The apostle Paul mentions, time and again, the change that takes place when a person is saved. Everyone has an obligation to obey God, but because of sin, we have all failed to do so. However, when God saves a person, he also changes him. So the changed person begins to have the desire to obey God - and also begins to have the willingness to learn how to do so. (In other words, his desire to obey God is not an "empty" desire, but one that results in action.) And because this is so, Paul is able to talk about the "obedience of faith" - that is, the obedience that comes as the result of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
God gave the apostle Paul a mission: to take to the Gentiles (non-Jews) a message about a faith in God that would result in "sanctification" - a holy life (Acts 20:18). And just how did he accomplish this? Here is Paul's own description of what he preached: "... that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance." (Acts 26:20b). This last phrase can also be translated like this: "proving their repentance by the good things they do."
"Repentance" means to change the way one thinks and acts. It results in a changed life. So unless a person's life (and thoughts) are changed, how can he truthfully claim that he has repented? Interestingly, in every instance in which the words "repentance" and "believe" (or "faith") occur together, the word "repentance" always comes first! (Matthew 21:32; Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21 and Hebrews 6:1) Clearly this underscores the need for a change, when one claims to "believe" the good news (or "gospel")!
The apostle Paul often speaks about the effect that "faith" will have on one's life. He acknowledges the role that God has, in changing our lives, but he also looks at the issue from the perspective of our responsibility. (He considers both of these concepts to be true.) Over and over, he reminds us of our obligation to obey God. Here are some examples:
(1) Paul reminds us that God's "grace" teaches us how to live (Titus 2:11-12), but he also tells us that we must be willing to learn to do what is good (Titus 3:14). And though he assures us that God will finish the work he began in us (Philippians 1:6), he also tells us to "work out" (not "work for") our salvation (Philippians 2:12) because God is working in us (verse 13).
(2) In Christ, we are "new creations" (2 Corinthians 5:17), with "new life" (Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 3:10, etc.), able to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) because we serve a "new master" (Romans 6:17, 22). [If all this is true of us - and it is, if we belong to Christ - we can't say that we don't have the ability to obey!]
(3) There will be a constant need to fight the impulses and desires of the "flesh" - our former way of life, our old habits and inclinations (Romans 7). But in Christ - who is our life (Colossians 3:4) - we can overcome. So we are no longer controlled by our old "nature" (the "flesh"). In contrast, those who are controlled by their old "nature" do not belong to Christ (Romans 8) - whether or not they claim to have "faith."
Over and over, Paul reminds us that it is by God's undeserved kindness (or "grace") that we are saved (example: Ephesians 2:6, 8-9). Salvation is a gift from God (Romans 6:23). Clearly, works will not influence our salvation ... but salvation will influence our works!
Jesus often mentions the same themes we have already seen expressed by the apostles*, namely: 1) the need for a faith that results in a changed life, and 2) the fact that many people believe they are saved - and often will have various characteristics we tend to associate with being a "Christian " - yet they will not really be genuine disciples (followers) of Jesus. One only needs to study the concept of "disciple" to discover this!
Like James, Jesus tells us that it is the person who hears the Word of God and obeys it, who will be blessed (Luke 11:28, see also Matthew 7:24-27). In contrast, there will be many others who, though involved in many religious activities, do not obey the Word. They may even call Jesus "Lord"!** But to them Jesus will say, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:23). Do you want to be one of God's "children"? Jesus tells us that the members of his family are not those who merely hear his words. Rather, they also obey them (Luke 8:21).
Like John, Jesus tells us that love must have a place in our lives. But whereas the apostle John focuses on the necessity of love for our "brother," Jesus tells us that our love must be expressed toward everyone. If we love only those who love us back, we are doing nothing more than what even pagans can do! It is love expressed toward enemies that distinguishes those who are sons of the "Father in heaven" from those who are not (Matthew 5:43-47).
Jesus often mentions the concept of "fruit." He tells us that people will be recognized by their "fruit" - the things they do. This applies not only to false teachers, who we must watch out for (Matthew 7:16), but it is a general principle that applies to all of us (Luke 6:43-45, etc.).
This concept of "fruit" is also seen in a parable that Jesus told, about a farmer who planted seed. Different things happen to the seed (representing the Word), depending on the type of soil it lands on (representing different responses people have). In one case, there is no response to the word - it is like the seed that birds pick up and eat (Luke 8:12). In two cases, there is genuine growth - but eventually that growth comes to nothing. In one of these instances, the people "receive the message with joy" (they "believe"), but they later turn away (Luke 8:13) when things don't go their way. In the other instance, they look good for a while, but their hearts are focused on the things of the world, and their lives remain fruitless. In only one case (represented by the "good" soil) do the people have "good and noble" hearts and (as a result) they bear fruit. It is important to note that, for a while, three of the types of "soil" looked good; it was only later that "reality" became evident.
* This shouldn't surprise us. After all, they learned it from him!
**Paul also talks about calling Jesus "Lord," in 1 Corinthians 12:3. But in that context, he is not making reference to the superficial claims that Jesus' listeners were prone to make. To the Corinthians, to call Jesus "Lord" necessitated a rejection of their former idolatrous ways. And such a drastic change could not occur unless the Spirit of God was working in their hearts.
We would hope that these examples from various authors in the New Testament - the author of Hebrews, Peter, James, John and Paul, and the words of Jesus (as quoted in the gospels) - would suffice to show that the message is the same throughout the New Testament. Yet even in the Old Testament, this message is the same. Read the words of the prophets, who wrote against people who thought they were acceptable to God. Often, the people were involved in many religious activities. But they neglected the type of obedience that God says is more important than even the sacrifices he required from them: an obedience that expresses itself in love toward God and toward other people.
God commanded the people to offer sacrifices to him. Yet we read that obedience is more important than sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22). We read that the "sacrifice" of one's heart is more important than the sacrifice of one's animals (Psalm 51:16-17). And as far as our relationship to other people is concerned, there is no reason to expect God to listen to our prayers, as long as we are neglecting our "neighbor" (Isaiah 58). Even the symbolic rite of circumcision was intended to represent spiritual realities of the heart - Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4. Yet most of the people reduced it to a mere external ritual and had no concern with the spiritual issues it symbolized.
Dennis Hinks © 1998
Acts 26:20b quotation taken from the NASB.
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