In looking at these and other verses which could be noted, it seems obvious that early Christians understood the faith by which a believer is justified is the faith of Jesus Christ and not our own. Any faith we have as believers is a gift from God. That faith is a portion of the faith of Jesus Christ which is allotted to each believer. We cannot obtain salvation by our strong belief (faith) in Jesus Christ.
Most modern translations and many commentaries teach that a Christian must have faith in Christ. However, early translations speak of the Christian being saved by the faith of Christ. So, which is it? Is it our faith in Jesus Christ or is it the gift of His faith that saves us?
The answer to this question hinges upon how the Greek Genitive case is used in some verses. In his New Testament Greek for Beginners, J. Gresham Machen, states, “The genitive case expresses possession…” (section 35, page 28).
Many modern Greek grammars point out the Genitive can be either “objective” or “subjective.” Therefore, the question that must be decided is whether Christ is the “object” of the faith of the believer or whether Christ is the “subject,” the One who possesses the faith in view. If Jesus is the object of the faith of the believer, it may be proper to translate the Genitive as “in Christ” as most modern translations do. The problem with this position is that it makes the faith an action of the believer who is placing his faith in the object, Jesus Christ. If this is the case, then that faith is something the believer possesses and is placing in the object, who is Christ. If this is true, then salvation is necessarily a work of the believer. The believer’s salvation is dependent on the action of the believer; placing their faith in the object, Jesus Christ.
The issue becomes extremely important when we examine the following passages (which are only a few of those that could be cited):
Romans 3:22-23 (NASB95): “22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
In this passage, both “righteousness” and “God” are in the Genitive case and righteousness, therefore, is properly translated as “of God”. The righteousness in view is that which is possessed by God, it is his righteousness.
However, in the phrase translated “faith in Jesus Christ,” both faith and Jesus Christ are also in the Genitive case, yet the phrase is translated as faith “in” Christ. This indicates the faith is something the believer places “in” the object, Jesus Christ, rather than the faith is that possessed by him.
In the phrase, “the glory of God,” both glory and God are in the Genitive case and the phrase is translated as that glory which is the possession of God. It is not translated as the glory which is “in” God.
Why have translators used two different ways of translating the same Greek case in the same verse?
Calvin states, “Secondly, it is necessary that Christ should come to our aid; who, being alone just, can render us just by transferring to us his own righteousness. You now see how the righteousness of faith is the righteousness of Christ…Hence faith is said to justify, because it is the instrument by which we receive Christ, in whom righteousness is conveyed to us” (emphasis added).
Even though Calvin very clearly states that our justification is by the righteousness of the faith of Christ and not our own faith in him, the editors of Calvin’s Commentary include the following note: “The words…“by or through the faith of Jesus Christ,” mean not the faith which is his, but the faith of which he is the object. They ought to be rendered “through faith in Jesus Christ.”
However, the New American Commentary notes on Romans 3:22 states, “The righteousness God provides has its origin in what God did, not in what people may accomplish. It is received, not earned. It depends upon faith, not meritorious activity. God justifies the ungodly, not the well intentioned.”
The New American Commentary continues, “The righteousness God provides comes as a free gift. It cannot be purchased or earned. In either case it would no longer be a gift. One of fallen humanity’s most difficult tasks is to accept righteousness as a gift. With every fiber of their moral being, people want to earn God’s favor… God neither needs nor desires our help in doing what we could never accomplish.”
Galatians 2:16 (NASB95) states, “16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
In this passage, both “works” and “Law” are in the Genitive case and the phrase is properly translated as works of the Law.
However, “faith” and “Christ Jesus” are also in the same Genitive case, yet the phrase in modern translations is translated as faith “in” Christ Jesus rather than the faith “of” Jesus Christ.
In the phrase, “justified by faith in Christ,” both “faith” and “Christ” are again in the Genitive case and faith is translated as “in” Christ Jesus rather than the faith “of” Jesus Christ
Yet, “works of the law” is also in the Genitive case and is translated “of” rather than “in.”
The New American Commentary on this verse states, “Paul said that we are not justified by works of the law but rather dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, which the NIV translates “by faith in Jesus Christ.” This translation assumes the traditional view that Iēsou Christou is an objective genitive, so that the faith in question is that of those who believe in Jesus Christ. More recently, however, other scholars have argued that this expression should be read as a subjective genitive, referring to the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ…Thus when Paul spoke of faith as essential for justification, he was thinking of the necessary human response to what God has objectively accomplished in the cross of Christ…Paul always says that we are justified “by” faith (dia plus the genitive), not “on account of” faith (dia plus the accusative)” (emphasis added).
Other examples could be discussed in a longer article. These include Galatians 2:20; 3:2;, and 3:22–23.
Romans 12:3 teaches that God allots to each a measure of faith. Therefore, faith is a gift that is given to those whom God has chosen to save. They will not believe without having received the gift of faith.
It is also instructive to look at earlier Bible editions and how translators handled the issue. In the 1395 Wycliffe’s New Testament, Romans 3:22, Galatians 2:16, and Galatians 2:20 all indicate the faith is the faith of Jesus Christ.
Since faith is a noun and not an “action” verb, in all three passages, Wycliffe translates the Genitive following “faith” as the faith that is the possession of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Likewise, in the 1537 Matthews Bible and the 1557 Geneva Bible, in all three passages where faith is a noun followed by the Genitive, it is translated as that faith which is the possession of Jesus Christ.
Even the 1611 King James translates all three passages as the faith of Jesus Christ.
In looking at these and other verses which could be noted, it seems obvious that early Christians understood the faith by which a believer is justified is the faith of Jesus Christ and not our own. Any faith we have as believers is a gift from God. That faith is a portion of the faith of Jesus Christ which is allotted to each believer. We cannot obtain salvation by our strong belief (faith) in Jesus Christ. That is a works-based salvation and our works are as filthy rags. It is only by exercising the gift of faith which God gives each believer that any can be saved. We are not saved by our faith. We are saved by the faith of Jesus Christ imputed to us a gift.
David Crenshaw is a retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Pensacola, Fla.