The root word translated “faith” from the Greek is pistis. This word embodies just why the translator’s task is so difficult, because there is no one word in the English language that encompasses it. To give an idea of the breadth of meaning inherent in the word pistis, here are some excerpts from David M. Hay’s paper on the subject:1
Pagan writers commonly use pistis to mean “assurance” or “pledge” in the sense of a guarantee creating the possibility for trust regarding the truth of a statement or reliability of a promise. . . (p. 461) We may begin our investigation by noting that more than half of all Philo’s uses of pistis give it the sense of “evidence.” Closely related is his use of the term to mean “pledge.” I understand the latter English word to imply a desire on the part of the person giving the pledge to encourage confidence about some matter, ordinarily a promise about the future, in the mind of another individual. . . (p. 464f) Among the 195 occurrences of pistis in Josephus . . . we find 78 occurrences (40 percent) that may fairly be described as giving the term the sense of “objective evidence on which faith may be based” (p. 468, 469).
One might speak of sense data in general or of a particular empirical observation constituting pistis in the sense of “evidence”. . . Lawyers describe eyewitness reports as “conclusive proof” of their assertions . . . In the LXX, which uses pistis fifty-seven times, the “evidence” sense is generally absent. However, 2 Esdr. 20:1 (Neh. 10:1) uses the term to denote a written commitment made by Jewish leaders: “And regarding all these circumstances we make a firm covenant (διάτιθεμαθαπιστιν, translating כרתימ אמנה) and write it, and our leaders, Levis, and priests set their seal to it.” . . . (p. 461, 462)
Pistis is used to mean “confidence” (in men) in Ep. Arist. 37 and religious “faith” (or “loyalty”) in T.Levi 8:2 and T.Asher 7:7. In Sib. Or. 3:74, 584-85 and 5:285 it means “faith” or “trust” oriented toward either Beliar or God. (p. 462)
From his survey of the use of the word pistis, Hays comes to the conclusion:
My proposal for exegesis of Paul is that we should understand that the background for this “ground of faith” sense of the term lies in the widespread contemporary use of pistis to mean “pledge” or “evidence.”. . Jesus is a pledge or assurance from God which makes human faith possible. (p. 472) . . . Nowhere does the apostles plainly speak of Jesus as believing, trusting, or displaying pistis as “faithfulness.” Abraham, not Jesus, is held up as a model or precursor for Christians believers (Rom. 4:12, 24). (p. 474)
J.P. Holding, on the other hand, follows David A. deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture in focusing on pistis as meaning both forensic evidence and a response of faithfulness:2
[N]ote that in very few cases is this form of pistis, as meaning a proof, in view. The meaning does give us a clue as to the nature of other meanings. It is often used as a noun to refer to the Christian “faith” as a set of convictions. In far many more cases the meaning intended is in the sense of faithfulness, or loyalty as owed to one in whom one is embedded for service (in this case, the body of Christ).
This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows, the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God’s “clients” to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a “constant awareness” of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God’s kin group, the body of Christ).
This “constant awareness” is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty — in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. “Faith” is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust, and be reliable servants to, our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability.
There are some further considerations, with specific reference to the modern idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” that is the modern staple of evangelism.
Given the above data, the actual description that fits an authentic faith is not a personal relationship, but a patronal relationship. Modern sentiments that call Jesus our “friend” and suppose that we ought to talk to God as to our best buddy are, in this context, clearly misplaced.
Paul himself uses at least two definitions of pistis in Galatians: He refers to Abraham’s “faith” that Hashem would give him a son despite his advanced age in 3:6, but also quotes Hab. 2:4 in Gal. 3:22. This passage from Habbakuk is usually rendered, “The just shall live by faith,” but in the original Hebrew actually means, “The righteous shall live by his faithfulness” (Heb. b’emunato, באמונתו), a loyalty that stood in contrast with the almost entirely faithless nation to whom Habakkuk spoke.
So when Paul speaks of the “pistis of Messiah,” which definition makes the most sense? Is he saying Messiah had faith in God in the “belief” sense? While such a claim isn’t exactly contrary to Scripture, it is far too weak to be complimentary of Yeshua. Rather, I would argue that while Hays is correct that Paul is setting forth Yeshua as the Holy One’s pledge—the forensic evidence of God’s grace, if you will—Paul’s focus here is on Yeshua as the faithful minister of Hashem’s charge, faithful even unto death, and that in the most humiliating manner the Roman world could provide: that of the cross.
What this comes all down to is that salvation is dependent on not simply “faith” as it is popularly conceived, but on four separate elements:
- Messiah’s faithfulness to both Hashem and his people Israel (and all who are grafted into Israel)
- Messiah as the forensic demonstration of Hashem’s grace; Yeshua’s death being the “pledge” or downpayment on Hashem’s salvation
- Our faith, in the sense of “trust,” in Hashem’s promise, just as Abraham trusted Hashem’s promise and was accounted righteous as a result.
- Our faithfulness, our loyalty as a client to our patron, as a vassal to our King. This faithfulness is born from our trust, which we invest because of Yeshua’s faithfulness serving as Hashem’s pledge, but is ultimately empowered by the Spirit–which is why Paul says to the Ephesians (2:8f), “For by grace you have been saved through faith(fulness); and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Recognizing the unbreakable connection between faith and faithfulness in our response to Hashem’s grace actually clarifies a number of Biblical difficulties. For example, if we are saved by faith apart from works (as the phrase is commonly understood), then why does Yeshua say,
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’ . . . Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Mat. 7:22-23, 26)?
And why does Jacob (James) insist that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:17)? Don’t such statements contradict the “true gospel of grace” preached by Paul? Attempts to reconcile such passages invariably stumble over an inability to define what a “true” faith is and should look like.
However, when we understand that “faith” and “faithfulness” are the same word, all such difficulties disappear. After all, one who truly trusts Hashem and his Messiah must, as a natural fruit, be faithful to him–and such faithfulness will be reflected in one’s works. It is not that works save, but that works are the fruit of a salvation born of both faith and faithfulness.
But lest we fall into a modern form of legalism, let’s be clear: Our faithfulness and loyalty is to a particular King, not a set of rules or even a set of creeds.
Recognizing this should give Messianics and Christians a feeling of freedom to test out even the most ancient creeds of our peoples in order to see if they are true and what their ramifications are without a fear that doing so will somehow lose them their salvation (or, if a Calvinist, somehow prove that they were never among the elect). After all, if one’s salvation is rooted in a Person instead of a creed, testing all creeds to see if they are good are a proof of a love for and fidelity towards that Person rather than evidence that one is “losing faith” by one’s questions.
On the other hand, recognizing the dual nature of pistis is a solemn warning against relying on a profession of faith and ritual baptism (Christianity’s own “works of law”) undertaken when one was young if one has since fallen away from walking with the Lord. Loyalty to the King will result in fruit–and if it does not, then the lack of an effect puts the supposed cause in doubt.
Is it possible to lose one’s salvation? Yes, but not by committing one’s 491st sin of the day. But if “those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” from both faith and faithfulness to their King, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:6).
1David M. Hay, “Pistis as ‘Ground for Faith’ in Hellenized Judaism and Paul,” Journal of Biblical Liturature, Vol. 108, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 461-476, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267114