The obedience of faith

Evangelism is a call to faith, but what exactly is faith? Following on from his article on justification by faith in Briefing #352 (January 2008), Christopher Ash investigates.


What does faith in Christ mean? What do people ‘do’ when they believe in Christ? Do they ‘do’ anything? If they ‘do’ something, how do we avoid faith becoming a ‘work’ smuggled in through the Protestant back door? Presumably if we have ‘done’ something (when we believe in Christ), we may justifiably be a little proud of what we have done and think that our belief is some kind of achievement or virtue. So how do we accurately describe the nature of faith in such a way that we exclude human pride?

Twice in the letter to the Romans Paul uses the expression “the obedience of faith”. The importance of this phrase is signalled by its position at the start and end of the letter: in Romans 1:5, he tells them that the goal of his apostleship is to bring about “the obedience of faith” all over the world (“among all the nations”) for the sake of Jesus’ name (i.e. his reputation and honour), and right at the end of the epistle, he says again that the purpose and goal of his gospel is to bring about “the obedience of faith” all over the world, and that this brings glory to God (Rom 16:25-27). The NIV translates the first use of this phrase as “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1:5) and the second as “that all nations might believe and obey him” (16:26). I want to suggest that the phrase “the obedience of faith” means bowing the knee in trusting submission to Jesus the Lord, both at the start and in the continuation of the Christian life.

One common understanding of “the obedience of faith” is that ‘faith’ is the main thing and obedience is the consequence of faith: first we believe, and then we obey. Hence the NIV’s translation of Romans 1:5 as “the obedience that comes from faith”. True faith always results in obedience, but faith and obedience are distinct. I don’t think the NIV quite gets the meaning; it gives the impression that ‘faith’ is primary, whereas ‘obedience’ is secondary—a consequence of faith (albeit a necessary consequence). If this were so, we would expect that when Paul abbreviated the expression, he would always abbreviate it to ‘faith’ (if this is the primary meaning). In fact, he is as likely to abbreviate it to ‘obedience’. So, for example, he rejoices that their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8) and equally that “your obedience is known to all” (Rom 16:19), and he describes his ministry as bringing the Gentiles “to obedience” where we might have expected him to speak of bringing them to faith (Rom 15:18).

We may begin to clarify the meaning of the phrase “the obedience of faith” by saying that the basis on which we are justified before God is not our obedience. Just as the disobedience of Adam made us all sinners, so we are made righteous not by our obedience, but “through the obedience of the one man”—the man Jesus Christ (Rom 5:19 NIV). Theologians sometimes speak of Jesus’ active obedience in his human life (in which he actively obeyed his Father every moment of every day and night) and his ‘passive’ obedience on the cross (in which he obeyed by submitting to suffering—his ‘passion’). Together, Jesus’ life and death form one great act of obedience. It is through his obedience that we are justified. We are not justified by anything we have done, can do, or ever will do, but entirely by what Jesus did for us.

But having established the basis of our justification as being entirely in God’s grace through Jesus, we still need to clarify the nature of saving faith. What does it mean to exercise saving faith in Jesus?

Firstly, our initial repentance and faith is obedience to the command of God. In the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). To repent and believe is therefore to obey God’s command at the start of the Christian life. This is why the New Testament speaks of unbelievers as those who “do not obey the gospel” (2 Thess 1:8, Rom 10:16; where the NIV has “accepted”, the word is literally ‘obeyed’). To believe is to obey the teaching of grace (Rom 6:17). We do not believe and then obey; we obey by believing. We give up trying to establish our own righteous status before God (which is the self-righteousness that comes from works of the law—cf. Rom 9:31-2). We lay our righteousness on the ground before him as filthy rags in order to come to him as his subjects so that we can benefit from the merits of his obedience (Rom 5:19). So we are not justified on the basis of our obedience, either at the start or at any stage of our Christian lives. The reason our justification is not based on our obedience is that there is no merit earned by surrender.

Secondly, ongoing faith is equivalent to ongoing obedience. We do not obey at the start and then just content ourselves with believing after that. The Christian life consists of ongoing disobedience to sin’s demands (Rom 6:12) and ongoing obedience to God—a glad slavery to righteousness (Rom 6:16, 18). This obedience is expressed by practical submission to Christ’s apostles (2 Thess 3:14, Phil 2:12) and to those who bring us their message (e.g. 2 Corinthians 7:15, where the Corinthians obeyed God by receiving Titus and his message). Ongoing obedience is the outworking of our salvation (Phil 2:12). It is not a subsequent thing—a consequence of faith; it is faith in its concrete expression. This is why James says that “[A]s the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26). We expect him to say this the other way around—that faith will be the life-giving spirit or breath that energizes and results in our works (the ‘body’). Instead, our works (our actual obedience—what we do, say and think in real life) are the life-giving breath that breathe life into what is otherwise a dead ‘faith’ (that is, not a real faith at all).

Let us come back to my definition: the phrase “the obedience of faith” means bowing the knee in trusting submission to Jesus the Lord, both at the start and in the continuation of the Christian life. Paul speaks of taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5; literally “to the obedience of Christ”). There is an intimate link here between the kingdom of God and the lordship of Christ. In Samaria, Philip “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12) for his name is above every name and is the name by which God rules his kingdom (Phil 2:9-11). In Rome, Paul “expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus”, because they could only enter the kingdom of God by surrendering to the lordship of Jesus. So Paul proclaimed “the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:23-31). To proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ are not two different activities, but two ways of describing the same activity. This is why to be in the kingdom of God is the same as serving Christ (Rom 14:17-18), and hence we bow the knee to him and his lordship.

But we do this in ‘trusting submission’. These words in my definition capture the nature and the benefits of faith. The nature of faith is submission, bowing the knee to the king. The benefits of faith are the benefits of coming under the gracious rule of this king, which is why this submission is a trusting submission. When we bow the knee to King Jesus, we entrust ourselves to his rule, trusting that, under his lordship, we will experience the blessings of his saving righteousness. We cannot come under the gracious protection of his rule without coming under the authority of his rule; there is no salvation without submission. The expression “the righteousness of God” in Romans (e.g. Rom 1:17) means God’s gracious activity to save all who entrust themselves to him. We benefit from this rescue not just by believing that it is true, but by submitting to his rule. This is why when Paul writes of the unbelieving Jews, he says, “they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3).

Therefore, the obedience of faith is a trusting submission to Jesus the Lord, bowing the knee to him at the start (initial faith) and going on bowing the knee to him thereafter (continuing faith). The obedience of faith is both an initial and an ongoing surrender, bringing glory to God both in this life and the life to come.

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