Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Faith of Jesus Christ

Being a layman I'm dependent on experts in Greek linguistics when it comes to translating the phrase "pistis Christou" in various passages of Scripture e.g. Romans 3:22, Galatians 2:16, etc. There is a bit of a scholarly dingdong abroad regarding whether we should interpret the phrase "faith in Christ" or "the faithfulness of Christ". Aparently the phrase, literally "faith of Christ", can be interpreted either way.

What interests me about those who tend to advocate the latter reading (e.g. N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington III) is that they tend to deny the imputation of Christ's active obedience (IAO). On the other hand, the staunchest defenders of the traditional former rendering, (e.g. D.A. Carson) tend to affirm IAO. Weird! Why so?

Well, firstly, I'm not suggesting that we adapt our exegesis/translations in order to cater to our theological shibboleths. Nevertheless, I'd have thought that those partial to the IAO would see the force in being justified through "the faithfulness of Christ". In my opinion, if the phrase, "pistis Christou" is best translated "faithfulness of Christ" then the arguments for IAO are settled in favour of said doctrine hook, line and sinker.

It seems Michael Horton agrees. In his, excellent, Covenant and Salvation, he writes:
What makes all the difference is whether one is legally incorporated into a promise-covenant or a law-covenant. What is transferred to the believer, therefore, is not the inherent person of God or Christ, but the record of a perfectly acceptable life that has been lived, offered up, received, and raised again for us. It is a verdict declared because of Christ's faithfulness to the covenant....While it is far from nomistic, such a representational view of justification is surely, from beginning to end, covenantal.

...Longenecker thinks that, in Paul's view, Christians participate in Jesus' covenant fidelity by faith. This is why Paul says in [Gal.] 2:16b: 'We believed in Christ Jesus, in order that his covenant faithfulness might be effective for us'" - as also 3:22. "Paul's 'faith' language in these verses is fundamentally language of participation." So justification (i.e. covenant membership) is based for Paul now not on the law but on Jesus' covenant faithfulness, which he receives by faith. His faithfulness is "rubbish"; "only Christ's faithfulness [is]....the mark of his covenant membership before God." (p112)
Powerful stuff. I can't imagine any more debates over IAO if we read Romans 3:22 saying "the righteousness of God is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe."


John Thomson said...

Yep. I've found that curious too. Course, the 'faithfulness of Christ' reading is wrong but that's another matter.

Michael F. Bird said...

Great post! FWIW, some believers in IAO do take pistis christou as a subjective genitive. The best example is Peter O'Brien's Philippians commentary (NIGTC) and his Ephesians commentary (Pillar). I think Horton takes the (w)right line :-) But I would suggest that being "incorporated" into Jesus' faithfulness and obedience has a slightly differ nuance from having his obedience imputed to us. The former sounds more christocentric and relates in the "in Christ" language of Paul to justification and Jesus' faithfulness, death, AND resurrection!!! Also, I have just edited a book on the Pistis Christou debate which is NOW available. It has essays on both sides of the argument from some of the best Pauline exegetes in the world!

Nick Mackison said...

Michael, thanks for your comments. It's an exciting debate, although it can be quite perplexing for someone who teaches maths for a living!

Do you think being incorporated into Christ's faithfulness make imputation redundant, or would imputation be the result of such an incorporation?

I'll definitely be getting your book; sounds like a peach! All the best with the move down under.

John Thomson said...


A few things. Firstly, sorry to hear you are leaving our fair coasts and delightful winters for the oubacks, sun and surf of your native country. Your sacrifice is appreciated (hic). Sorry in particular since it would have been good to have you preaching here in Glasgow.

Secondly, I appreciate your work on Paul. I enjoyed your 'Bird's Eye View' and TSROG. The latter was especially helpful for getting my slow and ever slowing mind round issues in the New Perspective.

I look forward to reading the edited work on Pistis Christou.

So much for ingratiating myself.

Despite reading fairly widely on IAO I still have strong reservations. I am not sure we should think of our Union with Christ in terms of his life on earth. The bible seems to locate it in his death and resurrection. I wonder if the IAO is a biblical construct. For whom is the IAO required? Is it for humanity in Adam? No, because Adamic humanity/flesh is judicially condemned and dies on the cross. Is it for new creation humanity? New creation humanity, is sinless. It is born of God. It is righteous in its union with a risen glorified Christ.

It seems to me, only indirectly can we speak of IOA. That is, we can say that Christ's active obedience unto death gave value to his justifying death and Christ's risen life, in which we share, is God's justifying verdict on the life he lived. Both are somewhat different from IAO.

Pistis Christou questions will need to wait for another time.

Your comments would be appreciated.

Michael F. Bird said...

Fellas thanks for the kind word

Nick: I think imputation might be a consequence of union (rather than vice-versa according to Horton!). If you take the language of reckoning, the forensic nature of righteousnes, the gift of righteousness, emph. on Jesus' obedience, the representative nature of Adam and Christ, etc., then something much like imputation is needed to hold it all together. In sum, what is true of Jesus is said to be true of us, what you call this event is less important in my mind.

Ian: I see where you're coming from but the NT does pay a fair bit of attention to Jesus' earthly life as integral to the cross/rez. This is esp. true in Romans 5, 2 Cor 8.9, and all through Hebrews (esp. 2.18, 12.2). Faith in "Jesus" is faith in the gospel event which is trusting in what God did in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The big problem with IAO is when it is joined to the concept of "merit" or when righteousness is treated as a substance rather than a status.

Nick said...

Interesting post and discussion.

I see the idea that "faithfulness of Christ" could lead to a sort of IOA, but I think there is a key distinction that is overlooked. The folks who are arguing for "faithfulness of Christ" are the same ones reading "righteousness of God" as "covenant faithfulness of God," thus the framework is different than the Reformers' understanding of Sola Fide. And by covenant faithfulness it is not meant keeping the covenant without fault, but rather faithful in seeing promises fulfilled.

Also, John, are you denying IAO?

Greg Gibson said...

For the record, just so everyone knows where I'm coming from, I believe the I, but deny the AO.

A bit of historical context on IAO might prove interesting. The early Reformed confessions omitted IAO. And believe it or not,
the WCF took a neutral position to accommodate those who denied it. However the LBCF took a very clear pro-IAO position. Can
anyone here please inform us who was the first to teach IAO?

Michael: "Jesus' earthly life (is) integral to the cross/rez."

Amen, he had to be both human and divine to be the mediator between both parties. And he had to be perfect to qualify as the
spotless lamb of God. Plus his life is serves as our example. But there's a difference between his life as integral vs. imputed.

Michael: "Faith in "Jesus" is faith in the gospel event which is trusting in what God did in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus."

Agreed, and I would even expand it to include Jesus' pre-incarnate existence and virgin birth. IOW, we believe in the whole Jesus. But faith in Jesus whole existence doesn't impute his whole existence to us.

Michael: "The big problem with IAO is when it is joined to the concept of "merit" or when righteousness is treated as a substance rather than a status."

Can you please explain that more?

Michael, are you taking a teaching job in Australia? If so, where?

Greg Gibson said...

John: I am not sure we should think of our Union with Christ in terms of his life on earth. The bible seems to locate it in his death and resurrection.

Exactly! The NT states that we are united with Christ in his death, res. life, and reign (not his life, birth, or pre-incarnate existence). We were united with him only when he entered into the new creation.

Here is an argument I've heard for IAO based on union with Christ...

1st Premise: Christ kept the law.
Assumed Premise: We are united with Christ in EVERYTHING He did.
Conclusion: Therefore, Christ kept the law for us.

But there are many things Christ did that we did not do with him...

1. Transfiguration: We weren't transfigured with him.
2. Miracles: We didn't raise Lazarus.
3. Imputation: We didn't receive the elects' sins imputed to us.

John, you've touched on something I've never considered about IAO: our old self died, and we are part of the new creation. Could you please expand that?

My #1 concern about IAO is that it implies denial of the sufficiency of Christ's death once-for-all. Christ suffered and offered Himself for our sins only once, not multiple times during His life. I've never seen an IAO believer even attempt to explain these 4 verses...

1. "I will remove the sin of this land in a SINGLE day." (Zech. 3:9)

2. "For Christ also suffered ONCE for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous" (1 Pet. 3:18).

3. "Christ, having been offered ONCE to bear the sins of many will appear a second time" (Heb. 9:28)

4. "But when Christ had offered for all time a SINGLE sacrifice for sins...For by a SINGLE offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:12-14).

My 2nd greatest concern with IAO is there are at least 17 texts explicitly stating that Christ suffered for our sins and counted us righteous through his death. The most natural way to interpret those texts is that Christ suffered for our sins and counted us righteous through his death COMPLETELY, not PARTIALLY.

But, IAO implies that all 17 of these texts should be interpreted so that the righteousness that comes through Christ's death are merely PARTIAL, not COMPLETE. Here are just 2 of those 17 examples...

"Christ died (partially) for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3).

"In him we have redemption (partially) through his blood" (Eph. 1:7).

And that's just the tip of iceberg. IMO, IAO creates far more problems than it solves.

FWIW, here is John Murray's take on pistis Christou:

P.S. I plan to publish a more detailed examination of IAO on my blog early next year.

John Thomson said...


Nick, I wouldn't say I deny it so much as have strong reservations and certainly think it needs nuanced even heavily modified; modified to the extent that some may insist I am denying it.

Greg, my concerns with IAO are similar to yours. Like you I need to write them as an essay for the sake of clarifying them to myself if no-one else.

I am concerned at the attempt by some evangelicals, some that I otherwise admire, to make IAO a badge of orthodoxy.

Here are a few reasons for my concern.

1. As you say Greg and as MB points out in TSROG, IAO is not a universal position in Reformed, far less Protestant, thought. Luther did not teach it. Various confessions do not adopt it. Significant figures since, orthodox in belief have not adhered to it.

2. My own tradition, Open Brethren, which I do not fully embrace, especially its dispensationalism, did not support IAO.

3. The phrase 'imputed righteousness of Christ' or construals of it are not used in Scripture.

4. None of the few verses forwarded in IAO's defence demand an IAO inference. It is freight the text does not necessarily carry. Brian Vickers, in his book JBAR written with a view to proving IAO effectively concedes as much as he examines each text.

It is interesting to note that the 'transfer' language or book-keeping metaphor of imputation in Roms 4 used of faith, is not used of Christ's righteousness in Ch 5.

These reasons alone should make us chary of insisting IAO is integral to orthodoxy.

Others concede that while IAO is not exegetically patent it is systematically cogent. That is, it is a fair biblical construct. I am not so sure it is, at least not in its more popular understanding 'Christ took our (life) sins we take his (life) righteousness'.

1. Justification is never located in the earthly life of Christ but in his death and resurrection.

Shifting the focus away from the justifying death/resurrection to the life of Christ is a shift from a biblical perspective.

2. While Christ is 'identified' with us in his incarnation and so suited to be our priest (Hebrews) our union with Christ is described in Scripture in terms of his death and resurrection.

3. Our history/identity can be summed up as two humanities, our humanity in Adam and our humanity in Christ. Our sinful/unrighteous/culpable humanity in Adam had over it the sentence of death. It is not redeemable, it must die. The wages of sin is death. On the cross that old humanity died. In this sense our sin was covered.

Our new humanity is a life born of God. It is God's 'seed' within us (1 John). It is sinless and holy and is such for it flows from our Union with Christ in the Spirit.

Cont. next comment box.

John Thomson said...


My question is which of these humanities requires IAO. The old humanity doesn't for it judicially it dies. The new humanity doesn't for it is resurrection life derived from faith union with a risen Christ; it is new creation beyond sin.

For these reasons it seems to me that IAO is unnecessary as a theological construct.

I am inclined to think the need for IAO flows from a suspect theology. Reformed theology has developed; a theology of works that at least in some respects is dubios.

Covenant theology argues that Adam was placed in the garden in a covenant of works. Had he remained faithful to this covenant he would in time have been rewarded or even waged with eternal life/new creation/glorification. Now, in my view, there is not a word of this in Scripture.

It is further argued that eternal life is always in this sense merited. Adam failed to merit it, Israel failed to merit it in the Law, but Christ, in his sinless life did merit it for himself and all united by faith to him. It is because of this theory that the IAO becomes necessary (the Pistis Christou debate clearly feeds into this).

I cannot interact with this construct just now but I am not convinced by it.

I do not see Christ in any sense meriting life for himself or others. His life on earth is never, I think, presented as fulfilling a covenant of works to merit eternal life. He was not like Adam. He had 'life in himself'. The first man was of the earth but the second man is the Lord from heaven.

Eternal life, I think, is always 'a gift of God' and utterly gracious. It is not earned by man, even the God-Man.

More could be said but perhaps I should stop here.

Greg, one final PS. I think Mike is pointing out that IAO does not mean that we have Christ's moral righteousness as ours (substance) but that we have the legal status that righteous life won; we are declared righteous. In the same sense as Christ did not literally bear our sins (become sinful on the cross) but the legal consequences of our sins (the penalty our sins demanded) so we do not literally have the personal righteousness of Christ but the righteous standing, the legal consequences that his life won.

Steve Swayze said...

What impressed me in Richard Hays book on this subject was his exegesis. It seems that in many places in our English translations the language has been pressed to apply to our faith as opposed to Christ's faithfulness.

An example is Gal 3:22, where NAS as "so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." But the Gr. seems to more naturally say "in order that the promise which comes from the faithfulness of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe" (my trans.)

I think there are 2 arguments that show in favor of the "faithfulness" trans: 1) the Gr. prep. ek isn't pressed unnaturally to say "faith in Christ." You can say that literal translations do it that way all the time, but I don't think they are following the lexicons when they do it. And 2) it avoids having the sentence say something pretty redundant like "the promise is for those who believe, you know, those believers."

I'm not a Gr expert, but a pastor who struggles through the in and outs of exegesis. I think that we all like to read passages of the Bible that talk about us and what we do, and I think we have taken some passages that talk about the faithfulness of Christ and make them say something about my act of believing. I'm not sure what this says about active obedience or Pauline perspectives. I'm just trying to figure out what my text is actually saying.

John Thomson said...


On the 'faith of Christ' question let me make three points that make me wary of it.

1. I have no Greek so I cannot speak with authority here but then even the experts are divided. Indeed the language seems to merit either reading. This means the decision is not finally linguistic but theological.

2. Theologically 'the faithfulness of Christ' seems to introduce a wobbly into the Pauline argument. I would contend Paul's argument in Romans (and Galatians)is a faith/works contrast. The occasion of his writing is a social or ecclesiastical problem (a Jew gentile tension) however the solution to this problem is soteriological (faith/works antinomy). Making 'faith in Christ' into 'the faithfulness of Christ' significantly blunts this contrast indeed it changes the focus significantly in some verses. It introduces a theology that seems foreign to the overall faith/works polemic.

3. To argue 'faith in Christ' means 'the faithfulness of Christ' changes it seems to me goalposts already established. It means the contrast is now my faith works vs Christ's faith works. The focus is not on the necessity of my faith but the necessity of Christ's faithfulness. This, it seems to me is an unwarranted shift of focus. It is a focus of course that plays into the IAO perspective and it is all the more surprising, as Nicky points out, that most who champion IAO reject it.

We should remember that like most ideas thrown up there is nothing new about it. Expositors over the years have been aware of linguistic issue and have mainly, it would apear, have adopted the objective genitive.

John Thomson said...


Just read the John Murray essay Greg gives a link to above. Well worth the read. Says what I was trying to say, and more, only so much better.

Nick said...

This is astonishing. I deny IAO, and I'm really glad to see others do to, but I'm astonished because when I deny it many Reformed condemn me and say I'm not following Scripture.

John Thomson said...

Shoosh Nick. People wil begin to say I am a closet Catholic.

Nick Mackison said...

Greg said: But there are many things Christ did that we did not do with him...

Nick: The Reformed never argued that the entire life of Christ was imputed to believers. That is a popular misconception by many critics of IAO. It was always Christ's law-obedience within the context of his covenantal obligations that Protestants believed was imputed.

Greg Gibson said...

Nick, many IAO leaders believe that Christ atoned as a sub. for our sins during his whole life, from birth to death. Do they believe that he imputed obedience as a sub. during only part of his life, but atoned during his whole life? (Personally, I find the following quotes bizarre!)

1. Atoned for Sins
"but I am quite convinced that they are very foolish who get to such refinement that they think the atonement was made on the cross and nowhere else at all” (Charles Spurgeon, A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of our Lord, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979, p.119, in in Did the Saviour Pay the Penalty for our Sins Prior to the Cross?, Middletown Bible Church.)

2. Paid the Price for Redemption
"In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance." (John Calvin, Calvin's Institutes, vol.2, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962, p. 437, in The Danger of Teaching the Erroneous Doctrine of 'Vicarious Law-Keeping', Middletown Bible Church.)

3. Bore Sins
"Christ's vicarious life began in the manger...there his sin-bearing had begun...when He was circumcised and baptised it was as a substitute...and He was always the sinless One bearing our sins..." (Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, London: J. Nisbet & Co., 1879, pp. 26, 27, 29, 32, in The Danger of Teaching the Erroneous Doctrine of 'Vicarious Law-Keeping', Middletown Bible Church.)

4. Reconciled Us
"The Scriptures teach us plainly that Christ's obedience was as truly vicarious as was his suffering, and that he reconciled us to the Father by the one as well as by the other" (Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Atonement, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1953, pp. 248, 249, in The Danger of Teaching the Erroneous Doctrine of 'Vicarious Law-Keeping', Middletown Bible Church.)

5. Suffered for Sins
"I go to Gethsemane, and I peer under those gnarled olive trees, and I see my Saviour...I hear him reply, "I am suffering for thy sin." (Charles Spurgeon, A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of our Lord, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979, p.131, in Did the Saviour Pay the Penalty for our Sins Prior to the Cross?, Middletown Bible Church.)

"(speaking of His sufferings in the Garden) 'He was now bearing the iniquities which the Father laid upon him, and, by his sorrow and amazement, he accommodated himself to his undertaking. The sufferings he was entering upon were for our sins, and they were all to meet upon him and he knew it.'" (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew to John, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991, p. 320.)

John Thomson said...


Thanks for these quotations. They do help to illustrate how IAO can lead, in my judgement, to unbiblical statements. I cringe a little at some of these.

Having said that, just as I do not wish IAO advocates to anathematize me, I do not in turn wish to anathematize them. The issue is not, I think, at the heart of things unless it gets pushed too far. I hope and believe mostmodern IAO's would express their views on this with more nuance than the examples cited.

It is an issue we should honestly explore but where we should bear with each other if we do not see eye to eye.