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Romans 4 and Galatians 3: defining faith or defending faith?

An employer suddenly emphasizes proper procedure or a spouse describes what needs to be accomplished. Does it make a difference whether someone understands these statements as belittling criticism or helpful instruction? Of course it does!

While correctly interpreting social interactions can be extremely significant in navigating relationships, our perspectives regarding how a biblical author intended his words to function can dramatically shape what we teach for better or for worse.  For example, what was Paul’s purpose in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 regarding Abram’s faith? Did Paul define what constitutes faith or did this apostle defend the principle of faith? Or both?

Paul’s introductory questions and statements in Romans 3:27-28 clarify his goal for the following context in Romans 4.  His purpose involved defending the validity of the principle that justification comes through faith against the notion that justification can come through the works of the Law.

To achieve his goal, Paul merely needed to provide an example of someone whose trust in God caused him to be justified. Any such example would work. If Genesis had included, “By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet seen, with reverent regard constructed an ark for the deliverance of his family. Through faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7), this would suffice. But Genesis does not. Paul found another example. Since Abraham trusted in God by believing God’s promise and since he was justified without fulfilling any of the Law’s requirements (such as circumcision), Paul confirmed the principle of justification by faith.

In a similar fashion, the tone and implications of Paul’s introductory questions in Galatians 3:2-5 reveal his objective  aimed at drawing the conclusion that Christians have their standing in the Spirit based upon faith. Once again, his purpose involved defending faith. All of the specific details he mentions press forward toward this goal.

The English reader can trace Paul’s argument better by following where he used faith. Some English translations obscure this by translating Galatians 3:7 with “believe.”  In Galatians 3:1 and 3:5, Paul asked whether it was “out of faith” that wonderful things had transpired among them. He supplies his own answer by appealing to Abram’s example of justification by faith thus enabling him to affirm, “Therefore know that those who are out of faith are sons of Abram” (Galatians 3:7).  With riveted focus, Paul’s argument defended faith as the means for justification.

Taken together Romans 4 and Galatians 3 support the ideas that those who have placed their faith in Christ, that is those who have trusted in the Son of God, stand justified before God and are sons of Abram.  As such, Paul did not outline the details regarding how to rely upon Christ. Paul simply defended the principle of faith.

However, what happens if we impose another function upon Paul’s use of Abram’s example?  What if Abram’s example of just believing was used to define what constitutes a faith response toward Christ crucified? This leads to an entirely different teaching regarding faith. Faith becomes limited to belief.

For a variety of reasons, including those below, I would suggest Paul did not share such a limited view of faith.

  • Paul wrote Romans and Galatians to Christians who knew how they had relied upon Christ.  Paul’s audience was not facing a crisis where competing definitions regarding how to trust were at stake. No need existed to define faith nor to explain to his original readers how people need to trust in Christ. His readers would have all agreed.
  • As even these two letters reveal, Paul’s understanding of faith encompassed more than just belief. For Paul, faith in Christ necessitated relying upon Christ through baptism. For example, having established the necessity of faith in Galatians 3, Paul proceeded to explain how the Galatians became sons of God through faith in Christ, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). Similarly, Paul described an obedience from the heart resulting in the Roman Christians being liberated from their sins (Romans 6:17-18). In context, this act of faith refers back to their baptism into Christ which freed them from sin in order that they might live for God (Romans 6:3-7).
  • When Paul described how the gospel and his apostolic ministry were intended to impact the world, a single phrase emerges – “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:25-26).  To trust in Christ involves more than just belief; it also requires an obedience from the heart that starts with baptism.

Being sensitive to the function of words can be as significant for our understanding as their content.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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