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    FollowingTheCall200Hero

    Lord, Lord

    It is absurd to say you believe if you do not obey God.

    By George MacDonald and Wendell Berry

    August 17, 2021
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    This article is an excerpt from Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together.


    Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21–23)

    George MacDonald

    Do you ask, “What is faith in him?” I answer, the leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessity – this obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ. …

    Get up, and do something the master tells you; so make yourself his disciple at once. Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not anything he tells you. …

    We must learn to obey him in everything, and so must begin somewhere: let it be at once, and in the very next thing that lies at the door of our conscience! Oh fools and slow of heart, if you think of nothing but Christ, and do not set yourselves to do his words, you but build your houses on the sand. What have such teachers not to answer for who have turned your regard away from the direct words of the Lord himself, which are spirit and life, to contemplate plans of salvation tortured out of the words of his apostles, even were those plans as true as they are false! There is but one plan of salvation, and that is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, to take him for what he is – our Master, and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did. To do his words is to enter into vital relation with him, to obey him is the only way to be one with him. The relation between him and us is an absolute one; it can nohow begin to live but in obedience: it is obedience. There can be no truth, no reality, in any initiation of at-one-ment with him, that is not obedience.

    What? Have I the poorest notion of a God, and dare think of entering into relations with him, the very first of which is not that what he saith, I will do? The thing is eternally absurd, and comes of the father of lies. I know what he whispers to those to whom such teaching as this is distasteful: “It is the doctrine of works!” But one word of the Lord humbly heard and received will suffice to send all the demons of false theology into the abyss. He says the man that does not do the things he tells him, builds his house to fall in utter ruin. He instructs his messengers to go and baptize all nations, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Tell me it is faith he requires: Do I not know it? And is not faith the highest act of which the human mind is capable? But faith in what? Faith in what he is, in what he says – a faith which can have no existence except in obedience – a faith which is obedience. To do what he wishes is to put forth faith in him. …

    What have you done this day because it was the will of Christ? Have you dismissed, once dismissed, an anxious thought for the morrow? Have you ministered to any needy soul or body, and kept your right hand from knowing what your left hand did? Have you begun to leave all and follow him? Did you set yourself to judge righteous judgment? Are you being ware of covetousness? Have you forgiven your enemy? Are you seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness before all other things? Are you hungering and thirsting after righteousness? Have you given to some one that asked of you? Tell me something that you have done, are doing, or are trying to do because he told you.

    black and white photo of a hand holding a compass

    Photograph by Bakr Magrabi

    Wendell Berry

    I will begin by dealing with the embarrassing questions that the Gospels impose, I imagine, upon any serious reader. There are two of these, and the first is this: If you had been living in Jesus’ time and had heard him teaching, would you have been one of his followers? To be an honest taker of this test, I think you have to try to forget that you have read the Gospels and that Jesus has been a “big name” for two thousand years. You have to imagine instead that you are walking past the local courthouse and you come upon a crowd listening to a man named Joe Green or Green Joe, depending on judgments whispered among the listeners on the fringe. You too stop to listen, and you soon realize that Joe Green is saying something utterly scandalous, utterly unexpectable from the premises of modern society. He is saying: “Don’t resist evil. If somebody slaps your right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. …” Well, you know how happily that would be received, not only in the White House and the Capitol, but among most of your neighbors. And then suppose this Joe Green looks at you over the heads of the crowd, calls you by name, and says, “I want to come to dinner at your house.”

    I suppose that you, like me, hope very much that you would say, “Come ahead.” But I suppose also that you, like me, had better not be too sure. You will remember that in Jesus’ lifetime even his most intimate friends could hardly be described as overconfident.

    The second question is this – it comes right after the verse in which Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Can you be sure that you would keep his commandments if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? And here I need to tell another story, this time one that actually happened.

    In 1569, in Holland, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems, under threat of capital sentence as a heretic, was fleeing from arrest, pursued by a “thief catcher.” As they ran across a frozen body of water, the thief-catcher broke through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned. What did Dirk Willems do then?

    Was the thief-catcher an enemy merely to be hated, or was he a neighbor to be loved as one loves oneself? Was he an enemy whom one must love in order to be a child of God? Was he “one of the least of these my brethren”?

    What Dirk Willems did was turn back, put out his hands to his pursuer, and save his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to let his rescuer go, was forced to arrest him. Dirk Willems was brought to trial, sentenced, and burned to death by a “lingering fire.”

    I, and I suppose you, would like to be a child of God even at the cost of so much pain. But would we, in similar circumstances, turn back to offer the charity of Christ to an enemy? Again, I don’t think we ought to be too sure. We should remember that “Christian” generals and heads of state have routinely thanked God for the deaths of their enemies, and that the persecutors of 1569 undoubtedly thanked God for the capture and death of the “heretic” Dirk Willems.

    Those are peculiar questions. I don’t think we can escape them, if we are honest. And if we are honest, I don’t think we can answer them. We humans, as we well know, have repeatedly been surprised by what we will or won’t do under pressure. A person may come to be, as many have been, heroically faithful in great adversity, but as long as that person is alive we can only say that he or she did well but remains under the requirement to do well. As long as we are alive, there is always a next time, and so the questions remain. These are questions we must live with, regarding them as unanswerable and yet profoundly influential.


    George MacDonald, “The Truth in Jesus,” in Unspoken Sermons Second Series (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1885). Wendell Berry, Blessed Are the Peacemakers (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2005), 51–54.

    Contributed By portrait of George MacDonald George MacDonald

    George MacDonald wrote over fifty books that are still cherished for their literary quality and spiritual insight. C. S. Lewis has said that MacDonald’s influence can be found in every book he wrote.

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    Contributed By Wendell Berry Wendell Berry

    Wendell Berry is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer.

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