On Faith and Obedience

A defender of things Catholic recently provided an example of one of the difficulties Christians run into when attempting to discuss theological matters with Catholics. Though Christians and Catholics appear to share a common theological lexicon, the reality is that the two groups understand many of the terms in quite different ways. Unless he is aware of this, the Christian apologist or polemic may believe that he and his Catholic antagonist are approaching agreement on an issue under discussion when, in reality, they are talking about entirely different matters.

In his example my antagonist, I'll call him John, was responding to my use of two passages from Scripture to support my argument that salvation is by grace through faith alone. His words are in brown.

Ron, I ask you " What part of Ephesians 2:8-9 do you not understand? Faith…. What is faith Ron? Is faith not the belief in Our Lord Jesus Christ and our complete obedience to His Word? John 3:36 says you must obey to have eternal life, Mark 10:17-22 says that obeying the commandments and belief is necessary for eternal life, 1 John 2: 3-6 refers to obeying his commandments as a condition for abiding in Him and He in you. I could go on but I think you get the picture. So Ron, Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are saved by God's grace through faith (belief and obedience): Not of our own works (Matt 7:21 says 'not everyone will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father.' So by doing God's will, we have nothing to boast about, because he gives us the grace to do his will. Your own works will not help you at all.), lest any man should boast. This seem extremely clear to me.

I believe John 3:16 and John 5:24 that you quote also give the same message " Faith (belief and obedience) will save you. See Ron, its not that hard to understand. What do you think?

John was responding to something I had written concerning the necessity of faith in the salvific process:

It is clear that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write, again and again, words that clearly declare faith to be necessary in order to avoid condemnation, to be saved and to be blessed with eternal life, while the absence of faith will result in spiritual death and eternal condemnation.

John was willing to accept that statement -- if I agreed with his definition of faith:

I completely agree as long as you define faith as belief and obedience! If faith is a mere intellectual belief to Jesus, then the scriptures that I have supplied make no sense at all.

In John's definition, which does not conform to the evangelical understanding of the term, faith involves not only belief but also obedience, and one example of that obedience is the baptism mentioned in Mark 16:16. John interpreted John 5:24 to conform to his definition of faith. With his words in mind, please read again the inspired words of the Beloved Apostle:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. -- John 5:24, KJV

John's position does not measure up to the definition of Faith in the Glossary of the Catholic Catechism:

FAITH: Both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed. It is this revelation of God which the Church proposes for our belief, and which we profess in the Creed, celebrate in the Sacraments, live by right conduct that fulfills the twofold commandment of charity (as specified in the ten commandments), and respond to in our prayer of faith. Faith is both a theological virtue given by God as grace, and an obligation which flows from the first commandment of God (26, 142, 150, 1814, 2087).-- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

Given that it generally is possible to find a number of doctrinal positions on just about any subject in Catholic teaching, I did a bit of checking in the Catechism to see whether I could find something that matches what John chose as his definition of faith. What follows are some of the teachings on faith that I came across.

150. Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.[Cf. Jer 17:5-6 ; Ps 40:5 ; Ps 146:3-4.]-– Ibid.,

That certainly seems to closely parallel the doctrine of Sola Fide held by many Christians. It does appear that John's definition of faith conflicts with the Catholic teaching in this paragraph.

1814. Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith 'man freely commits his entire self to God.' For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God's will. 'The righteous shall live by faith.' Living faith 'work(s) through charity.'[Rom 1:17 ; Gal 5:6 .]-– Ibid

This paragraph starts off by closely paralleling the evangelical understanding of what faith is, though it soon tumbles off the path when it informs that faith includes not only what God has revealed to us but also what the Catholic Church proposes for us to believe. In other words, at least as I understand this paragraph, the Catholic Church either: (1) filters God's revelation and passes on to the hoi poloi what she wants them to believe; or (2) the proposals of the Catholic Church are to be considered as comparable to those of Almighty God.

In this paragraph, we also see that the "believer seeks to know and do God's will." I can find nothing to fault in this statement, taken at face value. One of the effects of the new birth is that believers do try to please God by conforming to his will. Some are better at doing that than are others, but no man can live his life in perfect conformance to the will of God. To do so would require the man to be perfect, and the only Perfect Man was crucified about 2000 years ago and presently is seated at the right hand of the Father. I doubt that any informed evangelical would dispute that believers seek to know and do God's will. The conflict between Catholic doctrine and that of the Christian faith is that seeking to know and do God's will is something that comes after saving faith and the new birth, not a requirement for it.

A bit further into the Catechism, Catholics are provided some insights into what Paul meant when he mentioned "the obedience of faith," according to the Magisterium.

2087. Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the 'obedience of faith' [Rom 1:5 ; Rom 16:26.] as our first obligation. He shows that 'ignorance of God' is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.[ Cf. Rom 1:18-32.] Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him.-–Ibid.

While I disagree that Paul speaks of the "obedience of faith" as our first obligation in the cited verses, I fully accept that we are to believe in God and to bear witness to Him. So where am I to discover that faith is comprised of two elements: belief and obedience? According to the following Catholic teaching, obedience comes after faith.

143. By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. [Cf. DV 5.] With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith'. [Cf. Rom 1:5 ; Rom 16:26 .]"-– Ibid.

In the paragraph that follows, Catholics are informed that certain pronouncements of the Magisterium are to be "adhered to with the obedience of faith."

891. The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,' above all in an Ecumenical Council. [LG 25; cf. Vatican Council I: DS 3074.] When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine 'for belief as being divinely revealed,' [DV 10 # 2.] and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions 'must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.' [LG 25 # 2.] This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself. [Cf. LG 25.]–-Ibid.

Growing weary of searching for some evidence in Catholic teaching that obedience is a component of faith, as opposed to a result of faith, I decided to concentrate on finding evidence that obedience is necessary for salvation. The above paragraph seemed a good launching point for my revised search. My first attempt came up a winner. I found a paragraph that teaches that the sacraments (works) of the Catholic Church are necessary for salvation. Since this doctrine was infallibly defined by an infallible general council (solemn Magisterium), then it is to be "adhered to with the obedience of faith." It would appear that, in this paragraph of the Catechism, one finds that obedience indeed is a component of saving faith, Catholic style.

1129. The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. [Cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1604.] 'sacramental grace' is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature [Cf. 2Pet 1:4.] by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.-– Ibid.

A respected Christian source provides a look at the biblical terms of salvation:

Biblical view: many passages of Scripture affirm that man's only responsibility in salvation is believing the gospel (John 1:12; 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; 11:25-26; 12:44; 20:31; Acts 16:31; 1 John 5:13, and so forth) But what is faith? What does it mean to believe the gospel? Faith may be defined as "confiding trust." John's use of the word faith is similar to Paul's use in describing faith as believing "into Christ." For John, faith "is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ." (Leon Harris, The Gospel According to John, p. 336)

Saving faith, however, is not mere intellectual assent to a doctrine; it involves more than that. Saving faith involves at least three elements.

(1) Knowledge. This involves the intellect and emphasizes that there are certain basic truths that must be believed for salvation. Jesus claimed to be God; belief in His deity became the central issue in salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). Unless a person believed that Jesus was all He claimed to be he would die in his sins (John 8:24). Saving faith, then, involves believing the basic truths fundamental to man's salvation: man's sinfulness, Christ's atoning sacrifice, and His bodily resurrection. John wrote down the claims of Christ in order that people might believe these truths about Christ to be saved (John 20:30, 31).

(2) Conviction. Conviction involves the emotions. This element emphasizes that the person has not only an intellectual awareness of the truths but that there is an inner conviction (cf. John 16:8-11) of their truthfulness.

(3) Trust. As a result of knowledge about Christ and a conviction that these things are true there must also be a settled trust, a moving of the will—a decision must be made as an act of the will. The "heart" frequently denotes the will, and that is Paul's emphasis in the statement, "believe in your heart" (Rom. 10:9) --- Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, © 1989, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, p. 332


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