For many years, when I thought about faith, I thought of it primarily in terms of my own faith, my appropriate response to God’s free gift of grace — a faith like Abraham’s, a faith prophesied by Habakkuk, a faith without which it is impossible to please our God (Romans 4:16; Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Hebrews 11:6).
This first thought is justified. Numerous New Testament verses point us in this Reformation “justification by faith” direction. Ephesians 2:8, 9 is a classic example: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Is there any other orientation, other than faith, by which I can stand in relationship to the God of my salvation? No! As the apostle Paul insists in Romans 1:16, 17, the gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” And by this gospel of Christ, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Paul calls on Habakkuk 2:4 to clinch his point as the passage ends: “The just shall live by faith.” Amen!
But I’m older now, and age gives rise to second thoughts — or at least other thoughts. It’s not at all that I have found something else, something other than faith — much less, that I have found something more, in addition to faith. Rather, as I have matured in my faith and understand my own need and limitations, as I’ve studied and learned, I see that my faith itself requires a faith greater than, and prior to, my own.
From faith to faith. It’s an interesting phrase. What does it mean? The NIV interprets it more than translates it: “Faith from first to last.” That is a possible rendering, and certainly true in any case. But what is the nature of this faith, or who is its subject? Surely Paul is not saying that the gospel of Christ, the power of God unto salvation, the righteousness of God revealed all comes down to my faith from first to last, as if my faith is the beginning and end of faith itself!
I think N. T. Wright, following James Dunn’s detailed and persuasive argument,1 is right when he writes in his Romans commentary:
. . . its most natural meaning is “from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness.” When God’s action in fulfillment of the covenant is unveiled, it is because God is faithful to what has been promised; when it is received, it is received by that human faith that answers to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, that human faith that is also faithfulness to the call of God in Jesus the Messiah.2
In other words, God’s own faithfulness is in view with the first of Paul’s faiths. This is a progression “from [God’s] faith to [our] faith.” Notably, Paul’s next reference to faith in Romans is of “the faith of God” (Romans 3:3, KJV). Paul asks rhetorically, “Does the unbelief, or faithlessness, of the Jews nullify God’s faithfulness?” Paul adamantly replies: God forbid! Human beings, as Paul has already concluded in chapter 1 — and even God’s own people, Israel (in chapter 2) — are fundamentally faithless because of sin.
What then is to become of us? The good news of the gospel is that God’s faith can be counted on. He acts. And it is exactly His faithfulness that is at work to save in the “faith of Jesus Christ” (vv. 21-26).
This viewpoint highlights a little-appreciated fact about the Greek word pistis. Both faith (trust) and faithfulness (trustworthiness) are within its semantic range. It is like two sides of a coin: The thing trusted in must itself first be trustworthy. Of course, God’s faith does not indicate His trust in us but rather His trustworthiness. And our faith indicates empty-handed trust in Him, as well as that faithfulness that follows from being in relationship with Him.
The “faith of God” is prior to all. It is the fundamental faithfulness that undergirds the covenant and creation itself. Often paired with God’s “steadfast love,” it is celebrated throughout the Old Testament as essential to the character of God, as told to Moses — “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . .” (Exodus 34:6, ESV) — and sung by David: “but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness” (Psalm 89:33, ESV).
From Old to New
The faithful God of covenant and community is found throughout the Bible, from His own people at Sinai (Deuteronomy 7:9) to His people in Zion (1 Corinthians 1:9). Significantly, His faithfulness is often found in Old Testament texts that celebrate the righteousness of God that brings His salvation, the very same themes used in Romans 1:16, 17:
I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly (Psalm 40:10).
This is personal for David. God’s righteousness is His faithfulness to save: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications! In Your faithfulness answer me, and in Your righteousness” (Psalm 143:1). Paul quotes the next verse in Romans 3:20: “For in Your sight no one living is righteous” (v. 2). What have we without His faith?
But the revelation of God’s righteousness is not just personal but cosmic. The prophet Isaiah virtually equates God’s righteousness with His salvation, which will act for the whole world: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed’” (Isaiah 56:1; cf. Psalm 98:2, 3).
Of course, Paul sees all of this Scripture pointing toward Christ (Romans 1:1, 2). This saving righteousness of God is His faithfulness that is revealed in Jesus Christ. After Romans 3:3, Paul’s next reference to faith is found in verse 22 of the same chapter and is a reference to the “faith of Jesus Christ” (KJV). Here Paul says again, much as David does, that God’s righteousness is revealed, a righteousness that brings salvation “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (vv. 21-26, NET).
In Romans 3 alone we see this beautiful progression from God’s faith (v. 3) to Jesus’ faith, which finally leads to our own faith and belief in their faithful work (v. 22). The mediating faith of Jesus stands between the faith of God and the responding faith of man, reinforcing the centrality of Jesus Christ in God’s saving and reconciling work of love.
Jesus is not only the “author and finisher” of our faith but also the author and finisher of faith itself (Hebrews 12:2). The faithfulness of Jesus Christ reveals, on one hand, God’s faithfulness toward man. On the other hand, He as representative man reveals the faithful response of humanity toward God. And here is where my faith is born: in Him!
Paul said it: It is from faith to faith, it is by faith from first to last, because faith is a word that binds God and man together through Christ in covenant relationship. In light of this, our own efforts and works are truly of no avail at all, for if we are not “of faith,” we are apart from God and Christ. But when we are “of faith,” then we are united in them and participate with them in the faith that defines them, and us.
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20, KJV).
Today I rejoice knowing that faith is a much bigger word than I first thought. Much more than just me! Because before there was my faith, there was His faith, the faith of God that was embodied in my Lord, Jesus Christ. It is their faith, the faithfulness of the Father and Son, that I think about most these days. For their faith is what makes my faith possible.
- James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, 38A (Dallas: Word, 1988), 38-49.
- N. T. Wright, Romans, NIB Vol. X (Nashville: Abington Press, 2002), 425.