Justification Rediscovered: History

 

One of the key factors in understanding the Bible’s teaching on Justification is history or historical context. In other words, words have meaning which are directly tied to and determined by the historical context in which they are communicated. This means, if we are going to understand what any of the given biblical authors are attempting to communicate through their writings, then we must also know the history behind it.[1] This includes religious history. And though this is a common perspective among those studying the doctrine of Justification, it is in this very area where many of the errors regarding this doctrine are made. Since that is the case, it will be helpful to consider them before establishing what is correct.  There are two which are most prevalent today:

1. The sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.

As an increasing number of scholars are pointing out, the Reformers—most specifically Martin Luther– was guilty of reading his theological battle with the Roman Catholic Church back into the pages of the New Testament.[2] And he did this more than anything else with the doctrine of Justification.  Luther essentially saw the Jews as the early progenitors of the Roman Catholic Church. Her popes and priests were the Jewish priests and Pharisees; her view of salvation no different than the system of indulgences and merit he had experienced while in the Catholic Church and in service as one of her monks. These people and this kind of religious system, then was what Jesus and the Apostles stood against—in the same way Luther was now protesting the teaching and theology of Rome. As such, this became the religious backdrop for his historical understanding of the Bible and its doctrine of Justification.

Unfortunately, similar eisegesis still exists today. Quoting once more the words of E.P. Sanders, “We [continue today] to have a retrojection of the Protestant-Catholic debate into ancient history, with Judaism taking the role of Catholicism and Christianity the role of Lutheranism.”[3] As a result, there are many who think that what Jesus and the New Testament writers are fighting against is a works-based system of salvation.[4]

Luther or the other Reformers however, are not completely at fault for such thinking. This soteriological viewpoint also finds support in some of those who claimed to have studied the appropriate historical context:  Second Temple Judaism.

2. Second Temple Judaism as a Works-based Soteriology.

As previously discussed, the most important historical and religious context for understanding the doctrine of Justification is not the four hundred years of time which has defined our historical and religious context as Christians today, but the four hundred years which defined the writings of the New Testament—a period of time known as Second Temple Judaism.[5]  Which means this is the proper historical and religious context for any consideration of Jesus or Paul on this particular doctrine since this is the soil in which their teachings/writings on Justification are planted. Unfortunately however, identifying the right historical and religious context is only half the battle!

In the late nineteenth century, Christian authorship began giving further assistance to Luther’s anachronistic eisegesis of the Scriptures by proposing that what the Jews believed and taught during this time (most especially the Pharisees) was the epitome of a work-based salvation—including a system of merits (i.e. good works) which cancels out (i.e. forgives) demerits (i.e. sin) and a repository of the saints![6]  And though this view of Second Temple Judaism received both scathing criticism and sound rejection from those who were experts in this field of study—including Jewish scholars, this perception has continued to persevere as the popular and accepted view within Christianity—that the soteriology of the Jewish leaders and Pharisees of the New Testament was completely works-based.[7]

As expected, this has also been adopted by many Christians as it pertains to whole of Judaism. In other words, that what the Old Testament teaches, is also a work-based soteriology. As such, this understanding, places Jesus and Paul and the other New Testament writers and teachers in complete antithesis to not only the Jewish teachers of their day—but also those under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament; whereas Judaism was works-based, Christianity is not, whereas Judaism was about earning one’s salvation, Christianity is about faith in another who has earned it on our behalf.[8]

The following quotations from noted theologians make this particular error abundantly clear:

The contrast between Paul and Judaism consists not merely in his assertion of the present reality of righteousness, but also in a much more decisive thesis—the one which concerns the condition to which God’s acquitting decision is tied. The Jew takes it for granted that this condition is keeping the Law, the accomplishing of ‘works’ prescribed by the Law. In direct contrast [emphasis mine] to this view Paul’s thesis runs—“by, or from, faith.”– Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament I, p. 273

God gave Israel Torah so that they would have the opportunity to earn merit and reward. Individuals have the capability of choosing the good, and the entire system of ‘Pharisaic soteriology’ stands or falls with man’s capability to fulfill the law. Every fulfillment of a commandment earns for the Israelite merit, while every transgression earns a debt or guilt. God keeps a record of both merits and demerits. When a man’s merits are more numerous (than his demerits) he is considered righteous, but when transgressions outnumber merits he is considered wicked. If the two are balanced, he is an intermediate. The balance of his account may alter at any moment. At the end, his final destiny is decided on the basis of the account. A man’s effort, then, is to see that his fulfillments outweigh (outnumber) his transgressions. There are two ways of doing this. One is by the positive activity of piling up fulfillments, supplemented by ‘good works’. Further he can draw on the merits of the fathers to supplement the number of his merits. In the second place, one can reduce the number of transgressions by acts of atonement, each of which cancels sin and consequently some of the debts or guilts. The old Jewish religion is thus a religion of the most complete self-redemption; it has no room for a redeemer-savior who dies for the sins of the world.—Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch IV, p.3-13

Pharisaism is the final result of that conception of religion which makes religion consist in conformity to the Law, and promises God’s grace only to the doers of the Law. It was the scrupulous adherence to legalistic traditions that created the Pharisaic ethos. –Bruce Metzger, The New Testament, p.41

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries NT scholars had come to rely upon a portrayal of Second Temple Judaism that could be found in nearly all of the standard reference tools of the day. This portrayal runs as follows. Jews in the first century were enmeshed in legalism, whereas Paul believed salvation came by grace through faith. This keeping of the Law was a hard burden from which Jews longed to be released. –Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, p.5-7

As such, one is hard-pressed to find Churches or source material which offers an alternative view/interpretation as it relates to this critically important period of religious history. This however, does not mean that they do not exist!  What it does mean, is that we must be willing to consider a “full-scale abandonment” of this misconception—since the sound and biblical view on this issue is far more than a mere tweaking of details—it is instead a complete paradigm shift.

3. Second Temple Judaism as a Covenant-based Soteriology.

What all scholars in the field of Rabbinical/Jewish studies now agree on, is that Judaism has never been work-based in its soteriology or a religion which includes the earning of one’s salvation through a system of merits and de-merits.[9] And this is true primarily because of E.P. Sanders’s writings/lectures on Second Temple Judaism.

Sanders became the voice of reason, respect and refutation when assessing the teaching and beliefs of the Jews during this time—especially as it related to viewing its soteriology as work-based or as completely antithetical to the salvation proposed by the New Testament teachers and writers. His research both from ancient extant Jewish sources as well as the Scriptures led him to the conclusion that Judaism was (instead) a religion of grace and faith in much the same way as Christianity. It was also (like Christianity) covenant-based and containing laws which were to be seen as the mandatory and prescribed practice of all those expressing faith in God Who by His grace had brought them into covenant relationship with Himself. These laws however possessed no merit—nor could one “earn” their salvation through them. Rather the law (including laws related to atonement and forgiveness of sins) was simply the means to maintaining the saving relationship with God which had been gained by the Jew through faith and God’s gracious election of them as His people and act of making covenant with them. The covenant therefore was the sign that such a relationship existed; faith and law (or faithfulness to the law) simply its entrance and parameters (respectively).

This way of thinking he called “covenantal nomism.” In his own words,

Covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan [of salvation] is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgressions.[10]

Obedience determines one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such.[11]

The pattern or structure of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election (i.e. its inheritance) and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy (grace) belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy (grace) rather than human achievement.[12]

Since Sanders initial formulation, particular aspects of covenantal nomism have undergone both criticism and modification. In its general form however, this covenant-based paradigm continues to demonstrate itself not only as the soteriological structure of the Second Temple Judaism but also what we find in the Old Testament Scriptures as well as the New. In other words, the New Covenant also follows this covenant-based paradigm in its soteriological structure. Which means three things: (1) This is not only the historical and religious context of the New Testament, but also the theological context of the entire Bible (both Old and New). (2) God has always had only one basic plan of salvation.[13] (3)  Justification must be understood in relation to this covenant-based paradigm.

In light of that, the following represents what I believe to be the Covenant-based soteriology of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in its more detailed form:

a. God will not have a friendly/saving relationship with anyone who is not willing to make covenant with Him. (Hosea 6:4-7; Genesis 6:12-18, 17:4, 19-21; Exodus 2:24, 24:8, 34:27-28; Matthew 26:28 w/ John 13:1-8; Isaiah 42:6, 49:8)

b. Since the Fall, God requires blood and a mediator. (Exodus 24:1-8, Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:18-26, 10:29; Galatians 3:15-22; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:22-25, 8:13, 9:15, 10:14, 18, 12:24; 1 Timothy 2:5)

c. Since the Fall, God’s offer to make covenant is completely gracious. (John 1:16-17; Genesis 15:1-9; Isaiah 63:7-14; Exodus 33:12-23, 34:1, 10, 27; Jeremiah 31:2; Psalm 86:6; Acts 15:11; 1 Corinthians 1:4; Romans 3:24, 4:16; Ephesians 2:8; Hebrews 4:16)

d. Entrance into the covenant is by faith through atonement unto justification.

i. Faith before Christ was in what God had said through Moses and His prophetic spokesmen.

ii. Faith after Christ is in what God has said through Christ and His apostolic spokesmen. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19; Malachi 4:4; John 1:17; Luke 16:29-31, 24:27; John 1:45, 5:46, Acts 28:23; Hebrews 1:1-2, 2:2-4, 2 Peter 3:2; John 12:44)

iii. Atonement before Christ involved animal sacrifices and the observance of various clean laws.

iv. Atonement after Christ involves being made clean only through the sacrifice of Christ. (Levticus 1-23; Ezekiel 44:23; Luke 2:22, 5:11-14; Mark 7:19 w/Acts 10:15 w/ Romans 14:20; John 13:10, 15:3; Hebrews 9:9-10-14, 19-10:22; Ezekiel 36:25)[14]

v. Justification before Christ meant “pass-over only” in relation to sin.

vi. Justification after Christ means “true payment” for sin. (Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:22 w/10:1-4, 11-14, 18; Romans 3:10)

e. Maintenance of one’s place in the covenant is:

i. Carried out through faithfulness and full compliance with the laws of the covenant—including the laws of atonement (i.e. clean laws). (Genesis 2:16-17, 17:1-2; Exodus 24:7-8; Deuteronomy 7:11-12, 12:32, 28:1-2, 9; Matthew 25:21; 1 John 3:7-10;  1 John 1:9; John 13:10; Matthew 5:48; Luke 13:22-30, 14:33, 16:16-17)

ii. Possible for everyone in the New Covenant because of the power of our Justification and the indwelling Holy Spirit. (Romans 3:11-18, 7:18 w/8:1-4, 6:1-14)

iii. Known by:

- Audible confirmation (ex. Genesis 15:18, 17:1-4)

- Covenant community and their confirmation (ex. Acts 2:41; Matthew 18:17)

- Signs (ex. Genesis 17:14; Mark 16:16)

iv. Necessary in order to:

- Prevent the loss of Justification. (Matthew 18:21-35; 2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:1; 2 John 1:8; 2 Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 6:1-8)

- Perceive Assurance. (1 Timothy 3:13; 2 Peter 1:5-11)

- Possess Temporal Blessings and Eternal Salvation. (Deuteronomy 7:11-13, 28:9-13, 29:9-20; Matthew 18:17-20; Hebrews 10:25 w/36; 2 Timothy 4:7 w/ Psalm 132:12—also consider –Deuteronomy 29:9; Genesis 18:19; Exodus 19:5 w/20:6; Leviticus 18:4-5; Psalm 25:10)

v. The difference between being a “doer of the law” and “under the law.” (Romans 2:12-13)

vi. Forfeited through unrepentant sin and apostasy from the covenant community. (Deuteronomy 29:9-20; Matthew 18:17-20; Hebrews 10:24-29)

f. Marriage is the analogous model and motivation. (Genesis 2:23-24; Jeremiah 2:2, 32, 3:1, 20; Hosea 2; Ezekiel 16:1-32; Revelation 19:7, 21:2, 9)


[1] This hermeneutic truth makes up a part of what is commonly known as the “grammatical-historical” approach to Scripture.

[2] Quoting portions of the Preface in Terrance Donaldson’s book, Paul and the Gentiles:  Remapping The Apostle’s Convictional World, should suffice here,  “Older approaches, especially those stemming from the Reformation, have been increasingly perceived as inadequate, their frameworks of interpretation having to be forced upon central elements of Paul’s life and thought with greater and greater difficulty. At the same time the recognition that Paul’s questions were not the same as those of the Reformers has produced new approaches…(In) reply, ‘how are we to understand Paul’s Gentile mission, now that we know how Luther Paul misunderstood Paul?…Lenses polished on the grinding wheel of the Reformation do not provide us with a clear picture of Paul.”

[3] E.P. Sanders, Paul And Palestinian Judaism, p.57

[4] At the close of the 16th Century this developed into a formal teaching known as the “covenant of works.”

[5] Second Temple Judaism: the Jewish practices and beliefs that existed between the reconstruction of the Temple by Zerubbabel (516 B.C.) and its destruction by the Romans (70 A.D.).

[6] This way of thinking is so associated with the Pharisees that a derivative of their name (Pharisaism) has become the stigmatized short-hand when speaking about works-based religion. This is somewhat ironic in light of what is revealed about the Pharisees in Luke 5:21.

[7] In support of what has just been said, consider the following quotes: Samuel Sandmel (Jewish scholar of the NT), The First Christian Century, p.66 “It can be set down as something destined to endure eternally that the usual Christian commentators will disparage Judaism and its supposed legalism…with those Christian who persist in deluding themselves about Jewish legalism, no academic communication is possible. The issue is not to bring these interpreters to love Judaism, but only to bring them to a responsible, elementary comprehension of it.” E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p.32, 38, 45, 47 “In 1921, in an article which should be required reading for any Christian scholar who writes about Judaism, George Foot Moore [a leading Jewish scholar of that time] commented on the fundamental change which had taken place in the nineteenth century in works by Christian authors about Judaism. Through the eighteenth century Christian literature had primarily tried to show agreement of Jewish views with Christian theology…With F. Weber, however, everything changed. For him, Judaism was the antithesis of Christianity. Judaism was a legalistic religion in which God was remote and inaccessible. Christianity is based on faith rather than works and believes in an accessible God…By the end of the nineteenth century, Weber’s soteriology was widely considered to be an accurate presentation…Weber’s view continued despite the objections of experts in Rabbinics…by scholars more knowledgeable and more perceptive. The view that Moore opposed and Sandmel decries is very solidly entrenched in New Testament scholarship, appearing in the basic reference works and being held by many of the most influential scholars of the present and immediately preceding generations. Weber’s general view of Judaism lives on in New Testament scholarship, unhindered by the fact that it has been denounced by such knowledgeable scholars as Moore…and despite the fact that many of its proponents, despite Moore’s scathing criticism on this point, still cannot or do not look up the passages which they cite in support of their view and read them in context.”

[8] To say that this means these individuals therefore believe that God has had at least two plans of salvation through time may be a bit of unfair. Though on the surface it seems like this is true, theologians such as R.C. Sproul have confirmed just the opposite. According to him, a work-based salvation is what is taught in the New Testament as much as in the Old. The only difference is, Christ has effectively “worked” and earned that salvation for us—hence my phrase, “another has earned it on our behalf”; see Getting The Gospel Right, p.160.

[9] Kent L. Yinger, the New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, p.12, ‘Scholars continue to debate some of the details, but since 1977 general agreement has been reached on the following points:  (1) first-century Judaism was not the legalistic religion of past caricatures. (2) covenantal nomism is a fair description of Jewish soteriology of the period.”

[10] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p.75

[11] Ibid., p.420

[12] Ibid., p.422

[13] This includes those before Sinai and the Old Covenant. Adam, Noah and Abraham all had covenants with God which functioned according to this same paradigm.

[14] The Bible seems to imply two versus three categories in relation to the OT law and its commands:  Ceremonial/Clean laws and Moral/Character laws. Hence, this means the distinctions are more Bi-partite than Tri-partite as is assumed within many Reformed branches of the church today.