Thursday, January 14, 2010

Justification by the Works of the Law in Pauline Perspective

A number of times commentators on this blog have raised the question of how Paul’s negative view of works of the law fits in with my suggestion that a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law existed as part of the Mosaic covenant.

Upon the established of the covenant at Sinai, the Abrahamic promise regarding blessing for Israel was channeled through the Mosaic covenant. In this way, Israel’s response to the Mosaic covenant would not only be her response to the word of God as revealed through Moses, but would also constitute her response to the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

As Israel responded positively to the Mosaic covenant, she would be judged by God as acting rightly under the terms of the covenant. Acting rightly for Israel was faith, an acceptance of the word of God; but because the word of God revealed to Israel dealt with all sorts of things, Israel’s faith was by definition holistic in nature. Hence, the typical Mosaic description of Israel’s covenant obligation as being that of obeying God’s voice and keeping his covenant (Exod 19:5). Furthermore, as Israel responded rightly, God's judgment that she had been acting rightly would result in her being declared righteous under the terms of the covenant (Deut 6:25). In other words, a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law applied to Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Being adjudged by God to be covenantally righteous on the basis of this holistic faith (i.e., through a positive response to the law of Moses), all the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, would follow as a consequence of God’s promise of blessing to the righteous.

The idea that there was a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law during the old covenant age obviously contradicts the common Protestant interpretation of Paul which says that no one (apart from Christ) can ever be justified by the works of the law. But this common understanding of Paul is the result of reading Paul in isolation from the theology of the Old Testament, for the Old Testament teaches that justification by the works of the law was a reality during the old covenant age. Contrary to the common Protestant assumption that no one (apart from Christ) can keep the law or keep covenant with God, the Old Testament teaches that the law could be kept, and that it was indeed kept by some Israelites. This is evident in the Old Testament teaching that a righteous minority in Israel had the law written on their hearts (Ps 37:31; 119:11, 69), and in the claim of a number of godly Israelites that they had kept covenant with God (Ps 44:17-18; 119:56). Those Israelites who had the law of Moses written on their heart and who consequently kept covenant with God were the faithful remnant. By God’s grace, David was an example of such a person (1 Kgs 14:8; Ps 18:20-24). That the law could be kept, and was kept by a faithful minority in Israel, is due to the fact that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant. Keeping the law was not a matter of absolute perfection, but being committed to the covenant in the context of grace.

Now if a doctrine of justification by the works of the law applied to old covenant Israel, how did they go? Ever since the establishment of the Sinaitic covenant, the Old Testament has been interested in this issue. So how did Israel go in her covenant relationship with God? Terribly is the answer. But it is not as if all were as equally as bad as each other. To be precise, the Old Testament teaches that the faithful minority kept covenant with God, but the disobedient majority broke covenant with God. And here is the important point: because the majority of Israel broke covenant with God, the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation as a whole (see Ps 44:4-22). In other words, even though the faithful remnant were covenantally righteous, the blessings that God had promised to the righteous could not be realized for them in full under the Mosaic covenant. Even after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, sin was still a problem in Israel. Thus, the Old Testament record of the constant problem of covenant disobedience in Israel leads to the conclusion that the Mosaic covenant was not able to bring in righteousness and the fullness of blessing for the nation. Justification by the works of the law was not able to bring the fullness of justification or blessing to Israel, let alone to all the families of the earth, the other nations being excluded from membership in the Mosaic covenant by definition.

This impotency of the Mosaic covenant to achieve full justification and blessing led the Old Testament prophets to look forward to a new covenant, which would be characterized by a more powerful work of God in the hearts of his people (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26), which would move them to covenant obedience (Deut 30:14; Ezek 36:27), in order that the promised blessings might finally be realized (Deut 30:1-10; Ezek 36:28-30). The failure of the Mosaic covenant also led the faithful remnant to place their hope in the righteousness of God that would be revealed in the future (Ps 98:1-3; Isa 51:4-6; 59:15b-20), when God would act to bring in the fullness of salvation and the realization of all that he had promised. This righteousness of God would be revealed in the sight of the nations (Ps 98:2), and torah observance, and hence covenant righteousness, would be opened up to the nations as a result (Isa 2:1-4; 42:1-4; 49:6).

Hence Paul’s reading of the Old Testament is correct: justification by the works of the law was not and is not able to bring the fullness of justification and the blessing of Abraham to all flesh. This would only be achieved through the eschatological revelation of the righteousness of God apart from the law of Moses (Rom 3:21) in the person and work of the Messiah, to which all people (regardless of nationality; Rom 3:29-30) can respond positively, by faith in the Messiah and his message, the gospel (Rom 3:22). Hence the new covenant doctrine of justification by faith in Christ (Rom 3:28), and Paul’s polemic that it was a wrong for the orthodox Jews and Christian Judaizers of his day to think that adherence to the Mosaic covenant could solve the problem of human sin.


Michael F. Bird said...

Steven, I think you're right on the gracious nature of the Mosaic covenant and that it's a subset of the Abrahamic covenant. Though I think it's important to note that references to righteousness and blamelessness in the OT are relational not forensic (e.g. Ps 17/18?). When Paul says that by works of law no flesh will be justified, he is talking universally about all Jews and Gentiles, not just the sinful majority within Israel. In my mind this is because of the Law's temporary character as a holding pattern for sin. The law, at best, puts the sinner into acoma, but it can at worst, kill them as well: hence the nexus of law, sin, flesh!

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Mike, for your comment.

Yes, I do hold that Paul was talking universally about everyone in Rom 3, not just the sinful majority in Israel. But at the same time, Paul's teaching that all flesh will not be justified by the works of the Mosaic law should not be allowed to override the limited but genuine kind of justification that applied on the level of the Mosaic covenant to those who kept covenant with God during the old covenant age.

Your idea that the law is at best comatosive to sinners is interesting, but what do you mean by sinner? Would you include the author of Ps 119 in that category?

John Thomson said...


I commend you for addressing questions that I cannot find addressed in many books, namely, how believing experience functioned before Christ and specifically under law. However, I am not convinced by some of your conclusions. At the very least, I would nuance them differently, however, I am probably at odds at a more fundamental level. I write at the moment partly with a view of trying to articulate my 'thoughts' to myself as much as persuade anyone else.

1.Par 2 I think I agree with. I would say that Justification is only and ever by faith. Faith for any OT believer was a believing response to the promise(s) of God; effectively promises about the Christ. These promises were revealed to the Patriarchs and expanded through the prophets. Indeed in the Law itself promise was revealed, typologically and at times explicitly. The promise of a King is revealed to David during the time of OC. Frequently God promises his people through the period of the OC that he will be with them and fight on their behalf, bring them into the land etc. The godly in Israel were those who clung in faith to these promises and these were the justified; the remnant chosen by grace. This remnant are justified by faith. That is Paul's point in Roms 9.

Rom 9:30-32 (ESV)
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone'.

Now we may quibble over the details in this text but I believe a couple of things are fairly clear.

1. Whatever the detail the law had to be pursued in a context of belief that righteousness was by faith in the promise.

2. That faith should have been placed in God's promised Messiah but it wasn't, rather it was placed in their belief they could keep the law (all this we will do); they stumbled over the stumbling stone.

the way to justifying faith in the OC was by faith in the promised messiah.

Rom 9:33 (Darby)
according as it is written, Behold, I place in Zion a stone of stumbling and rock of offence: and he that believes on him shall not be ashamed.

Note well: he who believes in him will not be ashamed. Thus in the NT we find Simeon waiting for the salvation of the Lord and able to die in peace having seen the Christ.

2. Par 3 I don't like at least the wording. For example,

'Acting rightly for Israel was faith, an acceptance of the word of God'

Had you said, 'acting according to the covenant was an expression of faith' I would have agreed. I do not like a conflating of faith and obedience because, I believe that Scripture keeps them distinct (like justification and sanctification; siamese twins but distinct). Yes, faith is holistic, but that doesn't mean it faith and faithfulness are not viewed distinctively. If people had understood Paul when he spoke of being justified by faith as meaning justified by faithfulness they would never have charged him with antinomianism. Faith in Scripture is firstly and primarily about its object of trust; it is believing in the stumbling stone.

Cont below

John Thomson said...



'Furthermore, as Israel responded rightly, God's judgment that she had been acting rightly would result in her being declared righteous under the terms of the covenant (Deut 6:25). In other words, a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law applied to Israel under the Mosaic covenant.'

Yes, but, the reality is this did not happen. This is the whole OT story. Israel is condemned because she could not keep the law, thus by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified in his sight.

I would like Steven if someone like you, versed as you are in the OT, could do an in-depth study on promise in the OT and what OC believers 'believed'. Paul (and the writer to the Hebrews) is willing to say that OT believers had the gospel preached to them. The implication is that this gospel saved them. let me cite in closing two NT texts.

Abraham has the gospel preached in the covenant promise

Gal 3:8 (ESV)
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Israel under the OC has the gospel preached through prophetic anticipation

Rom 10:16 (ESV)
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”

And finally, to emulate a famous writer (before quoting him),

Rom 10:17 (ESV)
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Notice faith is 'the word of Christ'. It is not simply hearing the word of God that saves, but seeing by faith in the word of God, 'the word about Christ'.

The Pharisees searched the Scriptures and sought to live strenuously by 'the works of the law' but they had no life for they failed to see what Jesus told them, 'these are they that testify of me'.

And finally, still like the famous writer,

'This is evident in the Old Testament teaching that a righteous minority in Israel had the law written on their hearts'

I note you feel obliged to go beyond OC limits (an external code) and assert NC conditions (the law written on the heart). I understand the urge. How can any OC believer live by faith without NC conditions? This is the dilemma.

You constue the imperfection/perfection divide between OC/NC in terms of justification. I think this is a mistake. It is impossible to think of a lesser and greater (full) justification; one is either justified or not. It is possible to speak of greater blessings in the NC. The book of Hebrews is our best source for the relative comparisons of the two covenants.

Re continuity vs discontinuityHebrews is our best guide. I will go and read it tonight. i have commented about this on M Bird's blog.

Again, thanks for reflections. I hope in this matter iron sharpens iron.

John Thomson said...


Hebrews says

Heb 7:18 (ESV)
For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness

Not a very positive assessment of law. I note in reading hebrews that he has spoken of much of the OT word of God as gospel or promise and has spoken positively. Here is his first construal of the word as 'commandment' and his language is much more critical.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, for those comments. I have responded in a separate post. See Faith and Justification in the Old Testament.