God’s Election: What It Is and Is Not

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the doctrine of election. When I first started looking into it, I hated it. Who would spend so much time learning about a useless topic! But, then, I began to study it more, particularly the Calvinistic and Reformed understanding it, and I began to love it. How amazing that God would choose me to be in Christ based not anything in me, but solely in his love and grace! Then, as I began to reform my beliefs and depart with Calvinism, I began to hate it. I didn’t see it as lining up with the picture of God that is revealed in Jesus and the Spirit, but I didn’t know how to explain what they meant. Then, as I did more research on it, looking at a wider range of commentators, theologians, and pastors, I began to love it again. And I simply want to show why the election of God should be a doctrine that is not something we should hate or be embarrassed of. It is a beautiful doctrine that should incite praise and worship and, maybe surprisingly to some, move us to act in a deeply subversive, kingdom-of-God manner.

When it comes to election, it’s important to look at the metanarrative of Scripture. Too many times, people start with some verses in Paul’s epistles and try to prove a certain, presupposed framework with that. But, we have to take the entire story found in the Old Testament, along with the New Testament, into consideration. Because, when encountering OT texts, one finds that words like “election” and “chosen” appear a good bit. And so the question that has to be asked is: how was election understood throughout the OT narrative?

Genesis 3-11 gives an overview of the fall and its effects. Because Adam and Eve fell, sin, murder, immorality, and separation have occurred. The “goodness” that was found in Genesis 1-2 had been devastatingly lost and things had gone terribly wrong. Genesis 12 comes along and God approaches Abraham (Abram) and tells him that he is going to bless him and bless all the families of the earth through him (v. 3). This covenant is repeated to him in Genesis 15, 17, 22, and elsewhere, saying that he was going to make his offspring a great number and give them a great land. In other words, God was setting apart a man through whom a great people was going to come. God would not only bless this people, but he would use this people to bless the world.

We see this calling fleshed out later on. The line continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then onto Jacob. Jacob’s family eventually moves to Egypt, where his son, Joseph, was made second in command, and his family begins to multiply. However, after being there 400 years, Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel, are subordinated and oppressed as slaves by the Egyptians. Moses rises up and leads these people, God’s chosen people, out of Egypt to inherit the land that God had promised them. As they are in the wilderness, Moses reminds them of their vocation:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:5-6)

In other words, God was reminding Israel that they were his people. In addition, all of the earth is his and they had a certain role as his chosen people while they were in the world. They were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Their being a kingdom of priests meant that they were to have dominion over the earth, reflecting God’s wise rule all across the land (the kingdom part), and to act as God’s representatives on earth, reflecting his character to the other people of the earth (the priest part). In fact, this echoes the first humans original call. They were told to have dominion over the earth as well (Genesis 1:26) and were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 as well), which was a priestly vocation, to represent and reflect God and his character here on earth. This was the purpose of God’s election of Israel. And he would set them apart by giving them a certain set of laws (given in the next chapter, the Ten Commandments), thus making them a “holy nation”. So, not only had he saved them out of Egypt, but they were going to be the vehicle through whom God was going to undo everything that Adam had done and bring salvation to all.

However, Israel was failing at her vocation. God was constantly rebuking them for not fulfilling their call to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel begins to see their election as a sign of their own superiority. Instead of doing their work for the nations, they became to focused on themselves. God reminded them of the basis and purpose of their election in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

It turns out that the people called to reverse the affects of Adam were, too, in Adam. The body that God had called as a vehicle to save the world, too, needed to be saved. They needed someone, a faithful Israelite, to fulfill the vocation of Israel, defeating the enemies of sin and its consequence, death. The person that was going to do this began to be known as the Messiah. The idea that this anointed One would embody Israel as a whole appears in Isaiah.  Notice in chapter 41, God calls the corporate body of Israel as his servant:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
(Verses 8-9)

But in the next chapter, this corporate body of Israel is described as a single person:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
(42:1-3)

Thus, this “Israel-in-person” figure, this one whom we identify as the “suffering servant”, was put in direct contrast to Israel and was going to fulfill the role that Israel could never fulfill.

Obviously, this person is Jesus. Jesus comes and fulfills the role of the royal priesthood and holy nation. He preaches a new, subversive kingdom of God (a royal term), shows us what God is really like compared to what rabbinic tradition had taught (as a true priest should), and defined what it meant to truly be set apart for God (being holy). Why did Jesus do this? To save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Israel could not fulfill this vocation, being in need of salvation herself.

So, we see this elect body of people embodied in one person. In addition to being fully human and fully God, Jesus was also fully Israel. He was Israel-in-person. He, thus, became the Elect One. The Father calls him this at the transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Jesus is representative of Israel as a whole, and is, in that sense, “chosen” by God. Everything that Israel had been called to in her election, Jesus fulfilled. He was the faithful Israelite, doing what Israel could never do.

What becomes of election now, in the New Testament?

Jesus had inaugurated God’s kingdom, his sovereign rule over earth. And he did so in some radical ways that went against common perceptions at the time. One of these subversive new ideas was the fact that Gentiles were now included in this chosen people of God. This doesn’t mean that Gentiles could now be saved, because there were Gentiles saved in the Old Testament (think Rahab, and also Nineveh, where Jonah preached. The whole city of Gentiles repented!). After all, the promise was not only for the Jews, but through them! The new twist was that Gentiles were actually included into the covenant. What had once been for ethnic Jews was now available to all, by placing faith in Jesus Christ.

How was this so? Paul spends a lot of his time talking about how God can still be faithful to his word, his covenant, while including Gentiles into it. One big reason was because Jesus was, indeed, Israel-in-person. Israel wasn’t about ethnicity or Torah or circumcision or anything of that sort. Israel was now associated with one person and one person alone: Jesus. Now, if anyone is included in Jesus, that person is included in Israel. Because Jesus is Israel-in-person! He fulfilled all that Israel was supposed to accomplish. And now, through him, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds could be a part of this chosen people who find their common identity in Jesus.

Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t completely abandon Jewish theology. It’s still about being a part of Israel, but now, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). All of the things that were important to Jewish theology was still there, but simply redefined in Jesus, not anything else, like ethnicity. Those in the covenant still have to be included in Abraham, but “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:7,29). Being a circumcised Jew is still an important idea, but now “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:29). The law still needs to be kept, but now “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

So, when we approach the language of election in the New Testament, we have to keep this corporate-body-identified-in-Christ framework in mind. Israel’s election was corporate, not individual. Election in the New Testament is corporate, not individual. Election in the OT was largely about vocation, the call to bring salvation to world. Israel was the body chosen for the vocation and everyone else was the ones who received the salvation. In the NT, the purpose of vocation and salvation have been fused together in one body. Our vocation is to bring the salvation of Jesus about to the world in order that they might join in our vocation to further spread this salvation to the world. Salvation is something that God does for the Church, but also through the Church, in order that more might be added to the Church.

Then we get to verses like Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Notice the words I bolded. “In Christ” or some variation appears four times in those three verses. The reason is because when he speaks of election, Paul isn’t, for some reason, abandoning the Jewish framework of election he was all too familiar with. He was simply redefining it around Jesus. We are chosen, yes! But, we are chosen in Christ. Christ is the chosen One, the Israel-in-person. And if we are in him, then we are in Israel, the chosen people of God. Notice, it doesn’t say that God choses or predestines whether or not we’ll be in Christ. It simply says that for those who are in Christ, you are chosen, blessed, and predestined for wonderful things.

And the beautiful thing is that this intensifies our calling and our own vocation! Many times, theories of election end up doing something more like what happened in Deuteronomy 7. It makes people arrogant and leads them to see themselves as the ones who God specifically set apart. Even if it is by grace and love! There’s something about being individually chosen that boosts the ego and seems to stem from a culture of radical individualism. God chose ME. But God’s election isn’t about his choosing of any woman or man! It’s about God’s choosing a people and that people being embodied by Jesus Christ as the representative for us all. That’s the thing that both sides, Calvinism and Arminianism, seem to miss. Both are wrapped up as to how God goes about choosing individuals, but the reality is that election doesn’t speak to that at all! To read that into language about election is to commit a hermeneutical error. If one concludes that God has to choose individuals because of one’s view of divine providence, then that is simply a deduction, not an exegetical truth. Election is always speaking on a corporate level (which, of course, is comprised of individuals!), but not specifically of individuals.

Peter speaks of the Church in his first epistle and describes them as such:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

All of these things echo Israel. They were a chosen race, a royal priesthood (kingdom of priests), a holy nation, his possessed, corporate people. Jesus called on his listeners to be a “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), something that Israel was called to do (Isaiah 49:6). We see Israel as a model of what God’s people were called to do, albeit a flawed model. And then we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that, God’s chosen one, King of God’s kingdom, the one who reflected God perfectly, the true Light of the world, and the beloved Son of God’s own possession. It is in him that we find salvation and it is in him that we are chosen and elect. Our being chosen should never be about us. We are chosen in Christ for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light, in hopes that the whole world will be saved, restored, and find justice in him.

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Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 5: Justification as Eschatological Reality

The last post dealt with looking at justification as membership into God’s covenant people. It is not as much how someone gets in, but rather, declaring who actually is in or not. However, there is another layer to justification that has been greatly ignored, especially since the Reformation. This aspect of justification has to do with eschatology.

Many people don’t like to think of justification as an eschatological reality, because many people see justification solely as a present, legal action. God declares us righteous and clothes us with his own righteousness. However, the last post showed us that that view isn’t necessarily what St. Paul was actually trying to say. So, once that view is left behind, it makes it a little easier to be open to the idea of justification having to do with eschatology.

First, let’s remember the three major tenets of Jewish theology, especially in the first century. It was monotheism, election, and eschatology. Monotheism taught that there was one God, the God of Israel. Election taught that this one God has one chosen, holy group of people, Israel. Eschatology taught that this one God would vindicate his one chosen, holy group of people at the end of the age. In other words, God would claim victory over all of Israel’s enemies and make all things right, setting her up as his true people.

Christianity did not leave behind all of the tenets, but simply redefined them (as we saw in the second post). The one true God had now been revealed by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. God’s one true, chosen, and holy people had now been reformed around Jesus, not a certain ethnicity or set of laws. Now, eschatology is being rethought as well. Jews knew that in the end, God was going to “justify” all things, i.e. he was going to make all things right. And, they knew that God’s chosen people were going to be declared in the right as well. But, the question that plagued Jews in the first century were this: how can we tell in the present who was going to be justified at the end of the age? How can we know now who is going to be a part of the people that God vindicates in the end? 

This was the eschatological aspect of justification that concerned Paul. Romans 8:18-25 paints a picture of the end of the age, when God would put all things right and restore the whole creation, including his children. However, we see a preview of that seen earlier in Romans, specifically in chapter 2. This is how it reads, in verses 6-16:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

In the this passage, the big kicker is the verse that says that it is not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the Law who are justified! But, doesn’t this contradict Paul’s words later when he says that we are justified by faith apart from the Law? If thought of in the classic Reformation since, then yes. However, Paul is not speaking like that here. He is speaking in eschatological terms.

The Gentiles who do not have the law but do what it requires by nature are not, as some think, pagan Gentiles in perhaps a foreign country, having never heard the gospel before. Rather, N.T. Wright concludes that these Gentiles are indeed Christians who have had their heart transformed by the Holy Spirit. The law is written on their hearts. And this is so, even though they weren’t given the Law, as the Jews were! However, the Jews are going to be vindicated at the end of the age for simply having the Law. It’s a matter of actually doing what it says.

The way, therefore, that one can tell who will be a part of God’s people when he comes to vindicate them and set all things right is that they live according to the law. However, the law is radically redefined later on in Romans as being something that comes through the Spirit (Romans 8), not simply the Mosaic law. People who can do such are not only the Jews, who were given the law, but anyone who is transformed by the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2). That is why the doers of the law will be justified!

Note that this does not mean that we are saved by works. Justification and salvation are not the same thing. It is only by grace that we are saved and are enabled to do good works. However, we are set apart as God’s covenant people whom he will vindicate at the end of the age by what we do, not simply because we or our ancestors had the Law (as was the case with the Jews). One who truly has faith in Christ will live according to the law of the Spirit of life. At the end of the age, in the divine courtroom hearing, God’s people will be identified by their faith and the works that were produced by that faith.

Therefore, eschatology is a major facet of justification. It was a big deal for Jewish people in the first century, and thus a big deal to Paul as he began to reform Judaism around their recently crucified and resurrected Messiah. God had a people whom he was going to vindicate in the end, and justification was the answer to how they could tell who would be a part of that chosen people.

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]

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.

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 2: How Saul Influenced Paul

Many theologians and exegetes in the past have tried to detach Paul from his Jewish identity and his worldview as a first century Jew. In the last post on this topic, we saw how the Reformers had largely misrepresented and mischaracterized first century Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness, legalism, and “pulling oneself by his bootstraps”. With the idea of “covenantal nomism” being a more likely representation of what Jews of this time, the question comes to mind: how did Saul influence Paul? In other words, what did Paul retain from his past life in Judaism once he encountered Jesus the Messiah, and what did he leave behind, if anything at all?

So how did Saul influence Paul? Paul writes autobiographically in Galatians 1:13-14:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

The important thing is to note here is 1) Saul’s zeal and 2) the traditions of his fathers. For what was Saul zealous? What were the traditions about for which he was so zealous? It is obvious here that Paul was not detached from his Judaism. And I submit to you that Saul’s zeal was not lost in his conversion, but rather, reframed by the revelation of Jesus as Israel’s true Messiah.

It is important to note that Saul was not simply an ordinary Jew. N.T. Wright notes that the ‘zeal’ that Paul used to describe his former life puts him very firmly on the map of a particular type of first-century Judaism[1]. Zeal, in the old perspective, is usually seen as a legalistic pride in one’s own righteousness gained through works. However, Paul associates his former zeal with violence against the church. This implies that Saul was a Jewish sect called the Shammaite Pharisee, a sect that was known as the strictest sect of them all[2].

The Shammaite Pharisees were strict in their interpretation of the law and their in expectations of how fellow Jews should live in accordance with it. This sect was extremely political as well, looking forward to Israel’s liberation from the oppressive Roman government. It wasn’t good enough that they had religious freedom, but they believed that the Torah “demanded that Israel be free from the Gentile yoke, free to serve God in peace, calling no one master except YHWH, the one true God, himself.”[3] This is what Paul mean by zeal, and elsewhere notes that it was a zeal not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Saul’s zeal drove him to eliminate, by death if necessary , anything or anyone that opposed this vision (think of the zealots, such as Simon). Consequently, this included Christians.

Saul lived in a very apocalyptic framework. N.T. Wright notes that Saul “believed passionately that the great prophetic promises had not yet been fulfilled”.[4] Passages like Daniel 2, 7, and 9 were in the center of his framework, looking forward to a kingdom that had yet to come. In context, these verses were about Babylon, but Jews of that time had no problem substituting “Babylon” with “Rome”.[5]

Saul believed in the three major tenets of Jewish theology at the period: monotheism, election, and eschatology. In other words, there is one true God; Israel is the chosen people of this one true God; and there is one (near coming) future world in which Israel’s God will reign supreme, defeat evil, and rescue his people. Saul, along with the rest of the Shammaite Pharisees, was eager to bring into actualizations the realities of this prophecy, as they saw themselves in the climax of Israel’s grand story.

So what was Saul’s vision and agenda? First, he had great zeal for the God of Israel and the Torah. This is not a moralistic or legalistic zeal, but a desire to see God honored, which meant ridding the world of all forms of unfaithfulness to the Torah. Secondly, Saul was passionate about his fellow Jews (along with himself) keeping the Torah so that this would presently mark out and set apart those who be vindicated when God’s kingdom came in the future. Third, he passionately tried to initiate and hasten this future event by forcing Jews to keep the Torah, even if this meant using violence.

Note, that this portrait of Saul is not the same as the one painted of Saul in the Reformation. He was usually thought of as a “proto-Pelagian”, because of the mischaracterization of both Judaism and Pharisaism at the time. Saul was not concerned with “how to be saved”, “how to get to heaven”, or “how one enters into relationship with God”. He was focused on the role he and Israel, God’s chosen people, played in this apocalyptic, on-going narrative. This carried over into his Christian theology.

In fact, the very thing that Saul had been trying to accomplish, ushering this new apocalyptic kingdom of God, Paul realized that this had been accomplished, albeit in a very different and unexpected manner, in Jesus the Messiah. “This one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time.”[6] Paul now had experienced Jesus and his worldview was not lost, but, rather, redefined. “Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of pagans.”[7]

Paul was caught in the “now, not yet” era. The kingdom had been established, sin and death had been defeated, and God had revealed. But these things were accomplished in an extremely different manner than Saul had imagined. Paul, just like Saul, had a zeal to get the pagan world to know the one true God of Israel. And now, Jesus had revealed that God in a completely different light. It was with this perspective that Paul wrote on justification and all of the other topics that he dealt with. And it is with this framework in mind that we will look at what Paul really meant by righteousness in the next post.

[Originally posted the Collaborative Theology tumblr page]

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Notes:

[1]: “What St Paul Really Said” by N.T. Wright, p. 26

[2]: Ibid.

[3]: Ibid., p. 27

[4]: Ibid., p. 30

[5]: As noted in 4 Ezra

[6]: “What St Paul Really Said” by N.T. Wright, p. 36

[7]: Ibid.

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 1: First Century Judaism

Justification has always been a topic and doctrine of vast importance within the history of the church. However, it began to gain major attention with the Reformation of the 16th century. After all, Martin Luther said that “justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church or individual stands or falls,” with John Calvin echoing his fellow Reformer when declaring that “justification by faith alone is the hinge of the Reformation.” And indeed it was. 

The Reformers understood the Roman Catholic Church (aka RCC) to teach a justification that was accomplished through works, not on faith alone. Faith was, of course, how one approached God, but the individual was then thought to be justified by doing certain things and living in a certain way, a doctrine which the Reformers saw to be utterly anti-biblical. When looking at various passages, they were convinced that one is justified by faith. Paul was faced with legalistic Jewish teachers trying to convince Christians that they could be justified by works, they thought. It seemed as though Paul was facing the same problem back then that Luther, Calvin, and others were facing with the Roman Catholic Church! So they began to search the Scripture to see how Paul responded to these false teachers.

In doing so, the very nature of what Paul meant by justification was rethought. Justification was not a process, but rather a legal declaration that took place in the divine law court. Jesus accomplished perfection in his life and on the cross, our sin was imputed to him as his righteousness was imputed to us. O, the beautiful and great exchange! This just and holy God could then look on Jesus, who took on the wrath we deserved and gave us the righteousness we could never earn, and in turn pardon us. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the Roman Catholic Church and the protestant reformation was birthed.

That legacy still lives on today in the countless evangelical churches across the world. But, did the Reformers get it right? That is the question that has been recently asked by a number of people who belong to a very loose and general label known as the “new perspective on Paul” (aka NPP). While opinions and the way various authors and theologians expound their ideas differ, the NPP is characterized by a common conviction.

The nature of first-century, second temple Judaism was gravely misunderstood by the Reformers. Martin Luther especially saw this religion as a legalistic, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” religion, in which one entered into relationship with God by first achieving a certain moral standard. Jews did not think that they could approach God and be accepted by following a certain set of rules, or “the works of the Law”. Rather, they understood that they were already a redeemed people. The Law was not given to them in order to get in, nor  even to stay in! But it was given to them by God as act of grace to a people already redeemed, to show them how he desired them to live as a response and to set them apart from the world. This was coined as “covenantal nomism” by E.P. Sanders in his 1977 work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism“.

In other words, Jews didn’t believe in works righteousness. This, however, was a driving factor in much Reformation thinking. It was with this assumption (which was caused because of the RCC’s belief in works righteousness) that the Reformers began to look again at justification. And this shaped how most Protestants and Evangelicals today understand justification as well.

So what does Paul mean when he speaks of justification? Did the Reformers catch a hint of truth in responding to the RCC understanding of justification at the time? What was Paul actually responding to and how does he do so? How did Paul’s Jewish background and worldview affect his view of justification in light of Jesus, post-conversion? These are all questions that will be discussed in future posts, being a part of a series on the New Perspective of Paul, dealing specifically with justification.

However, in conclusion, the NPP expresses a concern on how Judaism has been represented ever since the Reformation. When looking at Judaism as a legalistic, works righteousness, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” religion and Paul responding to it as such, language can get jumbled up and misunderstood. Someone reading the Paul’s epistles can find her/himself asking questions that Paul never originally set out to answer. This is very important when tackling justification, especially in a post-Reformation mindset and worldview.

[originally posted in the Collaborative Theology tumblr blog]