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Romans 1:17 – From Faith to Faith

Romans 1:17 contains two phrases that clearly express Paul’s “economy of words” – “the righteousness of God” and “from faith to faith.” But simple phrases are not always easy phrases.  Concerning the latter phrase,

“By itself this is too dense and cryptic for a modern reader to be certain of its meaning.” (Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Romans, p.425). 

That is why it is very important to not limit ourselves to “by itself” which is true of any phrase.  Context must determine meaning.  Let’s look quickly at the context:

Romans 1:16-17 NASB  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.  (17)  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

The gospel reveals the righteousness of God from “faith to faith.”  Let me emphasize that again, the righteousness of God is what is “from faith to faith.”  Therefore understanding the “righteousness of God” is imperative to understanding “from faith to faith” which we shall do in a little while.

The level of difficulty in understanding from faith to faith does not stop the speculation, and nor should it. Maybe the barriers in understanding are:

  • Refusal to restrict ourselves to Romans for our interpretation
  • Biases by theology interfere in interpretation
  • Jaded into thinking we cannot come up with a correct interpretation
  • Misunderstanding that there is one and only one interpretation

Let me expand on that last “problem.”  Logic requires that interpretations be non-contradictory.  However, that is different than saying there can be multiple complementary interpretations.  If this is an example of “the economy of words” then to use a phrase from N.T. Wright, Paul will “unpack” the meaning throughout Romans. While I believe there is a basic and singular interpretation of “from faith to faith,” that interpretation might have several difference applications found throughout Romans.

Before getting into a lot of detail, let me succinctly describe what I believe the righteousness of God and from faith to faith mean.

God’s righteousness is God’s powerful activity or activity of power.  The gospel is God’s righteousness empowered in real time.  The righteousness of God therefore is more than just His character, more than our status before Him, it is His character in action, enabling and empowering us to be declared righteous in His sight.  The righteousness of God is not static, but rather power emanating from God because it is more than what God is.  It is what God does because of who God is. God is righteous.

Just as the “power of God” is connected to the “righteousness of God” so is “to everyone who believes” connected to “from faith to faith.”  This “believes” is not our initial belief describing when we are saved, but rather our continual belief (present tense).  It is a belief “from faith to faith.”  What that phrase means is that “from faith” is the system by which God saves (i.e., a law of faith – 3:27), and that system is not a law of works (3:27).  God’s righteousness is revealed in the system of salvation “from faith.”  “To faith” is our response to God’s righteous offer “from faith.” Therefore God’s righteousness is revealed in not only the system of faith in which He chooses to save, but also in the righteous lives lived “to faith.”  That is why the righteous shall live by faith.  Therefore “everyone who believes” is the same as “from faith.” Belief is the system of salvation.  And “to faith” is explained by “the righteous shall live by faith.”

Now that I have explained succinctly both phrases, let’s go into more detail.

This simple phrase apparently is not very simple at all since it has a variety of translations and interpretations.  Let’s look first at the translations:

  • from faith unto/to faith (ASV; BBE; EMTV; HCSB; ISV; KJV; LITV; NASB; YLT)
  • from faith for faith (ESV)
  • by faith unto faith (RV)
  • it is through faith from beginning to end (GNB)
  • who has faith, but only those who have faith (CEV)
  • by faith from first to last (NIV)
  • through faith for faith (NRSV)

Behind or beyond the translation is the interpretation.  Ek is a preposition that when used with eis means the opposite – out of faith into faith.  McGarvey said,

“The broad sense seems to be…everything is of faith from first to last” (Reading Romans, Robert F. Turner).  The New Living Translation concurs – “This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.” 

Whatever the correct interpretation, the meaning has to come from the context.  And that context includes another controverted phrase that again seems to employ an economy of words – “obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26).  Why should we include this in our discussion?  For two reasons:

  • Paul begins and end the Roman letter with this phrase, so it only make sense that it either help explain or be explained by the thematic text of Romans 1:16-17.
  • Paul uses the same language in both phrases
    • Bring about the obedience of faith –  eis hupakoē pistis
    • From faith to faith – ek pistis eis pistis

Here are some possible meanings for obedience of faith:

  • The obedience that comes from faith – faith is the basis of and motivating force for obedience.
    • NIV – “the obedience that comes from faith”
    • The point of this interpretation and translation is to separate faith from obedience to enhance the doctrine “justification by faith alone.”
  • Faith as an act of obedience – simply a command to believe
  • Obedience to “the faith” (i.e., obeying the gospel)
  • The obedience that is faith – obedience in faith in action,
    • “mutually interpreting: obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience.  They should not be me equated, compartmentalized, or made into separate sates of Christian experience.” (Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Romans, p.52.)
    • “’Obedience’ is a more prominent theme in Romans than elsewhere in the NT (elsewhere in Paul only in 2 Corinthians 7:15; 10:5-6; Phlm 21).  It serves as the sphere or realm into which, or under the rule of which, Christians come through baptism (6:12-17).  Paul can again use it as a summary of that which he seeks to bring among the nations (15:18; cf. 16:19) and in a concluding formula that closely echoes this opening one….” (Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Romans, p.420)

Of these, the final one seems to be the appropriate meaning.  Now let’s look at some meanings for from faith to faith:

(1) from the faith of OT saints to the faith of NT saints; (2) from an immature faith to a more mature faith (Calvin); (3) from a Law-oriented faith to a gospel-oriented faith; (4) from the faith of the preacher to the faith of the hearers (Augustine suggests this and others); (5) from present faith to a future, deeper faith; 6) from God’s faithfulness to man’s faith, etc. (N.T. Wright; Barth); 7) From faith in Jesus to being justified by faith (Romans 3:22); 8) From Christ’s faithfulness to our faith; 9) Righteousness is received by faith and has faith not works; 10) Faith and nothing but faith can justify (2 Cor.2:16).

Moses E. Lard suggests the last one – “God’s justification by belief in order to belief” is his translation (A Commentary on Romans, p.36).  As evidence he said,

“As farther evidence of what is here said, I cite the following from Galatians, which contains, differently expressed, the same idea: ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, we also believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of law.’ Gal.ii:16.” (ibid., p.45)

I would agree with the last suggestion.  In trying to simplify all of the above, I wonder if the following would be a correct paraphrase – “Out of faith in God into a faith lived for God.”  Chapters 1-11 are “from faith;” and chapters 12-15 are “to faith.”  Further connecting the concept of “the Law” and Gentiles as revealed in Romans 1-3, I could expand the paraphrase to be, “Out of a system of salvation by faith in God which He revealed in both the Old and New Testaments into a life of faith lived by those in the Old Testament and New Testament.” 

Romans 3:27-28 NASB  Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.  (28)  For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

In trying to crystallize Romans 1:17 – which is very appropriate since it I think Romans 1:17 crystallizes the entire book of Romans – what I am thinking is that the first phrase – the righteousness of God – is the theme (His character, action and our status); while the second phrase – from faith to faith – is the outline (from a system of justification by faith in God’s righteousness and therefore ours, to a life of faith.)


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4 Responses to “Romans 1:17 – From Faith to Faith”

  1. Steve says:

    Many thanks for your writing on this subject.

    My interpretation of “from faith-to-faith” is a little different. When I dwell on Christ and his word I am assaulted from all sides: doubt/events/natural scepticism/questions….the usual. These assaults are greatly compounded if I try to bat the assaults away with logic/intellectual reasonings/theories/interpretations.

    But if I bat them away with a “faith” response (and only a faith response) they seem to evaporate. They are defenceless to faith in God.

    SO when I take in Christ in meditation, my faith grows. The assaults are blown away by more faith – so that my faith can keep growing.

    Hence….from faith to faith…..

    Interested in your thoughts!

  2. Jègèdè Oluwaseun says:

    “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Romans 1:17
    “ From faith to faith. — Various interpretations have been given of this phrase, although there appears to be little difficulty in ascertaining its meaning. Some explain it as signifying from the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New; some, from one degree of faith to another; some, from the faith of the Jew to the faith of the Gentile; and others, altogether of faith. The expression is evidently elliptical; and in order to understand it, it is necessary to observe that the literal rendering is not ‘from faith to faith,’ but ‘by faith to faith.’ The same words in the original are thus translated in the same verse: ‘The just shall live by faith.’ The meaning, then, is, the righteousness which is by faith, namely, which is received by faith, is revealed to faith, or in order to be believed. This is entirely constant with what the Apostle says in ch. 3:22, where he reverts to the subject, and announces that the righteousness of God, which is by, or through, faith of Jesus Christ, is unto all and upon all them that believe.”
    Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans by Robert Haldane; pg. 49; Forgotten Books 2012; originally published 1874

  3. PHall says:

    Thanks for the quote.

  4. P.K. says:

    I have understood it to be saying that God’s saving program has always been through faith. The Jews thought they were saved through the Law. Paul was trying to show the Jews that the Law was insufficient to save them. Even in the Old Testament, faith was required for salvation. So Paul seems to be saying that God’s program has always been, “Salvation through faith”. The faith the apostle was proclaiming was actually not something altogether new. God’s program of righteousness by faith had always been by faith. From faith in the Old Testament, to faith in the New Testament. Then he quotes an Old Testament passage, (Habakkuk 2:4) in order to show them that faith was required even in the Old Testament, and Paul’s message was nothing new.

    Habakkuk was warning the southern kingdom of Judah of their pending captivity by the Babylonians. They were to be carried away to a foreign land. Their only hope of redemption was going to be through personal faith. “The just shall live by HIS faith”. That is why, hundreds of years later, the apostle Paul was in a synagogue of the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia. This was in the very heart of the former Babylonian empire, and he was reasoning with Jews who had never returned from this Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah. They would not believe, and so he warned them that if they would not believe, the prophecy of Habakkuk would come upon them. In other words, they would, by refusing to believe, spurn the only method God had given them of living when they were first carried captive hundreds of years earlier. That is, “If you want to live, you will do so through faith.”

    So it seems to me that Paul was saying, “This message of faith that I preach has always been God’s method of salvation. It is nothing new. Faith was required under the covenant, and it is also required in the new covenant. And I’ll prove to you that faith was required in the Old covenant. Your own old covenant scriptures show it in Habakkuk 2:4.”