In the first few verses of Paul’s now-famous epistle to the Romans, we find the following statement,

5 [Jesus Christ our Lord], 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, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:5-6)

Here, the apostle identifies “bring[ing] about the obedience of faith” not only as his objective in writing to the Romans, but even as the reason for which he was set apart and granted apostleship by Christ (v5). To him, it was nothing less than his God-given mission.

But what, exactly, is this mission? What is this “obedience of faith” that Paul had been divinely tasked with bringing about? Some evangelicals suggest that this phrase refers to the fact that Christians must obey only one command in order to be saved: the command to put faith in Christ, and that obedience to the Law is, therefore, unnecessary. Others claim that Paul is instead speaking of obedience as the inevitable result of possessing genuine faith. These two interpretations both stem from the evangelical idea that salvation is secured by faith alone (and that works, therefore, contribute nothing to salvation except evidence that it has occurred), and both are equally inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v18). If he believed that faith was the sole condition of salvation, this would have been a perfect opportunity to warn the Roman Christians that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all unbelief of man and subsequently encourage them to be strong in their faith so as to avoid incurring this wrath and attain instead to salvation. But instead, Paul chooses to focus on warning against disobedience, going on to enumerate over a dozen sins, including idolatry, homosexuality, covetousness, malice, gossip, slander, and disobedience to authority (see Rom 1:29-2:11). If his view of what constitutes obedience were limited to putting faith in Christ, then it would be quite a waste of breath to delve into warnings against lawlessness and disobedience as he does. Why bother cautioning Christians to obey the Law (and warn them of the fire and brimstone that awaits the disobedient) if such obedience were unnecessary or inevitable? Such reminders would be, at best, unneeded and, at worst, abusive.[1]

Moreover, the same Paul who writes the above warnings soon after demonstrates how the broader Law can be summed up in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10). According to him, it is through our obedience to the Law that we love others. In other words, love is defined by and based upon God’s Law. Hardly could Paul have made such a statement if he had earlier declared obedience to the Law unnecessary (to do so would be flatly inconsistent), and hardly would he have bothered to do so if he had declared such obedience inevitable.

Surely, Paul cannot be guilty of either inconsistency or abuse while he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Neither of the aforementioned evangelical interpretations, then, can possibly be correct—Paul did not view obedience to the Law as entirely fulfilled in the command to have faith in Christ, nor did he believe obedience would be inevitably produced as a result of genuine faith. Instead, he viewed it as a choice that had to be freely made, one that came with blessings for the obedient and consequences for the disobedient. He writes to each of his respective audiences knowing that it was in their power to choose either submission to God or rebellion against him. Hence why, he warns his Christian audiences (those who had already put faith in Christ, who he considered genuinely saved individuals, see Rom 1:7-8, 12-13) that God will condemn both those who practice and those who approve of sin (Rom 1:32). His warnings were no trick or abuse—he wrote with full knowledge that even the Christians he wrote to would incur such punishment if they chose to live in disobedience.

Paul wrote to the Romans not to exhort them to put faith in Christ, though he recognized faith as crucial). He wrote to them because they had already put faith in Jesus as their Savior and thereby gained salvation, and now needed only to maintain that salvation by obeying Him as their Lord. Given that the apostle thus identifies obedience as a second condition of salvation (in addition to faith), we can biblically understand his mission to “bring about the obedience of faith” as an intention to ensure that those who already possessed faith would be careful to add to it the faithful obedience also necessary in order to inherit eternal life.

[1] Abusive because in such a case, Paul would be guilty of using his apostolic authority to propagate false doctrine and, therefore, of abusing his God-given power to the detriment of the Christian souls he was tasked with shepherding. The same is true of similar warnings found in other New Testament texts—they are pointless if obedience is unnecessary or inevitable for their audience (see, for example, Galatians 5:19-21).