“The Obedience of Faith (in Christ)”
"But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed."
Paul began and ended his letter to the Romans with the same phrase: "to bring about the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). This was the purpose of his ministry as an apostle and the goal of God's eternal purpose revealed through the gospel. Paul's aim was to establish this "obedience of faith" within the hearts of others not only because it was what Jesus called for in the kingdom (Mt. 5:20), but because it is the only reasonable response to what Jesus has done for us (Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1).
But what is "the obedience of faith"? It certainly is not "faith in our obedience." Paul is not saying that our confidence rests upon our perfect obedience to Christ (little comfort that would be!) but rather that our obedience springs from a heart of faith. We obey God because we trust God. We trust God because he has proven himself trustworthy. John summed up the correct order of things when he said, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19). In the gospel, God took the initiative by sending his own Son (Jn. 3:16). Proclaiming the gospel means reporting good news of events which have already taken place, namely that "Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Therefore, we obey God because of what he has done for us. Our obedience springs from a heart of faith. It is an "obedience of faith."
Paul gives his own summary of this phrase in Romans 6:17: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed." Let's break that down.
First, Paul says that they were obedient to the pattern (17c). When Christians obey the gospel, they are obedient to a "standard" or "form." This is a technical term for a pattern or a mold that a sculptor might use to pour plaster into, so that, when the plaster dries and the mold is removed, it conforms to that image (see Rom. 8:29). It could also mean "type," as in the mark of a stroke from a typewriter. This is the impression the keys make on the page that conforms to the image of the letter (see Rom. 5:14). Here, Paul says that the Romans were obedient to a "pattern of teaching" which was "committed" to them. The objective "standard" of the gospel was presented to them (Phil. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:13). It was then met with consideration and resulted in willing obedience. But mere outward conformity to the pattern is only one aspect of "the obedience of faith."
Second, Pauls says that they were obedient from the heart (v.17b). That "standard of teaching" demanded a complete reformation of life, from the inside out. The Romans didn't obey the gospel simply to check a box. Their obedience was rendered "from the heart" because they were inwardly transformed. The wonder (and "power," Rom. 1:16) of the gospel message is its ability to melt our hearts and humble us before God. In it, we learn of God's unconquerable love and our unworthiness of his gift of salvation (Rom. 5:5-8). That inward faith motivates outward obedience (confession, Rom. 10:10; baptism, Rom. 6:1-4ff) and results in salvation. Obedience to the gospel is rendered from the heart and is proof of inward change.
Third, Paul says that they were obedient for the Lord (v.17a). He begins this verse by expressing his gratitude to the one who makes this wonderful change possible. "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart." When it's all said and done, after we have obeyed the gospel and done all within our power to do, there is no room for pride (Lk. 17:10). Instead of giving us the "death" we deserve, God has given us "the free gift of... eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). So Paul rightly gives God his due and so should we. It was, after all, God who made known to us the path of life; God who took the initiative and sent his Son; God who provided the sacrifice for our sins; God who raised Jesus from the dead; God who revealed these truths by his Spirit; God who planned and executed his will to perfection; etc. We who are saved thank God our Savior (Jude 1:25).
Jesus deserves our obedience. After all, "though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5:8-9). Let us remember there is a standard of teaching to which we must conform, that our obedience must spring from a heart of faith, and that we ought always to thank God who saved us from the slavery of sin to become his obedient servants.