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14th April, 2010

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Luther's hammer beaten into a ploughshare

Martin Luther loved Paul's sayings about justification by faith; he used them as a hammer to beat into his disciples' heads1 his own belief that Jesus' disciples need feel no compulsion - horror of horrors -to observe the same law that Jesus did. Of a truth, Paul spoke of being "justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law" (Rom. 3:28), but the awesomely important question is this: what was he talking about?

The Dawn to Dusk book "Showdown in Jerusalem" explains the real meaning of justification by faith at length. Here we will merely state the barest bones of the concept that Paul was on about when he used these words, and then see how this concept helps explain the classical "anti-law passage" in Galatians 3:11-12, which reads,

But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith."Yet the law is not of faith, but "the man who does them shall live by them".

Some few scholars have dared to march out of step with the majority and recognize that justification by faith, far from constituting some deep philosophical treatise that lay at the heart of Paul's thinking about personal salvation, was "only a polemic that he created for the purpose of dealing with the Judaising controversy"2. As Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul's focus was on proclaiming salvation to non-Jewish people. Some false teachers were insisting that salvation was available only to those who had grown up with the law from birth - such people had the "works of the law". That "accomplishment", of course, belonged almost exclusively to Jews. All the rest of mankind were "sinners of the Gentiles" and had no hope of coming under the blood of Christ unless they first became Jews and thereby had the works of the law from birth imputed to them.

Paul labored mightily against this error of understanding. The Old Testament taught no such doctrine. Rather, Isaiah said that any foreigner who was willing to worship the Holy One of Israel and demonstrate his commitment to God by faithful adherence to His law would have an equal share in the inheritance of the saints (Is. 56:5-8). Salvation is available to people of all races who have faith in God (and Jesus Christ) and live faithfully in covenant with Him. Paul's emphasis on justification by faith was merely his way of saying that Gentiles who follow Jesus Christ with humble, loving, faith-filled and faithful devotion stand equally "justified" with their Jewish brethren. Whether one knew about or kept the law from birth was irrelevant. Racial background, therefore, was irrelevant.

When Paul said that "no one is justified by the law", he meant that having grown up with the law - being a Jew, in other words - had no bearing on a person's status. He quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to support his contention. A little background is in order. Habakkuk's prophecy was written just before one of the most remarkable periods in history - the time when God used King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to punish, first, the Jewish people and, second, all the other nations of that time. The sixth century BC was a time when God did something He rarely does:

"A noise will come to the ends of the earth - for the Lord has a controversy with the nations; He will plead His case with all flesh. He will give those who are wicked to the sword", says the Lord (Jer. 25:31).

As Habakkuk saw, presumably in vision, God was going to raise up the Babylonians, a "bitter and hasty nation" (1:6) who were to sweep through all lands and put the wicked to the sword. When Habakkuk recoiled in shock at contemplating such universal destruction, God showed him that the destruction would not be indiscriminate. God committed Himself to sparing all people who worshiped Him - the "faithful just" that Habakkuk spoke of and Paul quoted. Joy of joys, God promised Habakkuk that such people would be graciously spared (would "live"). Here's the point: this was an indiscriminate discrimination. Jew or gentile - whoever worshiped the Holy One of Israel - "lived". Membership in the community of Israel had nothing to do with it. Why, then, did the Judaizers of Paul's day insist that only Jews can come under God's grace through the blood of Christ? Absurd.

Paul then added that "the law is not of faith". What did he mean? The passage he quotes (Lev 18:5 - "the man who does them shall live by them") helps us understand. Merely having the law from birth or, putting it another way, growing up as a member of the Jewish community that had made a covenant with God at Sinai, did not automatically make one a person "of faith". Israelites, as a whole, were just as rascally as their Gentile neighbors! Only those who actually kept the law (and they made up a tiny minority) could be considered men and women of faith. Talk is cheap. Honoring God with one's lips but failing to follow up with humble submission doesn't impress God.

In complete contradiction to Luther and his ilk, Paul taught that folk of all backgrounds can come under the blood of Christ and the grace of the Father if . It's a mighty big if.

1Justification is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principle article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consisteth. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually. (Martin Luther, St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians)

 2G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 438


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