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Monday, March 08, 2010

Works of the Law

I am going to deliberately confuse my translation of Paul:

"Knowing that a person is not dikaioutai through the works of the law but only through (the) faith(fulness) in/(of) Jesus Christ, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that dikaiothomen might be of (the) faith(fulness) in/(of) Christ and not of the works of the law, because by the works of the law no flesh will be made dikaiothesetai." (Galatians 2:16)

This post continues my commentary on Paul's book of Galatians. I deliberately confuse the translation, because interpretation is not a straightforward venture for this passage. Is Paul talking here (and in the whole letter to the Galatians) about "justification," a legal declaration? Or is there something deeper? And how do we get this righteousness/justification? Is it through faith in Jesus Christ, an action on our part of having faith or the possessing faith? Or is Paul here saying that we have righteousness/justification through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? In which case, it has more to do with Christ than with us?

What does Paul mean by these dikai- words, words we usually translate as "justification" or "righteousness"? Is it a mere forensic "justification," that God is saying "you are now justified," and then slams his hammer upon the gavel? I don't like that take. I don't like it because it makes righteousness a one-and-done process. Taken as a whole, Paul's theology is more focussed on living a life of transformation. For me, seeing faith primarily as a forensic declaration makes it very transactional and less transformative. I don't mean to say that there is not some sense of forensic justification in Paul's theology, but the real heart of Paul is the life of the Spirit, ushering a radical "new creation." Paul's vision is for something radical.

As I write more about Galatians, I will discuss more what I think the dikai- words mean. For this post, I wanted to discuss "the works of the law" (ex ergon nomou). Whatever this righteousness/justification is, it is not to be sought through the works of the law. Christianity was a Jewish faith, in the beginning; but it spread to the Gentiles, and Paul saw his mission as aimed at spreading the Gospel to Gentiles. There was conflict, though, between Jews and Gentiles. Jews tended to see their Jewishness as an essential component of Christianity. This new "Way" of Jesus was not a radical break from being a Jew, so observing the law and customs of Judaism was natural for a Jewish Christian. Naturally, as Gentiles came into the churches, Jews just expected them to adopt a Jewish Christianity, complete with Jewish observations of the law. This, again quite naturally, turned into a somewhat legalistic thing: you can't be real member of the church without adopting Jewishness. Paul takes exception to this.

For Paul, though, "the works of the law" can probably be extended to any religious practice that attempts to gain righteousness, justification, or goodness based solely on doing. Paul is clear about this later in his life when he writes to the Christians in Rome. In Romans 4, Paul says that when a person works for a wage, the payment given them is based on what they have done. But this isn't the way faith works. It isn't a quid-pro-quo.

For Paul, faith isn't a transaction. This is central to Paul's Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But if we cannot get this righteousness/justification based on a concrete transaction, then it leaves things quite up in the air. Everything is suddenly a bit less defined. The life of faith becomes a bit less concrete......which seems to be the point of much of Paul's discussion of the Gospel.


Like a Mustard Seed said...

I think maybe that there are more or less equal parts of "transaction" and "transformation" going on. (another one of those seemingly paradoxical things in the Bible...) But maybe not such a paradox, if we think of it as 'transaction' on the part of Christ, who paid a penalty on the cross and completely finished that work, but 'transformative' on our part, because the change that God is doing in us is something that goes on for our whole lives...

Which, now that I think about it, carries on into your thoughts about the Law, because Jesus was actually the only one to keep the Law. But where things get all backwards is when fallen people try to do what only Christ could, whether by trying to adhere to Jewish laws and customs, or any other set of man-made religious (or even non-religious) actions...

It does seem less "defined" when compared to creating some religious code, (which seems to be a natural human tendency), but in reality, a life of faith is more deeply and perfectly defined than any outward religious system, because it is defined inwardly, it is defined by love...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi Mustard Seed,

Sorry to be so long in responding to your comment. I have been ill with a nasty head cold that has hung on for something like two weeks.

In terms of a transaction, this kind of reminds me of our discussion on my Evangelistic post. In that post, we found ourselves disagreeing on whether or not there are two cliffs. My point there was that Paul's theology doesn't seem to posit the two-cliffs theory. That whatever Christ did on the cross (a "transaction" as you are suggesting here), this brought peace and reconciliation between God and humanity. The point of faith then is not to move us from one cliff (damnation) to the other cliff (salvation), but to recognize that God's unconditional grace and love has already reconciled us, through Christ.

So, when I talk about a "transactional" Gospel, or a salvation that is based on "works," I mean to suggest that there is nothing we can do that brings us into a more perfect state of being under God's grace. Not even "having faith."

So, I see modern Christianity as sneaking in "works" under the banner of "faith." We are told that God loves us, but we must first (and this is the condition) we have to "believe" in this or that. Or we are told that God wants to save us, but we must first (and this is the condition) "repent" (or "feel guilty for") of our sins. I think people mean well by giving grace and love these conditions, but it still turns grace into a transaction, unwittingly. And there is evidence in the new testament that faith may involve "repentance" (it often does) and faith may involve some sort of "belief" (but it need not). Faith, I think, is much deeper than either repentance or belief. So deep, in fact, that it cannot be defined.

All this to say that what I mean by a "transaction" has to do with our response more than it does with the passion of Christ.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel: a life of faith is more deeply and perfectly defined than any outward religious system, because it is defined inwardly, it is defined by love...

Yes, that seems to be what Paul says as well. He says (a few times) that love is the fulfillment of the law. One gets the sense that the law is largely an attempt to express in imperative language what cannot ultimately be expressed but what must be lived out, embodied towards others, and written on the heart.

(Galatians 5:14 is Paul repeating what Jesus says: that the whole law is summed up as "love your neighbor as yourself." Romans 13:9-10 is a similar statement.)