Derek Leman was a Messianic rabbi, and I have been subscribing to his Daily D’var for years. Now it is called the “Daily Portion.” In the August 13, 2016 Daily Portion, Derek shares some thoughts on what it means to be justified by faith. Specifically, he weighs in on the debate about whether Paul believed or stressed that people are saved by their own faith in Christ, or by Christ’s faithfulness to humanity and to God in carrying out his saving mission. Are people saved by faith in Jesus, or by the faith of Jesus? Derek agrees with the latter.
In posting his comments, I am not entirely endorsing them, for I still have questions: Why does Paul stress Abraham’s faith and seem to imply that people should follow that? Romans 10:9 says that those who confess the Lord Jesus and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead will be saved. Derek explains that verse, in light of his argument.
Still, a lot of what Derek says resonates with me, from an emotional standpoint. Am I saved by conjuring up faith and making myself believe certain things? How is that different from being saved by good works and personal efforts?
That said, I present to you Derek’s thoughts:
Paul on Being Justified by Faith[fulness]
We have been assured of divine acceptance, says Paul, by the faithfulness of Messiah. More than that, through Messiah’s faithfulness, we have obtained access into a new standing with God, living under the certainty of his kindness (and thus, dispelling the fear that his wrath is what is causing the problems in our lives). Where does Paul say such beautiful things? Romans 5:1-2, which in the ESV translation read, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
It may appear to you that Paul’s words in the ESV version are not saying the same thing as my first two sentences. Paul’s words seem to be about us having faith and our faith being the prerequisite requirement for all the good things God does for us. God, according to justification theory (a name for the commonly accepted idea of what the Christian message is) knows we cannot keep his moral laws perfectly and so he makes an easier test: just believe in a few things about me and my Son and I will treat you as though you are righteous.
Sometimes the things we think we know turn out not to be true. Romans 5 is not saying our faith earns God’s reward. Nor is it saying our ability to believe is what changes God’s attitude toward us from wrath to benevolence. Messiah’s faithfulness has brought about a new realization for us. Messiah is God made flesh. The way he has acted for us shows us what God, hidden in heaven, truly thinks. He turns out to be a God who gets right down here with us, suffering alongside us, crying with us, laughing with us, dying with us, and — when time has fulfilled its course — rising with us.
Now I am not saying that our faith (belief, trust) in God and Messiah is irrelevant or unimportant. To be clear, I am saying that our faith (belief, trust) is not a condition of God’s love and acceptance but is a result of God’s love and acceptance. I am not saying faith is unimportant. I am saying, for people who like theological terms, it is part of our sanctification (growth to maturity while we live in this present evil age) and not the basis of our justification (being accepted now by God and assured of being found innocent in the coming judgment).
But wait, faith is the condition. We’ve always been taught that, right? “Believe” is sometimes a command and the promise that goes with it is “you will be saved.” But maybe, and this is what I am saying, believing is an experience that happens to us, not something we cause to happen. And maybe “believe in the Lord Messiah Yeshua and you will be saved” is not a command to meet a condition, but a statement of result: “if you find yourself responding with faith to what you hear, you will know that you are saved.”
All of this preparation is so I can talk about an idea which has become well-known in modern scholarship of the Greek New Testament but which is not commonly known at the popular level. The numerous “by faith” statements in Paul could mean something different than the way popular translations render them and the manner in which they are usually understood.
There are two reasons for this. One is that faith-as-condition is an assumed paradigm with a lot of tradition behind it and strength. The other is that few realize the Greek word group for “faith” usually means “faithfulness, fidelity, persevering in belief” and not “giving assent to an idea, believing a fact.”
So, is it our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness? Is Paul talking about something Messiah did for us or a condition we meet in order to receive the benefits of what Messiah did for us? Let’s take a verse as an example, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith/faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Messiah Yeshua” (Rom 5:1). Have we been justified [accepted as one of the righteous destined for vindication in the coming judgment] because we met the condition of faith? Or have we been justified because of faithfulness [the faithfulness of Yeshua who believed what the Father told him, that his death and resurrection would save humans]?
I will try to persuade you of the latter, that Messiah’s faithfulness is meant and not our ability to believe.
First, don’t remain stuck on the translation “we have been justified by [our meeting God’s condition of] faith” just because it’s what you’ve always heard. Be willing to reprogram your mind to read it in a way no common English translation renders it: “we have been justified by faithfulness [Messiah’s, that is].”
Second, don’t forget that Romans 5:1 begins with a “therefore.” And “therefore” directs us to look at what came before, which would be Romans 4:25. When we look there we find the statement that Yeshua “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The verse is unambiguous. The cause of our justification is Messiah, not us. So when Paul says “therefore” in 5:1, he repeats the thought “since we have been justified by faithfulness,” and adds something new “we have peace with God.” The “faithfulness” of 5:1 is that Yeshua was delivered up and raised, not a reference to our capacity for faith.
Third, Paul emphasizes repeatedly that Messiah is the foundation of his message, that the message of Messiah is God’s power to change human hearts, and that the Gospel is what happened to and through Messiah. Does it make more sense for Paul to say that we are vindicated before God by the merit of our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness?
Fourth, realize what justification means for Paul, the Jewish teacher of Gentiles. The source of the idea for him is the Hebrew Bible. God is King and Judge of the earth. He has chosen Israel. The nations accuse Israel of being undeserving and at times God uses the nations as his instruments to chastise Israel. The question of justice comes up repeatedly in books like Isaiah and Psalms. But in God’s law-court, Israel is destined to be vindicated in the end, its punishment over, its consolation assured. Israel’s justification is based on the assurance of God’s covenant love. It does not depend on Israel and the outcome is never in doubt. Should we be surprised that love, not legal justice, is the basis for vindication on the last day for all who belong to Messiah? It depends on what God does, not what we do.
Fifth, when Paul contrasts works of the law with either our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness, which contrast makes more sense? If the right interpretation is “our faith,” then the contrast is between two kinds of human action: doing works versus believing facts. One is law-keeping and the other is mental assent (see N.T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, pg. 110). But the contrast is much clearer if what he means is not our works but God’s faithfulness made known in Yeshua. That would be a contrast between human action (law-keeping) and divine action (the sending of Yeshua to die and be raised). If God did it, no human can boast.
And sixth, if it is by our faith then we have the problem of knowing the minimum content of our faith. How many facts about God and Messiah must be included in our faith? How long is God’s multiple choice test and how many questions can we miss? But if it is by Messiah’s faithfulness then the whole thing is not a test. It is more like a rescue mission. Which better fits God, the “tester of minds” or the “healer of souls”?