Romans: Letter of Faith

The Year of Faith commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council is about to begin. In an article for Faith Today, Fr Adrian Graffy investigates the meaning of faith in the finest of the epistles of St Paul, the Letter to the Romans. Fr Adrian’s book on the Letter to the Romans in the Take and Read series is now available from Alive Publishing.

We are about to begin the Year of Faith. It seems a good time to explore what faith really is. Ideas of faith abound in the Bible.

Famously, Abraham is the one who ‘put his faith in the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as justice’ (Genesis 15:6 ). At the exodus the people are described as ‘putting their faith in the Lord and in Moses, his servant’ (Exodus 14:31). It is above all the prophet Isaiah who explores faith, using three different Hebrew verbs, all of which have connotations of relying on God, leaning on God, trusting God. In a famous passage Isaiah warns Ahaz, king of Judah, ‘if you do not trust you will not be supported’ (Isaiah 7:9). The prophet Habakkuk says: ‘the just man will live by his faithfulness’ (2:4). The deepest meaning of faith in Scripture is that of trusting in the Lord.

Faith figures prominently in the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with those in need of healing. To the father of the epileptic boy Jesus says: ‘Everything is possible to the one who has faith.’ The father of the boy cries out, ‘I believe. Help my lack of faith.’ (Mark 9:23-24) The life of faith is not static but constantly challenged to grow. The Letter to the Hebrews defines faith as ‘the substance of the things we hope for, and the guarantee of things which remain unseen’ (Hebrews 11:1).

But it is in St Paul’s great masterpiece, the Letter to the Romans, that we receive the richest food for thought about faith, for in this letter faith is linked to salvation, so that exegetes and theologians have coined the momentous and difficult phrase ‘justification by faith’.

Just what role does Paul give to faith? We need to bear in mind that in this letter he is introducing himself to the Christians of Rome. He is befriending them, for it is his intention to visit Rome, and then to proceed to Spain with their support (Romans 15:24). In the letter Paul explains his understanding of the gospel, the significance of Christian salvation and the role of faith for Christians.

He begins with a mighty definition of the gospel: ‘It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (1:16) Belief in Christ is open to all. The Jewish people, because of their long history as the people to whom God spoke, have precedence. But the Greeks too, and all the nations, are invited to faith in Christ. St Paul continues: ‘For in the gospel the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith. For it is written: The just man will live by faith.’ (1:17)

Paul introduces some momentous concepts here. Salvation has its origins in the Old Testament. The first and fundamental act of salvation of God for Israel was the Exodus, but the prophets spoke of future salvation. For Paul it is above all deliverance from sin and death, the great enemies of humankind.

When speaking of justice, which can also be translated as ‘righteousness’, Paul uses the Greek word dikaiosune. Paul has understood that God’s justice is not like human justice. While human justice seeks retribution and punishment, the justice of God offers mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

When Paul quotes the biblical text ‘the just man will live by his faithfulness’ (Habakkuk 2:4) he means that faith is the way to life for those who open their hearts to God’s mercy and forgiveness, which has been amply demonstrated for all to see in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, the Son of God. Biblical faith, as we saw in reference to the Old Testament, is fundamentally trust in the goodness of God, reliance on God in the knowledge that God offers salvation and life. This faith comes to its fullness in the Christian affirmation that Jesus is Lord. In Romans 10:9 we read: ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and if you believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.’ This is what Christian theologians have come to call ‘justification by faith’.

Faith is therefore not intellectual adherence to certain truths. Faith in God means that life is changed, that our perspectives alter. Life is now lived in the light of faith. In Galatians 5:6 Paul says: ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’.

Christians have long disputed what ‘justification by faith’ means. At the Reformation the followers of Martin Luther stressed God’s role in the process of justification. Catholic reaction to Luther stressed the necessity of human collaboration with God’s grace. The dialogue between Christians so seriously encouraged by the Second Vatican Council bore significant fruit when in 1999 a Joint Declaration on Justification was made by the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation.

This is how the Declaration speaks of justification: ‘Justification is the forgiveness of sins, liberation from the dominating power of sin and death and from the curse of the law. It is acceptance into communion with God: already now, but then fully in God’s coming kingdom. It unites with Christ and with his death and resurrection. It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism and incorporation into the one body. All this is from God alone, for Christ’s sake, by grace, through faith in the gospel of God’s Son.’

In a general audience given on 19 November 2008, during the Year of St Paul, Pope Benedict gave the following teaching: ‘Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love.’ Catholics and other Christians can now rejoice together in ‘justification by faith’, in the absolute goodness of God revealed by Jesus Christ, and embraced in faith, which is lived out in love of our brothers and sisters.

The Year of Faith is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of these basic ideas of Christian teaching. As the Year of Faith begins, Alive Publishing presents a new volume of the popular Take and Read series, which has already covered the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. This new volume is on the Letter to the Romans. This volume is offered at the beginning of the Year of Faith in the hope that we may understand more deeply the challenge of faith, and witness for the Lord in the great work of evangelisation, in fidelity to our ancient Christian traditions and to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

This article was published in Faith Today, September 2012: See the article in its original print format (PDF).

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