The question is: what is the role of obedience? What is the role of the law? What is the role of the obedience of faith in the Christian life?
There is a popular idea, in a lot of circles, that the Gospel is something that you don’t live out, that it is just something that is done to you. And of course, there is some truth to this idea. Paul has, in Romans, very clearly articulated the doctrine of justification by faith. However, it is simply false to say that in Paul a desire to obey God and –to actually keep his law– is somehow a closet form of legalism, that you’re secretly being a Pharisee. Because of the way that Paul has set this up, it is false to assume that the gospel simply stops at the point of justification by faith.It is false to assume that the gospel simply stops at the point of justification by faith.
You can hold the idea that there is no sort of role for obedience in the Christian life, but don’t call it Paul’s doctrine. In his idea, if you have the Holy Spirit, if we’re on the other side of the Christ event, if we’re in a new era of spirits, if we’re united in Christ’s death and resurrection, then, absolutely, we live out the gospel.
If Paul thinks that all this has happened to a regenerate Christian, if they’ve been changed by God, if they are united with Christ himself, then, yes, change should happen. What else would you expect? It is simply false to say that in Romans 12 through 16, for instance, or in the latter two chapters of Galatians – which is really interesting because he goes so hard against legalism there and then he calls on a bunch of imperatives. It is simply false to think that Paul is giving all of these commands and imperatives simply to say, “You can’t do it. I’m giving you all these commands, and by the way, you cannot actually keep them. You’re just going to fail because even regenerate Christians are not going to keep the law ever.”
That’s not what Paul says. No, you have the Holy Spirit. You’re in the new era of life. You have the resurrected life now. Now, yes, of course you’re going to fail sometimes—a lot of times—but he doesn’t offer his imperative simply to say that you can’t do it. You have to have Jesus. Why? Because he’s speaking to Christians here.You’re not justified by your obedience. But having been justified you live out the obedience of faith.
In Rome, he’s speaking to them and saying, “You have the Holy Spirit; therefore, this is how you should live.” So, yes, obedience has a massive role in the Christian life. In fact, he begins and he ends there. In Romans 1:5, he says that his whole ministry is to bring about the obedience of faith. Where does he end in Romans 16? The very same phrase that his whole ministry, that he has given his whole life to, is to bring about the obedience of faith. Not the obedience that substitutes for faith that somehow earn salvation; he’s already dealt with that in Romans.
No, you’re not justified by works. You’re not justified by your obedience. But having been justified, now what? You live out the obedience of faith. So to assume any other way of thinking through Paul is simply not to do justice to his writings.