Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 3: The Covenantal God

In the last post, we looked at how Paul’s “Jewishness” influenced his theology. Paul didn’t leave behind his Jewish framework (drawing from a very strict sect of Pharisaism), but rather, his whole framework was reframed around the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. One important tenet of first-century Judaism was the idea of a God who has a covenant with his people. And this was, indeed, another tenet of Paul’s faith that was radically reframed and rethought in light of Paul’s revelation of Jesus.

The big covenant that provides the meta-narrative of Scripture is found in Genesis 12. In verse 2-3, God says to Abra[ha]m, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In fact, Paul even quotes the latter part of this in Galatians 3:8 and says that, as God was saying this, he was preaching the gospel to Abraham! In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be.” In essence, and explained elsewhere, the point of the promise of God to Abraham was to reverse all that had been done in the fall of Adam, consummating in the Tower of Babel.

It was this covenant that was made with Abraham that drives the whole Old Testament narrative. The idea of exile and restoration dominates the themes of the OT writers. N.T. Wright notes, “Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden; Abraham is promised the Land. Jacob and his family are enslaved to Egypt; Moses and Joshua lead them through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan, home of their inheritance. David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, and is brought back after a great but tragic victory. Israel is dragged away captive to Babylon, and then promised a return…

In other words, God was constantly proving his faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham. In fact, there is a word that is usually used in the context of this covenant faithfulness of God in relation to his people: “righteousness”. For some reason (especially post-Reformation), righteousness has come to mean (and can indeed actually be defined as) a moral attribute. However, though space does not allow for this to be explained, understanding God’s own righteousness as his faithfulness to the covenant he has with his people changes one’s entire reading of Scripture. And it, in my opinion, allows for things to fall in place a lot more cleanly.

This is why Daniel ties in God’s righteousness directly with his faithfulness to his covenant and this prolonging theme of exile and restoration. Daniel 9:4 mentions God’s covenant, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant,” and later in verse 7 it says, To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.” God’s righteousness is played off directly against his people being driven out of their land. Verses 11-14 reference Deuteronomy 27-30, one of the great covenant passages of the Torah. The exile is the curse of not being faithful to God’s covenant. Verse 14 speaks of the fact that God is righteous is all his acts (obviously not meaning “morally virtuous”). Israel appeals to the faithful God that brought them out of Egypt. They are saying this: we have done wrong, but always do right. This is language of the covenant.

Many Jews in the first century saw themselves as being in a prolonged state of exile, going back to Babylon and still continuing under Rome (which is referred to as “Babylon” in other works, such as 4 Ezra). The questions to the Jews of that time is, “How can God still be faithful to his covenant?” The scandal that Paul was introducing was that God had indeed been faithful to his covenant, but it was in a radically different way than they had imagined. Jesus has now come and delivered them from sin and death. This great exile that has occurred since Adam’s sin in the garden had now been dealt with. God’s chosen people is not just ethnic Israel, but has moved to Jew and Gentile alike, from all across the world. God had stayed true to his original covenant to Abraham, that “in [him] all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God is faithful to his covenant and, therefore, he is righteous.

The most significant passage pertaining to this is Romans 3:21-26:

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. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

So, now, God’s covenant faithfulness has been manifested apart from keeping the law, as was the case in Daniel. Now, God has stayed faithful to his covenant with Abraham, and he has done so through Jesus Christ (verse 22 can be translated “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, which fits). All of this was the show God’s righteousness, because he had passed over sin but now he has dealt with it. He has now showed that he is just (same word as righteous, “in the right”) and the justifier. God is a righteous God.

So then, if God is just and the justifier, what does it mean for God to “justify” someone? This we shall explore in the next post.

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