One of The Most Misunderstood Words in The New Testament

Written By J.A. Hardgrave


“Obedience” to many people, has become a subjective term that can be used as leverage to cause others to avoid sin, be more passionate for God or spiritual matters, live holy, or do good works.

None of those things are negative, in fact, they are all positive and should be taken seriously, but not out of a desire to gain something from God.

That’s where the problem arises.

When we see obedience in spiritual matters as a way to gain something from God, we move out of the New Covenant of faith-based blessing and into the Old Covenant of obedience-based blessing.

Under the law, people obeyed the 10 commandments and obtained blessing.

Under the New Covenant, we are obedient to believe in Jesus Christ and we receive spiritual blessing such as the Holy Spirit, sonship, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, a new creation, ect.

Many try to approach the New Covenant with an Old Covenant mentality, seeing these spiritual realities as something to be earned through “obedience” to God.

I spent over 5 years striving to be obedient so that He would accept me, forgive me, love me, bless me, make me righteous, send me to heaven when I die, heal me, be close to me, and deliver me, when the New Covenant has already provided all of these realities to be received through simple faith.

The reason I believed this way is because I listened to those who rarely mentioned the New Covenant or what it provided, but always emphasized obedience and how we needed to do good works for God.

The fact is, I don’t believe the New Testament uses the term obedience in the context we often use it in.

The word obedience is mentioned only 12 times in the New Testament, and it never has to do with works-based obedience to earn spiritual blessing.

Let’s look at the context of each occurrence of the word obedience in the New Testament.

1) Romans 1:5

“By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for His name.”

Paul states that he had received grace and apostleship in order to help people be obedient to have faith in Jesus Christ.

2) Romans 5:19

“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.”

This verse is talking about the obedience of Jesus Christ, and those many who will become righteous once they believe in Him.

3) Romans 6:16

“Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?”

The obedience Paul describes here was “obedience unto righteousness”. This can’t be describing a law-based or works based obedience because Paul had already established earlier in his letter that righteousness did not come through the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:20-24

We find out in the next verse after Romans 6:16, which obedience Paul was referring to.

Romans 6:17

“But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.”

They were obedient by obeying from their heart the doctrine that was delivered to them.

What was that doctrine?

Faith in Jesus Christ!

The context of Romans 6 and the entire book of Romans is about having faith in Jesus Christ and not depending on the law, circumcision, or being a descendant of Abraham to obtain righteousness, but rather having simple faith in Jesus Christ to enter into right-relationship with God. Romans 6:16 is about embracing the doctrine of believing and placing faith in Jesus Christ, not about personal works to obtain spiritual blessing.

4) Romans 16:19

“For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.”

To understand the meaning of obedience in this verse, we need to read just a few verses further.

5) Romans 16:25:26

“Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.”

These verses bring us to the fifth and final use of obedience in Romans, which again is about the “Obedience of faith”. This also clarifies which obedience Paul was speaking about a few verses earlier in verse 19 when he stated “For your obedience is come abroad unto all men.” What obedience? Their obedience to have faith in Jesus Christ!

6) 1 Corinthians 14:34

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”

Not this verse! Ahhhh!!! Run away!!!

This verse is widely misunderstood because we forget that 1 Corinthians is actually Paul responding to a letter he had received from the Church at Corinth.

1st Corinthians 8:8

“In YOUR LETTER you asked me about food offered to idols…”

At times, Paul would quote from the original letter sent to him, and then respond to it right after. It appears as if it is all Paul speaking, but if you look at how very different both sets of quotes are, I believe it’s clear Paul was quoting their letter, and then responding with a rebuke.

Here is the quote from the original letter sent to Paul from the church at Corinth.

1st Corinthians 14:34;35 (Quoting the original letter from the Corinthians)

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

Next Paul gives his response to this huge misunderstanding.

Read this with a strong voice of rebuke.

1st Corinthians 14:36-40 (Paul’s response)

“What? Came the word of God out from you?, or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.”

Paul is actually rebuking the idea that women could not speak in the church. The Corinthian’s were saying there was a commandment in the law that women could not speak in the church and it needed to be observed in their church, but Paul tells them to listen to the commandments of the Lord that he gives, which are to allow everyone, including women, to speak, speak in tounges, and prophecy in the church, as long as it’s done decently and in order.

Obviously this passage has nothing to do with obtaining spiritual blessing through personal works-based obedience.

7) 2nd Corinthians 7:14-16

“For if I have boasted any thing to him of you, I am not ashamed; but as we spake all things to you in truth, even so our boasting, which I made before Titus, is found a truth. And his inward affection is more abundant toward you, while he remembered the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling you received him. I rejoice therefore that I have confidence in you in all things.

The obedience mentioned here is how the church at Corinth “with fear and trembling” received Titus. Paul was commending them for receiving Titus and his instruction and fellowship. That’s it. 

8) 2nd Corinthians 9:12-14

“For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God, while, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing with them and all men, and by their prayer for you, who long for you because of the exceeding grace of God in you.”

The obedience here is about “the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ.”

9-10) 2nd Corinthians 10:4-6

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.”

When reading the entire chapter, it’s clear that the context is about bringing the church at Corinth’s thoughts into full alignment with the knowledge of Christ. There were still some at this church who were were entertaining lies about God.

The NLT sheds some light on what Paul is asking them to be obedient to cast down in verse 4.

“We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments.”

Paul was urging the Corinthian’s to be obedient to bring their thoughts into full alignment with Jesus Christ, who is the perfect representation of God, and to flee from “the strongholds of human reasoning” and “false arguments” about God that had began to rise in their community. It has nothing to do with works based obedience to obtain spiritual blessing.

11) Philemon 1:21

“Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

What obedience? Paul mentions earlier in this chapter that he was sending his spiritual son Onesimus back to them, and praying they would be obedient to receive him and his instruction. (10;12),

Philemon 1:12;13

“I am sending him (Onesimus) back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, who I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.”

Paul is saying that he would rather keep Onesimus with him, but he is sending him to Corinth to help them and they need to be obedient to receive Onesimus, that’s it. Paul is reiterating in verse 21 that he is confident that they will not only receive Onesimus, but will go above and beyond his request.

12) 1st Peter 1:1-2

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.”

This is in the greeting of Peter’s first letter, so he is jumping around to several different subjects and people.  Even with the sparse context, we immediately see the obedience he was referring to was tied to the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”

I hope you see that our understanding of obedience is often times much different than the New Testament’s understanding of obedience.

If you believe we have access to righteousness, forgiveness, sonship, the Holy Spirit, a new creation, and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ Who shed His blood to make a New and Better covenant (Hebrews 8:6), would you pass this blog along to help me spread the word? Thanks!

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