Thursday, December 21, 2017

Obedience of Faith

In Sunday's short epistle lesson from Romans 16, Paul uses an interesting phrase that seems to fold together his entire letter. What does Paul mean by "obedience of faith?" How does this relate to his theology of justification? How is this different from obedience to the law? From slavery to sin?

Sunday's reading is from the end of Romans. The phrase "obedience of faith" is from 16:26--the penultimate verse in the entire letter. But this isn't the first time Paul has used it. Back in the first chapter, Paul opens his letter with these same words as he defines his calling and ministry: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." In other words, if you asked Paul what his job was, he might very well say, "My job is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles."

In my preaching, I don't talk a lot about obedience. It's a turn-off word. Like a light switch, it turns off my attention because it quenches all my hope. Obedience? I know that I'm supposed to be a better priest, a better husband, a better father, a better disciple of Jesus. Obedience is the reality that I'm supposed to maintain but can't. Anytime someone talks about obedience, I think about an overbearing parent or a strict teacher or a guilt-dispensing preacher. But this is Paul. This is Romans. This is justification by faith. This is grace over law. This is hope for the hopeless. Where is the hope in this obedience?

Obedience of faith is a different sort of obedience. As the rest of Romans makes clear, this is an obedience that parallels the obedience to which Israel was invited through the Law, but faith opens up a new means for fulfillment. First comes justification. Jesus is the faithful one, and faith in his victory over sin and death imputes to the faithful the justification (made-right-ness) that means we belong to God. When we have faith like Abraham and faith like Jesus, we are given right-standing before God. Then the fruit of that righteousness is manifest in the lives of the faithful. We remain obedient through faithfulness. It is faith that enables obedience. We become slaves to righteousness. We are shaped, remade, rebranded by the right-standing that we have been given so that our lives reflect that obedience. I like to think that Paul's readers in Rome saw that complex phrase in his opening lines and spent the rest of Romans learning what it means. By the end, they were able to say with joy, "The gospel has given us obedience of faith."

So what does that mean for us? It means when I recognize that I could be a better priest, better father, better husband, and better disciple of Jesus, the answer isn't to try harder but believe more fully. I must believe that God has the power to make me perfect in his sight and that that power comes not from within me but from Jesus' victory over my faults--my sin. Believing in that--staying grounded in that faith--is what evokes obedience. I am obedient when I am faithful. My job is to believe in God's transformational grace and let that faith shape my every moment, my every decision, my every word, my every thought.

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