The Faith of Christ

I can remember the first time I saw the phrase “faith of Christ” outside the Bible. It was when the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance, arguably the most famous Barthian in the world, wrote that we are not saved by our faith but “by the faith of Christ”. It shook me, to be honest. It showed an entirely new way of how salvation is out of our hands; it is what God does. It almost made me a Barthian. But thank God I was saved from this fatal error. Please read on.

I was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky when it was liberal. During that time I flirted a little with Barthianism. What saved me was when the Holy Spirit amazingly directed me at my most critical moment to Romans 10:9, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (KJV). I never looked back. What struck me about Romans 10:9 is the little word “if”. IF is truly the biggest word in the dictionary!

According to T. F. Torrance (whom I knew fairly well – and admired), all people are already saved for this reason: Jesus believed for all and we are saved by Jesus’ faith. But Paul said we are saved “if” we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead. For Torrance people are saved whether they believe it or not. For Paul people are saved only if they believe.

That said, there was something about the phrase “faith of Christ” that still rang true. For one thing, the old King James Version – how I thank God for it or I may never have come to see the truth of this blog – carefully and literally translates pistis christou as “faith of Christ” (as in Galatians 2:16, 20). Or pisteos Ieesou Christou as “faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom.3:22). The grammatical issue is whether it is the subjective genitive – Jesus’ own faith – or the objective genitive – faith in Christ. All modern versions sadly translate pistis christou as faith in Christ. As a consequence, virtually a whole generation has missed what I believe is a most fundamental issue when it comes to justification by faith alone.

I begin with Romans 1:17, that the righteousness of God is revealed “from faith to faith”: ek pisteos eis pistin. The NIV completely glosses over this, but at least the ESV translates it “faith for faith”. But even the ESV’s footnote suggests as an alternative translation: “beginning and ending in faith”. This is a dead giveaway that the translators of the ESV do not know what “faith to faith” or “faith for faith” means.

So what does it mean? See Romans 3:22 (KJV) where the phrase “righteousness of God” appears again: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe”. Think about it for a moment. If Paul merely meant “faith in Jesus Christ” (ESV) why did he need to add “unto all and upon all them that believe”? It makes Paul redundant to say merely faith in Jesus Christ. The translators of the ESV do not translate every word but give their interpretation since they for some reason do not want to admit that Paul means subjective genitive by pistis christou.

Look at Galatians 2:16: a man is not justified by the law “but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ” (KJV). There it is. Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22 cohere perfectly: we believe IN Jesus Christ in order to be saved by the faith OF Jesus Christ. What is Paul’s point? The meritorious cause of salvation is Christ’s own faith. The reason, then, that Paul said that the righteousness of God is “from faith to faith” (Rom.1:17) is because our faith must be ratified by His faith – or we will not be saved.

John Calvin talked about the meritorious cause of salvation (the atonement), the instrumental cause of salvation (our faith) and the efficient cause of salvation (the Holy Spirit). Calvin also stated that all which Christ did for the salvation of the human race is of “no value” until we believe. When Calvin says “no value” it destroys Barthianism. Torrance and Barth would claim that since Christ lived, believed and died for all, then all are saved. Wrong. This is why Paul says “faith to faith” and why he adds that we believe IN Jesus Christ to be saved BY FAITH OF Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of “faith to faith”. It also proves that the subjective genitive is the meaning of pistis christou.

When I had my viva at Oxford one of my examiners was T. H. L. Parker, a translator of Calvin’s commentaries – England’s best-known Barthian. He immediately commented – virtually at the beginning of my viva – that my thesis exposed the difference between Calvin and Karl Barth. He was so right. My thesis argues that Calvin did not believe in classic limited atonement teaching but that Jesus died for all men “indiscriminately” (Calvin’s words). This made some think that Calvin was a universalist. No. Far from it. He was no Barthian, if I may put it that way. The funny thing was, I got the distinct impression from Dr. Parker that he was himself surprised – if not sobered – by my thesis. For Barthians love to call themselves Calvinists – which they are not!

What then is so important about the faith “of” Christ, meaning His own faith? I answer: Jesus did everything for us – he was baptized for us, kept the Law for us, believed for us, died for us. But until we believe all He did is of “no value”. This teaching simultaneously shows the glory of the life and death of Jesus but the need of evangelism to get the Gospel to the world – the greatest failure of Barthianism. Karl Barth produced no evangelists, only those who would spread his teaching. Once Barth’s views are embraced the need for evangelism dies.


RT Kendall

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