Jesus thinks that obedience matters and it is connected to faith. During his final week before the crucifixion He is teaching in the temple and tells the following parable:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32 ESV)
The kingdom of God is the place where God’s will is done. It would be impossible for the second son who disobeys his father to be a part of the kingdom. He has said by his disobedience that he does not want to be a part of that kingdom. He has not accepted his father as king. When Jesus explains the significance of the parable he does not use the word obedience. Instead, when Jesus compares his audience with the tax collectors and prostitutes the issue is one of belief. They saw what was happening, but did not change their minds and believe.
This issue of obedience is important to Bonhoeffer because he is about to enter a detailed look at the Sermon on the Mount. How are we going to read what Jesus says? We have many options, but Bonhoeffer focuses on two. The first is to hear what Jesus says as if He was in front of us and we were desiring to go with Him. In this case we would take what He says at face value and not search for any other meaning. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, the young man understood that Jesus meant that he needed to sell all his possessions if He wanted to have eternal life and follow Jesus. To sell all his possessions he would have to believe that Jesus was God and had the authority to ask him to do that.
The second way of hearing Jesus is harder to explain, but is our more common experience. We tend to hear Jesus as a distant voice from another time and we apply the filters of tradition, theology, and practicality to what Jesus says. Bonhoeffer argues that we have been caught up in cheap grace and since grace is more important than anything else, then Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant for us to literally do what he says. Our external actions don’t matter. All that matters is the state of our heart. We have gotten quite good at convincing ourselves that we are justified and forgiven as we ignore the plain and simple meaning of what Jesus says.
I’ll close with some comments by John MacArthur that include this quote from Mark Twain, who made it very clear that he was not a believer.
On the other hand, there is an awful lot in God’s Word that we can interpret in a sound and orderly manner. As Mark Twain, the crusty agnostic, admitted, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me. It’s the things I do understand.” — Why Believe the Bible? by John MacArthur
What do you understand that you need to do and aren’t doing? How would your life be different if you focused on the simple obedience of a trusting child and less on the sophisticated arguments of a mature adult?