I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Galatians 2.11-21:
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Wait, is that the right way of putting it?
The entire evangelical Christian understanding of Justification by Faith Alone is premised upon a particular reading of Romans and this passage here in Galatians.
Justification by Faith Alone, in case you didn’t know, names God’s declaration of forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. For example, this grace hit Martin Luther had transformed him when he heard spoken to him in the confessional by a brother priest: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’ It’s this declaration and our faith in it that justifies us before God. And nothing else (Romans 1-3).
That’s the historic Reformed/Evangelical understanding of Justification.
It also happens to be wrong.
Just because something’s historic doesn’t mean it’s right.
The Founders were wrong about slavery.
And Christian traditions have been wrong about what Paul is intending when he talks about faith and justification.
Exhibit A has to do with the (mis)translated line ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’
Almost everywhere that is written in English it is an incorrect translation. It is correctly translated by the King James version, but by virtually no other translations.
“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23,.
In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”
ek pisteos Iesou Christou
A little grammar:
It is in the genitive case. Now because it’s in the genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. That is, it’s like saying the Love of God. We’re referring either to our love for God, or the love that God has for us.
In one instance God is the object of our love. In other instance, God is the subject.
In Greek, ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ is also a subjective genitive, but it gets translated as an objective nearly all the time: ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’
Thus translated, it’s not long before we start talking about how it’s our faith in Christ (see how this now makes our ‘faith’ just another ‘work?’) that makes us righteous before God.
In Paul’s day, Jews called the Messiah, the Righteous One. In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws on the idea of The Righteous One to describe Jesus Christ, who reveals the righteousness of God through his faith. Not our faith.
You see, Paul’s whole argument in Romans/Galatians is that the Law does not justify anyone, not even Abraham was justified by Law, but by faith. And Paul sees Jesus as the Righteous One who was able to maintain faith to the end. Unlike Israel or any of us. Jesus was able to do through his faith what we could not. Jesus was able to trust the Father perfectly. Even unto a cross. That is why he is “The Righteous One who shall live by his Faith.”
Paul is making an argument in Romans is that God’s righteousness was revealed “from faith to faith.” God’s righteousness was revealed in and through the faith OF Jesus Christ, and was revealed to faith; that is, our faith as we receive him.
To preach Romans or Galatians well requires out-Pauling evangelicals, who often champion Paul more so than the Messiah for whom Paul gave his life.
But there it is.
Most evangelicals are wrong about what they’ve made their central doctrine, Justification by Faith Alone.
It not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.
In other words, as Richard Hays puts it, it’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.
And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty- a line of thinking that only begets vile doctrines like double predestination.
No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.
And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.
In the traditional evangelical rendering in which it is our faith which sets us right with God, faith becomes another work, another work of the law, something we must do. That’s neither Paul’s argument nor good news. We can’t do anything ourselves, not even our faith, to improve our situation vis a vis God.
Not to mention, it only succeeds in reproducing Martin Luther’s original dilemma about the veracity of his suaveness and leads to the myriad number of Protestants who make repeated trips forward to the anxious bench or to the font for rebaptism.
The clause ‘we must (have faith/serve the poor/be inclusive/obey the commandments’ in order for God to _________can never be Gospel. It’s exhortation not proclamation. It reduces the Gospel promise to If/Then conditionality.
Paul’s Gospel is instead a Because/Now construction: Because we have been set right before God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, now we are empowered, emboldened, set free to live for God.