In Romans 1:5, the apostle Paul talks about “the obedience of faith,” as the ESV puts it. Or more clearly, “the obedience that comes from faith,” as the NIV puts it. We obey God only by faith in God. Faith-less obedience is a fiction.
And this point, in this text, led to a late-night life-change moment for one of our listeners named Stefan. He writes in to say: “I was listening to Piper’s sermon on Romans 1:5 late one night as I was battling to go to sleep.” I’m going to assume he was up and needed something to do, not that he was trying to fall asleep. “The whole week was one great struggle against my flesh. I heard this verse taught like never before. It completely changed the way I went about pursuing Christ. I was going about pursuing holiness the wrong way. The Lord spoke clearly to me that I had to stop making my number-one goal holiness. My life goal is to delight myself in him, and from the joy I receive in him comes the grace, which I received by faith, to do good works.” Here’s the clip he shared in particular, John Piper preaching on Romans 1:5 back in 1998.
In the book of Romans, obedience is very important. Chapter 6 is going to talk about obedience. You are a slave to the one you obey, whether to righteousness or to sin. Romans 9:32 says that by faith, and not as though it were by works, we obey the law. Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” which means any attempt at obedience, or any other act that isn’t springing from a heart of faith, winds up just being sin because it displeases the Lord. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Hebrews 11:6).
“Focus on Christ, know Christ, delight in Christ, meditate on Christ; get the whole Christ before you.”
Because of those kinds of verses, and because of this word obedience (Romans 1:5), I’m inclined to go with the NIV here and say that the meaning is this: the goal or the effect of Paul’s apostleship and grace is to bring about faith that yields obedience, or to bring about the obedience that springs from faith. You can say it either way you want; both are true. Faith is his goal, and the obedience that comes from it is his goal. Paul puts a very great premium on the fact that obedience comes from faith; all true obedience comes by faith.
The Whole Christ
Why is it that faith yields obedience? Back up with me to the first part of Romans 1:5. There it says, “I received grace for apostleship,” and that means that the ministry of apostleship and the obedience of apostleship is the gift of grace. And I argue that you don’t receive this grace by works, but you receive it by faith. And therefore, grace flows, giving gifts and enablement for gifts and the obedience involved in fulfilling those gifts through grace. And how is it received? It’s received by faith, and therefore, you have the obedience of faith already.
If our gifts and our ministry and the obedience of that ministry are given by grace, and if grace is received by faith and not by works, then that obedience is channeled through faith and is called “the obedience of faith.” Faith correlates with grace, and therefore, the obedience that comes from grace also is the obedience that comes from faith.
So, if you want to be an obedient person and live the Christian life the way Paul conceives it, then work on your faith. Don’t try to work on your works, because you’ll wind up being a legalist. Work on your faith; focus on the Lord. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And so, focus on Christ, know Christ, delight in Christ, meditate on Christ; get the whole Christ before you. Faith will rise because grace would be coming through it, and then obedience flows out from it.
Why Am I Here?
Why does God set it up this way? Why does God have such a passion to be the giver here, the grace-er? And why does he establish it so that works, our works, do not get it, but faith, like a little child receiving it, gets it? Why did he set up a salvation, and why did he set up an apostleship, a motherhood, a singleness, a pastorate, a studentship, a nursery worker — why did he set up the Christian life so that all of life is a believing reception of grace, which then empowers obedience? Why did he make himself the origin of it all and the enabler of it all? And the answer to that is given at the end of Romans 1:5:
Through [Jesus Christ our Lord] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.
Why? What’s the ultimate goal? For his name’s sake. The ultimate goal of all God’s dealings with you is that the name of Christ would be exalted in your life, and in your job, and in your family, and among your friendships, and everywhere you go this afternoon and tomorrow. Will Christ be exalted? Will people read the banner of Christ off your life? That’s why you exist. If you wonder, Why do I exist? State it in your mind right now: I exist, ultimately, because — now fill in the blank. And I pray that God will enable you, give you the humility and grace, to fill it in: that the name of Christ be exalted in my life. If you write that as the reason you exist, everything will be different.
“Will Christ be exalted? Will people read the banner of Christ off your life? That’s why you exist.”
Now, this is why God makes our salvation and our ministry and all our obedience dependent upon grace through faith. If our obedience, if our ministry, were to come by works, we would get the glory. If I accomplish the pastorate in the strength that John Piper supplies, John Piper will get the glory — and perish with it. If I accomplish the pastorate in the strength that God supplies, God will get the glory, and I will get the help. That’s why he says it’s all by grace through faith.
I’m going to go outside Romans here, the only time I’m going outside Romans this morning, but it is so good. The way Peter says it just can’t be improved upon. First Peter 4:11 puts it like this. It begins with “whoever serves.” So now, let’s just make sure we all put ourselves in there. For myself, I say pastor, father, husband. But you fill in the blank: grandmother, aunt, uncle, Sunday school teacher, computer specialist, policeman, bricklayer. Think of two or three things that you occupy your life with.
Whoever serves [is to do so] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Everywhere I go to speak — I was in Orlando on Thursday night; I spoke via videoconferencing with Perth, Australia, at 7 o’clock Thursday morning; I went up to Winnipeg a week ago. Everywhere I go, almost, I quote this verse. And I say something like, “At Bethlehem, the closest thing I have to a verse that sums up a ministry philosophy is 1 Peter 4:11, ‘Let him who serves, serve in the strength that God supplies in order that God would get the glory.’”
That’s my theology: God, I need you. I need you for this ministry. I need you for this sermon. I need you for the baby dedication. I need you to make it good for Noël today. Give it to me by grace. I trust you. I don’t deserve this. I’ll give you the glory. You get the glory. People will see the glory. You get the glory; I get the help — good deal. This is my theology, and I believe it’s Romans 1:5. If it’s not Romans 1:5, you need to write me a letter.