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.