It’s common to hear Protestants say, “We believe a person is justified by faith; Roman Catholics believe a person is justified by works.” This statement slanders Rome. Rome doesn’t teach that a person is justified by works, but that a person is justified by faith.
What, then, is the difference between the reformational and Roman Catholic doctrines of justification? The Reformation argued that the Bible teaches a sinner is justified by faith alone. While faith must perform good works, these good works are in no way justifying.
This historic debate highlights the need to read biblical texts about “faith” with care. Nijay Gupta, a professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary, wants readers to understand what Paul means—and doesn’t mean—by the word “faith” in his letters. Gupta’s new book, Paul and the Language of Faith, attempts to accomplish this purpose.
Faith language permeates the letters of Paul. Yet, its exact meaning is not always clear. Many today, reflecting centuries of interpretation, consider belief in Jesus to be a passive act. In this important book, Nijay Gupta challenges common assumptions in the interpretation of Paul and calls for a reexamination of Paul’s faith language. Gupta argues that Paul’s faith language resonates with a Jewish understanding of covenant involving goodwill, trust, and expectation. Paul’s understanding of faith involves the transformation of one’s perception of God and the world through Christ, relational dependence on Christ, as well as active loyalty to Christ.
What Is Faith?
Faith shouldn’t be defined as private opinion, creedal formulations, or human passivity (2–5). Gupta argues, rather, that “faith” in Paul carries one of three senses.
First, it sometimes means “obeying faith,” that is, “faithfulness” or “loyalty” (178). Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, according to Gupta, emphasize this dimension of faith.
Second, the word “faith” can mean “believing faith” (178), which is fundamentally epistemological. That is to say, it expresses the Christian worldview as distinct from the world’s. This aspect of faith surfaces particularly in 1 and 2 Corinthians, where Paul is challenging the church to lay aside the perspective and values of the world, and to think and live from the vantage point of “invisible . . . divine reality” (9).
Third, the term “faith” can mean “trusting faith,” where faith “stands for something like Christianity, Christ, the Christian life, and so on” (179). “Faith” especially carries this sense in Galatians and Romans.
One of the biggest questions relating to the meaning of “faith” in Paul’s letters is why Paul sets “faith” against “works” in Galatians, Romans, and other letters. Gupta rejects any notion that Paul opposed “works” because he was hostile to “works per se,” because he feared “self-righteousness,” or because he understood faith to be “kinetically passive (as in nonactive)” (184, cf. 183). Paul’s target, rather, was “works of the law/Torah in particular” (184).
In Galatians, Paul’s opponents advanced Torah works as mediating the believer’s covenantal relationship with God in Christ. Paul radically “separates” “faith” from “Torah works” because he believed the Torah no longer plays this mediating role (154). The believer, rather, has unmediated access to God in Jesus Christ. Paul, then, rejects “covenantal nomism” (covenantal “law-ism”) and replaces it with “covenantal pistism” (covenantal “faith-ism”) (155).
Gupta has done readers the service of pressing us to think more carefully and deliberately about “faith” in Paul’s letters. He is correct to explain that, depending on context, the underlying Greek word (pistis) can be rendered “faithfulness,” “trust,” or “faith.” His letter-by-letter exploration of “faith” in Paul helpfully highlights the way in which Paul emphasizes one dimension of faith in the course of a single letter, whether “faithfulness” in 1 Thessalonians or “believing faith” in 1 and 2 Corinthians.
He rightly accents covenant and union with Christ as providing a necessary framework for understanding “faith” in Paul. Gupta is also conversant with trends and developments in the last century of Pauline scholarship as he addresses these questions. He adeptly, concisely, and evenhandedly presents alternatives and options before presenting and arguing for his own view.
Faith and Works
For all these virtues, Paul and the Language of Faith fails to deliver a satisfactory account of “faith” (and “works”) in Paul’s letters.
Gupta’s description of faith in relation to the righteousness of justification doesn’t categorically exclude the works that faith performs in obedience to God. He understands Paul to say that “the Christ-relation, union with God through Christ by faith and by faithfulness, represents the real core of how one is put right with God” (149). Further, Gupta objects to interpretations of Paul that “treat [‘faith’] as the opposite of work, doing, or human understanding” (140). Paul is said to object to “works” not because “they are bad or too self-active, but simply that they do not constitute the core; the core is the Christ-relation. . . . [Works] become a point of focus or potentially damage the core relationship of faith and trust” (185).
Paul and the Language of Faith fails to deliver a satisfactory account of ‘faith’ (and ‘works’) in Paul’s letters.
But Paul defines “works” in justification precisely in terms of performance and activity (Rom. 4:4–5; Gal. 3:10; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5). Our works have no place in justification because Christ’s works are sufficient to justify the sinner before God. Not even our faith(fulness) stands as a substitute for works to justify us. Christ’s imputed righteousness alone justifies a person (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9).
Faith and Justification
How, then, are we to understand “faith,” particularly in relation to justification? Throughout Paul and the Language of Faith, Gupta inveighs against those who speak of faith as “passive” (4–5, 135, 143, 183). He prefers the term “receptive” (17). The term “receptive,” in fact, is a preferred term of the Reformation tradition to express the non-productive and instrumental character of faith in justification.
For Gupta, one receives Christ, but not in such a way that one’s faithfulness is excluded from the grounds of his justification.
It isn’t clear, however, that Gupta’s use of the term carries this restricted and delimited sense. For Gupta, one receives Christ, to be sure, but not in such a way that one’s faithfulness is excluded from the grounds of his justification. But it is just such personal faithfulness that Paul labors to categorically exclude from the grounds of our justification (Rom. 4:1–8). Faith is satisfied, rather, to receive Christ and his righteousness alone for justification.
Paul and the Language of Faith is a stimulating and engaging read. It rightly aspires to bring clarity to a complex and much-debated topic—“faith” in Paul. But if we want the clarity of analysis and distinction that will sustain Paul’s gospel in its integrity, we’ll need to look elsewhere.