Are We Justified by Our Faith in or the Faith of Jesus?

Jason Micheli —  June 9, 2016 — 21 Comments

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.

For example:

“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.

Jason Micheli


21 responses to Are We Justified by Our Faith in or the Faith of Jesus?

  1. But even in this Barthian / New Perspective reading (which generally I agree with) “faith” requires a free human response to what Christ accomplished – as James’s epistle eminds us as well and as both the Eastern and Western traditions on Justification say. So I’m not sure the distinction between the genitive and indicative does so much work? I definitely understand the concern about the “faith as another work” treadmill though – walked the sawdust trail many times in my youth.

  2. Absolutely beautiful, comforting and liberating!

  3. Michael McKee [not the bishop] June 9, 2016 at 9:59 AM

    Yep, Paul says that we are ‘saved’ by the faith [faithfulness] “of” Jesus, not faith “in” Jesus. That is how i learned it in seminary. i attended Saint Paul School of Theology but i took one class at the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City [2003]. It was a three-hour class on the book of Romans under the able professorship of Dr. Roger Hahn. i remember that i received this understanding with great relief and appreciation. While it always colors my thinking i never have felt ready to actually create and preach a message on just that. Perhaps it’s time for me to try it. Thanks for your post.

  4. Hi Jason,

    Tom here from the DBH Fan Site. Two quick comments: (1) Reformed evangelicals (I’m not one) are traditional evangelicals too, and they don’t think that our believing is that which sets us right with God. As far as where one locates ‘that which sets us right with God’, they’d take your view that this is Christ. But (2) you’re not a theological determinist, so you won’t agree to the monergism which Reformed folks argue is implicit in (1), which brings me to your comment (from this post): “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.”

    I’m fine with reading Paul as saying Christ’s faithfulness to God is “that which sets us right with God.” But you still reference there at the end: “our faith as we receive him,” which seems to bring us back to a fundamental question about the nature of how it is that we participate in that which sets us right with God. So could you comment on whose faith you’re referring to by “our faith” there and what you mean by “as we receive him”?

    It seems to me that when we’re done correcting those evangelicals (the non-Reformed ones) who mistakenly think their believing really is “that which” effects right-standing with God (a correction I’m all for), we still have to ask about the nature of the belief which is, as you say, “our receiving” Christ. I just wonder if when this is done we’re not back at the insight that our actually coming into the experience and enjoyment of Christ’s having set us right in fact does proceed in us “as we trust” (and not as we strive, or earn, our way into it). That’s how I as an evangelical (of the non-Reformed sort) have always viewed things anyhow. I never thought “my believing” was that which set me right with God.


    • Tom, I was thinking exactly the same thing and it’s part of what I was getting at above. Scripture and the (non-Pelagian) tradition tell us that our salvation is God’s initiative from beginning to end and that the efficient cause of our salvation is the work of Christ. But scripture and the tradition also tell us that a human response is necessary and that it is possible for human beings to reject this salvation. So we have to try to work out how to hold these concepts together. As you note, the later Augustinian / Reformed / old Lutheran / Banezian tradition “solves” this puzzle through essentially eliminating human free will. The Greek, Thomistic (I would argue), Arminian, etc traditions solve it through concepts of participation, prevenient grace and a free response of the will that cooperates with grace. Barth seems to solve it with a kind of overwhelming revelation of grace that is utterly effective but nevertheless inexplicably can be resisted even to the last. I’m not sure we can solve it but the metaphysics of participation help me think about it. As we receive what Christ has done, does now, and will do, we participate in the faith of Christ — and that is why it is pistis Christou that saves us but our participation still matters.

  5. Except this:

    21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ[d] for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement[e] by his blood, effective through faith.

    We can’t pistis christou that last pistis. But yes to your larger point. I am not justified *by* my faith. I appropriate my justification by trusting in it.

    • Jason Micheli June 9, 2016 at 11:24 AM

      Yeah, that’s what I sort of meant by ‘free for’ God.

    • Michael McKee [not the bishop] June 10, 2016 at 8:39 AM

      Your question forms the ground for the expiation-propitiation divide, eh?

    • Thank you Morgan. My point as well. Thus, there remains a sense in which we can rightly say we appropriate salvation (or our justification, or what have you), “by trusting and not by works” and that, Evangelicals are a mixed bunch, and (sadly) you’re likely to find anything, but it would be a mistake to *define* them as such by the belief that their trusting or believing, and not God, is actually that which saves them.

  6. In all my nearly fifty years as a Christian I had believe it or not never heard it explained in that manner but instead only in the traditional evangelical manner that one must believe and that one’s belief is what imparted salvation. An act certainly and indeed a work as you argue. How much more sense it makes rationally that it should be totally God’s act and not dependent on our own strivings. Thank you for this enlightening exposition.

  7. The last paragraph could be interpreted as universalism. Was that your intention?

    • Jason Micheli June 10, 2016 at 8:32 AM

      I think it’s impossible that the logic of God and salvation don’t lead to the conclusion that all will be saved. The gospel makes clear that God desires the salvation of the whole world. It’s illogical that God, who is completely transcendent, could not accomplish what God wants. Whatever thwarted God’s aim would, by definition, be God instead – def a subject for a future post!

      • I would caution against placing human reason above God’s Word and/or eliminating the voluminous passages that teach against universalism. The stakes are very high for the lost if you’re wrong.

        • The stakes should not be high:
          A real true ‘god’ would not be so pathetic and human to condemn those who choose not to believe – that is human arrogance!
          You don’t have any god’s word – or you would have that proof – rather obvious that expectation.
          Your ‘universalism’ is still a human concept and cannot be relevant when referring to a ‘god’ of the Universe. (Remember that based on science’s investigations and data that there will be many other life forms in the Universe).

  8. I never thought of this before. It is liberating.

  9. A discussion debating the qualities of justification and righteousness here, about a person called Jesus, is not much different in rhetoric if one were debating the revelations of Santa.
    This whole discussion is premised on the presumption that there actually was a Jesus in historical fact – the fact is that there are no contemporary writings of this person by historians or objective writers of that time.
    To put a discussion of this nature at a rational level of intellectual debate is an insult to human intelligence.

  10. Was reading this article until I reached the unchristlike rude,crude language within!
    Then I ceased to read anymore!

    For out of the abundance if the heart the mouth speaks !

  11. Awesome post that I’ve returned to a few times in the last year or so. You had mentioned that the KJV is the only translation that uses “of” instead of “in” in Romans and Galatians. I found another one. The Common English Bible (CEB) also translates it correctly as “the faith of Jesus” instead of “faith in Jesus.” So there seems to be a slow gain in correcting this translation choice. Hoping that the update scheduled for the NRSV will fix this as well. Doubt the NASB translation update this year will change it unfortunately.

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