What does the Obedience of Faith mean in Romans?

What does the Obedience of Faith mean in Romans? May 19, 2024

The obedience of faith—what does it mean? In Romans 1:5 we read that the reason Paul was specially selected by the Lord to become an apostle was for the purpose of bringing about the “obedience of faith” (ὑπακοήν  πίστεως / hupakoên pisteôs) among all nations on behalf of Christ. The importance of the phrase is clearly evident. It reappears at the letter’s end in Romans 16:26, forming as it were bookends at the virtual beginning and ending of Romans—an inclusio.

The phrase also seems to be implied in the thesis of the entire letter in Romans 1:17. There we notice the similar phrase, “from faith to faith” that seems to suggest a progression of faith. Romans 15:18 clearly implies the phrase again, this time emphasizing Paul’s ministry of bringing about the obedience of the gentiles.

Despite its significance in this letter, the interpretation of this phrase is hard to pin down. What does it mean?

Obedience of Faith
We find the obedience of faith in Romans 1:5 and 16:26. “religion faith cross” via pixabay.com

Is Obedience a “Work”?

Part of the problem with the phrase is that many church-goers think that “faith” is opposed to “works.” So then, how can faith be so intricately bound together with obedience? Isn’t obedience a “work”?

In response, even if obedience is a “work,” so what? Faith is not opposed to works. Not only does James 2 affirm this but also Paul himself. He claims that we shall all appear before the judgement seat of Christ to render an account of our deeds (i.e., our works) on judgment day (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:6–16).

Believers are likewise to do “good”—that is, good works—to all people, especially those of household of faith (Galatians 6:10). They were created to do “good works” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10). We also notice Paul speaking about the “work of faith” in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 2 Thessalonians 2:11, and “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6.

What Paul comes against is the idea that doing the works of the law (observance of Mosaic Law) can justify gentiles before God (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20), or that they can bring about their own justification and salvation by their own merits independent of faith (trusting) in the Lord.

The patristic writer Ambrosiaster said many centuries ago something that still holds true today: “It is obvious that Christ cannot be believed in if he is not obeyed” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans, at 10:14). Last century none other than Rudolph Bultmann himself wrote the heading, “Paul understands faith primarily as obedience” (The Theology of the New Testament, New York: Scribner’s, 1951: 314 [§35.1]). And now most recently, Emmanual Oumarou writes that “Pistis [faith] and obedience are like two sides of the same coin. One cannot have one without the other.”*

What type of genitive is “of faith” in the obedience of faith?

The Greek noun for faith (pistis) in Romans 1:5 is in the genitive case: pisteôs or “of faith.” Scholars have spilled much ink over what type of genitive this might be. Among the most prominent options are these:

  • An objective genitive (obedience to the faith, whether doctrinally or as shorthand for the gospel/message about faith)
  • A subjective genitive (obedience required by faith, obedience that faith produces)
  • A descriptive or adjectival genitive (believing obedience, faithful obedience, loyal/allegiant obedience)
  • An appositional or epexegetical genitive (obedience which is or consists of faith/faith which consists of obedience)
  • A genitive of source (obedience that comes from faith)
  • Some sort of combination of these options.**

Assessing the Options

The first option (objective genitive) makes sense if we understand faith here as shorthand for the gospel (notice again Romans 1:1). This is complimentary with the way Paul speaks about the “hearing of faith” in Galatians 3:2 and 5. Also, “faith” seems to be interchangeable with “gospel” (or with those who trust in the gospel) in passages such as Galatians 1:23; 3:22–23. Elsewhere, see Acts 6:7.

A number of scholars these days, however, seem to lean towards the fourth option (epexegetical genitive). This viewpoint supports that faith and obedience are virtually interchangeable here. When we read passages such as Roman 10:16; 11:23, 30–31, this appears to be the case. We should also take into consideration the parallel in Romans 1:8 with 16:19. In the former text, Paul claims that the Romans’ faith is proclaimed among the whole world; similarly, in the latter verse, Paul claims that the Romans’ obedience has reached to all.

However, I would suggest that the “obedience of faith” probably should not be boiled down to just one genitive option. It may be too complex for that. Unless we like option number four, some sort of combination may be the best choice.

In Romans 1:3–4 we learn that the gospel centers on the content of Jesus as the son of God and Davidic messiah who rose again from the dead. The gospel’s content, however, must be appropriated if it is to save Jews and gentiles. This is what Romans 1:16-17 explicates. If so, it would seem that the “obedience of faith” has to do with that appropriation. For Michael Wolter, the “obedience of faith” refers to the assent/approval/agreement to and acceptance of the gospel that God through Christ brings salvation to all humans.***

Obedience as a Responsive Faith

For Paul’s recipients in Rome, faithfulness would seem to assume obedience. The conquered nations were forced to make peace treaties with Rome. As Jason Myers puts it, “Disobedience broke the treaty with Rome and was the antecedent to war. Likewise, continued loyalty or obedience to Rome resulted in receiving the blessings that Rome could provide, whether through military protection or other incentives.” (Paul, the Apostle of Obedience: Reading Obedience in Romans, London: T&T Clark, 2023: 122).

After hearing the gospel about Christ, the listeners were expected not only to believe the message but respond in conformity to that message. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for hearing (שמע/ shema) often included the notion of answering or adhering to something. In short, the word assumes obedience. Pauline obedience seems to be similar and is rightly discerned by James Dunn as “responsive hearing.” “‘The obedience of faith,’ then, characterizes faith as not merely receptive but also responsive.” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998:635). Leander Keck views the phrase both in terms of faith being the obedient response to the gospel, and obedience as actualized faith necessary for new moral living under Jesus (Romans, ANTC, Nashville: Abingdon, 2005: 45–46).

Obedience, then, involves a favorable response to the gospel of Jesus as Messiah. At the same time, faith/trust makes a person righteous before God, and the righteous-by-faith person “lives” by continual obedience and faith (Rom 1:17). The obedience of faith, with an accent on faith, gets you into a relationship with God and Christ, and it also keeps you in that relationship with an accent placed on obedience.

Take Home Points

  1. The obedience of faith may not be best captured by a mere genitive marker; it is too complex and multifaceted for that.
  2. It may be better to interpret the obedience of faith as a response to the gospel about Christ, which then results in a transformed life that is lived out in continual faith and obedience.
  3. The term thus does not appear to distill merely what results from the conversion experience, but it includes the ongoing responsibility of operating on the principle of faith and obedience so as to exercise love and reject deeds of the “flesh” (see Romans 8:2–14; 13:8–10). When a hearer initially responds to the gospel by faith, more faith and further responses of obedience will be expected in appreciation of the gift of salvation given to that hearer by the divine Benefactor.
  4. The point of this rare phrase Paul will unfold throughout the letter. Participation in God’s righteousness requires faith (Romans 1–4), and that faith must express itself through ongoing obedience to Christ and the gospel (Romans 5–15).
  5. Faith is perhaps best understood as “trust,” but that’s a different lesson! See B. J. Oropeza, “What Christians Can Learn from Philo on Faith … or Trust?


* “Merging Believing Faith and Obedient Faith: Implications of the Semantic Scope of Pistis on the Integrative Conceptualization of the Term in the New Testament,”  American Journal of Biblical Theology 5 (2023) 196–222, quote from 209.

 ** Don B. Garlington, Faith, Obedience and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Mohr-Siebeck, 1994), 10–31; idem, The Obedience of Faith (Mohr-Siebeck, 1991), proposes that Paul probably expresses two of these at the same time—obedience as both the product of faith and that consists of faith.

 *** cp. Rom 10:14-17; 1 Cor 1:21; 2:4f; 15:11, 14; Gal 1:23; 3:2, 5: Der Brief an die Römer, EKK; Patmos: Neukirchen-Vluyn, 2014: 1.93)

About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza, Ph.D., Durham University (England), is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University and Seminary. Among his many publications are Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Baker Academic), Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in Galatians and 1 Thessalonians (Fortress Academic), Exploring Intertextuality (Cascade), and commentaries on 1 Corinthians (New Covenant commentary series: Cascade), and 2 Corinthians (Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity: SBL Press). He also participated on the Bible translation teams for the NRSVue and CEB. His current specialties include Romans and Perspectives on Paul. He can be followed on X-Twitter (@bjoropeza1) and Instagram (@bjoropeza1). You can read more about the author here.

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