Romans 3.28 reads 'For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.'
Recent debate about this verse, and Galatians 2.16, has revolved around whether here Paul is answering the question 'How can a sinner find a gracious God?' (Luther, Augustine), or whether he is answering 'On what terms can Gentiles gain entrance to the people of God?' (Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright). In other words, the Lutheran position is that Paul is explaining how the individual can be righteous in God's sight, whilst the New Perspective position holds that Paul is explaining on what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days.
The New Perspective position therefore argues that works of the law (WOTL) means, for Paul, the likes of circumcision, food use, festival laws, and thus Paul is showing how these distinctively Jewish practices need not be observed by Gentiles in order for them to be part of the people of God. In other words this position is infering that Paul is not making a statement about how humans can come without condemnation before their maker. WOTL, according to Dunn, are not the acts like those of first-century Pelagian heretics who believed they could earn their salvation, but rather distinctive practices that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Thus, to affirm justification by WOTL would be to affirm justification is for Jews only.
This New Perspective position has gained much support in recent times, but is it a correct understanding of Paul? Has it done what it achieved, 'to put Paul back into his first-century Judaism context'? Have Augustine, Luther, and conservative Christian theologians 'modernized Paul'? Or was his point that sinners are declared righteous by faith alone, apart from righteous deeds that the law requires?
The Evidence of the disputed Pauline Epistles (Eph 2.8-9; Titus 3.3-7; 2 Tim 1.9)
Eph 2.8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; 9it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Whatever the authorship of these three letters, there is no doubt that they choose to reformulate the justification texts found in Paul's undisputed letters, particularly Romans. They show a God who justifies (Tit 3.7; Rom 3.26,30; 4.5), by his grace (Eph 2.8; 2 Tim 1.9; Titus 3.7; Rom 3.24) through faith (Eph 2.8; Rom 3.22, 28; 4.5), not through works (Eph 2.9; 2 Tim 1.9; Tit 3.5; Rom 3.20, 28; 4.2,6), thus eliminating any grounds for boasting (Eph 2.9; Rom 3.27; 4.2). In Ephesians and the Pastorals, the 'works' repeatedly rejected as playing a role in salvation are good 'works' in general; deeds done 'in righteousness' as Titus 3 puts it. Those saved/justified are sinners: slaves of sin and otherwise destined for divine judgement, that is not Gentiles enquiring about entrance requirements.
Titus3.3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
2 Tim 1.9who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
The undisputed Pauline justification texts have been invoked for the purpose of addressing sinners facing God's wrath, of insisting that God offers sinners salvation in Jesus Christ by grace, through faith, apart from demand for righteous deeds. If this is modernizing Paul, then modernity must occur prior to the completion of Ephesians.
The Evidence of non-Pauline Epistles
James 2.24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.One, James' formulation, that one is 'justified by works and not by faith alone', must ultimately be based on the justification texts of Paul, for it was Paul who introduced this language. Two, whomever James is refuting, the position that he dismisses is that God approves sinners because of their faith, regardless whether or not it leads to righteous behaviour. Three, we can assume Paul would not have held for the position that James is refuting (Gal 6.7; 5.6,19-21).
Yet it is clear from James and Paul that some held to this antinomianism (Rom 6). The terms of Gentile inclusion are not an issue for James, but it is an issue as to whether people can be justified by faith apart from any accompanying works. Works in question here are not circumcision, food, festival laws, but, as we see in 1.27, good deeds like clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry. Is James a modernizer of Paul?
The Evidence of undisputed Pauline Epistles
There is no trace of justification or WOTL in 1 Thessalonians, are the two linked? The message of 1 Thessalonians would have been something like 'How can I, a sinner facing divine judgement, find a gracious God?'. It seems the answer is in turning from idols (1.9-10) to God, placing faith in his Son Jesus, who would deliver from the wrath to come (1.10). Paul tells the church to 'belong to the day' as they are not destined for wrath but to obtain salvation through Jesus Christ (5.9-10). Yet, if Paul's core thinking was about how Gentiles were to be included in God's purposes, then this letter would not have informed them. In fact it seems here that Paul is answering a question that, so the New Perspective assumes, the Thessalonians were not at the right time, nor in the right place, to ask. It seems that there is a danger in modernizing Paul, but part of this danger includes the danger that one displaces sin, faith, judgement and salvation from Paul's message, all of which were present here in the Epistle to Thessalonica.
Moving onto Corinthians, Paul makes it clear his goal is to do whatever it takes to 'save' those who hear his message (1 Cor 9). In Thessalonians salvation meant deliverance from God's wrath and judgement - its seems it means exactly the same here in Corinthians. The world (1 Cor 11.32) faces condemnation and its people are 'the perishing' (1.18; 2 Cor 2.15; 4.3). Why? Because their deeds merit perdition (1 Cor 6.9; 2 Cor 6.14). So to the perishing Paul brings a gospel of salvation from sin, and its condemnation, for all who 'believe' the gospel message (1 Cor 1.18, 21; 15.1-2; 2 Cor 2.15-16; 6.1-2).
The language of righteousness and justification may be absent from 1 Thessalonians, but it is certainly present in thought if not prominence in 1 & 2 Corinthains. Paul cannot judge himself, so cannot justify himself. To be righteous is to have lived as one should have, to be unrighteous is to not have (1 Cor 6.9-10). Thus the world is full of unrighteous people, who cannot hope to survive divine judgement. The gospel offers the righteous a means by which they may extroadinarily be declared 'righteous' or 'justified'. Gentiles and WOTL are not an issue in Corinth, nor is how Gentiles can be made equally acceptable before God as the Jews (for the Jews still need to be saved - 1 Cor 9.20-23; 1.18-25). Corinthians makes it clear that Christ Jesus is our righteousness (1 Cor 1.30) - the means by which people, themselves unrighteous, can be found righteous by God.
It is clear from 1 Cor 6.11 that justification here has to do with removal of sins that would otherwise condemn the unrighteous. Similarly in 2 Cor 3 Paul explains the new covenant as a ministry of righteousness, for Moses' covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation as it blesses those who obeyed (Rom 10.5; Gal 3.12) but curses those who transgress (Gal 3.10). It can only be a covenant of condemnation if all subjects are sinners who transgress its prescriptions - this seems to be Paul's conviction (Rom 8.7,8). In Adam all die (1 Cor 15.22), and the law only pronounces this condemnation. The New Covenant involves bringing a message of righteousness (or justification) and life to those who are otherwise condemned by the law.
Thus, the Corinthian epistles are crucial in this argument for their link righteousness and justification to the message that the Corinthian and Thessalonian epistles identify as the central concern of Paul's mission: how sinners can be saved from merited judgement. Justification represents Paul's answer to the question inevitably provoked by a message of pending eschatalogical doom. This is not a new question - Job 4.17! - but the perennial concern of the religiously alert.
Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, and James all read Paul's justification texts as Augustine or Luther would do, and 1 Thessalonians and 1&2 Corinthians shows the central question of Paul's mission is precisely the question that Paul's justification language, on their understanding, is designed to satisfy. And in Corinthians Paul clearly uses justification language for precisely that purpose.
So, on to the texts in question:
In Galatians 2.16 we come across the first use of the formula, and also the first time in Paul's letters that he debates re: Gentiles and circumcision. Our question must be 'what is the link?'.
Presumably Paul's history at Galatia had little difference to Thessalonica and Corinth - he presented Christ as God's answer to the dilemma faced by sinners otherwise condemned by divine wrath (1.4). This deliverance must at least include, if not be equated with, deliverance from judgement hanging over the 'evil age'. Presumably he didn't raise the WOTL issue.
So, how was circumcision ever made to be a convincing demand on the Gentiles? The bigger picture shows that it was a sign of the covenant, and part of the law - to become one of God's people you would start by getting circumcised. The Jews who had understood Jesus to be their Messiah had no reason to abandon the Jewish way of life, that is the way of life under the Mosaic covenant and laws, for the only difference was they had faith that Jesus was their Messiah. This must have been the framework for those teachers of Galatia, the framework in which God's people were to live remained that of the Mosaic law and covenant.
Paul's opposition to this position is summed up in 'a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Christ Jesus' - but what part of the position does he oppose? Is he only denying that Gentiles be circumcised and submit to the distinctively Jewish laws of the Mosaic covenant, thus justification by faith being the answer to the question of whether Gentile believers in Christ should adopt a Jewish way of life?
Or is it that circumcision is not to be required of Gentiles, not because this is still part of a valid Mosaic economy but is inapplicable for Gentiles, but that because the Mosaic economy has lost its validity?
Paul's writings suggest that at the best of times righteousness was not achieavable, but that all were cursed and enslaved. The law had an important but temperal role - Jesus' death is the sole way by which Jews and Gentiles can find righteousness, for otherwise Jews would have been embracing life under a covenant that could only condemn.
1. For Paul 'justification' was how sinners can be counted righteous, if Jews like Peter & Paul sought justification in Christ, then they too proved to be sinners. As Paul writes, if there was another means for justification then Christ need not have died. His death represents the only way a sinner, everyone, could be justified (2.21; 3.22-24). If righteousness is only possible through the death of Christ, then it is not possible by means of the Mosaic law (2.21; 3.21-22). The principle of the law was that life was given by living by it (3.12), and Paul sees no need to dispute this further.
A humanity, the desperation of whose sinfulness is illumined by the death of Christ, cannot possibly meet the measure of obedience required by the Mosaic covenant (Lev 18.5; Deut 10.12-13; 11.26-28). Sure, he is denying that Gentiles (2.16) ought to be circumcised, but the reason why is that God's favour cannot be enjoyed by sinners under a covenant that demands compliance with its laws as its condition for blessing. 'By' the law (2.16) and 'through' the law (2.21) is the same - this is not a rejection of justification by certain parts of the law, but by the law itself (3.11-12; 5.4).
2. The problem of the law is not simply its inability to give life (3.21-24) but that it curses all who transgress (3.10). All are cursed, imprisoned, and deliverance is only in Christ's death.
3. Paul underlines this with the examples of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4); two covenants. Hagar's child was in slavery, and is of Mount Sinai, the 'present Jerusalem'. Paul clearly sees the subjects imprisoned under sin and curse, whereas Isaac is the free offspring of Sarah.
4. But why a law that can only curse? This is what Paul answers in 3.19, and surely a Paul who feels the need to explain the law, can only be a Paul who has denied the law serves the function others attribute to it. In effect, it supervises the imprisonment of people who would later be set free (3.24): its hegemony was temporary.
Thus the Mosaic economy and its laws no longer provide the framework with which God's people are to live, and was never the means by which they were justified. In 1.13-2.24 Paul portrays Judaism, the devotion to ancestral law and the pursuit of righteousness based on certain observances, as a temporary stage in history: it is clear that it belongs to his past.
It is fair to say that he is answering the question of whether Gentiles should be circumcised, but justification why they shouldn't, and a justification that is still the extroadinary means by which God declares sinners righteous. Paul clearly sees it important to articulate the gospel wherever he goes, and the language of this in Romans is summed up in language of justification or righteousness (Rom 1.14-17). The formula of Gal 2.16 is repeated in Rom 3.20, and the importance of faith in Rom 4. Again, it is justification language that is the answer to the human dilemma already apparent in 1 Thessalonians, and the end of the law is repeated (10.4), for there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (10.11,12). He once pursued righteousness by the law (Phil 3.8,9), but this did not allow him to stand before God.