Command of God: the Obedience of Faith

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 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 faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

In this message, I want to focus on one phrase and how it functions in this doxology, and then make it the occasion of reviewing something enormously important in the book of Romans. The phrase is the obedience of faith from the end of verse 26: “. . . to bring about the obedience of faith.” If the glory of the only wise God through Jesus Christ is the ultimate goal of all things in these verses (according to verse 27), then “the obedience of faith” is next to the ultimate goal of all things in these verses. And that’s because when faith in Jesus Christ produces obedience to Jesus Christ, those obedient lives make God look glorious. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The Gospel Strengthens Our Faith

Look carefully with me how “the obedience of faith” (at the end of verse 26) fits in these verses. Paul begins his doxology by saying that one of the reasons glory belongs to God is that he is able to strengthen us. Verse 25: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory forevermore.” Between that opening declaration that God can strengthen your faith and the closing acclamation that God is glorious, Paul unpacks the gospel as the very thing that God uses to strengthen our faith.

Follow the phrases he uses to unpack the gospel and you will see how he begins by saying the gospel strengthens our faith and ends by saying the gospel produces the obedience that comes from faith.

Verse 25 says he strengthens us “according to my gospel.” So he simply strikes the note that this message is “good news.” That is what gospel means. We are made strong by good news. Then he calls the gospel the preaching of Jesus Christ. That means that the heart of the gospel is good news about who Jesus Christ is and what he did when he came and died and rose again. He doesn’t tell us what that is because that is what the first eight chapters were about.

The Gospel Has Roots in Eternity

Then (still in verse 25) he tells us that this faith-strengthening gospel is “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long [eternal] ages.” This reminds us that the gospel has roots in eternity. It is not something God came up with when creation when badly and sin entered the world (see 2 Timothy 1:9). That’s why Paul says in the middle of verse 26 that the gospel was by the “command of the eternal God.” The eternal (aiōviou) God commanding the revelation of the mystery corresponds to the mystery being hidden for eternal (aiōniois) ages. All of that to give us a greater sense of strength and firmness about this gospel: Its roots go back into eternity in the mind of God.

The Gospel Has Roots in History

Next, Paul says in verse 26 that this mystery is disclosed and made known “through the prophetic writings.” In other words, the very writings of the Old Testament that were obscure about the coming of a global gospel are now used by Paul and the other apostles to reveal and explain the gospel. This reminds us that the good news is rooted not just in eternity, but in history. God had been working with his people Israel preparing them and us for the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t just drop out of the sky with no preparation. Two thousand years of anticipation and prefiguration prepared the way.

The Gospel Is the Means to Faith; Faith Produces Obedience

And now, finally, in verse 26, we see what it was all designed to produce: the obedience of faith among all the nations. Notice both of those phrases: “. . . has been made known to all the nations . . . to bring about the obedience of faith.” If there is any people group on planet earth where faith in Jesus Christ is not producing conformity to Jesus Christ God’s aim for the gospel is not complete.

Now notice how the first thing Paul says in verse 25 and the last thing he says in verse 26 relate. First, God makes us strong through the gospel—that is, strong in faith (see 1:11-12). That is what the gospel does. Then, at the end of verse 26, the gospel is aiming at the obedience of faith. So the gospel strengthens us in faith so that we will live obedient lives. This is called “the obedience of faith.” The gospel is the means to obedience because it is the means to faith and obedience comes from faith.

And with this, Paul closes his letter with the very same aim that he began with in Romans 1:5, “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Notice three parallels between the beginning and the ending. 1) His aim is the obedience of faith. 2) This is for all the nations, not just Israel. 3) In Romans 1:5, this is all “for the sake of his [Jesus’] name,” and in Romans 16:27, Paul breaks into the concluding doxology: “to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ.” For the sake of Jesus’ name and for the glory of God through Jesus is the same thing. That is the ultimate goal of the gospel: The gospel awakens and strengthens faith which leads to conformity to Christ which displays the glory of God.

So in the beginning and the ending of this letter Paul says that the gospel and his apostleship (and, by implication, our ministry and your life!) has this great aim: that Jesus Christ would be seen as glorious—magnificent—among all the peoples of the world by means of the obedience of Christians which flows from their faith in him.

And if you wonder what kind of obedience he has in mind, he left us in no doubt. Just recall some of Romans 12:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That is what the obedience of faith looks like. That is the beauty that the nations of the world need to see—for the sake of the name.

The Obedience of Faith and Justification

Now I said at the beginning that I want to focus on this one phrase and make it the occasion of reviewing something enormously important in the book of Romans. What I want to review is how the obedience of faith relates to justification. There are few things more important for your life than this. I just read this in Richard Gaffin’s new book, By Faith, Not by Sight (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2006), page 105: “Disaster will surely result from denying or obscuring faith as the alone instrument of justification, both present and future.” I think that is right. Please listen and strive to understand and build your life on this truth.

Justified by Faith in Christ (Romans 5:1)

Let’s turn to Romans 5. Begin with verse 1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Justified by faith” is one of the greatest realities that the book of Romans teaches. We all stand before God as in a court room, and he either justifies us or condemns us. If he justifies us, it means that he has found in our favor and declared us to be just. We are found not guilty. Which is a great surprise. The indictment against all of us is that we are unrighteous. “None is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). The indictment is true. The omniscient judge considers all factors and declares that we are not guilty as charged, but are in fact righteous, though everybody in the courtroom knows that in our behavior and our attitudes we are sinners.

How can this be? How can God justify the ungodly and be a just judge? One way to describe Paul’s answer is to put it in three steps.

  • First, we trust in Jesus alone as the ground and basis of our justification, not in anything we are or do or are helped to do by God. This is what Romans 5:1 means when it says, “We have been justified by faith.”
  • Second, through this faith in Jesus alone as the ground and basis of our justification, we are united to Christ so that we are in him. We have a union with him. That’s why Romans 8:1 corresponds to Romans 5:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The key phrase there is in Christ Jesus. In Christ there is no condemnation. That is, in Christ we are justified. Through faith we are united to Christ, and united to Christ we are justified.
  • Third, “in Christ” the righteousness of Christ, or the obedience of Christ, or the righteousness of God in Christ, is imputed to us. It is counted as ours (see Romans 4:6 and 11).

In other words, when God declares that we are righteous, there is a real basis for it in the righteousness of Christ. It’s not a charade. It’s one thing to be forgiven when you are unrighteous. It is glorious and costly. It cost God the life of his Son. But it is another thing—an even more amazing thing—for God to say that the unrighteous are righteous. If forgiving the unrighteous is astonishing, calling the unrighteous righteous is outrageous—and glorious!

The Free Gift of Christ’s Righteousness (Romans 5:17)

This is why Paul moves at the end of Romans 5 to show the basis for our being counted righteous. Look at verse 17, “If, because of one man’s trespass [Adam’s], death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” In other words, God’s grace reigns through the free gift of righteousness to secure for us eternal life.

Many Appointed Righteous in Christ (Romans 5:19)

How shall we think about this “free gift of righteousness”? Consider verse 19: “For as by the one man's disobedience [Adam’s] the many were made [or better: appointed] sinners, so by the one man's obedience [Christ’s] the many will be made [appointed] righteous.” In other words, the “free gift of righteousness” (v. 17) that we receive by grace is “the one man’s obedience” by which we are counted righteous. This is the ground and basis for our justification: Christ and his obedience.

Grace Reigning Through Christ’s Righteousness (Romans 5:21)

Now we are getting close to the way our own obedience—“the obedience of faith”—relates to justification. Look at verse 21 (the last verse of chapter five) and its connection to chapter six. Verse 21: “. . . so that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness [linking back to v. 17] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Now what does through righteousness mean? Is it Christ’s righteousness, Christ’s obedience, the gift of his righteousness (v. 17) imputed to us? Or is it our behavior—a righteousness that God’s grace is working in us, the obedience of faith?

The answer comes by asking: Which of these makes sense of the question raised in Romans 6:1 (the next verse)? Paul thinks that verse 21 might lead someone to ask this question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” If the power of grace in verse 21 meant that God were working a new righteous behavior in us, and that is why it leads to eternal life, then nobody would ask this question. You don’t say, “Then shall we continue in sin?” if someone has just said, “Grace is powerfully delivering us from sin.”

No, you say, “Then shall we continue in sin?” when someone has just said, “Grace imputes the gift of Christ’s righteousness to us and thus secures for us eternal life.” That radical doctrine unleashes the thought: “Well then, let’s sin that grace may abound. If Christ is my righteousness, then it doesn’t matter what I do.”

So you see this questioner got something profoundly right and something profoundly wrong. He is right: Grace reigns through righteousness means grace counts us righteous because of Christ’s righteousness. But that our obedience doesn’t matter he gets entirely wrong. That’s why Paul has to write chapters 6-8.

The Obedience of Faith Is the Fruit of Justification

How then does our own obedience—“the obedience of faith”—relate to justification? The answer is: Our obedience is not the ground or the basis of our justification. Nor is it any part of the instrument or means by which we are united to Christ who alone is the ground and the basis of our justification. Faith alone unites us to Christ and Christ alone is the ground of our justification. Our obedience is the fruit of that faith. The faith that justifies is the kind of faith that, by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13), changes us. If your faith in Christ leaves you unchanged, you don’t have saving faith. Obedience—not perfection, but a new direction of thought and affections and behavior—is the fruit that shows that the faith is alive. James put it this way, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It is always accompanied by “newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Live in the Joy and Assurance of the Gospel

When Paul begins and ends his letter with the goal of “the obedience of faith,” he means for us to live in the joy and the assurance of the first five chapters of Romans, where he shows that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). And then out of that faith and peace and assurance and boldness, a new mind and a new man emerge and the fruit of obedience grows. And the reality of justifying faith is made manifest.

I pray that you will trust in Christ alone as the ground and basis of your justification before God, present and future, and that this faith prove its life and truth by producing a passion for obedience to God—the obedience of faith.

(See further relevant texts: Romans 14:23; Galatians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Hebrews 11:4, 7, 8, 17, 24.)

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