“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.”
Textual scholars disagree about whether this doxology was part of Paul’s original letter to the Romans. Many ancient manuscripts do not include it. It may be that Paul wrote a copy of the letter to the Romans without chapter 16 and a second copy that was sent to Ephesus with the final chapter (See A Textual Commentary, pages 533ff.). In some manuscripts the doxology occurs at the end of chapter 14 and in one manuscript at the close of chapter 15. In all, Metzger notes six possible combinations of locations and doxological texts. Regardless, relatively early on, these verses formed the end of Paul’s great letter, and we are the beneficiaries.
It is perhaps a jarring phrase: “To bring about the obedience of faith…” Paul’s Greek is both obscure and ambiguous here, three words with no verb in the phrase (one is supplied by the translators). We Lutherans can have an allergic response when “obedience” shows up in a text. The word smacks of works done in response to a command. That makes us nervous about works righteousness, and the conversation goes downhill from there.
An understanding of obedience, however, is built into Luther’s understanding of how faith works. Article 6 of the Augsburg Confession is sometimes titled “The New Obedience.” The confession says, “It is also taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works, and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if to thereby merit favor before God.” So, it is not that good works somehow precede or produce saving faith. Rather, good works are the products of such faith.
Luther spends a large part of The Freedom of the Christian on this relationship. Because of our redemption in and through Christ, we need have only one concern: “to serve God joyfully, with boundless love and no thought of earning anything.” (page 511). Obedience to God is the fruit of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than a path toward divine approval. This obedience is expressed through works of love for the neighbor. Through these works we function as Christ for one another. As Luther often said, “God has no need of my good works, but my neighbor certainly does.”
This coincidence of opposites – obedience and faith—is only one of several in the doxology. For long ages, God’s plan for redemption was hidden as a “mystery” but now is revealed. The good news was secret and is now disclosed. Where we expect to find certainty and clarity, we encounter the mists of divinity. Where we expect to find glory, we find the crucified Messiah.
“The humility of God in the person of Jesus Christ redefines glory forever,” writes John Frederick. “The posh royal thrones of human rulers no longer express the glory of true kingship. The royal throne of the crucified God is now forever defined by the humility of a carpenter on a cross, thereby killing the idolatrous narrative of human prestige, power, and arrogance.” Like David, we so often seek to build God’s house to our own specifications. In fact, God builds us into a house of obedient faith, according to the specifications of Jesus Christ, by the Spirit’s power.
Arland Hultgren pulls it all together. “The passage from Romans relates to the other two passages quite directly, although subtly,” he writes. “The author declares that the mystery, the divine secret, has now been disclosed for all the world to hear,” he continues. God is indeed faithful and keeps God’s promises. But the shape of that faithfulness – found in manger and cross and empty tomb – could not have been predicted.” The fact that we could not see it coming, however, makes it no less faithful and true.
“The coming of Christ into the world was in fulfillment of the divine purpose,” Hultgren concludes, “furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel of his coming to all the nations was consistent with that purpose as well.” That’s the zinger that animates Paul’s letter to the Romans throughout. The obedience of faith found among the Gentiles is not a failure of or revision to the working out of God’s promise. This has been the plan all along, Paul writes, to the congregations at Rome. It may not have been our plan, but we are the ones who need then to make revisions.
I don’t think that dealing with a pandemic was on anyone’s to-do list a year ago. I don’t think that remote worship, mask protocols, Zoom confirmation, and a thousand other changes were part of anyone’s strategic vision. I also don’t think that hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of illnesses were part of God’s plan (there are lots of others who are responsible for the fiasco).
But I do think we are called and challenged to see beneath the disruption to what is coming to be born among us. There is much in the church in the West that was passing away prior to January of 2020. The pandemic has accelerated some of those processes, and the loss and grief are profound. I don’t know (and neither does anyone else) what comes next in any detail. But we do know that there’s no going back. Things will not be the same in the future.
So, we are gifted with the obedience of faith. We are called to do the next right thing. Congregational leaders are called to hang on with both hands and trust that God in Christ remains faithful. And those leaders are starting to ramp up for what that means in the summer and fall. The Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us as the church for precisely that purpose. We pray with Mary, “let it be with me according to your word.”
I look forward to what that will mean.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.
Powell, Mark Allan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5