Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a pastoral tour de force. It is of course richly theological. Nowhere does Paul more deeply and beautifully open up to us the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ. But Paul’s theology of grace is not an abstract exposition of doctrine. He is concerned to explain to the church in Rome the gospel he preached and to establish them in that gospel. The apostle’s doctrine always has a pastoral edge to it. True theology is for living (Martin Bucer), it is never a brute chunk of fact.
That said, it is striking that Paul bookends this Letter to the Romans with an identical phrase, ‘the obedience of faith'(1:5 and 16:26). He begins his Letter telling the church in Rome that he had ‘received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his (Jesus’) name among all the nations’; and he ends his letter telling them that God’s revelation in the ‘prophetic writings’ was ‘to bring about the obedience of faith’ among all nations.
What is ‘the obedience of faith’? Faith, self-renouncing trust in Jesus Christ, is obedience to the gospel command to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. But it is doubtful if this is quite what ‘the obedience of faith’ means. More likely, this phrase is telling us that faith in Jesus Christ initiates a believer into a life of obedience to Jesus Christ. Where there is no heart obedience to Christ, there can be no saving faith in Christ. This should be obvious to all of us. Faith is not mere notional assent to biblical propositions. Faith, what the Bible means by faith, takes you into Christ, brings you into living personal union and communion with Christ.
But Jesus Christ is not held out to us in the gospel only as a Saviour from sin. He is set forth as Prophet and King as well as Priest. As Priest, he made atonement for our sin and now intercedes at God’s right hand to bless, defend and protect us. As Prophet, he stands before us as the heavenly Father’s last and best word. As King, he rules over us as our sovereign. He has bought us with his own blood and we are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The three-fold offices of Christ impress on us the nature of the salvation that is ours through faith alone in God’s Son. He has saved us to be his treasured possession (Exod. 19:5; 1 Pet. 2:9). He has saved us to make us his faithful, loving, obedient servants. We are not our own. We have been saved to glorify God in our bodies.
There is another aspect or dimension to ‘the obedience of faith’. The Christian’s obedience of Christ is to be a believing obedience. All we do we are to do in faith. This is what distinguishes evangelical obedience from legal obedience. Legal obedience is fuelled by a desire to earn merit with God. It is born of fear not love. It is duteous without being truly dutiful. In contrast, evangelical obedience is fuelled by love and thankfulness. It is prompted by a desire to please the Saviour. It sees obedience to God’s commandments not as a duteous chore, but as a true delight (Psa. 119:24, 35, 47, 70, 97; John 14:15). Love truly does make obedience sweet.
The obedience of faith: How does your life and my life measure up? Is our faith a truly biblical and saving faith, that is, a faith that loves and pursues obedience? Is our obedience to Christ fuelled with thankfulness and love? Is our obedience partial and selective? Or is our obedience ‘all round?’ Do we grieve over our failures in obedience, above all because our failures grieve our beloved Saviour who died that we might live?
It was common in some church circles in years past to say that Jesus could be your Saviour but not your Lord. That first you receive him as Saviour and then, at some later time, receive him as Lord. This thinking led to the astonishing notion that there could be such a thing as a Christian who lived in disobedience to Christ. It is true that all Christians sin and sometimes very badly. But if we say that we know Christ but do not keep his commandments, we are liars and the truth is not in us, so said the Apostle John (1 John 2:4). One of the ‘birthmarks’ of a Christian is a heartfelt sorrow and grief over disobedience and a daily resolve, dependent on the Lord, to live more obediently to his commandments.
The Psalmist wrote, ‘O how I love your law.’ We who live this side of Calvary have even greater cause to say, ‘O how I love your law.’ Do we?