Romans: God Is Not Fair (Faith and Righteousness)


One final point, and then I’ll try to summarize some of this.

The Greek word translated “faith” is PISTIS. It’s also translated “faithfulness.” In the passages we just covered, we see God, Jesus, and believers all having PISTIS. And he refers to the Jews as “unfaithful” by the Greek APISTIS, that is, “not faithful.”

(Rom 3:3 ESV)  3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?

(Rom 3:21-22 ESV)  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through [the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

(Rom 3:26 ESV)  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

It’s difficult to imagine that Paul means by PISTIS, as applied to believers, something radically different from what PISTIS means when applied to God and Jesus. And the subject at hand is God’s covenant with Abraham.

God is faithful to that covenant by counting PISTIS as righteousness, but he made the covenant so that Abraham’s descendants would “do righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:17-19). Paul is absolutely not teaching that there is no obedience or ethical obligations resulting from salvation by PISTIS!

Moreover, the Jews were largely excluded by their APISTIS, that is, for failing to be a light to the world and failing to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. They not only lacked faith in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah but also had failed to be faithful to the covenant. Indeed, had they had the hearts to be faithful to the covenant, they surely would have recognized Jesus as Messiah!

All this makes it difficult for us to put a narrow meaning on “faith” as used by Paul. Rather, as I’ve often taught, PISTIS in Paul’s writings, carries three elements —

* Belief that certain things are true, in particular, that Jesus is Lord and the Messiah (faith)

(Rom 10:9 ESV)  9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe [accept as true] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

* Belief that God will keep his promises (trust or hope)

(Rom 6:8 ESV)  8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe [trust] that we will also live with him.

* Faithfulness to Abraham’s covenant to do righteousness and justice, to be restored to the image of God and so act toward people as God acts (love).

(Rom 3:3 ESV) What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness [failure to do righteousness] nullify the faithfulness of God?

(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Now, Romans 12:1 fits here, even though it doesn’t use the word “faith,” because of what it says. The logic is that if we believe that Jesus died for our sins, then we should die for God. Faith in the death of Jesus leads to such faithfulness that we die with Jesus for God.

You’ll immediately notice the double use of “faith.” In James, the author condemns those with first kind of “faith” who fail to combine faith with love so as to have true saving faith. But “faith” can also take on the much broader meaning of “trusting faithfulness.” Context matters.

Therefore, when we read Romans with a Reformation bias, wanting “faith” to mean nothing but “accept as true,” we miss much of what is being said and we risk sucking the ethical elements out of the gospel. We, like Abraham, are saved to do righteousness and justice.

On the other hand, when we read Romans with a 20th Century Church of Christ bias, we turn “faith” into “obey” and make most of Romans meaningless. It’s not that we never obey. After all, Paul makes it clear that he does not for a minute condone sinning in reliance on God’s grace — and he damned those who said otherwise! Rather, we are charged to be faithful, not to be sinless.

We aren’t called to perfect knowledge of God’s will, either. Outside of a grace system, it’s terrifying to learn more of God’s will, because then we become accountable for more of the law and susceptible to even greater punishment! But within grace, we crave knowledge of God’s will because we crave God and want to please him as best we can.

God’s righteousness and goodness

Some of this will make better sense when we understand the meaning of “righteousness.” If we don’t study very carefully, we read “righteous” to mean “good.” Thus, God’s righteousness becomes “God’s goodness.” And when God chooses to save us because of his righteousness, we read that as God saving us because of his goodness.

And that raises a serious philosophical problem with the obvious fact that God doesn’t save everyone and that some have never heard the gospel. If God is good, we ask, why didn’t he send the gospel to the Cherokees? The Incas? The aborigines of Australia?

But it’s not about goodness. It’s about covenant faithfulness. God blesses all nations through Abraham, and ultimately Jesus, because he is true to his word to Abraham. But it took God thousands of years to invite the nations in. But that is entirely true to his covenant. After all, he had to first provide Abraham’s descendants with the Promised Land and to make them a great nation. God’s covenant with Abraham was always presented as taking many generations to be fully realized.

Therefore, the movement of God’s hand through history is righteous. He has kept his word even though the Jewish people repeatedly rebelled against God, leading to Assyrian and Babylonian captivity and finally to the rejection of the Jesus and the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Is it “good”? Well, God is the definition of goodness. You can’t ask whether God is good. Rather, we must ask whether we are like God in what we do — and therefore good. The question is never whether God is good, but what is the nature of God’s goodness, so that we may follow in his ways.

And as we’ve covered before, and as we’re about to consider again, God’s justice and his grace are both good. When God is just, he is being good. There is nothing even a little bad or wrong with giving those who deserve punishment exactly the punishment they deserve. The evil in punishment is that anyone needs to be punished.

Thus, when a serial killer is finally jailed and executed, we are glad he’s been brought to justice, but saddened that it had to happen. We’d much prefer that he’d not been a serial killer.

And this is the goodness of God — looking for a way to avoid the pain of justice — that is, the pain of seeing his children be less holy than Jesus.


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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