The title of this article reflects a debate among Pauline scholars called the pistis Christou debate. This debate is over whether the phrase pistis Christou, which occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, means “faith in Christ” (as the ESV translates it) or “the faithfulness of Christ” (as the NET Bible translates it). The phrase on its own is ambiguous in Greek and can really mean either one. As an analogy, consider the phrase “love of God” in English, which could mean either our love for God or God’s love for us, depending on the context. Similarly, pistis Christou in Greek can mean either our faith in Christ or Christ’s own faith or faithfulness.
Historically, most interpreters of Paul have understood the apostle to refer to our faith in Christ. We can see this by reading the commentaries of the apostolic fathers on Paul’s letters or by looking at our modern translations. In the last few centuries, a few scholars have suggested that we should translate the phrase as “faithfulness of Christ,” but they did not really convince the majority of scholars or Christians. Then, a dissertation written about forty years ago by Richard Hays convinced many English-speaking scholars that we had misunderstood the apostle Paul. Obviously, this must have been an exceptional dissertation. Why was it so convincing?
One reason, I think, is that Hays’s primary concern was not actually with the translation of a few phrases but with Paul’s overall understanding of theology and salvation. Hays wrote in a context in which many had been influenced by Rudolf Bultmann’s existentialist view of faith—that faith was fundamentally an individual’s decision to come to a new understanding of oneself when they hear the message of Christ. If it sounds strange that people would be influenced by this view, allow me to give a personal anecdote. In my first teaching position, I was invited to a trustee dinner where the speaker was a prominent conservative Southern Baptist leader. There, he recounted how he had read Bultmann in his seminary studies and appropriated Bultmann’s emphasis on decision in his own preaching. Perhaps we evangelicals are not as far away from Bultmann as we’d like to think?
Responding to Bultmann, Hays wondered, Is it correct that Paul taught that our salvation is all about our decision of faith? Studying Paul again, Hays came to the conclusion that Paul’s emphasis was on the story of Christ and his work on the cross rather than on our individual faith decision. In fact, Hays concluded that even the word pistis, usually translated “faith” in Paul’s letters, often does not refer to our faith but rather to the “faithfulness” of Christ in going to the cross for us. We could sum up Hays’s view of Paul as follows: We are not justified by our own faith but rather by Christ’s faithfulness. This is a very compelling view of Paul’s theology because it emphasizes that salvation is by God’s grace in Christ rather than anything we do. But is it correct?
Faith vs. Works
As compelling as this view is, I suggest that it over-states the Pauline and Protestant understanding of grace. Yes, Paul says we cannot be justified by our own works, and he contrasts justification by works with justification by faith in Christ (e.g., Gal. 2:16; Rom. 4:4–5). But he does, in fact, say in many places we are justified by our faith, and he never contrasts our faith with the work of Christ. Instead, Paul can say in the same breath that we are both “justified by [our] faith” (Rom. 5:1) and “justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). From a theological standpoint, then, we should not contrast our faith in Christ with the faithfulness of Christ. In fact, it is the very faithfulness of Christ that we trust in as we wait for him to deliver us from the wrath to come (2 Thess. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:13). Considered from this theological standpoint, we should remove the “vs.” in the title of this article. For both our faith in Christ and his faithfulness are important components of our salvation.
It is the very faithfulness of Christ that we trust in as we wait for him to deliver us from the wrath to come.
Why then does it matter which way we translate the phrase pistis Christou in Paul’s letters? Since both our faith and Christ’s faithfulness are important for our salvation, perhaps we could really translate it either way, or perhaps we could say (as some have) that Paul meant to communicate both ideas. I think, however, that it is important to carefully determine what the phrase pistis Christou means, because six of these eight phrases occur in Paul’s most important statements about justification (two times in Rom. 3:21–26; three times in Gal. 2:15–21; and one time in Phil. 3:2–11). Further, these phrases always occur within a prepositional phrase that indicates the role that pistis Christou plays in salvation—that is, they are part of Paul’s common idiom “by faith,” which he often contrasts with salvation “by works of the law” or “by the law” or “by works.”
In fact, I think this is one of the most important clues for translating the phrase pistis Christou in Paul. Most interpreters agree that Paul’s phrase “by faith” typically refers to our faith as the means by which we are saved. Would it not then be likely that “by faith of Christ” also refers to our faith (in Christ) as the means by which we are saved? Because so much has been written about this debate, I’m sure this one clue will not convince those who disagree with me. But, for the sake of argument, if Paul did mean “by faith in Christ” with these phrases, consider the utility of Paul’s language: With the one phrase pistis Christou Paul is able to say not only that we are justified by our faith, but also to say that we are justified by Christ, the object of our faith.
For it is Christ and his blood rather than our faith that is really the foundation of our salvation at the end of the day. Our faith in the gospel of Christ is important and necessary to our salvation. This is why we must speak the gospel to others and call people to believe in Christ. We must not distort Paul’s understanding of grace and conclude that our response of faith doesn’t matter. But the reason why our faith matters is not because of some quality in itself but because it rests upon the only one in whom salvation is found: the Son of God.
Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Faith in the Son of God: The Place of Christ-Oriented Faith within Pauline Theology.
Justification by faith does not draw attention to ourselves and our great faith but rather to Christ and God’s great work of redemption through him.
Justification is necessary because all humans without exception are sinners under God’s condemning wrath.
Justification and sanctification are inseparable gifts of redemption because they flow from the unified work of the triune God and his electing, redeeming, and renewing mercy.
Justification sola fide is the heart of the gospel and the broad Protestant consensus achieved on this article of faith is one of the greatest theological developments since the Chalcedon.