Q&A Forum: Romans 1:16-17

Explain the meaning of the phrase “faith to faith” (Romans 1:17).

“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from [ek] faith to [eis] faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (KJV).

Virtually every commentator on Romans agrees that 1:16-17 is a vital statement of the central truth of the letter. However, there is considerable variation about exactly what that statement might be, and a particular lack of consensus about the meaning of the phrase “from faith to faith.”

The significance of the prepositions used by Paul in this verse has been understood in a variety of ways. Some of the Church Fathers – notably Tertullian and Origen – thought that it spoke of the movement of individuals from faith in the Law to faith in the gospel. Chrysostom thought that it meant from the faith of OT saints to the faith of NT saints. Augustine thought that it meant from the faith of the preacher to the faith of the hearer. Calvin understood the phrase to refer to the growth and development of the believer’s faith. Other commentators and translations have seen the phrase as intensive – a view that lies behind the rendering of the verse in the NEB and NIV: “by faith from first to last.” Still other commentators have understood the phrase to refer both to the principle on which God’s righteousness is revealed and the people to whom it is revealed – a view expressed in J.N. Darby’s rendering “on the principle of faith, to faith.”

As this – incomplete – survey indicates, this is a difficult question, and one which it would be unwise to attempt to answer too dogmatically. It is difficult, in part, because our reading is likely to hinge on how we understand the meaning of “the righteousness of God revealed” and “the just shall live by faith.” But the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the construction that Paul uses here occurs in only one other passage of his writings. 2 Corinthians 2:16 reads, “To the one we are the savour of [ek] death unto [eis] death; and to the other the savour of [ek] life unto [eis] life” (KJV). The clarification offered to us by this verse is slight, as there is the same scope for debate over its meaning. It is possible that Paul is speaking of a progression from (spiritual?) death to (eternal?) death and, similarly, from life to life. If that is the correct understanding of this verse, it makes it more likely (though by no means inevitable) that Paul has a similar progression in mind in Romans 1. However, a strong case can be made that 2 Corinthians 2:16 means “we are the savour of death to those who are dead” and “a savour of life to those who have life,” and if that is correct, it makes it more probable (though still not inevitable) that Romans 1:17 means “on the basis of faith to those who exercise faith.” Taking into account the context of the verse in this chapter and this epistle, the use of the expression in 2 Corinthians, and the difficulties associated with the other views, this seems to me to be the preferable reading of the verse.

If that is the case, then Paul is presenting the gospel as a message that reveals the righteousness of God – an objective standard granted by God to every person who trusts Christ. That righteousness is available only on the basis of faith – not of works, because, as Paul will go on to demonstrate, works can never justify the sinner. And this righteousness is granted to those who exercise faith – it is “by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom 3:22 KJV).