Faith & Obedience

Paul frames his letter to the Romans with his apostolic mission—to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations, acting as an agent of God’s restoration of the nations (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

One of the most damaging aspects of an evangelical vision of the Christian gospel is the bifurcation between faith and obedience.  Paul saw these as nearly synonymous, but in the wake of the Reformation, they have been set in opposition, a move with disastrous consequences for Christian discipleship and for interpreting Paul.

Evangelicals often imagine that when Paul commends faith, he is endorsing human passive reception or human inaction.

Obedience, on the other hand, is human action or human intentionality.  It is something of which we ought to be suspicious, since it is outward and can be wrongly motivated.  Obedience is okay when it is driven by faith, but if it isn’t, mere obedience can easily turn into legalism.

A further problem some Christians see with obedience is that it can run the risk of marginalizing God.  We imagine that the soteriological stage is something like a zero-sum game, so that to allow any place for human action involves the marginalizing of divine action to some extent, however small.  The sum total of acting—divine and human—must add up to one hundred percent.  Any human acting, therefore, gets in the way of God’s saving action in human affairs, minimizing God’s stage presence to whatever extent.

This conception of things is mistaken.

Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world.  Paul imagines the contrast differently.  On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act.  This is faith and it is also obedience.

On the other, there is holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way.  This is unfaithfulness and it is also disobedience.

Alternatively, we can put the contrast in these terms: there are actions and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power (faith/obedience).  On the other hand, there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize God’s presence and power (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

There is human action that invites and allows God to act and for God to be seen to be working (faith/obedience), and there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, exercises exploitative power over others, and ends up not allowing God to act and to be seen (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

One great example of this is the theme of cruciformity in Paul’s letters.  Far from endorsing passivity as the mode of life that allows God’s glory to be seen, Paul calls for cross-shaped behaviors and patterns of conduct as the mode of life whereby the resurrection power of God is unleashed.

Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by our Reformation heritage—or perhaps by gnosticized or pietistic (per)versions of it.  Paul does not upbraid Israel for acting, but for acting wrongly, for failing to be faithful to their vocation as a light to the nations.  And Paul does not find that the Mosaic Law is deficient because it endorses human action whereas the gospel calls for passive reception.  This is a misreading of a number of passages in Paul, not least Galatians 3:11-12.

Pistis (“faith” or “faithfulness”), in its various forms, typically occurs in Pauline contexts that speak of the holistic human response to God, including inner confidence or trust and demonstrated loyalty through actions, speech, and renewed patterns of relating to others.

Some scholars (and many others) are hesitant to recognize the holistic character of pistis.  One senses the constant anxiety of losing ground gained by the Reformation as if allowing the term to speak of the holistic human response to God somehow marginalizes God’s action in salvation or opens the door to legalism or works of merit.  This is unhelpful in the extreme.

The “works” / “faith” distinction in Paul’s letters is not one between human action and human passivity, and Paul envisions no dichotomy at all between faith and obedience.  These wrong distinctions skew Paul’s discussions when it comes to the robust human activity involved in faith.

Paul nowhere endorses passive reception when it comes to human faith, but envisions faith as creative, redemptive, and God-empowered action.


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10 responses to “Faith & Obedience

  • joey

    Excellent piece. Scripture never separates “faith” from “obedience.” The “faith hall of fame” chapter of Hebrews 11 is full of descriptions of things people DID. Paul and James can speak of of Abraham’s “faith” and “obedience” as what justified him and not contradict because faith and obedience are the same thing.
    It seems to me that the recognition/acceptance of the NPP creates a crisis (maybe too strong a word) for those traditions that have built their entire theology on (a Reformed definition of) “Faith vs Works (obedience).” If Paul wasn’t talking about “Faith vs Works” – if Paul was actually talking about this other – then things have been greatly misconstrued.

  • Luke Stamps

    Tim,
    I applaud the desire to hold faith and obedience together, but I remain unconvinced that we should conflate the two. A couple of responses, for what they are worth:

    1. Could it be that you are caricaturing the Reformation position a bit? A distinction is not a “bifurcation.” Is anyone “suspicious of obedience” per se? Isn’t the issue for the Reformers whether or not our obedience is the means by which we are justified before God? Again, is anyone really “allergic to human action”? And while there may be manifestations of “gnosticism” and “pietism” in evanglicalism, they don’t show up on this front, it seems to me. If anything, pietism has produced an obsession with action, not a denigration of it.

    2. As you well know, we can understand this genitive (“the obedience of faith”) in a couple of different ways. It could be a genitive of source: the obedience that comes from faith. Even if we take it as an epexegetic genitive (“the obedience that is faith”) that doesn’t mean that the Reformation distinction is flawed. Few would deny that placing one’s faith in Christ is, in a sense, an act of obedience. But this is different than saying that our obedience–in the sense of our own righteous works–means the same thing as our “faith” in Paul. Instead, it seems that Paul contrasts faith and works, believing and working, as means by which we are justified before God. God justifies “the ungodly,” not “those who are engaged in action that invites and allows God to act.” To be sure, justified people will necessarily be engaged in such actions. The Reformation surely can’t be accused of denying this. Calvin, to pick just one example, fiercely held faith and works–justification and sanctification–together in his insistence upon Christ’s duplex gratia. What the Reformation denied was that our righteous acts, even if enabled by God, can serve as the means by which we are united to Christ and thus counted righteous in God’s sight.

    • S Wu

      Luke, thank you for clarifying the Reformation thinking here. I haven’t read Calvin enough to comment. But thank you for saying that, “Calvin, to pick just one example, fiercely held faith and works–justification and sanctification–together in his insistence upon Christ’s duplex gratia.”

      But I also tend to agree with Tim in terms of what he says about Paul. (But I don’t live in the US and so I cannot comment on his critique of Evangelicalism in his own context.) It seems to me (and Tim, please correct me if I mis-read you), faithfulness and obedience is not so much “works” per se, if “works” is understood as something opposed to “faith”.

      For example, seeking justice for the oppressed (e.g. as in Amos) is not some kind of “work”. The Jubilee regulations in Leviticus is not “work”, but an expression of Yahweh’s desire for Israel to be bear witness to the world about who he is (by way of his people’s corporate behaviour).

      I guess you can say that these are “works” that come from “faith”, as in “faith” being the source and the “works” being something that comes from that source. I would very much respect this view, and there are merits. (I read somewhere that “genitive of source” is quite rare. Am I right? I am probably wrong.) But from my non-Western culture I know that faith and faithfulness are so intertwined that one can hardly separate them. It think the term pistis is more holistic.

      I see the danger of the notion of doing good deeds in order to earn salvation (which is something embedded in my former religion). But I think a holistic view of pistis (when it is rightly understood) should not lead to that problem.

      • timgombis

        Yes, S., for the Reformers–and certain traditions–it’s important to say that the works are done as the outworking of faith. That articulation keeps works of merit at bay. That’s the utility of this formulation. But for Paul, the tie is closer than that (as it is for the OT, Jesus, etc.). It’s something more like faith is embodied in acts of justice and sharing with others, etc. That’s why Paul can say that there will be a judgment according to works and also that justification is by faith. For Paul, faith is not merely intellectual–it is faithfulness, living a life of loyalty to Jesus.

        Or, we could say that “receiving” salvation from God looks like something. It looks like loving one another or doing good to others. There are kinds of human action that receive grace from God.

        Reformation articulations–because they were aimed at certain historical problems–don’t get at this and prevent a careful reading of Paul.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Luke.

      I don’t think we ought to conflate the two, either. But they are nearly synonymous, speaking largely about the holistic response to God on the part of humanity.

      On your #1, I’d say that you get this in varying degrees depending on whom you’re reading. Certainly some within Lutheran traditions take this line. Read Bultmann and your jaw drops. And on a popular level, or at least from many pulpits that work from an intense law-gospel contrast, there’s a massive gulf carved between faith and obedience. I just say that some poor ways of thinking are the result of our Reformation heritage, not that all within that (very large) tradition fall into these pits. Further, the reformers cast things the way they did because of historical exigencies. Totally fine with that. But in our day the fomulae need reworking in light of our own good exegesis of the text of Scripture.

      On your #2, you’ll have to stay tuned, since I’ll be hitting the contrasts you lay out in a variety of ways as I work through Romans. In my opinion, it is these doctrinal formulations in the Reformed tradition–so useful for fighting the battles of their era–that have been harmful when read onto Paul’s discussions of faith/works and faith/obedience. But this will have to be elucidated in handling specific texts…

      • Luke Stamps

        Thanks for your reply, Tim. I know it isn’t fashionable today, but I still think the Reformers’ interpretation of Paul was largely correct. It runs the risk of historicism, it seems to me, to question their exegesis simply because they were responding to the challenges of their day. Furthermore–and please understand, I am not saying this pejoratively–the view of faith you are articulating here seems very close to what the Reformers were protesting against in the Roman Catholic view, namely, that the faith that justifies is a faith formed by love, a grace-enabled faithfulness. In other words, the Reformers were familiar with a definition of faith that was at least similar to the one you are articulating, and for exegetical and theological reasons, they rejected it. We misrepresent the medieval Roman Catholic view if we imagine it as bald Pelagianism with no room for God’s grace. They had a strong conception of grace but failed to make the distinction between faith and works that the Reformers believed was necessary for the preservation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. Thanks again for the dialogue.

      • timgombis

        Thanks for this, Luke.

        It seems to me to be inappropriate to regard anyone’s theological or exegetical work as the “final word” on any biblical passage or any biblical writer’s thought. I’m not denigrating the work of the Reformation at all, but I don’t want to equate Reformation theological articulations exactly with Scripture. To do so is to straightjacket Scripture, to muzzle it, to demand that it only say what we want it to say. This runs the risk of closing ourselves off from the life-giving word of God.

        There are many audiences throughout the biblical narrative that demanded to hear certain things from God’s spokespersons and they didn’t receive God’s commendation – precisely the opposite, in fact! I don’t want to join their number.

        It seems to me that the reformers did indeed call upon Paul’s texts in order to speak a necessary word in their own time. They saw their work, however, as a reformation of contemporary theology and practice and part of an ongoing work of reformation. To regard their work as the “final word” doesn’t seem to honor them or the spirit in which they theologized.

  • Kate

    I appreciate how these thought inadvertently touch on the classic evangelical discussion where obedience and”discerning God’s will” discussions are somehow conflated and hence shrouded in confusion. Obedience here is a simple (using the term simple loosely) outworking of faith and adherence to that faith.

  • S Wu

    Agreed, Tim, on what you said in response to my comment. Paul doesn’t seem to see a tension between judgment by works and justification by faith. It is a “tension” for moderns, not for him.

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