In two previous articles we examined, “What does it mean to be justified by grace?” and “How do you receive justification by grace?” In both of these articles we saw how Paul makes the case for grace in Romans: we are saved from God’s wrath, not by our own works, but through the gift of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We receive this saving work of grace through faith in baptism. The result: “There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Yet, does this mean that obedience plays no part in our salvation? Is God’s grace a carte blanche for a sinful life? What part does obedience play in the justification of grace?
The Proper Response of Grace
It seems that the natural response of the Romans Christians, in view of the justification of grace, was to take advantage of God’s provision. Notice how Paul writes about their assumed response and his ardent rejection of this philosophy in 6:1-2:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
The nature of grace allows it to be easily exploited and manipulated. Jude spoke of those who used the grace of God as an excuse for sexual perversions (Jude 4). After strongly denouncing this claim, Paul then reminds them that, through grace they died to sin. He goes on to explain the implications of this in v. 12-16:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
The natural outgrowth of grace is righteousness. Paul sees sin as an opposing master, fighting to take control of the body for its use. This means two things:
1. Those who justify their sinful lifestyles by appealing to God’s grace have a fundamentally flawed view.
2. How we respond to grace, whether we submit to or reject God’s will for our life, shows whether we have actually received grace.
That being said, how did the Roman Christians know whether they truly received the grace of God or not? Notice v. 16-17:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.
There is a key word in this text: obedience. Through obedience we:
1. Chose our master (sin or God)
2. Receive our reward (death or righteousness)
3. Submit to the standard of teaching (the gospel)
This obedience isn’t the same as the works of law he previously discussed (otherwise he wouldn’t use it in reference to salvation, Rom. 3:20-21). Since this obedience leads us to chose our master, receive our reward, and submit to God’s truth, we must assume that it is a work of faith and a reception of justification by grace. In this we discover our definition of obedience: obedience is a response and acceptance of God’s grace by faith. This is exactly the point that James is making in his epistle (James 2:14-ff). Faith without works is dead because it isn’t really faith, and therefore it won’t save you. If this is the case, and I believe that it is, then there are certain implications for our salvation.
Disobedience and the Rejection of Grace
If obedience is the acceptance of God’s grace, and I believe that Paul makes this case in Romans and it aligns with the greater witness of scripture, then we also discover the definition of disobedience: a rejection of God’s grace. Therefore, obedience plays a part in our salvation in that, if we receive God’s grace by faithful obedience, then we will be saved; if we reject this grace through an unfaithful life lived in disobedience, we will be lost. Again, this is not the same concept Paul discusses in chapters 2-3 in which he denies the power of meritorious works to save us. In that context he is describing any system of law which attempts to save itself apart from faith in Jesus (Rom. 9:30-32). A life lived in trusting obedience to God’s grace is not the same thing as one lived apart from faith, attempting to be saved by its own righteousness. These two things simply aren’t the same from God’s perspective. This relationship of obedience and disobedience to our salvation is what Paul discusses earlier in chapter 2:4-10:
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
God’s grace and kindness are meant to lead us to repentance and salvation, but we can chose whether or not to accept or reject this work of mercy.
In conclusion, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the subject of grace today. As mentioned earlier, false teachings abounded on this subject since the beginning of Christianity. Yet I believe if we follow the line of reasoning Paul makes in the book of Romans, we will discover a rich, balanced, and scriptural view of the justification of grace. And, as we come to recognize the richness of God’s love toward us we are inevitably brought to praise:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.