Let us assume for the moment that the Pauline phrase pistis Christou is rightly translated “faith in Christ.” What then does it mean? What is its function within the theology of St Paul?
In classical Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox exegesis, “faith” is posited as a condition of salvation, as the one condition that we must fulfill in order to be accepted by God and judged as righteous at the Great Assize. The big question then becomes: What is faith? Is it trust? belief? obedience? love? All of the above? Various texts and arguments can be invoked to support each of these options.
I want to provisionally propose that “justification by faith” is best understood as a polemical device invented by Paul, employed against those who claimed that Gentiles must become Torah-observant Jews in order to be judged righteous. It must be interpreted, therefore, over against the contrasting reality “justification by works of the Law.”
In his Commentary on Galatians, J. Louis Martyn asserts that the Greek phrase erga nomou should be translated “works of the Law.” By this phrase Paul intends to refer to life as lived under Torah. “It refers simply,” Martyn writes, “to observance of God’s law” (p. 261). In Exodus 18:20 Jethro instructs Moses that he must teach the people “God’s commandments and his Law” and make them to “know the way in which they must walk and the works they must do” (Exod 18:20; LXX). The three italicized expressions are equivalent. They signify the path of Torah observance, “the grand and complex activity of the Jew, who faithfully walks with God along the path God has opened up for him in the Law” (p. 261). Justification by works of Torah has nothing to do with Pelagian self-help or earning merit before God. It simply designates Jewish identity and practice.
Against life as lived under the domain of Torah, Paul posits life lived under the domain of Christ. He calls this domain “faith,” as a kind of shorthand or slogan. He is not proposing faith as an anthropological condition that we must fulfill in order to be saved. That is not his concern in either Galatians or Romans. If it were, we would find ourselves cast into either the pride of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable or the angst of Martin Luther. Against the Teachers (Judaizers) Paul is concerned simply to assert the sufficiency of Christ and life in the Church. Gentiles do not need to become Torah-observant Jews. Conversion to Jesus and baptism into the eucharistic community is sufficient.
“Faith” therefore comprehends everything that we think of as constituting life in Christ: belief, trust, baptism, Eucharist, prayer, worship, ascetical discipline, works of charity, care for the poor. We are saved by being “in Christ”; we are saved by being “in the Spirit”; we are saved by our participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity (theosis). That we sinners now find ourselves dwelling in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sheer and utter grace.
That is my story, and I’m sticking with it until the Apostle Paul proves me wrong.