Does Obedience Save?
The question here is not if God is the final author of obedience. It's God who works in us both to do and will his will. It is God who matures and equips us in every good thing to do his will (Philippians 2:13; Hebrews 13:20-21). This is true but God doesn't coerce the sinner into obedience. Somewhere in the middle of all our theolgizing we must make room for the sinner's personal and willing submission to God. It isn't God who obeys God. God works with and woos the sinner so that when he is done the sinner obeys God.
No one with a grain of biblical sense believes that a sinner's obedience really saves him. But then again, no one with biblical sense believes that faith really saves. There is only one saviour and it is the Lord God. So why do we hear things like, "You are justified by faith"? Or "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation"? Or "Persevere in them [your life and doctrine], because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers"? Or "Whoever turns a sinner away from his error will save him from death and cover many sins"? Or "And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you"? Or "Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name"? Or, "Do this and you will live"? Or "If you want to enter life, obey the commandments"?
The answer's clear enough. We ascribe saving power to whatever is instrumental to salvation. This is true whether the instrumental means is a person, an ordinance like baptism, a person's willing response to the gospel, a minister who lives and teaches faithfully or the personal faith of an individual. No one in his right biblical mind thinks any of these realities has inherent saving power. We would hold that God our Saviour uses these instruments in the process of saving us. No one thinks the scalpel in the surgeon's hand performs the life-saving surgery or has in itself the healing power but we rightly think that the scalpel is the instrument by which the surgeon saves the dying person.
Since all that seems to be very clear, why bother talking about the matter? Because on the one hand there are those who think that obedience has nothing at all to do with salvation and on the other there are those who seem to think there are two saviours--God and the sinner.
The sinner must be obedient when God calls him. This isn't optional! Questions about the specifics of obedience, its quantity, quality and conditions will be up for discussion and clarification but the necessity of obedience can hardly be doubted. When I say the "necessity" of obedience I don't mean that obedience is the "sufficient" or "motivating" cause of our salvation; I'm saying that we can't impenitently reject God, refuse to obey him and at the same time be saved people.
This seems so obvious from the biblical witness that only prior commitments to a theological position would lead us to deny it. The Christ, with a rare bluntness, told his hearers that he would deny ever knowing them if they refused to obey (see Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 6:46).
It isn't helpful to circumvent the obvious meaning of all this by saying, "Yes, but the saved will obey because God will provide the obedience to those he has eternally elected." This doesn't help! Christ seems to hold the non-obedient responsible for their non-obedience rather than saying God didn't provide the obedience. Besides, it still concedes that for salvation to be experienced obedience must be there. In the case of the non-obedient this view says they're without salvation so even on this view obedience is necessary to salvation. And why should we doubt?