We Were Always Saved by Faith

Because of Paul’s excellent teaching on “salvation by faith,” Christians often view this doctrine as a uniquely New Testament movement. “In the Old Testament people were saved by obedience to the law, but in the New Testament we are saved by faith,” we often say. But if you pay close attention, you’ll see that this statement doesn’t match Paul’s theological reasoning. Rather, he was saying that the God-followers of his time had been putting “the wrong em-pha-sis on the wrong syl-lab-le.”

That is to say that everyone’s religious focus in Judaism had become the law instead of faith. As a Pharisee, Paul knew this false paradigm better than anyone, for he had been taught to follow the law to a fault. But through the conviction of the Spirit and through the theological lens of Jesus, Paul saw things differently now. No one was ever saved by the law—not in the Old Testament or the New. No, people had always been saved by their faith in God. And so, to establish his point, he pulled Abraham, the original Israelite, into view. “See this man?” he says. “He was never saved by his adherence to the law, but by his faith in God. So the same goes for us!” The process of salvation has not changed between the Old and New Testament. We were saved by faith then, and we are saved by faith now. The New Testament change, however, is that Jesus has become the complete act of God’s salvation, and so our faith is to now rest in him.

We now need to clarify what we mean by “faith.” Is faith in Christ no more than believing that Jesus is real or that he existed? Is that the kind of faith that saves us? Is the whole Christian movement nothing more than a simple course correction in the brain? Because that’s how the church markets it, and that’s certainly how we do evangelism. “If I can get you to think differently, you’ll go to Heaven!”

We don’t believe this is faith in any other context, do we? The faith that holds my marriage together is not that I believe my wife is real. Sure, how I think about her will play a part in my faith, but it is not what my faith in her is. My faith in her is carried out in faithfulness to her. It’s my marital allegiance to her and her alone. Yes, it’s having faith in her, but it’s also living my life in a way that mirrors faith/faithfulness back. As much as some people hate to theologically admit it, my faithfulness to her will naturally look like works. And you would certainly question if I’m truly faithful to her if you found my works absent in our marriage.

In one of my favorite books, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Matthew Bates explains how pistis, the Greek word for faith, needs to be better translated in English to the word “allegiance” to catch all of the connotations that Paul means by it. I’ll end with a quote from him.

First, although pistis does not always mean allegiance, it certainly does carry this exact meaning sometimes in literature relevant to Paul’s Letters and the rest of the New Testament. Second, since Paul regards Jesus above all else as the king (the Christ) or the Lord, this is the most natural way for Paul to speak of how the people of God should relate to Jesus. Third, allegiance makes better sense of several otherwise puzzling matters in Paul’s Letters. Fourth, the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” resonated with Greco-Roman imperial propaganda, so that pistis as allegiance fits into the broader cultural milieu of the New Testament world.

Matthew W. Bates

*This devotional was created out of the themes of Romans 9:19-33 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net. Below are the various AI-created pictures I typed into existence via Mid Journey to mock up artwork for today’s post.

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