Sunday, May 21, 2006

Justification by Faith Is the Answer: What Is the Question?

The apostle Paul claimed that we are "justified by faith, not by the works of the law." What question was this claim answering? The traditional, "Augustinian," "Lutheran" claim is that the question is: "How can a sinner find a gracious God?" Krister Stendahl, in his infamous essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (1963) suggested that the real question is something along the lines of: “On what terms can Gentiles gain entrance to the people of God?” The former option--we can call it the Augustinian or Lutheran Monk position, has been radically called into question by the Stendahl Revisionists, those who are often loosely united under the label of “the New Perspective on Paul.”

This is the basis for Stephen Westerholm's excellent essay, Justification by Faith is the Answer: What Is the Question?, delivered at the 2006 Concordia Exegetical Symposium (where Seifrid's address was also given).

Before offering a few quotes from the paper, I should say that I regard Westerholm to be one of the most insightful writers working today on the law and gospel issue. This area of study is filled with complexity and a proliferation of opinion. But Westerholm has a unique fog-clearing ability to summarize fairly and concisely and exegete the text convincingly. When I read Westerholm, my response is usually along the lines of: "Yes, yes! This is clearly what Paul meant. Why is it so hard for others to see this?"

Here is the purpose for Westerholm's paper:

My purpose in this paper is not to further review the contemporary debate, but to ask quite simply whether Stendahl & Co. have correctly identified the question Paul addressed in saying that justification is by faith. Did he mean that faith alone, not the observance of distinctively Jewish works of the law, is required for Gentiles to be included in the people of God? Or was his point that sinners are declared righteous by faith alone, apart from the righteous deeds that the law requires? “Justification by faith” is the answer; what is the question?

Westerholm briefly examines the issue in Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, James, Thessalonians, and Corinthians, before moving to discuss Galatians and Romans.

I'll quote just one paragraph of his survey, as Westerholm seeks to unpack the thrust of the book of Galatians:

But this minimalist interpretation must ignore or explain away the whole argument of Galatians. The Galatians’ new teachers may have assumed that the Sinaitic covenant remains in place as the framework within which God’s people are to live; but that is the very point at which Paul attacks them. Circumcision (he argues, in effect) is not to be required of Gentiles, not because this part of a still valid Mosaic economy is inapplicable in their case, or even because the whole of a still valid Mosaic economy is not meant for Gentiles, but because the Mosaic economy itself has lost its validity. Its day has past. At the best of times righteousness was simply not achievable by means of the Mosaic economy. Lacking the means to justify sinners, it could only curse and enslave them. In the plan of God the covenant and laws of Mount Sinai played an important but temporary role as guardian of God’s people until Messiah should come and deliver them. For Gentile believers in Christ to be circumcised now would be a disaster, not because they would be unnecessarily taking on requirements binding only on Jews, but because they would be abandoning Christ, whose death is the sole means by which Jews and Gentiles alike can find righteousness; and they would be embracing life under a covenant that can only condemn them. Such is the thrust of Galatians.

Westerhom concludes his essay in this way:

How, then, can sinners find a gracious God? The question is hardly peculiar to the modern west; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went. But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation. In substance though not terminology in Thessalonians; in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians; thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Christ.

This is an essay well worth reading.