“Unless He Obeys, a Man Cannot Believe”

When Jesus calls you to follow Him—and He never stops calling you to follow Him—He is calling you to take a step of faith. He doesn’t wait until you already believe before He calls you. He speaks to you where you are, in unbelief, just as He invited Peter to step out of the boat and walk to Him on the water.

When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter was still in the boat and still could not believe that he was looking a Jesus. The command of Jesus enabled Peter to step out of unbelief and into faith, just at it had done and would continue to do over and over again throughout his life.

This is an argument that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made in chapter two of The Cost of Discipleship. That first step of obedience is critical, he explained, and you can’t wait for faith to motivate you to take it because it itself is a step into faith.

At the same time, Bonhoeffer insisted, that first “step is, and can never be more than, a purely external act and a dead work of the law, which can never of itself bring a man to Christ.”

Faith is created not by the work itself but by the command of Christ. It is “not the consequence of our obedience, but the gift of him who commands obedience.”  Therefore, “we can only take this step aright if we fix our eyes not on the work we do, but on the word with which Jesus calls us to do it.”

It’s not the easiest argument to follow. It’s paradoxical, and it may also seem strictly theoretical. But Bonhoeffer’s concern was practical. He saw that people often used lack of faith as an excuse for disobedience, and he wanted to demolish that excuse.

“We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First, faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptionable presupposition of all that follows. If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other— and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin? Obedience remains separated from faith. From the point of view of justification it is necessary thus to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.

“Since, then, we cannot adequately speak of obedience as the consequence of faith, and since we must never forget the indissoluble unity of the two, we must place the one proposition that only he who believes is obedient alongside the other, that only he who is obedient believes. In the one case faith is the condition of obedience, and in the other obedience the condition of faith. In exactly the same way in which obedience is called the consequence of faith, it must also be called the presupposition of faith.

“Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command . Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will only be pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own. The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship; it calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible.”