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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).

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