When I was six years old my parents enrolled me in a religious boys club. We played football, basketball, and baseball each weekend. One day each week after school we would meet for practice and for our “club meeting.” At the meeting we would receive religious instruction.
I was taught that in order to be saved we had to prepare ourselves morally. We had to come to the point where our lives were essentially characterized by obedience. While we would not be perfect, we would have prepared ourselves for Christ to forgive what little sin we had left.
I tried very hard to obey God. I remember my agony in 9th grade as I kept realizing that I was falling far short of perfection. I couldn’t achieve a level of obedience that I felt would be acceptable to God.
I didn’t know at the time that I was struggling with a issue which plagues many people. What is the role of obedience in salvation? Must a person promise to obey God to have eternal salvation? Or, must one actually begin obeying God? Or, must one achieve a certain level of obedience in order to qualify him for salvation?
Paul used an expression in the book of Romans which has been used by some in an effort to prove that to go to heaven one must obey God as a pattern of life. Unfortunately, Paul only gives a bare expression without any explanation:
Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name (Rom 1:5).
(The same expression for obedience to the faith occurs in Rom 16:26. There, too, there is no contextual help to clarify what Paul meant.)
Our understanding of the expression for obedience to the faith clearly affects our view of the Gospel and of assurance of salvation. As we shall see, some find in it support for the idea that wholehearted devotion to Christ and ongoing obedience are necessary to go to heaven.
Three Possible Interpretations
The expression obedience to the faith is a translation of an extremely flexible Greek construction (ēupakoēn pisteōs). The construction clearly links obedience and faith in some way. The grammar, however, does not nail down the connection. Actually the grammar essentially allows for three different understandings of this connection.
Obedience to the faith refers to faith that obeys-that all who believe in Christ obey God. This takes the noun faith essentially as the subject of the verbal noun obedience—faith obeys. This could refer to absolute obedience (sinless perfectionism), to characteristic obedience, or even to occasional obedience. However, most who hold this understanding adopt the characteristic obedience understanding. According to the characteristic obedience view there is no sharp distinction between evangelism and discipleship. To be saved people must produce lives that are characterized by obedience. While temporary moments of disobedience may occur, the overall pattern of life is holy.
The late Reformed theologian John Murray wrote the following concerning this expression:
Hence the implications of this expression `obedience of faith’ are far-reaching. For the faith which the apostleship was intended to promote was not an evanescent [i.e., quickly fading] act of emotion but the commitment of wholehearted devotion to Christ and the truth of his gospel. (John Murray, Romans, Two Volumes in One, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959, 1965], pp. 13-14.)
Reformed pastor and radio teacher John MacArthur similarly comments:
Faith is by nature turned and toned toward obedience… so good works are inevitable in the life of one who truly believes. (John F. MacArthur, Jr., Faith Works [Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1993], p. 142.)
Obedience to the faith refers to obeying the teachings of Scripture. In this understanding faith is essentially the object of the verbal noun obedience. Paul was trying to get Gentiles to obey the faith. If the faith is understood to refer to all of the teachings of the Christian faith, then discipleship is in view.
An Epistle, sent to Rome by the ambassador of a Lord and King, who declared himself appointed to call all the peoples of the Roman Empire to obedience or allegiance, must have been planned in full consciousness of the antithesis, as well as of the analogy, between the earthly Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Christ. Therefore the Apostle expresses the analogy when he characterizes himself as an ambassador who appeals to the nations to be obedient to his Lord. But the antithesis lies in his denoting this obedience as an obedience to the faith. (J. P. Lange and F. R. Fay, Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 5: The Epistle of Paul to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960], p. 63.)
Govett appears to hold this view as well (though his wording allows for the possibility that he might hold some form of the first view). He says,
The receivers by faith of the message are to obey it. For with the gospel go forth commands. Faith is to show itself by obedience. (Robert Govett, Govett on Romans [Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Company, 1981], p. 4.)
Obedience to the faith refers to believing the Gospel. This view understands the faith to refer to the Gospel message. Grammatically this view is arrived at either by seeing the faith as the object of obedience or by seeing faith as appositional to obedience, that is, the obedience which is faith. Thus in this view the obedience in question is obedience to the Gospel message.
Commenting on our expression in Rom 1:5, Anders Nygren writes,
One receives in faith that which God proffers us through Christ. This is “the obedience of faith.” Paul is aware that he is to bring the Gentiles thereto. (Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949], p. 55.)
Similarly, Zane Hodges comments,
An expression like “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) has nothing to do with works that follow salvation…Naturally, God demands that men place faith in His Son and is angry with them when they do not (John 3:36). Faith is an obedient response to the summons of the Gospel. But the man who exercises faith is reaching out for the unconditional grace of God.” (Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, 2nd ed. [Dallas, TX: Redención Viva, 1992], pp. 105-106.)
Which Interpretation Is Correct?
The Context, and Other Passages Rule Out Option #1
While the grammar here is extremely flexible and it allows for the first view, the context and other passages rule out the characteristic obedience view. Murray and MacArthur read their theology into the text, rather than allowing the text to speak for itself.
The context. All we have in both places is a bare expression without explanation. Nothing in the immediate context suggests that all believers always have wholehearted devotion to Christ and that they are always set on obeying God. In fact, other passages in Romans clearly contradict this. In other places in Romans Paul exhorts believers to obey God and holds open the possibility that they might not. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? (Rom 6:1).” “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts (Rom 6:12).” “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…( Rom 12:1-2).” And, “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy (Rom 13:13).”
Other passages. In addition, other NT passages do not support the understanding that Paul was talking about “wholehearted devotion to Christ” or “good works [which] are inevitable in the life of one who truly believes.” In 1 Corinthians Paul chided the believers at the church of Corinth for being “carnal and behaving like mere men [like unbelievers]” (1 Cor 3:3). In that same chapter he also said that it is possible for a believer’s works to be burned up in God’s fire of judgment, “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). In 1 Cor 11:17-34 Paul further rebuked the Corinthian believers for abusing the Lord’s Supper. Some of them actually became drunk as part of their so-called worship! He said that as a result of this some of them were sick and some had died (v 30). Both James and John also spoke of believers dying as a result of God’s judgment due to sin in their lives (Jas 5:19-20; 1 John 5:16).
Romans 1:5 does not teach that saving faith always results in ongoing obedience to God. Rather, it merely says that whenever anyone trusts in Christ for eternal life, he has obeyed God’s command to do that, as we shall now see.
Parallel Passages Rule Out Option #2 and Confirm Option #3
The context and other passages allow for both the second and third options. Therefore, the decisive factor in understanding what Paul meant is parallel passages. While there are no other passages in the New Testament which use this exact expression (other than Rom 16:26 which is equally vague), there are quite a few which use nearly the same expression. These parallel passages refer to believing the Gospel and hence confirm option #3.
Paul linked obedience and the Gospel elsewhere in Romans, “They have not all obeyed the gospel” (Rom 10:16). Possibly the closest parallel to Rom 1:5 is Rom 15:18-20. There Paul indicates that Christ has sent him “to make the Gentiles obedient” and so he concludes that “I have made it my aim to preach the gospel.” Likewise, in 2 Thess 1:8 Paul referred to unbelievers as “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In addition, many other New Testament passages outside of Paul’s writings refer to faith as an act of obedience to God’s command to trust in Christ. In referring to the growth of the early church, Luke-Paul’s traveling companion and fellow minister of the Gospel-wrote in Acts 6:7 that “many of the priests were obedient to the faith (emphasis added).” That, of course, is almost the exact expression Paul used in Rom 1:5. Luke was referring in that summary statement to the fact that many Jewish priests obeyed God’s command to believe the Gospel.
John 3:36 says “He who believes the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him” (NASB, emphasis added). Here disobeying the Son is clearly the opposite of believing Him. In other words, disbelief is an act of disobedience.
The apostle Peter made this same contrast: “Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, `The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone'” (1 Pet 2:7). Similarly, Peter spoke of believing the Gospel as “obeying the truth” in 1 Pet 1:22.
This interpretation fits the grammar, the context, the rest of Paul’s epistles, and parallel passages.
Implications Regarding Assurance of Salvation
Jesus called people to believe in Him. Thus whenever anyone believes in Him, he is obeying Him. Saving faith is an act of obedience.
Assurance of salvation is linked to God’s promise to those who believe in Christ, not to ongoing obedience. The expression obedience to the faith does not refer to ongoing obedience to all that God has commanded. No one but the Lord Jesus has done that. If a person thought he had to obey all of God’s commands to go to heaven, then he would know he could never make it. He could never have assurance he was saved. In fact, he could be absolutely sure that he could never be saved!
We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Only by God’s grace manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ can anyone be justified before God (Rom 4:1-8).
Obedience to the faith specifically refers to obeying the command to believe the Gospel. If you’ve done that, you can be sure that you’ve exercised the obedience of faith. And, since God desires that all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), whenever anyone trusts in Christ and is saved, God is pleased. That is why evangelism is something which is close to God’s heart.
This article is adapted from an upcoming book which bears the same name as this newsletter, Grace in Focus.