If We’re Justified By Faith, Then Isn’t Faith a Work?

Jason Micheli —  March 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Romans 5.1-11 which begins thus:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…”

The question is- or should be- by whose faith are we justified? Ours? Or Christ’s? By faith here in Romans 5 is an echo of an earlier theme Paul picks up from Romans 3:

“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.

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Euene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it?

Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard?

That seems like a pretty limited God.’

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

Justification by (our) faith (in) Christ turns faith into the very thing Paul railed against: our work.

That is, religion

The irony of the historic Faith vs. Works, Gospel vs. Law debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere, other than the King James, that is written in English it is a wrong translation. In Greek, the actual wording is  that we’re justified “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.

Faith isn’t a work.

Isn’t our work at least.

The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life. This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

 

Jason Micheli

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One response to If We’re Justified By Faith, Then Isn’t Faith a Work?

  1. I appreciate this “new perspective” take on the faith of / faith in debate. But it really just kicks the can down the road a bit, doesn’t it? The Reformers who so emphasized sola fide had a strong doctrine of predestination. For them, we must have faith _in_ Christ, but that faith comes only as a gift of the Holy Spirit. If someone doesn’t have faith _in_ Christ, it is likely that person hasn’t been predestined to salvation. That creates all kinds of difficulties for God’s love, but it “saves” faith from becoming a work. The Arminians responded that our faith _in_Christ is a response to prevenient grace, so that it is not a “work,” but merely a grateful response. And that is pretty much consistent with the historic Catholic and Orthodox views, meaning it is really the historic mainstream Christian view.

    I’m not sure how the NPP’s emphasis on the “faithfulness of” Christ really changes this calculation. After all, there are plenty of other Biblical and Pauline texts that emphasize the need for our genuine, free, human response to Christ. Yes, for Paul we are saved by the faithfulness of Christ — but for Paul also, we must receive that salvation Christ offers, and we are also free to reject it. And that’s true of any gift — I can receive a gift with thanksgiving and enjoy it, or I can tear it up and throw it away. My receipt of the gift with thanksgiving isn’t something that “earns” the gift — it’s still utterly a gift — yet as a gift between persons my response still matters.

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