by Barry Newton
Is there any hope of piercing through the murkiness to glean an accurate understanding of Romans 1:17? On the one hand, many readers appear to merely gloss over difficult phrases armed with the dismissive attitude, “what difference does this make?” On the other hand, inquisitive minds can quickly become mired down in a myriad of translations and commentaries espousing conflicting ideas. Does hope exist for untying the knotty problem of what Paul actually meant?
Comparing various translations and commentaries on Romans 1:17 clearly reveals a fog of uncertainty has persistently clouded confidence on what “from faith to faith” (NASB) or “by faith from first to last” (NIV) means. Many of the suggestions describing what Paul may have meant have been reasonable and even ingenious. Yet, the question that has continued to plague my mind is, in spite of their often orthodox viability, does the book of Romans actually lead us to those interpretations? Creating a possible interpretation is not the same as having good reason to believe Paul intended us to understand a particular message.
The first cut on the seemingly Gordian knot is perhaps accomplished by recognizing that the themes of Romans 1:16-17 are more fully stated in Romans 3:21-26. In technical jargon it appears that these two sets of verses form an inclusio, that is, two bookends stating the same basic message. The first bookend would serve to introduce the topic while the second restates it as a conclusion for the section.
Consider these examples: Romans 1:16 rivets our attention upon the gospel being for everyone. Similarly, Romans 3:22-24 emphasizes both the universal need for salvation as well as its availability to all through faith. Furthermore, just as Romans 1:17 heralds that the gospel reveals “the righteousness of God,” so too 3:21-24 points to a source other than the Law and the Prophets (read gospel) which reveals “the righteousness of God” (NASB). Accordingly, the message of Romans 1:17 becomes virtually identical to Romans 3:22, thus preparing us to understand Paul’s phrase “from faith unto faith.”
The second and final slash through Paul’s unintentional conundrum can be achieved for English readers by observing a consistently literal translation within these two sets of text. In Romans 1:17 Paul described the dynamic movement between the two faith elements as: “from faith unto faith.” Significantly, Romans 3:22 also provides a similar movement between two faith elements: “through faith of Jesus Christ unto all those who are believing.” Accordingly, allowing the latter fuller expression to inform Romans 1:17’s “from faith unto faith” would suggest that the “righteousness of God is revealed from faith of Jesus unto all who believe.”
That Paul intended us to understand “from faith” as signifying Jesus’ faith seems to be confirmed as the second bookend wraps up Paul’s conclusion. Romans 3:26 repeats the original expression in 1:17 (“from faith”) but now provides the more complete form, “from faith of Jesus.” Literally, Romans 3:26 describes God as being righteous and the one who makes people righteous “from faith of Jesus.”
If you have had difficulty discovering “faith of Jesus” in your translation of Romans 3:22, check out the KJV which is a notable exception. Actually, there are a number of verses which contain “faith of Jesus” or “faith of him”/1 most of which are translated accordingly by the KJV.
If these insights are correct about Paul’s intention behind “from faith” in Romans 1:17, what does this mean for our biblical understanding? Part of this answer will pivot upon how a person understands another thorny phrase, “righteousness of God.” On the one hand, this verse could be claiming that the gospel reveals a righteousness from God is given from the faith of Jesus unto all who believe. On the other, Paul’s message could be that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness in working from the faith of Jesus unto all who believe. While these two possibilities do create two different frameworks for interpreting the early chapters of Romans, neither understanding alters our response to the gospel since in both cases our faith in Christ is still necessary.
However, the “faith of Jesus” can enrich our understanding of Christ’s role in our salvation. We’ve already known that his sinless life was necessary in order for his sacrificial death to procure salvation. But now, so too Jesus’ trust can also be understood as playing an important role. Such theological groundwork would lay the basis for an even greater appreciation and gratitude for Christ.
1/Romans 3:22,26; Galatians 2:16 (twice),20; 3:22; Ephesians 3:12 and Philippians 3:9