The New Perspective: Justification, Part 4 (objections)


The faithfulness of Christ

Nothing is more helpful to my own study than readers who disagree or raise hard questions. Such questions allow me to consider points I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Alan Rouse argues,

I think it is a bit of a stretch to translate one phrase of Gal 2:16-17 as “faithfulness of Christ” when the same word “faith” is used in the other sense in adjacent verses. Such a choice would necessarily carry some preconceived doctrinal preferences, since there is nothing in the Greek to indicate that choice. The original Greek-speaking audience would have seen the same word in each place. They would have had to draw their understanding from the context, without any distinction in the actual words. I think that is what we should do also.

Compare Gal 2:16 “faith of Christ” with Rom 3:22 “faith of Jesus Christ” and Mark 11:22 “Have faith of God”. It does not seem unreasonable to understand these passages as referring to our faith which we receive from Jesus and from God. If faith is certainty of things unseen, then it does not make sense to speak of God having faith. OTOH it makes perfect sense to speak of God granting faith. (Eph 2:8)

Well, this sent me running to the commentaries, as I really don’t trust my own Greek skills. And some agree, and some don’t.

But let me begin with this observation regarding language. To Americans “faith” and “faithfulness” are two very different things. We think of faith as a subjective attitude, intellectual assent. “Faithfulness” is how you act–whether you keep your promises.

But in the Greek, pistis is used in both senses. Even those who argue vociferously against Wright’s view admit that Romans 3:3, for example, has this sense–

(Rom 3:3) What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?

“Faithfulness” translates “faith of God,” which the NIV often translates “faith from God.” But we see here, in a passage on justification by faith, Paul unambiguously uses pistis in the sense of faithfulness.

This leads me to wonder if we’ve somewhat misunderstood “faith” as it applies to Christians. Certainly, the phrase “faith in Jesus” means believing the truth about Jesus, including believing that he saves, that is, will be faithful to his promises.

But “saved by faith” may well include both senses–we are saved both by believing and by being faithful. And this is the natural conclusion from the gospel being the proclamation “Jesus is Lord.”

Of course, in the extreme Calvinist perspective, our works matter not at all, making us treat “faith” as purely intellectual assent. But as Wright points out, Paul and Jesus both repeatedly insist that our salvation will be in accordance with our works (but not in the sense of earning our salvation).

If pistis means both faith and faithfulness, then a First Century Greek speaker would have heard both senses except when the context demanded only one. Indeed, as our thoughts are shaped by our language, the First Century readers of Paul would have seen the two concepts as compatible and corresponding, rather than in opposition to each other.

Of course, Paul would have, at times, had but one or the other sense in mind, not necessarily ever rejecting the other. Hence, it may well be a false choice to insist on one or the other.

This brings me to the particular verses (and, I must say, it’s been great fun sorting through these).

To get the sense of Galatians 2:16, I’m beginning with F. F. Bruce’s New International Greek Testament Commentary, who disagrees with Wright.

The genitive Iesou Christou could be objective (so we take it) or subjective, as though the phrase meant ‘through Jesus Christ’s faith(fulness)’. …

When the genitive is taken as subjective, the phrase is variously interpreted as meaning ‘Christ’s faith’ (in God), or Christ’s faithfulness (to God)’, or God’s faithfulness revealed in Christ (so Barth, Hebert). …

The principal and, indeed, conclusive argument for taking the genitive to be objective here is that, when Paul expresses himself by the verb pisteuo and not by the noun pistis, Christ is undoubted the object of the faith, as in the clause immediately following … . This determines the sense of the preceding dia pisteos Iesou Christou and of ech pisteos Christou in the next clause.

This is well argued by Bruce. And he’d persuaded me until I noticed that the identical phrase appears later, in Galatians 3:22, and Bruce’s interpretation becomes very problematic–

(Gal. 3:22) But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

“Faith in” is literally “faith of, ” as in the KJV.

Here, covenant faithfulness is very much in mind “that what was promised” and the NIV translation is somewhat redundant. “Being given through faith” and “be given to those who believe” are the same thought.

If we translate per Wright (and Barth and the KJV), we get–

(Gal. 3:22) But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

In this translation, the second clause explains that the Abrahamic promise comes through Jesus’ faithfulness to the promise, so that God’s promise was picked up and honored by Jesus, with the result that faith in Jesus becomes the means of appropriating that promise.

This is, I think, a more sensible translation and most consistent with the context (God’s promise to Abraham referenced in 3:18). And if this is the meaning of 3:22, it must also be the meaning of 2:16, as suggested in the preceding post.

Romans 3:22, which is very similar, thus bears further thought. The NIV translates–

(Rom. 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in [literally, faith of] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. …

Now, Wright argues that “righteousness from God” is actually the “righteousness of God.” Does that mean that “faith in Jesus Christ” is really “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”?

(Rom. 3:22-24) This righteousness of God [God’s fidelity to his promises] comes through [the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

This actually works. As in Galatians 3:22, the logic begins with God’s faithfulness, moves to Jesus’ faithfulness, and then moves to our appropriating the promise through faith in Jesus.

Indeed, it helps explain why Abraham’s faith in God is now the Christian’s faith in Jesus. Faith in God without faith in Jesus is no longer enough to remain within the promise, because the promise has been picked up by and fulfilled in Jesus.

Again, as in Galatians 3:22, the NIV translation is redundant. “Through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

Interestingly, in John Murray’s commentary on Romans in the New International Commentary series, he consistently translates “faith of Jesus,” presumes this means “faith in Jesus,” and then struggles with the resulting redundancy.

Murray concedes that pistis in Romans 3:3 can only refer to the faithfulness of God, rather than faith in God (364) and that “faithfulness” makes good, Biblical sense in many places. However, he ultimately rejects the idea because he sees Romans 1:17 as parallel to 3:22, and “faithfulness” does not work in 1:17.

(Rom. 1:17 KJV) For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

However, the parallel is not that convincing. “From faith to faith” is idiomatic for, as in the NIV, “by faith from beginning to end.” Compare 2 Cor. 3:18 (“from glory to glory” translated “ever-increasing glory” in the NIV). NEB translates “that starts and ends in faith.”

Regardless of the translation, the parallel between 1:17 and 3:22 is not all that compelling and hardly dictates the outcome of the argument.

This brings us to Mark 11:22,

(Mark 11:22) “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.

Literally, the Greek is “have the faith of God.” William Lane, in the New International Commentary on Mark (written in 1974), offers as an alternative translation, “You have the faithfulness of God.”

On this understanding the solemnly introduced assurances of verses 23-24 are grounded explicitly on God’s faithfulness and not on the ability of a man to banish from his heart the presumption of doubt.

Now, the “faithfulness” of Christ argument is much, much older that the New Perspective and in no way contradicts the traditional (and correct) teaching that we are justified by faith in Jesus, a doctrine found in countless verses where the translation is not remotely controversial. Wright (and others) are not arguing against that fundamental doctrine.

Rather, Wright simply wants to add to that doctrine the principle of God’s faithfulness to Abraham’s promise, which is explicitly taught in many places, as well. Therefore, he is hardly changing the fundamentals of Christianity in this argument. The point, rather, is to argue for a change of emphasis.

Wright’s argument is that God’s covenant faithfulness is central to Paul’s theology, not just a argument in support of justification by faith. Indeed, Wright would place the emphasis on God’s faithfulness over and above the traditional emphasis on salvation by faith, as the gospel is more about God doing what he’s promised than our getting to go to heaven (although both are certainly true).

Now, this is not to say I’m 100% convinced. The Greek experts disagree. Ultimately, the Greek is ambiguous enough that the question comes down to context rather than grammar. Excellent theologians line up on both sides of the debate.

I’m not qualified to declare a winner. But I’ve yet to see Wright’s viewpoint defeated.


In reading through Ridderbos’s commentary on Galatians in the New International Commentary series, I stumbled across this regarding 2:16–

The not justified is used in the typically Pauline forensic [courtroom] sense. It expresses neither an ethical change or influence, nor an iustum efficiere in the sense of causing someone to live a holy, unimpeachable life [the Catholic view]; it expresses, rather, the juridical [judicial] judgment of God, in which man is protected from the sanction of the law in the judgment of God, and thus goes out acquitted. … At issue, in other words, is more than a human experience; at issue is God’s verdict.

This was written in 1953! And yet it sounds just like Wright.

Similarly, evangelical commentator Leon Morris in Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (84), quotes with approval Lenski–

“A diakaios is ‘righteous’ because God so declares in his judicial verdict. Dikaiosyne is the quality of ‘righteousness’ possessed by him whom the heavenly Judge pronounces righteous. The passive is to be understood in the same sense: ‘to be pronounced righteous,’ and is never converted into the middle ‘to become righteous.'”

Lenski wrote in the 1961!

Wright’s arguments are not new. Not remotely. Rather, the newness of the New Perspective is Wright’s insistence on pushing the conclusions to their logical end. Very conservative evangelical theologians have been saying the same things long before Wright.

Also, I should add, Wright has merged these thoughts with Sanders’ historical work showing that the First Century Jews did not seek salvation by works. Wright’s work, therefore, is to reconcile Protestant theology with recent historical studies–but the tools for so doing are not new–they just haven’t received much attention until now.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to The New Perspective: Justification, Part 4 (objections)

  1. Alan says:

    Very interesting and helpful analysis.

    I'm wondering whether the distinction between "faith" and "faithfulness" in our language is artificial in this context. To Paul "faith" implies not only an intellectual belief, but also the appropriate response that follows from belief. What we call faithfulness, in a Christian context, is merely responding consistently and reliably in an appropriate way. I think that meaning is encompassed in the Pauline concept of "faith". So, when God's faith or Jesus' faith is contemplated, it is an example of anthropomorphism. Of course God doesn't live by "faith" in the sense of being certain of what is not seen, since God sees all. But God's actions demonstrate the faithful response to belief which is a part of biblical faith. And Jesus modeled faith for us, showing us what it looks like in human flesh.

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