What did Paul mean when he wrote that Israel “did not pursue [righteousness] by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:32)? In asking this I’m not trying to chime in on the long-running debate among New Testament scholars—something I haven’t tracked closely. Rather let us consider how Paul’s affective portrayal of the soul informs what he wrote.
“Faith” and its twin brother “belief”—as used in Romans 10:4—is the issue at stake for Paul. As in his Galatians 5:6 summation, faith always works through love. The readers in Rome needed to be reminded that faith is a person’s response to God’s love. In other words, the root problem “Israel” faced was their misplaced love rather than a lack of moral obedience—for which they had plenty of zeal.
The basis for this starts in Romans 1 where Paul set up a contrast between the axiom in Habakkuk that “the righteous shall live by faith” and the problem of sin in which all “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (1:17 & 25). If we treat words like “worship” and “serve” as constellation terms of love—of speaking about a heart’s ultimate focus—we uncover the problem of Adam’s Fall: of a love distracted and then misdirected. In this sense faith is a whole-hearted entrustment to whatever we love most: either to God or to one of God’s creatures—with each person preferring self above all other creatures.
In Romans 2 Paul used this issue of misdirected devotion to confront the hypocrisy of many of the Jews in the Roman church: those who were insisting that Gentile believers needed to obey the Torah, while they showed a poor track record of obedience themselves. Paul chided them that it is only by the Spirit’s activity in the heart that faith is displayed.
Then in the next two chapters Paul contrasted the disaffection of all humans towards God: no one ever truly seeks him. And the Jewish Law only shows how broken humanity is while failing to offer a real pathway to righteousness. Abraham, on the other hand, responded to God apart from the Law, as one living well before the command-and-obedience framework of law was formalized by Moses. It was by his faith, alone, and not by law that Abraham responded righteously.
The next chapter, 5, then unveils how faith operates among all who are justified in the same way Abraham was: “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5). The initiative is all God’s: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). Faith, both in subjective and objective terms, must be traced back to our response to God’s love. This offers a true and certain hope for Christians.
Chapters 6 & 7 offer insights about the still-conflicted nature of the soul: we have terrible habits of self-serving desires (the “flesh”) that were birthed in our fallen condition. But a new devotion is now present so that we “delight in the law of God” in our inner being—where the Spirit is still pouring out God’s love—despite a stubborn tendency to default to our old ways all too often (thus Paul’s “oh, wretched man that I am!” lament).
In chapter 8 we reach the crescendo of Paul’s affective summary of the gospel: that as we set our minds on the things of the Spirit (who is still pouring out God’s love in our hearts) we can be sure that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
This, then, offers the context for Paul’s confrontation of any zeal-based initiatives by those who are “Israel” as contrasted to the proper faith of those who are captured by Christ’s love. It also sets up the basis for how our minds are to be renewed (12:1-2) as a response to our new Spirit-based worship. Love also explains how a new and effective morality comes about: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:10).
Works apart from an affective faith, then, reveals an effort to please God even when a person has never responded to his love. Love, by contrast, works in us in ways the law can never hope to accomplish. But this is transformation comes only when the Spirit captures a heart with God’s love in Christ. So the proper way to live rightly with Christ is by faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is our love!