How else are we to relate to our Creator and Redeemer than by faith? Do we possess something — something other than faith — that recommends us to our Lord and Savior? If we stand at all, we stand by faith only, naked and empty handed before the great God Almighty. Faith changes everything!
Jesus tells and actually lived this story of faith. It’s a simple but no small story because in the root and flower of faith, our trusting obedience to Him who gave us life — His life — is known. If there’s a Bible book dedicated to this saving orientation of humans to God, it is Romans.
The epistle of Paul to the Romans is about faith — the righteousness of faith — from start to last. Not only does faith (Greek: pistis) appear forty times in Romans’ sixteen chapters (more than in any other book of the Bible), but that key truth — “the obedience of faith” — bookends Romans as a whole (1:5; 16:26).
Apostle Paul writes of pistis in reference to God, Jesus, Abraham, the Law, and the Prophets. His scope is comprehensive, but most of all, he speaks of that “mutual faith” that defines “you and me” (1:12). This faith that Paul is so fixed on is grounded in Christ and Scripture, but it is so all-encompassing in nature that misinterpretation was bound to arise among his audience.
Though brother Paul’s writings are full of wisdom, Peter himself admits that his epistles are sometimes hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15, 16). The apostle James likely addresses some of this confusion in his teachings about faith in his own epistle (James 2). Paul himself is keenly aware of the possibility, especially in Romans. He knows that his message of faith might be understood in a manner other than he intended. How do we know this?
Faithfulness and future
You’ve heard of the Ten Commandments, but have you heard of Paul’s Ten Exclamations? They pepper the heart of Romans, from chapters 3 through 11, and typically right in the heat of his teaching on faith and what it means for the church. Just when we think Paul has thrown something important away because of faith, he stops and checks us. He asks the question we’re thinking, and just when we assume he’s going to agree with us, he surprisingly reverses course and bursts out, “God forbid” (using the classic KJV translation; see sidebar).
Paul’s ten “God forbid” statements revolve around two broad categories of misunderstanding, two interpretive mistakes that continue to haunt corners of Christianity both before and after the Reformation. The first mistake that Paul wants his readers to avoid (see 1, 2, 8-10) is the question about God’s faithfulness and Israel’s future now that “the faith of Jesus Christ” is come.
Has God been unrighteous in His dealings with His people, Israel, if most of them are not responding in faith to His Son, the Messiah? Doesn’t the gospel to the Gentiles mean that Israel is simply tossed aside, or supplanted in His plan, as if Christ were Plan B? To this tempting heresy Paul gave a loud and resounding, “No way!” Faith, rightly understood, is God’s righteousness to Jew and Gentile alike. God has realized Israel’s story in Jesus Christ. He has not abandoned His people because the story of salvation is not over until it’s over. Israel has a vital role to play from beginning to end (11:25-32).
Sin and law
Closely related to this is a second set of concerns Paul addresses. This is in respect to the relation of faith to sin and law (see 3-7). If righteousness is by faith without works of the law; if the law just increases our awareness of and bondage to sin; if by faith we’re no longer under the law and there’s no escape for us other than to throw ourselves on the mercies of God in Christ, doesn’t all this mean that the law is bad like sin and should be tossed aside? Doesn’t faith also suggest that we may continue to break God’s law and sin because we’re forgiven anyway?
Like before, Paul reacts strongly to these conclusions: “No way!” Faith rightly understood accomplishes under Christ’s new covenant what the old covenant could not, but pointed toward: forgiveness of sin and its overcoming by the Spirit who writes the law in our hearts (8:1-14).
Recovering sola fide, “faith alone,” brought with it the full renewal of awareness that our sufficiency is not of ourselves but that our confidence is in the God at work in Christ by the Spirit. But faith alone also revived in more than a few Reformation locales the same antinomian and anti-Semitic heresies that Apostle Paul worked so hard to stamp out in Romans, even as he celebrated the centricity of the faith of Jesus Christ over all.
The law cannot save you. Being a Jew does not save either. Paul is emphatic about that in Romans.
Does this mean there is no place for either in the new covenant? No way! If we learn that God’s righteousness is being called into question by the sometimes popular rejection of His law, or of His Israel, we should be just as quick to burst out with the apostle: God forbid. Faith demands it!
1 Shall their [the Jews’] unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid. Romans 3:3, 4
2 Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? God forbid. Romans 3:5, 6
3 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid. Romans 3:31
4 Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. Romans 6:1, 2
5 Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Romans 6:15
6 Is the law sin? God forbid. Romans 7:7
7 Was then that which is good [the law] made death unto me? God forbid. Romans 7:13
8 Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. Romans 9:14
9 Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. Romans 11:1
10 Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid. Romans 11:11