c) 2012' name='copyright'/>Michael DeShane Hinton: Our Evangelical Mantra Properly Explained

Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Evangelical Mantra Properly Explained

The evangelical rule “justification by grace through faith” must be explained in a way consistent with the rest of the New Testament witness or we will live in perpetual confusion/disunity at the least and at the worst stand condemned of preaching a different gospel (II Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:8-9). 

In the prevalent literature and preaching two terms of the proposition above, justification and grace, have been poorly defined, and a third, faith, suffers from bad translation in several instances of the most popular English versions of the Bible, leading to misunderstanding.  The definitional problems are the easier to resolve by presenting simple theological choices. 

First, does “justification” mean to be declared righteous or does it mean to be made righteous?  This choice determines whether or not one takes all the other passages of the New Testament seriously, including its moral commandments, or leaves them as options largely irrelevant to the prospect of ultimately achieving eternal salvation, all else being equal.  To resolve this question one might consider:  http://michaeldeshanehinton.blogspot.com/2013/01/thoughts-on-salvation-by-faith-by-john.html and http://michaeldeshanehinton.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-spiritual-danger-of-antinomianism.html . 

Second, does “grace” mean unmerited favor or does it mean divine activity?  The implication of this choice is whether or not one is a passive recipient of (monergism) or active participant in (synergism) one’s own salvation.  It may also speak to how we conceive of God himself.  Is the Holy Spirit weak in the face of sin or can the Helper enable and inspire us to live victoriously in this life?  See http://michaeldeshanehinton.blogspot.com/2013/08/what-is-grace.html 

Now, the problem of translation that affects the third term of our evangelical motto, “faith,” is more complicated.  It depends on grammar, specifically the use in English translations of modifiers called definite articles.  Definite articles restrict the use of the noun it modifies to a particular incidence of what is described.  “Birds sitting on a fence,” for instance, is indefinite but “the red bird on the picket fence” is definite, if all the other birds are blue and there are no other picket fences in view with birds sitting upon them. 

For the purposes of this lesson we will distinguish between “faith” as an indiscriminate act of trust/believing on the one hand and on the other hand “the Faith,” using the definite article, meaning Christianity in particular, the religion established by Jesus, the new covenant in his blood.  Every religion has the story of its beginnings, a set of beliefs about ultimate reality or God, ethical requirements for its adherents, rituals that the people find meaningful, and a helpful organizational structure.  But a non-descript “justification by grace through faith” tends to make people irreligious for the lack of the definite article modifying faith in key Pauline passages where they occur in the original Greek text.  So, one is left to think that we are saved by believing in Jesus when in fact we are asked to be faithful in the religion that he established, in which, of course, he is the principal actor as per the definition of grace above.

Now, “the Faith” viewed as a definitive religion does not exclude our believing but rather depends on us trusting God to fulfill his word that comes to us by said Faith.  Nevertheless, mere “belief” in American pop-evangelicalism today tends to exclude many things contained in "the Faith," making us prone to antinomianism, often proudly so, which should be rejected as explained under justification above.  It is more accurate to say that "the Faith" justifies us, not the mere act of believing, because people "believe" many things, some of them very strange and not in accord with "the Faith." 

But the problem gets a little more complicated.  There are places where the translators ought to supply the definite article for an English audience where it does not occur in the Greek text.  Why?  Well, as an act of efficiency the Greek writer may consider a noun sufficiently modified without actually penning every way that it can be made specific.  He might not use the definite article, for instance, if other words are there to make it definitive or if his logic makes it clear the precise thing of which he speaks. 

Now, there are many places in the New Testament where the scholars have supplied the definite article properly, yielding “the Faith.”  But in key Pauline passages that fuel the “justification by grace through faith” formula they have in recent times failed miserably.  The offending passages are these (in some cases the Geneva Bible of 1560/99 properly translates the text, which will be noted): 

Romans 3:22 should be translated, as does the Geneva Bible: To wit, the righteousness of God by the faith of Jesus Christ, unto all, and upon all that believe. 

Romans 3:27-31 should be translated: What then becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.  Through what law?  Of works?  No, but through a law of faith.  For we reason that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.  Is God of the Jews only?  Is he not also of the Gentiles?  Yes, of Gentiles, too.  So it is that the one God will justify whomever: the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through the faith.  Do we overthrow law by the faith?  Absolutely not!  We establish a law. 

Galatians 2:16 should be translated properly, as does the Geneva Bible: Know that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we, I say, have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law, because that by the works of the Law, no flesh shall be justified. 

Galatians 3:22 should be translated, like the Geneva Bible: But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by the faith of Jesus Christ should be given to them that believe. 

Philippians 3:9 should be translated, as does the Geneva Bible: And might be found in him, that is, not having my own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, even the righteousness which is of God through faith, 

Paul believed, according to a correct translation of his works, that the Faith of Jesus Christ (Christianity) superseded the Law of Moses (Judaism) as God’s new way of salvation.  His polemic against the Jews, Judaizing teachers, and Peter’s one-time act of hypocrisy caused Paul to contrast Christianity with Judaism in stark terms as two separate religions; hence his language about justification by the Faith “apart from” works of the Law.  But Paul did not seek to overthrow a general principle of lawful existence.  He worked to introduce Jesus’ new religion among the Gentiles, which he called a Law of Faith (Romans 3:27-31, properly translated above) and the Law of Christ (I Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2).  His exposition of morality led him to speak of what Christians call the Law of Love (Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14). 

Paul knew the original disciples of Jesus and was familiar with Christ’s teachings through them, so he understood all of the theological, liturgical, and ethical considerations that comprise “the Faith,” and which materially contributes to our salvation.  He would not have discounted the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commission, the Summary of the Law, the Golden Rule, the Mind of Christ, the Institution of the Lord's Supper, and ultimately, the Way of the Cross.  It was his calling to convey Christian teachings to Gentiles as Apostle to the Gentiles.  Contrary to a common misconception Paul never wrote that we are justified by “faith alone” or that “Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer for justification.”  Nothing that he actually wrote in the original Greek would distract us from the highest standards of Christian discipline, spirituality, and moral behavior contained in the Gospels or other New Testament writings, every passage of which is the apostolic witness to the Faith of Jesus Christ. 

Considering these things we must conclude, consistent with the totality of the New Testament canon: we are made actually righteous by the power of God's Spirit offered to us in and through the Faith of Jesus Christ, if we believe in it and faithfully practice it, enduring to the end.

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