Martin Luther’s argument against the selling of indulgences to shorten one’s stay in purgatory before reaching heaven was a courageous and necessary attack on a grievous abuse of ecclesiastical authority. The ninety five theses he nailed to the door of the church at the university where he was a professor of Scripture presented his argument with meticulous precision. At its core, the point was that “works” were not what saved those doing them. In other words, paying for sins did not open the gates of heaven. Said positively, Luther’s argument has survived and become encapsulated and promoted as “righteousness by faith.” These days the phrase is understood somewhat differently by different Christians. Generally, it is understood to mean that to be saved one must believe that the death of Jesus on the cross pays for one’s sins and thereafter believers receive strength to live in conformity with the Ten Commandments. In other words, salvation is attained by faith in a substitutionary atonement, and the keeping of the commandments, made possible by Christ’s grace, keeps believers from sinning again.
I find the above understanding of righteousness by faith only tangentially related to the theology of the apostle Paul. It is true that there are two texts in Paul’s writings which could be understood in terms of substitution, but such an interpretation is not demanded by them. One says that “God shows his love for [eis] us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for [hyper] us” (Romans 5: 8), and the other says that “the life I now live in the flesh I live by [the Greek says “in”] faith in [the Greek says “of”] the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for [hyper] me” (Galatians 2: 20). The English of the first text uses the preposition “for” twice, but the Greek has two different ones. The Greek preposition eis usually is translated “toward.” In this case it indicates that God’s love is directed towards us, it is aimed at us. The basic meaning of hyper is “on behalf of,” “having to do with.” In other words, Christ’s death had to do with us, had us in mind. It was concerned with us. The idea also appears in the earliest Christian confession known to us. Paul quotes it as the foundation on which to build his argument against those who teach that there is no future resurrection. It said, “Christ died for [hyper] our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and he appeared . . . “ (1 Corinthians 15: 3). The confession is formulaic. The formula “for our sins” is balanced with the formula “on the third day,” and both are declared to be fulfilments of the Scriptures. In summary, that Christ’ death had to do with “ us,” “me” or “our sins” was the customary way of affirming that Christ’s death had not been just a Roman execution, which in fact it had also been, but an event of cosmic significance in which God was involved. It was “concerned with” the life humans live under the power of sin. These texts do not show that Paul saw the death of Christ as a substitute for the death of sinners.
Paul is quite clear, however, on the necessity for all men and women to die with Christ. In other words, the predominant Pauline teaching is not that Christians need not die because Christ died for them, but that all must participate in the death of Christ in order to also live “in Christ.” He does not teach a substitutionary atonement but the need to die to life in the flesh and live free from the condemnation of the Law (Romans 6: 4-8; 8:1).
The first thing one should know about Paul’s understanding of faith is that for him it is not a noun but a verb. It is a serious handicap that English does not have a verbal form of the root “faith” as it has one of the root “belief.” Faith is not a belief. Faith is a way of being. As Paul says in the verse quoted above, I live “in the flesh” and “in faith.” To live in faith is to live in Christ by the power of the Spirit. For him salvation is not by faith as the adoption of a belief. Salvation is something God accomplishes for those who “live in faith,” that is, those who live faithfully in Christ. Righteousness is not a stamp placed on those who affirm a particular proposition as true, but something “attained to” (Romans 9: 30) by those who live in ‘a manner worthy of the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
Paul defines the Gospel as “the power of God for [eis] salvation to every one who has faith” (Romans 1:16, RSV). The translation “to every one who has faith” provokes misunderstanding. Paul wrote, “to all the faithful.” Faith is not something to be had, something to be grasped intellectually. The Gospel is not information to be believed, but power to live faithfully (Romans 1:16). Paul says that righteousness can never be attained from [ek] works of law. It can only be attained through [dia] faith in Jesus Christ, or from [ek] Christ’s faith (Galatians 2:16; both expressions are found in this text). This is so because those who have been baptized and thereby have been crucified and raised now have Christ living in them and are guided by the Spirit that made them a new creation. They are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6: 11), rather than dead under the Law. Paul, quoting Habakkuk, says that the righteous live from [ek, out of] faith (Galatians 3: 11). In other words, for Paul faith is not a way of knowing but a way of living.
The mantra of righteousness by faith may be used to live unlovingly; it may serve as an excuse for living denying the Gospel’s power to give life. True Christianity is not a theological system, but a way of being. Paul emphasizes that Christians are those who crucify themselves with Christ and participate in the faith that brought about Christ’s resurrection and gives new life to the believers. That Christ died “for [hyper] all” (2 Corinthians 5:14), does not mean that therefore no one else needs to die. It means that his death was concerned with all, and all are welcome to die with him having the faith that Christ himself had in God when he died. Faith has to do with a manner of living and of dying.
Paul makes very clear that at the Parousia all will have to appear before God’s judgment and give an account of what they have done (2 Corinthians 5:10). God’s judgment is definitive; therefore, Paul insists, no believer has the authority to judge another. God’s judgment, however, is not an evaluation of what people believe, but an assessment of whether or not they live “in the faith of Jesus Christ.” Since all believers are servants of their Lord Jesus Christ, only their Master has the authority to judge them (Romans 14:4, 10).
Paul also warns his converts of the necessity to live as members of the body of Christ who are guided by the Spirit. As such, they are empowered by the Spirit to discern the will of God (Romans 12:3). Living in the Spirit, guided by the Spirit is living “in faith.” It is living empowered to “approve what is excellent,” and thus be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philipians 1:10). The conduct of those who have Christ living in them is no longer determined by the conditions of life “in the flesh,” in which the Law of Moses rules. Those who live faithfully are beyond the power of the Law to condemn (Romans 8:1), but not beyond the judgment of God. The sins of the believers are the things they do which are “not of faith” (Romans 14:23). As Paul says, God’s righteousness has been revealed “apart from the Law” (Romans 3:21). According to Paul, those who live actualizing their faith and hope, that is, those who demonstrate the power of God’s promise to give life to the faithful attain to righteousness. That is Paul’s understanding of righteousness by faith. It has to do with the actions performed by those who live in the faith of Jesus when he faced death. It has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments and judicial declarations.