The Heart of Obedience
In the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul bookends his work with this phrase: “to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). This is a literary device called an inclusio and when an author does this, they are tipping you off to what the point of the letter is. Paul writes this letter to followers of Jesus in Rome, a place he had yet to visit. And he’s writing to them because he’s taking the Gospel to Spain (Romans 15) and wants Rome to be the strategic outpost for the ever expanding mission of God. This is the mission that found its purpose and roots in the promise God gave to Abraham thousands of years prior: “I’m going to bless you, give you offspring and land and make you a nation so that you might be a blessing to all the nations” (Genesis 12:2). Abraham believed God and passed that faith down through the generations. This was the faith Paul was growing in. A faith he once persecuted, but now gladly embraced. A faith that is meant to reach and embrace the other with the same Gospel that had transformed him. A faith that flies in the face of what would be considered “civil religion.”
Civil Religion, generally speaking, is a common “ethos of a society that undergirds a common good.” It is often considered a patriotic, “folk religion of a nation” complete with “dogma, rites and rituals” meant to “preserve community.” While civil religion can produce some good, it often derives its power from the exclusion of “the other,” unless “the other” wants to assimilate into the society in which the civil religion resides. Its goal is to build up a particular nation/people over and against others. This is historically how the world has operated as kingdoms have risen and fallen throughout the years.
Which is why what Paul wrote to the Romans is such a powder keg. Christianity, Paul says, is not like any civil religion that has ever existed because it isn’t dependent upon merit, location or national identity. It’s dependent solely on the free grace found in Jesus Christ. Which is why “faith” then, is the way you access this grace.
I want to highlight 3 ways “the obedience of faith” Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans differs from “civil religion” so that we can gain clarity in 2022 to the radical nature of the Gospel as we consider what it means to follow Jesus in our culture today.
1. Rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul goes to great lengths to show that the Gospel that he proclaims and is not ashamed of is the same Gospel that has been proclaimed and anticipated since the Garden. This faith has transcended cultures, locations and languages while civil religions are rooted in particular cultures in particular eras. Everything Paul says to the Romans regarding following Jesus is an extension and fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures.
2. For the Sake of Jesus’ Name. The Bible says that the hope of the world is the honoring and worshiping of the one true God. He deserves the praise and glory of all of creation. To walk in faith means to live for this purpose: to bring about the obedience of that same faith in others. Civil Religion often seeks the lowest common denominator to keep a regional, civic “peace” that hopefully assures security for a particular people or individuals. In essence, civil religion exists for the glory of an individual or a nation, but not the one true God.
3. For all Nations. Which is why it is for all peoples. Paul says that grace is given to “bring about the obedience of faith among the nations” (Romans 1:5). This is not some nice option if you so desire. He labors for 14 chapters on how all have fallen short of the glory of God. All can receive forgiveness of sins and power to change through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. And that any sense of “othering” that anyone could have is absolutely leveled at the cross. So in chapter 15 he says, “hey, I’m going to Spain, you want in on this blessed obedience?” Civil Religion would never do that, unless to conquer another land, so that more wealth and more land could come under the kingdom the civil religion serves. The faith Paul proclaims says no, we go to the nations (re: all peoples) and lay down our lives so they too can experience the love of Jesus and God gets the glory He deserves.
Civil religion thrives on ethnic, geographic and/or linguistic exclusivity. It is a tool for self-preservation that ultimately ends up getting judgment from the one true God over and over again (see the Prophets in the Old Testament). The “obedience of faith” Paul lives and says he is sent to bring about among the nations also thrives on exclusivity, but it is the most inclusive exclusivity that has ever existed. It’s not an exclusivity based on ethnicity, geography or language, but an exclusivity based on desperation. Jesus’ salvation is available to all who know they need Him and who believe Him to be who He said He is and believe that He is doing what He said He would. This is the faith that melts hearts, builds compassion toward others, operates in justice and righteousness, and ultimately will bring about the transformation of the entire world.