The Obedience of Faith in Romans

From Issue: R&R – March 2021

The doctrine of justification by faith has been the subject of endless discussion and disagreement within Christendom for over 500 years. Many have gone awry in their understanding of Romans by misdefining the word (pistis) that underlies the English terms “believe” and “faith.” The primary formative influence on the interpretation of Romans in the Protestant Reformation was the Catholic emphasis on human works for salvation.1 Protestant denominationalism thereby conceives Romans as a contrast between “works” (defined as any human effort) and “faith” (defined as mental assent/acceptance of Jesus without any actions to be performed). The Protestant world is so thoroughly saturated with this understanding that to question it is virtual heresy. Writing in 1875 in his respected commentary on Romans, Moses Lard noted the irrational dogmatism associated with this viewpoint:

The extreme doctrine of justification by faith only, has so completely engrossed the mind of commentators, since the sixteenth century, that it seems never to have occurred to them, as even a possible fact, that Paul may not have been writing in their exclusive interest. They have regarded him as certainly of their order, and, as a consequence, have written him up into a partisan, only more partisan than themselves. The result has been that in many places their works are a complete perversion of the truth, and not an exhibition of it.2

Romans actually contrasts, on the one hand, the prevailing Jewish notion that they could be saved on the basis of their fleshly connection to Abraham and the Mosaic Law alone (a law which had been given exclusively to them) with, on the other hand, the sole necessity of rendering obedience to Christ and the Gospel. Romans emphasizes salvation by faith not flesh. The term “works” is not used to include actions humans perform that God requires (like water baptism). Baptism is not a “work” in the sense of the term as used in Romans. Rather, the context of Romans indicates that “works” refers to those actions that the Jews claimed enabled them to be acceptable to God without becoming Christians—circumstances surrounding the benefits accrued by them due to their ethnicity, their longstanding connection to Abraham.

Further, the essence of “faith” in Romans (and throughout the Bible) is trust that is accompanied by compliance with God’s directives—what James describes as a living, versus a dead, faith (James 2:17,26). The human actions that God requires precedent to His bestowal of physical or spiritual gifts are not seen by Him to be meritorious works by which a person earns or deserves the gift He provides. Rather, they are given by God as conditions.

Salvation is only “unconditional” in the sense that God enacted the means by which humans may be forgiven without any involvement on their part. In fact, God decided to provide the means of atonement for human sin before He ever created the first human beings. Jesus would (and did) come to offer Himself as the atonement/propitiation for sin without humans doing anything to bring it about (Romans 3:25). That decision was an eternal intention (Ephesians 3:11). Indeed, Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). No human can perform any acts of legal merit by which he can save himself or atone for his own sin. On the other hand, salvation is “conditional” in the sense that God requires the exercise of the human will in the reception of salvation. Both mind and body must be brought into play. Faith itself is such an action—a “work” that man must perform in order to be pleasing to God (John 6:29). In this sense, the New Testament forcefully declares that you can—and must—save yourself (See Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:12).

The Holy Spirit established this definition of faith in the book of Romans—at the beginning as well as at the end. The Greek phrase he inspired Paul to utilize in 1:5 and 16:26 is hupakoein pisteos—“obedient faith” or the obedience which faith manifests or expresses. In his respected Greek grammar, Baptist scholar A.T. Robertson insisted that the phrase is to be understood as a “subjective genitive”3—“the obedience which springs from faith”4—rather than an “objective genitive” meaning “obedience to the faith.” The phrase, in fact, characterizes and clarifies the meaning of “faith” as used in Romans.

Several Greek authorities agree with this assessment. In the latest edition of the “BDAG” Greek lexicon most recently revised by Frederick Danker, after noting the objective genitive meaning, the author states: “But it may be better to render it more generally with a view to (promoting) obedience which springs from faith.”5 Writing in The Expository Times, Geoffrey H. Parke-Taylor of Wycliffe College commented specifically on the Greek phrase in Romans 1:5 and 16:26—

Surely in both cases “obedience that springs from faith” is intended, πστεως being a genitive of source or material…. If “the faith” (i.e., a body of formulated doctrine), had been intended, doubtless the definite article would have been used…. The emphasis is on the obedience to God which comes as a result of faith in Christ…. Christ was not only the example to Gentile Christians of the perfect obedience which springs from perfect faith, but also the source of power whereby obedience to God could be realized in their own lives.6

In his A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek, H.P.V. Nunn notes “The Genitive of Source or Material” and gives as an example “The righteousness of faith (i.e., that springs from faith)”7—a parallel expression to “the obedience of faith.” Respected commentator J.B. Lightfoot interprets the phrase to mean “unto obedience which springs from faith.”8 In his Word Studies in the Testament, Marvin Vincent says, “Obedience of faith is the obedience which characterizes and proceeds from faith.”9

While Greek grammarians possess considerable unanimity on the matter, translators have struggled with the phrase and sent mixed signals to their English audiences. For example, the KJV has in the first occurrence of the phrase in Romans (1:5), “for obedience to the faith among all nations,” and in the second occurrence (16:26), “made known to all nations for the obedience of faith”—though the phrase is the same in both verses. The NKJV has “for obedience to the faith” in both verses. The ASV has “unto obedience of faith” in both verses. The NASB has “to bring about the obedience of faith” in 1:5 (as does the ESV in both verses) and “leading to obedience of faith” in 16:26. The RSV has “to bring about the obedience of faith” in both verses. The NIV has “to the obedience that comes from faith” in 1:5 and “so that all nations might believe and obey him” in 16:26. Though resorting somewhat to paraphrase, the renderings in the NIV fully capture the nuances of the phrase. Interestingly, the Complete Jewish Bible renders the phrase “trust-grounded obedience.” The International Standard Version (ISV) has “faithful obedience” in 1:5 and “the obedience that springs from faith” in 16:26. The Jubilee Bible 2000 (JUB) has “that they might hear and obey by faith” in 16:26. God’s Word Translation has “the obedience that is associated with faith.”10 The Voice translation has “obedient faith” in 1:5 and “faith-filled obedience” in 16:26, while the Message Bible (MSG) has “obedient trust” in 1:5 and “obedient belief” in 16:26.

Faith in the book of Romans includes obedience to external acts preceding forgiveness. Or as Greek lexicographer Joseph Thayer explained the meaning of pisteuo (“I believe”): “Used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e., a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah—the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ.”11 No wonder Paul repeatedly uses the words “obedience” (1:5; 5:19; 6:16; 16:19,26) and “obey” (2:8-twice; 6:12; 6:16-twice).

In stark contradistinction with Paul, modern denominationalism insists that faith does not include any further acts of obedience; rather, one need only “accept Jesus as Savior” by saying, “I receive you into my heart as my personal Savior.” Hence, water baptism is considered non-essential to salvation. The Holy Spirit anticipated this unwarranted conclusion, not only by stressing the essentiality of water baptism in 6:3-4, but by positioning two “red flags”—one at the beginning (1:5) and one at the end (16:26) of this marvelous treatise. These majestic sentinels essentially warn readers regarding the nature and meaning of the “faith” which characterizes the book of Romans.


1 These activities included “hail Marys,” indulgences, assigned penance, gifts to build cathedrals, Stations of the Cross, etc.

2 Moses Lard (1875), Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans (Lexington, KY: Transylvania Printing and Publishing), p. v.

3 A.T. Robertson (1919), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (New York: George Doran), p. 500.

4 A.T. Robertson (1931), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), 4:324.

5 Fredrick William Danker (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago), third edition, p. 1028.

6 Geoffrey H. Parke-Taylor (1944), “A Note on ‘e)i$ uJðáêïhn ðίóôåùò’ in Romans i.5 and xvi.26,” The Expository Times, 55:305-306, emp. added. He cites Acts 6:7 and Romans 10:8 as instances where the article indicates “the faith.”

7 H.P.V. Nunn (1912), A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 42.

8 J.B. Lightfoot (1895), Notes on Epistles of Paul from Unpublished Commentaries (London: Macmillan), p. 246.

9 Marvin Vincent (1946), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 3:5. See also W.E. Vine (1966), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell), p. 123, who also takes the phrase as a subjective genitive and identifies “faith” as “the initial act of obedience.”

10 Also the Names of God Bible (NOG).

11 Joseph Thayer (1977 reprint), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 511, italics in orig., emp. added.


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