Obedience Is Necessary
To Receive Eternal Life
by Brad McCoy
The motto of Grace Evangelical Society is Faith Alone in Christ Alone. This motto well summarizes the biblical truth that eternal life is a free gift purchased solely on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and received solely on the terms of trust in Him. The reception of salvation is not in any way rooted in the merit of the believing sinner. These basic truths are quite familiar to all of those who are associated with GES; however, perhaps not as familiar is the biblical teaching that obedience is absolutely necessary in order to obtain eternal life!
He Who Does Not Obey Shall Not See Life
John 3:36 teaches this truth, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (NASV, emphasis mine). At first flush, it might seem that this verse contradicts a Free Grace understanding of the Gospel. John MacArthur in The Gospel According to Jesus (1st edition) insists that John 3:36 teaches that without the ongoing production of obedient good works, there is in fact no saving faith at all! (See pp. 33, 47, 53,174, 178.)
The careful student of the Word on the one hand realizes that no human merit, no good works, no promises of reformation have anything to do with the reception of God's gift of eternal life (see clear statements like Eph 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5). And yet, it is also true that John 3:36 affirms that one must "obey" (this is directly implied since the one "who does not obey the Son shall not see life") in order to receive eternal life.
Obeying the Gospel
The solution to this paradox is found in the specific object of the obedience/disobedience in question. The verb in John 3:36 which is translated by the New American Standard Bible as he who does not obey is apeitheō. The basic dictionary definition of this verb is to disobey. However, when used in antithesis with believing (the first part of the verse reads, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life"), it simply means to disbelieve. The standard Greek lexicon, Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, says simply, "Since, in the view of the early Christians, the supreme disobedience was a refusal to believe their gospel, apeitheō may be restricted in some passages to the meaning disbelieve, be an unbeliever" (p. 82). Or, to put it another way, when one hears the Gospel and is challenged to believe in Christ, but for whatever reason does not, he has in fact disobeyed the call to believe! The same word is used in this way in other passages such as Acts 14:2 and 1 Pet 2:7; 4:17 (see also Acts 5:32; 6:7).
The title of this article, "Obedience Is Necessary to Receive Eternal Life," is not referring to an obedience of self-righteous good works, but rather to an obedience that is faith in the Gospel. The call of the Gospel is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:30-31;1 John 5:1). When one hears this call and believes, he has obeyed the Gospel. In that sense, then, his faith is an act of obedience, although it is in no way a meritorious good work. As the Reformers well described it, saving faith is the empty hand that receives the merits of Christ. Saving faith is a definite act, but it is not a meritorious good work. It is simply the positive response of childlike faith in the Savior who calls all men to trust in Him.
This understanding of the nature of "obedience" in John 3:36 is not only exegetically accurate, but it is confirmed by the whole tenor of Scripture which clearly and consistently echoes the transcendent truth: "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Rom 4:5).
Brad McCoy is the Pastor of Tanglewood Bible Fellowship in Duncan, Oklahoma.