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One Little Word

by Tim O'Hearn

Lawyers make a living on minutiae. Take as an example the 2017 case that hung on a single comma, or lack thereof. A group of dairy drivers sued for overtime pay, while the dairies argued that Maine labor law exempted them from paying overtime. The law read, at the time, that the following activities do not merit overtime pay:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

The dairies argued that the drivers were exempted because they were involved in distribution of the designated products. After all, distribution was the last item on the list of activities that were exempt from overtime. The drivers argued that the law did not mention what they did; rather, it exempted “packing for shipment or distribution,” and they did not pack for distribution. They were just involved in the distribution and not the packing. The judge admitted that his ruling in favor of the drivers hinged on a lack of a serial (also called Oxford) comma. The law was vague, and the dairies had to pay out millions of dollars in overtime until the law was changed. It was seen as a victory for some grammarians as well as the dairy drivers of Maine.

Sometimes it is just such a small thing that makes a big difference, even in the Bible. One word can change the whole meaning of a passage. Some healers blame a failure to heal on the individual’s lack of faith in Jesus. Many others will say that it is faith in Jesus that saves. Sometimes they go so far as to make that faith a work of the will. While it is true that faith in Jesus is important, the passages they sometimes quote to justify faith without the obedience of immersion, among other things, use a different word.

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal 2:16)

Paul uses similar wording in Romans 3:22 and later in Galatians 3:22, both in reference to God holding both Jews and gentiles guilty. John uses it in Revelation 14:22. These passages do not talk about faith in Jesus, no matter how much some people would have it so. Instead Paul says we are justified by “the faith of Jesus.” This puts faith in a different place.

In this passage alone, Paul twice says that we that have put our trust in Jesus are justified by the faith that Jesus possessed. Saving faith resides in Jesus himself, and not in the Jesus-follower. What does this mean?

Jesus left glory to live as a man. As such he “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) He had the free will to sin, and therefore lose his status as our perfect high priest. He had the choice to die for the sins of man, or to refuse to do so. This conflict can be seen in his prayer in Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. But also can be seen the faith of Jesus. “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” (Lk 22:42) It was the faith of Jesus that took him to his death for us. It is that faith that justifies, that saves.

Obedience to that faith is vital. “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” (Rev 14:12) It is important to keep both: the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. One can keep the commandments in a legalistic manner, and fail to keep the faith of Jesus. One can also have faith in Jesus without keeping the faith of Jesus, by failing to keep the commandments.

It may seem like splitting hairs. Yet that one difference between on and in may make all the difference.