Justified by Salvation History: Israel, Covenant and the Apostle Paul

An increasing number of biblical scholars are finding the justification by faith model (JF) unpersuasive as a way to understand the theology of the Apostle Paul. This first came to my attention early in my seminary education (back in the dark ages) when we were assigned Krister Stendahl’s essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” JF is grounded upon a negative assessment of Torah and the Apostle’s alleged crisis of conscience: on the road to Damascus Saul realizes that, despite his vigorous efforts to obey the Law, he stood condemned by the Law and would always be condemned by the Law. “Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). No one can obey the Law perfectly, but it is precisely this perfect obedience that is necessary if anyone is to be enjoy a right relationship with God. Like Martin Luther 1500 years later, Saul of Tarsus discovers that the only solution to this existential crisis is faith, faith in the One who justifies apart from the works of the Law.

But, Stendahl observes, the New Testament provides little evidence that Paul ever struggled with guilt in the way that JF demands. In his Epistle to the Philippians Paul even says that as a Pharisee he was blameless before the Law (3:6). Evidently he did not suffer from a tortured conscience, at least not until he met the Lord and realized that as a persecutor of Christians he was in fact persecuting the risen Messiah of Israel.

A year or so after I read Stendahl, I read E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This book changed everything. Sanders confirmed what I suspected—ancient Judaism was not the legalistic, works-righteousness religion that advocates of JF typically maintained. His scholarship opened up fresh possibilities for integrating the theological convictions of Paul into a positive understanding of Israel, Torah, and the covenantal history of salvation. Over ten years would pass, but eventually I would be introduced to the writings of N. T. Wright. Wright is perhaps the foremost presenter of what Douglas Campbell calls the salvation history model (SH). Wright has written extensively on the Apostle, including Paul: In Fresh Perspective, What Saint Paul Really Said, Justification, culminating in his magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

The Salvation History Model

For the exponents of SH, explains Campbell, “Paul is basically driven by his eschatological consciousness of mission within a broader historical schema linking salvific promise within Judaism to its fulfilment in the Messiah Jesus and the subsequent efforts of the early Christians in the church, who are now the new ‘people of God.'”1 Unlike JF, which centers on the individual’s repudiation of works-righteousness and surrender to Christ (“and so is inevitably committed to describing Paul’s Jewish experience in negative terms”), SH employs a historical narrative of promise and fulfillment. Romans 9-11 are foundational for SH reflection.

Wright’s ecclesial and covenantal construal of justification by faith exhibits the critical concerns of salvation history model:

How then does “justification by faith” actually work?… Paul has already spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people, on the basis of their whole life. This will take place at the end, when God judges the secrets of all hearts through the Messiah. The point of justification by faith is that, as he insists in [Romans] 3.26, it takes place in the present time as opposed to on the last day. It has to do with the question, “Who now belongs to God’s people?”, and “How can you tell?” The answer is: all who believe in the gospel belong, and that is the only way you can tell—not by who their parents were, or how well they have obeyed the Torah (or any other moral code), or whether they have been circumcised. Justification, for Paul, is a subset of election, that is, it belongs as part of his doctrine of the people of God.…

The point is that the word “justification” does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul, clearly and unambiguously, uses a different word for that, the word “call.” The word “justification,” despite centuries of Christian misuse, is used by Paul to denote that which happens immediately after the “call”: “those God called, he also justified” (Romans 8.30). In other words, those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people, his elect, “the circumcision,” “the Jews,” “the Israel of God.” They are given the status dikaios, “righteous,” “within the covenant.”2

For Paul justification is thus a way to speak of the legitimacy of admitting Gentiles into the Church without requiring circumcision and other Jewish identity markers. As one might expect, Wright has received vigorous criticism on this point from JF exegetes.

According to SH, the heart of Paul’s theology lies not with justification by faith but in the way God has worked in the history of Israel (Old Testament) and the Church (New Testament) for the good and salvation of the world, culminating in the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit. Each SH practioner develops the model in his own way, of course. Wright interprets the gospel of Paul as a fourfold announcement about Jesus:

1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically, in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

2. In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.3

Campbell is sympathetic to the SH model but also critical. JF and SH share a prospective structure: both begin with the past and work their way forward. JF begins with the negative experience of life under the Law and moves forward to justification; SH begins with historical Israel and moves forward to the fulfillment of promise in Christ and the Church. But the third model to be considered works the other way around.

(4 June 2013; rev.)


[1] Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, p. 37.

[2] Paul, pp. 121-122.

[3] What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 60.

(Go to “Becoming a New Creation”)

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3 Responses to Justified by Salvation History: Israel, Covenant and the Apostle Paul

  1. Curdie says:

    Man, Romans is just a never-ending well of interest. I think what is most fascinating to me right now though is trying to understand what purpose Paul ascribes to being called (and then justified). Being one of the “elect” or the “remnant” or “the first piece of the dough” doesn’t appear to be an end in itself (or at least not the sole end), but “If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too.” It seems to me that the “grafting in” of the gentiles isn’t simply for their justification in and of itself, but (dare I say it) the justification of all. Is it too bold to suggest that the justification the elect receive through Christ’s faithfulness is passed on in a similar way from the elect to the world? (That’s an honest question, I believe in Universal Reconciliation but sometimes musing on Romans too long feels like floating just on the edge of actual heresy.)


    • Reading Romans 1-8 and 9-11, Universalism definitely seems like the clear implication of what is written (to me personally), and yet at the same time Paul doesn’t really seem to be asking the questions that we ask today. His primary concern is not actually whether all will be saved (even if it seems to us happy heretics that during his ponderings he affirms universalism a bunch of times). For example in 9-11, he’s mainly wondering about what’s going to happen to the Jews that have rejected Jesus.

      It would have been nice if the universalist controversy happened earlier, because then Paul could have tackled it head on and there wouldn’t be such angst and aggression over it today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Curdie says:

        I agree that 9-11 is specifically about the Paul’s Jewish brethren. I recently reread Romans straight through without commentary (not how I usually do it) and was pretty struck by how little Paul seems to directly address the Universalism we often ascribe to that text.

        I think that may be what makes it such a neverending well, for me at least. Paul is wondering about a particular Jewish people, but his rhetoric blasts open such a wide vision of Christ’s redemption, it’s hard to understand if he’s really saying what it sure sounds like he’s saying in passages like 9-11. I guess parsing through “which part of this text is particular, and which part is universal” is maybe all of Biblical exegesis, but it feels particularly charged in Paul, and Romans specifically.


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