Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”
The first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?
I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.
Working through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.
These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.