Not too many years ago, it became obvious to me that this isn’t true — indeed, can’t be true. But why? And how to explain?
I think it comes down to the fact that faith permeates the scriptures far more than I’ve been able to explain. Well, I covered the elements of the arguments over the years, but I’ve never tied it all together.
For example, in the Cruciform God series, based on Michael J. Gorman’s brilliant Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I learned (and taught) that our faith/faithfulness is parallel with the faithfulness of God and of Jesus.
(Rom 3:3 NET) 3 What then? If some [of the Jews] did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the [covenant] faithfulness [dikaiosune] of God?
(Rom 3:21-23 NET) But now apart from the law the righteousness [dikaiosune = covenant faithfulness] of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness [or covenant faithfulness] of God through the faithfulness [pistis] of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
(The use of “faithfulness” to translate pistis (faith/faithfulness) is not found in many translations, as this interpretation has only recently gained substantial support among scholars. It has always been recognized as a legitimate definition of pistis, but the theology didn’t suit an academia biased against the Old Testament and covenant theology. It’s all explained in the Cruciform God series.)
Now, if by dikaiosune Paul means “covenant faithfulness,” then we have his Greek word for the Old Testament’s chesed (or hesed) — God’s loving mercy because of his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. And “covenant faithfulness” includes, of course, grace.
This is from an article, by Norman H. Snaith, in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by Alan Richardson (New York: MacMillan, 1951), pp. 136-7 —
The nearest New Testament equivalent to the Hebrew chesed is charis (grace), as Luther realized when he used the German Gnade for both words.
God’s grace is a result or a part of his chesed, his lovingkindness/mercy/covenant faithfulness. When Paul preaches grace, he is simply repeating the prophets, who use chesed dozens of times to refer to the character of God. (Again: if you don’t get God’s character right, your hermeneutics will fail and fail badly.)
Jesus, as the Son of God, is also a giver of chesed, and he expressed his faithfulness by coming to earth in human form and dying on the cross. Philippians 2:5-11 is all about the chesed of Jesus.
So how are we supposed to respond to the faithfulness of God and the faithfulness of Jesus to their covenant with Abraham to save those with faith/faithfulness? Well, with faith, which includes faithfulness.
As K. C. Moser argued in many of his writings, it’s wrong to suppose that faith is a positive command, an arbitrary condition imposed by a God who could impose any condition he chooses to save the lost. No, calling us to faith is calling us to become like God and Jesus. We must be faithful to become like God, to be restored to the image of God. It’s the first step toward theosis, the unity with God that Jesus prayed for in John 17.
The gospel is taught. We hear. We believe the gospel with a faith that draws us to become faithful. We confess our faith, which is also a commitment to be faithful. We receive baptism. We are saved. And so it’s the faith parts of the Plan of Salvation that are directly tied to the core of Christianity, indeed, of all the scriptures.
We also studied in the series on The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, Gorman’s equally brilliant book, that the theme that ties together all of scripture — even the wisdom literature such as Proverbs — is God’s self-revelation.
So why does God enter into this difficult, frustrating, costly, painful relationship with mankind? To reveal himself.
Why? Because we cannot be faithful to someone we don’t know. And we can’t be faithful to a being in whom we have no faith. And we won’t want to be faithful to someone we cannot love.
Again, it’s all about love. God’s love causes him to want to save us from our brokenness. We were created to be in the image and likeness of God. We cannot have joy and we cannot flourish — have life abundantly — unless we are restored to his image. And so, out of love, he gave himself and he sacrifices to repair our brokenness — our departure from his image. This is how God and Jesus are faithful.
We respond in faith and in love and commit to follow Jesus — which is exactly how we are repaired back to the image of God. God’s faithfulness prompts our faithfulness/faith.
That’s why faith is at the top of the heap as our most important response to the gospel. That’s why the gospel is what it is.
Baptism does not contradict any of this. But neither is it compelled by any of this. Rather, baptism is something received as a gift from God to demonstrate and help us to live our faith — because to follow Jesus, we have to follow him to the cross.
(Mar 10:38-40 ESV) 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Jesus is not speaking of water baptism but the cross. But our baptisms also speak of the cross — not just its atoning power but the commitment to follow Jesus all the way to the cross that baptism entails. The pledge we make in baptism is to do in reality what this rite is doing symbolically.
(Gal 2:19-20 NET) 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
That’s Paul’s point in this passage. Having been crucified with Christ in baptism (Rom 6!), I now “live to God.” I emulate his faithfulness by having faith/faithfulness.
PS — My position on baptism is unchanged. I’m not arguing the Zwinglian/Calvinist/Baptist position. I just think faith in Jesus is far more central to our atonement than our baptism. In the normal case, salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. But God’s grace will cover an error in baptism for someone with genuine faith in Jesus. An error in baptism is not fatal because faith in Jesus is the true boundary marker between the lost and the saved.