Thursday, February 25, 2010

The False Logic of an Anthropological Definition of Faith as a Solution to Legalism and Boasting

It has come time to point out the fundamental illogicality of the anthropological distinction between faith and works as a way of escaping from the possibility of legalism and boasting. I have been prompted to do this as a result of the interesting discussion that has been taking place at Euangelion after Mike Bird picked up my post “The Significance of Romans 1–2: When Jews Are Gentiles, and Gentiles Are Jews.” For those who are interested, you can find the discussion on Mike’s blog in his post entitled “The Unity of Romans 1-2.”

The first thing we need to establish is that there is a condition for salvation. Evangelicals are agreed that faith is necessary in order to human beings to be accepted by God. This means that salvation is not unconditional. If it were unconditional, then presumably everyone would be saved. If we need faith in order to be saved, then faith is a condition for salvation.

The next question we need to consider is the humanness of faith: Is faith something that human beings do? Is faith a human activity, or does the human self not do anything when a person believes? When Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord (Acts 18:8), who did the believing? The answer is obvious: Crispus did the believing. Yes, such faith was the gift of God, but it was something that God worked in Crispus for him to be able to do. When people believe, there is not an alien inside of them that does the believing for them. An alien faith is certainly is not Luther’s position. For Luther, faith is an action of the inner person or soul, and therefore not a work (as far as he is concerned), but is it nonetheless an action of the soul.

If faith is a human activity, it is something we do. Faith is the gift of God, but it is still a human action. It is, for all intents and purposes, according to the normal way that we use the English language, a work. But even if you do not want to call it a work, faith is nevertheless a human activity.

The implication of the fact that faith is a human activity is very significant. The fact that faith is a human activity means that, even in the Lutheran system, human action is present in the process of salvation. In fact, without the human activity of faith we cannot be saved. So, salvation actually hinges (to some important extent) on human activity.

One of the arguments that is frequently heard in Protestant circles regarding the issue of faith and works is that Paul distinguishes clearly between faith and works in order to deal with the problem of legalism. The argument goes that lots of Jews back then mistakingly thought that they could be saved by their own efforts, so Paul linked justification to faith apart from works in order to preclude such people from boasting in their own efforts to make themselves acceptable to God. But the problem is that whilesoever faith is a human action, such an anthropological distinction between faith and works is not sufficient to deal fundamentally with the problem of human legalism and boasting.

You see, if faith is a human activity (which Luther acknowledges it is), then what is to stop me from boasting in my faith as that which makes me right before God? It may not be right for me to boast in my faith, but since faith is something that I do, theoretically I can boast in it, unless faith is taken to exclude boasting by definition. But if faith excludes boasting by definition, why can’t we say the same thing for the obedience of walking humbly with one’s God (Mic 6:8)? Furthermore, if faith is something that God has commanded (see Acts 16:31), then what is to stop me from thinking that I need to fulfill the command to believe in order to be saved? In fact, isn’t that true? We do need to obey the gospel command to believe, in order to be saved. Isn’t this a form of legalism?

The only kind of faith that precludes human boasting is an alien faith, a faith that is no longer human, a faith that has no connection with me as a person. And the only kind of faith that precludes legalism, is a faith that God has not commanded. Do you see the problem?

Those who reckon that Paul’s anthropological distinction between faith and works bursts the bubble of human pride and solves the problem of legalism need to recognize the illogicality of their position. The only way you can stop human boasting is by removing every skerrick of human involvement in the process of salvation, and you can only do that by asserting an alien faith, a kind of faith that is totally impersonal. An anthropological distinction between faith and works as the solution to human boasting and legalism is simply illogical.

Paul obviously distinguishes between faith and works. But surely his distinction must be logical. So, if an anthropological distinction does not work in terms of the normal standards of logic, then it makes sense to search for some other kind of explanation for that distinction. To me, the distinction that makes for the best sense in terms of logic, as well as being consistent with the biblical evidence, is a salvation-historical or covenantal distinction.

The historical issue of the day was fundamentally a Jewish one: Do we need to do the works of the Mosaic law (i.e., to obey the Mosaic covenant) in order to be saved? Paul’s answer was: “No! Being right with God in the new covenant age has to do with submission to Jesus as Messiah (faith). It is no longer a matter of submission to the law of Moses (the works of the law).”

You may not agree with this suggestion, but however you explain Paul it should at least be logical.


John Thomson said...


I am reluctant to comment, I really am for I find I warm to you, despite disagreeing profoundly, nowhere more profoundly than here.

The problem is not Paul's logic but yours. The problem is you are not willing to allow yourself to be guided by Paul's logic, and Christ's and John's and...

Also, you question a logic that Christians through the centuries have found sound and acceptable.

I am at a loss to see why this is so difficult for you. I really wish it were not.

The issues we have discussed before, I will not rehearse them again. I simply entreat you to consider that in this matter you may be wrong.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, for putting up with me.

My motivation in asking these questions is a genuine attempt to wrestle with Scripture for my own benefit and (I trust) for the benefit of all of God’s people.

I question a logic that Luther assumed was sound. But faithfulness to Scripture demands that we dare to question even the heroes of the faith. Not to do so, and we are in danger of following merely the traditions of men.

But I am disappointed that you haven’t told me how faith alone solves the problem of legalism. A person can boast in their faith just as much as they can boast in their faithfulness. How does faith alone solve the problem of legalism or boasting? If I am wrong, then I would appreciate your help to set me straight.

You ask about Christ’s logic. I’m glad that you have. God willing, I’ll do a post about this in the next couple of days, but it seems to me that Jesus talks more about works and obedience than he does faith (particularly in the Synoptic Gospels), and it is questionable that a concept of faith apart from obedience exists in the Gospels.

Steven Coxhead said...

Dear John,

You have expressed elsewhere about how you have struggled personally with these kinds of issues, so I’ll seek to be mindful of that. I am not seeking in any way to be insensitive. I also know that other people struggle with this issue, as did Luther.

But as far as I can see, the biblical solution for dealing with a legalistic understanding of Christianity is not by taking obedience out of faith. It is by teaching people what true obedience is. True obedience trusts God, it knows that we are sinful, it rests on God’s provision, it takes hold of God’s atoning sacrifice, it seeks to honor God in the midst of human weakness, always looking to God to comfort and sustain. At the heart of true obedience is the confession of sin (Ps 32), and a humble walking with one’s God (Mic 6:8). True obedience understands grace.

What is faith in the context of a marriage? It is not just believing that your partner will keep his or her vows, but also keeping your own. I don’t love my wife perfectly, far from it. But I know that my pledge of faith to her includes a pledge of faithfulness. I need to take that seriously and put conscious effort into the relationship, in order that the relationship might grow and prosper.

“I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faith. And you shall know the Lord” (Hos 2:18-20).

John Thomson said...


Thanks for comments re health. I mentioned it because it impinges on current topic. Don't worry that you may shake my equilibrium.

Most of what you say about faithfulness I have no argument with. It is what you say about faith that concerns me. I think you inject categories of thought that Paul is at pains to eliminate. Again I turn to Roms 4:1-8 as a very clear statement. His point is that 'work' is a due whereas faith is a casting on grace. Yes they are both human activities but in Paul's thought they are not both a 'work'. If it were a 'work' that made us righteous then we have reason for boasting (4:1) It seems to me Erick's comments over at Euangelion are valid here; faith looks to God and his grace to fulfil the promise while works depends on self to merit the promise. Grace for Paul is unmerited while for C1 Judaism it seems to be viewed as merited.

I fully see Paul's contrast of two eras but for Paul these eras are indicative of two different covenants based on two different principles - 'all this we will do' and 'I will write my law on their hearts.

Israel's claim 'all this we will do' was misfounded. Proved by their breaking the covenant before it was even formally expressed. They ought to have said something like 'all this we will do if you will circumcise our hearts'. The covenant was a covenant of works that they accepted without demur.

However, I'm getting of the subject.

The point is law and promise stand in contrast as do works and faith the principles underlying the two forms of covenant. It is this that Paul is expressing when he says

Rom 4:13-16 (ESV)
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring-not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

and again

Gal 3:17-22 (ESV)
This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Law cannot deliver the inheritance promised. It could only increase sin so that the need for faith was all the more evident.

I do not doubt there are other issues here (of ethnicity etc) but so too, I believe, are these just mentioned.

Of course there were people of faith under the law but the law itself as a covenant of works, is not of faith. It does not call for faith it calls for obedience. And in this respect faith and obedience are distinct.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

Romans 4:1-8 is important in your system, but is it not possible that the term works in Rom 4:1-8 is shorthand for the works of the law? Paul has just mentioned the latter term in 3:28, which is clearly parallel with the term works in 3:27. The reference to the works of the law in 3:28 is followed almost in the same breath in 3:29 with a Jew versus Gentile comparison. Given that Abraham being uncircumcised is an issue in Rom 4, it makes sense to take Paul’s use of the term works in Rom 4 as shorthand for the works of the law. Paul is concerned in ch. 4 about the relationship of (Gentile) Abraham to the works of the (Mosaic) law. This also suggests that the concept of the ungodly in Rom 4 (following Jewish idiom) has Gentile overtones. The quote from Ps 32 then confirms that the heart of covenant righteousness is the confession of sin, which is basically to say that godly Jews acknowledge that at heart they are sinners like the ungodly Gentiles. If God forgives Jewish sin, then he can also forgive Gentile sin.

I agree that a distinction can be made between faith and obedience, and that it exists at various places in the Scriptures. But what I disagree with is the idea that a clear distinction along those lines is taught in the Old Testament. This has implications for how we understand Paul, because he bases his argument in Galatians and Romans on the Old Testament. For the Old Testament saints the law was as equally a law of faith (e.g., Ps 119:66) as it was a law of obedience. Notice the parallel in Ps 106:24-25 between believing in God’s word and listening to his voice (which is commonly accepted as being a Hebrew idiom for obedience). Tell me the difference between believing God’s word and listening to God’s voice, and I’ll accept that faith is clearly distinguished from obedience in the Old Testament.

The law of Moses demanded covenant obedience, but covenant obedience is co-relative with the Hebrew holistic concept of faith.

Do you hold that justification by faith apart from works was taught in the Old Testament? Did it apply under the Mosaic covenant? If so, where does Moses teach that doctrine? Why does he emphasize obedience in the way that he does?

John Thomson said...


You know before I say it that my first question is how does the NT interpret and understand the OT. How does Paul, inspired by the Spirit, train us to think. In Roms 4:1-8 he wants to stress that justification is by faith and always has been - evidenced in Abraham and David. His point is not that their works justified but in contradistinction faith in God justified. Paul clearly thinks this distinction is evident in the OT.

Hebs 11 stresses that faith in the promise was the motivating factor in all true obedience

Heb 11:13 (ESV)
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

Moses too endured because of faith - not faith in the law but in the promise (the reward).

Heb 11:24-27 (ESV)
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.

Indeed the triumph of all OT saints was primed by faith in the promise.

Heb 11:39 (ESV)
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.

The circumcised heart lives by faith - faith that despite personal unrighteousness God will be faithful to his covenant promises (to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and perhaps too the mosaic). This is the point of Ps 143 upon which Paul builds.

Ps 143:1-2 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! ​​​​​​​​Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.

For the Psalmist no help is to be found in self, and no appeal can be made to his righteousness, he has none, rather he casts himself on God and his covenant love.

Ps 143:8-9 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. ​​​​​​​​Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! I have fled to you for refuge!

He sees his hope not in his own righteousness but in God's righteousness.
Ps 143:11 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!

This very cry of faith includes a yearning to obey but also an acknowledgement obedience is lacking and any forth-coming obedience will need to be generated by God himself.

Ps 143:10 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground!

In other words under OC administration he has NC perspective - the perspective of promise.

Such was not the 'faith' of the Pharisee in LK 18 who trusted in himself that he was righteous, nor of the pre-conversion Paul, nor of those in C1 who were zealous for Judaism/law (Roms 9,10)but did not see the Christ. True OT faith would welcome the Messiah, Paul argues the reason Israel did not was that they pursued righteousness as if it were by works not faith (again here faithfulness makes no sense).

To be cont.

John Thomson said...

Finally, as you know, I think 'works' for Paul is different from obedience, however, even obedience/faithfulness is not always to the fore. Raw faith in the promise despite personal unworthiness is the stuff of a circumcised heart, though of course this faith will infallibly result in obedience, how could it be otherwise.

Whre I believe you go wrong Steven is that in your eagerness to tie faith and obedience together you end up denying a category that Paul sees as absolutely vital - faith as a looking to the work of God. You are so keen to assert the human aspect that you begin to subvert Paul's intention in a legalistic context - to make the gospel a work entirely of God and so destroy legalism (however, construed).

The fact is, for Paul, faith does remove the opportunity for boasting (Roms 3:26-4:8). It seems that on this matter your dispute is with Paul, with Scripture.

I know none of this will take you by surprise.

Can I simply add that I am concerned about your privileging the OT or taking the OT on its own terms as some may say. It is precisely here that to my mind John Goldingay has gone wrong. He draws conclusions at points that simply contradict the NT apostolic witness. I believe that without the NT witness the OT is less clear and is fragmentory. The religious leaders (Jewish exegetes) of Jesus day studied it assidiously and came to fatally wrong conclusions. We are given the fuller light of the NT that through it we may rightly grasp the OT.

Yours with Christ's love


Lisa said...

I am with you John. Faith is not a work when it is based on what Christ has done and our own inability to help ourselves. Believing in a Doctor who heals me does not give me reason to think I am a physician. You are distorting faith in Christ to effectively make it faith in our abiility to have faith. This is no longer faith in Christ ALONE! Illogical!

Yes, it is difficult to see some of these things in the OT...but Paul did refer to Jesus as the secret,kept hidden through the ages that has now been made known. And yet, as John says, Hebrews 11 in particular highlights that faith has always been a factor.

Steven, you have suggested that others are not doing justice to scripture. You wrestle with some issues I have wrestled with, and I did not find answers in the WCF to my questions! But I have not had to go to some of the places you are trying to go to find the answers.

I believe that scripture is clear that faith in Jesus results in a change of our hearts and a new Spirit that enables us to follow God's commands. Faith first, lived out in word and action. IMO you still try to put the horse before the cart!


Dave said...

Sorry, I was logged on under my wife still!

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John and Dave,

I am not keen to assert any aspect per se. I have no personal preference one way or the other. I am simply seeking to understand Paul in a manner consistent with the gospel as prophesied in the Old Testament, because Paul himself points us there in Rom 1:2. He also points us there through his extensive use of Old Testament quotations. It would be a lot easier for me professionally speaking if I could say what you say. That is, after all, more or less the popular position (at least in my circles).

Given the confusion that exists over Paul’s teaching, and given Peter’s words of warning in 2 Pet 3:16 about how difficult Paul is to understand, surely we need to take a step back and see what the rest of Scripture is saying. There are Christians of good will on all sides, and all of us are struggling. Can anyone honestly say that they find Paul easy to understand? If you think that he is, it seems to me that you haven’t read the rest of Scripture seriously.

Say we didn’t have Paul’s writings as part of Scripture, would you end up with the same system that you are advocating? If not, don’t you find it strange that your system only exists thanks to Paul? Where do we find Moses, or the prophets, or Jesus, or Peter, or John speaking in this way?

You put a lot of weight on Hebrews and Rom 4:1-8, but what about the rest of Scripture? I (and others) have argued elsewhere that the use of the term faith in Hebrews is not the same as Paul’s usage. What we need to do is to take a look at Rom 4:1-8 in more detail. I have few thoughts that I’ll seek to post in the next few days. There is more that is happening in Rom 4:1-8 than you are suggesting.

As for Dave’s comment, to work out whether faith is not a work, you need to define what a work is in Paul’s usage. Can you give me a definition?

It is one thing to believe in a doctor and to know that you personally are not the one who heals you, but will mere faith in the doctor save you? You have to submit yourself to the operation or drink the medicine in order to be healed.

All I am saying is that faith in the Old Testament sense of the word says yes to whatever it is that God reveals. Faith says amen to the whole counsel of God. It receives the totality of God’s revelation into the heart. And because the heart naturally determines the man, in the Old Testament faith as the reception of God’s word into the heart was not distinguished from its inevitable effects.

If Paul is introducing a finer distinction, using the term faith in a way that is no longer holistic, you need to explain why in a way that makes logical sense. Neither of you have explained how faith alone prevents human boasting or legalism any more than faithfulness does.

Faith alone can only prevent boasting if faith is defined as excluding boasting by definition. But if you have the right to define faith in that way, I also have the right to define faithfulness as excluding boasting.

God also commands us to believe. So how can faith alone escape the charge of legalism?

Lisa said...

Steve, I really am sorry that you have suffered because of your wrestle with scripture. I certainly do not mean to cause you more pain! I am trying to stay away from blogging at the moment so I will try and be brief while I break my blog fast.
You asked me to define a work in Paul’s usage. I would say anything that was done to earn ones salvation. This IS legalism.
Yes, mere faith will save me if I submit to an operation, as I am not going to let someone stick a needle in me, knock me out and cut me open if I do not believe that THEY can heal me. Will I have healed me? No! Can I believe that my submitting to the operation is a reason for boasting? I do not see how. If I am unconscious (sort of like being dead in my transgressions!) how can I have contributed to my own salvation?
You said, “All I am saying is that faith in the Old Testament sense of the word says yes to whatever it is that God reveals. Faith says amen to the whole counsel of God. It receives the totality of God’s revelation into the heart. And because the heart naturally determines the man, in the Old Testament faith as the reception of God’s word into the heart was not distinguished from its inevitable effects.”
If that was all you were saying I would agree with you. But you are saying more Steve.
“Neither of you have explained how faith alone prevents human boasting or legalism any more than faithfulness does.”
Sorry, I thought we had! ;-) Let me try again. If works are something that we do to contribute to our salvation, then they will be what is important. The result is that we become legalistic. Legalism is being concerned about what we do (rituals, traditions. Laws). Legalism effectively places faith in the things that we do.
Faith in Jesus, however, is belief not in what we do, but in what Jesus has done in purchasing our salvation. The act of our belief/faith does not change whether or not Jesus has done it – he already has. But we need to understand that faith in Christ excludes legalism because faith in Christ recognises that we cannot contribute to our salvation and it recognises that salvation is found in Christ alone.
People have introduced faith in Christ plus works for salvation, but all this has done is diminish faith. Paul in Galatians suggests that if you are going to return to legalism with regards to one thing, then you return fully to the law and lose what faith in Christ has gained.
We are also told that if we judge others (place them under legalism) then we too will be judged in that same way.

Dave said...

Sorry, that was Dave...

John Thomson said...


I don't see much way round this impasse. I am obviously with Dave on this issue.

Arguably, from your position, Paul may well be preaching a distinction between faith and obedience since you believe that he was teaching something different from the other apostles that they found hard to understand; perhaps this something was 'justification by faith' as more traditionally defined.

Coming from a more general perspective what do you see as the difference between promise and law?

Why is it when Israel sins that Moses finds hope, not in the covenant of law, but in the covenants with their fathers?

Is there not self-evidentlyan anthropological difference between 'do this and live' and 'the just shall live by faith'?

John Thomson said...

To ask another question, what is faith in law?

What is saving in a covenant that cannot be kept?

I ask these questions a bit forlornly for I know you are likely to see no need for faith in law and I think you believe that in some way the law could be kept - despite the OT story of exile and curse.

Joseph said...

Paul said faith cannot be a grounds for boasting. God's Word says faith excludes boasting:

"Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith." Romans 3:27

How is that not absolutely, rock solidly clear and Biblical? How can there even be any discussion on this point? It just seems totally clear to me?

Now if you ask why faith excludes boasting and works do not, maybe that's a discussion.

I think faith excludes boasting and is the only proper instrument of salvation because it is the only virtue that totally and wholly looks away from itself and embraces Christ as its all in all.


Joseph said...


faith, by its very essence, nature, and definition, cannot boast in itself. The moment it boasts in itself, it ceases to be faith.

See John Piper on this:

"First, boasting is excluded by faith. Romans 3:27, "Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith." Why does faith exclude boasting? The reason is not merely because faith is a gift of God, which it is. But so are all the fruits of the Spirit. Yet they do not all exclude boasting in the same way. Faith is unique among all the acts of the soul. It is the weakest and most helpless and most empty-handed act of the soul. It is all dependence on Another. In a sense, it is an acted non-act.

Let me explain. I mean it is an inclination of the soul to seek help with no expectation that any inclination of the soul is good enough to obtain help, not even the inclination of faith. It is unique among all the acts of the soul. Since it is empty-handed, it is not like a virtue. It looks to the virtue of another. It looks to the strength of another. It looks to the wisdom of another. It is entirely other-directed and other-dependent. Therefore, it can't boast in itself, for it can't even look at itself. It is the kind of thing that in a sense has no "self." As soon as the unique act of the soul exists it is attached to another from whom it gets all its reality."

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, guys, for putting up with me.

By the way, I do believe that faith excludes boasting. But the boasting that Paul has in mind in Romans is particularly Jewish boasting in their chosen status under the Mosaic covenant. Paul tells us what the boasting is that he has as his target in Rom 2:

“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (Rom 2:17-23).

Paul has in mind Jewish boasting in their own status as the chosen people, Jewish boasting in the righteousness of following the Mosaic law. Why, in the middle of his discussion about boasting in 3:27-31, does Paul all of a sudden ask if God is the God of the Gentiles too? The law of faith that excludes Jewish boasting is the gospel which breaks down Israel’s privilege as the chosen people by opening the way for Gentiles to come into covenant membership.

My post was critiquing the illogicality of the common argument that faith excludes boasting whereas obedience doesn’t. Faith is just as much a human action as obedience is, and true obedience relies on God’s grace just as much as faith without works does. Please note in this regard that Jesus speaks about obedience as being necessary but non-meritorious (Luke 17:10). Applying this to Old Testament Israel, covenant obedience or a holistic concept of faith is merely doing one’s duty. There is nothing meritorious about it. If true obedience (which includes walking humbly with one’s God, which by definition excludes boasting) is non-meritorious, then it is not earning one’s salvation. It is not, therefore, legalism according to Dave’s definition.

You also need to take on board the following. Mental process verbs in Biblical Hebrew are often holistic. I’ll give a few examples: God remembering his covenant involves God acting to fulfill his covenant promises; listening to God’s voice means obeying God. Likewise, for the ancient Hebrews, believing God meant accepting God’s revelation into the heart, which naturally works itself out in obedience, because the heart is the control center of the human person. When they thought of faith, they thought of that as including keeping covenant with God. Do you accept this a legitimate understanding of the way that emunah was used in the Hebrew language? How does such emunah give ground for boasting any more than your non-holistic concept of faith?

As for John’s difficulty with accepting the possibility of people keeping covenant with God, how do you explain that Abraham is described in Gen 26:5 as a keeper of torah? How do you explain Ps 44:17-18?

“All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way.”

The psalmist in Ps 44 says that they have been true to the covenant with God, and that they have not departed from God’s law. Do you reject the plain sense of what is being said in Ps 44:17-18?

Concerning the obvious anthropological difference between “do this and live” and “the righteous will live by faith,” are you suggesting, John, that the Hebrew word emunah in Hab 2:4 does not mean faithfulness? If you are, you are going against the virtually unanimous opinion of Hebrew scholarship in doing so.

Steven Coxhead said...

The moment that a holistic concept of faith boasts in itself, it also ceases to be faith.

Steven Coxhead said...

By the way, the concept of the righteousness of God in OT Hebrew thinking is also a holistic concept. The righteousness of God is not just an aspect of God's righteous character, but it includes the idea of this characteristic of God being activated (i.e., revealed) in the world.

Steven Coxhead said...

Piper says that faith is the weakest act of the soul, an act that is virtually a non-act. In other words, it's the most minimal human act possible.

Is that how Paul understood the meaning of emunah in Hab 2:4? If so, he has changed the original meaning of Hab 2:4 drastically.

Where does the Old Testament teach a concept of faith that is acted non-act? Or didn't they need to know that vital information back then?

The book of Deuteronomy comprises the last four sermons of Moses' life in which he spells out the way of salvation for Israel. Yet the noun emunah appears only once in the whole book! And even then it is used to describe God's faithfulness (Deut 32:4). Why not one word about the importance of faith?

In fact, when he gets to his climax, calling upon Israel to choose life, what does he mention? Obedience to God's commandments (Deut 30:16, 20)! Don't you find this strange? Either Moses is correct about obedience as the way of life, or else he didn't know better, or he deliberately mislead the people.

Joseph said...

I would at least change the title of the post if you do believe faith cuts the root of legalism and boasting.

As to your last points, that's easy for those of us who believe the Mosaic Covenant contained a works principle! Of course you don't find emunah anywhere! The righteousness which Moses spoke of said do and live! But praise God for the New Covenant! The law is not of faith! But now that faith has come, we can be saved by faith alone!

If you are going to univocally equate faith and obedience, I would sit on it for about 50 years before I would go into print with it. For the sake of the Church.

Just a friendly suggestion. We teachers will be held to a stricter judgment.

John Thomson said...


By the way, I do believe that faith excludes boasting. But the boasting that Paul has in mind in Romans is particularly Jewish boasting in their chosen status under the Mosaic covenant.

True but not true enough. To rely on the law contains not only possession ogf the law but performance of law. This is certainly in Paul's circumference of boasting in Ch 3,4.

Rom 3:27-28 (ESV)
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

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.

Boasting is not merely about possession but performance.

Re Deuteromomies silence on faith as Joseph says that's precisely what from our perspective we expect. The law is not of faith Gals 3:12).

Gal 3:2 (ESV)
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Gal 3:5-6 (ESV)
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith- just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Paul's contrast is 'works of law' and 'hearing of faith'. Hearing of faithfulness just doesn't make sense. Roms 10 makes the same point locating justification in believing the message.

And yes, I do believe that 'the just shall live by faith' has at the forefront faith not faithfulness - certainly in the NT and also in the OT. Many scholars disagree with you but I do not sit in thrall to scholarship. Scholarly concensus has got it wrong and disasterously so in the past I have no confidence they will not continue to do so. If scholarly ideas confirm the teaching of Scripture that seems to me plain I applaud it, if it doesn't I reserve my judgement. Scholars have fads as you know better than me Steven.

Yes faith and righteousness have holistic implications I and as far as I can judge the others on this thread have not said otherwise but both have also specific implications. All the ideas of righteousness are not intended in any given use. At one point consistency with his character is in view and at another time a specific action. This just further proves the point that faith may have the object of faith to the fore or it may have faithfulness.

The law said, 'Do this and live'. The gospel says, 'Live and do this'. The difference is as absolute as it is anthropological.

As to why God should give a covenant of works that Israel could not keep - the self evident message of the OT -we are closed up to the NT to supply an answer which it does. The answer includes law was given to a people 'in the flesh'; a people in immaturity not sonship. It was intended to give a knowledge of sin, restrain gross evil, and create a longing for the liberty of sonship.

To be cont.

John Thomson said...

But you know all this Steven, you simply won't admit it to yourself because of a determination to understand the OT according to your lights rather than NT lights. Have you boxed yourself into a corner you feel you cannot escape from?

Those who kept covenant did so by virtue not of the covenant but circumcised hearts and as I pointed out even then their keeping is not strictly keeping for as Ps 143 points out their is none righteous. In fact it is to the law (the psalms) that Paul turns to make just this point. None righteous not even one. However we understand these texts of covenant keeping it has to be within this framework. I do not say these texts do not present challenges, I only argue that your solution has insurmountably more problems in my view than conventional solutions. Conventional solutions my be wrong and at times may need nuanced but like cliches they are conventional simply because they express a truth that the vast majority of people over history have found acceptable. This does not make them correct but it means we should think carefully before denying them. For me, again, your weakness is your hermeneutic and until you can bring yourself to modify it and allow that the shade of the OT requires the sun of the NT to clarify and define what it teaches you will continue to, forgive the metaphor, stumble around in the shadow on this matter.

I stumble around in many matters myself. I am ignorant of much due to many shortcomings and not just my small brain and so I am not trying to claim some kind of superiority but there is a wilfulness in your hermeneutic that seems pervers

Dave said...

First up, Steve you asked the following, “As for Dave’s comment, to work out whether faith is not a work, you need to define what a work is in Paul’s usage. Can you give me a definition?”

I gave you a definition of PAUL’S usage and noted that it was indeed legalism that he was addressing. You then refer to OT ideaology of works not being meritorious and conclude that my definition is wrong! I stand by my definition of ‘works’ in Paul’s usage and that it was legalism that he was addressing.

To be blunt Steve, I am cranky. I am cranky because you are completely ruining my blogfast! I think I need to highlight some observations.

Steve, I agree with much of what you say. I also see why you think that much thinking on these issues within the church is deficient. I also believe that one cannot rest on the “shoulders of giants”, simply accepting without testing what those who have gone before have said. The danger is that you might end up standing on the shoulders of idiots and end up looking like a bigger idiot! But you still do not seem to understand where we agree.

So, I think we are going around in big circles, and one of the reasons is that it appears you are not listening to what some of us are saying, but rather assuming that we think the same as the rest of the reformed church in every way (this is my conclusion). I say this because you keep saying things as though they prove your point which I agree with...but they do not prove your point. Joseph suggested you wait 50 years before publishing these thoughts. I do not want to wait till I am 89 to continue the discussion (though my blogfast might be over by then...again). My suggestion would be instead to listen to what others are saying. I certainly do not feel like you have listened to me in this discussion. If you had, then you would not be trying to argue against me using statements that I believe! The, perhaps John is correct. Perhaps you have found yourself in a corner?

Steven Coxhead said...

I'll have a think about changing my title to make it clearer.

Following Joseph's idea, the whole of the book of Deuteronomy is about the works principle with hardly anything on how Israel were to be saved by faith alone? Was Moses not concerned about the eternal salvation of his audience?

About the meaning of emunah, that is not a fad. It has been the dominant understanding since the commencement of modern Hebrew scholarship. It's a matter of the meaning of the Hebrew, not theology per se.

John, I'm sad that you think I am being perversely willful. In the end it is for God to judge my motivation in all of this, and it is for God to decide who is right and who is wrong. I haven't come to this position without serious thought. If you knew some of the things that this has cost me, perhaps you'd be a bit more sympathetic. But, as I said, God knows my motivation.

I have been emphasizing the Old Testament, but it's not just in the Old Testament that we find this problem. A subsequent post on Jesus' teaching will endeavor to show this.

Yes, those who kept covenant with God did so because their hearts were circumcised, but the covenant they kept was the Mosaic one! That is a fact of history. The new covenant didn't begin until Christ's resurrection. My point is that some individuals, according to God's grace at work in them, kept the Mosaic covenant. To say that they kept the new covenant in the old is distorting the historical progression of God's covenants. And yes, such keeping of the covenant was not perfect. I have always spoken of such covenant keeping as covenant obedience, which I contrast with absolute obedience. Such believers are sinful, yet righteous according to the covenant.

Thanks, Dave, for your comments, and sorry for ruining your blogfast. I hope I'm understanding you, Dave, more or less. I acknowledge that you have your distinctives. Not everything I say here is directed at you. I'd like to think that I am willing to listen. The problem is that we all have our paradigms, and it's hard to communicate things without misunderstanding. But I reckon my paradigm is in the minority. So the chances are that I understand you guys more than you do me. After your blogfast, Dave, feel free to join in the conversation again.

In the end, guys, all theological discussion among Christians should be to help each other understand more about God and his word. I trust that we are on the same journey, heading to the same ultimate destination. The way we treat each other should reflect that.

Let me tell you my experience when it comes to theological disagreements. I have been accused before of distorting grace by people who haven't shown themselves to be very gracious. If I have shown myself to be more gracious than they, who understands grace? That's my word of advice for all of us, including myself. You will know them by their fruit.

John Thomson said...


I,m sorry if I came across too strongly. I mean't perversely wilful in your commitment to this hermeneutic of privileging the OT not as a general statement about your attitude to faith and practice.

And I agree they worked out the implications of a circumcised heart within the context of redemptive-history in which they lived. My simple point is that the law didn't circumcise their hearts, the gospel did; hearing OT promise by faith did, faith the mosaic covenant did not require or supply - it required works and supplied nothing. Thus the fulfilment of the law by the OT remnant has some similarities to NC believers.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, I understand your position; and I do appreciate your efforts to help me grow in my understanding. I hope that thinking about these things is beneficial for everyone concerned.

I keep coming back to this. The only "gospel" that Israel knew was delivered to them through Moses and the prophets. When the word of God is defined as law (and vice versa), which is typically how it is under the Mosaic covenant (see Isa 1:10; 2:3; 5:24), then I don't think it's as easy to distinguish law from gospel as you are suggesting.

There are prophecies of the new covenant in Deuteronomy (e.g., Deut 30:1-14). Are these gospel or law? I can see why you want to divide torah up into two parts for the sake of your system of theology, but the problem is that Moses taught that the whole law (all this commandment--e.g., Deut 6:25; 11:22--which comprises the literary forms of command, promise, and warning) was Israel's life.

Show me gospel in the Mosaic revelation that isn't embedded as part of torah, and I'll happily accept your distinction.

Let me ask another question. Is the law that will be written on the heart as per Jer 31:33 law or gospel? If you say law in contrast to gospel, then please explain Paul's logic in Rom 10:8 for me. How can Paul take law (i.e., this commandment) in Deut 30:11, and say that this is the word of faith that he preaches?

In Rom 10:6-8 Paul identifies law and gospel. The commandment/word of Deut 30:11, 14 will be in your mouth and in your heart ... to do it. But, according to Paul, this word is the gospel. The gospel is the command that will be in our hearts to do it and live. How does the equation of law with gospel in Rom 10:6-8 fit into your system? I am interested to know.

John Thomson said...


Just a few comments since most of this we have previously discussed.

Paul himself distinguishes between Promise and Law in various places. Promise for Paul is rooted in the Abrahamic covenant that continued to be in force throughout the period of law finding its fulfilment in the NC. When Israel fail it is regularly to this promise they turn as the basis of salvation (that is, Moses and the prophets. Much of what the prophets write is not merely an enlargement of the Mosaic covenant but of the promise covenant(s).

For Paul the formal basis of the Law is a covenant of works 'this do and live'; the NC, the gospel covenant (contrasting with the principle of the Mosaic and in continuity with that of the Abrahamic) is 'Live and this do'.

The 'continuity' between the OC and NC is the impossibility of keeping the OC (and external demand on uncircumcised hearts - hearts in the flesh) is replaced by the possibility of the NC - the word is nign and in your mouth.

Deut 30 as we have discussed and agreed before describes a gospel people with circumcised hearts. To them through the Spirit the life of righteousness is open). Deut 30 does not describe how their hearts are circumcised. Roms 10 does. The word of God does not come to them as a word of law but is transformed into a word of grace; it comes not as a 'do the impossible' reah up to heaven etc biut as the impossible done 'Christ has come down'. It is a word not of law that leads to death but a gospel word which gives life. I have not given texts for this for we have discussed texts before and I hope any other biblically intelligent reader will see the references in the language used. Thus Law morphs into gospel; however, it is now gospel and not law, it is NC and not OC.

Is all this clear in the OT? It certainly is now that the Spirit has given us the NT insight on how both promise (Abrahamic) and law (mosaic) covenants reach fulfilment in Christ. In the former fulfilment is linear, in the latter fulfilment is by contrast (not sure that this is the best word, any better would be appreciated).

Brief comments and not likely to persuade I know.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John.

Law morphs into gospel, but it is still law. In the outworking of salvation history, the law written on the heart in Jer 31:33 is in reality the gospel. But the prophecy is that the law will be written on the heart. We have to say, therefore, that gospel and law are interchangeable concepts at this point.

And the gospel can also be described as law by Paul. Paul expresses this when he speaks of the gospel as the law of faith (Rom 3:27), as the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2), and as the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21).

It seems to me that your use of the term law is monochrome, whereas it the Scriptures it is more flexible and dualistic, which led Calvin to distinguish between bare law (nuda lex) and whole law (tota lex). Law is more flexible in the Scriptures, because in orthodox Hebrew thinking God’s word is law, because God is King and Judge. Whatever the King pronounces (whether it be command, promise, or warning) can be viewed as coming under the broad category of law, i.e., that which the King/Judge has spoken.

It seems to me that in your system law is purely negative. Hence your problem with Ps 119 and other parts of Scripture where the law is spoken of in a more positive way. I encourage you to conduct a study of how the word law is actually used in the Scriptures. Luther’s equation of law only with command is not true to how the term law is actually used in Scripture. As someone who is concerned about scholarly opinions getting in the way of Scripture, it would be good for you to double-check this. Your thinking on law seems to me more Lutheran than biblical at this point.

John Thomson said...


Of ourse I accept that the word law is used in a variety of ways however we have regularly been discussing law and gospel in their covenantal sense; law as OC and gospel as NC. I took the other uses as read. I emphatically do not mean the lutheran sense.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hmm. Perhaps we have been miscommunicating a bit, since I've been using the term more flexibly (trying to mimic the biblical usage).

If you strictly mean old covenant by the term law, then I have to agree that the law has a negative function with the sole caveat that the law written on the heart of the faithful remnant was positive in a promissory sense, i.e., as the Mosaic revelation (which includes the promises concerning future salvation) was received into their hearts, this was effectively gospel to them.

Are you aware of the difference between the Lutheran idea of the object of faith being promise alone and the traditional Reformed idea that the object of faith is the whole word of God with the focal point being God's mercy? I obviously go for the latter.

John Thomson said...


I do not subscribe to the traditional lutheran view - as I understand it - namely, the atemporal view that all that is promise is gospel and al that is command is law. I am sure what the Reformed view is since at times it seems Reformed people have differing views on 'law'. I accept that the 'law' can be used in a variety of ways, though to my mind normally, and especially so in Romans and Galatians, the use is redemptive-historical and refers to the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works. However, where any at any point in history are inclined to seek favour with God through a principle of 'works'(this do and live, bootstraps righteousness) rather than faith (a belief in God's promised salvation; grace righteousness) then Paul's criticisms of OC Law-righteousness in principle applies to them.

Jeff Miller said...

Thanks for this post, a great window into your ongoing scholarly discussion.
If faith is loyalty or loyal acknowledgment then Paul can, and does, make the acceptable argument addressing the anthropological problem…(God owes me salvation) but this is an argument he expects his opponents to be in agreement with based on their claimed submission to the O.T. The reason he makes this reasonable argument is so that he can less offensively lead them to the proper response to the historical-redemptive argument that Jesus is THE FAITH that has come. Thereby giving traction to Paul’s position that loyalty to God demonstrated by loyalty to Jesus Christ is the appropriate displacement of loyalty to God demonstrated by loyalty to the Law of Moses.
Loyalty and loyal acknowledgment to a person can be appropriate even without signs of that person’s graciousness in return. “If you are willing, YOU can make me clean” is a proper manifestation of loyal-acknowledgment.
Your criticism strikes its target if “faith” is a certainty or unswerving trust that God is now legally bound to count one as legitimate so that I might require of God my verdict: “legitimate”, but loyalty ain’t like that.
Loyalty carries one to an obedience to the God who has given His Word, (the obedience of faith?) loyalty is what carries one; especially as he or she lacks the confidence of successful compliance to what may have become an impersonal standard. Jesus, having joined himself to a people deserving wrath, a people without the confidence of compliance, became a lack of compliance himself, yet pressed on in the obedience of faith thus pleasing God without sin. I am united to Christ, His life, death, and resurrection by my loyalty to Him. God has been loyal to Israel and Israel has been loyal to God…both in THE LOYALTY –Jesus Christ. Everyone we meet should be loyal to Jesus Christ. He is worthy of loyalty. The anthropological and historical-redemptive problems are resolved

Jeff Miller said...

Maybe I should have said "Thereby giving traction to Paul’s position that loyalty to God demonstrated by loyalty to Jesus Christ is the appropriate displacement of loyalty to God demonstrated by adherence to to the Law of Moses."

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for your comment. Glad that you’ve enjoyed some of the discussion.

About the issue of God legalism, my view is that the historical issue of the day was not so much “God owes me salvation” or “I’ll work for my salvation,” but the problem of the Judaizers restricting righteousness and salvation to membership in the Mosaic covenant (Acts 15:1, 5). Their motivation for doing this was their loyalty to Moses and the law.

But you are right to say that there is an anthropological issue involved. I acknowledge that salvation history has been structured in order to emphasize God’s role in salvation. The Mosaic covenant is a little bit like God saying: Okay, let’s see if Israel can keep covenant with me. Of course, as a nation they don’t; but this then opens the way for Jesus to come to turn the situation around, meaning that the focus is squarely on God as the one who saves the day. But he does so by working faith/loyalty in his people through the power of the Spirit. God’s people must keep covenant with him, but they can only do so as God writes his law on their hearts.