Having come to the end of Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome, the apostle clarifies that which can be surmised throughout his letter, namely his very purpose in writing the letter. Everything that the apostle has written in the letter tends to a particular end, and he emphasizes that end by calling forth the same language that he used to begin the letter and thereby neatly bookends his purpose.
The great purpose of the apostle in writing his letter is this: “To bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Christ’s] name among all the nations” (Rm. 1:5). We know this is the great purpose of the apostle for he ends his letter writing:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith–to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (vv. 16:25-27).
Additionally, the apostle commends the church at Rome at the letter’s beginning, writing, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world (v. 1:8), and he commends the church at the end, writing, “For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you (v. 16:19). Therefore the letter’s purpose and the basis of his commendation are one, namely the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is fulfilled by faith and obedience.
If this is indeed the purpose of the apostle, how then does he flesh out this purpose? He does so in vv. 1:16-8:17 by addressing the greatest issue that faces the world and the church, namely righteousness and its lack, and how faith and obedience fulfill righteousness. Regarding faith’s relationship to righteousness, the apostle declares that it is through faith that we are counted as righteous. He writes:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are [made righteous] by his grace as gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as propitiation by his blood to be received by faith (vv. 3:21-25).
Therefore, it is by faith that we are justified (i.e. made righteous) in the sight of God.
Also, faith is not initiation into righteousness alone, but it is the manner by which those who have been made righteous live. For the apostle writes earlier, “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (see v. 3:22), as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (v. 1:17). Therefore, faith is both the means by which the saints of God are made righteous and the manner by which the righteous saints of God live until that Day when faith yields to Sight.
While it is by faith that we are counted righteous before God (cf. v. 4:5), it is through obedience that we become righteous. After introducing the doctrine of baptism and the freedom from sin it affords, the apostle writes:
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 now become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (vv. 6:16-18).
Also concerning this baptism unto obedience, God in Ezekiel declares:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ez. 36:24-28).
Therefore, because of baptism, obedience is a necessary component of salvation, for obedience leads to righteousness, and righteousness leads to sanctification, and sanctification leads to eternal life (cf. 6:16-23).
Some will be quick to object: “Is this not justification by works?” It is in a way, for salvation comes both through faith and obedience. What distinguishes a saint’s justification by works from the reprobate’s attempt to justify himself by works is the Spirit of God. For opposed to fleshly attempts to keep the law so as to attain life (cf. vv. 7:7-25), those in whom the Spirit of God dwells keep the law by the Spirit of God alone. For it is the Spirit alone who gives the saint a new heart by circumcising it (cf. v. 2:29), and it is the Spirit alone who compels men to obedience. Both faith and obedience are the work of God, as the apostle writes elsewhere:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).
Therefore, since it is God who opens eyes to his glory so as to produce faith, and it is God who makes men his slaves and causes them to obey him (cf. v. 6:22; Ez. 36:27), all grounds for boasting in faith and works is removed. For salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (v. 9:16).
For this reason, the apostle contrasts the fleshly inability of keeping the law with the Spirit’s ability in Romans 8. He writes:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done, what the law weakened by the flesh could not do, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (vv. 8:1-4).
Therefore, the Gospel is about both faith and obedience, and it is faith and obedience that comes from God alone. For as James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (Jm. 2:17), and as Christ declares, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
But what is the purpose behind the apostle’s desire “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations”? As we have already seen, faith and obedience are necessary for righteousness. Therefore we should ask, “Why righteousness?” As the apostle writes later in the letter in his discourse concerning divisions, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 14:17). Paul, therefore, is concerned about the Kingdom. For in encouraging the Gentiles (i.e. the nations) to be righteous (cf. vv. 1:16-8:18) and to seek peace (cf. vv. 12:1-15:7), he is encouraging the church at Rome to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God which is comprised of the nations and whose overseers are peace and whose taskmasters are righteousness (cf. Is. 60:17). Therefore the epistle to the Romans is the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and the exhortation to the church to be the Light of the Kingdom to the world.