Does Faith Mean Faithfulness?

Simon Gathercole
Friday, May 11th 2007
Jul/Aug 2004

With all the controversy that has raged about justification in the past generation, it is surprising that for some time the question of what faith is has remained more marginal. However, this issue has recently come into the foreground of both the church's and the academy's attention. The present essay aims to do justice both to Paul and James, and to clarify that faith is not itself righteousness but should be regarded as trust in Christ, which also has specific verbal content. It is also not an entity, however, which can ever be isolated in the Christian life from obedience, even though faith and obedience are not to be confused.

"Faith Reckoned as Righteousness" in Paul

As far as the interpretation of Paul is concerned, it is vital to recognize that God does not reckon righteousness to us on the basis of anything that we do in and of ourselves. One of the chief transformations that took place in Paul's conversion was in his understanding of sin: he came to see the true depravity of the human condition, that "the mind of the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to the Law of God, nor can it do so" (Rom. 8:7). This is in stark contrast to the understanding that he would probably have had as a Pharisee: that despite the internal struggle of the good impulse against the evil impulse, it was both necessary and possible to choose the good. After his conversion, he realized (we do not know exactly how and when) that only by Christ's atoning work and the power of the Spirit are new life and true obedience possible.

Much of our attention here will be focused on Romans 4, which is one of the key chapters in the Bible on faith. The chapter is also taken up with a discussion of Abraham, and how Paul brings the patriarch as a key witness to his doctrine of justification by faith. Here the apostle is battling against the Jewish tradition of explaining Abraham as a model of piety and (in some cases) law-observance even before the law was given. The trials of Abraham, such as the offering of Isaac on Mount Moriah, are seen in Jewish exegesis as the basis for his justification:

Abraham was a great father of many nations, and no-one was found like him in glory, who kept the Law of the Most High, and entered into covenant with Him, and established the covenant in his flesh, and was found faithful in testing. (Sirach 44:19-20)This is the tenth trial with which Abraham was tried, and he was found faithful, controlled of spirit. [He begged for a place for burial in the land] because he was found faithful and he was recorded as a friend of the Lord in the heavenly tablets. (Jubilees 19:8-9; cf. 23:9-10)Abraham did not walk in it (sc. evil), and he was reckoned a friend of God because he kept the commandments of God and did not choose his own will. (Damascus Document 3:2-4)Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation and it was reckoned to him as righteousness? (1 Maccabees 2:52)

The clearest statement, then, of what Paul is opposing comes in this final statement from 1 Maccabees, although the language of being "reckoned as a friend of God" or "recorded as a friend of God" in the other two examples is very similar to that of being "reckoned as righteous." In short, in this Jewish tradition, Genesis 15:6 ("he believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness") is fused together with Genesis 26:4b-5: "And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws." Thus, Abraham is reckoned righteous because of his obedience to the commandments of God: here faith clearly is faithfulness.

Paul, on the other hand, considers that no one is righteous, not even Abraham:

For if Abraham was justified by works, then he has a boast. But not before God! For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (Rom. 4:2-3)

Abraham, then, was not reckoned righteous in the same way that the Jewish expository tradition promoted. It is highly instructive that Paul explains the term "justify" by the phrase "reckon as righteous." In itself, this language is standard enough. But it is Paul's new understanding of this latter phrase which makes all the difference and sets him apart from the traditional Jewish understanding of Abraham. "Righteousness," in biblical terms, refers to "that which God requires," or "doing what God requires." On the view of Paul's opponents, God's justification of, or reckoning of righteousness to, Abraham was an entirely appropriate response to Abraham's faithful activity: Justification was effectively a comment on Abraham's behavior-that he had carried out what God had required of him. On Paul's view, however, God's word of justification is in opposition to what Abraham had actually done and been. For Paul, reckoning righteousness takes place when that righteousness is not there, rather than when it is there. Even though Abraham had not done what God required, it was reckoned to him as though he had. This is the thought underlying the two alternatives in Romans 4:4-5. There are two possible definitions of the term "reckon": reckoning as an obligation (as per the Jewish tradition) and reckoning as a gift, by which Paul clearly refers to his own view. It is not that Judaism was devoid of grace. But what does concern Paul is that justification is the gift of righteousness despite the fact that we have not done what he requires, rather than God's appropriate response to obedience. This comes about through Christ's death on the cross, although unfortunately there is not space to expound this here. What is clear, however, is that Paul views "believing God" in Romans 4:2 as different from Abraham's faithfulness in any trials he may have gone through.

A crucial question emerges, however. Is it not simply the case that "faith" is actually righteousness? This has been suggested recently by Robert Gundry, and has provoked a certain amount of controversy. The problem with this view seems to me to be that it does not take account of Paul's subsequent arguments in Romans 4: the experience of David and the nature of God's action. The example of David again clarifies the fact that God's act of justification is a justification despite who David is. Furthermore, particularly important are the statements throughout chapter 4 about who God is. In each case, Paul makes it clear that it is part of who God is that he does not interact with the world on a tit-for-tat basis. The examples that Paul provides are of new creation and resurrection: giving life to the dead, and creating the things that are from that which is not (4:17). This kind of activity finds its climax in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead (4:24). But Paul has also included justification by faith as the first item in this sequence, in 4:5. Each of these statements in chapter 4 has a kind of "definition" of God: "the one who justifies the ungodly" (4:5); "the one who gives life to the dead and calls non-beings into being" (4:17); "the one who raised Jesus from the dead" (4:24). To return to the original question, then: Is the "reckoning" a reckoning of what is there, or a reckoning of what is not there? The answer seems clear on the basis of Romans 4. When God reckons a person righteous, it is despite what they are-it is not because faith is righteousness.

Faith Determined by God's Action

If faith is not righteousness, then what is it? Crucial here is that "faith" cannot be taken simply to be a generalized religious attitude or action which is simply given specific content in various different religions. There is no universal religious trust into which Allah, or Jesus, or the fairies at the bottom of the garden can be slotted. Paul makes it clear that the structure of faith itself is determined by who God is and how he has acted in Christ. Although "bc," Abraham is the classic exemplar here. The essence of faith for Paul is that it is "resurrection faith." The reason Abraham is a type of Christian faith is because he realizes that he has no capacity in himself to bring about God's will; such a result can only come about by God's unilateral action of resurrection:

He (Abraham), against hope, in hope believed that he would become the father of many nations, as was said, "So shall your offspring be." And he did not weaken in faith, but observed that his body was dead-as it was about a hundred years old-and that Sarah's womb was dead. He did not doubt the promise of God in unbelief, but was strengthened in his faith, giving glory to God, and was fully convinced that He was able to do what he had promised. (4:18-21)

The key aspect of Abraham's faith here is that it responds to divine action and anticipates divine action. As I have argued elsewhere, Abraham's faith has two components. The first is observation of reality, namely that Abraham must observe that his own body was as good as dead. The second is emphatically not the observation of Abraham's surroundings, but consists in his acknowledgement that God has the power to do what he has promised, despite the appearance of his circumstances. As a result, the nature of faith clearly mirrors the nature of the way God acts in the world. Although Abraham's faith is a type of Christian faith, and thus not identical with it, the continuity lies in the fact that the structure-as we have outlined it above-remains the same: it acknowledges that we are dead, and yet trusts in God to give life. The fact that Abraham's faith is an Old Testament witness to Christian faith, however, means that there is a further element to be explicated-that it is faith in Christ.

Faith in Christ

Discussion of faith as "faith in Christ," however, immediately plunges us into one of the most hotly debated points in New Testament scholarship: the question of whether the phrase conventionally translated as "faith in Christ" (in Greek, pistis Christou) should actually be translated as "the faithfulness of Christ." The cash value of this is that some of the crucial Pauline texts on justification end up having a very different feel to them. "We know that a person is justified not by works of the Law, but only by faith in Christ" (Gal. 2:16) instead would become "We know that a person is justified not by works of the Law but only by the faithfulness of Christ." The focus shifts from trust in Christ to the actual activity of the earthly Jesus, whereby he lived the perfect life of conformity with God's will, which eventually culminated in his death. Linguistically, the translation could go either way, and so the position has to be decided on the basis of context and theology. It is a strange debate, however, because it does not divide down conventional "party lines." True, traditional scholars tend to be suspicious of the new translation. But key supporters of the "new perspective" on Paul, such as James D. G. Dunn, also resist it. And some champion the new translation of "faithfulness of Christ" on the grounds that the traditional option makes salvation dependent on the human action of faith, while the alternative grounds it in God's action in Christ. As a result, the new reading has been favored by those influenced by Barth, such as T. F. Torrance, Richard Hays, and Douglas Campbell.

I will simply select three examples of arguments made in support. One which has been particularly influential is J. W. van Henten's argument for seeing "the faith of Christ" against a Jewish martyrdom background. He argues that the combination of "faith," "blood," and "atonement" found in Romans 3:25 is most prominent in three passages in Jewish literature where a martyr is faithful to death, hence the reference in Romans to the faithfulness of Jesus. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that in fact none of the three places contain the word for faith or faithfulness!

Those who espouse the "faith of Christ" translation also often argue that it makes sense of passages which otherwise are peculiar. However, there are many more difficulties with interpreting passages where the new translation is adopted. For example, according to Richard Hays, "those of faith" (Gal. 3:7) refers to "those who are given life on the basis of [Christ's] faith." But the phrase is "capable of sustaining several interpretations," and Hays would not want to exclude the meaning of "those who believe" either. Hays grounds this in Paul's poetic way of using language, and the "multivalent and metaphorical" character of that language. The argument here becomes rather vague, in my view: while it is, of course, possible that Paul uses such a phrase in an ambiguous way, one is tempted to apply Occam's razor when there is no exegetical benefit.

The argument made by others that "justification by [human] faith" makes faith into a work has little force, especially if one considers faith as also a gift of God, as per Ephesians 2:8. In any case, it is not that God makes the Christian fit for justification by the gift of faith, since the gifts of faith and justification are simultaneous, rather than chronologically sequential. None of these arguments, then, should be regarded as an obstacle to the view that faith is "faith in Christ," rather than simply a generic trust in God that is common to Abraham, Christ, and ourselves.

"Faith Made Perfect by Works" (James 2:22)

As Paul and numerous theologians after him recognized, to define justification as coming by faith has its dangers. Definitions are, of course, no less true for being dangerous. In this respect, the epistle of James has often functioned as a foil to prevent an extreme reading of Paul. This is not only true at the canonical level: it is also an historical probability that James is in fact in dialogue with an interlocutor who reflects real-life extremist Paulines. Just as we know of Hymenaeus and Philetus who apparently took Paul's realized resurrection-eschatology (in, e.g., Eph. 2:4-7) to an extreme, and thus "departed from the truth" (2 Tim. 2:18), so also it is likely that there are those who took Paul's soteriology in an antinomian direction. Certainly some of Paul's Jewish opponents understood Paul this way (Rom. 3:8).

In this respect, James's statement that "faith works together with works" (James 2:12) is a vital pastoral demand. In fact, the Paul-James contrast is misconceived at this point, since Paul himself has an extremely strong emphasis on obedience. He talks of his goal as not merely bringing the gentiles to come to faith in Christ, but actually to bring about "the obedience of (i.e., that stems from) faith" among the nations (Rom. 1:5; cf. 16:26). Paul and James both stress the necessity of obedience, without ever confusing "faith" and "obedience": even in James, the two are not identified with one another.

Nevertheless, James's argument is distinctive and gives us a helpful perspective alongside that of Paul. (One could also have included discussion of Hebrews and the Gospels, but this must be omitted for the sake of brevity.) James's argument about faith begins in 2:14, at least as far as the specific term for "faith" (pistis) is concerned. That this is no idle theologizing is evident from the fact that final salvation is at stake: the immediately preceding context is that of judgment (2:12-13), and James's questions are precisely "what is the use of such faith (without works)?" and "can such faith save?" (2:14).

The contrast between the Pauline language and that of James is very striking. The commentators conventionally set out the parallel statements as follows:

James 2:24: A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.Romans 3:28:A person is justified by faith and not by works of the Law.

Here, then, there is a pointed contrast, a contrast that is even more striking if one compares James with Paul as translated by Luther: where justification is "only by faith". By contrast to Luther's exacerbation of the contrast, some modern commentators on Paul have attempted more of a rapprochement. J. Jeremias attempted this not least by contrasting the understandings of works in Paul and James. For Jeremias, Paul was referring to works done in obedience to the law in a legalistic fashion, whereas James means visiting the sick, caring for orphans, and such. Moo, picking up on another element of Jeremias's argument, focuses on the way in which "justification" in Paul refers to initial acceptance by God, and in James to final vindication at the Judgment.

Our concern here, however, is merely with the question of "faith." The key here is that faith does, of course, have specific content. Abraham believes "according to what was said," that "so shall your offspring be" (Rom. 4:18). Nevertheless, this content never means that faith is simply possessed, as if faith were merely an inert entity which could be regarded in isolation. In Paul's argument it has an immediate corollary in Abraham's action. Abraham is not merely a passive recipient of faith; rather, as divine action embraces human action, Abraham is strengthened in his faith and gives glory to God (Rom. 4:20). The main danger that James sees is that to talk of "faith alone" is in danger of encouraging a focus on faith itself. The fact that Paul and James have different emphases means that our talk of faith must always be bounded by the whole of the New Testament (which has a fundamental unity and harmony), and not simply follow Pauline categories.

That "faith is made perfect by works," is not, of course, Paul's principal concern. As we noted, his concern is to decouple "faith" from obedience to the law, from obedience in one's own power. Paul's emphasis is on the fact that obedience to the law did not lead to God's deliverance of Israel; rather, the history of the Old Testament was characterized by the repeated cycle of disobedience and judgment. James, on the other hand, is concerned with the fact that faith is something exercised. James would not dispute that this takes place in the Christian context of the new age: God gave Christians new birth by the Word, and so the church is the first fruits of the new creation (1:18; cf. esp. 1:21). But faith must be exercised in sharing with the needy (2:15-16), otherwise it is dead (2:17). It can be demonstrated by works (2:18); otherwise it merely resembles the faith of demons (2:19). Scripture itself makes the point very clearly that "faith without works doesn't work" (2:20). From the fact that Abraham offered Isaac on the "altar," it is clear that "faith works together with works and faith is perfected by works" (2:21-22). The story of Rahab also makes the same point. James was concerned to reject a concept of naked intellectual faith, as would Paul have been had he come across such a problem. For Paul, faith is always shaped by the divine promise which calls forth the human action of trust. Although James does not actually define what he understands by "faith," he is clear that it must always be followed by the reflex of obedience.


We have seen several key aspects, then, of the New Testament's conception of faith. First, the content of faith is the identity of God and his action in Christ. In the three definitions of God we noted in Romans 4, each is prefaced by reference to believing in that God: "believing in the one who justifies the ungodly" (4:5), "believing in the one who gives life to the dead and calls non-beings into being" (4:17), and "believing in the God who raised Jesus from the dead" (4:24). This content determines the structure of faith-faith is recognizing one's ungodliness, death and nonbeing, and trusting God to bring about the opposite in the future, just as he has demonstrated this supremely in the Resurrection of Jesus. This faith, as Paul expounds it, is in radical contrast to the portrait of faith in Jewish exegesis: it is not to be fused with obedience to the law in the flesh, such as characterized the old age before Christ. Second, however, the contribution of James is that faith, although a gift, is not a kind of inert possession which can be regarded in itself. It must be exercised, and the content of faith must never be the sole aspect; it must give rise to action, as Paul also recognized. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.

1 [ Back ] In the preceding article, Professor Gathercole refers to J. W. van Henten's "The Tradition-Historical Background of Rom. 3:25: A Search for Pagan and Jewish Parallels" in M. C. De Boer's From Jesus to John (JSNTSS; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), pp. 101-128; D. J. Moo's The Letter of James (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 140; J. Jeremias's "Paul and James" in ExpT 66 (1954-55), pp. 368-371; and Richard Hays's The Faith of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 172, 297.
Friday, May 11th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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