In recent years, New Testament theologians have discussed and debated the meaning of pistis christou. There is no doubt that the Bible calls us to put our faith in Christ’s faithfulness for our salvation. Still, when it comes to specific passages, the phrase pistis christou is ambiguous. Should this phrase be translated as “faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ”?

The discussion was reignited thirty years ago with Richard Hays proposing that the translation “faithfulness of Christ” best represents the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of “participation in Christ”. To believe in Christ is to share in his faithfulness. Those who disagree with Hays worry that pressing the “faithfulness of Christ” interpretation could downplay Paul’s emphasis on the necessity of human faith as the response to the gospel.

The debate transcends denominational categories and theological camps. New Perspective proponent N.T. Wright prefers “faithfulness of Christ” while Wright’s NP counterpart, James D.G. Dunn chooses “faith in Christ.” There is a spectrum of opinion on the subject from all different directions.

For several years now, I’ve been mulling over this discussion, seeking clarity as to what Paul intended to communicate. Though I was never 100% sure of either option, I was initially attracted to the “faithfulness of Christ” translation for several reasons that I found compelling:

1. Translating pistis christou as ”faithfulness of Christ” avoids repetition in key passages.

  • Romans 3:21-22 sounds odd if translated as “- that is, God’s righteousness through trust in Jesus Christ, to all who trust.” Could it be that Paul’s intention was “God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to all who believe”?
  • Here’s a similar occurrence in Galatians 2:16: “And we have trusted in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by trust in Christ and not by works of the law.” The repetition is avoided if understood as “And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law.”

2. Translating pistis christou as “faithfulness of Christ” is theologically attractive.

  • The theme of “union with Christ” is a powerful one in Pauline theology, and it makes good sense of a number of passages. For example, the KJV translates Galatians 2:20 with the subjective genitive: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
  • When incorporated into Reformation categories of theology, “faithfulness of Christ” bolsters support for the doctrine of imputation. “We are justified by the faithfulness of Christ (his perfect obedience to the Father’s will, his faithfulness unto death on behalf of his covenant people).”
  • Philippians 3:9 seems to put more emphasis on Christ’s faithfulness, rather than our faith, as the means of supplying our needed righteousness. “Not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through the faithfulness of Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith.” Anything that appears to give more glory to Christ is attractive to me.

3. The juxtaposition of Israel’s unfaithfulness (works of the law) and Christ’s faithfulness (through his death) provides a compelling interpretation of the key passages in Galatians.

  • Ardel Caneday writes: “In Galatians, Paul’s argument features Christ Jesus over against Torah, with Torah in a servant role to Christ, as preparatory for Christ who has now come. Paul’s antithetical placement of pistis christou with “works of the law” / “law” placards the faithfulness of Christ Jesus who accomplishes what the Law could not.”

For a while, I leaned toward the “faithfulness of Christ” view, primarily because the reasons listed above. Still, despite the attraction of that translation, I have recently shifted in the other direction. Today, I am convinced that the New Testament authors intended pistis christou to refer to “faith in Christ” rather than the faithfulness of Christ. Here are the reasons that swayed me the other way:

1. None of the early church fathers or early Greek readers give a subjective genitive reading of pistis christou. In fact, the discussion doesn’t even come up.

  • This reason is the most compelling to me. As a fluent Romanian speaker, I’ve observed quirky grammatical constructions that could possibly mean two or more things within the flow of the language. If Romanians, however, hear those grammatical constructions in only one way, then I know that I’m correct in translating the ambiguous phrase according to its unambiguous meaning in its original language and the receptor language. The same principle applies to native Greek speakers.
  • Barry Matlock writes: “It is not that the subjective genitive reading is explicitly rejected among early Greek readers… but rather that no awareness is shown of this option nor indeed of any problem, and so the objective is read without polemic or apology. Silence can be very eloquent, and here it fairly sings.”

2. The “repetition” problem isn’t as big a problem as it first appears.

  • In Rom. 3:21-22, Paul probably intends to place the emphasis on the “all”: -that is, God’s righteousness through trust in Jesus Christ, to all who trust.
  • It is also likely that Paul uses repetition intentionally. In an oral culture, this is a common technique at getting across one’s point.

3. Grammatically, there are other places where the genitive refers to Christ as the object.

  • In Philippians 3:8, Jesus Christ is described as the object of knowledge. In 1 Thessalonians, he is described as the object of hope. In both these cases, it is clear from the context that Paul is not talking about Christ’s knowledge or Christ’s hope. There is no grammatical reason why the same can’t be true of pistis christou.

4. We should not do exegesis with a bias toward “what is theologically attractive.”

  • Though I love the emphasis the “faithfulness of Christ” view places on Christ’s obedience, I can’t let my exegesis be driven by what appears to support my theological position. The key issue is “what did the author intend to communicate?”, not “how does this boost what I already believe?”
  • Regarding my thoughts above on Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant, I should reiterate that Paul’s emphasis on “faith in Christ” does not undermine the truth that God is the One doing the saving.
  • Michael Bird writes: “Faith in Christ means entrusting ourselves to the event of the gospel, which includes the theocentric act of deliverance wrought by God in Jesus which includes his coming, faithfulness, death, and resurrection. Thus, I would say that Jesus’ faithfulness is implied not in the noun pistis but in christos.”

The more I study, the more I am convinced that pistis christou should be translated “faith in Christ.” What about you? Have you considered this debate? Which way do you lean?

(For more information on this debate, I recommend reading The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies. Also of interest, a post from Collin Hansen that summarizes the views of several New Testament scholars.)

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Comments:


13 thoughts on “"Faith IN Christ" or "Faithfulness OF Christ"”

  1. Josh Collins says:

    Trevin,
    This is an interesting discussion. I’ve always found it weird that Wright has been so supportive of the “faithfulness of Christ” reading, since it seems that such reading would undermine his reticence to acknowledge double imputation in the NT.

  2. Daniel says:

    I think that Wright has more problems with the semantics of the classic Reformed position. I think that he agrees with the concept of imputation. He just uses different words to get there. He relies Romans 6 for exegetical support instead of Romans 4. The emphasis is on incorporated righteousness rather than imputed righteousness.

    Good summary of the debate. Trevor, what do you think of Paul’s use of “faith” in Galatians 3:23, 25? Doesn’t it sound like he referring to a historical event?

  3. Derek says:

    For the past two or so years I have advocated the reading of “faithfulness of Christ” for the very same reasons you provide (thanks for articulating it better than I could). I have both the books you mentioned, (Hay’s original and the one edited by Bird), but have not had an opportunity to sit down and read them yet.

    The reasons provided for changing your view are something to ponder on (I expect to do some pondering on this in the near-future), but for now I maintain the “faithfulness of Christ” rendition (albeit against the overwhelming majority).

    Regarding your last point, “We should not do exegesis with a bias toward “what is theologically attractive.””; what if what makes an exegesis “theologically attractive” is that it expresses best the theology of the original writer (i.e. Paul)? Perhaps I might tentatively suggest that what makes “faithfulness of Christ” theologically attractive is that it is a piece of Paul’s theology that fits best with his overall theological outlook.

  4. Had the opportunity to hear Preston Sprinkle host a Pistis Christou Discussion Panel with Ardel Caneday, Mark Strauss, et al. in Nov, 2010 and found their conclusions compelling.

  5. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    My inclination is to think that if both interpretations are possible exegetically and both reasonably conform to thoughts expressed by the same author elsewhere then they are both acceptable. If the concept of both translations are evident elsewhere it really doesn’t make much difference which one “prefers.”

  6. Sean says:

    I think you should have a look at *The Faith of Jesus Christ in Early Christian Traditions.* by Ian G. Wallis, University of Cambridge, before claiming that *None of the early church fathers or early Greek readers give a subjective genitive reading of pistis christou.* See also *The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ in Hippolytus’s De Christo et Antichristo: Overlooked Patristic Evidence in the ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ Debate* by Michael Whitenton and Michael F. Bird, New Testament Studies, 55 (2009): 552–62.

    You may find it helpful.

  7. Stacy says:

    I would be interested to hear how you deal with Acts 3:16

  8. tim says:

    To change views partl on the basis of the Early Church Fathers lack of reference to a subjective genitive sense is not a good idea. When you look at some of the ideas taught by someone like Ignatius of Antioch it makes you wonder whether he deserves the title of Church Father! We need to be careful about giving up a position which has much to commend it, just because many of those guys struggled with this wonderful truth. Tim

  9. Tony Hodges says:

    I’ve happened upon this website and am probably going to embarrass myself since the people on this site are clearly well versed in theology and exegesis while I am not. (You may be required to exercise some forgiveness towards me therefore should my views seem foolish to you.)

    As a Christian of 35 years the alternatives of “faith in Christ” vs “the faith of Christ” have continued to exercise me greatly because the difference seems so profound. Faith in Christ is the faith link we have to Christ, a little like a rope from our boat to the stanchion of Christ on the dock.

    While faith in Christ is necessary for salvation and to lead to our complete union with Him (and so can become the faith of Christ Himself) the faith of Christ is a very different proposition. The faith of Christ enabled Him to do all He didwhile on earth. Without faith it is impossible to please God. The Son pleased the Father infinitely… by exercising His faith.

    I have made friends smile over the years saying the one reason I have preferred the KJV with all its attendant issues has been that in several places it uses the phrase “the faith OF Christ” and not ‘faith IN Christ’.

    The faith OF Christ is a long way, initially from faith IN Christ. One is ours, the other is His. One can be incredibly weak, the other is infinitely strong. Surely in the replaced life (Gal 2.20) our surrender to Christ means that to work the works of Christ and continue to co-labour with the Father to see the Kingdom come where we are, that this can only be by Christ exercising His faith in us today?

    The faith of Christ is an amazing, transforming, world changing power of God at work in us enabling us to both do His work and be transformed into His likeness.

    Although faith in Christ is intended to produced the same effect, I love the idea of the faith of Christ being something that by grace the risen and ascended Christ is willing to impart to fulfill His work in the world. Faith in Christ somehow seems to make it all much weaker, more of a struggle and more ‘up to us’ whereas the faith of Christ is Christ’s own faith which He continues to exercise unabated today.

    I’m sure I’ve just revealed how theologically dim I am but the one time in 35 years I had a vision from God in answer to a prayer question about scripture (in 1980) was in response to asking the Father to show me the meaning of Galatians 2.20. In this vision I understood that we may have the appearance of life but when we turned to follow Jesus our death was sealed from that moment and from then on we only had the appearance of still being fully alive while the new life of Christ within us started to grow, a life exercising the faith if Christ maintained by the faith of Christ.

    Just my views.

  10. Jeremy Ragan says:

    I am 28 and have only been walking with Christ for almost 4 years. I have been introduced to this faith OF Christ just recently and must say for me it makes sense. Just the one word that ties the two together makes a profound difference. Take for instance the implications of these two: For 4 years I ran from God but for the last 2 I have been living FOR Christ. Compared to: For 4 years I ran from God but for the last 2 I have been walking WITH Christ. Now on the surface, ewe no big deal, but both bring different implications.
    The one to introduce this Faith of Christ to me was Andre Rabe you can find him on youtube. The 1st video i watched by him was titled “Incarnation-time eternity”. Which isn’t about this specific topic, but it is one of the most profound teachings I have ever heard. And highly recommend it. In his video “Andre Rabe and John Crowder vs Skrillex” he addresses this topic of the Faith of Christ.
    Im no “theologian” but personally thus far I don’t think the faith of Christ is merely making it more palatable it is bringing the heart of the Good News back to its original intention. The mind of God that believes in you and has faith in you hence the reason He sent His Son. And Im not implying He didn’t come to forgive us, of course that was part of it. Could it be that we place so much emphasis on Christ coming to forgive us our sins so that we can know God that we miss a bigger picture. That Christ came to show us God, to show us who He really is,and what He believes about us (an aspect of the faith of Christ). Is that not Good News that God believes in us that He has faith in us. Rather than us portraying the Good News as You are a dirty rotten scoundrel repent of your sins and God will love you and forgive you, then you can go to heaven. That type of Good News places so much emphasis on US. I mean imagine your children… If you want to encourage your child and remind them of your faith in them do you tell them how horrible of a child they are and all the wrong choices they have made?Do you tell them say sorry and then Ill love you? Or do you affirm who they are and what you believe about them?…
    Honestly this is all fairly new to me. What I have voiced is what I have interpreted thus far from many different videos and introductions over the last month or so. I think about a year ago in my journey I took a left and am on a completely new road within my journey. Its exhilarating, scary, confusing, and liberating as I really contemplate what I believe and why.
    It would prolly be best for you to check the video out yourself because Andre has spent much more time with these thoughts and its only 11 min.
    Please let me know what you think.
    God Bless and thank you for all of your endeavors in this worthyy task of interprating language

  11. Keith Pusavat says:

    Difficult question! My more erudite pastors have argued that “Faith of Christ” is the best literal translation, but a compelling case can be made based on context that “Faith in Christ” is more logical, not that God is bound by our rules of logic.

    It might be helpful to ask, what is faith?

    Is it trust? Does Christ really need to trust us for our salvation? What is he trusting us to do? We are trusting Him to save us. I don’t think it makes sense that he is trusting us to be saved.

    Is it belief in a promise? What have we promised to Christ that assures our salvation? Seems it is His promise to save us, not vice-versa.

    Is it belief in the unseen? What is there about us that Christ has not seen? He knows every detail of our lives – how many husbands we have had, whether we were sitting under a fig tree when Christ came into town. We haven’t seen what can be done for us, but Christ has seen everything that we have done.

    I suppose the argument still has some life if you are looking at Christ’s faith in God the Father as that which saves, rather than our faith. But this is logically inconsistent with every account in the Bible of individual faith, from Abraham’s righteousness to the woman touching Christ’s clothes.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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