Faith and Obedience Are Simultaneous and Inseparable

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the relationship between faith and obedience? Can you have one without the other?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that faith and obedience are completely bound together. Each one feeds the other, and they can’t be separated. However, this theological view isn’t shared by all Christian belief systems.

Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between faith and obedience.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Faith and Obedience Are Inseparable

Bonhoeffer’s approach to becoming a disciple reflects his belief that faith and obedience are simultaneous and inseparable: When you believe in Christ, you obey him. If you’re not obeying yet, that implies you don’t have faith yet, and if you don’t have faith, you won’t obey. This is why, in Bonhoeffer’s view, you become a disciple and receive salvation at the time you are baptized, not before or after, since when you become baptized, you are obeying Jesus’s call. 

Comparing Views of Faith and Obedience

Bonhoeffer’s view that obedience and faith are simultaneous and inseparable is controversial in some churches.

Luther famously taught that you receive salvation only by having faith in God’s grace. He believed we cannot earn our salvation or God’s favor by our works, because human nature outside of Christ is essentially sinful, and thus, everything we do is tainted by sin and offensive to God. Since none of our works merit God’s favor, all we can do is trust in God’s unmerited favor, or grace. Based on this argument and on Luther’s own ascetic lifestyle, Bonhoeffer argues that Luther himself took the inseparability of faith and obedience for granted.

However, building on Luther’s teaching of salvation by faith alone, some churches have argued that you must be saved by faith before you can do anything that is actually pleasing to God.

For example, the Southern Baptist Church teaches that first you must receive salvation by believing that Christ died for your sins. Then, as a believer, you should obey Christ’s call to be baptized, and go on to obey Christ by doing other good works, but this only becomes your focus after you’ve been saved by faith in God’s grace.

Boost Your Faith by Practicing Obedience

If you’re wrestling with doubt as a Christian, Bonhoeffer would advise you to look for disobedience in your life. Since faith and obedience are inseparable, a lack of faith implies a lack of obedience, and correcting your disobedience should restore your faith.

(Shortform note: Other pastors assert that the primary cure for doubt is reading the Bible. This teaching is based on Romans 10:17, which states that faith comes by hearing the word of God. Rev. Norman Vincent Peale took this concept a step further: In The Power of Positive Thinking, he urges you to cultivate faith by memorizing Bible verses (especially verses that talk about faith) and rehearsing them frequently.)

Faith and Obedience Are Simultaneous and Inseparable

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Cost of Discipleship summary :

  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
  • Why getting into Heaven will cost you a lot more than you thought
  • Bonhoeffer’s design for real Christianity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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