On Belief and Obedience

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his best known book Nachfolge “Discipleship” to try and explain what it means to really follow Jesus.


He was struggling with how his fellow “Christians” in Germany could support the government under the madman Adolf Hitler. He eventually came to the position that he must oppose the Nazi’s as a part of the resistance, for which he was ultimately executed.

In his book, the English title is usually “The Cost of Discipleship,” he makes the monumental statement:

Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe

His study on the Sermon on the Mount and the way in which Jesus calls men to enter into following him leads to the conclusion that you cannot really believe if you don’t actually obey.

I believe Bonhoeffer is correct here.

We adopt the first half of this statement very quickly “only those who believe obey”

We are confronted with a friend, or perhaps the inner struggle of our own conscience, who finds it difficult to obey. “I just can’t give up drugs… I can’t stop looking at pornography… I don’t share the gospel… I don’t treat others with love… I am selfish…” etc.

Typically in our Evangelical Protestant tradition we throw up our hands and say “believe harder” and leave ourselves with the conflict.

There’s no doubt that we do struggle, and will… always, however, I believe we let ourselves off the hook far too easily.

You are stronger than you think.

The same power that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, IF YOU BELIEVE! (Eph 1; Rom 8)

So, if you struggle with “I can’t” not of an occasional nature, and not of the normal ups-and-downs of the Christian life, but the relenting unending failure of someone with no power over sin… I suspect that you need to do some soul searching.

If you believe, then you have the ability to obey, even if you feel like you don’t, and even though we all certainly do not always obey… we can none-the-less.

When Jesus gives the call “follow me” he is not giving some abstract idea. For one young man who had great wealth, or perhaps it is that his wealth had him, Jesus told him, that is, if he was seeking perfection, to sell everything that he had and follow him. There was not a hint of irony in Jesus’ words, neuter is there with us.

Do or do not, there is no try


When you focus more on one side or the other of Bonhoeffer’s formula you miss, I believe, the Biblical balance.

You have got to believe in order to be saved… but if you believe you will obey.

If you’re not obeying, you need to. Sometimes, we need to stop allowing people to make excuses and we might, perhaps, simply need to offer them the call of the gospel to follow Jesus. Not a set of rules or laws, but to enter into a relationship with the real person Jesus Christ. To struggle and strive to learn his will and carry it out, and to find victory in your ability to do it in the power of the Spirit.

Obedience without believe will not save you, Jesus’ work saves you.

Belief without obedience will not save you, it is not really belief.

Let the comments begin, this is a good thing to thing hard about… if you find it too hard to follow, you might not really know Jesus!

You may need to be baptized into Christ’s death and begin to follow him!

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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2 Responses to On Belief and Obedience

  1. Kelly says:

    I like the balance to gospel truth that Bonhoeffer set forth. Present day religion tends to be only one extreme or the other. Either the person is oppressed by constantly living under the stress of not being good-enough-for-Jesus, or their acts of true obedience are judged as works, which less-obedient critics will indicate show a lack of faith in Jesus’s free salvation. It’s confusing and exhausting, turning many from the peace of the Savior, which is certainly exactly what the Adversary intends.

  2. I personally find the concept quite profound. I think most people today tend towards “sola fide” and get the impression that somehow God counts your intentions or assertions as belief, it is not. On the other hand, some will point to their activity or accomplishments devoid of motivation as their faith, which is merely empty religion. You cannot believe apart from action, and you cannot effectually act without possessing genuine belief. That’s pretty much as deep as you can get.

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