Justification, in Summary

This post originated as a Facebook comment. There’s obviously lots to flesh out, tighten up, and correct and plenty to debate, but here’s my summary of justification.

Historically, its as factual as factual can be that Torah, in 2nd temple Judaism (all of Judaism, but specifically here), was not seen as a bad thing or a burden or something which was a kind of impossible standard one had to keep in order to go to heaven, and it still isn’t within Judaism. On factual, historical grounds, that’s pretty much beyond dispute. Calvin was right on when he saw the Law not as an entrance requirement but rather as something given to the redeemed people.

Alright, so what’s the point of Torah? It was not primarily, as commonly supposed, a way for people to recognize their own moral failings, as if it were a kind of Kantian moral imperative which hangs over all men, and that once the failure to meet this standard was recognized, the Gospel could then be preached. That was not the point though, though Torah did expose one’s failings and did serve to kill sin by imprisoning it. But here’s the thing: in Judaism, when you messed up, you made atonement and moved on. People mess up and don’t keep Torah perfectly, because we’re sinners. Okay. Make atonement, square yourself away and get back in step.

So if Torah isn’t primarily something that exists to show that it can’t be met, what is it? Here, modern scholarship is pretty much in accord in saying that Torah was not what one did to get into the people of God but what one did which showed that one was in the people of God. It was, in the days before Jesus, an ethnic marker of sorts. Torah belonged to the people of God, and the people of God kept Torah. One can disagree with the theological/dogmatic implications, but that is, again, pretty much an established fact.

The problem, however, is in that second to last sentence. Israel were called to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to the world. People were to look at Israel and go, ‘What a people! What a God!’ But, as Scripture drives home, this was not the case. Sin worked through Torah, turning the heart upon itself, and what was supposed to the charter for the people of God, what was supposed to be the distinctive thing about the people of God, ended up being used to keep people *out* of the people of God. The promise of Abraham is being killed by the curse of Adam.

The rest, as they say, is history, up until an incident in Antioch, when the ethnic problems come to a head. Paul says to the Judaizers, no. You’ve missed the point. The second you begin to do with Torah what Christ had done, which is to redefine the people of God around faith instead of adherence to Torah, you’re right back where we started, keeping people who aren’t ethnic enough out. That is something Paul won’t stand for.

That is the fundamental issue – Torah cannot be used as a means to define the people of God anymore, because now the people of God are defined as those who, by faith, both their faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ, are in Christ. Jesus defined adherence to Torah not as rigorous obedience and boasting but as loving God and loving your neighbor – and this, Paul declares, is true Torah. This – faith and love – are what defines the people of God. Paul says, look, keeping Torah is fine, if you want to do it. But if it becomes something that separates people at the table, then you’re right back where we started, and you’re going to have Torah staring you down.


3 thoughts on “Justification, in Summary

  1. Joel December 30, 2013 / 10:44 am

    My understanding (admittedly based on limited reading) is that the pharisees were sort of moderate zealots who believed that strictly keeping the law would bring about God’s destruction of the gentiles. While this is not the same as traditional understandings of “works-righteousness”, could it not be seen as a sort of works-righteousness in a different key?


    • whitefrozen December 30, 2013 / 1:19 pm

      While the pharisees were zealous, I don’t think they can be classified even as moderate zealots in the more revolutionary sense.

      ‘…[T]he Pharisee was passionately concerned about the ancestral traditions, particularly the law of Moses and the development of that into oral law, and about the importance of keeping this double Torah not simply because it was required, or in order to earn the divine favour, but because a renewed keeping of the law with all one’s heart and soul was one of the biblically stated conditions (as in Deuteronomy 30) for the great renewal, the eschaton and all that it would mean.’

      – N.T.Wright

      You’re probably right that there were *some* who believed that, which is the problem with studying just a non-monolithic movement.


  2. C. Quinn-Jones (@Quinnjones2C) June 10, 2014 / 8:10 pm

    Hi Joshua,
    I find this interesting and especially the quote from NTW.
    Re Paul, and how he came to his understanding of ‘justification by faith’: Paul changed from being a scholarly Pharisee whose adherence to the letter of the law led him to approving of the stoning of Stephen (Acts8:1) & making murderous threats against the disciples of Jesus to a deeply suffering man who passionately preached ‘Christ crucified’ (1Cor:1:23).
    This change came about in Paul because, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, he entered into the suffering of Christ and then by faith received the power of the resurrected Christ and restoration of his sight, physical and spiritual.
    Faith for Paul was a spiritual gift, powerfully experienced and not known to him by learning – no wonder he preached ‘justification by faith’
    It’s a very dense subject, as you said, and I have just touched on it here- and I’m not a theologian, anyway – but I just wanted to explain why I think Paul’s teaching was not just an opinion but a conviction rooted it a profound experience of suffering and faith.

    Liked by 1 person

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