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Part 28

25 Aug 2021

The Obedience of Faith (Romans 1:5, 16:26)

Well, my reading has brought me at last to the book of Romans. This, I’m sure, will be fertile soil for my thinking with regards to the question of what is ‘the flesh’ and how do we put it to death.

I recently spent a good deal of time in Paul’s letter to the Romans, not in studying it as such, but more or less soaking in it, reading it from beginning to end and then starting again.

It was an interesting exercise because when you read back over a book again having just finished it, the contents are fresh in your mind. You can see it differently on subsequent readings. You pick up on themes that recur again and again. You get a clearer sense of how and where those themes begin and how they are developed, and sometimes things grab your attention that might otherwise have escaped notice.

This idea of the obedience of faith is one such idea that had previously escaped my attention.

How could I have missed it? Well, I guess it has something to do with the way I normally read scripture. I would normally read three chapters of whichever book I happen to be in at that time, and so, for instance, it would normally take me five days or so to read the Letter to the Romans.

Paul raises this idea of the obedience of faith in the first and last chapters. That being the case, it would normally be five days or so between seeing the phrase the first time, then seeing it repeated. I guess I have as short memory.

However, in reading the book back to back, it struck me that Paul bookends the letter with this phrase ‘the obedience of faith’. It would seem to me that this signals that this is a major theme of the letter, and as such, worth thinking about.

As we read this phrase in chapter 1:4-5 and again in 16:25-27, it seems that Paul had a clear sense of what his call entailed. It included the call to preach the Gospel of Jesus to the nations, and that this in turn would bring about “the obedience of faith” in those who receive Christ.

Now, is this obedience of faith obedience to the call to repent of sin and come to Christ, or is this obedience to be an ongoing and outward obedience that is produced by and the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer?

To this question I say a hearty yes.

It takes obedience to become a follower of Jesus, obedience to the call to turn from sin and turn to Christ. But how could we who are still in our flesh, which as we have discussed and will come up again in this letter, is hostile to God, turn from this sin and receive Christ?

I believe that this is in itself the work of the Holy Spirit in us in regeneration and its resulting fruit of faith.

Our salvation is a gift of God in its entirety. He chose us, we can only choose Him because of this fact.

But what about this second sense of obedience? Surely as followers of Jesus we are now free from such things as obedience?

American Pastor Tim Keller helpfully puts the answer this way.

“The motivating principle of religion is ‘I obey therefore I am accepted’ while the motivating principle of the Gospel is ‘I am accepted therefore I obey’.”

As believers, our obedience flows out of the Gospel not out of the legalistic decree to obey some set of rules. It is the overflow, the outworking of the Good News in our hearts and lives. Wherever you see the Gospel take root in someones heart there will also be obedience over time accompanying and flowing out of the work that God has done and continues to do in the hearts of His children.

As we live and grow in faith and in maturity we should see an increasing change in our hearts, and as a result, in our character, which in turn produces a greater harvest of fruit in obedience to God.

Our faith and our obedience go hand in hand. They are intrinsically linked and bound to one another. We must obey God in His call to repentance and faith in Christ if we are to become followers of Jesus, however, if you have faith, you will produce the fruit of faith, which is obedience to God, in increasing measure.

In his famous work The Cost of Discipleship (P.54) German Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up very succinctly this way.

“…only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

Now, it is important to state categorically that this obedience is IN NO WAY meritorious. Our salvation is not earned by our obedience, nor is it kept through our obedience.

As believers our fruit of obedience is the natural by-product of who and what we have been made to be by the new birth that comes by the will of God by the power of the Spirit. We are new creatures in Christ with new hearts producing a new character with new desires. Our obedience naturally, and in increasing measure, flows out from this new work of God in us.

Our acts of obedience are no more meritorious towards our salvation or to keeping that salvation than a rose bush’s putting forth of petals is meritorious of its being a rose. A rose bush will put forth buds in its time simply by virtue of the fact that it is a rose. It is in its DNA.

The same is true for the believer. We will produce obedience by virtue of the fact that it is in our DNA as children of God. This is who we are, and therefore, this is what we do.

You cannot have faith without obedience, and you can’t have true obedience without faith. You can do all the right acts, say all the right things and still be no closer to God than the murderer, thief, or cheat, because our issue is not primarily with what we do, it is with the state of our hearts.

Our primary issue is that we don’t trust God, we would rather trust in ourselves. Likewise we don’t accept His sovereign rule over us, instead we want to be the god of our own universe where we have all things our way all the time.

It’s this fact that drives our actions. Who we are determines what we do.

Because this is the case we can do all the right things but not be any closer to God because of the motivations of our hearts. We must be born again to have our selfish natures overthrown. Only once we are born again can we truly be obedient to God.

Now by this I don’t mean perfect obedience in that those that have faith will then go on to live perfect lives. No, not at all. We still have to wrestle with the flesh in this life, we still have to wrestle with ‘the old man’. What it means is that with the new birth comes a new nature, a new heart and mind set on God, and as such, new desires to live our lives in such a way that communicates to Him our trust in Him and gratitude to Him for all we are and have, as well as all that He has promised is to come.

This new heart and mind is at odds with the old, and while in this life we will not always live out of this new nature, we are guaranteed that the old sin nature, the flesh, has been judged and condemned in Christ. The penalty incurred as a result of living out of our sin nature has been paid for in Christ, and as such, it has been done away with and there is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the meantime we live in the certain hope and anticipation of the day when we will be finally set free from this battle within. The day when we cast off the old nature for good, and are granted a brand new physical body in a newly created world, in which we can perfectly live out this new nature that is a gift from God. The new creation (which includes us) will be entirely free from sin, the stain of sin, the power of sin, the penalty for sin, the presence of sin, or any of the consequences of sin in suffering, pain, sorrow, grief, sickness, and death.

For now, in this world and in this life, we are being conformed to the image of Christ, being made perfect in the perfect one. We start this process as babes being fed milk, tripping falling on our faces, covering ourselves in our own filth. But the expectation is that we don’t remain in that state. We are to grow, learn, understand, and mature.

I think that as brand new believers we are so full of excitement and gusto that we run around like new puppies, blundering into situations we shouldn’t, saying things that would’ve been better left unsaid. Or is it just me?

We do this out of our new passion. we lack understanding, lack maturity in christian character, and we inevitably have areas of our lives that need to die and be left in the past, as well as others that will need to be reframed.

You grow and learn, and learn painfully at times that in the exuberance of youth you got a few things wrong and repentance needs to be undertaken. I could tell you some stories…

Inevitably, conflict arises around doctrine and practice, and so you have to start thinking your way through some theological issues to see where you believe you should sit. Growth occurs in terms of our understanding, and this whole process impacts the way we live. Greater obedience is the fruit.

Beyond those teenage years lies adulthood, which, for most, tends to be a more settled time. We largely have our doctrine worked out in our own minds. We are part of a Christian community that believes, for the most part, as we do, and everything becomes more settled, comfortable, manageable.

Here the challenge is to recapture the passion we had in our youth, that all or nothing attitude, that exuberance that comes with the realisation of the true weight and significance of the message with which we’ve been entrusted.

We are however to wed that exuberance to experience, to add to our exuberance wisdom that has come as a result of learning and growth through experience and time spent with the Lord in prayer and in His word.

This whole process is one of growing in faith, knowledge, and wisdom, all of which will express themselves in and through our lives as God brings about the obedience of faith in us by the power of His Spirit and to the glory of His name.

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