Ruminating Romans: Justification and Jewish Christianity

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are righteoused freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be righteous and the righteouser of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. (Rom 3:21-26)

In various places in his letters, the Apostle Paul incorporates traditional liturgical and creedal formulae into his composition. Many scholars believe that Rom 3:21-26 (specifically, vv. 24-26) is one such example. This raises the question, What did the other Apostles believe about justification? What did the non-Pauline Jewish-Christian churches teach on humanity’s righteousness in Christ? J. Louis Martyn discusses this question in his essay “God’s Way of Making Right What is Wrong” (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pp. 141-160). Along with the above Rom 3 passage, he cites Rom 4:25, Gal 2:16, and 1 Cor 6:11 as also probably containing pre-Pauline material. Gal 2:16 expressly refers to the tradition that Paul shares with Peter and the other Apostles:

We are by nature Jews, not “Gentile sinners.” Even we ourselves know, however, that a person is not righteoused by observance of the Law, but rather by the faith of Christ Jesus.

Martyn lists the following characteristics of the Jewish-Christian tradition of “rectification” (Martyn’s preferred term):

1) Rectification is an act of God.

2) In that act God sets right things that have gone wrong.

In accordance with the causative force of the hiphil of the Hebrew verb sadeq (clearly reflected also in Jewish traditions expressed in Greek), the authors of the Jewish-Christian formulas speak of an action by which God changes the human scene, creating integrity where things had gone wrong.

3) What has made things wrong is transgressions against God’s covenant committed among God’s people.

The human scene envisaged in these Jewish-Christian formulas is that of the Jewish nation, and in that scene the need of rectification has arisen from the fact that members of God’s people have transgressed commandments explicitly issued to them by God, thus proving unfaithful to God’s gracious covenant.

4) What makes transgressing members of God’s people right is God’s forgiveness.

Given Israel’s sins, the need is for divine acquittal, forgiveness, remission of sins, and cleansing, so that the covenant can be unburdened and a new life begun. Rectification is now accomplished, however, not by a sacrifice executed by a human being (such as the high priest acting on the Day of Atonement), but rather by Christ’s death. And in this Jewish-Christian tradition, that death is understood to have been God’s sacrificial act taken at his initiative. It is the deed in which God has forgiven the sins formerly committed in Israel, wiping the slate clean (Rom 3:25).

5) God’s rectification is therefore God’s mercy.

6) The Law is not mentioned because its continuing validity is taken for granted.

The ways in which the Jewish-Christian formulas draw on Old Testament traditions, and the fact that they were made by Christians who were distinctly Jewish, tell us that the transgressions referred to were identified as transgressions on the basis of the Law. … By enacting his rectifying forgiveness in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has established his right over his people Israel, thus restoring the integrity of the nomistic covenant. There is, therefore, no thought that God’s rectification removes one from the realm of God’s Law.

7) God has accomplished his rectifying forgiveness in Christ, specifically in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Just as the formulas’ silence about the Law shows that the Law’s continuance is taken for granted, so that silence also indicates that rectification is not attributed to the Law (a point that will prove crucial to Paul). God has provided his rectifying forgiveness by acting in the atoning blood sacrifice that is Christ’s death (Rom 3:25), or in the event of Christ’s resurrection (Rom 4:25). And that accomplishment of God is made real for those who are baptized, when the name of the Lord Jesus is pronounced over them and the Spirit of Christ descends on them (1 Cor 6:11). Thus the Jewish-Christians responsible for these formulas see an indelible connection—even an identity between God’s deed of rectification and God’s deed in Christ.

8) In these formulas one finds, then, God’s messianic grace in the context of God’s Law.

For that reason, the authors of these formulas would have found a polemic against rectification by Law observance entirely beside the point. They were making no such claim.

9) God’s rectifying forgiveness in Christ is confessed without explicit reference to faith.

Just as the formulas make no reference to the Law, so they do not mention faith, either on the part of members of the Jewish-Christian communities or on the part of Jesus Christ. There is, therefore, no hint of a polemical antinomy that would place opposite one another Christ’s faithful deed in our behalf and our observance of the Law. (pp. 143-147)

In these nine points Martyn believes that he has reliably delineated the justification tradition that antedated Paul and his opponents in Galatia (“the Teachers”) and elsewhere. But the Teachers adapted this tradition for their mission to the Gentiles, which became the point of contention between them and Paul:

As missionaries to Gentiles, the Teachers hear the Jewish-Christian tradition in a new context in which observance of the Law is not—and cannot be—taken for granted. And because they carry out their mission by inviting Gentiles to enter the people of Israel, they necessarily posit an explicit relation between rectification and observance of the Law. Where the Jewish-Christian tradition affirmed God’s deed in Christ for an Israel in which Law-observance was taken for granted, the Teachers understand God’s act of forgiveness in Christ to be God’s gracious deed for Israel, including all Gentiles who transfer from their pagan existence into God’s Law-observant people. That rectifying transfer, then, clearly requires that Gentiles take up observance of the Law. (p. 148)

St Paul also hears the tradition in a fresh way. “In stark contrast to the Teachers,” explains Martyn, “Paul perceives every day that in his Gentile mission-field God is creating churches—actively beginning to make things right in the whole of the world—apart from observance of the Law” (pp. 148-149). Whereas the Teachers explicitly drew the conclusion that God’s justifying act in Christ was restricted to Israel—hence their urgent summons to circumcision—Paul draws the opposite conclusion: God’s act of righteousness in Christ embraces all of humanity, without reference to Torah. The human being is righteoused not by observance of Torah but by pistis Christou Iesou. Martyn suggests that the phrase pistis Christou Iesou, which he translates as “the faith of Christ Jesus,” is original to Paul.

Martyn summarizes Paul’s re-interpretation of the Jewish-Christian tradition on righteousification (hmmm, maybe I’ll use “rectification” when I need a noun to refer to the state of being righteoused):

God has set things right without laying down a prior condition of any sort. God’s rectifying act, that is to say, is no more God’s response to human faith in Christ than it is God’s response to human observance of the Law. God’s rectification is not God’s response at all. It is the first move; it is God’s initiative, carried out by him in Christ’s faithful death.

The antinomy of Gal 2:16, then—observance of the Law versus the faith of Christ—is like all of the antinomies of the new creation: It does not set over against one another two human alternatives, to observe the Law or to have faith in Christ. The opposites are an act of God, Christ’s faithful death, and an act of the human being, observance of the Law. The one has the power to rectify, to make things right; the other does not.

To be sure, as Paul will say in Gal 3:2 [“Did you receive the Spirit because you observed the Law, or as a result of the proclamation that has the power to elicit faith?”], Christ’s faithful death for us has the power to elicit faithful trust on our part. … The point is that the Christ in whom we faithfully place our trust is the Christ who has already faithfully died for us in the powerful rectifying event that has elicited our faith. (p. 151).

Please re-read the above passage. Martyn has, I believe, identified the apocalyptic heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul has reinterpreted rectification, not only as a polemic against his Judaizing opponents, but as gospel declamation. We will explore the various dimensions of the apocalyptic good news in our continuing ruminations on the Epistle to the Romans.

(Go to “Is Faith a Condition of Salvation”)

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1 Response to Ruminating Romans: Justification and Jewish Christianity

  1. Rhonda says:

    Interesting, thank you.


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