Reimagining Faith: Faithfulness

One of the most important debates in NT scholarship for the past 30 years or so has been the interpretation of the Greek phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou; “the faith of Christ”).

Basically, it comes down to this: is Paul talking about “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “the faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive) when he uses this phrase?

In this case, “faithfulness of Christ” would mean Jesus’ faithfulness in going to the cross.

Can pistis mean “faithfulness”?

The answer is decidedly, “Yes.”

In fact, the most unequivocal use of pistis in the book of Romans is one in which it clearly means “faithfulness” rather than faith, and is used in a “subjective genitive” construction.

In Rom 3:3, Paul is reflecting on the “faithlessness” of some who did not believe the gospel. He contrasts this with the faithfulness of God. “Their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God, can it?”

Faithfulness of God is the English rendering of τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ (ten pistin tou theou; “the faith of God”).

Might this help with the conversation we’ve been having here since the end of last week?

The starting question was what we do with final judgment based on works within a system of theology that strongly emphasizes justification (initial judgment?) based on faith.

On Saturday I suggested that we rethink “faith in Christ” as “faithing into Christ,” or “believing unto union with Christ.”

Today I want to raise the question of whether thinking in terms of “faithfulness” might better capture what Paul is after than our normal idea of “belief”?

In order for this to work, we’ll have to rethink the faith versus works contrast. In Romans and Galatians, there are particular works that Paul is eager to deny are at the heart of justification–those that define Jewish people as a particular set-apart people; works that indicate conversion to Judaism as such.

No, says Paul, Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish. Faithing into Christ is enough.

Within this framework, Paul’s claim in Romans 1 makes much more sense. The goal of his ministry is to bring about “the obedience of faith” or, “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles.

Not faith alone, but an obedient faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness in going to death on the cross for us, perhaps our part in continuing the story is to respond with a Christ-shaped faithfulness of our own.

Believing into Christ means faithfulness to the Christian story, a lived faithfulness that puts that story on display in our own communities, our own lives.

15 thoughts on “Reimagining Faith: Faithfulness”

  1. That was wonderfully New Perspective of you today!

    I come from a church outside of popular Evangelicalism, primarily because our stance that baptism is a necessary response of faithfulness to Christ for salvation and wholeness. I found a great deal of freedom when I first read Westerholm’s book comparing Old and New Perspectives of Paul, because the New Perspective gave scholarly credence to much of what was already taught in my church. This issue of faith versus works is misreading the biblical text.

    In fact, Ephesians 2 actually sets up a relationship of grace verses works as the means of salvation. It is the grace of Christ, and nothing else, that allows salvation to be possible. That wonderful passage is finalized with the statement that we are created to do good works. Works must be the expectation of faith.

    Thanks for a great thought today!

  2. Daniel, if i may ask, where are you in regards to the imputation of righteousness. From what I understand, that’s the big issue for Old Westminster (kinda like Old Princeton) reformed people like myself who want to appreciate and wrestle with what the new perspective (and in particular the verse you cited above) brings to the table. I’ve read Bird on the topic, but I’d be interested on your thoughts. Forgive me if you already covered this in your books as I have yet to finish your 1st book and haven’t yet even started your 2nd book beyond reading the TOC. I appreciate guys like nt wright and James Dunn. But despite some ver powerful arguments, I find myself still unable to jettison our understanding (read old perspective) of the doctrine of justification even within a union with Christ model. What do you think?

    1. Joe,

      I don’t think there’s any biblical basis for the idea of “imputation.” Having said that, Paul’s union with Christ model is sufficient to give us all the benefits of “imputation” language without the liabilities. We don’t need a record or stuff “imputed” to us because we occupy the space where righteousness has been performed and vindicated: the body of Christ.

      The biggest drawback to the imputation model as it has been developed is that it has incorporated too much of the idea that law keeping is required for justification. This is never taught in the entirety of the NT. The idea that Jesus’ record of law-keeping has to become ours creates a soteriology that, at best, blinds us to the true saving work of Jesus. At worst, it creates an alternative gospel that is no gospel at all.

    2. Joe,

      I also look forward to Daniel’s answer.

      Imputation of righteousness seems too narrow conceptually in comparison with new creation, adoptive sonship, one in Christ Jesus, resurrection life, and “faithing into Christ.” The narrative story of receiving righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit is far more encompassing than imputation can meaningfully accommodate.

      Morna Hooker’s elucidation of “interchange” better acknowledges our becoming what the risen Christ is now and his sharing what he is as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.

      If I understand correctly, righteousness is a divine, unconditioned, gracious transformational gift of the new covenant relationship in Christ rather than a quality added on (imputed?) to first-Adam existence.

      Paul can say in Romans 5 that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and enemies who belong to the first Adam. My inference is that as adoptive sons through the Spirit, the faithful are no longer sinners and enemies of God because they have “faithed into Christ”–a divinely enabled transfer of existence. The new-creation “condition” means that saints in Christ already share in Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). The old “ego” has undergone co-crucifixion with Christ (Gal 2:19-20). The exalted Christ’s righteousness and faithfulness now resides within saints. One reason is because the Christ who mediates for us at the right hand of God also lives in the faithful through the mediation of the Spirit.

      If the old man aligned with the first Adam remains, then one could say that Christians are simultaneously righteous and sinners. That slogan, I suggest, is not apt for the community of believers who are living through the Spirit’s leadership and power in union with Christ, the last Adam. (That Christians sometimes sin is not disputed.)

      What I suggest here is nothing profoundly novel, just a possibly helpful reflection energized by Daniel Kirk’s recent insights.

      –John

      1. Hey John,

        I agree with what you are saying. I agree that the old conception of imputation is unable to really capture what is going on. I think I find myself somewhere between Daniel Kirk and Michael Bird. Bird says that tho imputation is never found in the NT (agreeing with Daniel here), much of Paul’s thought doesn’t make any coherent sense without it (or at least something like it). Kirk and NT Wright (if I understood Daniel’s response correctly), both say that Union with Christ fills this role anyway.

        for me, this particular discussion about imputation is only slightly more than an intellectual curiosity. I think the narrative should be held as the primary expression of Christianity. Systematics then, (with apologies to the history of theology) should be 2ndary, and should primarily serve to help us understand God and His story.

        To be even more specific tho, I just want to find a way to articulate how the gospel can give you both justification (or something like it) and cosmic redemption (or your word ‘restoration’) at the same time in the same way.

        And John, I loved your thoughts above. to piggy back tho, i wonder if we could think of righteousness as space to occupy by faith-ing instead of a substance (catholic) to be infused or legal status (protestant) to be imputed.

        1. Joe,

          “Faithing into Christ” opens us to the agency of the Holy Spirit in the miracle narrowly summarized as “justification by faith.”

          Justification signifies not only saving deliverance from sin and death, but also personal commencement of resurrection life in Christ through the Spirit.

          The Spirit of God / Spirit of Christ:

          1) Beckons those who were once sinners, ungodly, and enemies of God to believe and trust that God raised Jesus from the dead

          2) Bonds beginning “faithing into Christ”–believing–to the faithfulness of God in Christ

          3) Builds and perfects faithfulness as fruit/harvest of the Spirit’s leadership as well as transforms the saints from one degree of glory to another

          4) Bequeaths belonging to the Lord Jesus as one family of faith through the gift of adoptive sonship

          4) Bestows gracious gifts such as resurrection life, edifying services, even the indwelling Spirit as gift, down payment, first fruit, seal of future vindication

          5) Bridges and mediates the presence of the exalted Lord at the right hand of the Father with the family of faithful on earth throughout history

          Faithing into the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Christ through the perfecting, eternal Spirit actualizes the gracious, unconditioned, divine gift of transforming transfer from the domain of sin and death to resurrection life in union with Christ.

          Justification marks personal commencement of resurrection life and becoming united in Christ as the new covenant “family of faith” (Gal 6:10).

          God transfers those who are faithing into Christ from the domain of the first Adam, tyrannized and enslaved by sin and death, “into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14).

          Forgiveness of sins is a significant aspect for why Christ died for us (1 Cor 15:3), yet Paul also teaches that the resurrection of Christ is vital for faith not to be futile (verse 17).

          Becoming “righteoused” is not simply an Eden-like return or restoration to innocence of the first Adam, but living out resurrection life in union with the last Adam, the exalted Christ.

          Faithing into Christ results in the gracious gift of super-restoration of righteousness where our new relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit is is familial–father; Abba–coupled with promises of imperishable life and glory.

          Peter informs us that the new heavens and a new earth will have a key characteristic: righteousness is at home (2 Pet 3:13). Even now, the kingdom of God is the realm where his righteousness prevails.

          Righteousness is personal, community, and even cosmic oriented, not isolated in the individualism of I, me, and myself.

          As our faithing into Christ matures through the Spirit, we share in His righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).

          New-creation resurrection life is boundless in scope and wonder. Narrative theology convicts with more vitality and passion than traditional systematic theology.

          –John

          1. Hey John

            thanks for the opportunity to clarify my position. I actually agree with just about everything you said. I believe in how union with Christ works and thus I agree with points 1-5 without reservation.

            I’m sorry if I implied that i’m trying to jettison imputation. I’m not. I’m trying to add to it…and that might be worse to some people! I’m trying to see how we can link the cosmic space metaphors of the OT into our understanding of imputation of righteousness.

            imputation has the tendency to make our salvation individual and personal. I actually don’t want to lose that aspect entirely, hence my turning to Michael Bird who says in essence that a lot of what Paul says doesn’t make sense without this concept. but I also want to regain the concept of communal salvation, not just participation in Christ, but also a community/new humanity in Christ. And not only do I want a communal aspect, but I want a cosmic redemption to somehow be part of all of this as well.

            and rather than split them all up like many reformed ppl do, I want to find a way to hold this altogether in one over arching salvation concept that I would like to locate in the imputation of righteousness.

            so for me, it’s not either/or…its both/and. or at least this is the tree I’m exploring. I haven’t settled on a definite position yet. my phrasing should have read, ‘in addition to idea that righteousness is information credited to our account, can it also be a space, earned by Christ for us, to be occupied?’

            this would introduce the ideas of clean/unclean back into righteousness as well as sacred space.

            and just for clarification, I do agree that we are not trying to get back to Eden. But no matter how you look at it, the New Heavens and New Earth is a space. In fact, I can’t imagine that the OT jews could have imagined that righteousness, holiness, and uncleanlieness apart from spacial concepts. Even when they did, e.g. when they lost the temple and the land, they imagined a kingdom (another spacial metaphor) where God would rule completely.

            thus justification by faith is not a dead concept to me. it is one piece of the puzzle. I do not think that we need to jettison the idea. I’m not sure if it is made redundant by union with Christ (tho I’m willing to entertain the idea if the payoff leads me to what I said earlier..ie I don’t want to lose the benefits of personal justification).

            to put it in systematic terms, our union with Christ is not fully consummated until there is a union between Heaven and Earth. thus cosmic redemption is inextricably linked and may be said to be the same thing (or at least the same basis) as our salvation. Union with Christ really does tie everything together. Let me know what you think.

            Joe

            1. Joe,

              As you well know, Paul tells the auditors in Roman house and tenement churches that Jesus Christ is the definitive, eschatological revelation of God’s righteousness.

              In *Deliverance of God*, Doug Campbell says that the phrase, righteousness of God, “can be elucidated by a story” (p. 684; consider reading pp. 683-688).

              The risen Lord mediates and embodies the righteousness of God. Walking in newness of life of the Spirit in union with Christ, you localize the righteousness of God personally and collectively in upbuilding disciples, as well as in mission outreach.

              Faithing into Christ allows us to observe in each other the righteousness of God that the faithful share in Christ–much like Paul’s metaphors of “a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:16) and “letter of Christ . . . written . . . with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor 3:3).

              In the end of the age, even creation will become free from futility and decay and become the realm where righteousness of God is everywhere and the Father becomes “all in all” after the exalted Christ vanquishes every enemy and inimical power.

              To comprehend the grace of God, look to Christ Jesus, who is our living grace. To proclaim the righteousness of God, tell the narrative story of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who lives out and shares the righteousness of God with those who faith into Christ.

              –John

              1. Thanks for your thoughts John.

                I think i see what you are trying to do here. You are trying to give me a description/definition of righteousness that has moved beyond the Old perspective that actually gives me what we’ve been talking about these last few interchanges. it took me a while to figure out. I should’ve picked up on this as you made no mention of Law or the idea that Jesus lived the life that we should have lived. I think I just need to read more carefully.

                Im going to order the Doug Campbell and Morna Hooker books. they sound like interesting reads.

                one of the reasons that i took to reading blog posts is that its the easiest way to meet people who can engage in intelligent discussion on the topics that I am most interested in and thus pick up things that I might have missed (or that they hid from me) when i was in seminary.

                I need some time to chew thru these thoughts. (For I can’t even tell if I agree with you regarding the differences yet!).

                1. Joe,

                  Very belatedly in my Christian pilgrimage, I came to realize that the holy, just, and good law of God–like the ‘good’ creation narrative in Genesis–belongs to the first-Adam era. Law was “unable to enable” life. The law served as a confining custodian “before faith came” (Gal 3:23).

                  That coming revelation of obedient faithfulness unto death on behalf of humanity belongs to the last Adam, the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord Jesus, who came to do His Father’s will for our salvation.

                  Fulfilling the “law of Christ” is a response of faithing into Christ as children of God, having been baptized into Christ after being rescued from from this present evil age.

                  Living by the Spirit includes crucifying the “first-Adam” flesh and allowing faith working through love to be operational.

                  Faithing into Christ becomes an ongoing way of life in union with Christ through the perfecting Holy Spirit.

                  I highly recommend Thomas Gillespie’s insightful essay, “‘Faith’ as a Christological Title in Paul” in *Who is Jesus Christ for us Today?* edited by Andreas Schuele and Gunter Thomas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), pp. 50-60.

                  –John

                2. Joe, great pick-up here on the lack of talk about law. That’s crucial. There’s no indication in the whole NT that Jesus lived the life that we were supposed to live such that this life gets accepted on our behalf.

                  I haven’t read Bird closely on imputation, but I can’t disagree strongly enough with the idea that Paul has something like this in mind or else the whole thing doesn’t work. That’s simply not the case. Union with Christ, sans imputation, stands on its own.

  3. “If we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness in going to death on the cross for us, perhaps our part in continuing the story is to respond with a Christ-shaped faithfulness of our own.

    Believing into Christ means faithfulness to the Christian story, a lived faithfulness that puts that story on display in our own communities, our own lives.”

    So powerful. This frames Christianity into a much different and more potent perception of the walk of faith. Living out the cruciform narrative is a significantly deeper and greater calling than the too typical, checklist perspective.

    Matthew – I think we walk within a similar fellowship (restorationist?) … And, I agree that the New Perspective does comport well to many items taught in that; but I also think it offers a deeper challenge and call to faithfulness (as with the above post by Daniel) than the focus – at least in my church circles – on particular steps or obedience to a list of essentials. 5 steps. 5 acts.

    1. We are indeed from the same fellowship. I agree very much with what you say. I feel our movement understood much of the Bible in practice, while missing the deeper theological reasons.

  4. Charity with a non judgemental loving heart tried to read this lawyer talk which reminds me of the law obssessed Jews, which Jesus railed against. I believe it is your present understanding of what you believe that keeps you from following Christ Jesus, that your present understanding keeps you and others from being true Christians, by which I mean, what have you done this very day that the Master said to do? How much have you troubled yourself this very day to provide charity to the poor with a loving heart? It is because of your special theory of atonement and your special greed for your own personal salvation without doing what He said to do, believing your special theories can by pass what He has commanded you to do. Have you sold all to follow Him? Have you forgiven all to then bring your gifts which will only then be accepted on the alter after you have completeHis commandments? Is your G-d so small that He cannot save a poor cast off brother who has gone astray and has no comprehension of what your saying?

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