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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Covenant of Grace vs. Dualism

There seems to be a predominant view among orthodox Presbyterian theologians today regarding membership in the covenant of grace that posits a distinction along the following lines: there are elect and regenerate true believers who partake of the "substance" of the covenant, whereas unbelievers who are members of the church only partake of the "administration" of the covenant, sometimes even further qualified as the "merely external" administrative realities of the covenant. This is an attempt, on the one hand, to account for the rich biblical data regarding the real privileges of covenant membership in the Church, the real possibility of apostasy of covenant members, and the sovereignty of God in the salvation of all the elect. On the other hand, this particular way of formulating the distinction seems to have been hardened in the wake of the Federal Vision controversy in American Presbyterian life over the past decade, as theologians have reacted against the more extreme Federal Vision proponents who fail to make any spiritual distinctions between covenant members who persevere and those who don't.

Unfortunately, a distinction along the lines of "substance" vs. "administration" or "internal/spiritual" vs. "external/formal" quickly runs into serious problems and rightly faces charges of latent Platonism, dualism, and mere sacramental memorialism (sloppily called "Zwinglianism" at times). In order to preserve the proper subjectivity--which needs to be acknowledged!--regarding the varying experiences of church members within the covenant of grace, almost all objectivity whatsoever has been obliterated from the category of covenant. This is misguided, for the following reasons.

1) The Hebraic and biblical worldview never makes such sharp distinctions between internal and external, spirit and material, substance and administration. Paul occasionally uses inner/outer distinctions as in Rom. 2:28-29, but a) his point there is more eschatological ("flesh"/"Spirit" contrast) than ontological; and b) he is speaking about ultimate spiritual realities; he is not saying that Jews who were not "true Jews" of heart were not, after all, true covenant members with every advantage afforded by such membership (as Rom. 3:1 goes on to prove). Actually, Rom. 2:25 proves that the previous covenant membership of a disobedient/unbelieving Jew is not called into question; rather the blessings of circumcision ("praise from God," vs. 29) are forfeited, because the "circumcision" has become "uncircumcision."

2) Because covenant is itself the category by which we account for the historical, conditional sphere of God's condescension to relate dynamically with His people, there is no need for a further category like "administration of the covenant" to account for the reality of people's varying responses to the grace of the gospel offered in the context of the Church. The decrees of God, including the decree of election, is carried out historically by means of the covenant of grace. The "covenant of redemption," or pactum salutis brings into view the full salvation of all, and only, the elect of God. The covenant of grace, by contrast, brings into view, as true and full members of the covenant of grace, all members of the visible Church of God, marked formally by baptism. As history progresses, the various responses and experiences of different people, within the context of this covenant, result in the outworking of God's sovereign decrees of both election and reprobation (the "historical process of differentiation," as Van Til called it).

Covenant is not coterminous with salvation. As paedobaptists, we recognize this most of the time in our language when arguing for the necessarily "mixed" nature of the covenant community even in the new covenant era. However, when we come to this question regarding the members of the covenant of grace and whether that category should be broader than the elect, many people start hedging and creating these new distinctions of types of covenant membership to account for apostates. We need to make some kind of distinction, of course! But Scripture knows nothing about varying levels or degrees of covenant membership. Covenant is the objective, visible, historical realm, in the context of which God carries out His secret counsel in the decree of election.

3) There may be no more powerful way to illustrate and prove the previous point than to consider the dual-sanction nature of the covenant of grace. It is a widely acknowledged biblical principle that from him to whom much is given, much will be required. The more revelation and covenantal advantage received by a person, the more serious the judgment if he or she is unfaithful. What is not fully appreciated about this dynamic by many Presbyterians, however, is the fact that these enhanced judgments on apostates are covenantally qualified, and that by the terms of the covenant of grace of which they were a member!

Consider: the apostate in view in Hebrews 10:26-31 is subject to a much severer judgment than a breaker of the Law of Moses was (v.28)! Therefore, the judgment in view is not simply the base-line eternal judgment for all sinners outside Christ, who are in Adam, and will suffer the consequences of the broken covenant of works; rather, the judgment is qualified by the fact that they were afforded, by their membership in the covenant of grace, every opportunity of knowing and bowing the knee to Christ, even having drawn near to Him in a certain sense, and then deserted Him. This judgment is a negative sanction of the covenant of grace, and it is nothing if not "substantial".

A more specific illustration of this is the Lord's Supper. While Paul's warning in 1 Cor. 11 is primarily directed to true believers, and reminding them that they may undergo the disciplinary judgment of God if they partake in an unworthy manner, the broader principle is this: because the Lord's Supper is a covenant meal, there are powerful spiritual realities that are objectively operative in the Supper. Christ is present. To be sure, Christ is present for blessing and received for salvation only for those who partake in faith. However, it is precisely the objective presence of Christ in the Supper that accounts also for the judgments experienced by those who partake who shouldn't, or who partake selfishly. Compare the horrific reality of the "presence of the Lamb" in the judgment scene of Revelation 14:9-11.

The covenant of grace is the vehicle for sinners to have eternal fellowship with God, but is not itself the category of loving fellowship. Covenant is wider than salvation--at least this covenant. The covenant of redemption is no wider than the circle of the elect who respond to Christ in faith. But we must not confuse these two covenants.

4) Some Presbyterians have appealed to the above "substance" vs. "administration" distinction in order to deal with the quotation of Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8, which speaks of the newness of the new covenant in which "all will know the Lord, from the least to the greatest." In order to answer objections from credobaptists who understand the Jeremiah passage to teach that only regenerate people are true members of the new covenant, some paedobaptists will say that they agree in one sense--the sense in which only those who are partakers of the "substance" of the covenant are truly members of the new covenant in the fullest sense, even though there is also this wider category of the "administration" of the covenant.

An obvious objection to this argument is that if this substance/administration distinction has been the case for every era of redemptive history (which these Presbyterians will say is the case), then Hebrews 8 is not successfully explaining anything about the newness of the new covenant. If "all will know the Lord" has been true for the "substance-partakers" in every administration of the covenant of grace throughout history, from Abraham to David to Christ, even though there have been many more "administration-partakers," what's so new about the membership situation in the new covenant? It seems one is automatically forced back to one of the other interpretive options for paedobaptists that does not appeal to the substance/administration view at all: either the prophetic hyperbole/corporate perseverance of the Church view, or the priestly-class-distinction-breakdown view.

Conclusion: God has condescended to carry out His decrees in covenant relationship with human beings. First in a covenant of works with Adam, and then in a covenant of grace with all visible members of His Church throughout the ages. Not all these visible church members were elect, regenerate, or will be eschatologically saved. However, they were all truly in covenant with God. That's the precise reason the apostates are judged more harshly. The distinction we need to make has to do with the responses of various covenant members--yes, responses of faith are only enabled by the Spirit carrying out the intra-trinitarian plan of the pactum salutis--not the supposed "degree" or genuineness of their covenant membership. Covenant membership is as plain as baptism and church membership; eternal salvation is a narrower category within the covenant of grace, not a parallel covenant.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

10 Theses About Covenant Privilege, Salvation, and Judgments of Charity

The following depends heavily on the covenant theology evidenced by Hebrews 6:4-9, especially certain reflections on vv. 8 and 9 which will not be spelled out here in detail.


Covenant privilege: those benefits that accrue to all baptized members of a true Christian church, irrespective of their perseverance in the life of the church, or final salvation

Salvation: those benefits that begin to accrue to every elect person at the time of their effectual calling, which unites them to Christ in a full, everlasting sense; these benefits include personal regeneration, individual justification by faith, adoption as sons, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifting, definitive personal sanctification leading to progressive sanctification, unto glorification at the Last Day

Judgments of charity: assuming the best about fellow Christians who are members in good standing in faithful Christian churches


1) Salvation is not ordinarily found outside the sphere of formal covenant privilege in the context of the visible church

2) Salvation must be distinguished from mere covenant privilege, the former concept encompassing more than the latter

3) Salvation is received by saving faith, and cannot be lost, because of the Spirit's preserving power

4) Covenant privilege is received by all persons baptized in a true Christian church, by means of baptism (though children and the spouse of one believer are initially "holy" in a sense even before the baptismal ceremony)

5) Covenant privilege may be lost by apostasy (defined as definitively turning away from Christ and the life of the church, after continuing for a time even in some kind of "faith"), or by death in the case of a flagrant hypocrite whose hypocrisy is not discovered by church discipline in the course of his or her life

6) Covenant privilege involves certain objective blessings of visible church membership, but also involves, subjectively, potential blessing and potential cursing--cursing more severe than either the sanctions of the covenant of works alone or of the Mosaic covenant, upon apostasy

7) Baptism is an effectual means of covenant privilege for all persons baptized in true churches, but is also an effectual means of salvation for the elect whom the Spirit personally regenerates (though this regeneration does not necessarily occur at the time of the administration of baptism)

8) Judgment of charity involves not only recognition of the fact of covenant privilege belonging to other baptized church members, but a presumption of the full salvation of every other covenant member

9) Covenant privilege entitles a church member to a judgment of charity on the part of all fellow church members, until such time as church discipline is carried out by church officers to the point of excommunication.

10) Beyond judgments of charity toward all recipients of covenant privilege through baptism and church membership, personal and communal assurance of salvation may be strengthened through the (fallible) observance of the presence of fruits of the Spirit, which distinguishes true, saving faith from demonic "faith" like the Jews' initial faith in John 8:31ff

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 6: Conclusion

Romans 10:5-10 contrasts the principle of Lev. 18:5 (essentially, “do the Law and you’ll live”) with an explicitly Christological interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14 (essentially, “confess and believe in the risen Lord Jesus and you will be saved”) as an argument for the assertion that “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). What are we to make of the contrast in this notoriously difficult passage, in light of what we have said above?

Are we to say, with some old school dispensationalists, that the Law itself taught a form of salvation by works? Or shall we say with some less careful neo-Klineans that Paul is contrasting eschatological salvation by faith alone with the corporate, typological requirement of obedience in Israel according to a kind of republished “covenant of works” under Moses? Shall we say with New Perspectivists that Paul’s preoccupation here, as elsewhere, is with covenantal or ethnic presumption on the part of Israel? Or shall we say with many Reformed commentators that Paul is merely opposing a Jewish misreading or abuse of the Law in his argument for salvation by faith alone?

As stated in the introduction of the essay, the above argued approach to Paul’s view of the Law and its function in redemptive history results in the following relationships with several historic views:

1) The old dispensational notion that the Law actually taught salvation by works is categorically rejected.

2) Neo-Klinean “republicationism” (as sometimes expressed) is acknowledged as having some legitimate, unique insights into the redemptive-historical role of the Law, but given some necessary nuance and qualification.

3) “New Perspective” exegesis that fixates on epiphenomenal sociological or ecclesiological issues related to Pauline eschatology, to the neglect of deeper systematic-theological issues like basic legalism and the problem of human boasting, is rescued from reductionism.

4) And traditional Reformed exegesis that fixates on Paul’s polemic against basic legalism to the relative neglect of Pauline categories of redemptive-historical transition is given a richer context within which to function.

Let us demonstrate the above relationships, briefly, by considering Romans 10:5-10 from the perspective of everything said to this point in the essay, as a kind of test case or confirmatory hermeneutical application.

Romans 10:5, 6a says, “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on Law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith says…,” and is followed by quotations from Deuteronomy 30 interlaced with Christological comments. Notice several things. 1) Beginning with “for” (gar), Paul is continuing a logical argument from what he has said immediately before in vv. 1-4. 2) Paul introduces the principle of Lev. 18:5 (if not a loose quotation, certainly a strong allusion), by saying that “Moses writes” it. 3) V. 6 begins with the adversative “but” (de), making explicit the fact that Paul is contrasting Lev. 18:5 with his understanding of Deut. 30 in the following verses.

We may begin to see, just from these brief observations, the need for a rich, layered model of Paul’s redemptive-historical and systematic polemic, in order to read the whole passage consistently.

The fact that v. 5 begins with “for” connects it to his immediately preceding comments, where it is obvious that he is targeting and criticizing a form of unbelieving Jewish legalism (cf. vv. 1-4). They “have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (v. 2) because they fail to recognize that “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (v. 4). What did this look like, though? Was it mere Jewish covenantal or ethnic presumption? Indeed not: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own [righteousness], they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (v. 3, my emphasis and brackets). Many Reformed exegetes are right to detect basic legalism as at least one target of Paul’s polemic here.

Mark Seifrid, now a Lutheran scholar, seems inconsistent on this point on p. 653 in the “Romans” section of Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, 2007, hereafter CNTUOT:

"Yet neither ethnic particularity nor the self-righteousness bound up with it is Paul’s concern at this moment, even though both fall within the scope of his following argument. The contrast here is between God’s righteousness (which Paul underscores by fronting the genitive tou theou in 10:3a), and that which is Israel’s own…Above all else, Paul speaks of a failed and misdirected effort. He does not say anything of Israel’s intent. That its quest led to a misguided ethnocentrism and a false pursuit of self-righteousness is a secondary phenomenon that we cannot properly read back into the mind of the nation. According to Paul, Israel’s failure lies in its disobedience to the gospel and in the misunderstanding of Scripture that this disobedience reveals."

Seifrid seems to say that “self-righteousness” is not “Paul’s concern at this moment,” 1) “even though both fall within the scope of his following argument” (an argument consisting of a chain of propositions linked closely by several “for’s” (gar); 2) the contrast is rather “between God’s righteousness…and that which is Israel’s own” (how is this not, in fact, “self-righteousness” on the part of Israel?); 3) Israel’s failure is rather “disobedience to the gospel” and the “misunderstanding of Scripture” revealed by such disobedience (which is characterized at least by self-righteousness and legalism, is it not?). Moreover, Seifrid says on one hand that “Paul speaks of a…misdirected effort” and in the very next sentence says, “He does not say anything of Israel’s intent”…which is it? I have trouble making sense of Seifrid’s argument, though I’m sure his point is clearer in his own mind.

Whereas Seifrid says, “a misguided ethnocentrism and a false pursuit of self-righteousness is a secondary phenomenon that we cannot properly read back into the mind of the nation,” (and then does not go on to make clear what the alternative failure of Israel is, undeveloped language of “disobedience to the gospel” and “misunderstanding of Scripture” notwithstanding), I must still argue that “a false pursuit of self-righteousness” is indeed a primary phenomenon we must read as a direct target of Paul’s polemic, with the distinct issue of “a misguided ethnocentrism” as the “secondary phenomenon” (or epiphenomenon) to which New Perspective proponents are particularly sensitive.

Thus we must also see that a criticism of basic legalism does not exhaust Paul’s teaching here. The fact that v. 5 says that “Moses writes” the principle of Lev. 18:5 shows that a “misunderstanding” or “abuse” of the Law on the part of unbelieving Jews is not the totality of the contrast, and in fact cannot be the heart of contrast between v. 5 and vv. 6-10. Whereas in the rabbinic antitheses of Matthew 5:21ff Jesus contrasts His own authoritative teaching with what his audience has heard it “said” (in Pharisaical distortions of the Law), here Paul contrasts Deut. 30:11-14 with another part of Holy Scripture itself. This indicates that at issue in these specific verses is a redemptive-historical shift (so N. T. Wright in his commentary on Romans).

This is further established by recognizing that Deuteronomy 28-30 programmatically and in fact prophetically describes the future of the covenant people in sweeping statements. First, Deut. 28 sets out the blessings and curses of the covenant, promising that by living covenantally faithfully to the Lord, Israel was to experience great blessing in the typological promised land of Canaan. Then Deut. 29:22ff predicts the apostasy and cursing of Israel, saying, “…and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and in fury and in great wrath, and cast them into another land…” (29:28). Finally, Deut. 30 predicts a far-off period of restoration from exile when the people will repent, experience true heart-circumcision, and be gathered together and planted again in the promised land of blessing.

Glancing backward through redemptive history, Paul looks, through the lens of his new covenant experience in Christ, at the Prophetic material about of the restoration of Israel, and then looks, through “prophetic” eyes, as it were, back at Deuteronomy 30, and sees the promise of Christ in every verse. He recognizes that God has, in Christ, fulfilled His great promise to bring His people back again from exile, forgive their sins, and cause them at long last to be faithful to Him, with “circumcised hearts” ready to obey Him as their covenant Lord of the “new exodus.”

This dovetails with our previous discussions of Israel as the “typological son of God,” whose responsibility it was, under the Law, not to attain to perfection in some kind of new “covenant of works,” but certainly to attain to a measure of religious loyalty and filial fideity to God, and so to receive and maintain the blessed inheritance of the promised land. So Moses writes, “the man who practices the righteousness which is based on Law shall live by that righteousness” (Rom. 10:5; cf. Gal. 3:10-12).

We know 1) this was a real requirement for individual Israelites (for Moses wrote it); 2) this does not speak of a requirement of perfection, either in its original context of the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace, or in Paul’s use of it in Romans; it rather speaks simply of the need for covenant faithfulness (or else Deut. 30, itself part of the Law, would be a contradiction!); 3) Israel under the Law corporately failed to fulfill this injunction of covenant faithfulness (save for the remnant), and thus God’s solution, as promised in Deut. 30:1-14, was to intervene in the person of Christ. The dynamics of that intervention have been discussed in great (though obviously not exhaustive) detail above.

What do we take away from the above comments on Romans 10, and from the argument of this essay as a whole? The answer is that we have an enriched set of categories with which to interpret verses like Romans 10:4. When Paul says, “For Christ is the end (telos) of the Law for (eis) righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4), the point directly supported by all of vv. 5-13, what does he mean? Does he mean that Christ is the eschatological goal toward which the Law pointed, in faith-union with Whom everyone who believes may experience the fullness of salvation as a member of God’s new covenant people? Or does he mean that reception of Christ by faith constitutes the temporal “end” of a person’s self-righteous reliance on Law-obedience for salvation? And if he means the former, is the latter wholly out of view?

We should be hesitant to posit double entendre, or to commit the sort of eisegesis that would be like a verse-long equivalent of the “illegitimate totality transfer” exegetical fallacy, where we stuff excessive concepts into the meaning of short statements or single words because we wish they were all there. However, given the rich biblical- and systematic-theological structures we have explored and developed, it is possible to read Rom. 10:4 without unnecessary reductionism.

I believe that Paul’s proximate point in Romans 10:4 is in fact eschatological, not anthropological (so Seifrid in CNTUOT, ed. Beale and Carson; and contra Schreiner, who I believe overplays lexical evidence about the connotation of telos, in his article, “Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 10:4-5”). Christ is indeed the eschatological “goal” of the Law in the sense that the Law anticipates, in all the ways we have explored above and more, the end-time “righteousness of God” (10:3b; cf. 1:17; 3:21) manifested in the person and work of Christ.

The immediate implication, however (implied by v. 3a!), is that every human being, Jew or Gentile, must look wholly to God in Christ, by faith, and away from self, for eschatological salvation! The lesson of the relatively bilaterally administered “Law” era, as “covenant-of-grace shaped” as it was, was that God Himself must save His people. The failure of Israel as a whole to attain covenantal justice in terms of the Law, and the problem of human sin in general, characterized in this essay as want of absolute justice, both highlight the utter necessity of the unilateral saving work of God in Christ, in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham—

—promises ratified in the bizarre Ancient-Near-East-like covenant-cutting ceremony of Gen. 15:12-18 in which Abraham, uncharacteristic of either party to such ceremonies, did nothing but sleep (recalling the creation of Eve when Adam slept in Gen. 2:21, 22).

In Paul’s theology, the Mosaic covenant anticipated the necessity of eschatological divine intervention to establish covenantal and absolute justice by:

1) supplying a basis for a formal, post-Adamic indictment of human sin in general, by way of the prophetic indictment and cursing of Israel as a priestly representative of the world (Rom. 3:19);

2) exacerbating and highlighting the general problem of human sin in a covenant community generally uncircumcised of heart (Rom. 7:1-13, and 14ff?);

3) highlighting by way of contrast the uniquely unilateral character of the promises made to Abraham and their eschatological fulfillment in Christ, over against the (relatively) bilateral administration of the heavily-mediated “Law” (Gal. 3:15ff); and

4) anticipating the necessity of a human curse-bearing substitute to effect the restoration of Israel from exile and to atone for human sin in general, bringing about both forensic and practical righteousness, culminating in the glorification of saints in Christ on the Last Day (Rom. 3:21ff; 8; Gal. 3:10-14).

While seeking in good, historic Reformed fashion to stress the continuity of God’s dealings with His covenant people from age to age, in terms of the one, unified “covenant of grace” from Gen. 3:15 to Abraham to Moses to David to the new covenant, we should nevertheless be careful to appreciate and consciously, by faith, avail ourselves of the unique privileges of our new covenant position in redemptive history. God’s preparatory word in the Law, spoken chiefly to His people Israel, and through Israel to the whole world, has given way to His final Word in Christ (Heb. 1:1, 2), spoken to Jew and Gentile alike (Rom. 1:16).

We have, now, therefore, in Christ, nothing less than the freedom and glory of the “age to come” in earnest. This means, among other things, fuller revelation, greater experience of the assurance of salvation, greater power for evangelical obedience, and the sweet beginnings of the everlasting mode of our covenant fellowship with the Triune God: union not with the Law, but with the risen Christ, in the unbreakable bond of the Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 5c: Christ a Curse for Us (Rom. 3)

(Continuing exegetical reflections on Romans 3, beginning with v. 27)...

“Where then is boasting?” Paul asks. “It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). Here we read something of the deepest spiritual concern Paul has in all of his soteriology. At issue in Rom. 4:1-4, 1 Cor. 1:29, 31, 3:21, 4:7, 5:6, Gal. 5:26, 6:13, 14, Eph. 2:8, 9, and many other places in the Pauline corpus, is the sin of human boasting. He won’t countenance any of it, either from Jews or Gentiles. And he insists in this verse that what he is teaching about justification by faith in Christ firmly excludes all boasting. “By what kind of law?” he asks, departing, I believe, from his usual use of nomos to refer specifically to the Mosaic covenant (although connecting his point to it in the next verse). He says that boasting is excluded not by a “law” (or principle) of “works” but by a “law” of faith.

This should remind us of Rom. 4:14-16 discussed above, where Paul similarly contrasts a “principle” of Law and a “principle” of faith. There, the principle of Law is invalidated because it brings about wrath (because of violations) rather than guaranteeing the Abrahamic inheritance. Faith, instead, accords with grace, guaranteeing that Jew and Gentile alike may receive the promise. Here, though, a principle or “law” of works is viewed as problematic because it encourages boasting, whereas Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith manages to exclude boasting.

“For,” Paul continues, “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). Here is another place where I believe New Perspective writers have historically tended toward reductionistic exegesis. “Works of the Law” (ergon nomou), they say, should not be understood as moral deeds performed by sinners legalistically attempting to earn their status of righteousness before God; rather, “works of the Law,” some say, denotes ceremonial identity markers of the covenant people of Israel (like circumcision), in which Israelites were prone to boast as inherent seals of God’s favor, distinguishing them from the unholy Gentile outsiders. Hence the forefront of the sociological issue in the Galatian controversy, and Paul’s need to remind them that justification is by faith, not by “works of the Law” (i.e., circumcision/Jewishness).

We have already seen a number of strands of evidence leading in a different direction, however. First, the background of Romans 1:18-3:20 and even the content of 3:21ff we are examining now make clear that the issue, while including sins of Jewish presumption and covenantal pride (cf. Rom. 2:17ff), is human sin and boasting in general (cf. Rom. 3:20, 27). Second, “works of the Law” have explicitly included, in Romans up to this point, moral norms like the prohibitions of idolatry, theft, and adultery (Rom. 2:21-24), to which Gentiles as well as Jews are in some sense accountable (cf. 1:18ff). The Gentiles are accountable to God for their idolatry and whatever is “not proper” (1:28) even if one prefers the “Gentile Christians” view of 2:14-16 (toward which Wright has slightly inclined me) rather than the “unbelieving Gentile conscience” view. Therefore, it is far better to understand the phrase “works of the Law” as any and all things commanded in the Mosaic Law, including but certainly not limited to ceremonial rituals or markers like circumcision, food laws, or feast days.

The next two verses are also important texts for the New Perspective interpretation challenged above, for they bring the sociological issue to the forefront of Paul’s discussion of justification (contributing to the tendency of New Perspective writers to conceive of justification in largely ecclesiological terms). “Or,” Paul challenges his imaginary interlocutor, “is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one” (Rom. 3:29, 30).

Paul’s hidden assumption here, though, is not that if God were the God of the Jews only, and not also of the Gentiles, justification would be “by works of the Law” for Jews in some sense, after all. Would circumcision and commitment to Torah actually lead, in itself, to eschatological justification in such a situation? Impossible, given the reality of sin (3:20)! While such an arrangement would eliminate the logic of “horizontal” Jewish boasting over uncircumcised Gentiles, it would not in fact eliminate the more foundational problem of “vertical” Jewish boasting—boasting “before God” (cf. Rom. 4:2), in obedience “moral” or otherwise.

The point of vv. 29, 30 seems to be simply that, given the fact that the one God intends to justify both Jews and Gentiles through faith, and given the added fact that the Gentiles do not even formally possess the Law (in either its ceremonial or moral aspects), performance of (any) works of the Law can obviously play no part in the justification of sinners in the sense under consideration. Men are justified by faith apart from having, or even more importantly, doing “works of the Law.” (Rom. 2:13, far from needing to be read hypothetically to be consistent with this section, should be read as picturing vindication at the final judgment with imperfect, but genuine, Spirit-wrought Law-obedience as evidence of heart-circumcision and union with Christ [cf. 2:28, 29]).

Hence faith is further established as the sole instrument of justification, heading off any and every notion of justification by human works. Neither Gentile nor Jewish moralism, nor Jewish ceremonialism, will result in justification. Because “Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (3:9), because the Law serves to bring the “knowledge of sin” (v. 20), because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23), and because a “law” or “principle” of works fails to destroy human boasting (v. 27b), justification must operate according to a “law” or “principle” of faith (v. 27c). Paul’s recognition of the divine legal demand of absolute justice is evident in this passage.

We need to remember, as well, though, that this whole cross-centered paragraph began with a grand statement of covenantal contrast and redemptive-historical transition: “But now, apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested” (v. 21a). Therefore, even if a faithful Jew were to consider the possibility of attaining eschatological justification in the context of the Law, seeing Christ with the eyes of faith when looking at the types and shadows of the ceremonial system, Paul would still want to exhort them, “Take hold of the righteousness of God in Christ which has been manifested apart from the Law!”

In other words, legalism and inappropriate boasting of sinful humans are undeniably targets of Paul’s polemic here, but there is also the recognition of a fundamental shift in God’s dealings with His people from the old era of the Law to the new era of Christ and the Spirit. The shift is not absolute, but it is substantial, as we have argued above. Israel, corporately disobedient and exiled for her apostasy, may now, together with the whole Gentile world, find restoration and eschatological life and peace by faith-union with True Israel, the “one” seed of Abraham. She may embody and experience, at long last, covenantal justice (in the form of absolute justice, as it happens, and as appropriate to the eschaton; more on this below).

We understand to some degree, now, how this is the case forensically, in terms of eschatological justification. Whereas Israel of old was cursed and exiled, believers in Christ share, by the grace of God, Christ’s position of eternal favor with God as the Last Adam, who has advanced, as it were, beyond probation, and has been declared righteous by His resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:16).

How, though, is this the case practically, in terms of the “real spirituality” of the people? How have the renovative benefits of union with Christ served to not only bring about covenantal justice among God’s people, but even, in one sense already, absolute justice as regards actual covenant faithfulness/obedience?

V. 31 may give a brief introduction to Paul’s answer to that question. Some commentators understand the verse to be a hint at an area of doctrine that will be more fully developed later on in the book (a frequent pattern in Romans), largely in chapters six and eight. Namely, v. 31 may anticipate Paul’s argument that his doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works does not nullify the importance of obedience to the moral intent of the Law, but rather goes hand-in-hand with Law-obedience in the overarching category of union with Christ in His death and resurrection.

I think this specific idea could be a latent implication of the verse, but in consideration of what comes immediately after, it is probably better to read v. 31 similarly to Gal. 4:21. That is, just as Paul in Galatians urges his Law-loving, Judaizing opponents to heed what the Law, including the Abrahamic narrative actually says (going on to develop his “allegory” of contrast between Sarah and Hagar), here in Romans Paul is simply appealing to “the Law” as the Pentateuch as a whole, highlighting the quintessential example of justification by faith in the foundational story of Abraham (cf. all of Rom. 4, noting especially vv. 23-25). After all, Paul continues to develop and focus on his doctrine of justification all the way through the end of chapter five before ever turning to focus explicitly on renovative categories of salvation by faith in Christ (not that they are entirely absent in Chs. 3-5).

But when Paul finally arrives at the interlocutor’s question at Rom. 6:1, he indeed begins a train of thought that will eventually answer our question above: How is it that the unveiled, end-time “righteousness of God” has established, in some sense, absolute justice in the practical, “moral,” or evangelical sense among the covenant people? Without going into detailed exegesis of Romans 6-8 as would be necessary in a full treatment of sanctification in Romans, Paul argues in chapter six that all those who have been justified by faith in Christ have, by baptism signifying and sealing faith-union with Christ, been baptized into His death and resurrection, such that they are now fundamentally “dead to sin,” and “alive to God,” and should consider themselves as such. On this basis they should “present their members” to God as slaves of righteousness, for that is their new identity in Christ. It would be absurd for them—and in a sense, impossible—to abuse the grace of their justification by willfully going on to live in sin continuously (Rom. 6:1-14).

This definitive break with the enslaving power of sin is contrasted with the tyrannical reign of sin in the old era of the Law in Rom. 7:1-13 (and arguably in vv. 14-25 as well), as we have already seen. Then in chapter eight, Paul returns to speaking of the freedom of the new era “in Christ,” and begins to speak more fully and explicitly of the role and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of the believer. He ties together the historia salutis work of Christ with both the forensic and, importantly for our present discussion, the renovative ordo salutis benefits that flow from union with Him:

"Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the Law of sin and death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1-4, my emphasis).

On first reading it may be tempting to take the phrase “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” as referring to the fact that Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf by His obedience unto death (cf. Rom. 5:18, 19). After all, the chapter opened by stating our justification in Christ (in the negative terms of “no condemnation”). Moreover, Paul connects our salvation to the atonement by saying that in Christ God condemned sin, a forensic category. However, other exegetical considerations decisively show that “the requirement of the Law…fulfilled in us” speaks of concrete, personal, evangelical obedience.

First, the delivery from the “law of sin and death” (v. 2) contrasts with slavery to the “law of sin” in 7:23 and 25, where the question of practical obedience is most certainly in view. Second, although Paul speaks of the atonement with a forensic emphasis here, the background of all of 6:1-14 must be kept in mind: God not only condemned sin in the “flesh” of Christ, but actually carried out the sentence of death entailed by that condemnation, a death which directly effects our definitive deliverance from slavery to sin (cf. Rom. 6:6, 7). Third, Paul here speaks of the Law being fulfilled in us, clearly thinking of genuine heart-obedience (cf. Rom. 6:17). Fourth, and most compellingly, the relative clause “who do not walk (peripatousin) according to the flesh but [walk] according to the Spirit” fills out the meaning of “the requirement of the Law” being “fulfilled in us” with an obvious connotation of practical, daily obedience.

This further confirms that the eschatological intervention of God in Christ has established at least covenantal justice among the covenant people, in terms of practical obedience. And in fact that is all we have proved from Romans 8 so far, for Paul goes on to speak of the absolute need for the continual mortification of sin in the lives of believers (v. 13), implying beyond question that perfect obedience is not yet in view. Still, then, what about absolute justice in the category of practical obedience?

Paul hints at the final solution several times in vv. 11, 13b, 17, 19, 21, and 23, namely, our resurrection from the dead as our “glorification.” We learn later on in vv. 29, 30 that the final stage of our redemption in our glorification will constitute the realization of practical absolute justice because it is characterized as conformity to the image of the risen Christ: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…and those whom He predestined…He also glorified” (Rom. 8:29, 30, my emphasis).

As the glorious chapter of Romans 8 speaks of salvation from eternity past in predestination to eternity future in the glorification of saints and the everlasting experience of the love of God (cf. 8:31ff), we learn that God’s chief goal in carrying out salvation (besides His own glorification) is the creation of a perfectly righteous people who perfectly image His Son. The emphasis of the text is on the future of glorification, because it is only after the resurrection that we will fully image Christ in His perfect righteousness. Nevertheless, I want to argue here that we should speak regularly in terms of God having already established a kind of absolute justice among His people, even in the “renovative” or practical sense. There are several reasons.

First, Paul himself does so here by speaking of glorification in a kind of “prophetic perfect” tense: “…and these whom he justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). God’s decree that His people in Christ will all be glorified will so certainly come to pass that it is as if it has already been done. Second, and related, the people of God are so united with Christ their federal head that what is true of Him even in His resurrection and exaltation may be attributed to them even now (cf. the Pauline examples in Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1-3).

Third, Paul explicitly instructs His audience, as a key strategy in progressive sanctification, to “consider” themselves “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Note the important logical connection between vv. 11 and 12 in chapter six: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore (oun) do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts” (Rom. 6:11, 12, my emphasis). This is, for all intents and purposes, a classic example of the Pauline structure of an imperative based on an indicative (even though the “indicative” is also technically tucked away in another imperative). Believers are to resist the threatening uprising of sin in their (admittedly still mortal!) bodies on the basis of the fact that—as Paul says they should “consider” or “reckon” (logizesthe)—they are already completely “dead to sin” but “alive to God.”

The prophetic perfect indicative (not simply of justification but of definitive sanctification, cf. Rom. 6:7!), reified by the doctrine of union with Christ, grounds the imperative, and serves the progressive but ultimately victorious struggle on the path to experiential absolute justice, at the resurrection. In plainer words, what is true of Christ already as the resurrected Last Adam, serves the progressive sanctification of believers when it is attributed to them in the present tense as well.

Theological qualifications like “positional” versus “experiential” must be given at times to protect against perfectionistic approaches to sanctification in the Church, but in my experience we in the Reformed camp are entirely too shy to speak of ourselves as “saints,” “the righteous,” and “the godly,” in contrast to the way, for example, the Psalmists freely speak, and in disobedience to Romans 6:11. Would we not experience more of the freeing power of the Spirit if we more consistently—linguistically and psychologically—found our identity, by faith, in the One who was and is righteous in every sense of the word?

Therefore we have seen how for Paul, the Law,—the Mosaic covenant—especially in the sacrificial system, anticipated the need for eschatological divine intervention to establish both covenantal and absolute justice in both forensic and renovative/practical terms. God sent His own Son to die as the ultimate sin offering and to rise again, in order to reverse both the curse of Israel’s exile and the curse of Adam’s “exile,” both of which may be characterized as kinds of “death,” which is the wages of sin (cf. Rom. 6:23). The “righteousness of God” manifested in Christ, benefitting Jew and Gentile alike by faith apart from works of the Law, remedies both Israel’s want of covenantal justice and all of mankind’s want of absolute justice (a lack which had been forensically remedied only proleptically and sacramentally for the faithful Jewish remnant under the Law).

In the new era of the Spirit inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ, believers are united to Christ the Last Adam (the eschatological mode of the communion bond with the Lord experienced by believers across all administrations of the covenant of grace), and they partake of the new covenant promises of God to “forgive their iniquity” and “remember” their sin “no more” (Jer. 31:34) in justification; and to “put My law within them” (Jer. 31:33) and “put My Spirit within [them] and cause [them] to walk in My statutes” (Ez. 36:27). In other words, they partake of covenantal justice both forensically and practically.

Again, as I have labored to emphasize at various points in this essay, it is not as though the faithful remnant in the era of the Law failed to receive justification as an ordo salutis benefit, or were unable to live out a measure of real covenant faithfulness before Christ came. Rather, as regards justification, new covenant believers have a unique experiential privilege of union with the incarnate-crucified-and-now-risen Christ who has, as a matter of historia salutis, already secured their justification (Rom. 3:21, 22). The substance of what was promised and even prospectively granted long ago has now appeared (cf. Col. 2:17).

And as regards sanctification, the contrast is not absolute, even though Paul casts it in absolute terms occasionally (as discussed in a previous section). The contrast is between Israel’s corporate disobedience (cf. Jer. 31:32b, Hos. 6:7) as the “typological son of God” and the reality that the Church as a whole (despite some false brethren), by the power of the Spirit in union with Christ the “eschatological Son,” will now genuinely fulfill the “requirement of the Law” (Rom. 8:4), in fulfillment of Deut. 30:1-14.

Furthermore, the establishment of this practical kind of covenantal justice constitutes, every bit as much as the forensic reality of justification, absolute justice, albeit in a proleptic manner. The “prophetic perfect” of Rom. 6:11 and 8:30 anticipates the experiential reality of perfect conformity to Christ in glorification, and brings the power of Last-Day resurrection forward into the present for believers, as they persevere in the war they must wage against sin.

The dual problem of the fall of Adam (sin and death), recapitulated and dramatized in the apostasy and exile of Israel, is remedied by the eschatological intervention of God in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Not only is restoration from exile granted (in staggeringly biblical-theologically rich ways [cf. Rom. 9:24-26; 11:25-32]), but all of human sin and death is remedied for those who have faith in Christ (Rom. 3:23-24; 6:23).

The corollary to all of this is that Paul’s polemic, the rich and layered content of which has been given short shrift by many differing flavors of reductionistic exegesis, contains at least the following two layers: 1) a redemptive-historical/eschatological thrust insisting that the old era of the Law characterized largely, or covenantally, by impotence, sin, condemnation, death, the “flesh,” and Jewish exclusivism (all dramatized in Israel’s corporate apostasy), has been supplanted by the new era of the Spirit characterized by power, righteousness, justification, life in the Spirit, and widespread Gentile inclusion in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises; and 2) a systematic (specifically, anthropo-soteriological) thrust against all forms of human boasting including both basic legalism (cf. Rom. 4:4) and subtler forms of Jewish presumption (cf. Rom. 2:17ff)—both probably encompassed in the insistence that justification is “by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28).

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 5b: Christ a Curse for Us (Rom. 3)

Let us begin to look at another, and perhaps the most detailed passage in Paul concerning the dynamics of the atonement of Christ, Romans 3:19-31:

"Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

"Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith is one.

"Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law" (Rom. 3:19-31).

Before concluding how this passage supports the assertion of this essay regarding how the Law required and set the stage of history for God’s establishment of both covenantal and absolute justice, let us walk through its logic and make relevant lexical and interpretive comments along the way.

V. 19, discussed extensively in a previous section, begins to bring to a close the well-documented inclusio of 1:18-3:20, summarizing the problem of the world remedied by Paul’s apostolic gospel message. In chapters 2 and 3 Paul had turned from speaking of the problem of sin in general, in the largely Gentile world, to specifically Jewish sin and hypocrisy. Those who possessed the Law should have known better, but by and large failed to live faithfully according to its terms (2:24). However, because Israel was formally, corporately indicted of sin in the context of the Mosaic covenant, Paul says all the world is also accountable to God.

V. 20 focuses us further on the need for eschatological divine intervention beyond the provisions of the Law, by stating that the Law itself will not, in the final analysis, justify anyone! The reason Paul gives is that through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. It is interesting to note the generality of this statement in comparison with what Paul says in Galatians 3:10, in the context of his discussion there. One reason Paul gives in Galatians for the fact that justification or reception of the eschatological inheritance is not by the Law is that the “works-of-the-Law ones” (Israelites) are under the curse of Deut. 27:26, read properly as a curse on covenant unfaithfulness (want of covenantal justice), not judgment for mere imperfection. Here in Romans 3:20, however, Paul says simply that the knowledge of sin (want of absolute justice) disqualifies the Roman believers from justification by the Law. This ties together for us, conceptually, once again, the Law’s anticipation of the need for both covenantal and absolute justice by the work of Christ.

How is it, though, one may ask, that the Law—understood as a reference to the Mosaic covenant administration of the covenant of grace—will not justify anyone? Surely the believing remnant in Israel before the coming of Christ received the grace of justification by seeing, with the eye of faith, something of the glory of the promised Messiah adumbrated in the sacrifices and ceremonial ordinances in which they participated! So does Paul here in Romans 3:20 simply mean to exclude crass Jewish legalism? If not, what is the redemptive-historical point being made, and does that point have no bearing on Paul’s concern with legalism and human boasting?

Here is an opportunity to exercise caution against a number of the reductionisms mentioned in the introduction to this essay. Of course the believing remnant like Joshua were, in ordo salutis terms, justified by faith in the context of the Mosaic covenant, and in that sense, the “Law” (Mosaic covenant) indeed provided for justification. But in historia salutis terms—Paul’s consistent beginning point before ordo issues are ever brought into view—the Law did not bring about the substance or real historical basis of the justification experienced by faith even under Moses. Such appeared only after the coming of Christ, the completion of His work, and through the Spirit-anointed proclamation of the gospel.

This feature of the progression of redemptive history, though, certainly had a pedagogical function in terms of undermining the legalism toward which all sinful “flesh” (note sarx in v. 20) is inevitably bent! Especially if we keep in mind what we learned about the relatively bilateral administration of the Law as over against the unilateral fulfillment of the promises to Abraham in the gospel, the “probation” of the covenant community under the Law (cf. Gal. 3:23; 4:1-3) until Christ came served—as we saw in detail from Romans 7—to powerfully put to rest the idea that fallen humanity, Israelite or otherwise, could ever merit divine favor or justification by means of law. Israel could not corporately attain to or maintain the fullness of rest in the typological promised land by covenant faithfulness; and neither Jews nor Gentiles can attain eternal life by means of works.

The language introducing v. 21 confirms that a redemptive-historical transition is at the forefront of Paul’s mind, fundamental to whatever else he wants to say about the subjective appropriation of God’s saving work in Christ. “But now,” Paul begins (nyni de). The adversative contrasts the notion of justification by works with what will follow, and the time indicator casts the following discussion in appropriately eschatological light. Paul continues, “…apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (v. 21, cont’d). The word “manifested” (pephanerōtai) recalls the “revealed” (apokalyptetai) of Romans 1:17, where Paul says that God’s righteousness in revealed in his gospel, and therefore has power to save. Both of these verses contribute to the eschatological cast of Paul’s presentation of Christ here.

The phrase “righteousness of God” has been the subject of much modern controversy especially in the context of “New Perspective on Paul” discussions. In my non-expert opinion, reductionisms tend to rule the day on many sides. Without spending too much space here establishing a fully annotated, scholarly, alternative opinion, I will simply supply a rich, working, contextual, definition to which I hope few readers will object strongly. I understand the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou) here to mean something like, “God’s justice displayed especially in His covenantally faithfully bringing about the deliverance of His people, while upholding His own glory in the judgment of all sin.”

Paul says that this alternative to the Law, the eschatologically manifested “righteousness of God,” was nevertheless witnessed by both the Law and the Prophets—surely a shorthand reference to the Hebrew Scriptures in toto (v. 21). The details of how this is so are inexhaustible, but we may certainly think of the innumerable Messianic prophecies in the OT, and, based on Paul’s cultic language later in the passage, the whole sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law which anticipated the cross of Christ.

As we will see, we may also include here the Abrahamic narrative from Genesis, which was a foundational part of the “Law.” All of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, speak concerning the Christ, and the necessity of His suffering and subsequent glory (Lk. 24:13-27). With Law and Prophets as witness to the “righteousness of God” manifested in Christ, Paul’s teaching in the rest of this passage has universal import, yes, but a distinctly Jewish foundation and character (cf. Rom. 1:16c).

In v. 22 Paul makes the connection between the redemptive-historical shift and the subjective reception of the benefits of God’s saving work for believers: “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction,” (Rom. 3:22). Here we encounter another controversial language issue. Many “New Perspective” writers have argued that the phrase traditionally translated, “(through) faith in Jesus Christ,” from the Greek pisteōs Iēsou Christou, should be understood as a subjective rather than objective genitive and therefore be translated, “through the faithfulness of Christ.”

This is theologically attractive in terms of the “three sons of God” biblical-theological theme where Adam and then Israel were unfaithful sons, and now Christ has come as the faithful Son to bring about eschatological glory and deliverance for His people. It also seems, initially, to make more sense of vv. 21, 22 together, because the “righteousness of God” is manifested not through the saving faith of believers in Christ (what exactly would that mean?) but rather is manifested through the faithful work of Christ as God’s Messianic agent. One other important reason often given for the subjective genitive reading is the fact that it avoids seemingly unnecessary repetitions about the role of faith on the part of believers. Why mention faith twice here in v. 22 (see similarly Gal. 3:22)?

On the other hand, pushback has come from some Reformed and other writers, defending the traditional objective genitive rendering. Typical arguments include, 1) in Rom. 3:22 and elsewhere where the objective genitive is said to create superfluous repetitions, Paul is in fact emphasizing the universality of salvation by faith in Christ by means of the repetition (“all those who believe; for there is no [Jewish or Gentile] distinction”), or simply emphasizing the fact that the promise is by faith over against reliance on the Law, as in Galatians where such emphasis was situationally crucial (“so that the promise by faith…might be given to those who believe”); 2) Phil. 3:9 seems to directly contrast Paul’s own righteousness with Paul’s faith as mutually exclusive bases on which to receive the “righteousness that comes from God”; and 3) there is a deafening silence in the early Patristic witness with regard to a subjective genitive reading of Rom. 3:22 (although this point has also been contested).

For my own part, I very tentatively hold to the objective genitive rendering. I find the three arguments above relatively compelling, but I also find it more consonant in Rom. 3:22 with the way I read Romans 1:17 (the “righteousness of God” is revealed in the gospel “from faith to faith,” where the phrase “from faith to faith” is understood as referring to subjective saving faith, based on the Habakkuk 2:4 citation, rather than referring to a redemptive-historical shift “from the faith under the Law to the faith of the gospel” or something like that). I also see a potential problem of translational consistency between Gal. 3:22 and 3:23 if v. 22 is read as a subjective genitive. Similarly for Romans 3:26 (“…justifier of the one who is of the faith/faithfulness of Jesus” seems out of place).

I had to address the issue here because it colors to some degree the way one tends to read the rest of the passage in Romans 3, but the main points argued in this essay do not finally depend on the decision of how to translate v. 22. And certainly there is truth in what the subjective genitive rendering would teach, namely, that Christ’s faithfulness does in fact manifest the saving, eschatological righteousness of God.

Also, I should say that I find the common Reformed exegesis that interprets “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” as an explicit reference to justification and specifically imputation to be a bit simplistic. I think that the forensic element of justification is latent in the expression as an aspect of God’s end-time deliverance through Christ (which Paul will develop in the next few verses), and the imputation of the obedience of Christ is arguably part of that justification (made explicit only in chapter 5). However, New Perspective writers are correct to point out that the “righteousness of God” is not the appropriate category for speaking of imputation, in Pauline terms (with the possible but highly controversial exception of 2 Cor. 5:21). I agree with them that the phrase is broader, and focused more upon an objective, covenantal intervention of God, as in my definition given above.

Paul gives a ground for vv. 21, 22 in the next verse, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23, my emphasis). This verse recalls all of 1:18-3:20 as the dark backdrop against which the intervention of God in Christ shines: Jew and Gentile—Law-possessors and non-Law-possessors alike—are all under sin. The conjoined phrase “fall short of the glory of God” should probably be read in apposition with “sinned.” If not quite intended as an exposition of the content of “sinned,” it is certainly at least the result. And it may recall the idolatry of 1:18ff discussed in terms of “exchanging the glory” of the true God (Rom. 1:23), and/or the description of the godly in 2:7 as those who “seek for glory.”

I think that what is most important for us to say at this juncture is that v. 23 names the problem for both Gentile and Jew as nothing other than sin in general, understood as broadly as “falling short” of the glory of God. Therefore when Paul goes on in v. 24, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” the justification granted here comes in light of any lack of or any failure to attain to the glory of God; it comes in light simply of “sin.”

This is further established when looking at the way Paul normally employs the category of “redemption.” A commercial metaphor with both biblical and 1st century Roman background, denoting the purchase of a slave’s freedom, Paul often simply uses the word “redemption” (apolytrōsis) to refer to the forgiveness of sins (cf. the apposition in Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). What we see, then, is that this justification by faith in Christ, one of the benefits of God’s saving righteousness that was witnessed by the Law and has now been uniquely unveiled, comes to grant both Jew and Gentile absolute justice in at least the forensic sense.

It is also worth briefly noting the emphasis Paul gives to the fact that this justification is a “gift” by “grace,” anticipating the discussion in a few verses of the operation of faith over against “works of the Law” for justification, but also anticipating Rom. 4:4-5 where he explicitly contrasts the dynamic of earned wages with that of justification by faith. The consistency with which Paul juxtaposes his gospel message with all forms of human boasting or notions of sinners being able to “earn” something from God undermines, in my opinion, the reductionistic meaning New Perspective writers sometimes give to Paul’s polemic against justification “by works of the Law.” More on this below.

In v. 25a Paul moves to the historical foundation of God’s saving (including justifying) work through Christ, namely, of course, the cross: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” This verse is key in discussions of atonement theory, and debates go on as to whether to understand hilastērion as “propitiation,” “expiation,” or as including both. Many commentators also detect an allusion to the mercy seat of the tabernacle/temple, in front of which the blood of sin offerings was sprinkled to make atonement for the people of Israel. I’m not an expert on the lexical issues, but “propitiation” makes good sense in the context of the rest of the passage, especially the following verses, and is certainly related to the function of the ancient mercy seat. “Propitiation” gives us a small insight into a relational aspect of the atoning work of Christ, whereas most of the passage focuses on the forensic aspect.

Cross-reading with Galatians 3, Christ was cursed in terms of the Mosaic Law on our behalf, and therefore suffered the penal sanction of death—specifically, a shameful death on a cross. The covenantal relationship between God and man, though, was never one of bare, cold forensics; it has always been intensely personal, as well. Therefore we understand that the wrath of God the Father against human sin (and indeed against sinners) burns hot because God is just and must hate and punish sin. Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice, then, “absorbed” that just, divine wrath on the cross, in the context of the negative covenant sanctions of the Law, whatever else we must go on to say about other dimensions of the atonement (i.e. the cross as a cosmic victory over Satanic powers, a definitive breach with the enslaving power of sin, etc.).

In Galatians 3, we remember, the focus was indeed on Christ suffering specifically the Mosaic sanctions due to accursed Israel because of her corporate apostasy, although we noted more universal aspects of Christ’s substitutionary death in that passage as well. Here, the reverse is the case. The emphasis here is on Christ as a sin-bearing substitute in general, for Jews and Gentiles equally, because of sin in general. But we have already seen evidence of uniquely Jewish concerns as well (the background of the Law indicting not only Israel but the whole world for sin, the witness of the Law to the eschatologically revealed righteousness of God, and hilastērion as a possible reference to the mercy seat in Israel’s temple worship).

The rest of v. 25 and v. 26 functions to confirm the heart of the penal substitution “model” of the atonement (as at least one legitimate, and indeed quite central, aspect of it): "This [the public display of Christ as a propitiation] was to demonstrate [God’s] righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25b-26, my brackets).

At stake in the atonement of Christ, at least according to this passage, is the justice of God in “passing over,” or forgiving, sins. It is legitimate, based on these verses, to emphasize the forensic aspect of the “righteousness of God” that is manifested in Christ when interpreting vv. 21, 22, even if we argue for a broader overall meaning.

Paul’s assumption seems to be that if Christ had not been crucified as a propitiatory, substitute sacrifice, all of God’s forgiveness of sins in the past would render Him an unjust judge, failing to uphold the glory of His own righteousness. Not only would He appear unjust (if Paul had left it at the level of “demonstration” in v. 26a, a kind of mere “moral government” theory of the atonement could be more readily advanced from the passage), but in fact would be unjust (hence v.26b, “so that [eis] He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” my emphasis). But because of the cross, God’s glory and righteousness are upheld and fully revealed, even—or especially—in His justification of sinners.

We will have to continue our exegetical reflections on the passage in subsequent posts.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 5a: Christ a Curse for Us (Gal. 3)

4. Christ a Curse for Us

The final major way we will examine that the Law illustrated the need for Christ to come and achieve eschatological righteousness and life for His people is that the Law anticipated, in its ceremonial system of offerings and sacrifices, the need for a human being to come and bear, as a substitute sacrifice on behalf of God’s people, covenant cursing that threatens people for both covenantal and absolute injustice. In other words, we will look at a couple of passages that show how Christ’s cross-work fulfills the role of removing, from all who will trust in Him, liability to divine judgment in both its Mosaic and eschatological thrusts.

Let us return for a moment to an earlier section of Galatians 3. This passage will emphasize the atonement of Christ in terms of God’s saving provision in light of Mosaic cursing. However, as we will see, it will hint at its absolute/eschatological import as well. Paul is continuing his contrast of faith with “works of the Law” as instruments of justification and reception of the Abrahamic inheritance/the Spirit:

"For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise through faith" (Gal. 3:10-14).

Here Paul begins by asserting that the “works-of-the-Law-ones” (I take this as referring to the Jews as a whole, characterized by unbelief, and anyone else who would rely on the Law for justification) are under a curse, because, according to Deut. 27:26, commitment to Torah requires total commitment, and by implication, those whom Paul has in mind here have not met that requirement. Many Reformed commentators have taken this citation of Deut. 27:26 here by Paul as a simplistic statement to the effect that anyone who would seek justification in terms of the Law would be obligated to sinless perfection because that’s what Deuteronomy says the Law—the Mosaic Law, as a whole—requires, and therefore such a person should abandon that path and seek justification by faith alone in Christ.

While there’s a measure of truth in such an assertion, it doesn’t quite make sense of the text, and it is not Paul’s point here. The Mosaic Law did not, in fact, require sinless perfection of the covenant people (unless we include the idea of the atonement granted through the sacrificial system). Deuteronomy 27:26, in the context of everything else the Law says, does not require actual sinless perfection but a measure of real religious loyalty and filial fidelity to God—covenant faithfulness, evidence of heart-circumcision. The trouble is that Israel did not (corporately) attain to even this standard of “total commitment” to the Law of God, but fell into religious formalism and eventually gross idolatry, resulting ultimately in exile. That is, they fell under the Mosaic curse of God.

Paul then appeals to Habakkuk 2:4 as a proof-text of justification by faith, just as he does in Romans 1:16-17 as a backdrop to the discussion of justification in Romans 3-5. It may seem a random, out-of-place proof-text at first glance, but is in fact highly appropriate. In the context of Habakkuk, living by faith is given prophetically as the way of salvation from the coming judgment through the Babylonians. Therefore it continues to cast Paul’s discussion of justification in eschatological terms (since the prophets consistently promise eschatological salvation in terms of a “new exodus” return from exile), just as vv. 6-9 do, and it makes clearer that the “curse” of v. 10 is nothing less than Israel’s exile (even if divine cursing ultimately involves more than that, too).

Paul continues, “But,” or “However,” (de; “And” is possible, but I prefer the adversative), “the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them’” (v. 12). The phrase, “the Law is not of faith” has been subject to the widest imaginable variety of interpretations, including many which would be more properly labeled “abuses.” To be fair, the meaning is not immediately evident upon first reading. But if we stick to just a couple of sound interpretive principles, we need not become aimlessly adrift in a sea of speculation. Above all, let us take into careful consideration the immediate and slightly wider grammatical and linguistic context of the phrase.

First, whatever the phrase means, it must contrast directly with the second half of the verse that quotes (or at least alludes strongly to) Leviticus 18:5 (note the introductory phrase, “on the contrary”). The Law being “of faith” is set directly opposite the principle of, “The man who practices [these laws] shall live by them.”

Second, we must explicitly note once again the heavily eschatological thrust of this whole chapter, and realize that “live” here probably entails, at least, “to inherit eschatological life in the Spirit/receive the Abrahamic inheritance.” Moreover, “faith” here must not be supposed to be an utterly inoperative principle in the Mosaic economy, but must be understood as uniquely redemptive-historically bound up with the eschatological intervention of God in Christ, as the sole instrument by which men may appropriate such salvation. Note, supporting this idea, the interesting way Paul uses “faith” in a quasi-synecdochical way later on in vv. 23, 25 to refer to the coming of Christ Himself and the new covenant, overstating matters as if faith were utterly inoperative in previous eras.

Third, let us remember everything we said in the previous section about the relatively bilateral character of the Mosaic arrangement in the contour of redemptive history, and assume that the second half of the verse (Gal. 3:12b), stating the principle of Lev. 18:5, basically encapsulates those principles in a succinct way. If Israel is faithful to the Law, she will live by that faithfulness to the Law (i.e. experience significant blessing in the promised land).

With these considerations in mind, let us attempt to construct a plausible paraphrase and expansion of Gal. 3:12a that makes more explicit Paul’s intention: “The Law is not of faith,” or in other words, “Faith that appropriates eschatological life [in Christ] is not [now] expressed as obedience to the Mosaic Law.” To do the same thing to the second half of the verse which refers to Lev. 18:5, taking into account the wider context of the Leviticus text: “On the contrary, ‘he who does them shall live by them,’” or in other words, “A man may inherit a long life in the promised land of Canaan [a type of eschatological life] if he maintains a measure of religious loyalty and filial fideity to God.”

So we have in view, so far, the problem of curse and exile, the eschatological purview of the salvation Paul is discussing, and the subjective/ordo salutis solution of faith as over against the Law/works of the Law. Then in v. 13 Paul introduces the objective/historia salutis basis of his doctrine of justification and eschatological inheritance by faith, namely, the cross-work of Christ. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).

In this text we find the central theological thrust of this section of the essay, namely, that the Law anticipated and pointed forward to the atonement of Christ as a sacrifice that deals with sin and its punishment in both Mosaic and eschatological aspects. First let us notice that Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (my emphasis). It is the curse of the Mosaic Law, the curse of exile mentioned previously in v.10, as we saw, which Paul here says that the cross of Christ addresses and remedies. Christ Himself, whose death represents for Luke in his gospel the new “exodus” for His people (cf. Lk. 9:31), undergoes exile on the cross: thrust out of the light of God’s favor and countenance, abandoned, and left naked and ashamed, ravaged by the Gentile Roman dogs, just like Judah was by the Babylonians. And this not for His own sins, for He was innocent, but as a substitute sacrifice on behalf of His beloved people, Israel (cf. Is. 53).

But not on behalf of Israel alone. Notice, also, Paul’s inclusive use of “us”: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (v. 13, my emphasis). Paul’s audience, the church at Galatia (likely the southern Galatia), was manifestly composed of Jews and many Gentiles (else the controversy addressed in the letter would never have even arisen). Therefore it is certain that Paul conceives of Christ’s substitutionary work as benefitting Gentile believers no less than Jewish believers, and in terms of release from the curse of the Law. This is possible for at least two reasons.

First, remember from the first section of this essay how the Law functions to indict all human sin, Gentiles included, by way of indicting the sin of Israel. Hence, when the substitute came to redeem representative Israel, the world, too, as a whole was redeemed from its liability to the Deuteronomic curses that summed up divine judgment promised for breaking the Mosaic covenant.

Second, and as we will speak of more in looking at another passage, the Mosaic Law itself included the provision of animal sacrifices which were intended to atone not for Israel’s high-handed rebellion, but for all the “unintentional sins” of individual faithful Israelites; and this consideration deepens our understanding of the idea of the “curse of the Law.” Paul has in mind, yes, the curse of exile, in terms of redemptive history, but let us remember that the original penalty for sin in the garden was death (Gen. 2:17): personal, physical, and ultimately eschatological death for the unredeemed (Rev. 2:11; 20:14).

In the final analysis, the Mosaic curse of Israel’s exile was only a redemptive-historical illustration typological and proleptic of the final destiny of the unredeemed. All sin renders men liable to eschatological divine judgment, even after all the temporal misery and provisional historical judgments they may incur. And this is simply assumed within the framework of the sacrificial system, as bulls and goats were sacrificed continually, year after year, in recognition of the absolute need for atonement even for the covenantally faithful remnant within Israel. Nor is this fundamental principle of divine justice lost on the prophets: “The person who sins will die” (Ez. 18:20a).

So Paul continues in Galatians, with the purpose clause, “in order that [hina] in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that [hina] we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). Here it is explicit; Christ died, accursed on Calvary in place of the accursed “works-of-Law-ones” (exiled Israel), in order that 1) the Gentiles would be included in Abrahamic blessing (by faith, apart from the Law), and 2) “we” (Jew and Gentile) would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (this makes explicit the content of Abrahamic blessing, and highlights the instrumental role of faith again).

We see from Galatians 3:10-14, then, that the Law anticipated—and Christ fulfilled—the need for atonement by means of a curse-bearing substitute who would take away both the curse of exile due to Israel’s covenantal injustice, as well as eschatological judgment threatening Gentiles for sin in general and sins atoned for only sacramentally in the Mosaic sacrificial system for faithful Jews (absolute injustice). To state it more succinctly, Christ’s work “undid exile” and “undid hell” for all who would believe in Him. In God’s design and providence, the Mosaic Law anticipated both realities, in different ways.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 4b: Objections to Law, Mediation, and Promise section

Objection 1: Reformed covenantalism insists that the Mosaic covenant, referred to by Paul typically as “the Law” (as here at least many times, in Galatians), is an administration of the covenant of grace, and operates on the same basic principles of grace through faith in the promised Messiah as all other administrations of the covenant of grace, including the new covenant. How, therefore, could Paul be contrasting so heavily the “Law” with the “promise” of the gospel, in terms of “bilateral” vs. “unilateral” arrangements, as suggested above?

My answer: Again, I agree that the Mosaic covenant should be characterized as an administration of the covenant of grace, and there is no room to speak even of a typological republication of the “covenant of works” associated with it. OT saints under Moses were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, as He was offered to them in promises, types, and shadows. And it was not demanded, even of Israel as a whole, to obey the law perfectly and sinlessly, in order to maintain the land inheritance of Canaan (the only meaningful implication of a “covenant of works” administration).

Nevertheless, as the typological “Son of God,” rescued from Egypt and brought into gracious, intimate covenant relationship with Yahweh, Israel as a whole was uniquely responsible to fulfill a measure of religious loyalty and filial fidelity, upon condition of which, she would receive significant covenant blessing, like that promised in Deut. 28:1-14. And while Israel did at times more or less exercise such faithfulness and experience a measure of such blessing, the frequent, and in the latter days of her history, prevailing, situation was that of Deut. 29:4, “Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” So, in an analogical way as aforesaid, “But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7). Israel corporately disobeys (meaning here not merely a slight disobedience but by-and-large disbelieving covenant apostasy, with only a remnant of faithful), and is eventually exiled.

By contrast, the blessing of all nations on the basis of the promises made to Abraham is unilaterally accomplished by God in the perfect faithfulness and obedience of Christ, God’s eschatological Son. The coming, death, resurrection, ascension, and Spirit-outpouring work of Christ secures the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant not only in the inclusion of all nations, but also in the creation of a people who are at long last, as a whole, eternally, a circumcised-of-heart people who are faithful to their covenant God. In fact, they become the faithful, priestly instrument of God in His ongoing fulfillment of the promise to bless all nations!

To be sure, Christ’s future work was the only basis on which God blessed the remnant of Old Testament believers, who looked forward to His coming; and to be sure, not all members of Christ’s visible church in the new covenant era are certainly regenerate and circumcised of heart! As well, we must affirm that individual new covenant believers are under no less obligation than those under Moses, in terms of the requirement of covenant fidelity (the only visible evidence of regeneration and the presence of the Spirit). Nevertheless, there is a clear redemptive-historical contrast between what Israel corporately failed to do under the Law, weakened by the flesh, and what God in Christ succeeded in doing, resulting in eschatological life and righteousness for His people in the Spirit. On the basis of Christ’s completed work they corporately experience both “covenantal” and ultimately “absolute” justice—justification as well as true covenant faithfulness culminating in glorification (perfection) on the Last Day.

This is surely at least partially what the author of Hebrews has in mind (in chapters 8 and 10) in quoting the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31 and contrasting the covenant God made with His people after the exodus, “my covenant, which they broke,” as God says (Jer. 31:32, my emphasis), with the new covenant God has made in Christ, in which God puts His law “within them and on their heart” (Jer. 31:33). Speaking of the same period of promised restoration, God had said similarly through Ezekiel, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances,” (Ez. 36:26-27). All of this is in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 30:1-14 where Moses predicted restoration after a period of exile, and we find the promise, “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). Once God does this through Christ and the Spirit, the covenant community will never apostatize as a whole like Israel did: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me” (Jer. 32:40, my emphasis).

So while there is little to no ordo salutis difference in terms of which people are saved by the grace of God, between the administration of the Mosaic covenant and the arrival of the new (although some questions remain about the precise nature of the Spirit’s ministry in the OT here), there is significant historia salutis development. There was no more “synergism” in the OT period than there is now that Christ has come. But there remains the biblical acknowledgment that God in Christ has Himself done what the Law—“weakened by the flesh,” and therefore, really, what Israel—could not do (cf. Rom. 8:3, 4). The Law that promised a kind of eschatological blessing for covenant faithfulness, yet which was never ultimately intended by God to bring about true eschatological life has served its multi-faceted purpose that included exacerbating, highlighting, and formally indicting human sin; and has faded away, in the light of the dawning of the fulfillment of that which was more fundamental all along: the divine promise, realized in Christ—true Israel, the faithful Son of God.

We find confirmation in a major parallel passage, a place where Paul is again contrasting the Law (summed up in the sign of circumcision) with faith in Christ as the basis of receiving the eschatological blessings of the Abrahamic promises:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants was not through law but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is from faith, in order that it may accord with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Rom. 4:13-16).

Here, as in Galatians 3, Paul contrasts “the Law” as a law-principle (v. 15) with faith like Abraham’s as antithetical principles on the basis of which to receive the promise. He argues that the Law brings wrath (tacitly because of sin—the corporate sin of apostasy in Israel’s case), but where there is no Law, there is no violation (hence no wrath). Therefore, in order to guarantee the promise for all the descendants of Abraham (whether Jew or Gentile, those “of the Law” or not), the promise is received by grace through faith (in Christ).

Of course the Law (again, the Mosaic covenant as a whole) itself had provisions for atonement of sin, and of course through the Law, the gospel was preached through types and shadows in anticipation of Christ. But here Paul is again comfortable to speak in stark terms about the “Law” as resulting only in wrath, and as in some sense antithetical to the grace-faith-promise-guarantee dynamic of the gospel! I think it is because, as we have been seeing, Israel through the Law could not, corporately, bring about “covenantal justice” (covenant faithfulness) for herself, much less “absolute justice” either practically or forensically (both of which, as we will see, require the atonement wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary). We might paraphrase Paul, in somewhat anachronistic language, “the covenant-of-grace administration that was to result in life for Israel became her curse and exile, so the promise of spiritual and indeed eternal life by the grace of God is guaranteed to all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, after the pattern of Abraham’s faith.”

Objection 2: How can Paul contrast the Mosaic covenant and the promise realized in Christ on the basis of whether there is mediation, in light of the fact that a major theme of the whole New Testament is the mediation of Christ Himself on behalf of His new covenant people?

My answer: First, I want to point out that Paul’s main point in emphasizing the mediatorial character of the Mosaic administration over against the fulfillment of promise in Christ was to highlight the relatively bilateral character of Israel’s arrangement under the Law (essentially, “Israel, be corporately covenantally faithful, and then you will be blessed”) in contrast with God’s unilateral sending of Christ and bringing about of eschatological fulfillment that would result in His people’s covenant faithfulness at long last. So as Paul says in Gal. 3:20, “a mediator is not for one [party],” (my bracketed gloss), implying, with vv. 18, 19 as background, that the Law operated on at least a two-party dynamic; “whereas,” he continues, “God is one [party]” (my bracket again). The emphasis is not so much on whether there is a mediator at all, but on the implied operational principle of the covenant dynamic: a bilateral “law” dynamic (as extensively covenantally qualified as we have attempted to present it), versus a unilateral “promise” dynamic.

Still, one may initially wonder whether the obvious fact of Christ’s indispensable new covenant mediation challenges the above interpretation. If there is a mediator for both old and new covenant, is there a legitimate salvation-historical contrast to be made on the basis of the idea of mediation? I think there are still legitimate contrasts to highlight along the lines of thought spelled out above.

If I may be permitted to expand just slightly beyond the text at hand into wider biblical- and systematic-theological thoughts, the Mosaic administration clearly had a uniquely mediatorial character in terms of the “distance” from which the people were required to relate with God, both literally and symbolically. At the giving of the Law on Sinai, the people were not even allowed to touch the bottom of the mountain, as they awaited Moses. Moses himself very possibly was instructed by God on the mountain second-hand at times, through angels (cf. the phrase “ordained through angels” in Gal. 3:19 and Acts 7:53). After the people heard God’s voice directly, they begged for Moses alone to speak to them on God’s behalf, going forward (Ex. 20:19). The very architecture of the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem, together with the Day of Atonement ceremonies, spoke loudly and clearly to Israel that God was holy and unapproachable, save for the provision of blood atonement and His own condescension to meet with Moses face-to-face, and then with the high priest only once a year. By contrast, the new covenant people in Christ have, because of His death, resurrection, and ascension, direct access to the true “most holy place” in heaven—full access to God the Father by the Spirit (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 6:19-20; 9:11, 12, 23, 24).

I also want to make a qualified Trinitarian argument regarding Christ’s new covenant mediation as a contrast in Gal. 3:20 to Moses’ mediation of the old covenant. On the one hand, it would be systematic-theologically legitimate to say that the hypostatic union makes Christ’s mediation sui generis and in a sense simply adds an extra role to one of the parties to the covenant (namely, God). In other words, because the mediator of the divine-human covenant is Himself also divine, the “mediation” of the new covenant is from one perspective (this is overstated) almost superfluous, and therefore the Law was mediated in a way that the new covenant is not. On another hand, I don’t think Paul is primarily thinking in such categories as he pens his letter to the Galatians. Paul is, throughout his whole NT corpus, fixated on Christ as the Last Adam, in terms of His human Messianic identity and work. He only rarely considers the Son, the second person of the Trinity, apart from this eschatological, incarnational framework (cf. Col. 1:15-16).

Yet here in Galatians as in many other places, Paul does seem to be underscoring in a unique way the functional identity of the incarnate Christ with God the Father’s own action in bringing about the fulfillment of promise. In other words—almost to repeat the first answer above to this objection—the God-man Jesus Christ as the human agent of God, the “Second Adam,” sinlessly and infallibly secures by His messianic work the eschatological blessings of God in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. So although Jesus is certainly the “mediator” of the new covenant, and it is therefore not as though every notion of “mediation” has been erased from the covenant arrangement, none of the mediators of previous covenants have been in a position to unilaterally fulfill what was necessary to bring about eschatological life! In fact, while Moses often foreshadows the ministry of Christ in a positive way, as in his intercessory prayer for the people after the golden calf incident, even offering himself as a substitute sacrifice(!) (Ex. 32:30-32), he also serves as a foil for Christ’s faithfulness when he is forbidden from ultimately entering the promised land of Canaan because of a previous lapse in his own faithfulness.

The contrast, then, is between a heavily mediated covenant arrangement that functions redemptive-historically in a uniquely “law-like” way, having a mediator who is ultimately powerless to secure ultimate blessing for himself, much less for the people; with a relatively unmediated covenant arrangement that functions uniquely on the basis of the Abrahamic promises, mediated by One who acts on behalf of God Himself and secures eschatological blessing for His people by means of His own perfect faithfulness and obedience.

So although the ultimately Trinitarian character of this line of thought is not explicit in Galatians 3, it is certainly present beneath the surface in Paul’s wider corpus, and it is certainly evident when we consider other portions of new covenant prophecy in the OT. In Paul, an example would be Colossians 1:15-20, in which, it can be argued, the identity of the pre-incarnate Son as the second person of the Trinity both grounds His incarnate work as Messiah, and is revealed especially in His glorified, post-resurrection state in His exaltation (see again the work of Dr. Lane Tipton in the essay “Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4: An Exercise in Biblico-Systematic Theology” in ‘Resurrection and Eschatology,’ ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington).

We find another powerful line of evidence in the prophets. Looking forward to the restoration of Israel, the prophets, which provide much of the thematic background for Paul’s eschatological reflections, portray God as fed up with the unfaithfulness of the religious leadership of His precious chosen people, and He resolves:

For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment,” (Ez. 34:11-16, my emphases).

God’s determination to unilaterally save and protect His sheep is evident. It is interesting to note in the same passage, however, that He also says, “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD have spoken” (Ez. 34:23-24, my emphases). So God Himself will do this, yet it is to be done through His Davidic king. This is precisely what He has done in Christ, the faithful heir of David’s throne.

Objection 3: More a question of clarification than an objection to the specific interpretation given above, why does Paul imply that the Law that was given was not able to impart life (Gal. 3:21) when elsewhere he says that the commandment was “unto life” although it resulted in death for him (Rom. 7:10, lit.)?

My answer: Whether we read Rom. 7:10 as speaking only of a specific commandment of the Law, or as a principle holding true for the Law as a whole (as a covenant), we should understand its being “unto life” as an objective reality abstracted from the actual situation of a sinful people receiving the Law. As Paul goes on to demonstrate in Romans 7, as discussed above, there is nothing inherently evil or death-causing about the Law that results in the death of Paul/Israel; rather, it is sin which takes opportunity through the good Law to cause enslavement, condemnation, and death. It is this concrete situational reality of Rom. 7:11-13 (and I would say also of vv. 14-25) that is simply assumed in Galatians 3. To put it another way: prescriptively speaking, the Law itself aims at life and blessing through the obedience of faith; but by God’s sovereign plan and decree the Law came to a sinful (largely unregenerate) people and, as He knew it would, exacerbated their sin, resulting in death and exile, making the need for Christ evident. God never intended, in an ultimate sense, for the Law to bring about true righteousness for His people.

Hopefully we have now seen how the Law, in its redemptive-historically unique mediatorial and bilateral character, serves to highlight by way of contrast the glory of God’s own, unilateral intervention in Christ, even while the ancient dynamics of the covenant of grace have remained intact and fundamentally unchanged from age to age, from Abraham to Moses to David to Christ. Even with Mosaic grace, Israel was not able to corporately attain covenantal justice in the context of her “law” arrangement; therefore Christ, the ultimate heir of the promise, was sent, and eschatological inheritance and life (necessarily involving covenantal, and as we will see, absolute justice) is received through faith in Him, on the basis of the ancient, preeminent promise to Abraham.