Falling from Grace: The Meaning of “Faith”

Although Phil and Mac have left this conversation, we feel it’s important to present and explain the third of the three ways that we believe a Christian can fall from grace —

  • A Christian falls away when he seeks to be justified other than by faith in Jesus.

This is a vitally important topic to the Churches of Christ, and yet it’s one where we’ve seen very little writing or discussion. Therefore, we’re going to approach the question by considering some background material, and from there, build the case.

The Meaning of “Faith”

N. T. Wright explains in Christian Origins and the Question of God: Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 263, how “faith” was used by First Century Jews. He refers to a story told by Josephus regarding a Jewish rebel named Jesus –

I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me … ; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.

[quoted by Wright at p. 250.)

Josephus notes that “believe in me” is translated “be loyal to me” in most translations. The phrase “show repentance and prove his loyalty to me” could be equally well translated “repent and believe in me.” “Believe in” or “have faith in” means “be loyal to” or even “submit to as lord.”

Wright explains,

Josephus asked Jesus the Galilean brigand leader, ‘to repent and believe in me,’ in other words, to give up his agenda and follow Josephus instead. Jesus of Nazareth, I suggest, issued more or less exactly the same summons to his contemporaries.

The same meaning shows up in modern Bible translations, where the Greek word for faith, pistis, is sometimes translated faithfulness.

(Rom 3:3)  What if some did not have faith [pistis]? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness [pistis]?

(Gal 5:22-23)  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness [pistis], 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

You see, we begin our readings by assuming “faith” is somehow divorced from repentance, when in fact “faith” means faithfulness as well as belief.

And part of the confusion arises because we modern Christians tend to miss the full depth of meaning of other aspects of the gospel. For example, when we ask our converts to give the “Good Confession,” we ask them to quote Peter –

(Mat 16:16)  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

But to modern ears, “Christ” sounds like Jesus’ last name. Let’s return to the original meaning: You are the Christ = Messiah = Anointed One = King promised by the prophets, the Son of the living God. “Christ” means “king” and not just any king — it means the king who would sit on David’s throne and rule all the nations as prophesied.

Now, compare this to –

(Rom 10:9)  That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

“Lord” is not a special word for heavenly beings. “Lord” is the word used in the Roman world to refer to Caesar as emperor. Quoting Wright once again

The accession of the emperor, and also his birthday, could therefore be hailed as euaggelion, good news (we should remember of course that most of the empire, and certainly the parts of it where Paul worked, were Greek-speaking). The emperor was the kyrios, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire. When he came in person to pay a state visit to a colony or province, the word for his royal presence was parousia.

With all this in mind, we open the first page of Paul’s letters as they stand in the New Testament, and what do we find? We find Paul, writing a letter to the church in Rome itself, introducing himself as the accredited messenger of the one true God. He brings the gospel, the euaggelion, of the son of God, the Davidic Messiah, whose messiahship and divine sonship are validated by his resurrection, and who, as the Psalms insist, is the Lord, the kyrios, of the whole world. Paul’s task is to bring the world, all the nations, into loyal allegiance — hypakoē pisteos, the obedience of faith — to this universal Lord. He is eager to announce this euaggelion in Rome, without shame, because this message is the power of God which creates salvation for all who are loyal to it, Jew and Greek alike.

In short, the confession of Jesus as Son of God, which we call “faith,” is also the confession of Jesus as Lord, ruler of the universe. It’s repentance. Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin — we believe Jesus is God’s Son and Lord and we submit to that — faith and penitence — or faith and faithfulness — or pistis and pistis – or just “faith.”

You see, we’ve misread many of the faith passages as though they say nothing about obedience. And therefore we feel obligated to graft on to them other passages from radically different contexts. But they stand quite well on their own.

Now, let’s take a fresh look at a “faith only” passage –

(John 3:16)  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

All my life, this was a Baptist passage. We couldn’t read it without immediately flipping over to James, to wash the Baptist heresy off it. But let’s see how what we learned from Josephus changes our understanding –

(John 3:16)  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever [is loyal or faithful to] him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Is this right? Let’s check the context –

(John 3:19-21)  “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

Immediately afterwards, the subject is plainly good deeds and evil. It’s about having a heart that wishes to obey — which makes sense if it’s about faithfulness or loyalty or submission to Lordship. If it’s about the purely intellectual exercise of belief — as we use the word in English, as in “I believe in ghosts” — well, then the passage makes no sense. Jesus does not call us to radical abstract thinking. He calls us to radical discipleship — and centuries of Augustinian/Reformation thought have clouded our reading.

Now, obviously enough, we can’t be loyal to someone if we don’t even believe in his existence. If we deny that the Son is the Son or that the Lord is the Lord, we can hardly submit to him as Son and Lord. “Believing in” is a part of faith. It’s just not the entirety of faith. It is, indeed, only the beginning of faith.

(I urgently note that in English translations, “believe” is simply the verb form of pistis. There is no distinction in the Greek. In English, though, “believe” often means a mere abstract intellectual acceptance. That is not how the word is generally used in the New Testament, except, for example, when the author is making the point that “faith” means more than intellectual acceptance, as in James.)

Faith/faithfulness and Works

And so — how do faith and works fit together? Faith saves. Salvation brings the Spirit. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, making us better people. And if we don’t resist the Spirit (and we sometimes do), the Spirit will help us put to death the misdeeds of the body and bear fruit. The Spirit gives us gifts. And all this is to equip us to serve — which we want to do. After all, when we first repented, that’s the commitment we made.

But notice this: salvation came first. We were saved and then we received the Spirit and then we began to work. We don’t work to one day be saved. We are saved.

Now, we can throw that salvation away, but we don’t need to earn it. We can’t. Rather, we just need to be true to what we’ve received.

And the “works” we do aren’t perfect, complete, sufficient works. No one can do that — other than Jesus. The test isn’t perfection. Nor is it great scholarship. It’s being led by the Spirit.

(Rom 8:13-14 ESV) For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Therefore, if I obey God’s word as I understand it — as a penitent, believing Christian — I still believe and I’m loyal to Jesus, despite my fallen nature and imperfect understanding. But, of course, because I’m faithful and penitent, I will study God’s word so I can best please the Lord I serve. I love God, therefore I want to do his will. But if I get something wrong along the way but remain faithful, I’m still saved.

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8 Comments on “Falling from Grace: The Meaning of “Faith””

  1. Jerry Starling Says:

    Jay,

    This is one of the most lucid expositions of the relationship between faith, repentance and obedience I have ever seen. The example from Josephus makes it very clear.

    Have you seen K. C. Moser’s discussion of “repentance and faith” (as contrasted with our usual “faith and repentance”)? If you have, I would be interested sometime in hearing your take on the significance, if any, of that different sequencing of believing and repenting. After all, Jesus did begin his ministry urging people to “repent and believe the gospel” and in Ephesus Paul preached “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus.” In fact, every time repentance and faith are mentioned in the same text, it is in that sequence. Why, then, do we insist on belief being before repentance?

  2. Jay Guin Says:

    Moser’s discussion of repentance and faith may be found at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/moser/chap4.html as a chapter in his book “The Way of Salvation.” It’s some good stuff.

    Once you define “faith” as faith/faithfulness, then it only makes sense that you must first repent (change) so that you can then have faith/faithfulness.

  3. Royce Says:

    I have taught for decades that faith and repentance are inseperably linked together. There is no biblical faith apart from a change of heart and mind about the course of one’s life (repentance). And, there is no biblical repentance apart from depending on and submitting to the authority of Christ.

    It is a fatal mistake for the listeners when we teach repentance as a stand alone work of cleaning up one’s own life before coming Christ.

    Great post!
    Royce

  4. vance Says:

    hi jay and everyone, i’ve been reading for awhile (went back and read from the beginning!) but this is my first comment.

    i’m a bit let down that you didn’t mention anything about the subjective genitive “pistis Christou” side of things….in other words, that Paul wasn’t really saying we are saved by faith/belief in Christ (per se) but by the faithfulness OF Christ. i know you can’t present every idea out there, solely for the sake of balance, but sometimes you come off as if your perspective is the ONLY perspective.

    i feel the same about referring to salvation as a past event, “we were saved.” many folks (including Wright) would probably prefer an already/not yet approach to salvation.

    sorry if this comes off as nitpicking….i do wonder if your sotierology is a bit “mainstream Reformation” or old-school Lutheran for my tastes. some of the best theology/research from the last few decades goes a long way towards solving this false faith/works dichotomy that has plagued the church since Luther’s (mis)reading became so popular.

  5. Jay Guin Says:

    Vance,

    I’m very conversant with Wright’s teachings — and I agree with much (not all) of them. I’ve just finished Justification, and his view of the Spirit is very close to mine.

    However, you have to teach within the framework of your readers, meaning beginning within the framework of conservative CoC theology. When the conservatives are seriously arguing that faith is a work, you really can’t jump straight into the new perspective.

    The goal here isn’t to present a complete soteriology so much as to show the incoherence of conservative thought and introduce a better approach.

    I’ve posted extensively on Wright at OneInJesus, however.

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. vance Says:

    fair enough, sir. like i said, i know you can’t present every idea out there.

    however, if you are presenting a position on soteriology that may not actually be your own position, don’t be surprised if we all get confused later when you “change” your position!

    i feel this is just a methodology/clarity issue. it wouldn’t hurt to give us a little footnote, something to the effect of, “i am speaking of the prevailing Protestant position on soteriology, though i may favor a more nuanced approach that includes elements of the so-called New Perspective.” that is, if you believe that!

    regards

  7. Jay Guin Says:

    Vance,

    To be clear: I believe what I’ve written. And I see no contradiction between that and much of the New Perspective.

    While I don’t agree with all that Wright teaches, I think his views on soteriology actually strengthen what Todd and I am saying, although I’ve not seen where he deals with apostasy per se. He seems at places to teach perseverance of the saints, and if that’s so, I disagree with that conclusion.

  8. Ken Sublett Says:

    You guys cannot tell the difference between Justification or Righteousness, and salvation and regeneration.

    The angelic voice told peter that PIGS were not impure: surely a gentile is pure in a ceremonial sense. Nevertheless, Cornelius wanted to be told words by which he might be SAVED: Peter commanded him to be baptized.

    If a person is justified they have the “legal standing” to request A good conscience or A holy spirit from God. That REQUEST is only avaliable to the “pistis” or those who COMPLY with the direct command..

    Believeth not is “apistos” which means “NO, I will NOT COMPLY.” That is why Christ first stated in Isaiah1 and fulfilled it in Mark 16: those who REFUSE TO COMPLY are automatically weeded out as one of those God ordained Jesus to seek out and saved.

    Liddell and Scott
    Dikai-ôma , atos, to, act of right, opp. adikêma, prop. amendment of a wrong, opp. dikaiopragêma,
    b. justification, plea of right, c. pl., pleadings, documents in a suit, etc.; also, credentials

    dikai-ōsis , eōs, h(,
    A. setting right, doing justice to: hence,
    1. condemnation, punishment, Th.8.66, D.C.40.43 (pl.), cj. in Plu.2.421d.
    2. plea of legal right, justification, Lys.9.8, cf. Harp.
    3. making or accounting righteous, justification, Ep.Rom.4.25, etc.
    II. demand of right or as of right, just claim, Th.1.141, Plu.Demetr.18.
    III. judgement of what is right, antēllaxan tē dikaiōsei altered at their will and pleasure, Th.3.82.

    I know from all recorded history that “religious performers” had a a gender problem which qualified them to be priests, preachers or witchdoctors. I wonder out loud if that is not a problem with people who cannot tolerate being contradicted by the Bible. Karen Amrstrong in A History of God said that Amos spoke of people too effeminate to dialog with God. There is no command to SING you know.

    I know that “being ready to give an answer to ANYONE who asks” especially if you set yourself up as an authority was left as a mark. Pride manifests the “Lucifer Principle.” You know, Christ identified him/her/it as a singing and harp-playing prostitute in the Garden of Eden. Serpent is not a snake but a Musical Enchanter(ess). You know, not even Judas knew his controller until Jesus MARKED him with the SOP word: Sop and Psallo have the same root meaning.

    I feel lots of pity that grown people could be so diverted from the truth that they would deliberately sow discord among brothers–or father and son where the son is not qualified either. The poor preachers on the “conservative” side cannot read the text either because they corrupt the Word meaning “selling learning at retail.” The same word in Greek and Latin also identified prostitutes: anyone who would SELL their body in any form.


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