“By Faith Unto Faith”: An Examination of the Prepositional Series in Rom. 1:17 in Light of The Pauline Argument

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). These statements are rightly seen as a programmatic expression of the theme of Romans. Here Paul announces his central topic for the letter: the message of the gospel with its implications, applied across ethnic boundaries. Accordingly, an accurate understanding of Paul’s thesis statement is essential to grasping the meaning of this epistle. However, one phrase in these verses has proven to be enigmatic to preachers and commentators alike—that the righteousness of God is revealed ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν. This prepositional series has been variously translated (“from faith to faith,” “from faithfulness for faith,” “by faith from start to finish,” etc.), and its precise function within the paragraph is not obvious. Furthermore, Paul’s citation of Habbakuk 2:4 naturally provides clarity to this expression (considering that ἐκ πίστεως appears in his quotation as well), but how this text should be rendered and what it specifically contributes to Paul’s point are a matter of debate.

Verse 17 is presented as an explanatory grounding (γὰρ) for Paul’s description of the gospel as the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The gospel is powerful to save those who believe (πιστεύοντι) because in it the righteousness of God is revealed ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν. The inferential tie between verse 16 and verse 17 is highlighted by the use of the cognate verb and noun pair πιστεύω/ πίστις. The gospel saves those who believe because it reveals the righteousness of God “by faith.” Moreover, it is the righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) of God that is revealed in the gospel ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν since the righteous (δίκαιος) shall live ἐκ πίστεως. It is clear that these two verses contain several important (and perhaps technical) terms that require investigation of their usage in this letter. It is also necessary to regard the place this programmatic paragraph takes in the context of Paul’s argument concerning the message of the gospel.

This essay will examine the key phrases of Romans 1:17 in light of their context in the letter with the aim of determining the meaning and the particular contribution of the prepositional series. The various constituents will be considered according to their order in the text, beginning with Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. Following a discussion of the syntax of that phrase, the theological import of Paul’s declaration that this righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel will be assessed. Then consideration will be given to the role of the phrase ἐκ πίστεως in Paul’s teaching regarding justification, as well as a provisional presentation of the linguistics of the prepositional series. Paul’s citation of Habbakuk 2:4 will be examined, with particular attention to its connection with ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, and then the syntactical structure of the series under investigation will be compared with a parallel text in Romans. The aim is not an atomistic perspective of individual terms and structures but the benefit of both a narrow and a broad lens in exegesis, what is sometimes labeled the “hermeneutical spiral.” To understand Paul’s theology, it is necessary to correctly exegete his presentation in specific texts; to understand those texts, one must understand Paul’s theology. It is desired that this essay is a modest but helpful contribution to that ongoing pursuit.

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About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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