|16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.||16I am not ashamed of the gospel; for it is God’s power to bring salvation for all those who are trusting, to the Jew first and to the Greek. 17For through trust, God’s justice is revealed by the gospel to those who trust, even as it has been written: “And the just will live by trust.”|
The first part of verse 16, Paul’s statement that he is not ashamed of the gospel, provides a conclusion to his lengthy greeting. The second part of the verse acts as a transition to the theme of the letter (stated in verse 17), explaining why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel and setting up the discussion of the saving power of faith.
I am not ashamed
In the phrase I am not ashamed, Paul uses the rhetorical device litotes (understatement) to declare that he is proud of the gospel. If he were afraid to preach repentance to both the saints and those not yet converted, he would not be proud of the gospel. Though Roman intellectuals of his day considered the gospel common or low class—a laughing matter at best—and though it was a stumbling block to the Jews, it does not put Paul to shame. He trusts in the gospel and its message of hope for sinners. Thus, though Paul was himself guilty of assenting to and assisting in killing one of the Seventy (see Acts 7:58; 8:1), now that he trusts in the gospel and understands and accepts Christ’s redemption and what it requires of him, he is not ashamed to preach.
Of the gospel
Paul earlier emphasized the preaching of the gospel rather than its content (see the discussion of verse 1, pages 13–14). When Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he says that he is happy and proud to preach the gospel.
It is the power of God unto salvation
The gospel is not just information that people can judge objectively and then decide whether they will accept or reject it. The gospel is not just a message, but power. Thus, to hear the gospel preached is to be affected, and the effect of preaching is salvation. Recall verse 4, which says that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power.” The Father makes that declaration not only through the resurrection, but also through the preaching of his servants.
Like other New Testament writers, Paul takes the saving power of gospel preaching quite literally (again, see the discussion of gospel in verse 1, pages 13–14). When done by the Spirit, the preaching of the gospel is the power that brings salvation to all who will hear. This is why Paul has no shame when he preaches: through his preaching, those who, like him, are guilty of sin can receive salvation from their sins. Paul needs no confidence in his own intellect or training because he has confidence in the power of the gospel. In fact, not to have that confidence in the gospel would be to be ashamed of it. When we doubt our ability to do the Lord’s work, we really doubt that work itself and we doubt the Lord’s ability to do his work through us.
The scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, are full of evidence that Paul correctly says that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). This belief motivates the letter to the Romans and Paul’s other letters. Clearly, the missionaries in the Book of Mormon teach with power and can convert in dramatic ways because they preach the gospel. For example, Ammon converts Lamoni simply through preaching the gospel (see Alma 18–19), and the remarkable sermons of King Benjamin and Alma converted many (see Mosiah 1–4; Alma 5). As Alma reminds us, the preaching of the word tends to have a more powerful effect on people than even the sword (see Alma 31:5).
The King James translation indicates that preaching the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” However, the Greek has no definite article. Thus the alternate translation is “it is God’s power.”
In Paul’s time, the gospel was believed and taught by only a small group and seemed to have little impact on the world. Few knew anything about it. It might, therefore, have been tempting to think of the gospel as a powerless and ineffectual thing, especially when compared to the power and influence of the Roman government, which many in Rome, including the Roman saints, probably identified with. But Paul does not share that identification with the Roman government or the feeling that the gospel is weak. He understands that exactly the opposite is true: the Roman government, like any human government, is ultimately powerless and ineffectual, and only the gospel has the power necessary for salvation.
The Greek word sōtērion (σωτήριον) means “rescue from evil or harm.” In Judaism, Yahweh delivers, or saves, Israel (see Isaiah 45:17; the Septuagint uses the verb form of sōtērion). Paul explicitly identifies Jesus and Yahweh as he does in verse 3.
The Greek word sōtērion derives from a word meaning “safe and sound.”73 “Safe” indicates that we are free from harm; “sound,” that we are healthy, without flaw. Paul uses sōtērion only in connection with salvation from spiritual death. Those who receive salvation are made safe from the adversary, and their shortcomings, spiritual and physical, are removed. The obvious implication is that when we are not yet saved, we are neither safe nor healthy spiritually. If the world and Satan are our masters, then we are always in danger of physical and spiritual death, and we are always diseased, no matter the state of our bodies.
Here, the Greek word pisteuō (πιστεύω), translated “believeth,” is a verbal form of the word pistis (πίστις), translated “faith” or “trust” in other places (see, for example, verse 17 and the discussion of faith in verse 5, page 31). Connecting this word to other places where the Greek uses pistis by using a variation of one English word in each place would help us better understand Paul’s message. Pisteuō might therefore be better translated as “is faithful” or “trusts.” As mentioned earlier, it is important to remember the connection between faith and trust as we read Romans. Believeth does not make that connection. It is also not an active enough word; it is too passive for what Paul describes in verse 16. The gospel message is the power of salvation for the faithful; in other words, it is the power of salvation for those who trust God.
We can use the word belief to describe our response to the gospel message. However, if by belief we mean merely “assent to the truth of a proposition” (this is not usually how the scriptures use the word), then belief is not sufficient to salvation. Trust—that is, faith—involves considerably more. If we have trust we also have belief, for we agree that what we trust in is true and we believe what we are told by the one we trust. However, the reverse is not true. We can believe something to be true without putting our trust in the person who told us and even without putting our trust in what we believe to be true, though the latter is inexplicable. Satan seems to do just that. He and his cohorts believe that Christ is the Savior—they even know that he is—but they trust only themselves and act against their belief (see James 2:19).
We must exercise faith to be saved. Our faith is already a response to a power, not just to a message. We can exercise faith or reject the power of the gospel, but whichever we do, we are responding to what God has initiated. That is how the Christ is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the author in that he initiated the plan of salvation, making faith possible. He is the origin of our faith in that he created a world, including us, and he created a message that cannot be ignored. To hear the message is to respond to it, whether positively or negatively. He also created us to be open to the message, able to hear and respond to it (for more about this, see verse 20, pages 78–81; 2 Nephi 32:9 suggests something similar). Faith is the natural consequence of hearing the message of the gospel, and the gospel message is the power of salvation to those who respond to it in faith. A surprising result of this understanding of faith is that only our refusal to obey the message can be said to be our own act (see the earlier discussion of freedom in verse 1, pages 3–9). Christ is the finisher of our faith in that he makes possible the perfection of our faith (see the earlier discussion of perfection, pages 21–22; see also Moroni 6:4).
To the Jew first, and also to the Greek
Here Greek means “non-Jew.” One understanding of the phrase to the Jew first, and also to the Greek notes that this is the order in which the gospel was preached. Paul believes that the Jews have first claim on the word of God (see Romans 9–11), but this seems to involve a paradox. On the one hand, everyone is absolutely equal before God (see Romans 3:22; 10:12), and as Paul has just mentioned in verse 16, all who are faithful can receive salvation. On the other hand, the Jews have first claim to receiving the gospel. Is there any way to account for this apparent contradiction? One way is to remember what it means to be chosen. To be chosen is to be set apart (see the discussion of saints in verse 7, pages 34–36). Something chosen is an instrument for a holy purpose; it is something God uses to bring about his purposes. The chosen people, therefore, are a people chosen for a particular work. They are holy people because they are chosen, not because the are necessarily any more pure or more privileged than anyone else. In fact, one could argue that it would be a mistake to choose the most righteous people to represent the other peoples of the earth, because saving such a people would not sufficiently demonstrate God’s power to save from sin. But what might such an argument say about the latter-day chosen people? The Jews received the gospel first, not because they were privileged, but because they were the instrument God chose to use in working out the salvation that is available to all equally. Presumably our case as the latter-day chosen people is similar: we ought not to think of ourselves as chosen because of our righteousness, but chosen for a work. Like the Jews of old, we are to be a light to the gentiles, that is, to do the work of lighting the world. It does not follow that we are that light because we are holy. As such scriptures as 3 Nephi 11:11; 12:16; and 18:24 make clear, we are a light only insofar as the light of Jesus Christ shines in us, only insofar as we show his light in the world.
Verse 17 is the thesis of the letter: God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel “from faith to faith.” In verse 16 Paul said that the gospel is the power of God to salvation. Recall that by gospel he means something active, the faithful preaching and living of the gospel, not just a list of doctrines or the recitation of such a list. In verse 17 Paul will show at least part of what the gospel entails—how the power of God is salvation for those who are faithful—by concentrating on the role faith and trust play in the plan of salvation.
For therein means “because in the gospel.” One reason Paul is not ashamed is that the gospel, the message of the atonement, reveals God’s righteousness.
The righteousness of God
The verb dikaioō (δικαιόω), the root of the word that the KJV translates as “righteousness” (dikaiosunē, δικαιοσύνη) in the phrase the righteousness of God, means “to declare something to be just” as well as “to do right.” The word dikaiosunē could also be translated “justice.”74 In fact, “justice” might be a more helpful translation than “righteousness” for our purposes. However, as we will see, it is important not to assume that justice and mercy are at odds with each other. To speak of God’s righteousness, as Paul does here, is not to speak of the opposite of his mercy. In fact, it is to do anything but that.
The phrase the righteousness of God is grammatically ambiguous, and much of the dispute over how to understand Romans can be encapsulated in that ambiguity. It could mean “the righteousness characteristic of God,” but it could also mean “the righteousness that originates from God.”
Though the scriptures frequently speak of God’s righteousness, this particular phrase is not used in the Septuagint, so there is no text to which we can compare this phrase to decide how to disambiguate it. Some readers (especially Protestants) believe that Paul means “the righteousness that originates from God.”75 They cite as evidence such passages as 1 Corinthians 1:30 and Philippians 3:9, where the genitive (the grammatical form translated “of” in English) clearly indicates origin, as well as Romans 5:17, where righteousness is spoken of as a gift, and Romans 10:3, which can plausibly be read as using the same phrase—the righteousness of God—to speak of the righteousness that has its origin in God.
On the other hand, there seems to be no such possibility in the Old Testament, where justice and mercy are both attributes of God and neither is in conflict with the other. God’s exercising of justice, his defense of Israel, indeed is his mercy. In the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is clearly spoken of as a divine attribute and never as a gift that he gives his children. Phrases referring to God’s righteousness (e.g., Isaiah 41:10; 56:1; Psalms 5:8; 6–71; 2 Nephi 4:32–33) almost always mean his ability to defend his people against their enemies. As we have already seen, Paul is dependent on the Old Testament and its understanding of words and concepts (see, for example, the discussion of saints in verse 7, pages 34–36). Without referring to the Old Testament, we will not understand much of what Paul says. The quotation in the second half of verse 17 is from Habakkuk 2:4, which clearly attributes righteousness to God as a characteristic. Thus there are good scriptural reasons to believe that the phrase should be translated “the righteousness that is characteristic of God.”76
In the Old Testament, righteousness means “fidelity to covenants.” The Father’s righteousness is shown by his fidelity to his covenant with Israel. Israel will show her fidelity when she is faithful to her covenant: an individual is righteous by being faithful to the covenant, in other words by obeying the Law. It seems, therefore, that either Paul is introducing a new concept (the gift of righteousness), as Protestants often argue, or we should understand the phrase the righteousness of God as the Old Testament understands it (as referring to the righteousness characteristic of God).
There are good reasons for accepting either of these alternatives. We seem to be caught in an interpretive dilemma. However, this is a dilemma only if we insist that the two alternatives are mutually exclusive, if we insist that Paul is either introducing a new understanding or relying on Old Testament usage, but not both. Since both options are plausible and equally informative, I believe we should accept them both. Using Old Testament concepts and understanding, Paul shows us how the Father is righteous and merciful at the same time. He will later show us how the Divine fulfills his covenant obligation to us at the same time that he acts mercifully toward us. However, he will insist that neither of these actions is the result of a legalistic claim that we have on him as creditors to whom he owes salvation and exaltation. Thus Paul teaches something that his contemporaries in Judah did not understand, and he does so by expanding and clarifying the Old Testament concept of God’s righteousness, namely, his ability to save his people. He introduces a new understanding of an ancient idea (we also find this idea in the Book of Mormon) rather than a completely new idea.
But what is this righteousness that the Lord gives as a gift and that is characteristic of him? The Greek word for righteousness (dikaiosunē, δικαιοσύνη) comes from a word that originally meant “what is customary” and later came to have juridical significance as a term meaning “lawful” and “fair,” as well as “precise,” “exact,” and “fit for use.”77 Its use among the Greeks was mostly ethical and legal. In the Septuagint, dikaiosunē and its etymological relatives (such as its root, dikaioō [διαιόω]) are used to translate a group of related Hebrew words meaning “holy” (those with the root, tsdq). In turn, those Hebrew words have as their basic meaning “complying to a norm” and “fulfilling obligations or covenants.” As mentioned, in the Old Testament, righteousness is most obviously a matter of fulfilling covenants and meeting obligations. Though there are similarities in meaning between the Greek and Hebrew groups of words, they are not identical. The Hebrew words have more to do with obligation and covenant, while the Greek words refer more to one’s conformity to expectations. We will see that in using the Greek word, Paul carries Greek connotations into his work, but we will also see that the Hebrew meaning of righteousness is at least as important as the Greek meaning in Paul’s thinking and understanding.
First let us consider this Greek word dikaiosunō (δικαιοσύνη) and its Greek connotations. As noted earlier, another reasonable translation of the word is “justice.” Such a translation recommends itself for the alternate translation because it prepares us for the quotation from Habakkuk that follows: “the just shall live by faith,” or as Fitzmyer translates the clause, “the one who is upright shall find life through faith.”78 We often think of justice as sternly meting out deserved punishment. Or, at best, we think of it as giving what we owe to another. In keeping with one important Greek understanding of justice, we think of justice and fairness as equivalents. Closely related to this meaning is another meaning, “correct judgment,” the ability to discriminate between good and evil and to act accordingly. On that reading of this verse, “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s perfect ability to know good from evil and his perfect ability to act in accordance with that knowledge.
The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that the ability to judge between good and evil and to act on that judgment is what makes humans godlike (see Genesis 3:22; Moses 4:28). As Paul points out in verses 19–23, those whom God condemns as sinners are sinners because they exercise poor judgment. In other words, their unrighteousness is their injustice because they do not judge according to God’s judgment (i.e., justice) but substitute their own for it. God is righteous because he judges correctly in fulfilling his covenants; they are unrighteous because they do not.
However, I think that in this passage dikaiosunē indicates more than God’s fairness and careful discrimination between good and evil, though obviously it must also include that. After all, Paul devotes a large portion of his letter to showing how the Father will save us even though we do not deserve salvation. God will be more than fair with us. A meaning of dikaiosunē that is more in keeping with Paul’s message might be “God’s ability to right wrongs.” Sinners do not right wrongs, they commit them. The gospel is the revelation of God’s justice, his ability to right wrongs. Even more than it is his correct judgment, the Father’s righteousness is his ability to declare accurately that we are just or unjust and to change our state from unjust to just. It is his ability to right our wrongs. Not only can we trust him to be fair with us and not only can he discriminate accurately between good and evil, but he can also right the wrongs that come before him. In the context of covenants, the ability to judge right and wrong and to right wrongs is the ability to know who is and who is not in the covenant relation and to bring those who have fallen from the covenant relation back into it.
Consider next the connotations of the word dikaiosunē that come from its connection to Old Testament ideas, particularly the idea of covenant. Given Paul’s rabbinic training, these covenantal connotations may be the most important for us to consider. As we have seen, in the Old Testament, righteousness and justice relate to obligation and covenant. Righteousness is meeting our obligations to the covenant of God, and this means obedience to law—specifically the law of Moses. In the Hebrew view, the law is not a set of human conventions for treating each other fairly (though such conventions might be an important consequence). For the Jews the law is the expression of a covenant with God; it is the expression of an obligation to God.79 Those who are faithful to the law are justified—or made right—by God. Thus, according to the Old Testament, human justice is a matter of faithfulness and obedience rather than fairness. To be just is to live according to the will of God, in other words, in obedience to the law. Given what we have already seen in the discussion of a servant of Jesus Christ in verse 1, pages 3–9, to be just is to be a slave of God and to meet the obligations of one’s servitude.
Though such an idea stretches our understanding of righteousness and justice because we often equate justice with fairness, it is important to notice that fairness is not obligatory in either the Old Testament or the New. Achieving fairness is not the point of the Hebrew law, because more than fairness is required. Consider Exodus 22:21–27:
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. . . . If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury. If thou at all take thy neighbour’s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down: For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.
Similarly, James says, “Pure and unpolluted religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27; author’s translation). Neither of these scriptures requires us to treat others fairly. Both require that we do more than is fair, giving to others without regard to the question of what is fair to us.
The connection of the law with the covenant on one hand and justice on the other is evident in James’s writing. I take it that the phrase pure and unpolluted implicitly refers to ritual cleanliness. The implication is that keeping oneself unspotted from the world, keeping the divine covenant, is a matter of meeting the ethical demand of orphans and widows, the types for all who come before us.
We might say that justice means rendering each his due, but the gospel teaches that such justice is different than God’s. God renders salvation to those who trust in him rather than those to whom he owes it. In turn, both the Old Testament and the New Testament insist that obedience to the will of God—our justice—necessitates a new sense of rendering everyone their due: not what they deserve, but what they need. Justice is the ethical obligation of service to God and to our fellows.
The Savior made it clear that in the gospel, justice is not a matter of fairness or one’s rights:
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:40–45)
Our concept of fairness dictates none of what here describes Christian justice: if you lose a lawsuit, pay twice what is demanded; if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his equipment one mile (something that is probably itself unfair), go two; and bless those who curse you, returning good for evil. None of these acts would balance the scales of fairness, but in doing them we imitate our Father in Heaven. His justice is characterized not by fairness and equality of exchange, but by service to those who are in need, even when that service is not fair, not equitable, not deserved. Fairness demands that we be treated in the same way that we treat others. However, if the Father were to treat us “fairly,” we would be condemned because we have been unjust.80 Instead, the Father gives us all that he has: “And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him” (D&C 84:38; see 38:39). If we are to be just, we must imitate our just Father. We must give all that we have: “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). God’s justice is his consecration of everything he has to us. Similarly, for us to be just we must consecrate all that we have to divine service, a service that necessarily includes service to the poor, the widowed, the fatherless, and even our enemies. It turns out that the Greeks were right: justice is giving what we owe. However, we owe more than we might suspect if we think in terms of fairness and equity, for we owe everything.
Because we think of justice in terms of fairness and mercy in terms of going beyond fairness, we often conceive of justice and mercy as antithetical. However, an implication of the understanding of justice outlined above is that the scriptural description of God’s righteousness shows no real difference between justice and mercy. For ancient prophets and apostles, one cannot be just without being merciful.
To this point the discussion may seem to have focused on the idea that the phrase the righteousness of God means “the righteousness that comes from God” rather than “the righteousness characteristic of God,” even though I have suggested that we cannot and should not decide between the two possible meanings of the phrase. That seeming focus is partly because it is so important to understand what righteousness means to us. However, to speak of the righteousness of God is to speak not only of the fact that God has made it possible for us to fulfill our covenantal obligations, it is also to speak of the fulfillment of his divine obligation.
Such an idea is bothersome to many. Traditionally, many Christians have been loath to ascribe obligation to God. In fact, one of Paul’s major points is that we cannot obligate God by our obedience, because to do so would be to leave our positions as slaves. It would be to make God a debtor to us (see especially Romans 4). However, Jews have not been afraid to see the Divine as obligated to humans. Old Testament prophets called on God to fulfil his obligation to his people. In fact, in verse 17 Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4, where the Lord replies to such a remonstration (see page 65). In Habakkuk 1, the prophet Habakkuk remonstrates the Lord for not fulfilling his covenantal obligation to protect Israel from her enemies. The tradition of the righteous person who remonstrates with the Divine is an important element of many Jewish traditions.81 Such remonstration is also not alien to our own religious tradition and experience (see D&C 121:1–6).
However, that the Divine is not obligated by our obedience does not mean he is not obligated to us at all. He is, in fact, obligated by his word, by his covenant. That is what I understand the Lord to mean when he says that he is bound when we do what he says (see D&C 82:10). For one thing, any reasonable notion of covenant implies obligation. By definition, if the Lord enters into a covenant, he is obliged in some way. Also, the Creator is obligated to his creatures as the parent to the child. This obligation is equally unearned by the creature or child, but it is nevertheless very real.
One could argue, in fact, that the notion of grace (or loving-kindness) implies not only the absence of earned reward, but also the notion of moral obligation on the part of the one who offers grace. Without the moral obligation of parent to child and the obligation that comes with being a covenantor, any gift given by God would be merely arbitrary. It would not be a demonstration of his justice and righteousness, of his love. If to love someone is to be obligated to that person (though not necessarily by that person) and God loves us, then he is, in a very real sense, obligated to—but not by—us.
Literally, the Greek word apokaluptō (αποκαλύπτω), translated “revealed,” means “to unveil or uncover” and thus “to disclose” or “to reveal.” Something of God’s character, namely, his righteousness, is revealed in the power of the gospel. As we will see in verse 18 (pages 72–75), Paul is setting up a contrast. He will compare the way in which God’s righteousness and justice is revealed with the way in which the unrighteousness and injustice of the sinful is revealed.
From faith to faith
The phrase from faith to faith is difficult to understand. Does it connect grammatically with righteousness or with is the righteousness of God revealed? Those who believe that the phrase the righteousness of God means “the righteousness that God gives” believe that from faith to faith modifies righteousness.82 If this is true, the latter phrase tells us that the gift of righteousness springs from faith. On the other hand, those who believe that righteousness means “the righteousness that characterizes God” believe that from faith to faith modifies is the righteousness of God revealed, indicating that divine righteousness is revealed to us in our faith. Grammatically, it is difficult to justify the first possibility. To read this phrase as connecting to righteousness requires us to strain the plain grammatical sense and seems motivated solely by doctrinal considerations. I think it most reasonable to believe that from faith to faith explains how the revelation of divine righteousness occurs: if we exercise faith, we will come to see the righteousness of God.
The question of how this phrase connects to the rest of the sentence is easier to answer than is the question of what the phrase means. It can and has been taken to mean many things. For example, some read the phrase to mean “the righteousness that is revealed through preaching to hearers.”83 Along the same lines, others take it to mean “through divine faithfulness to human beings who are faithful.”84 Perhaps the phrase has no special meaning at all and is simply a way of emphatically making the point that faith is necessary.
Though the possibility that Paul is making a simple rhetorical gesture is strong, I think it even more likely that he is making a meaningful point by repetition, primarily because the rhetorical gesture is an unusual one. The best way to understand this phrase is to look at it one piece at a time. Consider the clause is the righteousness of God revealed from faith. The Greek word ek (εκ) is often accurately translated “from,” as in the King James translation. Here, however, I think it is better understood as indicating instrumentality: “God’s righteousness is revealed by faith.” Paul’s quotation of the last part of Habakkuk 2:4 at the end of this verse strongly suggests that the instrumental reading of ek is correct, because the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 2:4 clearly uses ek instrumentally. Such a reading makes perfectly good sense however we decide to read the phrase God’s righteousness. If the phrase refers to a characteristic of God, then we come to know that characteristic through our faith: as we trust him, we learn that he is just. If we read it as indicating the origin of human righteousness, then it says that human righteousness is accomplished by faith in the Divine. In this case, the instrumental reading of ek is most plausible: “by means of faith to faith” or “getting faith by means of faith.”
The second element of the phrase from faith to faith is also reasonably easy to understand when considered by itself in the clause is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith. As we have seen, this clause can mean “the revelation of God’s righteousness produces faith,” interpreting the word to (Greek eis, εισ) to indicate result rather than direction. But it may also be that Paul is using metonymy (substituting one word for another word or phrase with which it is easily associated). Perhaps Paul is substituting faith for those who are faithful.” Verse 18 suggests that this is the best way to read this phrase, for it is conceptually parallel to verse 17 and suggests that wrath is revealed to the unrighteous through their unrighteousness.
Putting these ideas together, we can read the clause to mean “God’s righteousness is revealed to the faithful by means of their faith.” It could also mean “the revelation of God’s righteousness produces faith by means of faith.” The second of these two possibilities may seem dubious. The claim that God’s righteousness is revealed by our faith may seem to be a vicious circle: we cannot know God’s righteousness without already having faith, but without knowing that righteousness, how can we come to trust in God? Alma 32 is helpful here. Alma explains that our faith increases because we come to understand the revelation of the gospel. Thus progression is from faith to faith rather than from absence of faith to the acquisition of faith. We cannot claim to have come even to our faith on our own; it is a gift, something everyone has been given. For example, Alma does not say that we should plant a seed in our hearts and then see whether it grows, in spite of what is often said about the second half of his sermon. Rather, Alma says that a person should “give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart” (Alma 32:28). In other words, we should allow the seed to be planted. In fact, in Alma 33, the people send to Alma because they want to know how they can plant the seed. His answer: listen to the prophets (see Alma 33:3–17) and look to Christ (see Alma 33:19–22). In other words, plant the seed by letting it be planted, by hearing the prophets, and by having Christ as a standard and goal (see also scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 12:8–9; James 1:17; and the earlier discussion of gospel in verse 1, pages 13–14).
Comparison to Old Testament uses of the same grammatical structure lend support to two other interpretations of Paul’s phrase. The Septuagint version of 1 Samuel 2:19 and 1 Chronicles 16:23 uses the same Greek grammatical structure in a phrase translated “from year to year,” “from time to time,” or “from day to day.” This suggests that the phrase from faith to faith can be understood temporally. According to one such interpretation, the phrase means that God’s righteousness is revealed from the faith of those before Christ to the faithful who live after Christ. In that case, it may by extension refer to a transition from the faith required by the Mosaic law to the faith required by the gospel, a transition revealed in divine righteousness, in other words, in the offer of the Son. Or, still taken temporally, the phrase may tell us that God’s justice has been revealed to the faithful in all times and in all places. According to another interpretation, if we compare this phrase to Psalm 84:7 (“from strength to strength,” another grammatical parallel in the Septuagint), it may suggest a growth from less faith to more, so that the verse as a whole indicates that divine righteousness will be revealed in a growing faith.
As it is written
Paul is about to quote from Habakkuk 2:4. The phrase as it is written is the standard way of introducing citations of scripture. Ancient writers did not have footnoting systems or other ways of making citations, so they indicated that they were quoting scripture by beginning their quotations with this phrase.
Paul is not quoting from the version of the Old Testament on which our King James translation is based. The King James translation of the Old Testament is based on a Hebrew version of the Old Testament compiled between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D. and known as the Masoretic text. Paul may be using the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament made in about the third century B.C.
(See page 4 for more on the Septuagint. The Septuagint is not necessarily better than the King James or the more recent reconstructions just because it is older.) However, Paul, does not quote exactly from the Septuagint as we have it. The Septuagint reads, “the just will live by my faith,” which may mean either “the just will live because of God’s faithfulness” or “the just will live because of his faith in me.” Given the difference between Paul’s quotation and the Septuagint, he may be using still another version of Habakkuk. There appear to have been no particular “authorized” versions of the books of the Old Testament at the time, perhaps because heresy was not yet a major problem. Because the people of Paul’s time did not have to worry about which version of scripture was authoritative, they seem not to have worried much about the differences between various manuscripts. Except for the five books of Moses (also called the Torah, including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), books of scripture usually existed as separate volumes, and many existed in more than one version. There was only general agreement about what books were part of the scriptural canon. All the books we recognize were accepted as scripture, but there were other books that many, including Paul, also accepted, such as Wisdom (see page 17). Though Paul uses the Septuagint most frequently, he also appears to use other versions as they suit his purposes. As a result, sometimes the scriptures Paul quotes differ from the version we find in the King James translation.
On the other hand and perhaps even more likely, the difference between Paul’s quotation and the Septuagint may be because Paul is paraphrasing the scripture rather than quoting it exactly.
The Greek word for just (dikaios, δίκαιοσ) has the same root as the word translated “righteousness,” above (see the discussion of the righteousness of God, pages 58–63). It indicates living in accordance with law, treating others equitably, doing the right things.85
The word translated “live” is zaō (ζάω). In its various forms, it is one of the most common words used in Romans, especially in the middle third of the book, which discusses the Christian life.86 One could see much, if not all, of Romans as a treatise on the life of the just, the life of holiness.
Zaō, “to live,” indicates physiological, or animal, life, as well as life in its fullest sense, including religious life. The two threads we have seen before, the spirit and the flesh, continue to be intertwined in the word live, for the life referred to is not a life separated from the body.
Just as life is life in the concrete flesh as well as in the spirit, the justice of the faithful is not abstract. It is incarnate justice, a justice that is necessarily concrete. Those who are faithful are satisfied only to be just in real relations with real people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ specifically described what it means to be faithfully just: in addition to possessing such personal characteristics as humility, gentleness, and perseverance in persecution, the just are compassionate, peacemaking, respectful of others, forgiving, and generous both with material things and in understanding.87 King Benjamin describes the just, or the righteous, even more concretely. He says that the just provide for their children and will not allow them to be at war with one another, and he speaks at great length about the fact that they succor those who are in need (see Mosiah 4:14, 16–23, 26). The just are those who do the work for others that needs to be done, work “in the trenches” on stake and ward welfare projects, in Sunday School and Primary classes, as home and visiting teachers, in the nursery, by helping the homeless and poor in the community, and by teaching disadvantaged adults to read. The just life of the faithful is a life of unselfsatisfied obligation and service.
It is interesting to note in passing that, as if to show that there is no higher or lower duty for the just in the eyes of God, Benjamin concludes his description of the just life with an admonition to return whatever we borrow (see Mosiah 4:28). In the last half of Mosiah 4, Benjamin moves from the home to the wider community, from peace among children to providing our substance to those who stand in need. It might be tempting to read these verses as a movement from lower to higher things. When compared to what we think of as more important matters, such as retaining a remission of our sins or finding a cure for cancer, returning what we borrow seems insignificant and mundane. But Benjamin pointedly undercuts any attempt on our part to order our obedience as if there were greater and lesser spiritual commandments, as if the body and the spirit were divided against one another with the needs and desires of the spirit taking precedence over those of the body. In the just life, the matters we identify as spiritual and important remain so. But the matters that seem trivial and mundane are as significant as the spiritual matters. In the life of justice, the spirit and the world, or the spirit and the body, are not divided from or against each other.
The word translated “faith” and its cognates are, with the word life and its cognates, perhaps the most important words in the epistle to the Romans. There is much confusion and disagreement about what Paul means when he says that we are saved by grace if we have faith, but there can be little doubt that this is his message. (See the discussion of verse 5, page 31, for more about what faith means in the New Testament and why the alternate translation uses the word trust.)
The just shall live by faith
The phrase the just shall live by faith is a verse from Habakkuk 2:4, a verse Paul quotes to support his claim that God’s righteousness (justice) is revealed from faith to faith. This is why he is not ashamed of the gospel (see Romans 1:16). Habakkuk 2:4 is the scripture on which Paul bases the rest of his letter. Taken with the first part of the verse, this phrase can be best understood as something similar to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “We might be made the righteousness of God in him [Christ].” If we live by faith in Christ, then we will be exemplars of the righteousness, or justice, of God.
One can ask whether the Greek words translated “by faith” modify the just or shall live.88 If they modify the former, then the usual translation is correct: “the just shall live through their faith.” However, if they modify the latter, then this says “the person who is righteous through faith shall live.” There is no way to decide between the two options based on grammar alone. Interpreters make their decision based on the theological assumptions that they bring to Romans. However, the Septuagint version of Habukkuk 2:4 is not ambiguous: “the righteous [or just], through faith in me, shall live.” Since this verse seems to be Paul’s point of reference, it is reasonable to conclude that by faith modifies the just: “the just shall live by their faith.”
The English translation of this clause may lead us to believe that this is a command, but in Greek it is ambiguous. It can be read as a command, but it can also be read as either a promise or a statement of fact. As in English, these three alternatives cannot always be distinguished grammatically in Greek. Conceptually, promises and statements of fact cannot be distinguished when they are spoken by God. Through their faith, the just will have eternal life. That is a promise of God and thus a fact. On the other hand, some Jewish interpreters have pointed to the verse in Habakkuk as a one-sentence summary of the Mosaic law: those who are righteous live, in other words, remain in the covenant relation to God by their trust in God.89
Given this ambiguity, what are we to make of the quotation from Habakkuk? Is it a promise, a description of the life to come for the exalted, or a command to God’s people? As Cranfield points out, the key words of this phrase, live and faith, can be seen as marking two major subdivisions of Paul’s epistle, neither of which can be fully understood without the other.90 In Romans 1:18–4:25, the first major subdivision of the book, variations on the word faith occur thirty-seven times, indicative of the focus on faith in that section. However, in Romans 5:1–8:39, the next major section of the book, the word faith occurs only twice, and one of those occurrences is in a summary of Romans 1:18–4:25.
In contrast, in the first subdivision, life and its cognates appear only twice, but in the second subdivision they appear twenty-five times. Life is the theme of the second section. We should not overlook this shift in theme when we read Romans, because it marks a development: Paul moves from an understanding of faith to an understanding of the life of faith.
I think Cranfield’s observation is important, but I also think he gives insufficient weight to another major section of the book, Romans 9:1–15:13. The movement from faith to the life of faith that we see in Romans 1–8 is the same movement that we see in the letter as a whole: from understanding the necessity of faith and its function to understanding the life that faith requires and makes possible. Romans 9:1–15:13 answers the question of what it means for Israel to be chosen and what the obligations of the saints are, what the life of faith demands.91 Thus the last part of Romans is the third and last phase of the development that Cranfield has noticed. Paul moves from faith, to the life of faith, to the obligations of faith, or the law. In other words, the chapters of the last major part of Romans are about the other key word in this phrase in verse 17: just. (Though my outline [see pages xx–xxi] does not divide the letter this way, one could see Romans 9–11 as parallel to 12–15. Chapters 9–11 deal with God’s relation to Israel, while 12–15 deal with his relation to the church.)
It would be fair to say that the central question of Romans is that of the relation of faith to the law, whether the law of Moses or the law written in the hearts of all human beings (see Romans 1:19–20). Paul seems faced with the belief that obedience to the law can bring salvation, that we can put God under obligation by our obedience. He will oppose that belief by arguing that it is not obedience to the law that brings salvation, but faith in Christ. However, at the end of his argument he will reestablish the importance of the law, arguing that obedience is the service we owe to God.
Beginning a sermon with a scriptural quotation, as Paul does in verse 17, is a common method of preaching. A speaker chooses a scripture and uses the sermon to discuss as fully as possible what that scripture means. Sometimes, however, we give the scriptures insufficient respect by talking as if our ideas are most important and the scriptures exist to support our ideas when we need them to do so. Consequently, we sometimes find it difficult to devote more than a minute or two to any particular scripture. We seem to feel that no more than a few minutes’ reflection will tell us everything we need to know about that scripture. Obviously, Paul feels otherwise, for he writes an entire book about what one short scripture means.
When some read Habakkuk 2:4 in context, they accuse Paul of “proof-texting.” (Proof-texting is using a scripture that appears to back up a particular point of view, whether its context supports that view or not.) Like most, if not all, other ancient writers, Paul does proof-text, but the feeling that proof-texting is wrong is a modern idea, a development of eighteenth-century theories about history and historical documents. This feeling may thus be one of what we call “the philosophies of men” (compare Colossians 2:8). Today we find proof-texting problematic, but, within limits, the ancients did not.
Whether proof-texting is appropriate or inappropriate, the opinion that Paul is proof-texting when he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 may stem from a desire to read his letter as an argument that to be saved by grace alone means that works are unnecessary. However, as we have already seen and as is apparent throughout the letter, Paul is not preaching a separation of faith and works, but explaining the scripture from Habakkuk to clarify the relation of faith to the law. Habakkuk clearly indicates that the just faithfully fulfill the law of Moses; in other words, they faithfully meet the covenantal obligations expressed through that law. Paraphrased, Habakkuk 2:4 could mean “the just (those who do right) live by faith, which has made them just, or obedient.” Paul wants us to understand that the righteous are justified by God—made right, brought into the covenant fully—because they are faithfully obedient. Their faith makes them just. The just live by faith now (in their obedience), and because they are faithfully obedient, they will live in the eternities.
In light of what we have learned about the words just, live, and faith, the following paraphrase of Paul’s quotation (one of several possible) seems reasonable: “Those who receive life with God live obediently through trusting God.” Like Moroni, Paul teaches that right action is made possible only by faith (see Moroni 7:6–14). Paul shows that faith and obedience to the law are related to each other by pointing out how they are inseparable. James tells us that faith cannot exist without works (see James 2:14–17), and Paul argues that works without faith are also dead, that righteousness comes not in mere obedience to the form of the law, but in obeying in faith. Justice (right judgment, right action, and meeting our obligations to God and others) and faith are not two different things; they are the same thing or two aspects of the same thing.
Paul begins verse 17 by saying that the justice of God—his ability to discriminate between good and evil, to right wrongs, and his faithfulness to his covenants—is revealed in the gospel, the preaching of the life and work and glory of Jesus Christ. After speaking of the Father’s justice, Paul describes true justice for mortals: faith and trust in Christ. If we truly exercise our faith in Christ, if we truly trust him, then we will be just, for he has told us we need not worry about ourselves. We will be able to deal with others justly, giving all that we have, with no need to fear how we will fare, for we can rely on his promise of salvation. Just as to do something to one of the least is to do it to Christ, so, too, to be just with others is to trust in Christ, because he guarantees the possibility of ultimate justice. Those who have faith—those who trust God—will, like God, be just. Genuinely just people live by faith. Their trust in God gives their justice a foundation. God is just because he makes our justice possible, and that is something that sometimes seems impossible in a fallen world.
Finally, we might ask why Paul cites a scripture about the justification of the faithful as proof of God’s justice (see verse 17). At least two answers seem plausible: (1) there is really only one faithful person: the Son; and (2) God’s justice is exemplary of the justice of those who are made faithful. That God offers us salvation even though we are not faithful to him (because we sin) proves his infinite justice or righteousness, his ability to right wrongs. To the degree that our sins are removed and we are filled with the Spirit (see Romans 8), we emulate God’s justice. As evident in Romans 8:17, that means we will inevitably suffer unjustly.
73. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 7:965.
74. See Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 196.
75. See John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1959), 1:30.
76. Murray shares this view rather than the common Protestant view that he mentions earlier. See ibid., 1:30–31.
77. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary 1:179–80, 184, 188.
78. See Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation, 257.
79. See LaCocque and Ricouer, Thinking Biblically, 71–109 (especially 82–95), 111–38.
80. However, the Father is fair in some circumstances. After all, if we do not forgive, then we will not be forgiven. That is a description of fairness.
81. Psalm 137 is one example of such a remonstration or lament, as is Abraham’s argument with God in Genesis 18:20–33. See Graham S. Ogden, “Joel 4 and Prophetic Responses to National Laments,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (June 1983), 97–106; “Prophetic Oracles against Foreign Nations and Psalms of Communal Lament: The Relationship of Psalm 137 to Jeremiah 49:7–22 and Obadiah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24 (October 1982): 89–97.
82. For example, see Cranfield, Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 1:102.
83. See ibid., 1:103.
84. Fitzmyer attributes this interpretation to Ramaroson (see Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation, 263).
85. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 2:188–90.
86. See Romans 2:7; 4:17; 5:10, 17, 18, 21; 6:2, 4, 10, 11, 13, 22, 23; 7:1, 2, 3, 9, 10; 8:2, 6, 11, 12, 13, 38; 9:26; 10:5; 11:15; 12:1; 14:7, 8, 9, 11. Also recall the major divisions of the letter (see pages xx–xxi).
87. See Matthew 5:3, 5, 7, 9, 10–12, 21–25, 27–28, 38–48; 6:14–15, 19–21; 7:1–5; 3 Nephi 12:3, 5, 7, 9, 10–12, 21–26, 27–30, 38–48; 13:14–15, 19–21; 14:1–5.
88. See Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation, 265.
89. “The Talmud records the famous remark of R. Simlai (Makkot 23b), ‘Moses gave Israel 613 commandments. David reduced them to 10, Isaiah to 2, but Habakkuk to one: the righteous shall live by his faith’” (A. Cohen, ed., The Twelve Prophets: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary [London: Soncino Press, 1959], 219).
90. See Cranfield, Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 1:102.
91. Perhaps Cranfield’s commitment to evangelical Protestant doctrine explains his emphasis on the first two sections and his neglect of the third.