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).

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