The general thesis of this series is that Paul’s statements about faith and Messiah do not mean “faith in Messiah” but rather “the faithfulness of Messiah.” They do not refer to something we must have to please God (the ability to believe) but something God does to show us we can confidently hope in him (Messiah’s faithfulness in becoming one of us, experiencing death, defeating death, and ascending to the throne in heaven).
The premise of what Douglas Campbell (The Deliverance of God) calls “justification theory” — and what most evangelical Christians think is simple “the gospel” — is that our ability to have faith moves God to save us. It is true that Reformed Christians (Calvinists) believe that God grants faith and it is not an ability we have. That’s good, in my opinion. The problem there is that God for no particular reason only grants this faith to a few, thus damning the rest of humanity. And so in that variation, God damns those who by no fault of their own do not possess faith before the time of death. And so, even in that variation, the absence of the condition of faith before a strict deadline spells doom.
In the standard evangelical Christian belief, then, “faith in Christ” is the crux of salvation. In the view I am espousing “the faithfulness of Christ” is the crux of salvation.
Romans 1:16-17, the Foundational Reformation Text
The ESV Bible puts it this way: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Paul’s complex sentences and ambiguous phrases torment lay readers and scholars alike. He really needed an editor.
These two verses have generated an untold number of guesses at what Paul was saying specifically. I won’t run through the history of interpretation.
Really vs. 17 is what I wish to focus on. Even there I will be briefer than some will want. The three main questions are:
- What does Paul mean by the “righteousness of God”?
- What does “from faith to faith” mean?
- What is meant by quoting Habakkuk 2:4?
A Typical Justification Theory Interpretation of Romans 1:17
What does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”? The typical answer in evangelical Christian interpretation is that this refers to something God gives to us. We receive God’s righteousness as a result of having faith. A common explanation is that God considers us righteous in a legal sense, even though we are not in a practical sense, because of our faith in Christ. That is, God regards us as having Christ’s righteousness and does not judge us according to our own lack of righteousness.
What does “from faith to faith” mean? A common answer is that Paul means the whole business of being in Christ begins with faith and continues day after day by faith. That is, faith saves us and faith keeps us saved.
What is meant by quoting Habakkuk 2:4? When Paul quotes the “Old Testament” here as saying, “The righteous shall live by faith,” the usual interpretation is Paul finds a directive for the Christian in Habakkuk. That is, Paul thinks Habakkuk should be read by Christians as saying, “You should live by faith. You should realize that you have (eternal) life because of faith and you should have the power to live a better life day after day by possessing faith.”
What I Am Saying Romans 1:17 Really Means
Determining a valid theory about something starts with a supposal. This is true in science and in interpreting texts (the “science” of which is called hermeneutics). We see raw facts and we suppose a hypothesis that could explain the facts. We judge the merit of the hypothesis by how well it accounts for the facts. Does it omit some of them? Does it bring them together well?
Suppose first that “the righteousness of God” is something about God, not something about us. Justification theory thinks it is about us, that “the righteousness of God” means “the righteousness which God gives to us.” But what if it means simply “God’s righteousness”? N.T. Wright thinks that is what it means (see his excellent book, Justification). God’s righteousness is his way of promising good things and making them happen. It is his covenant love.
Suppose second that the phrase rendered “from faith to faith” in the ESV should really read “from faithfulness to faithfulness.” That is what the Greek word pistis πίστις generally means. And suppose it is not talking primarily about some faithfulness we possess or demonstrate but the faithfulness that Messiah (Christ) possesses and demonstrated in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. We will focus a little more on what it means in the next section (“by means of faithfulness [Messiah’s] for faithfulness [ours, which we are empowered and motivated to grow into because of his]”).
Finally, suppose that Douglas Campbell’s reading of Habakkuk 2:4, as Paul uses it in Romans 1:17, is right. I will be brief. But understand the way ancient readers found “extra” meaning in texts. It is not exclusively Jewish, but if you are familiar with the midrashim of the rabbis you know this is a Jewish way of reading. Campbell says (pgs. 613-616) that “the righteous [one] shall live by faith” is being read by Paul with an extra meaning, something not in the plain meaning. Paul reads it as “Messiah, the righteous one, shall live [be resurrected from the tomb] by [means of] faithfulness.” In other words, Yeshua was faithful in a way no human being ever has been or could be and so God revoked his death.
I know those are a lot of supposals. You could argue with each one of them. But look how coherent Paul’s saying in Romans 1:17 is following this interpretation:
For in the message of the Gospel, God’s righteous character is revealed by means of [Messiah’s] faithfulness for faithfulness [in order to produce it in us], as it is written, “The Righteous One [Messiah] will live [be resurrected] because of faithfulness.”
If I could paraphrase Paul, using language every reader could understand without so much ambiguity, I would render it:
For in the teaching about the deeds and sayings of Messiah Yeshua we see God’s covenant love demonstrated, since God showed it to us in Messiah in a deeper way than ever before. It is Messiah’s faithfulness in suffering death, in meriting resurrection and rulership at the right hand of God, that produces faithfulness in us. This is what Habakkuk said: “The Righteous one will have resurrected life by means of faithfulness.”
Evidence for This Reading of Romans 1:17
The key evidence that vs. 17 does not mean what “justification theory” takes it to mean is the verb “revealed.”
First, let me quote Douglas Campbell, who writes for the scholar, and then let me explain:
Whatever the precise meaning of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ [dikaiosuné Theou, the righteousness of God] in these two sentences,it is being revealed or disclosed by means of πίστις [pistis], and the conventional reading struggles to account for this. “Faith” appropriates salvation and the gospel in Justification Theory, generally after preaching, so for conventional readers to speak of it “revealing” something seems semantically incoherent.
What Campbell is saying here (on pg. 610) is actually pretty simple. For the usual theory, faith is the key ingredient of salvation and it is the main imperative of the gospel (“believe”). So people who think this way have a hard time making sense of a statement: “faith reveals God’s righteousness.”
What makes a whole lot more sense is if something God (or Messiah) has done reveals God’s righteousness. How do you “reveal” to someone your character? By doing something.
So Campbell’s reading is along the lines I have suggested, that “Messiah’s faithfulness reveals God’s righteousness.” Messiah, since he shares God’s unique identity, is God among us who nonetheless submitted to death, whose life merited death being revoked (because death is a condition of errant creations and is not deserved by a person with perfect love), and who was raised to rulership next to God (the Father).
Campbell’s translation, in which he used the word fidelity rather than faithfulness, captures this and also makes something very specific out of what ESV translates as “from faith for faith”:
The δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ [dikaiosuné Theou, the righteousness of God] is being revealed by means of fidelity for fidelity, as it is written, “The righteous one, by means of fidelity, will live.”
Instead of the Justification Theory reading, that we receive the righteousness of Christ because we possess faith, Romans 1:17 means God has disclosed his character through the faithfulness of Messiah. And he did so to motivate and empower us to be faithful too. The Messianic midrash on Habakkuk 2:4 calls us to this. The righteous one was given his life back because of faithfulness and in the same way we will get eternal life by the faithfulness God empowers us to have.
Paul wasn’t telling the Romans they needed to pass a test. He was assuring them God was working in them and encouraging them to follow God’s lead by living out Messiah’s faithfulness.