Musings on Romans 3:21-23

Musings on Romans 3:21-23

21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ  pisteos Iesou Christou] for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. . . [RSV]

We’ve been getting it wrong for centuries

Along with an increasing number of professional scholars, we believe that the Greek phrase, πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteos Iesou Christou)—typically translated something like through “faith in Jesus Christ” as it is in the RSV excerpt given above—probably should be translated through “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

And that changes everything.

Here are our reasons:

1. To first-century Jews, the word  πίστις (pistis) strongly connoted faithfulness much more that it connoted faith.

Even though the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew, it was the Greek Old Testament—not the Hebrew—that was the Bible of the early church. Hellenization (spread of Greek culture) was an extremely powerful and long-lasting force! The Septuagint (LXX) appears to have been the dominant Greek Old Testament available, and was ubiquitous in the Jewish diaspora. Today scholars have access to strongly attested manuscript copies of the LXX. We looked at every instance in the LXX that uses the Greek word πίστις  (pistis) in any of its forms, and recorded the most likely meaning as determined by the context.

In the wider culture, the word generally meant either something akin to faith/trust or something like faithfulness/trustworthiness. Although those are different concepts in our language, Greek speakers had but a single word, the reader having to decide the writer’s meaning from context.

The Old Testament differs, however, from the wider culture:

With one possible but not unambiguous exception, in virtually every instance where an OT Hebrew passage was translated into Greek using a form of πίστις  (pistis), context rather clearly suggests that the Greek translator understood the word to mean faithfulness (or something similar). Not faith/trust.

That was quite a surprise to us. This finding suggests that, when New Testament writers used the word πίστις (pistis), steeped in the Greek Old Testament as they were, the meaning in the general matrix of their understanding would lean strongly toward the idea of faithfulness. It is obvious in many passages, of course, that trust/faith/confidence was clearly the intended meaning (e.g., Acts 24:24, 27:25; the passage immediately below the one above, Romans 3:28; I Corinthians 2:5, II Corinthians 4:13). But we strongly suspect that for many New Testament passages faithfulness or steadfastness or trustworthiness might better be substituted for faith in English translations.

2. That’s the most obvious reading of the passage.

The grammar of Romans 3:22 is pretty straightforward, with “Jesus Christ” in the genitive (possessive) case. Over the centuries biblical scholars have argued over the meaning of this and similar passages, the discussions largely coming down to deciding whether it is an objective genitive (in which Jesus Christ is primarily the object of faith/trust), or a subjective genitive, in which the πίστις (pistis) belongs to Jesus. Both constructions are common in the NT. Although there have been exceptions, it seems that the bulk of scholars (including translators of various English versions) have historically agreed that the phrase in Romans 3:22 is an objective genitive, leading them to translate the phrase as “faith in Jesus Christ.” We believe, however, that such conclusions may largely have arisen less from scholarly objectivity than from theological assumptions about the preeminence of believers’ faith in the process of salvation—these scholars were so grounded in that theological formula that they couldn’t conceive of translating it any other way! But if you step back and try to avoid the theological prejudice that began with Martin Luther and continues to the present day, and if you acknowledge that πίστις (pistis) first and foremost meant faithfulness to Paul and other NT writers (judging from what the word meant in the Old Testament), then it’s easy to take the grammar in its simple, straightforward meaning, i.e., “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

The exact same Greek construction from Romans 3:22 ( πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ  pisteos Iesou Christou) occurs in Galatians 2:16 and Galatians 3:22 (which seems to use both faithful and faith meanings of the term). Similar statements are in Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:9, and Colossians 2:12.

What if a better (or at least a highly likely) reading of these and similar statements is something like the following [in each passage, words translating the Greek  πίστις (pistis), either in noun or in verb form, are underlined.]?

Romans 3:21-24    21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it,  22the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. . . [Note how Paul uses both senses of the word  πίστις (pistis) in the same sentence—as he does in several of the passages below. Note also: we inserted the second all at the beginning of v. 23 because the verb in that clause has as its subject the all of the previous clause—and yet the vast majority of Christians tend to read this passage incorrectly, imagining that it says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and some are justified by his grace as a gift.”  That’s NOT what it says!]

Galatians 2:16   . . . yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to trust in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. [Here Paul used πίστις (pistis) three times, the second time (in verb form) clearly meaning something like trust; the other two instances are highly consistent with the idea of faithfulness/steadfastness.]

Galatians 2:20    . . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live through the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 3:22    But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ might be given to those who have faith. [Again, both meanings of the word in the same sentence, with Paul sort of playing with the nuances of the word.]

Philippians 3:9    . . . and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. [Yet another passage that, if we are correctly interpreting it, reveals Paul’s near-playfulness with the language, his taking advantage of the wide range of meanings of πίστις (pistis) and contrasting the faithfulness, i.e., the πίστις (pistis) of Christ with the need for us to have faith—πίστις (pistis)—in him.]

Colossians 2:12    . . . and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through the steadfastness of the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

We strongly suspect that we need not, indeed should not, exclusively accept one kind of genitive (subjective or objective) over the other, or one meaning (faithfulness or faith) exclusively over the other. Paul was a Pharisee. He learned his Torah over many years from rabbis who spent most of their time mining the Old Testament for exotic, esoteric, cryptic meanings. These people, Paul included, did not see the world as we see it, and did not see the Bible as we see it, with our insistence on logic, consistency, etc. It requires only a few minutes of perusing through the Mishnah or the Talmud to make a modern Western reader wonder, “What in the world were these guys smoking?!”

We would not be at all surprised if Paul intentionally constructed the sentences quoted above so that both meanings were present (i.e., the faithfulness of Jesus Christ; faith in Jesus Christ), and might even have smiled inwardly as he created these sentences, congratulating himself on cleverly revealing both the overarching importance of Christ’s faithfulness as well as, in the very same phrase, the importance of placing our trust in him. There’s no way to know with certainty. If we were forced to place a bet on one of the three possibilities, however—(1) faith in JC, (2) faithfulness of JC, or (3) a Pharisaic verbal coup that intended both meanings—we would choose the third option, the second possibility being our second choice.

Whether Paul the Pharisee was enclosing two meanings within a single phrase (option #3 above), or whether in a more straightforward manner he was proclaiming the ultimate importance of the faithfulness of Jesus (option #2), what we do not think he was saying was that salvation comes through our faith. Option #1 in the previous paragraph is not very compelling. It’s not an optimum translation; and it leaves the theological picture messy and open to Calvinist-type accusations that are actually rather cogent.

Traditional theology doesn’t go far enough

If we are correct in at least some of these interpretations, especially of Romans 3, then a major pillar of Protestant faith is supplanted with a much more glorious possibility. The Luther-inspired elevation of believers’ faith has always been susceptible to Calvinists’ accusations, which go something like this:

You claim that you have been freed from works, that salvation is by faith and not by works. But you are still able to point pridefully to a nonbeliever and say self-righteously, “I have faith and you don’t, so I’m more deserving of God’s grace than you are. . .”  Faith becomes essentially a work for you, for it’s something that you do. Even though you don’t admit it, in your theology you’re still saved by works, in this case the work of faith. That’s why we remove faith entirely from the equation. It’s all up to God—he decides who is saved, he decides who is damned. No one can boast, whether of works (like traditional Roman Catholics) or even of faith (like Lutherans and most other Protestants, etc.). It’s all God, so that he gets all the credit and all the glory. . .

The point about faith being a work, something that we do and therefore for which we can take credit, is rather compelling. What people of such persuasion (e.g., Calvinist) fail to understand is that, yes, it’s all God—but what God has chosen to do is more glorious than any human mind could conceive (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9, which underlines the unfathomable difference between God’s ways and ours, specifically because he is so much more merciful than we are). He has indeed done it all. For everyone. The Lamb having been slain from the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8), God predestined everyone to eternal salvation, as long as they are willing to accept it. The Lamb having been slain from the foundation of the world, all of human history has been covered by that precious blood from the very beginning. Glory to God!

John 1:29  The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  [For what it’s worth—in this and every other passage where the word world is used, the Greek is ko,smoj (kosmos).]

John 3:16-17  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 John 12:31-32  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

 Acts 2:20-21  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

 Romans 3:23-24 . . .since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, all are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

 Romans 5:18 . . .just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

 Romans 11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.   [N.B. In order to understand almost any part of the first eleven chapters of Romans, we believe it’s important to see that the entire sweep of Paul’s argument in those chapters is pointing toward this short statement as a summary of everything he said prior to that point, and as the grand climax. Please don’t read any part of Romans in isolation without considering this possibility.]

I Corinthians 15:22   . . .for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

 II Corinthians 5:19    . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

 Ephesians 1:9-10    . . .he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

 Colossians 1:19-20     For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 I Timothy 2:5-6    For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

 I Timothy 4:10    For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

 Titus 2:11   For the grace of God has appeared, with salvation for all human beings. . .

 I John 2:2    . . .he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

 Revelation 22:17    The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

We appear to have digressed toward a different topic—i.e., the inclusiveness of the salvation of Jesus. Yet it’s not a genuine digression, since that issue is a logical subtext to this Romans 3 translation study. For if Jesus did it all—if it is his faithfulness that secures our eternal life with the Father, rather than our own faith/trust—then there remains the question, “If the in-crowd isn’t determined according to our faith but rather his faithfulness, then by what action of ours is it determined? What is there left to do?”

And the answer, of course, is Nothing. It’s all gift. It is finished. We certainly have the privilege of saying No to our Savior’s gracious offer, and presumably there will be those who would rather die eternally than accept charity, but other than simply accepting the invitation, there’s not a whole lot we need to do in order to be in the in-group (i.e., those who are privileged to live forever in blessed communion with our Creator) except to say Yes to our Redeemer and to bow our knees to him as Lord.

There is plenty to do in the meantime, of course, and our Father remains free and even eager to discipline us and to make demands of us that we sometimes would prefer to avoid (cf. the book of Jonah), but all such things are completely outside the question of “Will I make it into eternal life or will I not?” I will if I want it. I have only to say Yes. That’s how complete our Savior’s salvation is that he purchased at infinite cost to himself. It all depends not on my faith, but on his faithfulness. Praise God!

Matthew 22:  “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad [sic!]; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness. . .”

Jesus’ hearers would immediately have understood this common symbolism (i.e., clothing) for righteousness—this guest had arrogantly and rudely chosen to attend the celebrations in his own filthy clothing (i.e., his own righteousness). All we need do is accept, at the entrance to the banquet hall, the wedding garment that is offered to us. That free gift of righteousness resulted from our Lord’s voluntary death on the cross. It’s ours, free, no strings attached, if we want it.

It depends not on what we do, or what we believe, or how much faith we have—it depends solely on him, and he has done it all. It’s the only thing in the universe that looks too good to be true, but it is true! And that is good news!