Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Obedience of faith (Rom 1:5)

Paul begins his letter to the church at Rome by saying that through Jesus Christ “we have received grace and apostleship unto obedience of faith among all the nations” (1:5).

There are several interesting challenges to translating this verse. “Nations” (ethnos) can refer to any group of people with a common culture (hence “nations, people”), but in a Jewish context it can refer to all nations other than the Jewish nation (hence “Gentiles”).

“Unto” (eis) cannot be translated with a preposition or even a single English word. “To bring about” (ESV) or some such periphrastic construction is necessary. Welcome to translation.

But the most difficult question has to do with the phrase “obedience of faith” (hypakoen pisteos); “faith” is in the genitive case.

The Greek genitive case has much the same flexibility that the English “of” carries. Wallace identifies over sixty ways the genitive can function. There are two basic options here.

1. “Obedience, that is, faith.” Paul could be saying that the purpose of his apostolic ministry is to bring the Gentiles to the point of faith (as opposed to works); this faith is the obedience for which the gospel calls. In grammar this is categorized as an epexegetical genitive, where the word in the genitive is explaining (“exegeting”) its head noun.

2. “Obedience that stems from faith.” This is the idea that once a person comes to faith in Jesus, their lives will start to change and move from disobedience to obedience, putting off the old and putting on the new. This would be a source or subjective genitive,.

Does Greek help us make a decision? Well, only partially. Wouldn’t it be great if a knowledge of Greek made all the answers clear to us? It would make all the hours of learning the language seem more worthwhile. But as you will hear me say over and over again in this blog, grammar usually shows us the possible meanings, but it is context that determines which of the options is right for any particular passage.

True, by showing us the options, Greek grammar thereby limits possible meanings. There will be some possible meanings in English that simply lie outside the scope of what Greek allows. So in that sense grammar helps us interpret a passage. But for the most part grammar simply shows us the available options.

So what is it? It is interesting that the TNIV thinks that it means both. They translate: “to call all the Gentiles to faith and obedience.” One of the great dangers is to think of grammar as an apple pie cut into a set number of pieces, thinking that every passage must fall into one of the prescribed categories. This is how we tend to teach intermediate grammar, but it is not always helpful. For a native speaker in any language, grammar is much more on a continuum; and their use of a case in any one place may sit squarely on the cut between the two pieces of pie. That is what the TNIV is saying; “obedience of faith” doesn’t fit in any one piece of grammatical pie, and they are probably right.

The purpose of Paul’s ministry is to be the herald, to announce how people can live in relationship with the King. This means we come to a point in understanding that there is nothing we can do to establish the relationship; it is by God’s grace and at his initiation. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling” sings the old song. It is by faith and not our works.

But is it possible to experience God’s cleansing sent to us through faith without our hearts being changed? Of course not. In the New Covenant our old heart is removed and a new softer, pliable heart of flesh is put in its place. But if our heart is changed, is it possible for our lives also not to change? Of course not. Changed people live in a changed way. This is why judgment (outside of John) is always done on the basis of our lives (i.e., works). Our changed lives of obedience show the reality of the heart changed through faith.

Language is almost never precise; it is almost always approximate, and we must be careful at not assuming too great a degree of precision. “Obedience of faith” is a summary description of the apostolic work of Paul, who understands that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).

This is the obedience of faith. It is an obedience that first shows itself in a response of faith, and an obedience that necessarily moves into a life of ever-increasing faithful obedience.