Thursday, January 29, 2009

Justification by Faith: Not Eccumenical

In our first essay on this topic, we pointed out the difference between ethnic inclusivity and religious inclusivity. We pointed out that the doctrine of justification by faith is clear inclusive in the former sense and we rejected that it is inclusive in the latter sense. The doctrine is then clear exclusive in the religious sense. It is to this notion of exclusivity that we not turn.


It is interesting how both those who classify themselves as within the NPP and those who mark themselves as opposed to it to one degree of another will still find unanimity in proclaiming how great and wonderfully ecumenically the doctrine of justification by faith really is.


Of course, part of this stems from the some of the unfortunate effects that have carried down through the history of the church. Granted it is unfortunate when Christians have to divide. Yet there are at times issues that are so critical to the life and heath of Christianity that to fall to divide eviscerates the message of Christianity.

Sadly the application that justification is an ecumenical doctrine often flows somewhat uncritically from the implication of justification for Jew/Gentile relationships. The argument is in a nutshell that in the same way that Jews and Gentile were brought together by justification by faith should be applied in a similar fashion to the way various churches relate. Yet as Richard Gaffin notes this is a category confusion of the gravest sort (“Paul the Theologian”, WTJ, 62 (2000) p128).

Paul handles conflict within the church over justification very differently from the way he handles from the way he handles Gentiles who have come into the church from outside the covenant people of God.

We should note immediately that these two issue are not in Paul’s context entirely unrelated. Indeed, the events that prompted the position of the circumcision party were Gentiles themselves joining the covenant people of God (i.e. the church). For the Judaizer, it seems clear that they were most likely not denying the death of Christ but calling those who have received the death of Christ to take upon themselves the requirements of the Law--as the people of faith have always done. In this respect, Abraham was paradigmatic for the Judaizer. In Judaism, Abraham’s faithfulness was integral to his election (cf. 1 Macc 2:52; Sirach 44:19-21). It is reasonably to this that the Judaizer interpreted the mere chronology of Genesis 15 followed by Genesis 17-22 as indicative for how Gentiles should act: Now that you’ve believed (like Abraham), go and getting circumcised in keeping with obedience (like Abraham).

This is on one level quite persuasive and we can see how it might arise within the church as no small dispute. Yet Paul’s response to this aberrant doctrine is not to proclaim unity and ecumenicism. In fact, Paul declares in no uncertain terms that there must be division between this party that has arisen within the church. It is precisely because justification by faith is inclusive of all ethnicity apart from what we do in obedience that Paul is exclusive when people threaten this doctrine.

Consider for example Paul’s opening chapter to the book of Galatians. In the book of Galatians, Paul is responding to people who have come the churches in Galatia and either directly or indirectly attacked the doctrine of justification by faith. I saw either directly or indirectly because we cannot know the precise nuances of their argument. Let us summarize what we can tell about their argument by the way Paul responds.

First, they were obviously teaching that circumcision was an integral part of a believer’s status with God. It is probable that these were men who did not deny that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified or that he was raised from the dead. This is of course integral to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4; Romans 1:2-4). Given that Paul’s response does not deal with the historical facts of the gospel in this sense it is most likely that this was not a point of contention.

The issue then seems to focus on the role of the Law in the believer’s life. It is clear that the Judaizer’s wanted the Gentiles to embrace the ceremonial law, particularly circumcision. They would not eat with ‘unclean’ Gentiles because they considered them to be in some way inferior, at least until the adopted the pattern of living prescribed by the Law. So, the Galatians having begun their Christian experience by faith were tempted to continue it in a pattern not dissimilar from Jewish practice (Gal. 3:1-3). The opponents of Paul were clearly teaching that the Gentiles should adopt the Law--especially circumcision. Circumcision was of course the key mark of a Law-keeping Jew. Paul’s response is that if one embraces circumcision one makes Christ of no value (Gal. 5:2). The is paramount to seeking to be justified by the law (Gal. 5:4).

It is the great inclusivism of justification by faith, as we spelled out, that means the Gentile does not have to embrace the ceremonial Law of the Old Testament. More than the ceremonial Law is at stake. It seems that the Judaizer was using obedience to Law--an obvious key component of sanctification--to become the mark of full justification. The Judaizer was seeking to boast in the flesh. The problem is that this boast in the flesh and this seeking to embrace the whole requirements of the Law make a mockery out of Christ and the sufficiency of His work, a sufficiency that brings our full justification, adoption and heirship.

Second, consider then what is at stake for Paul. In effect, Paul is preaching one gospel to the church and these opponents are preaching another. For the latter, the ‘godly life’ is predicated on obedience--not Spirit filled obedience as Paul would concur--but on marking oneself by embracing the whole Law and the stipulations of the Old Covenant. It was placing oneself under the requirements of the pre-eschatological conditions of the people of God (one’s the were to be used before the coming of Christ as signs and seals of faith) and then using those pre-eschatological conditions as post-eschatological signifiers. One in effect says unless you do these things you cannot be part of the renew eschatological people of God. It misses a whole host of things that Paul draws out: (1) the Law was a tutor until Christ; (2) heirship is no complete in Christ; (3) full status is received through faith which brings justification and adoption; (4) the Law was temporary to the pre-eshcatological role of regulating the people of God; (5) the law brought curse not life; (6) Christ ends the curse of the Law and fulfills the Law surpassing it; (6) obedience is marked by the Spirit and its fruit not Law-keeping [this is not to deny the ‘3rd use of the Law’ for the the Spirit writes the Law on our hearts so outward circumcision is not needed; and finally (7) there is a radical inbreaking the eschaton with the resurrection and the believer being a new creation in Christ.

Given the ‘place’ in redemptive history that the church now finds itself Paul is completely opposed to what we might call ecumenicism when the debate is over justification by faith. Paul may be inclusive of Gentile because of justification by faith but he is not inclusive of those who would disagree with over justification by faith alone.

Galatians 1:6-9
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
What we see here is that justification by faith is central to the gospel. There is no indication that the Judaizers were denying the death and resurrection of Christ--the key good news of the gospel. However, they were messing with justification by faith either (a) directly rejecting Paul by outright confrontation in their preaching (which is less likely) or (b) modifying faith in Christ and its implication and meshing it so much with Law-keeping that they had effectively distorted beyond what Paul and the apostles had originally taught. The latter is just slightly more likely given the effectiveness this heresy had on Galatia and the often subtle nature and false-teaching the New Testament warns us about in numerous places.

Paul however is quite clear that there were ‘false brothers’ who had slipped into the church to spy out the freedom that one had in Christ (Gal. 2:4). The early Jerusalem church had not entirely broken with the Jewish community and it is quite possible that Jewish people infiltrated the group to assure that this Jewish sect was keeping the Law. Paul never states to what degree these men might have embraced Jesus as Messiah--this might not even have been a point of contention. What was at state was they did not acknowledge the radical sufficiency of the death of Christ. It did not merit full justification; it is not bring in the eschaton in a decisive way that for Paul clearly brought freedom from the Old Covenant Law. Acts 15:1 says these men were teaching that if one was not circumcised, one could not be saved.

For Paul, these people were not to be embraced ecumenically because they were joining the community. They were to be resisted and separated from because they disagreed over the nature of the work of Christ--the gospel itself. The gospel was at stake in a disagreement over how one is justified. Paul’s critique of these men as ‘false brothers’ is an ‘external critique’. He stands and looks at them and says because of their view of justification by faith and because the gospel is at stake we cannot embrace them. He calls them ‘false brothers’. It is quite possible that they themselves did not view their role with such sinister motives. However, Paul is clear that His gospel has come from God. Paul is clear on the decisive eschatological and redemptive-historical role of the work of Christ--to fail to embrace a full justification that comes from this work and is received only through faith in this work--not received through successive obedience to works of the Law--was apostize and preach a whole other gospel.

Third, notice how Paul even confronts Peter’s aberrant behavior. Peter evidently did not embrace everything these false brothers embraced but he did identify himself with their conduct. He withdrew from table fellowship with Gentiles. This made a mockery of their full justification by faith and their heirship in the kingdom apart from ‘works of the Law’ and circumcision. Paul does not embrace such behavior within the church. A huge difference exists and therefore it must be confront. He confronts both the false beliefs of the those teaching differently and the false conduct of Peter who evidently embraced the same gospel Paul taught by evidently lived contrary to that gospel and its implications on this occasion.

Ironically, while Paul is very ‘missional’ to those outside the people of God--even on one occasion circumcising Timothy (Acts 16:3) for the sake of evangelism. Paul did not embrace such compromises as appropriate within the church. Paul did not merely chalk this up to a ‘weaker brother’ ‘stronger brother’ type of attitude. Where justification by faith was at stake Paul released the full fury of the gospel to combat so a destructive force that sought to undermine the very gospel for which Paul stood.

In our contemporary setting, modern debates over justification by faith have not gone away. Sadly, what has gone away is the Paul like spirit to contend for such vital issues. One can fully grant that the contemporary church has been far to willing to divide over non-essential issues. Other times the church has hid hatred and a poor spirit behind doctrinal division. Yet the pendulum has swung the other way. There is a tendency to say that doctrine doesn’t matter and unity must be maintain at the expense of doctrine. Yet it should not be, if we are going to be Biblical, some doctrines that are too large and too crucial to sweep differences under the rug as if they do not matter.

Some will tacitly acknowledge the difference but seek to embrace in warm ecumenicism despite differences. I am not saying we should hate those who we disagree with although we should despise all such doctrines that make a mockery of Christ and the sufficiency of His work. In a context where people were changing justification by faith, Paul tells us that those who preach a difference gospel are to be considered ‘anathama,’ ‘accursed’. Just because someone comes preaching ‘gospel, gospel’ does not mean we embrace them. We should not pretend to agree and accept where their are radical differences and where the nature and working of the gospel itself are at stake. Justification by faith is not an ecumenical doctrine. It does not absolve radical differences over the nature of justification and it does not bring together those who teach and preach different gospel.


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