Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 4: Justification as Covenant Membership

O, the great exchange that Luther spoke of as justification! He declared, “Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine.” In one decisive act, which was the cross of Christ, Luther declared that we traded our sin for Jesus’ righteousness, our sin imputed to him as his righteousness was imputed to us.

However, did Luther get it right? Is this what Paul meant as he wrote of justification in his letters? In the last post, we explored the definition of the righteousness of God. It is the glorious good news of the faithfulness of God to his covenant. We’ve also seen that first century Judaism was not, prior to popular thought, a religion and system of works-based righteousness. In addition, when Paul did convert to Christianity, he did not leave his Jewish framework behind, but rather, it was radically reframed and redefined in the person of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel. With all of that in mind, what did Paul mean when spoke of justification?

Justification is a huge topic that requires much explanation and exegesis. In this post, then, I will talk about the covenant membership of justification. However, there is so much to explain in such little space. So, bear with me as I try to hit the major aspects of this facet of justification.

We will first look at the letter which is considered to be Paul’s first, his letter to the Galatians. So, this would mean that this is the first time Paul speaks of justification, at least of which we have record. The main point of this letter is to reassure the Galatians believers that they, indeed, do not have to participate in Jewish ceremonies, namely, circumcision. Paul tells a story in chapter 2 of his having to correct Peter in his error, the error of making distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, those of the circumcision and those of the uncircumcision. Peter had been eating with the Gentiles, but then when his fellow Jewish comrades came around, he separated himself, which was not in accords with the gospel.

What does Paul say in response to this? “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (v. 15-16) Now, looking back to the first post, we know that Paul is not talking about legalistic self-righteous works here. If he were, his response wouldn’t make sense, for he is addressing the question of why it’s okay for Jewish and Gentile Christians to eat together.

Circumcision was not something the Jews used in order to gain favor with God. Rather, it was something they used to mark them out as God’s chosen people.Now, however, Paul says that circumcision is no longer a necessary distinguisher of God’s people. Because of the work of Jesus, he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14) by getting rid of outward identifiers and requires a new identifier: faith.

On to Galatians 3, Paul begins to chastise the Jewish listeners for still relying on the law to set them apart as God’s chosen people. Now that they have been begun by the Spirit, they no longer need the law. Paul then brings up Abraham. Before, those who had kept the law (and usually those who were of biological descent) were considered Abraham’s sons. But, now Paul says that the criteria of being a son of Abraham is not because of the works of the law, but because of faith. He points to Genesis 12 and says that this has been God’s plan all along.

Was the law a bad thing? Of course not! Paul was quick to praise the law for doing what it was meant to do. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith… And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (v. 25-26, 29) You no longer have to be in Abraham by descent or by keeping the law. Now, you are in Abraham because you are in Christ. Those who place their faith in Christ are justified. To be justified in this sense means to be identified as part of God’s covenant people. 

As we saw in the second post, Paul was still very Jewish in his thinking. He still believed that God still had a chosen, elect people. Now, however, that people had been opened to Jew and Gentile alike. And now, neither Jew nor Gentile were required to be identified by the works of the law. Before one had to be circumcised by the flesh, now one has to be circumcised by the heart (Rom. 2:28-29). Before one had to be included in Abraham by flesh and Torah, now one is included in Abraham by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7, 29). Before one had to follow the law of the Torah, but now one has to follow the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-8).

One is justified, declared in the right, declared an equal member of God’s covenant people, by faith. This is less about how to get saved (as Luther supposed) and more about you can identify those who are saved. When a people is identified by faith, then external identifiers are obsolete and everyone can come to the table and eat together. That is one of the beauties of justification. Justification allows a community built on radical egalitarianism, where all who are of faith are on equal grounds, the ground built on Jesus Christ. After all, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This, then, is a very short and condensed explanation on the covenant membership facet of justification (for further reading, see “Justification” by N.T. Wright). However, in Jewish theology there are three main tenets: monotheism, election, and eschatology. Justification centers around the idea of the one God of Israel and that he is now the God of all, and the covenant membership speaks to election, redefined around Jesus. However, there is another facet of justification. This one speaks to the other tenet of Jewish theology: eschatology. This we will explore in the next post.

[Originally posted on the Collaborative Theology blog, to which I contribute]


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