Perhaps one of the most unfortunate things about the way Protestants can treat faith almost like something we exchange for salvation is that we don’t really give a full appreciation to the development of faith through time. We tend to think of faith synchronically, as something we have at a specific moment of time that God gives us salvation for. By contrast, a more diachronic view looks at faith as it spans across the lifetime, how it is challenged, how it grows, etc. I would suggest this more diachronic view of faith is more suitable for how the New Testament and Paul view salvation: faith aligns us with a journey of righteousness and peace with God, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and realized in our lives through the Holy Spirit.
One of the results of thinking synchronically about faith and practically reducing salvation and faith to an exchange is that such a perspective has a hard time taking in the whole of Romans 4. Romans 4.1-15 is relatively easy to handle in a synchronic exchange of faith and salvation, but how does 4.16-25 fit into it all? There, Paul hammers home the point that God’s promises is based upon God’s grace and depends upon faith for everyone who is considered a descendant of Abraham. How does he make this point? Not by talking about the moment when Abraham originally believed the promise in Genesis 15 as he did in Romans 4.3, but by talking about how Abraham continued to trust and grew in faith in order to eventually receive the promise.
If you think about it, appealing to Abraham’s later life and growth in faith would seem largely a sidebar to a synchronic view of faith and salvation: what relevance does how Abraham growing strong in faith over time have to the reception of God’s promises and salvation? Unless one tries to distinguish justification and salvation as something different from receiving God’s promises (which Romans 4.21-22 does not really allow for), a synchronic view of salvation and faith just does not make sense of what Paul is getting at in Romans 4. Put simply, if the moment we have faith is all we need to have for salvation, what is the point of discussing Abraham’s strengthening faith over time? Ultimately, I think a synchronic view of salvation and justification ultimately deconstructs if one thinks seriously about the whole of Romans 4.
I would put forward that the point that Paul is getting at in the whole of Romans 4 is that God’s relationship with His people, starting with Abraham, works itself out through the course of time and the way His people continue to respond to Him with faith. Faith is the means by which our lives are saved through the journey we take in receiving God’s promises, which is ultimately shaped and realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.1
This view of faith means that we have to more seriously consider how faith leads and guides believers to understand Paul’s account of salvation. For instance, when we read in Ephesians 2.8: “by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul is not talking about giving salvation in exchange for faith, but rather it is through that faith that God’s grace and salvation work itself out in our lives. This makes sense of 2.9-10, as good works in Christ are the telos towards which the life lived in faith becomes realized, rather than treating works as the condition. A diachronic view of faith and salvation also makes sense of the agricultural metaphor of fruit-bearing that Paul and even Jesus uses routinely: people who have faith are being transformed in such a way that they bear much fruit when the season arrives.
Over the course of time, something can happen with faith: it can face events and occurrences that challenge faith. However, the meaning of faith here needs a little clarification to understanding Romans 4, however.
Most of the time when we as Christians talk about faith, we are referring to a generic sense of God’s goodness. If God is a good, then there are some things we would expect to happen, such as prosperity, a long life, contentment, etc. and there are some things we would expect not to happen, such as disasters, tragedies, etc. It is this type of faith that undergirds the problem of evil: if God is loving and is all powerful, how come evil exists in the world?
This is not the type of faith that Paul is specifically addressing in Romans 4, however. This is represents our attempt to God understood through the lens of nature. It also reflects our understanding of God where we have specific conditions God must meet to be worthy of faith, as we imputed to the idea of “goodness” various things we consider good that God must fulfill if He is to be a good God.
Paul’s understanding of faith is much more specific and based upon specific events where God reveals His specific intentions. Abraham did not have generic fath in the goodness of God. Abraham specifically trusted that God would give to him a son in his (and Sarah’s) advanced age because this is what God had said to Abraham. Put simply, Abraham trusted God’s own self-disclosure of His intentions, even though what God disclosed seem incredulous on the surface of it. Faith for Paul is about trusting God about what He has revealed, which becomes ultimately defined by Jesus Christ.
This type of faith is a much more challenging faith than a generic faith in the goodness of God. When one generically trusts in God’s goodness, some people can easily figure out how some event that seems bad may in fact be good. If one has a flexible willingness to change in regards of one’s understanding what is good, then one can readily reframe bad events as good. This isn’t necessarily wrong as we see this type of reframing of past events at the end of the story of Jacob’s sons, with Joseph rising up to be the advisor to Pharaoh in order to both bless Egypt, as a realization of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham, and to preserve his family, including his brothers who sold Joseph into slavery.2 This is not, however, the type of faith that Paul is talking about. Faith in God based upon something specific is a lot harder to speculate as to how it is being fulfilled. God’s promise to Abraham was specific: he would have a son. Such a specific promise that lingers in being realized would present challenges to trust in that promise.
Soon after the promise in Genesis 15, we see Abram immediately trying to figure out and maneuver his way to receive this promise, or rather being willing to be receptive to the suggestions of his wife Sarai. In Genesis 16, Sarai offers Abram her maid-servant Hagar and Ishmael is conceived. Who can blame him, really? If you were of advanced age and you expected to have a child, what would you be inclined to do? And, technically, nothing Abram did violated what God had explicitly said to Abram in Genesis 15. God had not yet informed him that the son would be with his wife Sarai. We don’t get this word from God till Genesis 17.7.
However, at the same time, we might be tempted to suggest that Abram did not act from faith at this point of time. We might consider that Abram took matters into his own hand and that God’s promise in Genesis 15 was transformed into a guarantee for Abram to take action to receive a child. We see this type pattern elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Eli’s household in 1 Samuel 2, Jehu in 2 Kings 9-10, and even the predilection of Israel to take their election as a guarantee of their status before God. Granted, Abram’s actions were not as severe as these other examples, but they still came with injustice that emerged from Sarai’s jealousy leading to the mistreatment of Hagar.
Furthermore, even after receiving God’s word that Abraham would have a son with Sarai, Abraham tries to lift up Ishmael as the recipient of the promise in 17.18 due to his and Sarah’s advanced age. Abraham did have a moment of doubt when God’s word initially came to him?
Nevertheless, despite this episodes, Paul says that Paul did not skeptically reject the promise due to distrust (Rom. 4.20: οὐ διεκρίθη τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ). How can Paul say this about Abraham? Did Paul miss the episode with Hagar? Paul says that Abraham did not weaken in faith when he consider the condition of him and Srah (Rom 4.19). Did Paul forget that Abraham lifted up Ishmael to receive the promise? Or, should we suggest that Paul intentionally glossing over those episodes to paint a more glossy picture of Abraham’s faith that Genesis actually gives?
This is where a diachronic view of faith overrides the need for these questions. For Paul, it is about how Abraham’s faith lead him to receive what God promised through time. At no point in Genesis did Abraham decide to abandon what God had said and act simply with his own intentions in mind, even if he began to take matters in his own hand and act according to what he thought would be reasonable. While Abraham had a struggles with trusting God’s promise that might look like a momentary lack of faith from a synchronic view, which is more concerned about a specific state belief at a specific point of time, that isn’t what is important for Paul. For Paul, faith in God’s promise is realized through the whole course of Abraham’s life to receive what God had promised. Abraham never abandoned God’s promise, even if he did exhibit some types of monetary doubts throughout. We can suggest, then, that Paul’s portrayal is not concerned about momentary doubts and struggles with what God promises throughout the Abrahamic narrative. Rather, Paul’s contrast of strengthening in faith (ἐνεδυναμώθη τῇ πίστει) with skeptical rejection due to lack of faith (οὐ διεκρίθη τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ) in Romans 4.20 presumes that there are some types of doubt that Abraham faced, but that they lead to strengthening rather than the abandonment of faith. For Paul, it is about how Abraham’s initial faith in God’s promise grew deeper in faith through the difficult circumstances that could have made the promise seem incredulous and incapable of being believed. Paul’s usage of the word διακρίνω in Rom 4.20 refers to a critically negative rejection that Abraham never reached, even as he did feel uncertainty and challenges to his trust in God and what God had promised.
In conclusion, to understand what Paul is getting at when he connects God’s promises and justification with human faith, we need to understand how faith leads and work through people’s lives over the course of time. Salvation is not a momentary exchange of justification for a moment of faith, but rather justification is God’s pronouncement of the trajectory of a person’s life to be the type of people who (a) receive what God promises through faith and (b) become a truly righteous people through whom God’s promises to the world become realized. Salvation and faith are ultimately understood with a diachronic frame for Paul and, I would also suggest, throughout the New Testament.
- Paul says elsewhere in 2 Cor. 1.20 that all of God’s promises are answered by a Yes in Christ.
- It does bear mentioning, however, that this type of reframing does not call an evil something good, but that it sees how goodness was brought out of what was bad. Not everything that happens is part of God’s good will, even as God can take what is against His will and turn it towards a good purpose.