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in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003
A doctrine of “faith alone” must be explicated and lived out in the light of the larger story of faithfulness, a story that reaches its climax in Jesus, the faithful Messiah. Indeed, the idea of “faith alone,” and even Paul’s use of the OT in service of that idea, makes sense only if the faith is an outworking of that climax. This is why there is in the NT a very intimate and complicated relationship between faith (pistis) and Jesus Christ. However one understand the Pauline phrase “faith of Christ” …, it is clear that the NT presents Jesus as more than the object of faith. He is also the very embodiment of faith and faithfulness. As such, Jesus constitutes the necessary and sufficient condition of Christian faith … It is only because Christ has “done it all” that the sinner’s faith is possible and can be a saving response to God.

Moreover, a clear-sighted focus on the story of faithfulness reminds us that God’s salvation calls us beyond an absorption with our own faith or even with our own individual redemption. Faith involves “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Likewise salvation in the present … involves union or relationship with the Messiah and, through him, inclusion in the people of God. Within the framework of that relationship, with all its personal and corporate dimensions, the Spirit of the Messiah nurtures the initial response of faith to the gospel message into a continuing life of joyful praise and obedience to God (Romans 1:5, 16:26), and loving service to the neighbor (Galatians 5:6, 13-14; 6:1-2). When Christian faith matures in this manner, the story of faith is finally complete, having proceeded from God’s faithfulness to the faithfulness of the people of God” (from “Faith, Faithfulness” by Steve Taylor in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology [eds. T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner; IVP, 2000] p. 493)

Paul writes to the Romans:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1.16, 17).

But what distinguishes temporary faith from true saving faith by which one inherits eternal life at the resurrection? Jesus warns of those who “believe for a while” but then “fall away” (Luke 8.13). Paul announced similar warnings:

You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11.19-22).

Since these sorts of warnings are present, the question arises, What sort of faith does God require? The traditional answer from the time of the Reformation has been to point out that true faith entails faithfulness. God is not interested in simply an intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel, but a heartfelt trust in God and his promises through the message of the Gospel. Thus, when the Westminster Larger Catechism (a doctrinal standard that stands in a long line of great doctrinal standards springing from the Protestant Reformation) asks, “What does God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?” it gives a three-point answer:

That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requires of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.

Furthermore, the Westminster Confession (a doctrinal standard from the same period) defines “faith” not only as principally “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life,” but also, more generally as obedience to God:

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threats, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.

For more details about how the Confession defines faith, see my article on “The Necessity of New Obedience”.

Recently I read a claim regarding Paul’s letter to the Romans that anyone who thinks the faith by which the righteous shall live includes any form of faithfulness has denied the gospel–mixing in works instead of confessing that we are only justified by faith.

Obviously, such a position is problematic for any Presbyterian minister who subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as the system of doctrine he believes is set forth in Scripture. But much more importantly, it defies Paul’s own meaning. Paul uses the faithful life of Abraham as his example of justifying faith:

For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4.13-25).

Obviously, Paul is referring to Abraham’s constancy in trusting God over time. While he faltered and sinned, nevertheless, Abraham continued to trust God, not “becoming weak in faith” or capitulating to “waver in unbelief” as he followed God in leaving his home and wandering in a strange land without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises to him. We too, says Paul, if we faithfully trust God as Abraham did, are also regarded as righteous in God’s sight and have our sins freely forgiven.

That Paul is referring to living by faith, and is including the “walk” that is an essential part of trusting God, is made even more evident in verse 12: Righteousness is credited to those “who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham.” One cannot help but think of what the author of Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11.8; emphasis added)

But how many who name the name of Christ really believe in him? Is our belief in Christ on the same order of our belief that three is the square root of nine? Or do we trust God enough to follow him and receive his promises in the end?

While the above is sufficient, I think, to prove my point, perhaps some other considerations from Romans are also relevant.

First of all, Paul also writes, “What then? If some did not believe [or: were not faithful], their unbelief [faithlessness] will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? (Romans 3.3)” The word for God’s “faithfulness” is the same word used as “faith” throughout his epistle. I don’t think this means that Paul must mean the same thing by the word in every case. But I do think that if Paul was really worried about a reader including faithfulness in any form within the definition of saving faith, then he is not being very careful here.

Secondly, consider Romans 8.1-17:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him (Romans 8.1-17).

Now here we have several descriptions of what one must do to be counted as righteous before God:

Given the context of Romans, I have to believe that these all are equal to the basic decision to trust the God who raised Jesus from the dead for both justification and sanctification. If faith must never include faithfulness in Paul’s mind it is hard to understand how he can list these sorts of conditions for salvation.

Consider also the term “the obedience of faith,” one which begins and ends this epistle:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ (Romans 1.1-5).

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 16.25-27).

Now one can insist on purely a causal relationship here, or else that believing is itself obedience. Both of these things are true, in any case. Faith does result in other obedience and believing the Gospel is obedience to the Gospel. So “the obedience caused by faith” and “the obedience that is faith” are both fair game. But it is hard to believe that Paul can be reduced to either of these views when he also writes:

For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the nations by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ (Romans 15.18, 19; emphasis added).

Paul simply does not seem to concerned about carefully defining faith so that it is distinguished from obedience. Obviously, if someone claimed that one must by “faithful” by keeping the law perfectly, or having enough good deeds to outweigh the bad ones, or in any other way meriting salvation, Paul would condemn the idea out of hand. But it seems quite plausible here that he wants a response to the Gospel with the whole hearts of the hearers so that they both believe and obey.

Finally, consider how Paul describes the Romans own response to the Gospel message:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Romans 6.15-18; emphasis added).

Surely the “form of teaching” to which Paul refers is the Gospel itself! And Paul even says that this obedience results in righteousness. There is no doubt that this response is characterized by faith, not by human efforts or achievements. But it is also beyond doubt that the response is one of obedience in general.

Naturally, a modern Evangelical will trump all of the above and any other argument by insisting on an a priori definition of “faithfulness” as some kind of works-righteousness. But there is no reason in the world to mutilate ordinary grammar by insisting that such a definition is mandatory. Yes, faithfulness can possibly mean doing enough good works to qualify one for eternal life, but that is manifestly not the only possible meaning.

Consider one example among many: John 6.66-69.

As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him any more. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Quite obviously, Peter’s declaration is an expression of faith. Just as obviously it is an expression of faithfulness. Instead of abandoning Jesus when he taught hard things, Peter declares that he will continue “walking with Him.” He faithfully continues to trust Jesus even when others unfaithfully decide they can no longer trust him.

Or consider First John 2.9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here we are told to confess our sins to be forgiven of them. This is a lifestyle mandate: as one inevitably sins one is not to give up or abandon the way of the Lord but rather to return in the confidence that he will continually forgive his people of all their sins. If someone decides that they have sinned too dreadfully to be forgiven then one has become unfaithful to the way of life enjoined upon all professing Christians by the Apostle John. Unbelief is faithlessness and faith means faithfulness.

To conclude, remember that equating “faithfulness” with meriting salvation or attaining to some level of sanctification is to entirely beg the question. Indeed, to simply assert as a dogmatic and unargued premise that Paul is repudiating all forms of faithfulness in his contrast between faith and “works”–especially in a debate over the meaning of the “works” that Paul condemned–is to construct a viciously circular argument. The point is simply that it is impossible to trust God and not follow him. If Abraham had claimed to believe God’s call and yet refused to leave his home in Mesopotamia, he would not simply be lacking in fruit, but guilty of an obvious self-contradiction. Opposing faith and faithfulness involves us in exactly that sort of contradiction. The same Lord who justifies the ungodly also sanctifies them.


The importance of the above discussion needs to be explained more fully. We need faithfulness to be counted as essential to faith because we want the people of God to be assured that he has actually made promises to them individually and that they need never doubt his good will toward them–that they have really (and preveniently!) received the grace of God and are already righteous in his sight through the imputation of the righteous status of Jesus.

Imagine a teacher asking a child in school if he believes that two and two is four. If the child answered affirmatively, then how would he reply if the teacher responded with great passion, asking, “But do you believe it sincerely, with your whole heart?” What could possibly be communicated by such an exchange. Would not the child simply be confused? What if the child was told that his eternal destiny, the difference between heaven and hell, rested on whether he “truly” believed that the sum of two and two is four? This would obviously produce a great deal of anxiety but there would be no obvious way to relieve such anxiety.

For Paul, however, there is no such problem. All those who confess that “Jesus is Lord,” and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead will be saved. Paul doesn’t warn believers that they might not be true believers but rather exhorts them to repent of known sin to avoid the possibility of being cut off (First Corinthians 10.1ff; Romans 11.17ff; Colossians 1.21-23; etc.). The only possible exception proves the rule: When Paul is ready to personally excommunicate the recalcitrant in his judicial capacity (Second Corinthians 13.1-10).

Likewise, when the author of Hebrews exhorts Christians to persevere rather than be disqualified from inheriting eternal life, he begs them to not “throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (10.35; c.f. 3.6). Even though the writer has real concern for his readers he does not undermine their confidence by promoting fruitless and self-destructive anxiety as to whether they are “really saved.” Rather, he asks them to add endurance to what they have, and what he confidently reassures them that they have. We, on the other hand, tend to treat endurance as superfluous. Endurance is automatic for those who have any grounds for confidence, so we prefer to question a person’s confidence rather than to simply exhort him to endure. Ironically, we do this all in the name of assurance of salvation even though we undermine it even as we glory in it.

Furthermore, faith and assurance are supported by an outwardly mediated structured relationship–a covenant administration. Thus we read in the Westminster Confession of Faith (7.5-6):

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations [emphasis added].

While one might quibble as to whether the language is entirely consistent with the Bible–since Paul refers to the administrations as themselves covenants (Romans 9.4; Galatians 4.24; Ephesians 2.9)–plainly it is conceptually right. And also plain is the fact that this covenantal administration is the visible church. One sees this by simply comparing the content of the chapter on the covenant with that of the chapter on the Church (7.2, 3):

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

Membership in the covenant, the visible church, ordinarily means salvation. Why? Because the visible Church is the very body of Christ. That is, according to my denomination’s Book of Church Order, a “preliminary principle” of the plan of ecclesiastical government. For, as the third of our “great principles” we read

Our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty.

All of this is built (as a casual reading of the prooftexts for the Westminster Confession will demonstrate) on Paul’s great statements about the Church as a spiritual reality marked out by baptism.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (First Corinthians 12.12-13).

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4.11-13).

A visible church is being described here complete with ceremonies and officers. Obviously, Paul does not have much to say about an intangible entity called “the invisible Church.” (In fact, the “invisible church” actually refers to the future church and can only be derived, in Paul, from his statements about the future of God’s people.)

God doesn’t want us guessing to whom we belong. He marks us out with signs and seals that signify promises and personalize them to us in particular–that we are members of Christ’s body. We can trust him because we can know that we have been entrusted to him.


Any number of things could be sited as evidence for the close affinity between intangible faith and secularism. One example (among others) can be found in Rich Lusk’s “Compact Road Map of American History”:

George Will says the founding fathers

wished to tame and domesticate religious passions of the sort that convulsed Europe . . . [Jefferson] held that ‘operations of the mind are not subject to legal coercion, but that ‘acts of the body’ are. ‘Mere belief,’ says Jefferson, ‘in one god or 20, neither picks one’s pockets nor breaks one’s legs.’

For Jefferson, religion is by nature disembodied and Gnostic, sectarian and individualistic. It is ‘mere belief,’ rather a way of life, incarnated in communal practices. Again, according to Will, this view

rests on Locke’s principle . . . that religion can be useful or can be disruptive, but its truth cannot be established by reason. Hence, Americans would not ‘establish’ religion. Rather, by guaranteeing free exercise of religions, they would make religion private and subordinate.

What is startling about this quotation from George Will is that it allows for no freedom to practice religion at all. Jefferson says that “mere belief”–as Lusk points out–cannot be regulated. The only “free exercise” left then, is the freedom to say propositions to oneself, in one’s head, while one is going about one’s regulated, secular life. “Exercise” has been defined solely in terms of affirmations within one’s own mind. If actual bodily action is permitted, that is only a matter of toleration by the secular authorities that have decided (for now) that the acts are not disruptive.

It is odd to see Christians promoting a definition of faith that seems based on Lockean principles. At the very least it is suspiciously compatible with them. But when some Corinthians claimed that they could eat in idol temples because they “knew” that idols were fake, Paul responds by claiming that they are quite real:

For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him (First Corinthians 8.5, 6)

By referring to “gods,” Paul probably means demons (10.20, 21). But the “lords” whom he deliberately juxtaposes to the “one Lord Jesus Christ” are the earthly rulers that dotted the pagan landscape either as divine figures or close to it (c.f. Acts 12.22).

Entrusting oneself to these gods and lords was not, for the pagan world, an intangible activity. It involved being loyal to these gods and lords, especially when a rival god and lord was being proclaimed (god: “great is Artemis of the Ephesians”–Acts 19.28, 34; lord: “they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus”–Acts 17.7). Likewise, Paul’s commission was to preach the Gospel and turn them away from these gods and lords:

And I said, “Who are You, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance (Acts 26.15-20; emphasis added).

The “darkness” that Paul refers to is the darkness of idolatry:

Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God (Acts 14.15).

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (First Thessalonians 1.9, 10).

Faith means one either serves idols or one serves the true God. To make faithfulness no part of faith under any possible definition of faithfulness is to render any real Christian faith null and void. Such a Gospel would have meant the triumph of paganism in Paul’s day just as it will mean the triumph of secularism in our own.

copyright © 2003

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