What does Paul mean when he speaks of God distributing a measure of faith to those in the body of Christ? Is faith a thing that can be measured and bottled up?
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Romans 12:3)
The common interpretation of this verse argues that faith is a gift of God and that each one of us is given a measure or quantity of faith that acts in accordance with the spiritual gifts God has given us. It’s easy to see why this has become the commonly agreed upon reading, however, in the social context of the ancient world we see that Paul had an entirely different point in mind.
I’ve noted elsewhere that in the ancient world of the Bible relationships between higher and lower classes functioned within a structure known as patronage. Within this structure, a low-class citizen acted as a client to a willing high-class citizen who acted as his patron. The patron would offer provision and support to those who needed it in return for their loyalty. It is through this setup that the ancients would have understood their relationship to God. The wealthy (God) acted as a patron to the poor (us) through a covenant broker (Jesus). God gives grace and salvation, we gratefully respond with faith, knowing that our salvation is not of ourselves. We are not saved because we have faith, we have faith because we are saved.
God offers His gift of grace (salvation, provision, and atonement) and in Him alone can we have faith (trust and loyalty) for it is not something our flesh can create.
This context is vitally important when it comes to our interpretation of Romans 12:3. Clearly, faith isn’t something that can be stored in bottles and measured. Faith is an active relationship of trust and loyalty initiated by God.
We can begin to uncover what Paul had intended to say by finding out what the original Greek language said. The Greek word for “measure” in this verse is metron. The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon defines it as,
An instrument for measuring
a vessel for receiving and determining the quantity of things, whether dry or liquid
a graduated staff for measuring, a measuring rod
proverbially, the rule or standard of judgment.
A metron isn’t a unit of measurement but the tool that is used to determine the measurement. In other words, it helps us determine the standard. If something is off the tool gives us the ability to know that something needs adjusting to make it level. To every one of us, God has given the perfect standard with which to measure our faith.
What is the standard? It is God’s faithfulness. It is His ever-reliable provision and care, His truth, and His active love towards us. God has given each of us this metron of faith, a measuring stick that enables us to know what is perfect and good. Our faith in the flesh can never achieve this perfect and good standard, so the spiritual gifts that Paul goes on to mention do not and can not come from us. They depend on God’s act of giving.
Paul instructs his audience to not be boastful and proud and to do this he tells them to judge themselves according to the standard of faith; so now we can read the verse like so, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, judging yourselves according to the standard of God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness that He has shown to each one of us.”
In conclusion, if we follow Christ we will discover His standard and realize how dreadfully short we fall. We gifts do not require less faith than another’s for although we each have a different function and part to play we all receive and experience God’s faithfulness and unconditional love for us.