Justification by Faith: James 2:18-19, 24; Eph 2:8-9

This study supplements and completes the discussion from the prior study on James 2:14-26, in relation to the doctrine (and Reformation principle) of “Justification by Faith”. The previous discussion will be supplemented by a study covering the following three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with its seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.
James  2:18-19

In between the two (parallel) arguments of the treatise (vv. 14-17, 20-26), the author includes a brief rhetorical exchange, which serves the literary purpose of transitioning between the two arguments. However, it also is pivotal for an understanding of the author’s view on the relation between “faith and works”.

“But some(one) will speak (like this): ‘You hold trust, and I hold works’; show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works.” (v. 18)

The author of the letter suddenly introduces a second ‘speaker’ who functions as an opponent for debate. The hypothetical (rhetorical) nature of this person is clear from the wording used to introduce him: “but some(one) [ti$] will speak…”. This figure is a type, representing a conventional way of thinking, but reflecting a person who does not really understand the truth of the situation. We might paraphrase the author’s wording as “someone will surely say (this)…”. What the responder says (lit. “speaks/utters”) is: “you hold trust and I hold works”. What is meant by this?

Commentators offer several avenues for interpretation, but, since the author is the one who is advocating for the importance of “works” as a demonstration of a person’s “trust” (faith), the statement is perhaps best understood as a characterization of the author’s position. In other words, the speaker acts as a foil who misrepresents (or misunderstands) the author’s own position. There are people who might think that the author is making a facile contrast: you hold “trust”, but I hold works. The main point of contrast, however, is that such a separation of “trust” and “works” is not possible, either conceptually, or in reality. Yet, that is precisely what someone espousing the position of ‘justification by faith alone’ might imply: i.e., you try to gain salvation through works, but I rely on trust alone.

To conceive of a separation between trust and works reflects a faulty reasoninga point made clear by the author’s response in v. 18b: “show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works”. The contrast is expressed by the prepositions xwri/$ (“apart from, separate from”) and e)k (“out of”, i.e. coming from). The author challenges his ‘opponent’ to demonstrate his “trust” apart from any works. Such a demonstration is not possible, since, from the author’s viewpoint, there can be no true trust (faith) in Christ that is “apart” from works. This is the main argument in verses 14ff (and again in 20ff). By contrast, since true faith is manifested by a person’s “works”, one can readily demonstrate such trust through (or “from”, e)k) those works.

In verse 19, the author goes on to make a rather pointed (even harsh) criticism of the person who imagines that one can have any real or meaningful trust apart from works:

“You trust that ‘God is One’; you do well, and (yet even) the daimons trust (the same way) and shudder!”

By defining trust in the most general terms (for Jews and Christians), as a monotheistic declaration that “God is One”, the author makes the point most vividly: even the demons have that level of faith. He could have framed he example more in Christian termsviz., you trust that “Jesus is the Son of God”, fine enough, but even the demons will make such a confession (cf. Mark 3:11; 5:7 par, etc). The point is that such a “trust” in Jesus, if it is not manifest in “works” and, especially, by sacrificial acts of love toward fellow believersis empty, and without much meaning.

James 2:24

The declaration in verse 24, following directly upon the Abraham example (as an illustration of a person’s trust demonstrated by “works”), is the portion of the treatise that would appear most directly to contradict the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. This is all the more striking when one considers the importance of the example of Abraham in Paul’s line of argument (in Romans and Galatians), and the fact that he uses the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), but uses it to make the opposite point (cf. Rom 3:27-28)!

Here is the author’s conclusion, which he draws from the example of Abraham:

“You see that a man is made/declared right [dikaiou=tai] out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust alone.”

Compare this with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28:

“For we consider a man to be made/declared right [dikaiou=sqai] by trust, apart from [xwri/$] works”

The two statements would appear to be contradictory. Paul even uses the very expression, “apart from works” (xwri\$ e&rga), that the James treatise categorically refutes. The Pauline expression in the translation above, however, is incomplete; for the full phrase is “…apart from works of the law [no/mou]”. Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans is that the regulations of the Torah (the Old Testament Law [of Moses]) are no longer binding for believers in Christ (and especially for Gentile believers). In the Pauline idiom “works” is a shorthand for “works of the Law” meaning performance or fulfillment of the Torah regulations.

In the James treatise, “works” does not have this specialized meaning. This is clear from the context of 2:14-26, where “works” primarily refers to acts of love (care and compassion) shown to fellow believers in their time of need. Paul would affirm the importance of this as well, though almost certainly he would not have expressed it the way our author has. It is also quite possible that the author’s view of the Lawthat is, the believer’s relationship to the Torah regulationswas not all that different from Paul’s. Though he does not treat the matter as forcefully (or as distinctively) as Paul does in Galatians and Romans, etc., there is no sense in the letter that the author views the Torah regulations as in any way binding on believers. Indeed, he shares with Paul (and with other early Christians) the view that the Torah is effectively summarized (and/or replaced) for believers by the “love command”, reflected in the teaching and example of Jesus. For more the Law (Torah) in the Letter of James, see my recent article and notes in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (and esp. the note on James 2:8).

The Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” is well summarized by the statement in Rom 3:28 (cf. above). A person is “made right” (vb dikaio/w) in God’s eyes through trust alone—that is, through trust in the person and work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection (as God’s Son). The verb dikaio/w can also be understood in terms of being declared right (i.e., righteous, innocent), in a forensic or judicial sense. This aspect better fits the eschatological context of the coming end-time Judgment—of believers being saved from God’s Judgment on humankind. However, it is probably better to retain the more general meaning of the verb. Things are “made right” between human beings and God, and as believers we are “made right” (by God), through our faith in Christ.

In James 2:24, the verb dikaio/w perhaps should be understood in the sense of “being recognized as right(eous)” by God. That would certainly fit the context of the Abraham example, and of the wider principle that a person’s trust, if it is genuine, will be demonstrated by his/her actions. God recognizes the right(eous)ness that is reflected by such behavior. However, the author is also not unaware of the eschatological Judgment-aspect, and he surely would affirm that believers are saved from the coming Judgment by their faith—a faith that is manifested in works.

If the author of the letter was aware of Paul’s teaching, and is responding to it in some way, as seems likely, then it is possible his main concern is that the Pauline doctrine could be (or has been) carelessly reduced to a general “faith without works” slogan. Without the context of Paul’s arguments regarding the Torah, and a proper understanding of his use of the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou), a person might mistakenly infer that no “works” of any kind were necessary for believers. The author clearly affirms that acts of love and care toward fellow believers, and similar “good works”, are necessary, at least in the sense that they will be present in the life of anyone who has true faith.

Whether or not there is a deeper opposition to Paul’s teaching in the letter of James (the treatise in 2:14-26) is difficult to say. The fact the author uses the same Abraham example (and Scripture, Gen 15:6) as Paul, only to make virtually the opposite point, does seem to suggest a more fundamental difference in outlook. If ‘James’ was aware of Paul’s writings, then the contradictory use of the Abraham example, etc, would have to be regarded as intentional, meant as a contrast to Paul’s teaching. But is there a real contradiction, at the theological and doctrinal level, between James and Paul? To give an answer to this question, we must briefly examine another important Pauline statement on “faith and works”, in Ephesians 2:8-9.

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been saved, through trustand this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God(and) not out of works, (so) that one should not boast (of it).”

The declaration reads like a theological expansion of the Pauline teaching on “justification by faith” (see on Rom 3:28, above). The core Pauline doctrine is certainly contained at the heart of Eph 2:8-9: “…having been saved (= “made right”/justified) through trust…and not out of works”. The exact relationship to the Pauline teaching, however, depends on one’s view regarding the authorship of Ephesians. For many critical commentators, it is pseudonymous, though still a product of the Pauline Tradition, representing a (secondary) development of Paul’s teaching. For commentators who maintain the traditional-conservative view (that the letter is genuinely written by Paul), Ephesians still shows important signs of development in Paul’s thought and manner of expression, suggesting that it was written some time after Galatians and Romans, etc.

The points of development can be seen in the elements that have been added to the core doctrine, forming the expanded statement of Eph 2:8-9:

    • The emphasis on the favor (xa/ri$) shown to us by God. While the term xa/ri$, used in this soteriological sense, is very much part of the Pauline vocabulary (cf. Rom 3:24; 11:5-6 etc), its close pairing here with pi/sti$ (“trust, faith”) is clearly intended to give a deeper (and clearer) theological formulation to the Pauline doctrine. One is saved/justified by faith, but only insofar as we were first shown favor by God; the idea of favor (or ‘grace’) is primary.
    • The same point of emphasis is seen in the parenthetical clause that follows the expression “by trust”. As if to reinforce the idea that our salvation derives primarily from God’s favor shown to us, rather than simply by virtue of our trust, Paul (or the author) declares unequivocally: “this is (does) not (come) out of [i.e. from] you, (but is) the gift [dw=ron] of God.”
    • The final purpose/result clause also reinforces the idea of our entire dependence on God (and his favor) for our salvation. Since it does not come from (“out of”) ourselves, by our own effort and intention, we certainly cannot rightly “boast” of it. The wording suggests that this is part of God’s very purpose in arranging things this way: “…so that one should not boast (of it)”.
    • Another minor sign of development is the use of the perfect participle (of the verb sw/zw, “save”) to characterize believers as “(one)s having been saved” (sesw|sme/noi). In contrast with comparable statements by Paul in Galatians, Romans, (and 1 Corinthians), Ephesians never uses the verb dikaio/w; instead, the verb sw/zw occurs here, and in something of a specialized sense.

Perhaps most significant of all, in the context of Eph 2:8-9, the noun e&rgon (pl. e&rga, “works”) does not necessary refer to “works of the Law,” as the term consistently does in Galatians and Romans. While Ephesians clearly affirms Paul’s view regarding the Torah (2:15), this is not given much emphasis in the letter. Rather, the meaning of “works” here appears to be more generalized, referring to any action taken by a person. The parenthetical statement “and this (does) not (come) out of you” would seem to confirm this point. Our salvation (having been saved by God) does not depend on anything we do (i.e. our “works”), but comes about as a result of the favor God has shown to us.

This more general formulation of the Pauline doctrine is closer to the Reformation principle of “justification by faith” than are Paul’s arguments that deal with the Torah (in Galatians and Romans). In its generalized formulation, the doctrine is adapted to mean: we are saved by trust (faith), and not by any effort of our own (“works”). But this adaptation, it may be argued, also places the doctrine more squarely in contradiction with the letter of James. As we have seen, in the James treatise, “works” does not refer specifically to “works of the Law”, but to other kinds of “good works” especially, acts of love and charity to fellow believers who are in need. Moreover, the wording in verses 14 and 24 suggests that such works will save a person and “make them right” (i.e., justify them) before God.

A proper understanding of the James treatise would recognize that the faith and works of a believer go hand-in-hand and function together (“work together with [each other]”, v. 22)they cannot be separated. Works are required, in the sense that they will be present in the life of a true believer, and will effectively demonstrate the living reality of a person’s faith. It is in this light that one can speak of works “saving” a person; in truth, it is the reality of believers’ faith, manifest in their actions, that saves them. Such, at least, is the view expressed in the James treatise. It is not necessarily incompatible with Paul’s viewpoint, though doubtless Paul would have expressed himself differently on the matter, using different imagery and lines of argument to make a comparable point.

 

 

 

Justification by Faith: James 2:14-26

Justification by Faith (James 2:14-26)

As we have seen in the prior studies, the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” was derived largely from Paul’s line of argument in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. As it happens, there is one passage in the New Testament that could be said to contradict the doctrine: it is the short treatise on “faith and works” in James 2:14-26.

It has been a longstanding matter of dispute among New Testament scholars and theologians as to whether, or to what extent, the letter of James is opposed to Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith”. Certainly, the declaration in 2:24 would seem to contradict the Pauline teaching:

“(So) you (have) seen a man is made right/just out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust [i.e. by faith] alone.”

But how far was the author of the letter aware of Paul’s writings and teachings, and is the Pauline doctrine the focus of his message here? There are three possibilities:

    1. The author is not responding to Paul at all, and the apparent points of contact are coincidental
    2. The author is responding to Paul, and opposes the Pauline teaching; in which case, there are two further possibilities: (a) he opposes, but misunderstands, the Pauline teaching, or (b) he opposes and understands the substance of it.
    3. The author is responding to Paul, but is primarily concerned with believers who misrepresent Paul’s teaching, or who reference it (as a slogan) without properly understanding it.

The first option seems most unlikely. Even if James was written as early as some commentators suggest (mid/late-40s), he (the author), and other Jewish Christians, would probably have been aware of Paul’s teaching regarding the Law (Torah), in relation to the missionary work taking place among the Gentile populations in the Roman Empire. The conflict regarding ‘works of the Law’ had already come to a point some years prior to the writing of Galatians and Ephesians (cf. Gal. 2; Acts 15). Moreover, while it is possible for other Christians to use the specific illustration of Abraham (and the citation of Gen 15:6), its importance for Paul and his own teaching on ‘faith and works’ (cf. the earlier study) increases the likelihood that the author of James is responding to the Pauline teaching as well.

When we turn to the treatise in 2:14-26, we see that is comprised of two parallel parts—two arguments (vv. 14-17, 20-26), separated by a rhetorical response by a representative opponent or (fictional) interlocutor (vv. 18-19). The two arguments share a common structure:

    • Rhetorical question that states the theme (vv. 14, 20)
    • Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)
    • Closing declaration regarding “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument, it is a practical illustration from life experience, while the second argument uses an illustration from Scripture. The latter is an expanded into a two-part illustration, with the example of Abraham (vv. 21-23) followed by the additional example of Rahab (v. 25); in between, there is a further declaration on “faith and works” (v. 24) that relates specifically to Abraham. It is just here that the author appears to be most directly at odds with Paul, as noted above. I will be discussing the matter further at the end of the article (and in the next study).

Since the three components of each argument are similar, it is worth discussing the two arguments together at each point.

1. The Rhetorical Question (vv. 14, 20)

The first argument begins with the question:

“What (is) the benefit, my brothers, if some(one) considers (himself) to hold trust [i.e. have faith], but (yet) does not hold works? Th(at) trust is not able to save him(, is it)?”

Through this rhetorical question, the author raises the possibility that a person might claim to trust in Jesus, and yet have no “works” (e&rga) to demonstrate the reality of this trust. In such a case, the author asks whether such ‘trust’ will actually save a person (from the Judgment); it is posed in negative, and the author assumes an answer in the negative: no, clearly, it cannot.

The crux of the relation between James and Paul on this matter of “faith and works” depends, in large measure, on how each author understands and uses the terms pi/sti$ (“trust,” i.e., “faith”) and e&rga (“works”). By all accounts, there is little or no difference in how the term pi/sti$ is used. It refers primarily to Christian faith—to trust in God (generally), and trust in Jesus Christ (specifically). The author raises the possibility that a person might consider/claim to have this trust, but that (in reality) it is not a true, saving faith.

When it comes to the term e&rga (“works”), on the other hand, we do find a fundamental difference in how the word is used, between Paul and James. The noun e&rgon denotes an action—i.e., something that is done, a work/task that is performed, etc. It can also connote something being made active (i.e., made to work). In Paul’s letters, and especially in Galatians and Romans, “works” (e&rga) functions as a shorthand for the expression “works of the law” (e&rga no/mou), by which is meant performance/fulfillment of the regulations and requirements in the Old Testament Torah.

For a detailed discussion on Paul’s view of Torah, in terms of the new religious identity of believers in Christ, cf. the relevant articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (Paul’s View of the Law). The expression “works of the Law” was not coined by Paul, but is traditional, as can be seen by the corresponding Hebrew terminology in a now-famous text from Qumran (the so-called “Halakhic Letter” [4QMMT]). That James has a rather different point of reference for the term “works” (e&rga) will be discussed below.

The rhetorical question in the second argument (v. 20) is as follows:

“And do you wish to know, O empty(-headed) man, that the trust (that is) apart (from) works is (itself) without work?”

There is a play on words in the Greek here that is typically obscured in English translation: trust that is “apart from works [e&rga]” is, quite literally, “without work” (a)rgh/). The adjective a)rgo/$ is derived from the root of the noun e&rgon (“work”) with the privative prefix a)– (i.e., “without”). In other words, the faith that has no “works” to back it up is ineffective and useless—it simply doesn’t work. This is another way of stating the claim in v. 14, that such ‘trust’ is not the kind of genuine faith that will save a person from the Judgment.

The idea of separation of trust from works is indicated the adverb xwri/$ (“with space [between], apart”), used in the grammatical sense of a preposition (followed by a genitive). Interestingly, Paul uses the same word to make essentially the opposite point regarding the relationship between faith and “works” (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6).

2. The Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)

In the first argument, the illustration used by the author (vv. 15-16) is a practical one, taken from life experience. It involves the situation where a fellow believer is in need. The use of the terms “brother” and “sister” makes clear that this refers to other believers, and not to needy persons in general. How does one respond to this situation? In the illustration, the person only gives lip service to the fellow believer’s need, without offering any real assistance—and the author askes “what [is] the benefit [of that]?”. Of course, this example matches the situation of the Christian who claims to have faith, but fails to demonstrate that faith in action. For the author, the point is self-evident, and leads to the conclusion in verse 17 (cf. below).

In the second argument (vv. 21-23), the illustration is taken from Scripture, focusing on the person of Abraham, much as Paul does in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 (cf. the earlier study). However, the author of the letter here makes rather the opposite point, using the example of Abraham to demonstrate that he was “justified” by his works, rather than by his faith alone. The author’s use of the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), also used by Paul, to make this contrary point, would seem to be strong evidence indeed that he is responding to Paul’s teaching on the subject of “faith and works”.

The line of argument here has three components:

    • V. 21: Reference to the traditional narrative of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:9-18)
    • V. 22: The application to the subject of “faith and works”
    • V. 23: The Scripture citation (of Gen 15:6)

It was the act of offering his son Isaac that truly demonstrated Abraham’s trust in God. The author summarizes this within his argument as follows:

“…was not our father Abraham made/declared right [i.e. justified] out of [i.e. by] works (in his hav)ing brought up his son Yiƒµaq (and putting him) upon the (place of) slaughter [i.e. the altar]?”

The action, in this instance, is marked by the verb a)nafe/rw (“bring/carry up”). This most extreme of actions, indicating a willingness to put his son to death as a sacrificial offering, demonstrates the depth and extent of Abraham’s trust in God. The author uses this to show the relationship between trust (faith) and “works” for the believer:

“…the trust worked (together) with his works, and the trust was made complete out of [i.e. by] the works” (v. 22)

We have here another bit of wordplay, with the verb sunerge/w (“work [together] with”), a compound verb related to the noun e&rgon. The example of Abraham illustrates the opposite situation of the person “without works”. In that instance, the person’s trust was “without work” (a)rgo/$), proven to be ineffective and useless. By contrast, in the case of Abraham, the trust is effective since it “works together” with works. Moreover, the trust is made complete (vb teleio/w) by works. This implies that a person may begin with genuine faith, but, without the realization and manifestation of it through “works”, it will never become complete, never develop into true and saving faith.

The verb sunerge/w (synergéœ) is the basis for the theological term synergism, which relates to the idea that God and human beings “work together” in the process of conversion and salvation. Protestant theologians have tended to be opposed to theories that are framed in synergestic terms, and are often reluctant to emphasize the role of human “work” in the saving process. However, it is possible to characterize the line of thought in James 2:14-26 as “synergistic”, particularly in the way that the author applies the Abraham illustration, referring to faith being made complete by our actions, a dynamic for believers that ultimate results in saving faith.

It is in this light that we must consider the author’s use of Genesis 15:6 (v. 23), which clearly is applied (and interpreted) in a very different way than Paul has used it in Galatians and Romans (on this, cf. again the earlier study in this series). It was through Abraham’s demonstration of his trust that he was considered to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes. For the author of this treatise, pi/sti$ (“trust”) is demonstrated by action; Abraham trusted (vb pisteu/w) God, and acted on that trust.

Following this example of Abraham, a second Scriptural illustration is offered—the example of Rahab (Josh 2:1-22; 6:23), who offered shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho during their time of need. While seemingly a rather minor illustration, it confirms the significant point that the author is decidedly not using the term e&rga in the Pauline sense (as a shorthand for “works of the law“). Rather, as is clear here, and in the earlier practical illustration of vv. 15-16 (cf. above), e&rga refers to acts of kindness and mercy that are shown to God’s people (believers) when they are in need. Admittedly, the Abraham example has something of a different emphasis, but the overall context is one of “good works”, defined as acts of love demonstrated by the care shown to fellow believers. This “love command” was alluded to in the prior section (vv. 1-13, cf. my recent note on verse 8), and was very much part of the wider tradition among early Christians. The Johannine First Letter has an even stronger emphasis than does James on the importance of showing love to other believers, with trust and love being related as a binding command that Christians are obligated to follow (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). The person who does not demonstrate their trust by such love cannot be regarded as a true believer.

As noted above, the declaration in James 2:24 seems especially to contradict the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith”. Before proceeding to further discussion on this point, let us consider the final component the author’s overall argument.

3. Concluding declaration on “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument (v. 17), this is:

“So also th(is) trust, if it should not (also) hold works, is dead by itself.”

The corresponding conclusion of the second argument (and the treatise as a whole) is:

“For just as the body apart from (the) spirit is dead, so also the trust apart from works is dead.” (v. 26)

In both instances, the declaration is made in the starkest of terms: faith apart from works is dead. This goes a step further than the idea that the faith no longer works, or is useless (cf. on verse 20, above)—it is actually dead! The lack of works is compared with the absence of an animating spirit or breath (pneu=ma) in a living body. It is a natural image to use, given the importance the author here places on action (i.e., animating movement) as a sign of a true and living faith.

In order to gain a proper understanding of how James 2:14-26 relates to the Pauline (and Reformation) doctrine of “justification by faith”, we must supplement the study above with a detailed examination of three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with it seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.

This will be the basis of our next study, which will bring to a close our examination of Scriptural basis for the Reformation principle of “Justification by Faith”.

Justification by Faith: Galatians 2:15-21

This article represents a re-start of Reformation Fridays as a regular feature on this site. I introduced this feature some time ago, and the commemoration this weekend of the Festival of the Reformation (Oct. 31) seemed like a fitting moment to begin posting articles for it again. The purpose of the feature is to examine the Scriptural basis for a number of the key principles and tenets of the Protestant Reformation. It is intended at least as much as an opportunity for critical exegesis of the relevant Scripture passages, as it is an evaluation of Reformation beliefs. I begin with the doctrine of justification by faith (and the principle of sola fide), having initially posting studies on Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:6ff/Romans 4:3ff, with Paul’s treatment of the underlying Old Testament passages Hab 2:4 and Gen 15:6; and will continue the same subject here.

One of the main differences between the Pauline and Reformation views of “justification by faith” is that Paul was working from within a distinctive Jewish religious (and cultural) framework regarding the role of the Torah; thus, for him, the contrast between faith and “works” was oriented toward the binding obligation of Israelites and Jews to observe the regulations of the Torah, and how this relates to the religious identity of believers in Christ. The Reformers and early Protestants tended to understand “works” more broadly and generally, as any attempt by human beings to achieve (or regain) a right standing with God. This generalizing was a natural byproduct of the application of Paul’s teaching to the Reformers’ own situation in the early 16th century, responding to the wide range of binding traditions, legalism, and dependence upon ecclesiastical institutions, which, over the centuries, had come to be firmly established and widespread within the (Roman) Catholic Church.

While Paul would not necessarily have disagreed with this Protestant broadening of the doctrine (see esp. the Pauline teaching in Eph 2:8-9), his main concern was the relationship between Jewish tradition and the new religious identity of believers. For this reason, his use of the term e&rga (“works”) has a technical meaning, as a shorthand for “observing the regulations of the Torah”, with the implication that there is a binding obligation (i.e., requirement) to do so. Paul writes on this subject extensively in the letters to the Galatians and Romans; I have discussed the matter in considerable detail in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law” (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”). Perhaps the best way to encapsulate this here in a short space is with a brief study on Galatians 2:15-21, which represents the beginning of his main line of argument in Galatians, and is thus his oldest surviving piece of writing on the subject.

Galatians 2:15-21

In the preceding verses 10-14, Paul is narrating an episode that occurred at Antioch, involving a conflict between he and Simon Peter. The conflict centered on the observance of the Torah purity laws and the traditional Jewish views regarding certain kinds of contact (eating and drinking, etc) with non-Jews (Gentiles). According to Paul, Peter backed away from eating with Gentiles publicly, when certain Jewish Christian representatives from Jerusalem (“some [people] from James”) arrived. While Peter may simply have done this out of polite respect for the Jewish Christian visitors, Paul viewed such separation as a fundamental violation of Christian principles. He states it this way:

“I saw that he [i.e. Peter] did not set (his) foot straight toward the truth of the good message [i.e. Gospel]”

By separating from Gentile believers when Jewish believers were present, the implication, according to Paul, was that, in order for the Gentile believers to maintain full fellowship with the Jewish believers, they would have to become Jewish, taking on the obligation to observe the Torah, including the dietary and purity laws, etc. This was a subtler form of the same issue involving circumcision—i.e., whether (Gentile) believers in Christ were obligated to be circumcised—which was at the heart of the conflict in Galatians. In both instances, it involves what Paul calls “making it necessary [vb a)nagka/zw] (for the) nations [i.e. Gentiles] to (live) as Jews” (v. 14).

It is not entirely clear how far the quotation of Paul’s words to Peter extends; in any case, vv. 15ff certainly continues the same line of argument. Verse 16 provides a lengthy statement of Paul’s teaching on ‘justification by faith’, along with the implications of this doctrine:

“seeing that a man is not made just/right out of works of (the) law, if not through trust of [i.e. in] Yeshua (the) Anointed, even we [i.e. who are Jews] trusted in (the) Anointed Yeshua, (so) that we might be made just/right out of trust of [i.e. in] (the) Anointed (One), and not out of works of (the) law, (for it is) that out of works of (the) law all flesh will not be made just/right [i.e. no person will be made right]”

Here, the “works” are specified as “works of (the) law” (e&rga no/mou), where the “law” (no/mo$) refers to the regulations, statutes, and precepts of the Torah. The verb dikaio/w, as previously noted, has the basic meaning “make right, make just”, sometimes in the judicial sense of “establish justice, declare (a person or situation to be) just”. The religious connotation of Paul’s use of the verb is of a person being in “right standing” with God.

Paul’s line of argument in vv. 15-18 is complex and clever, and can be a bit difficult to follow on a casual reading. He starts from the premise that Gentiles are “sinners” (v. 15), in the traditional religious (and cultural) sense that they are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, and thus do not observe the Torah. This is the basis for the religious-cultural division between Jews and non-Jews. The remainder of the line of argument can be paraphrased and interpreted as follows:

    • Believers in Christ are “made right” through their trust in Jesus (as the Anointed One), and not through fulfilling the terms of the covenant and observing the Torah (v. 16); Paul treats this as something all Christians (even Jewish Christians) would agree upon =>
      • Given that this is the case, to treat Gentile believers as though they were essentially still ‘sinners’, in the traditional religious-cultural sense (separate from Israel and the covenant), means that, in spite of being “made right” through trust in Christ, believers are still marked as “sinners”; Jewish believers who live in a similar manner, associating freely with Gentiles, would be “sinners” as well (v. 17) =>
        • This effectively would make Jesus Christ a “servant of sin”, which of course would be impossible, and is itself a horrifying thought (“may it n[ever] come to be [so]!”) =>
          • Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice dissolved (vb katalu/w) the Law (Torah) and the old covenant, and its binding force was removed for us, as believers, by trust in Jesus (v. 18a); thus, if we maintain or keep in place the requirement of observing the Torah, we re-create (“build again”) the religious-cultural distinction (of Gentiles, etc) as “sinners” =>
            • Such a person re-establishes sinfulness by keeping in force the idea of sin as transgression (“stepping over”) the Torah regulations (v. 18b), and so becomes a transgressor himself

This line of argument explains the consequences of the false premise that believers—and Gentile believers, in particular—are still required to obey/observe the Torah (“works”), whether it be the requirement of circumcision, the dietary laws, associating with people deemed ‘unclean’, or any other regulation. In verses 19-21, Paul proceeds to expound the true premise: that believers are freed from the binding force of the old covenant, and are “made right” with God through trust in Jesus. To illustrate this, Paul uses the motif of a person who dies, and is thus set free from any binding obligations during his earthly life. The illustration is given with more precision in Romans 7:1-6, but the same idea is clearly expressed here in Galatians as well. Through trust in Jesus, the believer participates in the death of Christ, and so dies with him. The person dies to the Law (Torah) and to the power of sin which the Law makes manifest (through its regulations); according to Paul’s unique understanding of the role of the Law in keeping humankind bound under sin’s power, the Law plays an active role in leading believers to salvation (3:22; Rom 5:20-21; 7:7-13). Thus, Paul can say, paradoxically, that he dies to the law through [dia/] the law, expressed vividly and strikingly by the image of the piercing nails of crucifixion (cp. Col 2:14). While we die to the law, we live in Christ, participating in his resurrection just as we participate in his death. And this life comes from the power of Christ himself (his Spirit, the Spirit of God) living in us. This inner power of the Spirit of Christ replaces the outward force of the Torah regulations (cf. 2 Cor 3).

Clearly, Paul used the term “works” (e&rga), both here and elsewhere in his letters, in a very distinctive sense, as a shorthand for the expression “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou), by which he meant observing the regulations and requirements of the Torah [For more on the background of this expression, cf. the Qumran text 4QMMT]. However, there are other passages in the New Testament were “works” are understood in a somewhat different way, and these, too, have a bearing on the concept of “justification by faith”. The two most notable of these are James 2:14-26 and Ephesians 2:1-10 (esp. verses 8-9), and we will consider both passages in the next article.

For more detailed commentary on Gal 2:15-21, see my earlier note-set, along with the article in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Justification by Faith: Galatians 3:6ff; Romans 4:3ff

Justification by Faith (Genesis 15:6)

This is the second study dealing with the Reformation doctrine “Justification by Faith”. Previously, we looked at Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17; today we will examine his treatment of Genesis 15:6. Paul cites and expounds this verse on two different occasions in his letters—in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. I will deal with the Galatians passage first. This Reformation-oriented series is intended to demonstrate some of the ways in which Biblical criticism relates to theology (and the history of doctrine). The Reformers were heavily indebted to Paul’s rigorous treatment of the subject of faith and “justification”, as presented in Romans and Galatians, examining the words and phrases, the line of argument, very carefully, including a study of the text in Greek. At the same time, Paul himself was working from the Old Testament Scriptures, studying and interpreting those texts with at least as much care. For most Christians—and for committed Protestant believers, in particular—theology and doctrine cannot be separated from a (critical) examination of Scripture.

Galatians 3:6ff

The fact that Paul draws on the example of Abraham, and the declaration in Gen 15:6, on two different occasions, shows how important this tradition was for him. Abraham, of course, was a central figure in Jewish thought, a paragon of faith and obedience, for Israelites and Jews in every age. The deutero-canonical book of Sirach (44:19-21) provides a good (early) summary of this belief; see also the book of Jubilees 23:10. Gen 15:6 is part of a complex of ancient Abraham traditions given distinct narrative shape in chapters 14 and 15ff of Genesis, and which were highly influential in shaping this belief. Chapter 15 is the great covenant-vision scene set around the divine promise of an heir (male child) for Abraham, in spite of his old age and the barrenness of his wife Sarah. In vv. 4-5, God announces to Abraham that, not only will he indeed have a child of his own, but that his descendants will come to be a vast multitude of people, like the stars in the sky. Here it is said of Abraham in verse 6:

“And he had firm (trust) in YHWH, and He reckoned (it) for him (as) ƒ®d¹qâ.”

The Hebrew word ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) has a relatively wide range of meaning. It is usually translated “righteousness”, but may also denote “truthfulness”, “loyalty”, as well as the legal sense of “justice”. The fundamental meaning of the ƒqd root appears to be something like “straight”, or perhaps “clear”. Abraham’s trust in God shows him to be a true and faithful friend (or vassal in the context of the covenant), and so God considers him to be a right follower. Paul, in citing Gen 15:6, generally follows the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, which is also a reasonably accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

“Abraham trusted in God, and (this) was counted for him unto dikaiosýn¢” (Gal 3:6)

As noted in the previous study, the verb dikaióœ (dikaio/w) means “make right”, and the noun dikaiosýn¢ (dikaiosu/nh) something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, usually rendered in English as either “righteousness” or “justice”, both of which can be rather misleading in modern English. The dik– word-group is notoriously difficult to translate, especially as used repeatedly by Paul in his letters. It is clear, however, that Paul is using dikaiosýn¢ here is a somewhat different sense than the Hebrew ƒ®d¹qâ of the original Hebrew. For Paul, the word relates to a person’s standing before God—as one who needs to be “made right”. This legal sense, I would argue, is rather different from the covenant-language in Genesis 15 (on this see above, and also the earlier Saturday Series study on the covenant scene of Gen 15). And yet, Paul certainly has the context of covenant in mind, as can be seen from the remainder of chapter 3.

Paul is attempting to reconcile two basic truths, which relate to the new religious identity he sought to define for believers in Christ:

    • Truth #1: Salvation comes through trusting in Jesus—this is the essential Gospel message, which was accepted by at least as many non-Jews as Jews
    • Truth #2: Israelites (i.e. the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob) represent the people of God

These can only be reconciled by positing that those who trust in Jesus and the descendants of Abraham, are, somehow, one and the same. The declaration in Gen 15:6 provided a solution. It allowed one to identify faith/trust in God with Abraham and his descendants. That this association was immediately (and primarily) in Paul’s mind is clear from the interpretation he gives in Gal 3:7:

“Then you must know that the (one)s (born) out of trust—these are the sons of Abraham”

This results in a powerful reinterpretation of Israelite religious identity, now being applied to believers: those who trust in Jesus are the true descendants of Abraham. The line of argument which follows in vv. 8-14 (and on through the rest of chapters 3 and 4) is quite complex, and is meant to address the fundamental message of Galatians: that it is not necessary for (Gentile) believers to observe the regulations and commands of the Torah. I discuss this at length in the series of articles on Galatians in “Paul’s View of the Law” (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). The main issue involved circumcision—in many ways the central command related to Israelite/Jewish religious identity. But, as Paul makes clear, circumcision was instituted for Abraham (and his descendants) prior to the Torah, being the sign of an earlier covenant established between God and Abraham. This covenant was not based on anything Abraham did, but was God’s own initiative, being predicated upon Abraham’s demonstration of trust. This is the significance of Gen 15:6 (and its context) for Paul. Believers—Gentile believers, in particular—are saved and “made right” before God through faith in Jesus; as a result, they are shown to be Abraham’s very descendants (his true, spiritual descendants). One is not saved through the observance of the Torah (much less circumcision itself), but through trust in Jesus. Paul affirms and argues this over and over again throughout Galatians (and again in Romans, as we shall see).

Romans 4:3ff

In Romans 4, Paul repeats the argument from Galatians, using the same example of Abraham (along with Gen 15:6), but accompanied by a more thorough exposition. The polemical tone of Galatians has been replaced by a carefully structured theological treatment of the theme, in which Jewish and Gentile believers are shown to be united, related to one another as true equals in Christ. Several times Paul asks, essentially, “what does the Jewish (believer) have over and above the Gentile?” The line of argument throughout chapters 2-11 of Romans is especially complex. In various ways, Paul seeks to retain the position of the covenant God established with his people Israel (i.e. Abraham, in chap. 4), once again reinterpreting it so that believers in Christ become the true (and complete) fulfillment of the covenant—Jewish and Gentile believers both as the people of God. The increasingly larger percentage of non-Jewish believers created a difficulty for Paul in this regard, and he addresses it particularly in chaps. 9-11. The illustration of Abraham is made to apply more generally to the Gentile believer by the repeated emphasis that righteousness (or right-ness) is something given by God (as a favor), rather than something earned by the person’s own work (vv. 4-5). This would come to be the emphasis that dominated the Reformers’ thought (see below).

Paul deals with the (Greek) text of Gen 15:6 in more detail here than he does in Galatians, especially the phrase “and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness” (kai elogisth¢ autœ eis diakosyn¢). The verb logízomai (logi/zomai) is related to the noun lógos (“account”), and refers to giving an accounting (of something), used essentially as a bookkeeping term. The passive sense (“it was counted…”) here is an example of the so-called “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. Quite literally, God records something in the ledger (the book, or account) on behalf of the person. This draws upon the traditional image of the (heavenly) book in which a person’s deeds are recorded, and which will be opened on the great day of Judgment. A similar idea is the “book/roll of life”, on which the names of the elect (i.e. citizens of heaven) are recorded. The corresponding verb in the Hebrew (µ¹ša»), has a rather different sense, and is also in active form (“he considered”). Fundamentally, it refers to the work of the mind (thought, thinking), sometimes in the specific sense of creative/artistic work, imagination, planning, and so forth. In Gen 15:6 it is best rendered as “consider”, or somewhat more forcefully, “reckon”—God considered Abraham to be a true and faithful friend.

Protestant commentators tended to emphasize the legal, forensic aspect of the Greek verb logízomai even more than Paul did, though he points in that direction himself in vv. 5-8. There, in good Rabbinic fashion, Paul finds a Scripture with similar wording to Gen 15:6 [LXX], bringing in the point of similarity as a way of explaining the earlier passage. He turns to the Greek of Psalm 32:1-2:

“Happy (are the one)s for whom the (deed)s without law [i.e. lawless deeds] were released, and for whom the sins were covered over! Happy the man for whom the Lord does not make an accounting of sin!” (vv. 7-8)

The “accounting unto righteousness” is parallel with “no accounting of sin”. In other words, God leaves the reference(s) to sins out of the ledger completely, ignoring them or “covering them over”. The idea of a forensic “declaration” or “imputation” of righteousness was certainly influenced by this line of thought in Romans. For Paul, however, it was the idea of the last Judgment that was largely in mind with this sort of language. Believers will escape the coming anger of God (1:18ff) and will be able to stand before God in the Judgment, because of the sacrificial work of Jesus on our behalf, and the trust/faith we have in him. All of this is given freely to us by God, as a favor (cháris, xa/ri$). Paul states this clearly in verse 4, and it is given an even more succinct, axiomatic formulation in Eph 2:8. Yet, it is insufficient to view this “righteousness” (dikaiosýn¢) simply in the negative sense of the absence/covering of any record of sin. We must keep in mind the foundational statement in 1:17 (see the previous study), in which the positive aspect is emphasized—the righteousness of God Himself, which brings life to us, through our trust in Jesus.

Throughout Galatians and Romans, Paul is dealing primarily with the question of religious identity, which, for Israelites and Jews, involved circumcision and the observance of the Torah (as the terms of the covenant). Paul fully realized that this could no longer serve as the basis for the identity of believers in Christ, and he argued repeatedly that faith in Jesus took place entirely apart from (chœris) observing the regulations of the Torah. He states this in no uncertain terms in vv. 13ff, and even more absolutely in the famous declaration of 10:4: “For (the) Anointed One [i.e. Christ] is the completion [télos] of the Law, unto justice/righteousness [dikaiosýn¢] for every one trusting (in him)”.

Protestants, however, tended to turn this into a more general religious principle. Instead of referring specifically to Torah observance, “works” (érga) meant any sort of human effort or work in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul himself introduced this generalization at a number of points, such as here in verse 4:

“for the (one) working, the wage is not counted according to favor, but (rather) according to what (is) owed

This sort of illustration supplies the basis for the sweeping idea that salvation/justification comes by “grace and faith” alone, not from any human effort (Eph 2:8). Protestants were well aware of the religious tendency to emphasize the importance of certain actions—both ethical and ritual—and to rely on these for one’s identity. At the time of the Reformation, Roman Catholic tradition was filled many authoritative laws, customs, and so forth, considered to be binding upon believers. The Reformers and early Protestants fought against the bulk of this tradition, symbolized most vividly by Luther in his public burning of the corpus of Canon (Church) Law. The doctrine of sola fide—salvation by faith alone—was a most radical solution to the religious problem. At a single stroke, it effectively eliminated vast swaths of Christian tradition—and Christianity in the West has been grappling with the impact of this ever since.

Justification by Faith: Romans 1:17

This Saturday (October 31) is the date commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, marking Luther’s posting of the so-called “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Intended for an academic debate, these propositions, many of a highly technical nature, had an influence which went far beyond their original purpose, and Martin Luther himself came to be the leading figure of the early years of the Reformation. In celebration of this time, I am launching a series of brief studies, posted periodically on Fridays (“Reformation Fridays”) over the coming months, dealing with some of the key tenets of Protestantism.

These Reformation-themed studies will each focus on a particular principle or belief central to the Reformation and the Protestant Tradition, examining the Scriptural basis for it. One or two key, representative Scripture passages or verses will be chosen, and given a critical treatment. This will demonstrate how Biblical criticism applies to theology and doctrine. On the one hand, we can see the way that established doctrines developed from particular interpretations of Scripture. At the same time, it is important always to take a fresh look as such beliefs, examining them anew in the light of Scripture.

Justification by Faith

The first Reformation tenet we will explore is justification by faith, as summarized in the famous slogan sola fide (“faith alone”)—that is, salvation comes only through faith in Christ, and not as a result of human work and effort. The fourth article of the Augsburg Confession gives the following statement (brackets represent explanatory text in German):

“…men can not be justified [obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness] before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and their sin’s forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death hath satisfied our sins.” (translation from P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3)

There is a long history behind this theological formulation, but, to a large extent, the primary idea comes from the New Testament, perhaps best seen by the declaration in Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been [i.e. who have been] saved, through trust—(and) this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God, (so) that no one should boast (of it).”

The word translated “favor” above is xa/ri$ (cháris), usually rendered “grace”; that translated “trust” (pi/sti$, pístis) is more commonly rendered “faith”. We are saved through trust in Christ, but this does not come from our own ability or effort; rather, it is a result of the gift and favor shown to us by God.

The very expression “justification by faith” clearly shows the dependence on Paul’s letters (especially Galatians and Romans), with his repeated (and distinctive) use of the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ) and the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosýn¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). As a transitive verb, dikaio/w fundamentally means “make (things) right”, or “make (something) just”, sometimes in the formal (legal) sense of “declare (something to be) just”, “provide justice”, etc. Paul draws heavily upon this legal usage, applying it in a religious sense. We will be looking at two key examples which are essential to the doctrine of “justification by faith”. The first comes from the opening section of Romans, the concluding declaration in Rom 1:17. A seminal moment for the Reformation occurred during Luther’s study of Romans in his years spent as an Augustinian monk; he began to meditate more deeply on this verse, leading to a kind of revelatory moment (and conversion experience) for him, as he describes in the 1545 Preface to his writings in Latin. He expounded this verse, and the theological and religious principle drawn from it, a number of times in his published works; and other Reformers also inspired by it, followed him as well. Thus, Romans 1:17 may serve as a kind of keystone verse for the Protestant Reformation, and is deserving of careful study. In fact, Paul’s statement is considerably more complex than it seems at first glance, especially when reading it in translation, and through the lens of Protestant theology.

Romans 1:17

The particular words in Rom 1:17 which so struck Luther, are actually a quotation from the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4). This is just one of several elements in the verse which need to be examined; let us consider them in order. To begin with, verse 17 marks the conclusion of the opening section (introduction) of the letter, and further explains the statement by Paul in v. 16 that the “good message” (Gospel) is “the power of God unto salvation for every(one) trusting (in Jesus)”. There are three parts to this explanation in v. 17:

    • “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”
    • “out of trust (and) into trust”
    • “even as it has been written…”—the citation from Hab 2:4

1. “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”—The word translated “justice” is dikaiosu/nh, part of the dikai- word-group mentioned above, and related to the verb dikaio/w. It is notoriously tricky to translate in English. Perhaps the best rendering would be something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, but, as there is nothing truly equivalent in English, most translators opt for “justice” or “righteousness”. However, both of these can be misleading in modern English—”justice” has a predominantly socio-legal meaning, while “righteousness” a religious meaning, and one that is seldom used in English today, also having the negative connotation of self-righteousness.

Another difficulty involves the genitive construction (“…of God”): is it a subjective or objective genitive? That is to say, does it represent an attribute of God (i.e. something he possesses) or something which comes from him (i.e. as an object to us)? In Phil 3:9, Paul refers to the justice/righteousness that comes “from God” (e)k qeou=, ek theou), and given to believers; while in 2 Cor 5:21, believers become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ. There the expression may be taken as an objective genitive, and so many commentators understand it in Rom 1:17 as well—the Gospel communicates justice/righteousness to us. Certainly, that is how Luther and the Reformers came to understand it—righteousness as a gift from God, especially in the legal/declarative sense implied by Paul in much of his writing. Luther translates the expression in Rom 1:17 as “die gerechtigkeit die vor Gott gilt” (the justice/righteousness that counts before God). However, the overall context of Romans here strongly suggests that Paul is primarily using a subjective genitive—i.e. justice/just-ness as a divine characteristic. It is parallel to the “anger of God” (org¢ theou) in v. 18, which is also said to be “uncovered” and specifically directed against injustice (a)diki/a, adikía). Similarly, we may note the expressions “the trust(worthiness) of God” (h¢ pistis tou theou) and “the truth(fulness) of God” (h¢ al¢theia tou theou) in 3:3, 7. It is an attribute expressing the character of God, but especially in terms of his action toward humankind.

What does it mean to say that the justice of God is “uncovered” in the Gospel? The verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokalýptœ) literally means “take the cover (away) from”, indicating something previously hidden or unknown. It relates to the character of God as one who makes things right, and specifically involves the salvation brought about through the person and work of Jesus. In v. 16, the Gospel—the message/announcement of this saving work—is called “the power of God”, an expression parallel to “the justice of God”. The Gospel reveals the plan of salvation for humankind, and, in so doing, makes known the very nature and character of God himself.

2. “out of trust (and) into trust”—This phrase can also be somewhat difficult to interpret. It is meant to qualify and explain the earlier phrase. The justice of God is revealed in the Gospel. How, or in what manner does this occur?—”out of [e)k] trust and into [ei)$] trust”. Trust is both the source (“out of”) and goal (“into”). Of course, when Paul uses the word pi/sti$ (“trust”), he is referring to trust, or faith, in Jesus. Trust leads to the communication of God’s justice/righteousness to us, in the person of Christ, which, in turn, also leads to (greater) trust as we are united and grow in him. Paul uses similar syntax in 2 Cor 3:18: “from glory into/unto glory”. Likewise in the Greek of Psalm 84:8, the prepositions ek and eis in sequence would seem to indicate the passage from one point, or degree, to another.

3. The citation of Hab 2:4—Paul quotes this as follows:

“But the just (one) will live out of trust”
o( de\ di/kaio$ e)k pi/stew$ zh/setai
ho dé díkaios ek písteœs z¢¡setai

Part of New Testament (textual) criticism involves a careful study and comparison of the text of the Old Testament as it is quoted/cited by the author (or speaker). There are three forms of this verse in the Greek version (Septuagint/LXX) of the Old Testament, two of which differ from Paul’s quotation in the use of the 1st person possessive pronoun (occurring at different points):

“But the just (one) will live out of my trust”
“But my just (one) will live out of trust”

The Hebrew of Hab 2:4, by contrast, reads:

“but the righteous (one) will live by his firm (loyal)ty”
hy#j=y] otn`Wma$B# qyD!x^w+
w®ƒaddîq be°§mûn¹¾ô yihyeh

The LXX is a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew, except for the use of the 1st person pronoun, which could indicate a slightly different reading of the underlying Hebrew (1st person suffix instead of 3rd person). The 1st person pronoun means that the righteous person lives as a result of God’s faithfulness. The Hebrew, by contrast, means that the person lives because of his/her own loyalty to God. The original context of the prophetic oracle clarifies this meaning. Judgment is coming upon Judah by means of foreign military invasion (by the Babylonians or “Chaldeans”, 1:6ff); only those who are faithful to YHWH will survive the attack (“will live”). Here, faithfulness refers to the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and the people Israel, with the Torah representing the terms of the agreement. The righteous/loyal Israelite remains firmly committed to the covenant, and obedient to the Torah, even as the rest of the society has fallen into disobedience and sin. This is similar to the faithful remnant motif found in many of the prophetic oracles—only the faithful ones will be saved from the coming judgment.

Considered in this light, it is interesting to see how Paul interprets the verse here in Romans. First, he preserves the original formulation from the Hebrew, i.e. that the trust/loyalty is that of the righteous person, and not God. Even though his Greek has no personal pronoun (“his”), that basic meaning is still implied, as in the reading of LXX manuscript 763* which matches Paul’s version. Second, Paul also retains something of the judgment-setting from Habakkuk, not in verse 17 itself, but in vv. 18ff which follow, referring to “the anger of God” (parallel to “the justice of God”) which is being uncovered. Only believers in Christ will escape the coming Judgment. However, it must be admitted that Paul has a deeper sense of the verb “will live” in mind; in addition to the negative context of the Judgment, there is the positive sense of what it means for the believer, even now in the present, to live in Christ. As expressed in 6:4ff, and other passages, the believer experiences new life in Christ, quite apart from the eternal life which one inherits after death and the Judgment. Though he does not state it here at this point in Romans, this sense of life in Christ is understood primarily through the presence of the Spirit.

More significantly, what Paul does not explain immediately in verse 17 is how the just/right (díkaios) character of the believer relates to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosýn¢) of God. In quoting Hab 2:4, the adjective díkaios is used without indicating exactly what makes the person “just”. In the Old Testament religious context of the oracle, a person’s just/righteous character is demonstrated by loyalty to the covenant and faithful obedience to the Torah. Paul, of course, turns this completely around, through a complex logic and series of arguments, expressed primarily in Galatians, and here in Romans. A person’s righteousness is the result of trust in Christ, rather than faithfulness to the Torah. Paul’s teaching in this regard is extremely complicated, and must be studied with considerable care, to avoid misunderstanding or over-simplification. For a detailed examination and discussion, I recommend you explore the articles on Paul’s view of the Law in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament”.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between Paul’s interpretation of Hab 2:4 and that found in the Community of the Qumran text (Dead Sea Scrolls). In the surviving commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (1QpHab), 2:4 is interpreted as follows:

“…(it) concerns all observing the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will free from the house of judgment on account of their toil and of their loyalty to the Teacher of Righteousness”

Two criteria are combined: (1) proper observance of the Law, etc (“their toil”), and (2) loyalty to the person called “Teacher of Righteousness”, the leading/founding figure of the Community, viewed as an inspired prophet and teacher. Paul would reject the first criterion, but the second is a bit closer to his own approach. Both the Qumran Community and early Christians defined salvation in terms of faith in a person.

One final point of interpretation involves the syntactical position of the expression ek písteœs (“out of trust”)—from Paul’s standpoint, does it modify the subject (ho díkaios, “the just [one]”) or the verb (z¢¡setai, “will live”)? In other words, is the emphasis on the person being considered just because of his/her trust, or does the person live as a result of that trust? Compare: (1) “the (person who is) just out of (his/her) trust will live”, or (2) “the just (person) will live out of trust”. The latter is to be preferred, especially if Paul understood the original meaning of the Hebrew text. If so, then Rom 1:17 is not so much as statement of “Justification by Faith” as it is of “New Life by Faith”. Paul, however, would certainly affirm both sides of the equation, as, indeed, he does through the central phrase “out of trust (and) into trust”, indicating both source (“from the just-ness of God”) and goal (“eternal life in Christ”).

As you meditate and study this verse, begin looking ahead through Paul’s letter to the Romans, reading from 1:18 on into the beginning of chapter 4. In the next study, we will explore a second key verse related to the doctrine of “Justification by Faith”—the quotation of Genesis 15:6 in Rom 4:3 (also Gal 3:6).