Faith, Works, and Obedience

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In spite of the fact that the Bible links humanity’s obedience to believe the gospel of Christ Jesus with a person’s salvation (John 3.36; Acts 5.32; 6.7; Rom. 2.8; 6.17; 2 Thess. 1.8; 1 Pet. 4.17), many Calvinists attribute Pelagianism to Arminianism. For those Calvinists, Arminianism is a works-based propitiation (which is a contradiction in terms, since salvation cannot be “worked” for).

The Scriptures referenced above are as follows: John 3.36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not OBEY the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (a Calvinist study bible) comments, “Obeying the Son is parallel to believing the Son. True faith involves moral commitment to Jesus, and persistent disobedience to Him signifies a lack of real belief” (p. 1706).

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches, “Why do you say that by faith alone you are right with God? It is not because of any value my faith has that God is pleased with me. Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God. And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (HC 61).

Acts 5.32, “And we are witnesses of these things; as so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who OBEY Him.” Acts 6.7, “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming OBEDIENT to the faith.” Romans 2.8, “but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not OBEY the truth, but OBEY unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.” Romans 6.17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became OBEDIENT from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.”

2 Thessalonians 1.8, God will deal out “retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not OBEY the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible comments, “The gospel is not only a message to be received, or believed; it is also a message to be obeyed (1 Pet. 4.17). It carries with it the divine command for absolute surrender to God through the peace made available to believers by Jesus Christ. To obey the gospel is to know God and to have intimate fellowship with Him” (p. 1945).

Question: Why is rejection of the gospel considered disobedience? Answer: Because every individual is commanded to repent and believe on Christ Jesus. Certainly this rings a bell: “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

But is believing in Christ an opportunity for boasting and a veritable work? Absolutely not! The Bible teaches that, “the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4.4-5, emphasis mine).

It is not only short-sighted to say that Arminianism is a works-based belief system, it is unbiblical as well because nobody can be saved apart from faith. On the contrary, God requires faith in order to be saved. Moreover, Arminians claim that all faith is the result of the work of the Spirit of God. No one can simply wake up one morning and decide to have faith in Christ ~ that is Pelagianism.

The ESV translates Romans 3.25 as, “[Christ Jesus,] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Christ’s sacrifice must be received by faith. Tell me, is this reception a work or something one may boast in? Is faith a work or something one may boast in? Not according to Romans 4.4-5. So, if God’s salvation is by grace through faith, and this is what Arminians teach, then how is it that we are still accused of heresy? How is it that some Calvinists charge us of believing in a works-based system?

Must one obey the gospel in order to be saved? Absolutely. You tell me how one can disobey the gospel and still be saved and I will show you true heresy! Is this “obedience” a type of working for one’s salvation? Absolutely not. Obeying the gospel is tantamount to believing the gospel of Christ, which is a gift of God’s grace. It is no secret that believers are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3.24, ESV). The day that faith becomes a work is the day that Christianity becomes heresy. It is Jesus who saves; He merely requires faith in His atoning work.

Roger Olson concluded that “Arminius believed salvation is of grace alone and not at all of works. He attributed every good in every human being solely to the grace of God; his main concern was to protect God’s character by abstaining from any doctrine that would make God the author of sin. Therefore, he said that humans are the cause of evil, but God is the sole cause of good. What about justification? Did Arminius teach it in a way that is consistent with classical Protestantism? Was he a Reformation thinker?

“As astute and authoritative a Reformed theologian as Alan P. F. Sell, former theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, declared, ‘On the question of justification, Arminius finds himself at one with all the Reformed and Protestant Churches.’

“Arminius scholar A. Skevington Wood concurred and said that Arminius ‘was not aware of having in any way departed from the reformed doctrine relating to justification.’ Howard Slaatte agrees by saying that ‘Arminius was a confirmed product of the Protestant Reformation’ and not a Pelagian or a moralist.

“According to Carl Bangs, Arminius affirmed Luther’s strongest view possible of justification, to the point of accepting Luther’s simul justus et peccator (righteous and sinner at the same time) on the basis that real righteousness is imputed as a forensic act of God.

“These and many more witnesses testify that Arminius was [and Arminians are] firmly rooted in Reformation theology and did not depart from the classical Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone.”

Roger Olson, Arminian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 200-203.