The book of Romans is not simply a gospel tract. It was not written merely to answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The book certainly explains how to be saved, but it deals more directly with the larger question, “How has God brought to fulfillment his long awaited plan for restoration through Israel?”
To put it briefly, Paul’s answer is, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This phrase shows up in Paul’s work more often than you might realize.
Jesus’ Faithfulness to God’s Covenant Promises
An increasing number of scholars believe that when Paul speaks of “faith in Jesus Christ,” he is referring, not to our faith, but to Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant promises.
We are certainly saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and you do see that in various places in the Pauline epistles, but Paul’s work deals primarily with something much bigger than that.
We’ve already determined that the word “gospel” and the phrase “the righteousness of Jesus Christ” mean far more than most readers realize. “Faith in Jesus Christ”, or pistis Christou, is another such phrase. There are passages in which this phrase might be better translated “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” I believe that Paul refers primarily to the covenant implications of Jesus’ faithful obedience, not to our personal actions.
Take Galatians 3:22
Look, for example, at Galatians 3:22.
But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Now, the Bible certainly does teach that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, but that may not be quite what Paul is saying here. For one thing, the word in is not in the original Greek. Try reading it this way: “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise of God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” I think this is a more accurate translation of this passage.
Think about it: why would Paul write that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who have faith in Jesus Christ? That’s redundant. Also, do we really think that all of God’s purposes depend upon whether or not we believe? Did Paul teach that the righteousness of God is revealed only if we believe, or is the righteousness of God revealed when the Son comes and God keeps his word? The passage makes more sense if we read “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”
Now Look at Romans 1:17
This shows up again in Romans 1:17:
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Paul is quoting here from the book of Habakkuk. Remember, Paul doesn’t quote Old Testament authors haphazardly. When he uses a passage from the Old Testament, you must be aware of the passage’s context if you are to understand why Paul uses it. Habakkuk is a great illustration of this. Scholars agree, and context confirms, that the faith spoken of in Habakkuk 2:4 is a reference to the faithfulness of God—not to the faith of a believer. In other words, the righteous will live because of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people.
Some passages are ambiguous; Paul might refer either to our faith, or to Jesus’ faithfulness. Philippians 3:9 is such a passage:
…and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith…
This passage also makes sense if you read it “…not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…” Both translations may be accurate.
Research for Yourself
When you see the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” or something similar in the following passages, try an experiment: substitute the phrase “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to God’s covenant promises.”
Does the passage make more sense now? Does this new translation fit the context? How might this phrase shift the weight of what Paul is trying to say? I’d love to hear what you find. You can contact me here.
The previous was adapted from a class Dr. Sloan taught on the book of Romans at Houston Baptist University.