Hearing and Obeying is Essential to Salvation
God is a Being of communication. Since the very beginning, God has not left man without instruction and guidance (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:16, 17). Through the passing centuries of time, God has spoken in a variety of ways (Hebrews 1:1). In ages past God spoke via dreams, visions, and many times “face to face” (cf. Genesis 20:3-7; 46:1-4; Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:6-8). But these were special forms of communication, and were not the privilege of all men. That the word of God might be known by every man, the divine will purposed a series of sacred writings which would comprise a body of truth to be carefully observed by all who love the Lord.
Men inspired by the Spirit of God wrote the words they were given, and the compilation of those documents now constitutes the volume we know as the Holy Scriptures. As the written word stands authoritatively in this bound collection, God speaks His timeless message to those who will listen. Seven times in chapters 2 and 3 of the final book, Revelation, the author is told to “write” to the churches of Asia Minor; however, each specific address closes with the words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” God speaks today through the Holy Scriptures, revealing the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will listen.
The apostle Paul declared the importance of Scripture when he wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16, 17). Every man who listens to the inspired Scriptures is hearing the voice of God; conversely, to reject the testimony of Scripture is to reject its very Source. When Jesus sent the seventy out to prepare for His future arrival in the cities of Israel, he informed them, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:16). Although the message is now contained in a written volume, it remains a serious infraction – even an eternal mistake – to shun the holy message of the Bible.
The failure of any man to hear and obey the teachings of Christ is made the equivalent of a man who would build a house without placing it on a firm foundation. It is futile to simply call Christ, “Lord,” while refusing to obey the things He has said. Of those who make the attempt, Christ inquires, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great” (Luke 6:46-49).
The importance of listening to Jesus Christ is comprehended through His identity. Too many people in the world see Him as only a man, and as a physical man, He did not appear any different than any other man (Isaiah 53:2, 3). But Jesus was no ordinary man! The apostle John declares Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning, that He was with God, and that He Himself is God (John 1:1). The title “Word” denotes His communicative abilities within the Godhead. In order to save man from his sins, the Word had to become flesh (John 1:14), and as God robed in the flesh of humanity, Jesus vividly communicates or explains the invisible God to mankind (John 1:18).
Through the virgin birth, the Word became “the only begotten from the Father,” becoming both the Son of God and the Son of Man. God now speaks to the world through the Son (Hebrews 1:2), and it isn’t enough to merely believe in Him as errantly proposed by many today, but obedience must conjoin that belief. The last testimony of the forerunner, John, expresses this truth in simplicity: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:34-36).
Although beloved by many in the church, the King James Version is not a witness to the truth with respect to John 3:36. The KJV reads: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” The Greek apeitheo is primarily defined as “disobey.” Of the 16 appearances of this word in the Greek text, the KJV translates only 7 of these instances with words denoting “disobedience.” In the remaining nine passages, the KJV rendering is simply “disbelieving” or “believeth not.” This unfortunate rendering by the King James translators in John 3:36 is often appealed to by “faith alone” advocates when attempting to excise the necessity of obedience from the plan of salvation.
Recalling that the Greek verb apeitheo means to “disobey,” hear the NASB translation: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life…” The difference in rendering is shocking, especially when it is considered that in seven other instances the same word is translated by the King James translators as “obey not” (3 times) or “disobedient” (4 times). The true language of the Greek text reveals that biblical “belief” in the Son entails “obedience.” Had the KJV properly translated this verse (and the other eight) as “obey not,” how much easier would the task be for the church to teach the necessity of obedience to those in the world?
That hearing Christ and obeying His teachings is absolutely necessary for salvation may be proved by more passages than this brief article will allow. Consider John 12:47-48: “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.” Here it is affirmed that hearing and obeying are essential elements for men seeking salvation. The word of Christ as delivered by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament is the final authority for eternal life. The man rejecting the sayings of Christ has forfeited any claim of belonging to Christ.
Paul warns of the day when Christ shall return “from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (II Thessalonians 1:7-9). Knowing God and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ are here made companion prerequisites to avoiding the penalty of eternal destruction. Of course, it is impossible to know God without Christ (cf. John 5:23; 8:19, 42, 46, 47), and failure to obey the gospel of Christ results in everlasting doom.
Some erroneously contend that those never receiving the gospel or obtaining knowledge of God will still be saved. Yet when Peter asked the rhetorical question, “what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Peter 4:17), he did not leave room for speculative opinion to imagine a favorable deliverance. Christ illustrated the possibility of some never hearing the gospel, saying, “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few” (Luke 12:47, 48).
One thing becomes very clear in the light of these verses. No one can count on ignorance to save him in the end. Those holding out hope for such are only deceiving themselves. If men can be saved without the gospel, there is really no need for it; and the man ridding the world of it would actually be doing the remainder of mankind a service. But such foolishness is of the devil! Only the devil desires the removal of the gospel from the hearts and minds of mankind, for the devil knows and understands that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world (cf. Colossians 1:23-27).
Those claiming God will save ignorant men who have not heard and obeyed the gospel are actually accusing God of whimsically sending Christ to die to establish a way of salvation that is not needed. The gospel is the eternal plan of God’s salvation for mankind. Its primary focus is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. If men can be saved without obeying the gospel, then Christ suffered needlessly (cf. Galatians 2:21). In full view of the immense suffering demanded by the sins of humanity and experienced by Christ, the very claim of salvation apart from hearing and obeying the gospel borders on blasphemy.
Hearing and obeying are tied together as intimates in the vernacular of the Bible. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the term for “obey” is sama, which Vine defines as “to hear, hearken, listen, obey, publish” (1996, p. 107). Noting the various usages, Vine explains: “In the case of hearing and hearkening to a higher authority, sama can mean ‘obey’” (Ibid., p. 108). Many times God spoke to Israel of the need to hear and obey, e.g., “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer” (Exodus 15:26; see also Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:12).
A similar term found in the New Testament is the word hupakuo. Vine defines the word and then lists a variety of scenarios in which the word is used. He gives the meaning: “to listen, attend’…and so, ‘to submit, to obey,’ is used of ‘obedience’ (a) to God, Heb. 5:9; 11:8; (b) to Christ…(c) to disciples of Christ…(d) to the faith, Acts 6:7; the gospel, Romans 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; Christian doctrine, Romans 6:17 (as to a form or mode of teaching); (e) to apostolic injunction, Phil. 2:12; 2 Thess. 3:14” (1996, p. 438). The idea suggested by this definition is that one listens with the intent of practicing what he is taught. If one is not obeying, he is simply not listening to God.
The time to hear and obey is always “today.” Hebrews 4:7 speaks of the actions of God, stating, “He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.’” Although David’s original exhortation was spoken three thousands years past, it remains valuable to all men who are living “today.” Life is filled with uncertainty. The parable of the rich farmer (Luke 12:16-21) depicts a man who thought he had “many years” left to live, but in reality, he had less than a day. Many people are waiting till the eleventh hour to hear and obey the Lord, but the hands on the clock of life are seconds away from midnight, and their life with its many opportunities is all but over.
We live our entire lives on a tiny thin line called “now.” It is always “now.” The relinquished past is gone and can never be recovered. It is impossible for a man to recapture a breath from even one minute ago. Likewise, there is no suggestion that “tomorrow” will ever come. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). “He rises, but no one has assurance of life” (Job 24:22). All a man has is “today,” the holy “N-O-W.” Whenever a man does “now” what he knows he really needs to do, in the years to come when he looks back, just spell “now” backwards and you have the answer; he will have “won.”
When thinking of the salvation of your soul, “behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (II Corinthians 6:2). The longer one remains in a life of sin, the more inclined he is to become hardened therein. The Hebrews’ writer admonished, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). Every man has been called by the gospel that he might gain the glory of Christ (cf. II Thessalonians 2:14). The time to hear and obey is “today.” One of the greatest “wiles” of the devil (Ephesians 6:11, KJV) is for man to wait “awhile.”
James earnestly pleads for obedience, urging men, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22). To honestly hear the Lord is to submissively obey. The lie of Satan has always been that men do not have to obey the Creator’s voice (Genesis 3:4; cf. John 8:44). But the crystal waters of life gleam resplendently with the call of obedience for all who will listen (Revelation 22:1-7). The question that comes to every man is: Are you listening to the voice of God?
Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White (1996), Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old
and New Testament Words: with Topical Index (Nashville: T. Nelson).