Whose faith saves us?
|Hold on Tight |
by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)
In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul addresses a group of terribly confused Christians who he says have been "bewitched" (Galatians 3:1). Clearly they are in a spiritually dangerous situation, having lost sight of the true basis of their identity, salvation and continuing life in Christ. And so, in love, but with apostolic fervor, Paul exhorts them to get back to the true gospel (Galatians 1:6-10). In chapter 2, he continues that exhortation by sharing his own faith story in this theologically-rich passage:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 KJV, emphasis added)Note that the KJV has the faith of the Son of God, where other translations have faith in the Son of God. Which translation is correct---whose faith did Paul rely on for his salvation and continuing life in Christ---his or Christ's? Joseph Tkach (Grace Communion Seminary board chair) comments:
Paul understood Jesus to be both the subject and the object of saving faith. As subject, he is the active agent who authors faith. As object, he responds as one of us with perfect faith, doing so in our place and on our behalf. It is his faith and faithfulness, not ours, that gives us our new identity and makes us righteous in him.
The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of ChristAt issue here is a foundational precept of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which many theologians refer to as the vicarious humanity of Christ. This vital, but often overlooked (or, at least, under-emphasized) doctrine, speaks to the reality of the continuing humanity of Christ Jesus and what he, as human, has done and is doing in our place and on our behalf (as our representative and substitute). This topic was helpfully addressed a few years ago by Trinitarian theologian Andrew Purves in his essay "'I yet not I but Christ:' Galatians 2:20 and the Christian Life in the Theology of T. F. Torrance." Here are his opening words:
In the form “not I but Christ,” the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ plays a central role in the theology of Thomas F. Torrance. Torrance’s perspectives on Christian faith and life can properly be understood to some significant extent in terms of the theological consequences of Galatians 2:20 KJV. The verse, in fact, may well function in a hermeneutical manner, giving us a significant point of access by which to interpret Torrance’s theology on the terms which he himself set. “For me,” he writes, this is “a passage of primary importance,” for it “refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul 'not I but Christ,' even in our act of faith." (p. 1)Yes, even the faith by which God's gift of salvation is received is, ultimately, Christ's, not our own. Purves continues:
Following Athanasius, Torrance asserts, that in the depth of the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation there is both a humanward and a Godward direction, in which Christ mediates God to us and us to God in the unity of his incarnate personhood.... Thus Torrance refers to the "double fact that in Jesus Christ the Word of God has become man, has assumed a human form, in order as such to be God's language to man, and that in Jesus Christ there is gathered up and embodied, in obedient response to God, man's true word to God and his true speech about God. Jesus Christ is at once the complete revelation of God to man and the correspondence on man's part to that revelation required by it for the fulfillment of its own revealing movement." (p. 3)
Relying on Christ's faith; union with ChristThe bottom line is that we are led by the Spirit to rely on Christ for everything, and that includes the faith by which our salvation is received. In his vicarious humanity, as our High Priest and Intercessor, Jesus has responded and continues to respond to God in faith on our behalf (he believes for us). The benefits of that perfect human faith become ours in and by our union with Christ ("in Christ" being Paul's constant refrain and primary organizing principle in addressing the Christian life).
In union with Christ we share in all that Christ, in his humanity, is and has---his perfect (and perfecting) faith included. Purves elaborates on the pastoral implications of this vital gospel truth in his helpful book, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, a Christological Foundation. Note this lengthy, representative quote:
The Latin [Western] theological tradition, especially since the Reformation, has tended to emphasize heavily the faith of the believer. North American evangelicalism today is a case in point, where faith is seen as a necessary condition for salvation. This faith includes some combination of cognitive assent as belief, and trust in the merits of Christ. The pastoral problem is easily identified: What is a minister to say when a parishioner asks if she or he has enough of the right kind of faith to be assured of salvation? The faith in question is a definitionally slippery, near-quantitative human condition that is the fruit of the will; at the last everything in salvation now appears to depend upon a human decision and an experience of trust in God. Christian faith, when faith is the necessary condition for salvation, becomes the religion of a new conditionalism. In this case faith functions as part of a causally construed soteriology: Christ does his part, but a human component appears to be required, for we must have faith in his part. Even when the work of the Holy Spirit is slipped into the equation as the primary actor in a person's coming to have faith---a factor that is appropriate for a full understanding of faith---and assent and trust thereby are properly understood as the gifts of God that constitute a person's having faith, the pastoral problem remains. No minister has access to another's human experience. (Is asking the question in the first place a sign of faith or of its lack?) The problem is that if the minister tends to look for the meaning and significance of faith in the wrong place, he or she has no assurance to give.
A fully evangelical perspective on faith does not cast persons back upon themselves, whether upon religious experiences of some kind or the assent given to statements of belief. Here, as at all other points of Christian faith and experience, the primary reference is to Jesus Christ as the one who stands in for us, doing for us what we do not and cannot do for ourselves. In this case, Jesus Christ is the one who, in the flesh or our humanity, hears and responds believingly and faithfully to the Word of God. Before we have faith, he is the believing human into whose faith we are engrafted, so that at the last we are cast upon his faithfulness and not our own. This is not to dispute the faith that grows within, which is the Spirit's gift. Neither is it to say that in the freedom of Christ's faith for us to which we in the Spirit are engrafted we may not with perversity and ingratitude walk away from faith in unbelief to our judgment. This surely a great mystery. Nevertheless, the whole movement of the gospel is away from and toward Christ, in whom we have faith.
Faith involves our trust in God's gift rather than confidence in our choices. But this gift of faith has a special characteristic that marks it as Christian: faith is established as God's initiative by the special work of the Holy Spirit, who joins us to Jesus Christ, to share in his communion with and mission from the Father. In union with Christ, that which is his becomes ours. His Father becomes our Father. His knowledge and love and service of the Father become, in union with him, our knowledge and love and service of our Father. In other words, Jesus Christ and our union with him through the Holy Spirit determine Christian faith so much so that our union with Christ is the proper framework within which we understand the meaning of Christian faith in all regards. This is what Paul teaches in verses like: "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), and "Your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).
...Thus the emphasis is turned away from our faith in the gospel---a good and necessary thing in its proper place---to the more basic and foundational affirmation that everything depends upon Christ's faithfulness unto death for us.... The point is that Jesus has offered the Father the faith that we do not have. Assurance of salvation is found, therefore, in pointing people away from themselves and toward Christ, in whom alone is our hope. (pp. 170-172 emphasis added)
A challenge of theology, exegesis, grammar and translationPaul makes comments similar to what he expressed in Galatians 2:20 (KJV) in these verses: Galatians 3:22 (KJV), Romans 3:22 (KJV) and Philippians 3:9 (KJV). I'm referencing the KJV in each case due to the way it translates the Greek phrase pistis christou as “faith of Christ,” and the Greek phrase pisteos Ieesou Christou as “faith of Jesus Christ.” Other translations have "faith in Christ."
The translation challenge here involves theology, biblical exegesis and grammar. All these elements must be considered since they all influence, even dictate, translation decisions. A key grammatical issue is whether the Greek phrases involved should be understood as objective-genitives---naming a faith of which Jesus is object (“faith in Jesus Christ"); or as subjective-genitives---naming a faith of which Jesus is subject (“the faith of Christ,” or perhaps, "the faithfulness of Christ"---see below). Both options are possible grammatically. However, theologically/exegetically, the overall thrust of Paul's theme of union with Christ ("in Christ" being Paul's frequent refrain) points toward the subjective-genitive as the most likely and thus preferred alternative.
To read more about these issues, click here for a helpful, detailed essay by John Dunnill, who argues for the subjective-genetive: the faith (he prefers faithfulness) of Christ. Here is one of his summary comments:
It is the faithfulness of Christ which effects salvation---his trust in God as displayed in active obedience leading to his death and to the unfolding of new life in the resurrection. Of this new life the believer who trusts in this faithfulness of Christ, rather than works of the law, can lay hold, so that "the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the son of God." (p. 5, emphasis added)So in answer to our original question, Whose faith saves us?, we observe Paul's answer (which is the declaration of the gospel) that it is the faith of Christ that saves us from start to finish---a faith that, by the Spirit, becomes ours in and through our union with Jesus Christ, the faithful One.
For additional essays on this topic, click here, here and here (downloaded document).