Which child is more likely to obey his parents? The one who is forced to do what they want or the one who knows that he is loved by his parents?
And which employee is more likely to be productive? The one who enjoys what she does or the one who resents what she does?
Which person is more likely to jump out of a perfectly working aeroplane? The one who is afraid or the one who trusts their equipment and their training?
These are not difficult questions to answer. Because we know how we want to be treated and we know how we are best motivated to do what other people want. We know what is likely to get us to do something difficult and dangerous. When there is trust, when there is understanding we are more likely to come out of our comfort zone. And when we want to do what we should do we are more likely to do it.
Today, we are looking at the obedience of faith. Obedience is not a highly valued virtue these days. The dominant culture of our time values self-expression more highly. It asserts that there is no one who has the right to tell me what to do, and I can do whatever I want. I need to be free to be who I really am.
But to be a Christian is to swim against that cultural current. To be a Christian is to acknowledge that there is a creator. That there is a higher authority who has made me to fulfil his higher purpose. He loves me and cares for me and what he wills for me is for my best. So he does not offer me ten suggestions, but ten commandments. And they are summed up in the two great commands of love. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Or as Jesus put it, to love each other as he loved us. Our highest purpose, our deepest need our greatest joy is found in obeying those commands.
As I said, today we are looking at the obedience of faith. It’s a theme that frames Paul’s letter to the Romans, coming at the very start and again at the very end like bookends on a shelf. In the very first paragraph of his letter, in chapter 1 verse 5 Paul wrote,
We received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.
If the heart of the gospel message is the news that Jesus Christ is Lord, the great response that that message demands from those who hear it is the obedience that comes from faith. Not just faith. But faith that leads to obedience.
Then in the very last paragraph of his letter, in chapter 16 verse 26, the very last sentence Paul wrote,
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why was the message of Jesus revealed? So that all nations might believe and obey him. Not only believe, but obey.
Now if there was something in my message today that I wanted you to especially understand and remember, I would put it at the very beginning and again at the very end. I’d start and finish with it. Paul starts and finishes his letter to the Romans talking about the obedience of faith. This theme, not just at the beginning and end of his letter, but running all the way through it as well answers very nicely the offense of faith.
Before we turn to that let’s do a quick recap of our last few messages. In Romans chapter 1 Paul talked about the kinds of sins that bad people commit. They exchange the truth of God for a lie. They worship created things rather than the creator. They abandon natural relations with the opposite sex and burn with passion for each other. They break all boundaries of restraint becoming senseless, faithless, heartless and ruthless.
In Romans chapter 2 Paul talked about the kinds of sins that good people commit. They pass judgment on others but end up condemning themselves because they do the same things. They tell people to obey God’s commands but they don’t do it themselves. They are hypocrites because they pretend that they are teachers of the ignorant and guides for the blind, but they don’t learn their own lessons.
In Romans chapter 3 Paul concludes that there is no one righteous. Whether good or bad, both religious and non-religious people are under the sentence of sin.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
The good news then is that in the same all are justified freely by the grace of God through the redemption in Christ Jesus. On the cross Jesus died for us and instead of us. Salvation is a gift from God that is received by faith. Through Jesus God justifies us. He put us right with him in a way that is right and fair.
In chapter 3 verses 27 to 31 Paul asks a series of questions that leads ultimately to the offense of faith.
Where is boasting?
How can good people, how can religious people claim that they are better than bad people or non-religious people.
Boasting is excluded.
They can’t claim they are better.
On what principle?
Not on the basis of observing the law because no one can do it.
Boasting is excluded on the principle of faith.
Good and bad alike, all are saved by God through Christ and received by faith.
Is God the God of the Jews only?
Is God the God of white people only? Is God the God of Christians only?
No, he is the God of all, of Jews and non-Jews,
of white, black, red, yellow and purple. All have sinned and God justifies all by faith.
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?
Here it is. You’ve been waiting patiently for it. Here is the offense of faith. The objection is that faith seems to nullify the law, that is, to make the law useless. To put it more bluntly, if I’m saved by faith, if all I have to do is to believe and I can waltz into heaven when I die, then why are there any standards of behaviour? If no one keeps God’s law then why did he give his law? If everyone breaks the law what is the point of telling people not to steal or not to murder? If no one can pass the test why set the exam? If I only need faith, then the best thing to do is to do whatever I like for most of my life and then convert just before I die, and then God will still have to take me in because I believe.
Despite this apparent loophole, death bed conversions happen a lot less than you think. I’ve attended quite a few death bed situations in palliative care rooms at the hospital, and I’m yet to find a lifetime atheist hedging their bets at the last minute with a bit of religion. But just because it is outside my experience doesn’t make the question invalid. Does faith undermine the law? Can I live however I like as long as I believe?
Paul answers his own question.
Do we nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
We who have faith in Jesus, we who believe in him as our Lord and Saviour, we who follow him in life and death, we uphold the law. We fulfil its purpose and we keep it. The purpose of the law is not to set an entrance exam for heaven. Salvation is not a reward for passing some kind of test.
Look at the ten commandments. God did not give them to Moses while the Israelites were still in Egypt, still suffering as slaves for the Pharaoh, building his cities and his monuments. God never said to them, “Here’s a list of things I want you to do and if you do them all I will come down and rescue you and you can live in my Promised Land forever.” No, God’s salvation was never conditional on their obedience. Instead, he came to them in their distress. Before they turned to him, he turned to them. By his miracles, he convinced the Pharaoh to let them go. He led them through the Red Sea, through the wilderness to the foot of Mt Sinai. And to these people who knew his power and knew his love, and had experienced his great salvation, God gave his commandments. Not before they were saved, but after.
And what are these commandments? What do they mean? How are they best summarised? We’ve already mentioned it. Love for God and love for others in his name. Love in response to God’s love revealed in his salvation. God’s law is not fulfilled by observing them in order to get a reward. They are not fulfilled out of fear of being punished. They are not fulfilled in order to prove that we are better than others. God’s holy law is fulfilled, it is kept, it is observed, it is upheld only in the spirit in which they were given to achieve the purpose for which they were given. Which is love.
We uphold the law. We who have believed in Christ. We who have been forgiven. We who have been saved. We who know that there is no good in us that is not a gift from God. We unworthy forgiven sinners, we uphold the law. Because we know God’s power and we know his love and we have experienced his salvation. We believe and that faith does not lead us to do whatever we want. It leads to love.
This is the obedience of faith. It is the obedience of the child who knows that he is loved by his parents. It is the obedience of the employee who does what she should because she wants to do it. It is the faith that leads to action like the person who jumps out of the plan because they trust their equipment and they trust their instructor.
John’s first letter says the exact same thing.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
This is the obedience that comes from faith, because it is the love that responds to love. And love, if it does not come from faith, is not freely given, and if it is not freely given, it is not genuine obedience. It is only then the servile fear that leads to resentment.