The epistle to the Hebrews is written with words of exhortation (13:22) to Christians of Jewish heritage. One of those exhortations includes this warning: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). But what is meant by unbelief? Does it mean a wholesale rejection of the existence of God?
In that third chapter, the word “unbelief” is used interchangeably with “disobedience”: “And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:18-19). And again in 4:11: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.” Thus, when the writer speaks of their unbelief, he’s speaking of their disobedience.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see obedience equated with belief: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). See that the Holy Spirit was speaking long ago of a belief that obeys when he spoke of belief in Isaiah. And see also the interchangeability in these verses between the word faith and belief.
But we must be careful. The Bible also uses the word “belief” to describe an acknowledgement of the truth, a mental assent, if you will, that is not accompanied by obedience. Consider the demons: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!” (James 2:18-19). And John also tells us of a belief that falls short of obedience: “Nevertheless, even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42-43).
So the question to be resolved and personally taken to heart is this: Which belief or faith is a saving faith? Is it a belief that does not obey, or is it a belief that responds in obedience? Read on…
Clearly, it is the latter. In Hebrews 3, the Israelite’s problem was disobedience; the Israelites did not believe; they did not obey. In Romans 10, the problem of the Jews who were not being saved was a lack of belief and obedience to the gospel.
The Scripture that so many go to for a faith-only doctrine of salvation is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It is incumbent upon all to ask the question – what kind of belief is this? It certainly cannot be the belief of John 12:42, for none could defend the rulers there as having a saving belief. So what kind of belief is this? In the context of John 3, belief in order to have everlasting life is a belief that responds to Jesus’ strong and certain words that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v.5). Friend, that’s belief in Christ that responds in obedience, just like the example Jesus gives in this same context of the Israelites being saved when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (v.14). Lest we doubt, hear that which was written aforetime for our learning: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9). Those Israelites who responded in belief and obedience lived. It was not enough for a man to believe that looking at the serpent would save him. He had to look, and “when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
What is the conclusion of the matter? A belief or faith that does not obey will not save. A belief or faith that obeys is a saving faith. James says by the Holy Spirit, “for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). The works about which James speaks in the context are none other than obedience to divine command, and in this context it’s obedience to a command that runs against all human reasoning (v.21). The difference between a dead faith and a saving faith is obedience.
When the Hebrew writer exhorts, “But we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition; but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul” (10:39), he has in mind a faith, a belief, that obeys God. For that is the only belief in his letter that is commended! Saving faith is belief that obeys. Let us be sure we have the kind of faith that is “faith unto the saving of the soul.”