"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
This morning I was drawn to the “always obeyed” in reference to working out our salvation with fear and trembling when the apostles are absent. This is particularly significant because what it means to “obey” in the new covenant is often confused with commands of the old covenant.
This took me back to a phrase Paul used in both his introduction and conclusion to the book of Romans. It is hugely significant as his theme, and a thorough journey through Romans would see how he is arguing this as one of his main points.
In his intro to Romans, Paul wrote, “…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations”. In his conclusion he said, “…but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith”.
The question is, does “obedience of faith” mean to bring about faith as an act of obedience to something, or does it mean that Paul was teaching the kind of obedience that comes from faith rather than from the law? Is it possible it could even mean both?
I looked at the phrase from both standpoints, and realized that neither possibility allows for the idea that our obedience includes keeping the law, as obedience would have been measured under the old covenant. If “obedience of faith” refers to the kind of faith that is the obedient response to the gospel, then it is just that, the faith that is ours by grace, responding to the command of God, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”.
This idea that our faith is the obedient response to the command to believe is what John says in one of the passages we have been considering in I John. There he writes, “we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us”. John said that “his commandment” is to “believe” in Jesus, so Paul could be speaking of this, that faith is the obedient response to the gospel command to believe in Jesus. Of course, Paul was very clear that we are saved by grace through faith, not by the “work” of believing in Jesus.
On the other hand, the idea that the “obedience of faith,” refers to the kind of obedience that faith produces is also taught by Paul when he adds that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”. There is a way that obedience comes from faith differently than the way obedience comes from law. Faith causes us to walk with God in the things he prepared for us, while law calls us to do a whole bunch of things so that we can be good enough to walk with God.
I ended up focusing on a passage in Acts 15 where the church leaders in Jerusalem were confronted with an issue of the Jewish believers who were still in the Pharisee party. These “believers” thought that the church should respond to the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ by telling them that, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses”. The rest of the chapter answers this question: are Gentiles to be circumcised and taught to keep the law of Moses when they come to faith in Jesus Christ?
What was presented so clearly was that such a demand was a burden that was not required (I will share my notes on that separately for anyone who would like to read it). The church did ask the Gentiles to be respectful of where the Jews were coming from by observing some things, “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality”. These seem to be things that were not “requirements” of the law on the church, but more a way of showing respect to the Jewish population in a way that they were neither keeping the law of Moses, not unduly disrespecting the Jews.
What does this mean to me? The more I look at Scripture in light of the frequent new testament references to our obedience, the more I find the peace of God settling into my heart as to the clarity the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, so that none of us can boast.
We can look at “the obedience of faith,” in its interpretation that Paul was sent to bring Gentiles to obey the call of the gospel by putting their faith in Jesus Christ, or its other possible meaning of Paul preaching a gospel in which the obedience that came out of faith was far different than the obedience that came out of law. Perhaps it is a truth-packed phrase covering the dual way that the grace of God brings us to the faith that obeys the gospel, and the obedience that arises from our faith.
Either way, there is nothing to do with obedience in the church that is based on Gentile believers keeping the law of Moses. We obey the call of the gospel with an obedient response of faith that is only by grace, and we come to life in Jesus Christ with a faith that now does the good works God prepared for us to do. Everything to do with obedience is about faith.
When we apply this to the picture of Philippians 2:12-13, everything begins with “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Our faith in God’s work is our first expression of response to this work of God already taking place within us. Once our faith begins responding to this inner work of God in our lives and churches, it then leads us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Faith first responds to the work of God within us, and then expresses that work by fellowshipping with God in the things he is doing.
And, of course, the people who relate to God like this are called his “beloved.” Faith must believe that we are beloved in order for us to feel like God’s children joining our Father in his work. When faith agrees with God’s revelation that we are his beloved, it then seeks out the relationship that brings us closest to him, which is joining the work that he is working in us.
© 2015 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~ email@example.com
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)