If your church doesn't teach you to fear God and obey Him, run for your life!

Error message

Romans begins and ends with the phrase, "obedience of faith." Chapter one, verse five reads, "we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles." Then the Apostle Paul brings the letter to an end with these words:

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.  - Romans 16: 25-27

Intriguing, isn't it, that the Apostle Paul starts and ends his letter with this pairing "obedience of faith?"

We'd never word it this way. We'd speak of the confession of faith, the grace of faith, the blessing of faith, the certainty of faith, justification by faith, the assurance of faith—anything but the obedience of faith. As we see it, in Christianity faith has displaced obedience from the pride of position it holds in all man's religious schemes of salvation. Further, any talk of obedience is dangerous because man's pride is always chomping at the bit to turn away from dependence upon God's grace, returning to dependence on his own self-righteousness.

"It's all of grace! That's what it means to be Protestant and Reformed! Catholics and Arminians talk about obedience because they believe in salvation by works, but all of us know they're wrong. Grace is everything!"

And yet, there the phrase is at the beginning and end of the book of Romans: the obedience of faith. We must admit it surprises us. If we didn't know it was there, we'd not think it wise for the Apostle Paul to speak this way. We'd warn him that a phrase like this will be used by some people...

to teach that it's obedience that saves us. Works. Morality. Following the law. And so they'll stop trusting in Christ for their salvation and begin trusting in their own good works. Or worse, people will begin to think faith is something they can do in their own strength; that it's the work that pleases God and saves a man.

And yet, there the phrase is at the beginning and end of the book of Romans: the obedience of faith.

We have arrived at a point in church history where any mention of obedience is viewed with suspicion and produces a knee-jerk reaction of such intense qualification that it borders on repudiation.

Ours is a flabby age and our pulpits exist to keep it that way, so we move quickly to protect the delectable feast we demand of our preachers each week, that the grace of God means obedience doesn't matter. Of course, we're not so crass as to put it that way. We nuance our opposition to obedience:

Paul is not emphasizing obedience here. He's simply pointing out that when we believe, we are obeying God. And yet faith is not willpower. It is the gift of God, like the Bible says.

Commenting on this phrase "the obedience of faith" in Romans 1:5, John Calvin paraphrases the Apostle Paul's words this way:

It is indeed my duty to discharge the office committed to me, which is to preach the word; and it is your duty to hear the word and willingly to obey it; you will otherwise make void the vocation which the Lord has bestowed on me.

Then Calvin applies this meaning:

We hence learn, that they perversely resist the authority of God and upset the whole of what he has ordained, who irreverently and contemptuously reject the preaching of the gospel; the design of which is to constrain us to obey God. 

The preachers most popular in Reformed churches today would never tweet a sentence like this one of Calvin, and if we care about our own and our loved ones' souls, we'd best recognize it. Their cheap grace requires the avoidance of such true and helpful statements as "the purpose of the preaching of the Gospel is to constrain us to obey God." "It's too easily misunderstood," they'd whine. "He puts too much emphasis on man's obedience and too little on God's grace."

But then these cheap grace men would come to their senses, realizing they were faulting no one less than the Apostle Paul—and by extension the One Who inspired Him, the Third Member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. So they'd pull in their horns a little and allow that the New Testament does, in fact, occasionally put in a good word for obedience, and so they suppose the Apostle Paul's phrase might be helpful. To some.

Commenting on the final verse of the final chapter of Romans in which this phrase "obedience of faith" is used once again, John Calvin ends his commentary on Romans with this statement:

He again refers to the end, mentioned at the beginning of the first chapter, for which the gospel is to be preached,—that God may lead all nations to the obedience of faith.

Having been drugged to sleep by tens of thousands of tweets originating from celebrity preachers and seminary profs whose grace-patter is retweeted by their faithful groupies @inane, @flabbysentiment, @faciletongue, @notbyworks, @license, and @antinomian, we are angered by anyone who tries to shake us awake with some positive mention of obedience that hasn't first been qualified to death. We have been taught that obedience is the perpetual and deadly enemy of grace. Jesus did it all and there's nothing we can add to His perfect work!

And if we were able to explain the Apostle Paul's use of the phrase "obedience of faith" at the beginning and end of Romans without having to worry about what our words implied concerning our doctrine of Scripture, we might well say something like this:

Paul should never have begun and ended the book of Romans with such a dangerous construction as " the obedience of faith." But dangerous as it is, it remains clear what he meant. He was only speaking of the command of Jesus that we believe in Him. And since it's a command, it's right to speak of obeying that command. Obeying a command is "obedience," isn't it? Let's not make more of the phrase than Paul meant.

So here's the way faith and obedience relate within the cheap grace Reformed church today. Jesus commands us to believe in Him. We obey His command and put our faith in Him. We then are taught never ever to mention obedience again, except maybe to magnify God's grace by testifying that we stopped doing something evil (disobeying) or started doing something good (obeying) because God's grace was at work in us—that's as close as we'll ever come to talking about obedience. But such talk of obedience is only allowed today when the word isn't used and the concept is only employed in order to magnify grace.

Then we stumble upon the many other places in the New Testament which hammer home the inseparability of faith and obedience. Take, for instance, this statement in the second letter to the Corinthians:

...they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all...  - 2Corinthians 9:13

Again, what does Calvin have to say about the Apostle Paul drawing this link between the Corinthians' confession of faith and their obedience? 

Paul, however, extends it further—to their concurrent obedience in the gospel. For by such proofs we truly manifest, that we are obedient to the doctrine of the gospel. Now their concurrence appears from this—that alms are conferred with the common consent of all.

Awakening from the stupor of cheap grace, we begin to see the theme across the New Testament. Note, for instance, how our Lord uses the phrases "believes in the Son" and "obey the Son" in parallel construction:

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.  - John 3:36

Priests coming to faith is reported this way:

The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.  - Acts 6:7

"Becoming obedient from the heart to [a] form of teaching" is the beginning of salvation for those who "were slaves of sin":

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed...  - Romans 6:17

The wrath of God remains on "those who do not obey the Gospel":

...dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  - 2Thessalonians 1:8

Jesus becomes the "source of eternal salvation" only "to all those who obey Him":

And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation...  - Hebrews 5:9

The Christian has been "chosen" by God "to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood":

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.  - 1Peter 1:1, 2

Were we to rewrite the above verses, our edits would reduce it to something like this:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father and sprinkled by the blood of Jesus Christ, who by the sanctifying work of the Spirit begin to obey Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.  - 1Peter 1:1, 2

But, of course, that's not what God's Word says here in 1Peter 1:1, 2. It cannot be an oversight of the Holy Spirit that obeying Jesus Christ appears in the text prior to being sprinkled with Christ's blood. Calvin sums up the meaning of 1Peter 1:1, 2 as follows:

Let us now state the substance of the whole; which is, that our salvation flows from the gratuitous election of God; but that it is to be ascertained by the experience of faith, because he sanctifies us by his Spirit; and then that there are two effects or ends of our calling, even renewal into obedience and ablution by the blood of Christ; and further, that both are the work of the Holy Spirit. We hence conclude, that election is not to be separated from calling, nor the gratuitous righteousness of faith from newness of life.

According to Calvin, although our salvation flows from the gratuitous election of God, we have no other way of knowing we are elect and saved than the experience of faith which is our sanctification by His Spirit, or obedience. As election is never to be separated from calling, so the gratuitous righteousness of faith is never to be separated from newness of life. Which is to say obedience.

For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?  - 1Peter 4:17

Reformed believers today have it endlessly hammered home that saving faith is never the product of any good work or obedience; that salvation is all of grace and thus saving faith ought never be spoken of as if it were the result of any act of the human will. But what kind of faith is it that has no connection to a man's will and affections?

Calvin says this about the "assent" of faith:

[It is] more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding. For this reason, it is called "obedience of faith", and the Lord prefers no other obedience to it — and justly, since nothing is more precious to him than his truth.

What does Calvin say is God's purpose in His regeneration of us:

The object of regeneration, as we have said, is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus to confirm the adoption that they have received as sons.  - Institutes; III:6:1.

Do you wish to know that you are regenerate? Do you yearn to have your adoption as God's son confirmed to you? Do you long for you, your wife, and children to be kept safe on the straight and narrow path?

Then find a church that teaches the souls within her communion to fear God and obey His commandments.

Calvin warns us:

The communion of the church was not established on the condition that it should serve to snare us in idolatry, ungodliness, ignorance of God, and other sorts of evils, but rather to hold us in the fear of God and obedience to truth.  - Institutes; IV:2:2.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!