Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 1 (Introduction; justification according to Paul; the faith of Christ; our union with Christ)

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

This four-part study is based on a thought-provoking discussion I had a while back with a believing friend of mine (who, for the sake of anonymity, I’ll be referring to as “Frank”). As this study further demonstrates and emphasizes the differences between the ministry/administration of those heralding the evangel of the Uncircumcision (e.g., Paul, Apollos and Timothy) and that of those heralding the evangel of the Circumcision (e.g., Peter, James and John), it can be seen as a continuation of my previous study on the two evangels. My discussion with Frank touched on a number of related topics, but the primary focus of our discussion was on the subject of “justification by faith without works,” and the identity of the recipients of this particular blessing.

Frank and I were in agreement that, at the time James’ letter to the twelve tribes was written, James held to a view concerning faith, works, justification and salvation that was not compatible with what Paul taught in his letters to the saints in the body of Christ (i.e., Romans through Philemon). Frank’s own studies and reflection on this issue, however, led him to conclude (at least tentatively) that, at some point during their ministries, Peter, John and those to whom they wrote their letters - as well as those to whom the author of the “letter to the Hebrews” wrote - came to accept what Paul taught concerning justification, rather than the doctrinal position affirmed by James in his letter.

Thus, Frank came to believe that the blessing of justification which Paul wrote as being “through the faith of Christ Jesus” (and which, according to Paul, is “apart from works”) is a blessing that was received, or bestowed upon, most (if not all) of the recipients of those letters making up our Greek “New Testament” scriptures. According to Frank’s position, then, the blessing of justification through the faith of Christ should be understood as something common to all of the saints living at the time Paul wrote, whether they were members of the body of Christ or not. And in conjunction with the widespread receiving of this blessing, the “Pauline” doctrine of justification eventually became the standard, “orthodox” view adopted by all (or at least most) of the saints living when Paul wrote his letters.

In contrast with Frank’s view, I believe that, as long as it has been available to humanity, the blessing of justification through the faith of Christ has been a blessing received exclusively by those Jews and (primarily) gentiles belonging to the body of Christ. I believe that Peter and John – as well as the saints to whom they ministered and wrote - held to the same view of justification and salvation as affirmed by James in his letter to the twelve tribes, and that (as far as we know from Scripture) they never abandoned this view during the course of their ministry as “apostles to the Circumcision.” It is this general position that I will be defending in this article.

Justification according to Paul

In my previous study on the two evangels, I articulated my view on what, exactly, the distinct evangels of Peter and Paul are. Although the truth that all mankind will eventually be justified and saved is, I believe, inherent in Paul’s evangel, neither Paul’s evangel nor Peter’s evangel explicitly concerns the question of how anyone can be justified at the present time (Paul's evangel assures us that all will eventually be justified by virtue of Christ's death, but it leaves open the question of when this will occur). However, it’s also clear that, sometime after the beginning of the new administration given to Paul (and the commencement of the heralding of his evangel among the nations), Paul began dispensing a radical new truth about justification – and how one is justified - to those Jews and (primarily) gentiles who believed his evangel and had become members of the body of Christ. So what is justification?

As is clear from the English translation of the Greek words translated “justification” (dikaiósis) and “justify” (dikaioó), these words are derived from a word meaning “just” or “righteous” (dikaios). The most commonly accepted definition of “justify” is simply, “to declare or pronounce just, or righteous.” In support of this definition, consider Luke 7:29 (where we’re told that the “entire people, even the tribute collectors, justify God”), and compare this verse with Paul’s quotation of Psalm 51:4 in Rom 3:4. When God is understood as the one doing the justifying (i.e., God’s declaring or pronouncing a person “just” or “righteous”), the word involves God’s judicial acceptance and approval of the person.  Although it is this understanding of “justify” which I believe to be most likely correct (and will thus be presupposing in this study), I have yet to come across a definition of the word that could be considered inconsistent with the main position for which I’ll be arguing.

But what does it mean to be “righteous” or “just?” In Scripture, “righteousness” (or being “just”) can be understood as conformity to a norm or standard (which, for humans, involves fulfilling one’s legal and relational obligations to God and other persons). But as we’ll see, there is both an absolute and a relative sense in which a human being can be considered “righteous” or “just” - and, consequently, there is both an absolute and a relative sense in which one could be said to be “justified,” or declared just/righteous by God.

According to the absolute sense, God’s own perfectly loving, rational and trustworthy character is the norm or standard of righteousness. God is righteous because he has always thought and acted in conformity with his own nature, or essence; thus, righteousness, in the absolute sense, is conformity to the norm or standard to which God holds (and has always held) himself. When held to this absolute standard of righteousness, no sinner “measures up,” and thus no sinner can be considered righteous or just before God (Psalm 143:2; Rom. 3:9-12).

Against this perfect standard, all human beings (with one notable exception) are, according to Paul, “under sin,” and thus “wanting of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In a later section, we’ll be looking at a number of verses from Scripture in which people are described as “just” or “righteous.” Since Paul would’ve undoubtedly been familiar with such verses, we can conclude that Paul was not ignorant of the fact that there was another sense - i.e., a relative sense (or, what we might call the “common” sense) - in which people could be considered and described in Scripture as “just” or “righteous.” We can therefore conclude that when Paul affirmed the fact that “not one is just – not even one,” he meant that, apart from receiving the righteousness of God referred to in Romans 3, no human being is, or can be, just in the absolute sense.

However, by the time that Paul’s administration as the apostle of the nations began, this absolute righteousness - which Paul referred to as a “righteousness of God” that is “apart from law” - had become “manifest” (Rom. 3:21), and was available to all who believed on Christ in accord with the truth of the evangel that Paul was heralding among the nations (for Paul goes on to say that this righteousness of God is “for all” and “on all who are believing”).

Paul went on to write that God’s setting Christ forth “for a Propitiatory shelter, through faith in His blood” was “toward the display of His righteousness in the current era, for Him [God] to be just and a Justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). Here, again, we find that the “righteousness of God” that has been manifested in the current era was not available to any member of the human race (either Jew or gentile) at any time prior to Christ’s death. It follows from this that any righteousness that a human could be said to have possessed prior to Christ’s death and resurrection was not the same “righteousness of God” referred to by Paul in Romans and Galatians. Whatever righteousness a person can be said to have had prior to the coming of Christ cannot be understood as the exact same kind of righteousness as that of which Paul wrote in this passage.

The Faith of Christ

As we’ve seen, the sort of righteousness to which Paul is referring in Romans 3:21 – what Paul calls a “righteousness of God” - is an absolute, perfect righteousness. That this is the nature of the “righteousness of God” of which Paul wrote is, again, confirmed by Paul’s declarations that all are “under sin” and that “‘not one is just’ – not even one” (Rom. 3:9-10, 23). But by virtue of what is this righteousness absolute and perfect? The answer to this question is, I believe, provided by Paul in the next verse. In Romans 3:22 we find that this righteousness is “through Jesus Christ’s faith.”

The majority of English Bibles we have today have translated the words pisteos Ieesou Christou in v. 22 as “faith in Christ.” However, the King James Version (surprisingly!), Young’s Literal Translation, the Concordant Literal New Testament, the Dabhar translation and the New English Translation (NET) all translate the words pisteos Ieesou Christou as “the faith of Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ’s faith,” or something equivalent in meaning to this. Similarly, pistis Christou in Galatians 2:20 is translated “faith of Christ,” or “Christ’s faith,” rather than “faith in Christ” (see also Galatians 2:16; 3:22; Romans 3:26; Ephesians 3:12; Philippians 3:9). But what accounts for the difference in translation in Romans 3:22 and other similar verses?

The grammatical issue which the translators have sought to resolve in verses like these is whether pisteos Christou should be understood as referring to (1) Christ’s own faith, or (2) the believer’s faith in Christ. The translational ambiguity here stems from the fact that Christou is the genitive form of the word “Christ” (or “Messiah”), and genitives can be understood as either subjective or objective. According to the objective genitive reading, that which Paul had in view in Romans 3:22 and elsewhere was Christ as the object of the believer’s faith. According to the subjective genitive reading, on the other hand, Paul had in view Christ as the subject who possesses the faith that is in view here.

So which view is correct? It is my conviction that those translations in which dia pisteos Ieesou Christou in Romans 3:22 (and other similar verses) is translated “faith of Jesus Christ” (or some equivalent expression) are correct. Based on the grammatical evidence alone, I cannot help but see the burden of proof as resting squarely on those holding to the “faith in Christ” (the objective genitive) position. While an in-depth analysis and defense of the “faith of Christ” position – especially from a grammatical standpoint - is beyond the scope of this study (as well as my own understanding!), those who have defended this position have provided evidence which, by my lights, strongly tilts the scales in favor of the subjective genitive translation.[i] But there are other, non-grammatical considerations that I see as lending weight to the “faith of Christ” position.

If, by the expression dia pisteos Ieesou Christou in Romans 3:22, Paul merely meant “through faith in Jesus Christ,” why did he need to add “for all, and on all who believe?” It makes Paul redundant to say that our righteousness is “through faith in Jesus Christ, for all, and on all who believe [in Jesus Christ]…” In fact, in at least four of the six cases where “faith of Christ” appears, there would be an unusual repetition if it were rendered “faith in Christ” (see Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16; 3:22; Philippians 3:9).

However, when dia pisteos Ieesou Christou is translated as “through the faith of Jesus Christ,” we find that Paul is not being redundant but rather revealing to his readers a profound truth: the righteousness that we receive by our faith in Paul’s “evangel of the uncircumcision” is not based on our own faith, but rather on the faith of Christ. It is because it is through Christ’s faith – and not our own – that the righteousness we receive when we believe this evangel is a perfect and absolute righteousness. The believer’s own faith in Christ – even when our faith is rightly understood as ultimately given to us by God (Rom. 12:3; Phil. 1:29) - simply cannot account for, and be the basis of, the absolute righteousness that we receive when we believe Paul’s evangel.

This view also makes better sense of Paul’s words in Romans 1:17, where we read that the righteousness of God is revealed “out of (or “from”) faith, for faith” (ek pisteos eis pistin). When we understand this verse to be foreshadowing what Paul would later write in Romans 3:22, the verse becomes much less enigmatic: “Out of faith” in Romans 1:17 corresponds to “through Jesus Christ’s faith” in Rom. 3:22, and “for faith” in 1:17 corresponds to “for all, and on all who believe” in 3:22. Thus, interpreting scripture with scripture, “out of faith” can be understood as a reference to Christ’s faith, and “for faith” can be understood as a reference to the faith of those who believe Paul’s evangel (and who have consequently been justified on the basis of Christ’s faith).

Union with Christ

As we’ve seen, the “righteousness of God” that Paul had in mind in Romans 3:21 and elsewhere is the perfect righteousness of Christ, who lived and died without sin, and was never “wanting of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is this righteousness that is reckoned to the believer when he or she believes the evangel that Paul heralded among the nations, which Paul referred to variously as “the evangel of the grace of God,” (Acts 20:24), “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:17-18), “the evangel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the word of the conciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). It is by believing this “word” or evangel that one becomes “God’s righteousness in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 5:21). But how can this absolute righteousness of God be justly “reckoned” by God to those who believe Paul’s evangel?

To answer this question (and to review the position being defended thus far), let’s consider Paul’s words in Galatians 2:15-21. In verses 15-16, Paul wrote: “We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having perceived that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus, we also believe in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law, seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified.” 

According to Paul, it is by believing in Christ Jesus (in accord with the truth of Paul’s evangel) that we are justified through and by the faith of Jesus Christ. The meritorious basis for our justification is thus not our own faith, but the faith of Christ. Since the “righteousness of God” that one receives when believing Paul’s evangel is based on Christ’s faith - i.e., the faith that Christ had when, in obedience to God, he laid down his life on the cross - it follows that the righteousness of God that is “reckoned” to those who believe Paul’s evangel is a perfect, absolute righteousness.

Paul went on to write the following in verses 20-21: “With Christ have I been crucified, yet I am living; no longer I, but living in me is Christ. Now that which I am now living in flesh, I am living in faith that is of the Son of God, Who loves me, and gives Himself up for me. I am not repudiating the grace of God, for if righteousness is through law, consequently Christ died gratuitously.” Paul is here presupposing a spiritual union that he had with Christ while he lived (and, I believe, continues to have even while dead). It was this spiritual union that allowed Paul to say that he had been crucified with Christ, and that, while he continued to live “in flesh,” Christ was living in him! It was this intimate union that enabled him to write that he was “living in faith that is of the Son of God” – that is, the faith in which he was living was not his own, but that of Christ’s!

When those pre-designated by God for eonian life “in the heavens” are given faith to believe the evangel through which they are called to their celestial allotment, they are placed in spiritual union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-9) and thus become “in Christ” – a phrase which occurs some twenty-five times in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom. 8:1; Gal. 3:27-28; Eph. 1:3-13; 2:5-7; etc.). This inseparable, vital union that believers in Paul’s evangel have with Christ Jesus is what is being expressed by Paul’s “body of Christ” imagery (1 Cor. 6:15-19; 10:16-17; 12:12-27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 1:23; 3:6; 4:4, 12-16; 5:23-33; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15). Being thus in spiritual union with Christ, the faith of Christ – and the perfect righteousness that he had by his faith in God  – becomes the faith and righteousness of those who are in union with Christ. Thus, the salvation of those in the body of Christ has nothing to do with any “works which are wrought in righteousness which we do,” but is the result of God’s mercifully justifying us in Christ’s grace, so that we may be “enjoyers, in expectation, of the allotment of life eonian” (Titus 3:4-7).

“Yet now…a righteousness of God is manifest…”

At some point subsequent to his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul – as well as those who became Paul’s co-laborers in his ministry to and among the nations - had come to perceive “that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus…seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified” (Gal. 2:15-17; cf. v. 21). Although the righteousness to which this justification pertains had been “attested by the law and the prophets,” it had not been manifested – and could not be received by anyone - until after the death and resurrection of Christ. We know this because this “righteousness of God” is through Jesus Christ’s faith, and our being “justified gratuitously in His grace” is said to be “through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22-24). Being based on Jesus Christ’s faith, the justification of which Paul wrote in these verses was not even available to mankind until after Christ had come. 

This is further confirmed by what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:21-24, where we read, “But scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faith may be given to those who are believing” [i.e., believing Paul’s “evangel of the uncircumcision,” which Paul and certain other believing Jews – such as Barnabas and Apollos - were heralding among the nations]. Paul continues: “Now before the coming of faith we [Paul and his Jewish co-laborers] were garrisoned under law, being locked up together for the faith about to be revealed. So that the law has become our escort to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”

According to what Paul wrote here, it was not even possible for he or any other Israelite to be justified in the sense of which he was writing until the faith through which we are justified (i.e., Christ’s faith) was “revealed” – which means that the righteousness of believing Israelites such as David, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Elizabeth was not the righteousness that is through Christ’s faith. And if this is the case, then it follows that no one was justified in the sense of which Paul wrote before the law came, either. But if that’s the case, how then could anyone be considered righteous before people began to be justified through the faith of Christ? And what do we make of Paul’s use of Abraham in defense of his teaching concerning justification? These questions bring us to the subject of relative righteousness.

[i] In his article, “Justification by the Faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” Chad Harrington summarizes the grammatical evidence for this position as follows:

In regard to grammar, the case is strongest towards the subjective genitive interpretation despite current the majority opinion of scholars on an international level. This is the argument: Robinson states that there is no usage of πίστις with an objective genitive next to a pronoun in the Septuagint. Then, there is non-Septuagintal literature--every time a noun is followed by a genitival pronoun in Jewish literature during the Second Temple era, the construction is subjective except once. 

Harrington goes on to say, “In the Pauline corpus, more importantly, Paul never uses πίστις, a proper noun and an objective genitive together. The twenty-four instances where πίστις is followed by a proper noun or pronoun in the Pauline corpus, twenty refer to the faith of Christians, two the faith of Abraham (Rom 4.12, 16), one to any believer (Rom 4.5) and one to God's faithfulness (Rom. 3.3).”

Quoting George Howard, Harrington concludes, “Thus in every instance in which πίστις is followed by a proper noun or pronoun in the genitive case, the genitive is unmistakably subjective.”

Similarly, the NET Bible states the following in a footnote for Romans 3:22: “When πίστις [“faith”] takes a personal genitive it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Matt 9:2, 22, 29; Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52; Luke 5:20; 7:50; 8:25, 48; 17:19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; 12; 3:3; 4:5, 12, 16; 1 Cor. 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor. 10:15; Phil 2:17; Col 1:4; 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:8; 3:2, 5, 10; 2 Thess. 1:3; Titus 1:1; Philemon 6; 1 Pet. 1:9, 21; 2 Pet. 1:5).”

1 comment:

  1. Aaron, I love your writings. They are meat and they bring nourishment to me like nothing I've read in a long time. You are the only contemporary writer that does this for me. Keep writing—please.