FROM FAITH UNTO FAITH
T. PIERCE BROWN
In Romans1:17we read concerning the gospel, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Albert Barnes says, “There is not a more important passage in the Bible than this verse; or one more difficult to be understood.” Whether he is right in that assessment, we do not know, but as is so often the case a little further examination of words either before or after a passage may do a great deal to explain the meaning.
In this article we are not primarily concerned with the meaning of the expression, “the righteousness of God,” though that is worthy of an article by itself. The words standing alone could refer to the fact that God is righteous or just in all of His dealings with man. The gospel does teach that, but if the basic idea of “reveal” (apokaluptetai) is to set forth something that had not been previously made known, it could not be the meaning here, for it had already been revealed that God is righteous.
It seems far more in keeping with the whole context to understand that “the righteousness of God” here refers to the state of righteousness which man may have, provided by the grace of God, which man may have in Christ Jesus by obeying the gospel. It involves the plan of salvation, which includes trusting reliance on Christ and obedience to Him as suggested by Rom. 6:17-18, Phil. 3:9 and various other references.
If we understand that “the righteousness of God” means “righteousness which we have as a result of God’s plan” then the meaning of the expression “from faith to faith” can more readily be understood. Let me list some of the ideas suggested by various authors. First, it is thought that it means that the gospel is revealed from one person’s faith to another person’s faith. Peter had faith, so he followed Jesus’ command and taught the gospel to another. Several things are wrong with this interpretation, but the primary ones are that this does not fit the context or connection of the passage. Peter’s preaching of the gospel was by revelation; it was not merely a product of his faith, although without faith he would not have preached it. His preaching produced faith; it was not to the faith some other person already had.
Second, it is supposed that the expression means “from God’s faith (faithfulness or steadfastness) to man’s faith.” That is, the righteousness of which he speaks has its source in God’s steadfast mercy and is revealed or bestowed in response to man’s faith. The truth of the statement cannot be denied, but we know of no similar expression in which “faith” stands for “God’s faith” although the Bible says such things as “God is faithful.” I think my beloved Bible teacher, R. C. Bell, took this position. If I remember his statement in class some 50 years ago, he said something like, “A faithful God so designed the gospel that it can only be revealed unto men who have faith.” I questioned that exegesis then and now, for I think the gospel can be revealed to those who have no faith, and it creates faith in them, though it cannot be properly accepted by them until they develop faith. We are convinced that this idea does not fit the context. I think those with the idea that the gospel can only be understood by believers get their idea from John Calvin rather than from Paul.
The NIV translates it as “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” which still has to be interpreted, and probably means to those who made the translation, “a righteousness which is first given to one as a result of his faith and keeps on being credited to him as a result of his continued faith.” Neither do I have any objection to that doctrine, as long as one recognizes that the faith by which one is reckoned righteous is always an obedient faith. But to translate an expression which literally means “out of faith unto faith” by the expression “by faith from first to last” seems to stretch the translator’s job a little more than necessary and make him a commentator rather than a translator.
Third, it is assumed that “from faith to faith” means from a higher to a lower degree of faith. I suppose that would mean that God’s righteousness would be revealed to a person who had a little faith and then he would go on and have more faith, presumably if he practiced what he had in the first place. Martin Luther had this idea. He said, “The words … therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous.” We have no doubt that the gospel would reveal God’s (way of) righteousness to one who had a little faith. Nor do we doubt that such a person would go on and develop more faith if he used what he had. But we do doubt that the language and context, properly understood, has that meaning.
Generally, we have discovered that the best exegesis of any passage comes when one examines the simplest and most apparent meaning of the language, provided it expresses a truth and fits the context. Let us do this with the language used here. The expression, “from faith” is from the Greek expression “ek pisteos” and is the ablative of source. That is, the righteousness that is revealed in the gospel is a righteousness that comes through faith. This idea is expressed in Romans 3:28 and many other places. There is no example in or out of the Bible where a man was ever blessed by faith until and unless that faith was demonstrated. It must be demonstrated in accordance with God’s plan, but that is not Paul’s emphasis here, although he taught it. Paul’s point here is that any righteous we have from God comes through means of our faith.
The expression “unto faith” is from the Greek “eis pistin.” One very common usage of “eis” is to express the purpose for which a thing is done. In Matthew 26:28, the blood of Christ was shed “for (eis) the remission of sins.” In Acts 2:38, they were told to “Repent and be baptized for (eis) the remission of sins.” So Paul is saying that one of the purposes of the gospel revealing that a man can become righteous through a trusting reliance on Christ is in order to produce faith in a person. He climaxes the matter and even emphasizes that point by saying, “As it is written, the just shall live by faith.” In the original, it says, “Those who are just (justified) by faith shall live.”
Since the prophets also bore witness to the fact that it was one who became righteous through his faith that would live, and the gospel revealed the same truth, this was so revealed in order to induce men to believe, or to have a trusting reliance on Jesus. Does not the fact that John says, “These are written that ye might believe” (John20:30) and Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans10:17) really teach the same thing? Since the Hebrew author says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6), is it not a mark of God’s gracious love to present the gospel in such a fashion that it produces in a person the very thing that is necessary for him to become righteous?
I will paraphrase and restate what I conclude Paul is saying in Romans 1:17, “In the gospel is revealed a righteousness which comes from God, not because of any merit is us. It is a righteousness that has it origin or source in our faith. It is a righteousness of God from faith. The stated purpose of revealing that kind of righteousness is to produce faith in the one who hears the gospel.” One reason this revelation would produce faith is that when man knows that he is not righteous in himself, but that God loves him enough to reckon him righteous because he trustingly relies on Jesus, then he is constrained to believe. The more one understands the love of God as revealed in the gospel, the easier it is for him to have faith.