Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Summary of Paul's Understanding of Salvation History

The table below is a summary of the major epochs in salvation history according to the Apostle Paul, and how he characteristically described the key soteriological aspects related to these epochs.

A salvation-historical covenantal approach to Paul suggests that Paul used different terms to describe the word of God, and the required response of covenant faith, in different salvation-historical epochs; but that underlying the differing terminology, salvation has always been through faith, i.e., through the reception of God’s word into the heart thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In effect, Paul has reserved the language of faith solely to the faith of “Gentile” Abraham (on the basis of Gen 15:6) and to faith in the new covenant proclamation of the gospel (on the basis of Isa 28:16 and Hab 2:4). For the faith of godly people under the Mosaic covenant, he uses the term the works of the law instead of faith. He does this, reflecting the predominant way in which faith was denoted in the Pentateuch (i.e., it was spoken of in a holistic way as doing torah), in order to highlight how Mosaic faith was a temporary stage in salvation history, and that salvation in the new covenant age is opened up to the Gentiles, the implication being that it is not right for non-Christian Jews to reject Jesus Christ in the name of faithfulness to Moses, nor for Christian Judaizers to force Christian Gentiles to be circumcised (if male) and to keep the law of Moses, as if only Jews could be saved.

The point of Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is that the Mosaic covenant compounds the problem of sin and death in Adam, but the fullness of blessing and life is made available only in the new covenant in Christ. The faith response in the new covenant age mirrors that of Gentile Abraham, meaning that in the new covenant age Gentiles can participate in salvation as part of the people of God, just as Gentile Abraham could. In other words, the new covenant doctrine of justification by faith means that the Mosaic doctrine of justification by the works of the law no longer applies. This means that salvation in the new covenant has nothing to do with following Moses, but with submission to the lordship of Christ.

The pattern of salvation history according to Paul is basically:


where a = disobedience and death through Adam, b = obedience and life through Abraham, A = disobedience and death through the old covenant, and B = obedience and life through the new covenant.

It also needs to be pointed out that abA has been turned into B only through the righteousness and obedience of the one man, Jesus Christ (Rom 5:18-19), so perhaps the pattern of salvation history is best written as:


where C = the cross of Christ.






Adam in the garden

the commandment



death for Adam and for all humanity born of Adam

“Gentile” Abraham




inaugurated partial blessing

under law

the law

the works of the law

disobedience on the part of Israel as a whole

death for the nation as a whole

the church under grace

the gospel


faith on the part of mainly Gentiles but more Jews after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in

inaugurated fullness of blessing and life now leading to consummated fullness of blessing and life for believers at the return of Christ


John Thomson said...


John bothering you again. I am intrigued by your comment that in Paul 'faith' is reserved for a gentile Abraham or OT refrences to eschatological faith. I have not heard this before or considered it. I am clear Paul speaks of faith as an eschatological reality (ie 'til faith came/is revealed' Gal 3,4).

What of the reference to David's faith, admittedly obliquely, at the beginning of Roms 4? Arguably later references in Roms 4 to Abraham's faith are post-circumcision. In roms 11 Israel was broken off because of unbelief. In Ch 3 Paul refers to Israel's 'faithlessness'

I shall need to search to see if I can find 'the works of the Law' used positively to describe OT faith? I think Roms 7 describes OT faith experience under law but it does not use the term 'the works of the law'. Can you point me to a few texts that demonstrate? this

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

I think that Paul can follow the Old Testament in describing Israel's response to God in terms of faith, but when he is concerned to contrast Mosaic faith with Christian faith he speaks of Mosaic faith in terms of a response to the law of Moses, hence the language of the works of the law. Galatians 3:23-25 is a classic example. Here faith is reserved for the new covenant age after the Messiah has arrived on the scene. Previous to the coming of faith is a response to law (for Israel).

The example of David in Rom 4 is very interesting. Paul is definitely using the Jewish exegetical technique of gezarah shavah (i.e., linking verses with similar words) in vv. 4-8. I suspect that part of what Paul is implying there is that the confession of sin lay at the heart of old covenant obedience. Certainly that is what Ps 32 teaches. And when an Israelite confesses that he is a sinner, he is effectively confessing that he is not much different from a Gentile, hence this blessing also applies to Gentiles, as the example of uncircumcised Abraham shows. But I do have to do more work on Rom 4:1-8.

I don’t think there are any explicit positive references to the works of the law in Paul. But it can derived in the following way:

1) Moses taught a genuine concept of law righteousness (Rom 10:5);
2) Paul accepts this doctrine: that the doers of the law of Moses would be justified under the terms of the Mosaic covenant (Rom 2:13);
3) Paul was himself blameless according to this concept of law righteousness (Phil 2:6);
4) This righteousness (if possessed) was gain until Christ came (Phil 2:7-11).

It is interesting that the Jewish Christians had believed in justification by the works of the law until Jesus came. Notice how Paul says that the Jewish Christians believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith rather than by the works of the law (Gal 2:16), which implies that they had believed justification previously to be by the works of the law. Were the whole lot of them mistaken about this? I believe that they believed that there was a genuine justification by the works of the law during the old covenant age, but it could not bring the fullness of justification, which includes the justification of all flesh (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16).

The key to the doctrine of justification by the works of the law lies, however, in the Old Testament in passages such as: Deut 6:25; Ps 18:20-24; 24:3-5; 103:17-18; 119; Ezek 18:5-9; Mal 3:18.

Steven Coxhead said...

I guess the other thing is that justification by the works of the law in the context of a gracious covenant has been the orthodox Jewish belief for centuries.

Could the Jews be so wrong about their own religion? The other way of putting this is: Do we know their religion better than they do themselves? If we had a better knowledge of Hebrew than they have, maybe I could entertain that possibility. Maybe.

Obviously from a Christian perspective, the majority of the Jews have gotten it wrong about Jesus; but to say that they have not understood the basic dynamics of the covenant which is so dear to them is a big call.

John Thomson said...


First, let me say I am not arguing for arguing's sake. I have been reflecting on these issues over years and recently the NPP has challenged assumptions seriously. You seem in many ways close to this position with perhaps a few angles of your own.

The issue for me to firstly resolve is whether as Paul attacks the judaizers he is attacking works-based righteousness (ie pelagianism) or law-righteousness (ie nationalism);is the attack one on 'do' and live or 'this do', specifically the law as a source of the christian life.

I see the force of many NPP arguments and certainly agree that the social (Jew and gentile all one in Christ) issues are involved. However, I am very chary about excluding the anthropological/soteriological issue of works as a means of earning merit being at the heart of Judaism. A number of the Scriptures that I have cited (Roms 10:2 is particularly powerful)are hard to resist. In Galatians and Romans faith and works seem juxtaposed as opposed to works faith and gospel faith.

Other Pauline texts see the OC as damning since it demanded righteousness.

For example'
Rom 3:20 (ESV)
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

The problem with the law in Roms 2,3 is not that it is narrowly nationalistic but its inability to justify any who seek life through 'the works of the law'.
This follows hard on the heels of a conclusion that Jew and gentile alike are condemned as sinners. Paul's conclusion is that there are no 'doers of the law' (though I think the last verses of ch2 point forward to NC believers who through the Spirit effectively keep the law).

The OC (based on righteousness demanded without power to supply) is in 2 Cor 3'a letter that kills... and administration of death... a ministry of condemnation...'

I also think the bigger picture of the NT must be considered. For example the parable of the pharisee and publican. There Jesus seems to be criticising self/works-righteousness

Luke 18:9 (Darby)
'And he spoke also to some, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest of men , this parable' Trying to establish their own righteousness seems to be part of orthodox Jewish thinking in C1.

Hebrews is also seems to support the thesis that works righteousness as opposed to to faith-righteousness is a nationally historical sin.

Heb 4:2 (Darby)
For indeed we have had glad tidings presented to us, even as they also; but the word of the report did not profit *them*, not being mixed with faith in those who heard. For we enter into the rest who have believed' This passage may not establish that their problem was self-righteousness but it does establish a lack of faith.(Unbelief of the gospel promise of entering rest).

And again

Heb 6:1 (Darby)
Wherefore, leaving the word of the beginning of the Christ, let us go on to what belongs to full growth, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and faith in God'

In Hebs 11 it is the faith of OT saints that is highlighted, including saints under the OC; and faith in the future promise.'

I understand the tension created. For on the one hand lots of OT verses you have cited point to the importance of covenant obedience yet these NT texts seem to indicate such an effort is futile, even misleading.

Just a few further points for consideration.

John Thomson said...


Could the Jews be so wrong about their own religion? The other way of putting this is: Do we know their religion better than they do themselves?

As you point out they do get it dreadfully wrong. They fail to see their Messiah, blinded in some sense by their covenant loyalties. They stumble over the stumbling stone.

More, and this is scary, God always seems to work with a remnant. I too often wonder if I am part of it.

What do you make of Hebrews and those who die from unbelief in the wilderness? I struggle to know whether this is merely typologically they fail to enter the rest (Moses, Aaron and others are not eternally lost Hebs 11) or eternally (since Paul's subject is eternal rest in the chapter).

The whole question of the number of the redeemed I find troublesome. Life experience, any slight historical awareness and Scriptures teaching about remnant seem to make the number few; 'narrow gate... few there be that find it'.

I am now revealing my angst.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

I appreciate your struggle to understand. All of us need to search the Scriptures on these matters. I'll do a post shortly that hopefully will help you regarding the works of the law.

Regarding your angst, even though the way is narrow, we should be confident that the new covenant will be a success and bear much more fruit than the old covenant ever did (which wasn't much, I know). But still, we have been promised that God will work powerfully in the world in the new covenant age as the Spirit is poured out.

We should also keep in mind the statistic that the number of people living in the world right now exceeds the total number of people who have lived on the planet previously. It is a testament to the grace of God that he has structured salvation history in such a way that the good news has come when the majority of the human race have been alive.

But yes, such thoughts lead us to humility and to wonder at both the awesome kindness and severity of our God (Rom 11:20-22).