N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 27 (Boasting over Works of the Law)

dayrevolutionbegan

N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:27-28

(Rom. 3:27-28 NET)  27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works [of the Torah]? No, but by the principle of faith!  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith [in Jesus] apart from the works of the law [Torah].

“Boasting” [JFG]

I don’t think I noticed this verse until I was well into my 20’s, maybe older. It nearly knocked me out of my chair. I mean, if boasting is a bad thing, then I had been raised in a false religion! After all, we very proudly boasted of having the right answers on baptism, instrumental music, the use of the church treasury, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, etc. We were a proud people. In fact, the Bible is so very plain on these points that you have to be wilfully obtuse not to get them right. And so our denominational neighbors weren’t merely mistaken, they were in conscious rebellion against God, wanting to follow the culture, be popular, cave in to secular humanism, etc., etc.

In fact, Paul is referencing a common theme in the OT. The Psalms repeatedly condemn boastfulness. And Jeremiah says,

(Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)  23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,  24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

–which sounds a lot like Rom 3 and Paul. In fact, Paul condemns “boasting” some 52 times in the ESV translation. It’s a big deal in his theology because the OT repeatedly condemns boasting other than in God. If your understanding of salvation gives you grounds to boast (whether you do or not), your theology is messed up.

“Works of the law” [JFG]

[This is a lengthy discussion not entirely pertinent to Wright’s latest book, but highly pertinent to understanding Gal and Rom as Wright explains in other materials. I found myself understanding the New Perspective and NT Wright far better having gone through all this. And it makes sense.]

The meaning of “works of the law” or “works of Torah” is controversial. Does it refer to any meritorious deed? Or does it refer to only the ceremonial elements of the Torah? Or does it refer to all obedience to the Torah?

Wright only briefly alludes to the problem in his new book, and his commentary only addresses the question cursorily. The most comprehensive discussion by Wright I can find is in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. If you’re a fan of Pauline studies, this is a book you should read. But it’s not light reading.

Wright argues,

There are, then, two interlocking reasons why ‘works of the law cannot justify’. First, God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and ‘works of the law’ would divide Jew from Gentile in a way that is now irrelevant.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 97–98.

If “justify” means “include in God’s covenant people,” then God justifies based on his covenant with Abraham — by faith. His covenant through Moses does not define the covenant people. Rather, among other things, the Torah separates Jews from Gentiles by imposing the food laws, festivals, and such, and this separation now contradicts the gospel and the ultimate promise to Abraham to bless all nations. Hence, those kinds of works of the Torah are obsoleted in Jesus.

Second, ‘works of the law’ will never justify, because what the law does is to reveal sin. Nobody can keep it perfectly. The problem of Genesis 11 (the fracturing of humanity) is the full outworking of the problem of Genesis 3 (sin), and the promise to Abraham is the answer to both together. Perspectives new and old sit comfortably side by side here, a pair of theological Siamese twins sharing a single heart.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 97–98.

The purpose of the Torah is not justification but revelation of God’s nature — especially so when it comes to the “moral law.” The revelation of God’s moral nature in the Torah holds those with the Torah accountable — as we see in Rom 5 in some detail — but does not justify. The covenant with Abraham then and now justifies by faith.

So up to this point, I agree with Wright. Then he says,

Here is the point—large as life, in the pages of the New Testament—that was one of James Dunn’s major breakthrough moments in the development of the ‘new perspective’. The ‘works of the law’ against which Paul warned were not, he suggested, the moral good deeds done to earn justification (or salvation), but the particular commandments and ordinances which kept Jew and Gentile separate from one another.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 148 (italics in original).

I just don’t see limiting “works of the law” to the boundary marker commands as a matter of grammar and context. I think Wright was far closer to right in the earlier quotation. Wright also explains it more accurately, to my thinking, in other places. I mean, if we take him too literally and consider “works of the Law” to refer solely to such Jew/Gentile separators as circumcision, we run into serious historical and grammatical problems.

An article by William D. Barrick argues for a broader view of “works,” and Barrick makes some points about the roots of Paul’s vocabulary that I find persuasive. For example, in the phrase “do the words of the law” appearing in such passages such as Deut 28:58; 29:29; 31:12; and  32:46, “law” means the whole law, not just the boundary marker or ceremonial portions.He further demonstrates that the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal an attitude regarding the “works of the law” that is indeed just as legalistic as what the New Perspective denies. And it’s incontrovertible that the Gospels show Jesus condemning Pharisees for legalistic attitudes.

He further shows how contemporary Jewish scholars of Judaism disagree with the New Perspective interpretation, concluding that “law” means “Law of Moses” — even though this results in a very negative view of the Judaism of apostolic times.

Now, the Judaizing teachers apparently understood that Jesus’ crucifixion ended the sacrificial system, and Christianity taught essentially the same moral laws as the Law of Moses (although not as the basis for salvation), and so it’s quite natural that the boundary markers became the focus of controversy. It’s just not obvious from the Gospels how Jesus repeals circumcision, and there’s nothing in the Gospels about rejecting the boundary markers — except for the Sabbath, which Jesus addresses several times.

Hence, it’s no surprise that the apostles and elders in Jerusalem had to decide whether the cross somehow ended the need for the Law’s boundary marker regulations. Are they like the Sabbath? or are they like the Ten Commandments other than the Sabbath?

(Act 15:7-11 NET) 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”

Peter speaks based on God’s direct revelation about the household of Cornelius. God gave us the answer when he gave Cornelius the Spirit, which is when God cleansed their hearts “by faith” — with no mention of baptism because the Spirit was given by God before baptism in this instance, making a point that the Jerusalem Council considered the convincing argument for why we know Gentiles are saved by faith and not works of the Law.

And then he makes two critical objections to binding circumcision —

* Why bind a yoke that the Jews “have been unable to bear”? It’s just not practical — it will kill evangelism — and besides, we Jewish Christians teach grace by faith, too! It’s not like Paul was the first Christian to discover grace and salvation by faith.

* Implicitly, he argues that the terms on which we are initially saved define the terms on which we remain saved. The conservative Churches of Christ tend to argue, “Sure, works aren’t how we’re initially saved, but works are how we stay saved.” If Peter believed that, then his argument would have required converts to celebrate the Passover and Feast of Booths after they’re baptized to mark them as Christians. And his point is obviously exactly to the contrary.

Then again, Wright does offer this intriguing theory —

Now: another thought experiment. Let us suppose we only had a fragment of [Galatians], consisting of 2:11–16a, and stopping right here, ‘not justified by works of the law’. What would we conclude about the meaning of ‘justified’? We might well know, from extraneous verbal evidence, that ‘justified’ was a lawcourt term meaning ‘given the status of being “in the right” ’.

But Paul is not in a law-court, he is at a dinner table. The context of his talking about ‘not being justified by works of the law’ is that he is confronted with the question of ethnic taboos about eating together across ethnic boundaries. The force of his statement is clear: ‘yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines’.

Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins’, ‘to come into a right relation with God’, or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God’, but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’

This does not clinch the argument for my reading of the whole doctrine. But the first signs are that, for Paul, ‘justification’, whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.

Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 95–96 (paragraphing modified, emphasis added).

Hence, we might translate something like —

(Rom. 3:27-28 NET)  27 Where, then, is boasting [of Jews against the Gentiles]? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works [of the Torah]? No, but by the principle of faith [in/faithfulness to Jesus]!  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous [faithful to the covenants] by faith [in/faithfulness to Jesus] apart from the works of the law [Torah].

Read in light of the Jew/Gentile divide, while “works of the Torah” certainly includes both ceremonial and moral laws, the works that would allow Jews to boast over against the Gentile Christians would not be the moral laws, as both were equally obedient to them. It would be things like circumcision and the festivals, as they would be the works of the Law that give grounds for boasting by Jewish Christians over Gentile Christians — as shown by the constant fight over circumcision, which was not a moral command at all but was a point of pride, even boasting, by the the Jews.

Wright argues the same case in Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Certainly in Galatians, where the ‘sin’ root (hamartia) occurs only in this passage and two other places, one of them the letter’s opening formula, it is clear that Paul’s whole argument is about membership in the single family, sharing the same table-fellowship, not primarily about the way in which sins are dealt with and the sinner rescued from them. He presupposes the ‘anthropological’ point (that all, Jews included, are sinners), but his point is not ‘this is how sinners get saved’ but ‘this is how people are marked out as members of the covenant family’. The ‘forensic’ and ‘anthropological’ hints are held within the ‘covenantal’ meaning.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:969.

Hence, to be “justified” in Rom and Gal means “to be declared in the right” or “to be declared righteous,” but in context means more particularly “to be declared part of the righteous community.” And the Gentiles are not shown to be part of the new, spiritual Israel or the church or the Kingdom by the Torah but by faith — because God is righteous in keeping his promises to Abraham (which is why chapter 4 will be all about Abraham).

Hence, works of the Law are all forms of obedience to the Torah, but the works of the Law that cannot be used by the Jews to boast over against the Gentiles are the separator or boundary marker laws — circumcision and such like — because “faith in Jesus” does not involve such things.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 27 (Boasting over Works of the Law)

  1. David says:

    I have come to believe in Wrights new perspective that the over arching point of Romans is getting Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along. It becomes fairly obvious that Paul addresses/praises or chastises Jews in one place and then Gentiles in another. Yes, for example. he chastises Jews who would bind works of the Law on Gentiles, but then warns Gentiles in Chapter 14 not to reject Jews who have strong scruples concerning the Law.

    However; I do not think a new perspective of Romans puts a whole new perspective on the faith/works teachings. After all, Paul in Rom 4:4-5 draws a distinction between faith and works salvation using a very broad and common concept. Salvation is a gift that can’t be earned by doing something that someone, even God, wants or commands you to do. In other words, your salary is not a gift. You have obligated the boss to pay you by doing something, no matter what it is, that he tells you to do. I would find it difficult to limit “works” in Romans 4:4-5 to works of the Law. (Of course “works” in this passage means works with the expectation of something in return, not voluntary works, or it would make no sense.)

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David wrote,

    However; I do not think a new perspective of Romans puts a whole new perspective on the faith/works teachings. After all, Paul in Rom 4:4-5 draws a distinction between faith and works salvation using a very broad and common concept. Salvation is a gift that can’t be earned by doing something that someone, even God, wants or commands you to do. In other words, your salary is not a gift. You have obligated the boss to pay you by doing something, no matter what it is, that he tells you to do. I would find it difficult to limit “works” in Romans 4:4-5 to works of the Law. (Of course “works” in this passage means works with the expectation of something in return, not voluntary works, or it would make no sense.)

    I don’t disagree so much as see the question as moot. No doubt Paul would have seen seeking salvation by performing Five Acts of Worship punctiliously as being just as futile as seeking salvation through works of the Torah. Works don’t fail to avail because they are part of Torah. They fail because they aren’t faith in Jesus.

    I see Paul’s logical framework as —

    A. Faith/trust/faithfulness to Jesus saves and nothing else saves.
    B. Works of the Torah are not faith/trust/faithfulness to Jesus.
    C. Therefore, works of the Torah do not save.

    The same argument works as to Five Acts of Worship, plurality of elders, or whatever other “mark of the church” argument you want to make — unless the mark of the church is faith in Jesus.

    The advantage of seeing the argument this way is that it moots the question of whether baptism, say, is a “work.” It’s argued by many (and previously by me) that baptism is a not a “work” because it’s a passive rite — received and not done. But the same is true of circumcision. In fact, circumcision is even more passive as it’s usually administered at the age of 8 days! No baby has ever requested circumcision!

    And yet circumcision is plainly a “work” although it is something received passively, even against the baby’s will. So that observation (brought to my attention by a reader in the comments, as I recall) forced me to rethink “works.” And then I realized it’s not about works at all, not really. It’s about what is and isn’t faith.

    Any work could be prompted by faith, but that doesn’t make the work “faith.” If faith prompts me to be circumcised, circumcision is still not faith. If faith prompts me to give to charity, my giving is not faith. Whether it’s a “work” is not even a very interesting question to me. Only faith saves because faith is built on the Abrahamic covenant.

    So the 20th Century Churches of Christ teach a works salvation — but more precisely, a faith-is-not-sufficient salvation. They insist on adding to faith, and it doesn’t matter whether what they add is a “work.” It’s not “faith,” and that makes it contradictory to the Abrahamic covenant as well as Gal 5:1-6 and so alienates from Christ — which is a truly fearsome thought.

    I suspect we agree on this point.

  3. David says:

    I agree with you 100%, but you might have a rough time convincing some, more like many, people that only faith saves when they can read in I Peter that baptism saves. That’s why I take the route that both faith and baptism save, but that faith is the reason one is saved while baptism is the “salvation ceremony” that saves, but not the cause of salvation. But, I doubt if I can convince many with that argument either.

  4. Monty says:

    And then there is “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. You see a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

    Certainly faith is the seed that sprouts in a person’s heart that prompts the repentance, prompts the confession and baptism. It prompts every single true act of righteousness til the end. Baptism is not faith, but it is an act that displays faith, just as Abraham offering up Isaac was an act of faith. It was “faith that was made complete” by what he did. When a person believes in God’s word that if he will trust in Jesus as Savior and repent and be baptized that God will wash away his sins(that’s faith). Obeying the command to repent and be baptized is an act of faith. James IMO says that faith(the believing) and then the actions(repentance and baptism) prompted by that belief, work synergistically. The action completes the faith and speaks to faiths viability; that i’ts not useless or dead. This seems to be born out by John 12:42 “Yet at that same time many among the leaders believed in him(faith). But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their (faith) for fear they would be put out of the synagogue. for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”

    What stood in the way of their having “saving” faith and not a “useless” faith? Going public in their trust(faith)in Jesus. They had faith(believed on Jesus) but it wasn’t a saving faith because it wasn’t accompanied by the actions that would have validated it as being complete. Faith works.

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