In Romans chapter 1, the Apostle Paul uses the phrase “obedience of faith” to describe the task given to him. That is, that he was charged with “bringing about” this obedience of faith. Not his own faith, but rather bringing faith about among all the nations. He also uses this same phrase at the end of the book in chapter 16. So, Paul bookends both the start and beginning of his letter to the Christians in Rome with this phrase.
Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nationsRomans 1:5
But has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faithRomans 16:26
But what does Paul mean? How do the concepts of faith and obedience mix together? We will answer these questions in this article.
What is obedience?
In order to help our minds understand the terms “obedience” and “faith” as they are used together, let us first understand them independent of one another. To begin, how can we understand the word obedience?
Secular dictionaries describe obedience as “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.” I consider this a good description of obedience. From this definition we find that obedience is an act of abiding by the will of another. Usually, the other being a person in a position of authority.
There are a lot of Bible verses about obedience. Clearly obedience is not only a command of God, but an important part of the believer’s relationship with God. Therefore, God desires that we set aside our own will, and abide by His. In so doing, we become obedient.
What is faith? A Brief Definition
Faith is slightly more challenging to define. Anywhere it is used in the New Testament, it is from the root word “pistis“. Sometimes, Bible translators interpret it as belief in God. This definition, however, fails to fully grasp the depth of the concept of faith. Other times, Bible translators interpret it using the word “faith”.
When you think of the word faith, you should think of a “commitment to a vow”. This is exactly how we understand the other form of the word, “faithful”. That is, a person who is fully committed to a promise they made. When Paul says that God is faithful in the beginning of Romans 3, it means that God is loyally devoted to His promises. In other words, when He says He is going to do something, you can count on it.
Faith, then, should be understood as more than simply acknowledging the existence of something. Faith must include a deep commitment or loyalty to a cause or being.
Understanding Why Paul Uses the Phrase “Obedience of Faith”
To learn why he uses this phrase, we must first understand Paul’s overall point of the book of Romans. The overall topic of the book of Romans is “salvation”. At least the first half of the book, that is. However, the best section of the book to get a good overview is chapter 4.
In this chapter of Romans, Paul paints the picture of how salvation is obtained. He begins by illustrating that we don’t earn salvation. Works are discounted in this view (but still necessary and not useless!) This is because if salvation was based on earning, no human would achieve it as all have sinned.
Therefore, if we rely upon what we “earn”, the only wage we are due is death. That’s because death is the consequence of sin. Paul eventually brings this idea home at the end of chapter 6 and verse 23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23
Instead of earning salvation, man is said to be justified by faith. To illustrate this, Paul appeals to Abraham as an example. Abraham is a character whom the Jews would recognize and even idolize in some ways. Paul proves that works do not cause justification because Abraham was counted righteous before his circumcision (Romans 3:9-12).
The Jews at that time had a tendency to believe that obedience alone (works of the law) justified them. This included, perhaps most significantly, the act of circumcision. By eliminating circumcision as a means of justification by works, Paul destroys the works-based salvation theology.
Salvation, rather, is by faith which grants us access to God’s grace.
Is obedience useless?
Upon learning that obedience and works do not earn us salvation, one might wonder, “why should I seek to obey?” God forbid! As noted earlier, obedience is quite important on the part of a believer. The following sample verses bear that out:
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”John 14:23
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.1 John 2:17
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.James 1:25
Even though obedience cannot earn salvation, clearly it is a necessary part of the life of a believer. A good way to understand this is with the following statement:
We must obey in order to be saved. However, we are not saved because we obey. Do you see the difference there? It is subtle, but very important as we will see in a moment.
What is obedience of faith?
Obedience of faith is the kind of obedience that comes from faith. Some translations render this statement as “obedience from faith”. In other words, we can understand this kind of obedience as complying with an order, command, or law specifically because of our faith.
This means that the obedience is a byproduct of something else rather than something we force upon ourselves. In other words, the obedience is a result of the faith. I believe, more to the point, that it is a natural byproduct of our faith. Therefore, the person who is “faithful” will naturally obey. Another way to phrase this could be “obedience to the faith”.
In reality, when we say the phrase “obedience of faith” it is actually a redundant statement. Sort of like saying “true facts” or “basic fundamentals”. The very picture of a faithful individual is one who obeys, as James chapter 2 illustrates.
Faith in Obedience vs. Obedience of Faith
Think critically about the distinction between the two. If faith is a loyal commitment to something, and obedience is complying with a command, then it makes perfect sense that a real faith produces obedience. So, a person who “obeys” but not from a position of faith, is motivated by wrong reasons.
Most often, obedience not from true faith comes from a deep internal belief in a person’s own power to save themself. This is a person who believes that their works are what make them valuable to God. In other words, a belief that they are worthy of the promises.
One of the preachers at the Church I assemble with said this phrase to me, “obedience of faith is not faith in obedience.” That is an excellent way to frame the two positions. Do you place your faith in obedience?
What do I rely upon?
Another introspective question to ask of ourselves is, “what do I rely upon for justification?” Again in Romans, Paul makes clear that Abraham was not justified by works.
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.Romans 4:2-4
To seal the thought, he explains that Abraham received the sign of circumcision after he was counted as righteous, not before. This is a significant step in the mind of the Jew, who believed that their works such as circumcision, and other law-keeping justified them.
For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.Romans 4:9-11
I highly recommend digging into both of the contexts surrounding these verses. In reality, all of Romans 1-8 deals with this issue beautifully. You should read it.
Why is obedience to the faith important?
Obedience of faith is important because it’s faith that justifies us. This is what we read from Romans 4 earlier in this article. However, faith is only alive if it is the kind of faith that produces obedience.
This means that we can ultimately know that we are justified before God if we have the saving faith that is obedience of faith. Obedience to God must come through faith in order for us to receive righteousness.
Obedience of Faith Properly Frames Our Value
Additionally, when we emphasize obedience as the product of our faith, we become less conceited. Whereas, obedience pre-existing or at least separate from our faith leads us to rely upon our works. Reliance upon works is a state of mind that believes we are worth something in ourselves. Isaiah says the following about this idea:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.Isaiah 64:6
Some versions render “polluted garment” as “filthy rags”. The word there actually refers to the bloodstained garments from the menstruation of a woman. Certainly this is something that we find gross today. To a Jew, however, this had an even more significant meaning.
In other words, Isaiah believed that our righteous deeds are worthless because our evil deeds pollute them. Therefore, we cannot count ourselves as worthy of anything!
The Source of Obedience of Faith
Isaiah’s statement about our unworthiness is the crux of the matter. It is not until we believe in our own unworthiness that we can effectively produce the right kind of fruit in our lives.
I have become progressively convinced as I continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, that the entirety of the New Testament has one central theme (aside from knowledge of Christ). That is, to teach mankind to adopt the spirit of Christ: complete servanthood.
Reading through Galatians, Paul illustrates the spiritual man compared to the fleshly man. To this thought he asserts that the person who walks “by the Spirit will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is an incredibly bold statement.
How is this possible? Very simply, living by the Spirit means you accept the fact that you are a lowly, unworthy servant. As described above, this is the antithesis of a person who believes their works earn them something.
Directly before this statement, Paul instructs the Galatian church to learn to care about each other’s needs. And he emphasizes this by stating that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” This statement echos what Jesus said in Matthew 22:40. Not only that, but Paul continues his points about servanthood through Chapter 6 of Galatians.
In light of these truths, clearly we can see the Christian is called to minimize self and emphasize others. So how do we have obedience of faith? Accept your position as a servant.
Bring About the Obedience That Comes from Faith In Your Life
We know that Paul’s goal was to bring about the obedience of faith among all nations. So now the question is, do you have obedience that comes from faith in Christ Jesus? Or are you seeking after righteousness from your own works?
Remember, true faith (saving faith) in Christ is obedient faith. But obedience to God must be an expression not of our self-worth, but of our servanthood. Then we can accept the justification from God’s promise through Jesus and express true obedience in the true way of faith.