Sunday Morning Greek Blog

August 27, 2011

πιστίς (pistis, ‘Faith’/‘Faithfulness’) in Romans 1–5

The following is an updated version of an assignment I did way back in the late 90s as I was finishing up my Master’s degree at (then) Lincoln Christian Seminary. It is rather lengthy and was written for Dr. Walt Zorn, who is a phenomenal biblical languages scholar, so it might be a tad more heady than my usual blog posts, but I hope I’ve clarified and summarized Paul’s argument in Romans 1–5 so you can get a handle on it. Some of this was in my blog post from two weeks ago, but this is a fuller treatment of the subject. I hope you are challenged to think more deeply about the Scriptures and your own faith through this post.


Paul’s letter to the Romans has been a seminal letter for Paul’s development of the themes of faith or faithfulness and righteousness in his theology. The themes are connected by Paul in this letter in several places and with several nuances. I would hazard a guess that the prominence of these two themes was an important consideration in placing this letter at the beginning of the Pauline epistles in the New Testament.

When studying Paul’s use of πιστίς in Romans, one finds a richer, fuller expression of faith than appears on the surface. Much has been said about the thematic nature of 1:17: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. (dikaiosynē gar theou en autō apokalyptetai ek pisteōs eis pistin, kathōs gegraptai, Ho de dikaios ek pisteōs zēsetai, “God’s righteousness in [the Gospel] is being revealed from the faithfulness [of Christ] to faith(fulness), just as it is written, ‘The Righteous One will live from faithfulness'”).

It would seem that the traditional translation of “faith” falls short of the sense of πιστίς in Romans. In the following analysis, I will defend my contention that “faithfulness,” rather than “faith,” is a more appropriate translation in many instances. A presupposition (which I also intend to demonstrate) is that the subjective genitive dominates Paul’s discussion of [the] faith[fulness of Christ] and [the] righteousness [of God].

Some structural considerations are worthy of note when it comes to Paul’s use of πιστίς in Romans. The most pronounced structural consideration is the inclusio of the phrase εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (eis hypakoēn pisteōs, “into obedience of faithfulness”), found in both 1:5 (the first occurrence of πιστίς) and 16:26 (the last occurrence of πιστίς). This phrase helps both to define and to qualify the relationship between faith and righteousness. By far, the heaviest concentration (20 of 40 times in Romans) of the word is in 3:21–5:21, especially 3:22 through the end of chapter 4. It occurs 6 times in his introductory section (1:1–17).

What one finds when examining the usage is that, in the first five chapters, Paul essentially builds three arguments explaining justification by “the obedience of faithfulness:” one from a negative perspective (the wrath of God revealed in the Law, 1:18–3:20); and two from a positive perspective (Jesus, 3:21–31, and Abraham, ch. 4). He then concludes this section with application (5:1–11) and a historical illustration, an inclusio of Adam and Christ (5:12–21).

Since 1:5 seems to be the thesis statement for the whole book, I would argue that 1:16–17 is a secondary thesis statement for the section that follows, namely 1:18–5:21. I suggest the following structure:

A 1:16

Paul’s declaration of the Gospel’s ability as the power of God for salvation

B 1:17

Paul’s declaration of the righteousness of God for faithfulness

–A 1:18–3:20

Paul’s declaration of the Law’s inability to save or justify

B 3:21–5:21

Paul’s demonstration of “the obedience of faithfulness” of Jesus and Abraham and its power to justify

1:18–3:20: Justification and Righteousness not Obtainable through the Law

An interesting feature of 1:18–3:20 is that πιστίς occurs only once, in 3:3, in reference to God’s faithfulness (interestingly enough, not “the faith that comes from God,” which would parallel other similar constructions in the NIV [1984 version] translation!). The verb πιστεύω (pisteuō, \pee-STOO-oh\) is found in 3:2, with the sense of “entrusted,” while in 3:3, the negative form of the verb (ἀπιστέω apisteō, \ah-pee-STEH-oh\) and the negative form of the noun (ἀπιστία apistia, \ah-pee-STEE-ah\) are found. These four occurrences form a chiasmus:

A First, on the one hand, they were entrusted (v) with the words (τὰ λόγια ta logia, \tah LAW-ghee-ah\) of God

B What is it then? If some did not have faith (v),

B′ would their faithlessness (n)

A′ nullify the faithfulness (n) of God? (The question expects a “no” answer.”)

Verse 4 completes the thought: “May it never be! On the other hand [note the contrast with vs. 3], let God be true and ‘everyone else liars’ [Psalm 116:11], just as it is written, ‘In order that you be justified in your words and be victorious when you judge’ [Psalm 51:4].”

This section (Romans 1:18–3:20) begins with the continual revealing of the wrath of God. I believe what Paul is referring to here is the Law (cf. 4:15) and the punishments contained therein that are being applied even in his own time against the wicked. In 1:18–32, Paul says that these people have no excuse, because they know of his “righteous decrees” both through “natural law” and from God himself through the Law of Moses.

In chapter 2, then, Paul demonstrates that those “stubborn and unrepentant” (vs. 5) Jews who still insist on living by the Law, or at least resting on their laurels as God’s chosen people (vs. 13), are in danger of experiencing God’s wrath as well. In the latter part of verse 13, he declares that the only way to be justified is to obey the Law. It is safe to assume that he means a complete obedience here (2:23, 25, cf. Gal 5:3, James 2:10). The reality is that no one is capable of such complete obedience, therefore he can quote the Psalmist in his conclusion (3:9–20); “There is no ‘righteous one'” (3:10, par. Psalm 14:1–3; 53:1–3; Eccl. 7:20), at least according to the Law, and thus no one can be justified by the works of the Law (3:20).

Romans 3:2–3 serves as a crucial turning point for 1:18–3:20. In addition to the chiasmus in those two verses, it is interesting to note that τὰ λόγια (‘word’) and πιστίς (‘faithfulness’) are parallel with respect to God. God has been and is faithful in carrying out his wrath against lawbreakers, regardless of the degree of violation (1:18, 3:5). Thus God’s faithfulness in carrying out his wrath against lawbreakers would imply in this case a subjective genitive construction. The phrase τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ (tēn pistin tou theou, ‘the faithfulness of God’) in 3:3 is parallel to (and has profound implications for) the next section, especially in 3:22, where we find the phrase πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pisteōs Iēsou Christou, ‘the faithfulness of Christ’).

3:21–31: The Faithfulness of Christ and God toward Mankind

Because Paul here resumes a concentrated discussion on faith/faithfulness, I understand the key phrase in 3:22 (πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) to inform most occurrences of πιστίς in 3:21–5:21, and most likely in the whole book of Romans. I believe this phrase and “the faithfulness of God” in 3:3 are both what grammarians call “subjective genitive.” Subjective genitive means that the noun in the genitive case (in these verses, “God” and “Jesus Christ”) serve as the “subjects” of the verbal action of the accompanying noun (“faithfulness”). So we could turn these around and say “God is faithful” and “Jesus Christ is faithful.” The opposite category here (which is the way 3:22 is usually treated in contrast to 3:3) is objective genitive. This means the nouns in genitive case would be objects of the verbal action implied by the accompanying noun. If these phrases were treated as objective genitive, then they would be rendered “trust/have faith in God” and “trust/have faith in Jesus.” The implication of the subjective genitive is that the faithfulness of Christ is an activity Christ performs, primarily his death on the cross.

But there is another implication here that may escape the casual reader. Remember that Paul wrote in 1:17 that “the Righteous One (δίκαιος dikaios) will live by faithfulness,” but in 3:10 he says, Οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος (ouk estin dikaios, “there is no righteous one”). In both places, he uses the adjective substantively. The context here suggests that it was not only Jesus’ faithfulness to his suffering and death on the cross, but his faithfulness to the Law as well. Jesus is the exception to 1:18–3:20. This is a key conclusion: Jesus is “the Righteous One” of 1:17.

Several Scriptures help to make this point. In Matt 5:17, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (emphasis mine). In Romans 10:4, Paul says that Jesus is the τέλος…νόμου (telos…nomou), that is, the ‘perfection,’ ‘completion,’ or ‘fulfillment’ of the Law. Hebrews 5:8–9 (NIV 2011) says: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Although Hebrews was most likely not written by Paul, the connection here of learning obedience (Romans 1:5) through his faithful enduring of suffering drives home the fact that Romans 3 should be read in the light of the subjective genitive.

My own translation of Romans 3:21–31 reads differently from the traditional reading in many translations, for every reference to “faith/faithfulness” is a reference to the “faithfulness of Christ” in v. 22. Here is how the passage might be rendered:

But now God’s righteousness, apart from the Law, has been revealed, being testified to in the Law and the Prophets, God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who are believing. For there is no difference. For all who are being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus sinned and are falling short of the glory of God. whom God presented the Messiah as an atoning sacrifice through [his] faithfulness in his blood into a demonstration of his righteousness because God overlooked of the sins committed beforehand in his forbearance, towards a demonstration of his righteousness in the present time, in order that [Christ] himself would be the “Righteous One” and the one justifying those of the faithfulness of Jesus.

This also demonstrates God’s faithfulness. God required a blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin. Under the Law, that happened in the sacrificial system. But now, “apart from the Law,” a new method of atonement is achieved through Christ. God’s faithfulness is vindicated in Christ, for now God can “set aside” the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant because of what he accomplished through Jesus on the cross.

Romans 4: Abraham’s Faithfulness Demonstrated

If the last half of chapter 3 was not enough to convince the Jews that it is possible to be justified “apart from the Law,” then Paul hopes the example of Abraham in chapter 4 will irrefutably drive home the point. Actually, Abraham lived “apart from the Law” that did not yet exist (i.e. “prior to” the Law). But the quote from the LXX is revealing (Romans 4:9, see also vs. 3 for a variation): Ἐλογίσθη τῷ Ἀβραὰμ ἡ πίστις εἰς δικαιοσύνην (elogisthē tō Abraam hē pistis eis dikaiosynēn, “Faithfulness into righteousness was reckoned to Abraham.”)

Although the context of this quote (Genesis 15:6) suggests at first glance Abraham’s simple belief in the promise from God that he would have many descendants, Abraham later demonstrated his faithfulness to the promise (because he knew God would be faithful to the promise) by taking Isaac up on Mt. Moriah and raising the knife to sacrifice his only son through whom that promise (presumably) would come.

James would want to speak up at this point. Of course James is famous for arguing that “faith without works is dead.” It would seem, then, that James and Paul converge here. James’s concept of faith-based works seems similar to Paul’s concept of faithfulness (cf. Eph 2:10): faithfulness involves obedience not to the Law, but to Christ who fulfilled the Law.

δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and the Subjective Genitive

Just as 3:22 informs us that Paul is talking about Christ’s faithfulness throughout the last part of chapter 3, and not our faith in Christ; and God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham in chapter 4; so also δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in 1:17 (a subjective genitive) helps to inform us of God’s righteousness (even though “God’s” does not always modify “righteousness”) in most places in Romans.

No one save Christ could have obtained the justification or righteousness from total obedience to the Law, so that now we who believe can be justified not through the Law, but through Christ “apart from the Law.” Not only can we be justified, but God is just in doing so through Christ, because Christ fulfilled the Law (3:26).

Application & Conclusion

Often I have struggled with whether or not my own “faith” was a work, and if I did not have enough “faith,” what would God do to me? Often I hear horror stories of pastors or ill-informed Christians telling people going through a bad time that they are suffering because they do not have enough faith. With the above interpretation, the amount or quality of our faith is not necessarily a factor. God’s faithfulness stands firm even if we are faithless. Does this imply universalism? No. Eternal security? No. But it does call us to trust all the more in his promises, because he has demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt his ability and willingness to faithfully follow through on his promises. This is an assurance that all of us could use.

As for the translation of πιστίς, I would suggest that many occurrence of the word in Romans (and perhaps everywhere in the Pauline corpus) be filtered through the important phrase in his inclusio of 1:5/16:26, phrase εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (eis hypakoēn pisteōs, “into obedience of faithfulness”). When Paul speaks of “faith,” even when he personalizes it in the first or second person, he has in mind a faithful obedience to Christ, and the good works that “God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10).

All Greek Scripture quotations taken from Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini et al., The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (With Morphology) (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993; 2006), Logos electronic edition, unless otherwise indicated.

The NIV (1984 edition) translated this identical phrase two different ways. In 1:5, the translators chose “to obedience that comes from faith,” and in 16:26, they chose “so that [all nations] might believe and obey him.” In both places, also, ἔθνη (ethnē ‘Gentiles’) is translated differently: “Gentiles” in 1:5 and “nations” in 16:26. It would seem in 16:26 that Paul puts his Q.E.D. on at least one of his purposes (1:5) for writing this letter to the Romans. The 2011 edition of the NIV fixes this inconsistency, having “the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith” in both places. Many other modern translations, such as the NRSV and ESV got the consistency right in the interim, translating the phrase “obedience of faith” in both verses. I would still maintain, however, that “faithfulness” is the better translation.


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