Justification in Galatians:New and Old Perspectives

Charles E. Hill
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Sep/Oct 2003

Christians dissatisfied with traditional formulations of the doctrine of justification have found a new alternative in N. T. Wright's popular book, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, published by Eerdmans in 1997. Wright, currently Bishop of Durham, is a talented and prolific writer and speaker who has clarified many New Testament truths. His overall thought on Paul, however, belongs to what many have termed the "new perspective on Paul," and his views on justification have created concern among some Christians. What is it about Wright's teaching that is causing a stir? Very simply put, it is the question of whether justification by faith in Christ is or is not the solution to the problem of sin, whether it establishes in a legal sense the sinner's acquitted status before a righteous God. I cannot begin to treat the matter fully here, but I will try to get at the heart of the issue, with special reference to Paul's teaching in Galatians.

Wright contends that Christians-and Protestants, in particular-have misunderstood justification by taking it to be mainly concerned with the beginning of the Christian life for the individual believer. Traditionally, Protestants have understood justification to involve a divine pronouncement that the believer is forgiven of his or her sins on the basis of Christ's finished work. Wright argues instead that in the first-century Jewish context justification had to do with the question of who belonged to God's covenant people. And the doctrine of justification, he thinks, didn't have to do with the question of "how one got in" to the covenant people but rather "how you could tell who was in"-it answered an ecclesiological rather than a soteriological question. Of course, if you belonged to the covenant people, Wright says, you could be assured of having your sins forgiven as a function of covenant membership. But such assurance is not the point of justification, in his view.

Wright's view initially seems attractive because it counters the individualism that plagues much of Western Christianity. Many critics, particularly from the Reformed camp, have been trying to counter such individualism for many years. But the question whether Paul views justification as primarily a corporate thing, or as an individual thing with corporate consequences, is a matter of exegesis, not of contemporary cultural analysis. Wright's emphasis on God's covenant is also attractive; and, again, this emphasis has always been at the heart of Reformed theology. But his understanding of the covenant as it relates to justification is not Reformed theology's understanding. The covenant relationship between God and Israel may indeed be the context in which Jews discussed justification, but it was the context for their discussion of everything!

Wright criticizes what he perceives to be the Augustinian, Lutheran, and Calvinist understandings of justification and asks us to adopt a different understanding. How do we know who is right? Wright knows that there are no Greek lexicons that define dikaiosune (righteousness) in terms of "membership within a group" or dikaioo (justify) as "to make or declare the member of a group." He acknowledges that these words belong to the realm of the law court and that they have a legal or forensic meaning, which seems to support the traditional Protestant interpretation that justification has to do with an individual being declared righteous before God. Yet he holds that the forensic overtone of these words is no more than a metaphor designed to serve the deeper meaning of being part of God's covenant people. Part of his argument is that in the Judaism of Paul's day "justification" was all about defining who belonged to Israel, the covenant people. But this is quite contestable. Students may check out passages like Sirach 7:5; 9:12; 18:22; 23:11; 2 Baruch 21:11; 24:1-4; 4 Ezra 7:105; 12:7-9; 4QMMT (a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls) for themselves. When Jews of the intertestamental and New Testament periods spoke about justification of human beings by God, it had to do with the last judgment, or with something in the present that anticipates or approximates the last judgment; and, as such, it concerned one's standing before God in terms of sin. The Jews correctly viewed judgment as universal-as something that would happen to all human beings (see Rom. 2:1-11)-and thus as a universal human concern (see Rom. 3:9-20). The essential question was, How could someone-and it is invariably the individual, not the nation, that is in view-be found righteous before God so that he or she would escape God's just judgment?

Yet beyond Greek lexicons and studies of ancient Judaism, what ultimately matters, of course, is what Paul himself says about justification. Here is what Wright says about Paul's teaching in Galatians:

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God…. On anyone's reading, but especially within its first-century context, [the problem Paul addresses] has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? …The question at issue in the church at Antioch, to which Paul refers in [Galatians 2], is not how people came to a relationship with God, but who one is allowed to eat with. Who is a member of the people of God? Are ex-pagan converts full members or not? …Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final new creation.

No one denies that justification has crucial implications for defining the people of God. But it is not easy to see how, even in Wright's view, anyone can avoid the necessary connection between justification and coming to salvation in Christ. Suppose, for example, someone claims that you and I do not meet the definition (whatever it is) for membership in God's people. If that person is right, then we need to know how to enter the covenant community. But then the issue does become, How do we become Christians and attain to a right relationship with God?

The problem at Antioch reported by Paul in Galatians 2 concerned a temporary lapse by Peter, when he stopped eating with uncircumcised Gentile Christians. This may have occurred at the time reported by Luke in Acts 15:1, when certain Jews who claimed to be Christians came down from Judea to Antioch and taught the Gentile Christians, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." At any rate, the issue for the uncircumcised Gentile believers in Antioch certainly had to do with salvation-and not simply with membership in the covenant community or with the privilege of eating with Jewish Christians. The matter of who belongs at the same table is an implication of Paul's doctrine of justification but not the doctrine itself. Otherwise, "justification" would be something that might have to take place over and over again, as many times as someone called into question your place at the table. If all-both Jews and Gentiles-had to come to Christ on the same terms, as sinners who first needed to be justified by faith in him (see Gal. 2:17), then all had the same status in God's adopted family (see Gal. 3:28; 5:6; 6:15). There was, then, no room in the church for the kind of ethnic distinctions that Jews were used to and that had prevented them from eating with uncircumcised Gentiles (see Acts 10:28; 11:3; and outside the New Testament, Jubilees 22:6; Letter of Aristeas 139, 142).

This does not empty justification of its forensic meaning. Justification establishes the Jewish or Gentile believer's legal relationship to God and, therefore, his or her legal status as a child in the family of God. Paul writes, "We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we 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 shall no one be justified" (Gal. 2:15-16, rsv). Here Paul says that even he and Peter-who were both Jews by birth, Torah-keepers by profession, and by all supposed rights, heirs to the promises of Abraham-had come to see the futility of such credentials (see Phil. 3:3-9) and had placed their faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified. This justification did not have to do primarily with the question of who should eat with whom; it had to do with their standing before a righteous God (see Gal. 3:11; cf. Rom. 2:13; 4:2), as a consequence of which, all justified believers enjoy table-fellowship with each other because they are all one in Christ (see Gal. 3:28).

A passage in Acts gives us crucial background to the Galatian situation. At the climax of his speech to the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, Paul says, "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified [dikaioo] from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38-39, niv). This shows that, in spite of Wright's claims to the contrary, Paul did talk about justification when he was evangelizing. Here in fact he is preaching to residents of Galatia (Pisidian Antioch, not to be confused with Syrian Antioch, was in Galatia), to some who would later be among the recipients of his Galatian letter; and so the Galatians were already familiar with Paul's vocabulary of justification when they received that letter. It also shows that justification has everything to do with the forgiveness of sins. We are told that the message preached by Paul that Sabbath was explicitly a "message of salvation" (13:26; cf. 13:47) through a "Savior, Jesus" (13:23) whom God had sent to them; and this message was addressed to "every one who believes" (13:39). It could not be otherwise, as individual Jews and Gentiles had to come into the church by faith (see 13:48; Gal. 3:1-14), and were not to be considered part of the church automatically, based on their previous membership in any race or cult.

What is the upshot of this discussion? While it is always good to be reminded that the justified sinner is not an isolated believer but is part of God's covenant community, the church must not abandon Paul's forensic understanding of justification but must preserve and proclaim it. Justification is God's declaration of forgiveness to every sinner who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus Christ, whose faith in Christ is credited to him or her as righteousness (see Gal. 3:6-8), all for the sake of Christ, "who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

1 [ Back ] Quotations are from N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 1997), pp. 120-22. For Wright's claims that Paul did not speak of justification in his evangelism, see pp. 116-17.
Tuesday, May 15th 2007

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