There is a very important phrase in the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we are reading in daily Mass. A common modern conception of what it means to have faith has an egocentric element, for which St. Paul provides a remedy. In describing his authority and mission as an apostle, he says,
Through [Jesus] we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name (Romans 1:3-4).
There it is: the obedience of faith.
He repeats the same phrase at the very end of Romans as well:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ … 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 (Romans 16:25-27).
So again we read, “the obedience of faith.” It forms the bookends of the Letter to the Romans. St. Paul both starts and ends the letter declaring his purpose to be bringing about the obedience of faith.
Are we listening? Faith requires obedience from us. There are precepts, knowledge, and commands to which we must be obedient. Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. If we have true faith, we will be obedient and we cannot have a saving obedience apart from faith. If we have faith, we will base our life upon its promises and demands. We will see and judge the world by the standards of faith, even if that challenge us and convicts us of error or wrongdoing. Who has not obedience cannot claim to have faith. You can tell a tree by its fruit. If there is no good fruit (obedience) then there is not a good tree (faith).
This is important because many today have turned faith into a kind of self-help, self-affirming thing. According to this notion, the role of faith and religion is to comfort me, affirm me, and give me meaning that pleases me. Many speak of the “god within,” or the “god of my understanding.” They think that they have a perfect right to craft their own “god” and worship him (or her, it, or them). Inventing your own god and worshipping it used to be called idolatry and was the most egregious sin imaginable. Today, however, many blithely call this being “spiritual but not religious” and self-righteously speak of their spiritual hubris as a kind of tolerance, enlightenment, and openness.
In such a view, “god” becomes a kind of “affirmer-in-chief” or divine butler whose role is to step and fetch, to provide for me and console me. A god who says no or summons us to difficult things is unimaginable to many. The “Jesus I know” or the “god of my understanding” is fine with almost any sin (except intolerance of course), and is, frankly, just a big sweetie-pie. Gone is the cross or any demand to repent or to come to conversion. If there is any demand at all, it is that I learn to love and accept myself just as I am and others just as they are.
Apparently Paul never got that memo. He sees faith as a truth to comprehend and obey. Faith is taught and revealed, not invented and self-proclaimed.
The Greek word translated here as obedience is ὑπακοή (hypakoe), which literally means to be under what is heard: hypo (under) + akouo (hear). Having heard the revealed faith, we are to be under its sway, its demands, and its truth.
The opening words of Jesus’ ministry were “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The word “repent” is a translation of the Greek metanoiete, which literally means “come to a new mind.” In other words, get rid of all that worldly mumbo-jumbo and the self-deception of the “god of your understanding.” Lose the trendy gibberish and double-talk. Come to a new, transformed mind that grasps the revealed truth of the gospel and have a will that is ready to obey.
St. Paul is clear that his work is to bring about the obedience of faith in us. Consolation, welcoming, and affirmation have their place, but obedience is the central goal—even if it means that affirmation, welcoming, and consolation must go. Would that all pastors and their flocks had this key goal in mind. To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22).