not of works, but by the will of God through King Jesus.” So Polycarp didn’t think his description of the obedience that would obtain the resurrection conflicted with a salvation by grace apart from works.

I am curious how an evangelical would interpret the two verses I began with. Note, I am not asking for other verses you think will prove the two above wrong. Evangelicals don’t usually notice how many verses they think are wrong. I am asking for an interpretation of those two verses, not a reason to ignore them.

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10 Responses to Obedience and Salvation: A Question for Evangelicals

  1. Evan says:

    In my various dialogues with reformed evangelicals I came across one fellow who claimed that to obey means to just obey the gospel invitation to believe; so that it is essentially a one-time act of obedience in reference to saying the sinner’s prayer, inviting Christ into one’s heart and other non-biblical terminology, etc. The problem is that in both texts cited above, the Greek verb for obey is rendered in the present tense; therefore it should read as “obeying.” A believer must go on obeying and continue to walk in obedience upon conversion in order to be assured of eternal life.

    • paulfpavao says:

      We have got to get a Bible out that accurately rends the Greek present tense. Boy, would it transform … uh, probably offend … most Protestant readers!

      • Evan says:

        while no translation is “perfect”, one of the translations I refer to which pays attention to verb tense is Young’s Literal Translation…though others might disagree because of its translation of aion and its adjectival forms such as aionion, aionios, etc. translated as age and age -enduring respectively; in contrast to eternity and everlasting.

        • paulfpavao says:

          We always has to take the good with the bad and make decisions about what we’ll accept or not accept. Young’s “Literal” is way too literal for pleasant reading, but getting the sense of the “continuous” tenses would be worth hacking through the entire NT for. I have got to get diligent about reading Greek. I keep starting and stopping. Thank you for the suggestion.

  2. T.S.Gay says:

    I believe in one, holy, catholic church. It’s fairly obvious people define each area differently. Your position on the verses has been extensively covered in “Church History for Everyman”. As holy, it must insist- in humility and with unfeigned charity- that its people be not nominal, but believingly personal and real. That its people be actively concerned with the obligations of their discipleship in Christ. Today Christendom has almost ceased to require any searching condition or test of discipleship. That instinct could be okay, since human rules and tests are always as dangerous as they are ultimately impractical( I could name churches). But I know you are talking of Christ’s commands. If we don’t hold up Christ’s commands we lapse into varying forms of religiosity which are incontestably sub-Christian, if not non-Christian.

    Yet, I know I define obey in different terms than you. To me, the gospel is not repent, believe, and obey then Christ will save you. The gospel is good news that Christ has redeemed you, therefore repent, believe, and obey. Every person has to face that. Of course some who say Lord, Lord have not made that leap. In Hebrews 5 the adjective eternal is used to describe a result that is everlasting, not a process. The obey is the acknowledgement of God reconciling himself to you through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is eternal in quality because it belongs to the age to come, and in quantity because they will be alive forever. In Acts 5 the obey is a reference to God and not humans, who would rule over them.

    I can’t help but believe that Love keeps no record of wrongs. I believe Jesus personally wrote my name in the book of life. He is my direct perception of divine. And He alone is my righteousness. I stand on nothing else. I do admit that I believe the values described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are his values and almost direct opposites of those held by us humans. And I do believe that by loving Him, his values have gradually taken ground in my heart and actions( for those who are skeptical, I’m not trying to be all that, I just think you become what you love).

    Just one more observation. There was a map drawn by the graduate students at Kansas State of the seven deadly sins in the USA. Other than the obvious metro areas where one would think them high, the region in the country that was very high was the bible belt. That saddens me, and it makes me an ally of this blog in promoting works after salvation by Christians. However, good and even pious works never make a good, pious man to me.

  3. Restless Pilgrim says:

    Back in my Protestant days, I think most of my congregation would have said something to the effect that faith (which is a free gift) would necessary bring about obedience.

    • Evan says:

      In Eph 5:8 does the gift refer to grace or faith? “Gift” is singular not plural so it cannot refer to both grace and faith. I would submit that it is grace which is the gift that God supplies to enable one to have faith initially and grace is also the means by which the outworking and continuation of one’s faith is made possible.

      • Restless Pilgrim says:

        Nihil Obstat 😉

      • paulfpavao says:

        You mean Eph. 2:8, I assume? Sorry for the delay in responding; I’ve been in the hospital with an obstructed bowel. The gift refers to “that,” because Paul said “that” is not of yourselves, but is the gift of God. The question is what “that” refers to, and it’s neuter, while faith and grace are, of all things, both feminine. So the gift is neither faith nor grace, but being saved. I would argue that only those of us used to theological thinking would miss that even in English, where we have no gender clues with which to work. The end of grace is that we are saved. The means of grace is faith, and thus the gift really has to be that we are saved. Through faith comes grace, by which we are saved. Obviously, the end goal is salvation, not faith or grace which are means to the end.

        But since so many of us have theology to defend we can’t read it in a simple, normal manner. The Greek forces us to read it that way because of its use of gender.

    • paulfpavao says:

      A lovely doctrine that just doesn’t work.

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