Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Apostle Paul's Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Gospel

I make the point again: the key to understanding Paul’s teaching on law and gospel is found in the Old Testament. Paul makes the claim in Rom 1:1–2 that his gospel was “the gospel of God that [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” As far as Paul was concerned, his gospel was nothing other than the gospel proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets. But what exactly did the Old Testament prophets prophesy concerning the gospel?

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the Old Testament view of the gospel:

“[T]he failure of Israel to keep her covenantal obligation before God led to the emergence of the Old Testament prophetic hope, which looked forward to the time when Israel would finally be enabled by God to keep her side of the covenant arrangement, in order that the promised covenant blessing of eternal life might finally be realized. Thus, in the light of the historic failure of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, the Old Testament prophets looked forward to the time of the new covenant, when God would transform and circumcise the hearts of his people (Deut 30:6; Ezek 36:26) and place his law within (Jer 31:33), thereby enabling his people to keep covenant with him (Jer 31:31-32) through obedience to the law (Deut 30:6, 8, 10-14; Ezek 36:27), in order that they might finally receive the fullness of the covenant blessing that God had promised to the righteous of Israel back in the beginning (Lev 26:3-13) and to those among the nations who would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3) by coming in submission to Israel’s Messiah (Ps 2:10-12)” (p. 129).

In other words, the gospel according to the Old Testament centers on the idea that God would enable Israel and the nations (through the work of Christ and the Spirit) to return in covenant obedience to himself.

“If the gospel according to the Old Testament speaks of God enabling the covenant obedience of his people such that they will keep covenant with him and receive the blessing of the covenant as a result, then surely it is wrong to interpret Paul in such a way that he is made to contradict this Old Testament understanding of the gospel” (p. 129).

“To teach or to give the impression that the gospel is only about the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as if there no longer remains any place for the covenant righteousness of the believer in the process of justification under the new covenant is actually a simplification and distortion of the gospel as ‘promised beforehand’ in the Old Testament” (p. 130).

In other words, the Old Testament prophets looked forward to the time when the law would be written on the hearts of the chosen from Israel and the nations, in order that they might be obedient to God, and consequently receive justification on the level of the covenant through the divine judicial declaration (to be proclaimed in a public way ultimately on the day of judgment but preempted today in the gospel ministry of the church) that believers have fulfilled their covenant obligations of faithful service to God (in the context of divine grace) through their submission to the Messiah Jesus (which the early church called faith). Those who are righteous on the level of the covenant have the privilege of sharing in the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, their sins being covered by his perfection.

The law may have been primarily negative for old covenant Israel, but the Old Testament prophets viewed new covenant law as gospel! That is to say, for the Old Testament prophets, the function of torah in the new covenant age is primarily positive. Therefore, to interpret Paul through a black-and-white law versus gospel theological grid makes Paul not only contradict the Old Testament prophets, but also his own claim in Rom 1:1–2 that his gospel was “the gospel of God that he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” Law and gospel are not rightly divided by keeping them apart; they are rightly divided by proclaiming their unity in Christ. As the eternal Word of God, Christ is the embodiment of evangelical torah.


Tim said...

Hi Steven,
You may enjoy this link. He quotes you and Sailhamer at one point.
WELLS, KYLE,BRANDON (2010) Grace, Obedience, and the Hermeneutics of Agency: Paul and his
Jewish Contemporaries on the Transformation of the Heart. Doctoral thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online:


Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Tim. That is a very interesting dissertation. Thanks for pointing it out.

I like this part of Kyle Wells’s abstract:

“While post-Sanders scholarship has rightly noted the coexistence of grace and works in the Pauline and Jewish literature, it has failed to account for the diverse and sophisticated ways in which those two concepts can coexist. Following recent intertextual studies, this thesis argues that ancient Jews read descriptions of ‘heart-transformation’ in Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31–32 and Ezekiel 36 as the solution to human ineptitude. Paul was no exception and his reading of those texts had a profound influence on his articulations of divine grace and human agency.”

I have also argued for a number of years now that Deut 30:1–14; Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26–28 were key texts for Paul. Plus the Old Testament view is that covenant obedience is a condition for experiencing atonement and the other blessings of the covenant. In other words, the Old Testament teaches a doctrine of the justification and salvation of the (sinful) righteous, and the condemnation of the (sinful) wicked.

“For Yahweh is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps 11:7).

“Who shall ascend the hill of Yahweh? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from Yahweh and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Ps 24:3–5).

“For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but Yahweh upholds the righteous” (Ps 37:7).

“But the steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Ps 103:17–18).

It seems to me like the pattern set up by the Old Testament is grace → faith/obedience → grace rather than just grace → faith → obedience as is commonly taught.

Renton said...

Hi brother!
I apologize for my English, so Catalan is my mother tongue.

Allow me to disagree with what you said.
The 'Good News' that the prophets -including Moses- prophesied in the Old Covenant was the restoration of the Good Order of God, the return to the edenic age, when God Himself lived in comunion (Common-Union) with mankind.

The Good News was that God -through the seed of the woman, the Messiah- was going to undo the 'works of the Devil'.

That's why God chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and so on, so they were the means through God would send the Messiah and fulfill His pomise.

God bless you!

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Renton! Yes, I agree with what you have written. My comments in the blog post, however, relate more to the prophetic emphasis from the eighth century B.C. onwards.

God bless!