I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the sixth of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Part 6: Election, the Spirit, and Justification
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 10, Sections 4 – 5
I. The Spirit and the Gospel
The Gospel is the announcement that the God of Israel has been faithful to his covenant by fulfilling his promises through Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. The Gospel is not how to “get saved” or “how to be justified.” It is the announcement of what God has done in and through Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. The Gospel announcement comes with the work of the Spirit. No one can say “Jesus is the Lord” without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Furthermore, the Spirit accomplishes in the renewed people of God what the Torah could not do in the initial people of God.
II. The Shape of Justification
Paul’s discussion of justification is in the context of his reworking of the election of Israel summed up in Jesus the Messiah and lived out in the one people of God by the Holy Spirit. The logic of the election of Israel was not God choosing one ethnic group in order to condemn the rest of the world or allow them to remain in pagan darkness. The logic of the election of Israel was God choosing a certain people through whom he would rescue the world with the light of his love. To be justified is to be put right as the people of God for the purposes of God.
A. The logical context behind Paul’s theology of justification
1. “God the creator intends at the last to remake the creation, righting all wrongs and filling the world with his own presence.” (926) We start where the Christian narrative begins, the actions of the one true God making the world as a place to be shared with humanity.
2. “For this to happen, humans themselves have to be ‘put right’.” (926) Because humanity is intricately connected to God’s world, they must be put right, that is, they must be justified.
3. “God’s way of accomplishing this is through the covenant.” (927) God intended to remain faithful in and through Israel.
4. “(The covenant) is how the creator God will put humans to rights.” (934) God is responsible for setting right a world gone wrong and he has the power and authority to do it.
5. “All these themes point forward to the decisive divine judgment on the last day, in other words, to ‘final eschatology.’” (936) There is a final justification coming, a final verdict and sorting out of things gone wrong. The present justification experienced for those in Jesus the Messiah is a foretaste of the justification to come.
6. “The events concerning Jesus the Messiah are the revelation, in unique and decisive action, of the divine righteousness.” (942) In the death of Jesus, sin (the source of humanity’s wrongdoing) is condemned and in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new creation (where the world is being put right) has begun. Through the Messiah we see God’s righteousness displayed both in terms of his covenant faithfulness and his restorative justice.
7. “When Paul speaks about people being ‘justified’ in the present, he is (arguing)…that in the present time the covenant God declares ‘in the right,’ ‘within the covenant,’ all those who hear, believe and obey ‘the gospel’ of Jesus the Messiah.” (944) This declaration “creates and constitutes a new situation, a new status,” namely, those who are justified are a part of the people of God. It is not a description of a person’s moral character but a declaration of a person’s social identity. “Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham.” (961)
B. Justification at work in Galatians 2:15-4:11
“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 [the] faith[fulness of] 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.” (Galatians 2:15 ESV)
The context was the “Antioch incident” where Peter was not sharing a table with Gentile Christians. Paul confronts Peter, because his sin was fundamentally a gospel issue as he explains in Galatians 2:15. We are not justified—declared righteous and therefore members of God’s people—because we keep the law, but because of the faithfulness of Jesus. We believe in Jesus and are justified. Our justification is based on Jesus’ faithful death. Our faith is the badge indicated we are members of God’s people.
“Paul’s whole argument is about membership in the single family, sharing the same table-fellowship, not primarily about the way in which sins are dealt with and the sinner rescued from them.” (969) There is little mention of sin, and no mention of death, in Galatians. The letter focuses on the definition of Christian community, that is, what does it mean to be the people of God? What are the markers that define Christian community? This definition has been reworked around Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3) Paul is addressing the Galatians (plural) according to 3:1. This new shape of the people of God is the work of the Spirit.
This called people, the children of Abraham, redefined by Jesus and the Spirit will be the means by which God blesses the nations (Galatians 3:8). The promise given to Abraham was not merely for one ethnic people (the Jews) in one particular land (Israel); the promise was for the whole world. Jesus became a curse for us (N.T. Wright notes the “us” refers to Jewish people), redeeming them from the curse of the law so that “the blessing of Abraham may come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:13), so that “we (both Jews and Gentiles) might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14).
To be declared righteous members of God’s chosen people (election) has been redefined. Members who once were marked by keeping the torah are now marked by both faith in Jesus as Messiah whose faithful death demonstrated God’s faithfulness to the torah and the reception of God’s Spirit.
C. Justification at work in 2 Corinthians 3:3
“And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV) The people of God has been redefined by and through the Holy Spirit who has come in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a coming new covenant where the one God of Israel would write his laws on the hearts of his one people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The coming of new covenant implies a new definition of election, that is, being the people of God. “The spirit has redefined ‘election’, the covenant status of the people of God. The covenant is not now a matter of possessing or hating the Mosaic law. It is a matter of the transformation of the heart, wrought by the spirit.” (983) The Shekinah glory of God which under the old covenant dwelt in a particular place, the Temple in Jerusalem, now dwells in the hearts of his people.
D. Justification at work in Philippians 3:2-11
“The emphasis of the passage is precisely not ‘so that is how I shall be “saved”’, but ‘so that is how I will be demonstrated to be truly within the covenant people.’” (984) The context in which Paul talks about receiving righteousness from God is in the context of those who define covenant membership by circumcision and thus, adherence to the torah. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God…” (Philippians 3:3). This statement speaks of the redefined “we,” redefined by the coming of the Spirit.
Paul continues by recounting his Jewish heritage. He was not bragging that he had earned points as a Jew and was somehow self-righteous. He was providing the evidence that he was a legitimate part of the covenant family, but none of that matters now that Messiah has come. Paul describes his covenant status as in Christ. “…that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status (righteousness) defined by Torah, but the status (righteousness) which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status (righteousness) from God which is given to faith.” (Galatians 3:9 The Kingdom New Testament) “Being ‘in the Messiah’, as clearly here as anywhere in Paul, is the new way of saying ‘in Israel.’” (989) Justification here is not a matter of the forgiveness of personal sin, but an incorporation into Christ and into Christ’s people.
E. Justification at work in Romans 3:21-4:25
In this section, which is one complete thought, we see the righteousness of God on display, not the righteousness we receive from God (Philippians 3:9), but God’s own righteousness, his covenant faithfulness and faithful justice. God’s covenant faithfulness has been displayed apart from the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus for the benefit of those who believe (Romans 3:22). There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, we are all a part of the plight, given to sin and subject to death, and we are justified, declared to be members of God’s family by grace (Romans 3:23-24). “What we loosely think of as ‘justification’ is very closely joined in Paul’s mind with the incorporation of believers into the messianic reality of Jesus death and resurrection.” (997) We are justified through the redemption that is in Jesus the Messiah (Romans 3:24). The death of Jesus is described by Paul using sacrificial terms: “blood,” “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice,” and “passed over.” God is demonstrating his faithfulness to the covenant to bless the world through Israel which had a sacrificial system, but the Messiah’s death meant the fulfillment of the sacrificial system. The redefined people of God, the church, would no longer carry on that practice. “The ‘righteousness’ of God which was called into question by the failure of Israel to be ‘faithful’ to the divine commission (3:2-3) has been put into effect through the faithfulness of Messiah” (1000).
Because of the covenant faithfulness of God revealed in the faithful death of Jesus, no one gets to brag (Romans 3:27), not Jews and not Gentiles. God is the God of both (Romans 3:29), because God is one (monotheism!) (Romans 3:30). How does he justify? By faith! “This new people is composed, not only of Gentiles, of course, but of Jews and Gentiles alike who display this pistis (Greek word for “faith”), the badge of membership. This is the same badge, whether one’s covenant status is renewed or initiated” (1001).
Romans 4 moves to a discussion of Abraham, not as an example of how individuals get “saved” by faith, but as continuation of the display of God’s covenant faithfulness. Paul is bringing up Abraham, because covenant faithfulness is about God’s promise to Abraham. What was gained by Abraham? (Romans 4:1) He did not gain a personal relationship with God. He gained seminal membership into God’s family. Abraham wore the badge of faith and God declared him to be a member of God’s family. “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well” (Romans 4:11). The covenant was all about the one God having one family of Jews and Gentiles.
What was the promise for this one family? “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world…” (Romans 4:13). The redefined people of God would be occupants of the whole world. There was a promise of land given to Abraham, but the land promise has been redefined, as with everything else, around the coming of Messiah and the gift of the Spirit, whereby we see the “holy land” as the whole earth. This promise did not come through the torah, rather it come through the display of God’s covenant faithfulness through the faith of God’s people (Romans 4:13) who share the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:16). Abraham was strong in faith “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21 ESV). God displays his faithfulness to do what he promised to do in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Abraham wore the badge of faith and was included in God’s family and we wear the badge of faith and are included in God’s family because Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead for our justification, or inclusion in God’s family (Romans 4:25).
F. Justification at work in Romans 5-8
We start somewhere in the middle. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). This section continues with the theme of the covenant people of God redefined by Jesus and, particularly noted here, by the Spirit. “The spirit is not some alien force, but rather the fresh (though long-promised) manifestation of the one God of Jewish monotheism.” (1008) In Romans 7 Paul is addressing Jewish Christians specifically because in telling the story redemption of Israel, he is telling the story of the redemption of the world. This section reverberates with themes of a new exodus, where sin in the slave master, baptism is the Red Sea crossing, and the redeemed world is the promise land.
Romans 7:15-25 is not Paul discussing his struggle with sin either pre or post conversion. Paul is not describing the normal Christian life as a life-long struggling with sin. When Paul writes, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15),” he is describing Israel under the law. He is using the rhetorical first person “I” to describe Israel struggle with sin under the law. The law is good in that it draws Israel to the one true living God, but the law imprisons Israel in sin.
Sin is the enemy, not the law. Sin is the slave-driver keeping Israel in slavery. Jesus the Messiah set us from from the slavery of sin. Paul repeats this fact in Romans 5:6-11, 6:7-11; 8:1-4. Jesus is the liberator, but the freeing of sin is in the context of the renewed, redefined people of God. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). The plural pronouns denote the context of Christian community. God show his love for us. Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We have been justified. We will be saved from the wrath (judgment) of God (Romans 5:9). Death and sin have reigned, but in the renewed promise land, grace and life reign through Jesus the Messiah (Romans 5:12-21). The movement from death to life is through the red sea crossing of baptism (Romans 6:3-4).
Sin has, at long last, been condemned in the death of the Messiah (Romans 8:3). “This is the divine purpose: that sin be drawn onto this one place, onto Israel, so that it can be dealt with conclusively by the covenant God himself in the persion, in the flesh of israel’s Messiah, the son of this very God.” (1015) So what was the point of creating Israel as a chosen people and giving them the law? “The point of Israel’s election was not ‘for the creator God to have a favourite people’ but for the sin of Adam to be dealt with. Election itself, and Torah as the gift which sealed election, was designed – this is Paul’s point – to draw sin onto that one place so that it could be successfully condemned right there.” (1015)
In Romans 8, we see the newly defined people of God as the new temple where God’s Spirit dwells, a people led by the Spirit, as the people of Israel were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). The Spirit redefines the children of God as those who have been incorporated in Jesus the Messiah. The world-wide implications of the demonstration of God’s covenant faithfulness is experienced by creation itself in the rhetorical climax of Romans 8, where Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility…(creation waits to) obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21)
III. Final Thoughts
It makes sense to talk about Paul’s theology of justification by faith in the context of Paul’s redefinition of election around the coming of the Holy Spirit, because justification is God’s gracious act of declaring in the right those who are a part of the chosen people of God who carry out God’s purposes for God’s world.