Serious students of Paul have likely run into the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. This began with E. P. Sanders and has been taken up by others, particularly N. T. Wright. There are various shades of interpretation among different scholars, but the gist of the argument is plain enough.
Modern research into First Century Judaism denies that the Jews taught any sort of proto-Pelagianism. That is, the Jews didn’t teach a works-based salvation. Rather, they saw works as an outworking of grace received from God as a result of their being God’s chosen people.
The scholars thus ask, if that’s so, why does Paul spend so much effort refuting the notion of salvation by works of the law?
The purpose of this discussion is to interact with the thinking of N. T. Wright (my favorite scholar of this school of thought) regarding Galatians. The Wright quotations are taken from “The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology,” originally published in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology, Joel B. Green and Max Turner, eds., 2000, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 205-36.
Wright makes these points regarding justification by faith in Galatians–
Paul’s initial introduction of the topic is embedded within, and seems to be the sharp edge of, the question that was at issue between himself and Peter in Antioch and, we may assume, bears some close relation to the dispute between himself and the “agitators” in Galatia. This was not the general, abstract theological issue of, shall we say, how to go to heaven when one dies. It was not part of a theory of soteriology [doctrine of salvation], understood in this way. It was the question of whether Christian Jews ought or ought not eat with Christian Gentiles. In other words, it addressed the question of the identity demarcation of the people of God, now redefined in Jesus Christ and — a question that is both sociological, in the sense that it has to do with a community and its behavior, which can itself be understood by the proper application of sociological methods, and theological, in the sense that this community believes itself to be the people of a God who has drawn up quite clear conditions precisely for its communal life.
Now, let’s take this point and restate it in terms of 20th Century Church of Christ theology. The essence of our traditional theology has been to seek markers of identity and demarcation. We call them “marks of the church” or “salvation issues” or “fellowship issues.” In fact, it’s been the position of most within the Churches that penitent, baptized believers in Jesus who worship with an instrument or take communion less often than weekly are not part of the church at all.
The Galatians saw circumcision as a mark of the church.
Paul’s answer to the question is complex and dense, but its heart is simple. Because he, and all Jewish Christians, have “died to the law” through sharing the messianic death of Jesus, their identity now is not defined by or in terms of the Jewish law, but rather in terms of the risen life of the Messiah. The boundary marker of this messianic community is therefore not the set of observances that mark out Jews from Gentiles, but rather Jesus the Messiah, the faithful one, himself; and the way in which one is known as a member of this messianic community is thus neither more nor less than (Christian) faith.
Paul declares that the church has but one mark: faith in Jesus.
But the point of justification by faith, in this context, is not to stress this soteriological [doctrine of salvation] aspect, but to insist that all those who share this Christian faith are members of the same single family of God in Christ and therefore belong at the same table. This is the definite, positive, and of course deeply polemical thrust of the first-ever exposition of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith.
As always, theology has ethical consequences. If faith is the ultimate and only mark of salvation, then all within the household of faith must be in active, actual communion.
Justification, to offer a fuller statement, is the recognition and declaration by God that those who are thus called and believing are in fact his people, the single family promised to Abraham, that as the new covenant people their sins are forgiven, and that since they have already died and been raised with the Messiah they are assured of final bodily resurrection at the last.
As Wright makes clear, “justification” is not precisely the process of being saved. Rather, it’s God’s declaration that we’ve been saved. Hence, “justification by faith” means that faith is the “mark of the church” that proves the believer to have been justified.
Seeking to be “justified by works” is to seek to prove oneself saved by works, rather than allowing faith to be sufficient evidence of salvation.
But, of course, many in the Churches of Christ are guilty of precisely this error. Ask many of our preachers how we know who is saved, and a very long list of requirements will be offered. Indeed, no preacher will even agree to give the complete list, because there are so many requirements! Faith, you see, in this view of justification, is only one of many requirements.
But I am quite convinced that this essentially “new-look” reading of justification in Galatians does not undermine the traditional theology and spirituality that former generations, and other ways of reading Paul, have for so long built upon this text. Indeed, when the bricks of the house are taken down, cleaned, and reassembled in the right order, there is every hope that the building will be more serviceable and weather-proof than before.
Wright has sometimes been falsely accused of denying salvation by faith (not true) or of even denying that the gospel brings salvation at all (also not true). Rather, Wright, in his anxiety to explains things more precisely and more deeply, sometimes fails to restate those points where he agrees with traditional, Reformation theology.
In fact, my own reading of Wright is that he helps the student greatly deepen and enrich his understanding of Paul. So many arguments of Paul that seem very obscure in light of traditional Reformation theology become rich and powerful from Wright’s point of view.
However, the fundamental results are much the same. We become a part of the community of Jesus in faith. Faith is the ultimate and final marker of salvation. Any effort to add additional markers–whether obedience to the Law of Moses or insistence on five and only five acts of worship as a test of salvation–voids the gospel, alienates us from Christ, and puts us in jeopardy of falling from grace. I’ve explained this in more detail here and here in more orthodox Reformation language.
Now, none of this negates Paul’s teaching on baptism. And Wright says so, as any good Anglican bishop would–
If one has already died and risen with the Messiah, and if one has been grasped by the grace of God and enabled to come to faith and (by implication, brought into daylight in) baptism (3:26-28), then one is marked out thereby precisely as a member of the renewed, eschatological community of Israel, one for whom the act of God in the Messiah has dealt finally with one’s sinful past, one who is assured of God’s salvation on the Last Day.
But, quite properly, Wright gives the same relative emphases on faith and baptism as Paul. Paul declares us justified by faith–repeatedly. He centers his arguments on faith in Jesus in contrast to the flesh. And, yet, he also declares his readers “clothed with Christ” in baptism.
Paul never, ever centers his salvation theology on baptism. We are saved by faith in Jesus, not faith in baptism, and when we give baptism too central a place in our doctrine, we risk turning baptism into an idol. Nonetheless, we are true neither to Paul nor Jesus when we ignore baptism or remove it entirely from our teaching about salvation. We simply cannot let baptism replace the role of faith. For a deeper discussion, go here.
Of course, as I’ve said too many times, justification by faith is by no means a denial of the obligation of Christians to do good works. In fact, “faith” includes not only intellectual assent that Jesus is the Son of God but also yielding to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9). Certainly, Paul teaches the importance of works at the end of Galatians. However, Paul sees works as the inevitable result of our faith and God’s working within us through his Spirit. Works are the result, not the cause, of our salvation.
The result of this study is critically important to the Churches of Christ. If we continue to set “five acts of worship” or the name of the church or the form of church organization as markers of who is saved and who is not–and base community on who agrees with us as to each point, we are very much guilty of the Galatian heresy. And the consequences of this are none too desirable.
In fact, this very thought is what drives me to post and speak and teach on grace at every opportunity–it’s the dread of seeing my beloved brothers and sisters within the Churches fall from grace by violating the teachings of Galatians.
Therefore, I beg any reader of mine who agrees to help spread the word.