Derek Leman was a Messianic rabbi, and I have been subscribing to his Daily D’var for years. Now it is called the “Daily Portion.” In the August 13, 2016 Daily Portion, Derek shares some thoughts on what it means to be justified by faith. Specifically, he weighs in on the debate about whether Paul believed or stressed that people are saved by their own faith in Christ, or by Christ’s faithfulness to humanity and to God in carrying out his saving mission. Are people saved by faith in Jesus, or by the faith of Jesus? Derek agrees with the latter.
In posting his comments, I am not entirely endorsing them, for I
still have questions: Why does Paul stress Abraham’s faith and seem to
imply that people should follow that? Romans 10:9 says that those who
confess the Lord Jesus and believe in their hearts that God raised him
from the dead will be saved. Derek explains that verse, in light of his
Still, a lot of what Derek says resonates with me, from an emotional
standpoint. Am I saved by conjuring up faith and making myself believe
certain things? How is that different from being saved by good works
and personal efforts?
That said, I present to you Derek’s thoughts:
Paul on Being Justified by Faith[fulness]
We have been assured of divine acceptance, says Paul, by the
faithfulness of Messiah. More than that, through Messiah’s faithfulness,
we have obtained access into a new standing with God, living under the
certainty of his kindness (and thus, dispelling the fear that his wrath
is what is causing the problems in our lives). Where does Paul say such
beautiful things? Romans 5:1-2, which in the ESV translation read,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with
God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained
access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in
hope of the glory of God.”
It may appear to you that Paul’s words in the ESV version are not
saying the same thing as my first two sentences. Paul’s words seem to be
about us having faith and our faith being the prerequisite requirement
for all the good things God does for us. God, according to justification
theory (a name for the commonly accepted idea of what the Christian
message is) knows we cannot keep his moral laws perfectly and so he
makes an easier test: just believe in a few things about me and my Son
and I will treat you as though you are righteous.
Sometimes the things we think we know turn out not to be true. Romans
5 is not saying our faith earns God’s reward. Nor is it saying our
ability to believe is what changes God’s attitude toward us from wrath
to benevolence. Messiah’s faithfulness has brought about a new
realization for us. Messiah is God made flesh. The way he has acted for
us shows us what God, hidden in heaven, truly thinks. He turns out to be
a God who gets right down here with us, suffering alongside us, crying
with us, laughing with us, dying with us, and — when time has fulfilled
its course — rising with us.
Now I am not saying that our faith (belief, trust) in God and Messiah
is irrelevant or unimportant. To be clear, I am saying that our faith
(belief, trust) is not a condition of God’s love and acceptance but is a
result of God’s love and acceptance. I am not saying faith is
unimportant. I am saying, for people who like theological terms, it is
part of our sanctification (growth to maturity while we live in this
present evil age) and not the basis of our justification (being accepted
now by God and assured of being found innocent in the coming judgment).
But wait, faith is the condition. We’ve always been taught that,
right? “Believe” is sometimes a command and the promise that goes with
it is “you will be saved.” But maybe, and this is what I am saying,
believing is an experience that happens to us, not something we cause to
happen. And maybe “believe in the Lord Messiah Yeshua and you will be
saved” is not a command to meet a condition, but a statement of result:
“if you find yourself responding with faith to what you hear, you will
know that you are saved.”
All of this preparation is so I can talk about an idea which has
become well-known in modern scholarship of the Greek New Testament but
which is not commonly known at the popular level. The numerous “by
faith” statements in Paul could mean something different than the way
popular translations render them and the manner in which they are
There are two reasons for this. One is that faith-as-condition is an
assumed paradigm with a lot of tradition behind it and strength. The
other is that few realize the Greek word group for “faith” usually means
“faithfulness, fidelity, persevering in belief” and not “giving assent
to an idea, believing a fact.”
So, is it our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness? Is Paul talking about
something Messiah did for us or a condition we meet in order to receive
the benefits of what Messiah did for us? Let’s take a verse as an
example, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith/faithfulness,
we have peace with God through our Lord Messiah Yeshua” (Rom 5:1). Have
we been justified [accepted as one of the righteous destined for
vindication in the coming judgment] because we met the condition of
faith? Or have we been justified because of faithfulness [the
faithfulness of Yeshua who believed what the Father told him, that his
death and resurrection would save humans]?
I will try to persuade you of the latter, that Messiah’s faithfulness is meant and not our ability to believe.
First, don’t remain stuck on the translation “we have been justified
by [our meeting God’s condition of] faith” just because it’s what you’ve
always heard. Be willing to reprogram your mind to read it in a way no
common English translation renders it: “we have been justified by
faithfulness [Messiah’s, that is].”
Second, don’t forget that Romans 5:1 begins with a “therefore.” And
“therefore” directs us to look at what came before, which would be
Romans 4:25. When we look there we find the statement that Yeshua “was
delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The
verse is unambiguous. The cause of our justification is Messiah, not us.
So when Paul says “therefore” in 5:1, he repeats the thought “since we
have been justified by faithfulness,” and adds something new “we have
peace with God.” The “faithfulness” of 5:1 is that Yeshua was delivered
up and raised, not a reference to our capacity for faith.
Third, Paul emphasizes repeatedly that Messiah is the foundation of
his message, that the message of Messiah is God’s power to change human
hearts, and that the Gospel is what happened to and through Messiah.
Does it make more sense for Paul to say that we are vindicated before
God by the merit of our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness?
Fourth, realize what justification means for Paul, the Jewish teacher
of Gentiles. The source of the idea for him is the Hebrew Bible. God is
King and Judge of the earth. He has chosen Israel. The nations accuse
Israel of being undeserving and at times God uses the nations as his
instruments to chastise Israel. The question of justice comes up
repeatedly in books like Isaiah and Psalms. But in God’s law-court,
Israel is destined to be vindicated in the end, its punishment over, its
consolation assured. Israel’s justification is based on the assurance
of God’s covenant love. It does not depend on Israel and the outcome is
never in doubt. Should we be surprised that love, not legal justice, is
the basis for vindication on the last day for all who belong to Messiah?
It depends on what God does, not what we do.
Fifth, when Paul contrasts works of the law with either our faith or
Messiah’s faithfulness, which contrast makes more sense? If the right
interpretation is “our faith,” then the contrast is between two kinds of
human action: doing works versus believing facts. One is law-keeping
and the other is mental assent (see N.T. Wright, What St Paul Really
Said, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, pg. 110). But the contrast is much
clearer if what he means is not our works but God’s faithfulness made
known in Yeshua. That would be a contrast between human action
(law-keeping) and divine action (the sending of Yeshua to die and be
raised). If God did it, no human can boast.
And sixth, if it is by our faith then we have the problem of knowing
the minimum content of our faith. How many facts about God and Messiah
must be included in our faith? How long is God’s multiple choice test
and how many questions can we miss? But if it is by Messiah’s
faithfulness then the whole thing is not a test. It is more like a
rescue mission. Which better fits God, the “tester of minds” or the
“healer of souls”?