Faith is a familiar concept in our cultural context. In the church evangelicals teach that we are saved by faith alone. And in our society we speak about faith-based institutions and identify different religions as “faiths.” Faith was also an important concept for the Apostle Paul, although I will suggest in this article that he spoke about faith in a slightly different way than we often do.
When we speak about faith, we often place the emphasis on our inward experience. Some theologians and revivalists characterize faith as an individual decision that people must make. Christians worry about whether they have enough faith. And in broader society we often contrast faith with reason, implying that our faith cannot be externally verified but deals solely with our inward feelings.
One problem with this emphasis on inward experience is that it makes faith all about us! Theologically this can lead to the problem of turning faith into a work that saves us, as if our faith is what saves us rather than Christ himself. Spiritually this inward emphasis of faith can lead to a lack of assurance because we are looking at our sinful selves rather than at the perfection of Christ. And socially this emphasis can stifle evangelism and thus harm our neighbors by giving the impression that Christianity is about my personal feelings rather than about the truth of what God has done and will do through Jesus Christ.
Some theologians and biblical scholars have responded to this focus on our individual faith experience by arguing that the Apostle Paul did not teach that salvation is on the basis of our faith at all but rather on the basis of Christ’s faith or faithfulness. This approach rightly speaks of the gospel as something external to us and of our salvation as resting fundamentally on what God has done rather than on something we do. But by excluding our faith from salvation entirely, this approach has overcorrected and misrepresented the apostle who clearly taught that salvation is contingent upon our own faith: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
A better solution is to affirm the importance of our own faith in salvation but to see that faith is oriented externally towards the death and resurrection of Christ. One passage that points this direction is 1 Cor 15:1–19. In this passage Paul was responding to Christians who were being swayed to reject the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, probably in favor of the doctrine of the immorality of the soul. Paul responds by reminding them that the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian religion, for the good news is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:3b–5).
In this passage Paul says that the Corinthians are saved by the gospel itself: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved…” (1 Cor. 15:1–2a). Nevertheless he also says that their salvation is contingent upon their faith in or holding to this gospel: “…if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15:2b).
In our cultural context we may be tempted to read Paul’s warning about the vanity of faith as a statement about our internal experience. Did we really believe it? Did we believe it enough? But Paul goes on to explain his warning about the vanity of faith in terms of faith’s object. “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). His point is that the validity of our faith depends not on our internal experience but upon whether the external object of our faith is true or not. Was Christ raised from the dead or not? This is the question that determines whether our faith is vain or not.
We can see then that while salvation is contingent upon our own faith according to Paul, this faith is not fundamentally an internal matter but something that looks outside of ourselves and to Jesus Christ who saves us from our sins. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 should lead us away from questions about ourselves like “did I make a decision for Christ?” or “is my faith strong enough?” and instead to questions about the object of our faith like “who and what am I trusting in?” and “is the Christian religion true?”
Dr. Kevin McFadden is a professor of Greek and the New Testament at Cairn. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.