Saturday, January 16, 2010

Faith and Justification in the Old Testament

The following is in response to comments 3-5 from John Thomson to my post entitled “Justification by the Works of the Law in Pauline Perspective.” Because of the length of the response, it is placed here as a post.

Thanks, John. You are definitely thinking a lot about his. Keep up the good work to honor God in your understanding of Scripture, and thank you for your challenge for me to do the same.

Maybe where we differ is that you seem to limit faith to belief in promise. You do so on the basis of a certain understanding of Paul, but my suggestion has been that Paul’s faith/promise distinction is not a linguistic or literary generic distinction, but primarily a salvation-historical one. We need to explore that further over time.

I feel strongly that the evidence from the Old Testament itself leads to the conclusion that the Old Testament concept of faith is not limited merely to promise. It is directed to the totality of whatever it is that God reveals. Faith is not a matter of picking and choosing what part of God’s revelation that you will accept; it is accepting the whole counsel of God. This is a key point. This means that the faith of the Old Testament saints was not directed solely to the Messiah as if he stood independent of the rest of old covenant revelation. How did Israel know about the Messiah? He was revealed to them through Moses and the prophets, and with greater clarity over time. The prophecies concerning the Messiah and the new covenant that are present in the Old Testament are part of the torah of Moses and prophets. In other words, the gospel was revealed to Israel through the law and the prophets. Therefore, the gospel in prophetic form was actually a subset of old covenant law. Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 30:1-14 are classic examples of this. This means that Israel’s faith in torah included faith in the gospel. Faith in the Old Testament cannot be limited solely to faith in the gospel. Consider the author of Ps 119. He says in v. 66: “I believe in your commandments.” His faith was clearly directed to torah. Torah functioned for him as a proleptic gospel as he responded to it in faith, and this faith in torah also included faith in the full substance of the gospel that would come in Christ as revealed to him through torah by way of prophecy.

This seems to be consistent with Paul's understanding when he says: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it" (Rom 3:21; note also 1:16-17). The gospel was mediated to old covenant Israel through torah (i.e., Old Testament torah testified to the saving righteousness of God in Christ); but once the Messiah has come, law and gospel can be spoken of as being distinct revelations (i.e., the saving righteousness of God in Christ is revealed apart from the law of Moses).

I agree that we need to have an Old Testament study on the nature of faith. That will help to solve this issue. My doctorate is concerned with this, so hopefully I’ll be able to contribute more to this in the future, but I’ll seek to post things every so often as they are relevant and as I have time. The key, I believe, is studying the idea of faith in the Abraham narrative.

You also keep saying that no one back then could keep covenant with God. This is not consistent with the Old Testament presentation of the matter. We can explore this further in my next post on Ps 119.

I would argue that Rom 9:33, which is a quotation of Isa 28:16 merged with Isa 8:14, is an eschatological text. You are taking it as if it were applicable throughout salvation history. But Isa 28:16 occurs in an eschatological context, and I would argue that this is exactly how Paul has taken it, as a prophecy of his own day and the Gentile period of the new covenant age. The laying of the stumbling stone in Zion is a prophecy about how the Israelites would reject the Messiah when he came to them in person.

In suggesting that Paul was talking about the fullness of justification, I am not saying that justification by the works of the law was less than 100% justification as far as being a judgment that an individual Israelite had met his or her covenant obligation before God. But justification under the Mosaic covenant was not full justification in the sense that full vindication and blessing could not come for the Old Testament saints during the old covenant age. In the end, the eschatological justification of the individual goes together with the justification of the whole people of God. The finger cannot be fully justified in a realized eschatological sense without the justification of the whole body of which it is a part. Furthermore, being limited to Israel, justification by the works of the law was not a justification that all flesh could participate in. As individual believers we are justified in Christ, who is the body. Maybe I need to talk of old covenant justification by the works of the law as being non-eschatological, and Paul’s concept of justification by faith as being primarily eschatological. I do admit that finding language to describe these things is difficult at times.

Having the law in the heart is not solely a new covenant privilege. I believe it is wrong to interpret Jer 31:33 as if it were saying that. The Holy Spirit was also at work in the old covenant age, but his work was limited to the faithful remnant. What Jeremiah is saying (when read in the context of the rest of the Old Testament) is that this work which was limited during the Mosaic age will become much more comprehensive under the new covenant as the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

I agree with the perspective of Heb 7:18, looking at the law of Moses from the vantage point of the new covenant; but Heb 7:18 still needs to read in such a way that it is consistent with Ps 119. The author of Ps 119 viewed the law of Moses (the “former commandment”) as primarily positive. The question is: How do we reconcile Ps 119 with Hebrews? Keep an eye out for my next post on Ps 119.


John Thomson said...


Thanks for such a detailed response.

Paul writes:

Rom 3:21-22 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.'

Paul writes concerning 'the righteousness of God through faith in Christ Jesus' that is, the gospel; this 'the law and prophets bear witness to'.

I appreciate your efforts to show how this is so. We both agree the witness is borne in promise, prophecy and even law; the text says as much. How the law bears witness we are not told. It certainly bears witness where it contains promise, (promise of the saving righteousness in Christ). My contention is that when the NT speaks of gospel in the OT it does so consistently in terms of faith in OT promise and never in obedience to OT command. I do not think every OT gospel reference in the NT refers to faith in the eschatological age (NC era). Stumbling over the stumbling stone I think does, however, Paul is establishing that the reason Israel stumbled is

Rom 9:31-32 Why? ...because they did not pursue it (righteousness, or better, a law leading to righteousness)by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone'

That is they treated the Law as a means to achieve righteousness through works rather than recognising its proper function was to point to righteousness through faith (I think it did this with its promissory elements in Law typology and prophecy of the Christ).

Now, of course, the stumbling over the stumbling stone refers specifically to the generation at the time of Jesus, however, it is inconceivable (hard word I know) that every generation under Law legitimately pursued righteousnes by works except the eschatological generation. In fact the notion of pursuing righteousness by self-effort (alive in Israel despite Sanders claims) is surely the very reason why they did not recognise the Messiah; it is why messiah is a stumbling stone.

I do accept, however, that the covenant of law eschatologically morphs into the gospel (Deut 30:1-14).

I can see how holistically faith includes obedience.

Yet I struggle with some of what you say Steven linguistically and, more importantly, conceptually (or theologically).

Linguistically, to say that Israel under law was justified by works is to use language that flies in the face of NT language (as I know you are aware). I won't rehearse again all the texts that stress justification is not of works and to my mind stress this is true in every era.
I will mention only Roms 3:19,20 which seems to me particularly potent in condemning works righteousness.

Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.'

Paul's asserion that none are justified by law is not because there is now a new era and works-of-the-law righteousness is now passe. Rather, his assertion is based on the conclusion that none has kept the law and all are condemned by the law. It is not that the law is past but that it is powerless. If there is to be a justifying righteousness is must be a righteousness apart from law namely, 'a righteousness of God that is by faith in Jesus Christ' (Eschatological category I know, yet in principle where all OT law and prophets pointed if viewed through the prism of faith.

Cont below

John Thomson said...

Conceptually or theologically I think your view on law-works-righteousness also conflicts with biblical categories on faith and obedience. Here is perhaps the nub of the problem. In my view, OT and NT faith and obedience while closely connected must be separated. I mention this in my previous comments.

Take the topic to the NT. When Paul speaks of 'faith' he is I think speaking of 'faith in an object or person'. He is thinking of faith as opposed to faithfulness or obedience. That is why he is charged with antinomianism. He is teaching a person is justified by faith in Christ, God's promised righteousness and salvation; his message is 'the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ'. Christ is the focus of justifying faith. He is also stressing this in contradistinction to 'works', not merely 'works of the law' but 'works' per se. It is 'works' per se he refers to in Roms 4:1-4

Rom 4:1-5 (ESV)
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness'
His point is not that Abraham, prior to law, belonged to an era when one is justified by faith, rather his point is that faith is always God's basis of justification and never works. David, under law, is justified by faith apart from works.

Rom 4:6 (ESV)
just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.'

Thus justifying faith sits apart from works. Yet even while insisting on this Paul (like James) will have no faith that does not issue in obedience. And yes, obedience is always a function of faith. Life, lived by faith, in the Spirit will issue in righteous living (Roms 8). Yet, in Paul at least, it is vitally important to stress this obedience is never presented as justifying. It is faith in Christ that justifies.

If this way of understanding faith and obedience is true surely it is a small step to see that justification functions in the same way in the old economy. Faith in the gospel covenantal promise and obedience to the covenantal law.

Biblical faith is trust in another to do what he has promised (all these died in faith not having received the promises)or faith that he has done what he has promised.

All the best with your studies. I was thinking how many of the 'works' of the patriarchs were unlikely to lead us to view them as righteous. Jacob is the prime example of a schemer and conniver. Yet he is the elect one. The narrative focus is on how he cared about the birthright - that is the promise. He believed in and valued the inheritance. Tamar acts like a prostitute (hardly moral) but does so because she values the inheritance, the promise.
Repeatedly it is covenant faith that is commended and highlighted often in the face of moral failure.

Re Israel, the first generation failed at the most fundamental level of covenant obedience - none of their children were circumcised.

PS On a different and mischievous front, it is interesting that Abraham is justified before he is circumcised. The sign of the covenant followed his justification and played no part in his justification. Does this have any bearing on covenantal views on baptism?

John Thomson said...


'Having the law in the heart is not solely a new covenant privilege. I believe it is wrong to interpret Jer 31:33 as if it were saying that.'

The NT in Acts 2 certainly widens the scope of jer 31 to 'all flesh'. Yet I am surprised you do not also see it in its OT context as a reference to all as opposed to some IN ISRAEL. Is he not saying that the Spirit only seemed to come upon some in the OC (Kings, Prophets etc)whereas in the NC it would come upon all. Only the NT would reveal that ALL in the new Israel is international. However, even in Acts it is cast in terms of old and young, male and female not Jew and gentile. In fact Jew and gentile is not in focus in Acts 2. the international church doesn;t come into focus until later (Ch 10???).

Moreover, the NT keeps stressing the externality of the OT covenant. It was the letter not the Spirit, written in external tablets of stone not the internal tablet of the human heart. (2 Cor 4)

I agree that Ps 119 reads like the law written on the heart. My problem is how this is possible given the limitations of the covenant. Apart from my Roms 7 interpretation possibility, I wonder if it is to be understood as a psalm by one of the privileged to whom the Spirit is given - with them and upon them if not indwelling them.

Here, I concede I struggle. Or at least here I am aware I struggle even if I am blissfully unaware of struggling in the areas I feel confident I am on the right lines.

Dan Chen said...


Thanks so much for blogging about these issues. I have been trying to reconcile them for years and your thoughts have helped me a lot.


Dan Chen

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Dan, for your encouragement. In many ways these are tricky issues, but the key is getting the Old Testament right. More on that later.

Thanks too to John for his thought-provoking comments. John says that Israel went wrong in seeking righteousness through the law, and that they did this rather than seeking righteousness through faith. I'll need a few posts to prove this, but there is a strong New Testament teaching that the true keepers of Mosaic torah will actually receive the Messiah when he comes. I’ll let people guess the places where this teaching may be found ... at least until I get around to doing my post. But this suggests to me that the true pursuit of righteousness under the law actually involved understanding the limitations of the Mosaic covenant and looking forward to justification by faith in the Messiah when he was revealed to Israel.

I’ll also do a post on hermeneutical issues relating to the problem of justification. The historical priority of the Old Testament is important to recognize. Understanding the Old Testament on its own terms is vital. In fact, conceptually speaking, I believe that we need to understand the Old Testament first, before we get to the New Testament. John’s argument seems to be arguing from the New Testament back to the Old in a big way. Even though I hold that the New Testament has a theological priority for Christians, the Old Testament comes first historically and conceptually. The New is built on the foundation of the Old.

The patriarchs were flawed, but by God’s grace also righteous. Jacob was extra-flawed, but God in his persevering grace did manage to bring him around. By the way, Abraham is also classified in the Old Testament as being a keeper of (pre-Sinaitic) torah.

God speaking to Isaac says: “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen 26:4-5).

Apart from Abraham being described as a keeper of torah, notice how blessing is associated with Abraham’s obedience? Interesting!

Regarding Abraham, circumcision, and baptism, I won’t engage in that issue for now, as we have other things to concentrate on. But people can be right with God without formally being in covenant with him. It all depends on the historical circumstances of how God orders his relationships. Abraham was justified before being circumcised, but once the command to be circumcised was given, could he be right with God without submitting to the sign of the covenant? Genesis 17:14 sounds fairly ominous.

Regarding the old covenant versus new covenant, I think that John’s OT external versus NT internal schema is too rigid. It’s more a case of (on the level of the people of God) minority internal swamped by majority external (OT) versus minority internal growing to become majority internal expelling minority external, becoming (in the end) total consummated internal (NT), if you get my drift.

And yes, I hold that Jer 31:31-33 was spoken to ethnic Israel, but the Old Testament prophets also view the nations joining in on the eschatological restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa 11:10-12; 49:6; 66:19-20; Zech 8:22-23). To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.

Hope this helps for now despite the brevity.

John Thomson said...


Thanks again for engaging. Look forward to future blogs. You are right, I do interpret the OT through the NT. The NT brings the fullness of revelation and in Jesus and the apostles the Spirit supplies the key to OT understanding so yes, as you say it must have theological priority.

Re Israel and the nations. It is a side point and not really germane to present discussion (just like my dig about circumcision) but what I was trying to say is that in the OT Israel and the nations remain separate entities in any vision of the eschatological future. It is only in the NT that we discover they actually stand on equal footing and that national distinctions disappear and they become one in Christ. Thus in NC terms it is not until the NT that we understand that the NC includes the nations; all in a sense become Israel (though I think the NT normally avoids calling the people of God Israel for the very reason that it is keen to show in the new creation national distinctions do not count - there is neither Jew nor Greek).

Thus in the OT the reader would assume that the giving of the Spirit to 'all' was giving the Spirit to all in Israel as opposed to some in Israel.

The giving of the Spirit to any in Israel was a sovereign operation of God outside of Mosaic covenant contractual conditions. The OC did not promise the Spirit to any. The giving of the Spirit to some was a purely sovereign act of grace. That is precisely why a new covenant was required which promised the Spirit to all.

Regards. have a good Lord's Day - not sure if you are ahead or behind UK.

Steven Coxhead said...

Down Under is up front when it comes to time.

Steven Coxhead said...

Further thoughts:

OT versus NT is not strictly "nothing versus all" when it comes to the work of the Spirit writing the law on the heart.

It's more a case of "thousands versus billions." Let's say at a rough guess ... a ratio of 1:30,000?

That might be a bit steep. Elisha fed 100 men with 20 loaves, and Jesus 5,000 men (plus some women and children, we imagine) with only 5. That’s only a differential of at least 1:200.

But still that's big enough in John 2 for the OT to be like six empty water jars and for the NT to be like the six water jars filled to the brim with wine. Using litres, is that like 0:500?

But let's say there was 1 litre of dregs in the jars before they were filled up to the top. That's 1:500 or so, not to mention the difference of water versus wine.

However you calculate it, "the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17).

John Thomson said...

Yes. Absolutely.
Incidently I am enjoying reading Meyer's 'The End of the Law' which you recommended. He recommends Hamilton God's Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments. as a good discussion of the different spiritual experiences of OT and NT believers.

The OT remnant were clearly a people with circumcised hearts; a remnant chosen by grace.

We must bless God that grace has in the NC, that is in Christ, become effusive. It is the era of 'fullness' for the gentiles. And if ethnic Israel is presently 'rejected' what will her 'fullness' or 'acceptance' mean, but life from the dead.

Steven Coxhead said...

Yes. It will be wonderful.

Speaking of this, I have sometimes wondered, but only God knows, if a more Jewish spin on Paul may be one of the means that God may use to bring about the salvation of all Israel.

To understand Paul as arguing for the priority of the new covenant over against the Mosaic covenant, and proving it from the Hebrew Bible. That's what Paul was effectively doing in Romans. That was the theological issue of his day.

Before the Jews in Rome: “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23).

And as he testified before King Agrippa: “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:21-23).

When the true force of his argument in Galatians and Romans is understood, the persuasive power of his preaching will again be felt, as per Acts 9:22!

John Thomson said...

Excellent comments. Here I am with you all the way.

Its Sunday evening 22.00 hours here. I am sitting reading Romans again. Your blogs on these issues have stimulated me to so do.

A couple of points have crossed my mind. I am thinking on the difference between the OC and NC. The law turned disobedience into transgression - which made the sin more serious. I am reflecting how failure under the NC is not designated transgression. At the moment I am just thinking out loud and am drawing no conclusions.Just a thought for musing over.

Secondly, not for debating purposes but simply as a brother, I was reading just as your comment pinged in my email box Roms 4:13-16. I thought of our discussions.

Steven Coxhead said...

Enjoy your reading of Romans!

Paul's insight into God's plan of salvation as prophesied beforehand by the Old Testament prophets (Rom 1:2) is awesome!