Monday, August 22, 2011

The Meaning of Justification by Faith versus Justification by the Works of the Law in the Historical Context of the Early Church

One of the problems in dealing with the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith versus justification by works is the common assumption that Paul was talking about works and law in general. But this is to ignore the historical particularity in which the epistles to the Galatians and the Romans were written.

The wider historical and theological context in which Paul functioned was dominated by Jewish views about justification and the Jewish response to Jesus. There is clear evidence from the New Testament that the main theological issue that the early church had to grapple with was the place of the law of Moses in God’s purposes of salvation. There is also clear evidence from the New Testament that the orthodox Jewish view about salvation at the time was that people were saved by keeping the Mosaic covenant. This is the covenant that God had entered into with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, which was renewed and expanded on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land. Following the teaching of Moses in Deut 6:25, the orthodox Jews of the first century understood that obedience to the law of Moses constituted their individual and national righteousness before God. In other words, a right covenant response led to the enjoyment of a status of covenant righteousness. The key to understanding Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans lies in understanding that this orthodox Jewish belief about righteousness was known in Jewish circles as justification by the works of the law.

Justification proper denotes a judicial pronouncement that the defendant before the court is innocent of wrongdoing, that he or she is in the right as far as the law of the court is concerned. From this emerges a related sense of the term justification which focuses on the resultant legal status of the person in question. Being justified by the judge, the defendant enjoys the legal status of righteousness. Justification can also denote, therefore, the state of being justified; and this is the primary sense of the term in the way that it was used in the early church. The issue of the day was: how can people be right with God; how do we need to respond to God today in order to be right with God (i.e., to hear his public verdict of justification) on the day of judgment? The debate in the early church about justification was ultimately, therefore, a debate about how people can be in a right relationship with God.

Given the orthodox Jewish view of justification, it is not surprising that a significant number of early Christians (primarily of Jewish origin) also believed that justification came through keeping the law of Moses. In believing this, they were being consistent with the orthodox Jewish tradition with which they were familiar; and this was the primary motivation behind the push on the part of the Christian Judaizers, that Gentile converts needed to become Jews and to follow the law of Moses to be saved. The summary of the content of the teaching of Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Acts 15:1, 5 is clear evidence for this. But as the decision of the Jerusalem Council clearly delineated, the apostolic belief of the early church was that, following the coming of Jesus and the commencement of the new covenant, the means of justification in the new covenant age is faith in Jesus rather than obedience to the law of Moses. This orthodox Christian belief came to be known as justification by faith by way of contrast to the traditional Jewish view of justification by the works of the law. Failing to understand the meaning of these terms in their historical context will distort our interpretation of Paul.

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