Am I Really In the Faith? (Crash-Course in 2 Corinthians)

What do you think of if I bring up the idea of self-examination?

When I talk about self-examination, it’s often in the context of Passover preparation and we usually turn to 1 Corinthians. But there’s another instruction about self-examination in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. That’s what I want to look at today as we move from Passover to Pentecost (May 28 this year).

Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test!

2 Corinthians 13:5, NET

My dad read this verse a couple weeks ago in his sermon, and it jumped out at me because of how Paul uses the word “faith.” As you might imagine if you read my book review of Relational Faith, faith in scripture has been on my mind a lot lately. I wanted to take a closer look at this verse with Brent Schmidt’s study on the original first-century context for the Greek word pistis fresh in my mind.

As you’ve no doubt noted in the title, I might have started by looking at the end of 2 Corinthians, but we’re going to look at the entire letter. One of the key principles I follow when interpreting Paul’s writings is that he must be read in context. This includes looking at the parts of the letter around the verse(s) you want to look at as well as keeping historical context in mind. As I started looking at the context, I realized the whole letter is important to understanding the self-examination point near the end.

Image of a woman reading a Bible overlaid with text from 2 Corinthians 1:1-2, NET version:  “From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”
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Faithful New Covenant Ministry (2 Corinthians 1-5)

Paul opens this second canonized letter to the Corinthians with a message of comfort and hope. He then goes on to explain why he didn’t visit the Corinthian church earlier, saying, “Now I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. I do not mean that we rule over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy, because by faith you stand firm. So I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit” (2 Cor. 1:23-2:1, NET). It seems that the “painful visit” he alludes to might have been connected with the issues he wrote about in 1 Corinthians, for he now counsels them to welcome back a man he’d previously told them to put out of the church because of sinful behavior now that he has sincerely repented.

This is also the first time Paul brings up “faith” in this letter. A note in the NET says that “because by faith you stand firm” could be translated “because you stand firm in the faith.” As we know from our discussion of Schmidt’s book a couple weeks ago, “faith” in the first century wasn’t simply a set of beliefs or a feeling. Rather, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion” as part of a covenant relationship (p. 11). Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul is telling his readers that he and other ministers don’t rule over their faithful covenant relationship with Jesus; ministers are there to help you stand firm in the covenant that you entered into with God when you were baptized.

Paul then goes on to talk about his role as a person sent by God for ministry work, referring to himself and his fellow ministers as “servants of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6, NET). He then compares the new covenant with the old, speaking of the letter of the law written in stone and the spirit of the law that’s associated with an even more glorious ministry. It’s in the context of ministers’ roles in the New Covenant that he begins talking about faith again. He says, “we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, ‘I believed; therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore we also speak” (2 Cor. 4:13, NET, quoting Ps. 116:10). Just a little farther down the page, Paul makes the famous statement, ” we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, NET). We don’t yet see all the glorious promises of the covenant, but we trust that God will deliver them when we are faithful to Him.

Living in Holiness and Faith (2 Corinthians 6-10)

Paul goes on to talk about reconciliation, Christ’s sacrifice, and true teachings. He also continues his discussion of ministry in the New Covenant, describing himself and other “ambassadors for Christ” as “fellow workers” with his readers (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1, NET). He also talks about the things that responsible Christians need to do, urging us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1, NET) or associate too closely with unbelievers.

For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord.

Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, NET

Paul returns to the topic of his previous letters again after this point, reinforcing that “sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10, NET). He doesn’t regret writing a letter that made them sad because it bore such good fruits and led to rejoicing, encouragement, and more fervent faith.

The next two times “faith” shows up in 2 Corinthians, it’s in the context of faithful action. Paul tells them “you excel in everything,” including “in faith,” when writing about generous giving to other saints in need (2 Cor 8:7, NET). He then goes back to talking about his ministry work and says, “we hope that as your faith continues to grow, our work may be greatly expanded among you” (2 Cor. 10:15, NET). For Paul, faith always went along with doing something.

Image of four people studying the Bible togather overlaid with text from 2 Corinthians 13:5-6, WEB version:  “Examine your own selves, whether you are in the faith. Test your own selves. Or don’t you know about your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I hope that you will know that we aren’t disqualified.”
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2 Corinthians 10-12

One of my favorite passages from 2 Corinthians comes at the beginning of chapter 10 (of course, there weren’t chapter breaks originally; it’s just a convenient way of navigating scripture). I usually think of this as a section about spiritual warfare and mental health. It is those things, but it’s also part of Paul’s discussion of his ministry and his hopes for the people he writes to.

Now I, Paul, appeal to you personally by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away!)—now I ask that when I am present I may not have to be bold with the confidence that (I expect) I will dare to use against some who consider us to be behaving according to human standards. For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ. We are also ready to punish every act of disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. You are looking at outward appearances. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should reflect on this again: Just as he himself belongs to Christ, so too do we. For if I boast somewhat more about our authority that the Lord gave us for building you up and not for tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of doing so.

2 Corinthians 10:1-8, NET

As Paul goes on, he continues describing his ministry work. With the topic of faith in mind as I read this, I’m struck by how all-in Paul was to his faith commitments. He endured terrible suffering to keep preaching the gospel. He passionately defends the ministry work that God gave him, and condemns those who claim to be apostles but don’t have the same commission from God and commitment to teaching His word faithfully. He even shares his story of glorious revelations and a humbling thorn in the flesh to show “I lack nothing in comparison to those “’super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing” (2 Cor. 12:11, NET). Yet this defense isn’t for his own benefit; he’s writing to build his readers up before his third visit because he’s afraid he’ll find that some of them still aren’t living in the faith.

Have you been thinking all this time that we have been defending ourselves to you? We are speaking in Christ before God, and everything we do, dear friends, is to build you up. For I am afraid that somehow when I come I will not find you what I wish, and you will find me not what you wish. I am afraid that somehow there may be quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again, my God may humiliate me before you, and I will grieve for many of those who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.

2 Corinthians 12:9-21, NET

Now Paul reveals the point of the whole letter. He’s been writing to build people up and encourage them to make necessary changes before he comes. “Quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder” are not things that he ought to see in a faithful church, nor is “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness.” Those things have to go. Which brings us to the instruction to test ourselves.

Putting Yourselves to the Test (2 Corinthians 13)

Image of a man walking in the woods holding a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells his readers, “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith.” Why does he issue this warning, and how does it fit with the rest of the letter?"
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This is the third time I am coming to visit you. By the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter will be established. I said before when I was present the second time and now, though absent, I say again to those who sinned previously and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak toward you but is powerful among you. For indeed he was crucified by reason of weakness, but he lives because of God’s power. For we also are weak in him, but we will live together with him, because of God’s power toward you. Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test! And I hope that you will realize that we have not failed the test! Now we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong, not so that we may appear to have passed the test, but so that you may do what is right even if we may appear to have failed the test. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the sake of the truth. For we rejoice whenever we are weak, but you are strong. And we pray for this: that you may become fully qualified. Because of this I am writing these things while absent, so that when I arrive I may not have to deal harshly with you by using my authority—the Lord gave it to me for building up, not for tearing down!

2 Corinthians 13:1-10, NET (bold italics mark a  quotation from Deut 19:15)

Notice the intensity of Paul’s instruction here. “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” This is important. He’s been building up to this for the entire letter. Paul didn’t just tell the Corinthians they needed to repent, stop sinning, and live obediently with God because he wanted to. He taught this because it’s necessary for faithful living.

“Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you,” Paul asks, “unless, indeed, you fail the test!” Either Jesus is in you and you’ll be living in the faith, or He’s not. There are no two ways about it. You can’t live sinfully and still say you have a relationship with Jesus. If the Lord is living inside you, then you’ll be acting like Him and when you mess up you’ll repent and change.

 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice, set things right, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Corinthians 3:11-13, NET

This is how Paul ends the letter. He wants his readers to “set things right,” but he also wants them to rejoice, be encouraged, and live in peace. As Proverbs says, “the wise in heart accept commandments” (Prov. 10:8, WEB). For those who love God, correction like Paul gives here motivates change and also brings joy because it helps us live in a closer relationship with God.

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Relational Faith: A Book Review and Theological Reflection

I was so happy to receive a comment from Brent Schmidt on my blog post about his book Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (2015) offering me the opportunity to read his new book Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness (2023). I really enjoyed the book on grace, and I was eager to read this follow-up work on faith.

You could read Relational Faith on its own, but it builds on Relational Grace and is best read as a continuation of that study. The basic argument of this new book is, “A universal doctrinal apostasy regarding faith occurred, necessitating a restoration of relational, covenantal faith” (p. 233). Much like Schmidt explained with charis/grace, the original meaning of pistis is vastly different from most mainstream Christian ideas of faith. Studying the context for how these Greek words were used when the New Testament was written helps us understand how grace and faith work today. God’s character is unchanging and the way He relates to us–including what He expects of those in relationship with Him–also didn’t change just because theologians over the years came up with different interpretations and ideas.

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this here before, but if I could have constructed a perfect-for-me class to take as part of my Masters in Rhetoric and Writing program, it would have focused on the Apostle Paul’s use of classical and Jewish rhetorical strategies. Schmidt holds a PhD in classics, and reading this book I felt like I was getting much of what I’d want from that hypothetical class. Schmidt opens the introduction with the words, “Context is key if we are to understand the essential Christian doctrine of faith as taught by the Apostle Paul” (p. 1). Amen, sir. Also, pistis is the same word used for “persuasion” in Aristotle’s rhetoric, and Schmidt spends a good deal of time on classical rhetoricians’ use of the word.

In short, this book could have been written for me even though Schmidt and I have some significantly different theological views/backgrounds (a bit more on that at the end). Overall, I found this an excellent scholarly work situating pistis firmly in its ancient context for both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first-century. It also contains a detailed history of the changes in doctrinal understandings of faith over the years, with comparisons between different interpretations of faith from a variety of theologians. I didn’t find this book quite as engaging as Relational Grace, but it was well worth reading.

Image of two people with hands lifted in worship overlaid with text from Hebrews 11:1, WEB version:  “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.”
Image by Temi Coker from Lightstock

Contextualizing Pistis

One of Schmidt’s basic premises is that we can better understand how Biblical writers use a Greek word by looking at how Classical writers earlier and around the same time used that word. This may seem an odd idea to us who live in a world where it’s considered normal and proper to separate religion from things like philosophy and science. There wasn’t such a separation in ancient times, though (Schmidt, p. 3). And while Biblical writers did give some words new/deeper Christian spiritual meanings, extrabiblical writings provide invaluable clues for understanding how people used these words at the time Paul and others were writing.

Schmidt’s etymological history of pistis and related words reveals that they can mean “faithfulness, steadfastness, and trustworthiness because of the underlying expressions of loyalty between parties in covenant relationships” (p. 11). He also places the word’s use in the context of classical Greek writers and Roman writers using the equivalent Latin word fides. He even looked into how pagan conceptions of the Pistis and Fides as goddesses influenced contemporary uses of the word. It’s a thorough scholarly investigation.

Additionally, Schmidt writes, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement” (p. 11). Faith in this sense is an active thing that’s connected with reciprocal relationships. When we’re in covenant with God, He is faithful to us and we must be faithful to Him. This is a concept that would have been very familiar to both Greek and Jewish audiences (Schmidt, p. 12-16). Also, Greek and Roman audiences were very familiar with the patron-client relationships that had pistis at the center. Whatever their religious background, first-century audiences would have thought of faith in a reciprocal relational context.

Jewish audiences in particular knew that faithfulness was key to covenants with God. In Hebrew, the basic root word for faith is aman (H539 in Strong’s). At the core, it means “firmness or certainty” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 116). Related words in this family include amen (verily, truly), emun (faithfulness, trusting), emuna (firmness, fidelity), and emet (truth). Schmidt points out that, like the Greek pistis, these Hebrew concepts were “knowledge-based, relational, and covenantal” (p. 37). And when Jewish writers wrote in Greek, they translated aman words into Greek as pistis (Schmidt 38). For example, when Paul quotes Habackuck 2:4, “the righteous will live by his faith (emunah),” he says, “the righteous shall live by faith (pistis)” (Rom. 1:17, WEB).

Image of a woman studying the Bible, overlaid with text from Deuteronomy 7:9, NET version:  “So realize that the Lord your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations”
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Tracking Changes in Descriptions of Faith

Neoplatonists and Augustine

Have I talked on this blog before about the Neoplatonists? I don’t think I have, but they keep coming up in books I read that trace how Christianity changed after the first century. This school of thought (along with other trends, including anti-Jewish sentiments) heavily influenced shifts such as the change from keeping the Sabbath on Saturday to gathering on Sunday and adding the idea of an immortal soul (whereas in the Bible, God ” alone possesses immortality” until He grants it to people in His family [1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 3:1-3]). And apparently, it’s also connected to the change from thinking of faith as intimately connected to covenant to an expression of belief in accepted Christian doctrines.

  • Side note: if you’re interested in exploring this idea more, I recommend Plato’s Shadow: The Hellenizing of Christianity by Gary Petty. It’s a good introduction/overview of the topic. (Please note this is an affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.)

While tracing the ways Christian conceptions of faith changed after the first century, Schmidt writes, “Neoplatonist faith (pistis) embraced the intelligible and pure through contemplation and also embraced emotional assurances that the soul was immortal by identifying with an abstract divine” (p. 116). Here’s where we start getting the idea of faith as something abstract, mystical, or requiring only passive acknowledgement. This is happening during the late Classical period (starting around 200 AD), and heavily influences Christianity of the Middle Ages. In contrast, “Ancient readers understood that faith obligated them to demonstrate their faithfulness actively” (p. 130).

The major shifts in conceptions of faith solidified around the 5th century. Schmidt comes down hard on Augustine for that, and rightly so I think based on other examinations I’ve read of Augustine’s work and the readings I’ve done of excerpts from his own texts (we covered him in my classical rhetoric class). Augustine introduced doctrinal concepts such as original sin and predestination, and defined faith as something God gave those He determined would be His people. Though an influential theologian, Augustine contradicted long-established Christian teachings in some of his doctrines, including the way he spoke about faith as something passively received from God, an emotion, and/or acknowledgment of a belief system (Schmidt, Chapter 9). In short, “Augustine’s model of faith fit very poorly with any Hellenistic notions of pistis because first-century pistis was ‘neither a body of beliefs nor a function of the heart or mind, but a relationship which creates community” (Schmidt, p. 167, quoting scholar Teresa Morgan).

I find it very interesting that the shift to seeing faith as a mystical thing granted to you by God, which helps you accept mysteries unknowable, coincides with the shift in popularly accepted Christian doctrine toward describing God’s nature as a Trinity (the Council of Nicae and the Council of Constantinople both happened in the 4th century). If you’re going to describe God as an unknowable three-in-one deity rather than as a family where the Father and Son make covenants with and know people individually, then it’s hard to define faith as a patron-client relationship that believers have with the Father modeled after the relationship the Father has with the Son. (For more on why I don’t think “trinity” is the best way to describe the nature of God, see my post “What Does It Mean For Each of Us That God Is A Family?“)

Medieval to Modern Theologians

Schmidt spends the next few chapters tracing Catholic and then Protestant teachings about faith through the Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and early Modern periods. William Tyndale stands out as a theologian working to balance the ideas of “salvation by faith alone” and the clear Biblical instructions for faith to result in good works (Schmidt, pp. 185-88). Heinrich Bullinger, John Locke, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are also highlighted as rare examples of theologians hearkening back to the active, covenantal context of pistis. Overall, though, the meaning of faith shifted away from ancient conceptions of pistis as faithfulness in covenant and focused more on passive, mystical experiences. Debates at this time often centered on how/if good works were linked with faith and whether or not there was any human free will involved.

There still isn’t a clear consensus in modern Christianity about how to define faith. There are, however, influential theological movements hearkening back toward an ancient understanding of pistis. In Chapter 13, Schmidt explores one of the reasons why I wasn’t all that surprised by what I read in this book about covenants and faith. C.S. Lewis (my favorite Christian writer) taught that faith necessarily involves action. The modern theological movement known as The New Perspective on Paul (including authors I’ve read and enjoyed like N. T. Wright and others I’m familiar with including E.P. Sanders and James Dunn) teach that Paul must be read through a first-century Jewish lens. They also point out that mistakes in reading Paul’s writings and over-reliance on Medieval theologians have led to distorted ideas of faith.

A Few Last Thoughts

Image of the Relational Faith book cover overlaid with the blog post's title text.
Features cover image for Relational Faith

As someone who’s been part of a 7th-day Sabbath-keeping Church of God group her whole life and who also has a Messianic Jewish background, the core arguments of Relational Faith weren’t surprising to me. Similarly, when I first came across the New Perspective on Paul, it didn’t seem revolutionary to read Paul as a Jewish writer who sees covenants as central to Christianity. That’s simply how I think of Christianity.

I will admit, though, that reading Relational Faith challenged me to think more deeply about how I talk about faith. For example, I will use the phrase “my faith” to mean “the doctrines I believe in and the experience of feeling sure that God exists.” A first-century Christian, though, saw faith more as something you do than something you have. If they talked about “my faith,” they’d likely mean “my faithfulness to the covenant God makes with me, as well as the obedient actions associated with honoring that covenant.” Reading this book made me want to be more intentional and careful about how I conceptualize and speak of my relationship with God to ensure it aligns with His word.

Even with confusion about what faith really means and ongoing theological debates, I would argue that the original meaning of faith has not been entirely lost even in “mainstream” Christianity. Yes, there are plenty of songs and teachings that reduce faith to some internal sensation or belief, but there’s also Josh Wilson singing, “Faith is Not a Feeling,” pointing out that faith is often synonymous with obedience, and Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology connecting faith with covenants that bridge Old and New Testaments. There isn’t a simple “this group is all wrong, while this group is all right” answer.

Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning, Schmidt and I have some different theological views. I try to practice the first-century version of Christianity I read about in the New Testament as closely as possible (if you want to label me, “Messianic” or “Sabbath-keeper” works pretty well). Schmidt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most of the focus of his book is on areas where he overlaps with other Christians (i.e. interpreting the New Testament in light of the writers’ use of classical Greek language), but the last two chapters are devoted to the concept of “faith” in the Book of Mormon and other Latter Day Saints’ writings. While I find this aspect of his beliefs rather puzzling, please read this more as an observation than a criticism–those chapters didn’t interest me much, but readers are free to do with them as they will.

Relational Faith was published on March 21, 2023. It is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook or paperback book (please note this is an affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase).

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