Paul Versus the Teacher in Romans 1-3 and Justification Theory’s Fusion of the Two

It is not simply that Luther and justification theory meld the conditional and unconditional gospel (as I have traced it here), but Luther’s justification theory is the predominant lens for understanding Paul, and in particular the book of Romans, and has been for the past 500 years. Romans 1-4 is considered the “citadel” of justification theory, as this is the text which serves as justification’s frame, with the law providing the foundation for understanding the work of Christ (Christ died to meet the requirements of the law), promoting the notion of retributive justice (God’s righteousness is measured and meted out by law and punishment and wrath are primary), and requiring an anthropology and epistemology in which man has the capacity to know of God and his justice but a total incapacity to do what he knows he should. It is a system which requires that natural revelation provide the same parameters of understanding regarding God and the law as the revelation of the Old Testament, and it presumes that Christian faith serves to complement and complete what is understood through the law. In other words, the gospel is founded and understood in conjunction with law, so that “works of the law” may be judged inadequate but the realization of this inadequacy is a necessity for gospel faith.

Each of these key points finds scriptural attestation in Romans 1-3 (I will deal with chapter 4 later). In 1:18-32, the frame of retributive justice, the pagan capacity to understand God and law through natural revelation and their degenerative failure and culpability are posed. In 2:1-8, the implications for Jews and Gentiles of a retributive, law-based system are universalized, and then 2:9-29, working within the logic of this system, demonstrates that pagans who keep the law might be said to be the authentic Jews in the sight of God such that the benefits of the Old Testament law are thrown into question.

What becomes obvious, as Douglas Campbell demonstrates, is that Paul is not advocating the benefits of Judaism or the advantage of Jews, but he is arguing with a Judaizing Teacher making this case, and Paul turns the logic of this Teacher to “hoist him on his own petard.”[1] Paul is refuting the premises of the Teacher who, like the false teachers in Galatia, is advocating a law-keeping Christianity. In this “accursed gospel” the law is the means of being saved, so that Christians must be circumcised and keep the law, according to the Teacher. Paul is making the same argument he made in Galatians, but now he is giving fuller voice to this false Teacher, so as to thoroughly refute his argument that the law confers advantage and benefits and is the foundation of the gospel.

Paul argues that if possession of the law is thought to confer automatic benefits, recent events in Rome (recorded by Josephus and referenced by Paul) demonstrate the opposite: Jewish swindlers have seduced and tricked a lady out of her money, by having her donate to their Temple (2:22-23, the earliest of charity scandals).[2] One might push the logic of the Teacher’s system (as Paul does), to suggest that not only are righteous pagans the true Jews (better than these particular Jews) but that the uncircumcised righteous are the truly circumcised, such that in the judgment some righteous pagans might end up condemning some unrighteous Jews. Using the Teacher’s retributive justice system and its notion that all are equally culpable, overturns the notion that the Mosaic law is foundational to the gospel and an automatic advantage, and it turns the Teacher’s arguments against him.

Chapter 3:1-20 clinches this argument, pointing out that the logic of this system means there are no advantages to possessing the law and being circumcised, as in a retributive system Jewish sinners suffer the same divine judgment as those degenerate pagans (Paul is not appealing, as of yet to some notion of necessary perfectionism). Within this system, for God to offer leniency would be on the order of a libertine gospel (which Paul says the Teacher and his people are accusing him of: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). Those accusing Paul of being an antinomian libertine, by the logic of their own system, are caught in their own strange web: “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?” (Rom. 3:7).

On the other hand, Paul says to the false Teacher, by the logic of your own system and by the Scriptures you appeal to, you are condemned – and though you may claim the name of Christ, your system will not allow God to deliver you. “The Scriptures state repeatedly and hence unavoidably and emphatically that all are sinful, and comprehensively so. No one is in fact righteous.”[3] Paul is referencing and echoing the Old Testament in a long series of quotes (3:10-18) and may be quoting or echoing the Teacher, to show that his own argument and his own Scriptures condemn him. As Douglas Campbell concludes, “By this point in Romans it is apparent that the Teacher’s gospel is incoherent. Its opening—a definition of ‘the problem’ facing all pagans (1)—leads to a set of contradictions in relation to its continuation—its purported solution in terms of circumcision and law-observance—that ultimately overrule and undermine it (4). Properly understood, this gospel—understood in its own terms—saves no one, not even its proclaimer!”[4]

Paul is not setting forth his gospel in these opening chapters, but is dealing with the problem that has arisen in Rome, just as it arose in Galatia, and in fact it may be the same people or person. To miss that Paul is making an argument, which he then refutes – both within its presentation and in the body of the text of Romans (chapters 5-8) – may be to confuse his gospel with the accursed gospel (as in justification theory). In the first instance, Paul is refuting this law-gospel fusion by showing its inherent contradictions. It is the false gospel, not his gospel, which holds to humanity’s rational capacity to understand God and the law. As demonstrated in Romans 5, in his gospel those in Adam are in bondage and helpless (5:6), they are enemies of God (5:10), and death reigns over those under the law (5:13) and even over those who have no law or had broken no law (5:14). Paul does not hold to retributive justice, nor does he imagine that Judaism is characterized by retributive justice. He is not describing or refuting Judaism, but is refuting the Teacher. Paul does not think circumcision or the law conveys benefits to Jews, this is the position of the Teacher. It is the Teacher’s argument that pagans are peculiarly sinful and culpable, as they have enslaved themselves to their evil passions. It is the Teacher that is arguing these pagans must turn to the law so as to recognize God’s righteousness and their unrighteousness. The Teacher, not Paul, imagines people are “storing up wrath” because of bad deeds, or they are storing up reward through good deeds (2:4-5). Neither Paul nor Judaism function according to this works of the law measure, but this is the way the Teacher measures.

Nor is Paul driving anyone to Christianity by demonstrating their helplessness before the law (which justification theory requires as part of the gospel), rather he is demonstrating the contradictions of the Teacher in imagining the law is the basis for God’s justice and judgment. On this basis the Teacher imagines that as a law-keeping Christian he is better than the lawless pagans. The Teacher imagines humanity can be strictly divided between the circumcised law-keepers and those uncircumcised pagans who have succumbed to their evil desire (2:6-12). These pagans, presumably the gentile Christians making up the majority of the Roman church, need to repent, according to the Teacher. Not because they are not keeping the law of Christ, but because according his standard of measure, only the circumcised and law observant will be vindicated at the judgment.

Paul projects into the argument the possibility of righteous unchristian pagans, but this is according to the measure of the Teacher. It is not that Paul believes there are righteous saved pagans, it is that the Teacher’s strict works righteousness theory indicates the possibility there are such people. Paul believes people are delivered from bondage only through Christ. No one, in Paul’s estimate (nor a Jewish estimate) can work their way to heaven; rather this is the argument of the Teacher. Paul is not anti-Semitic nor does he see Jews as having an intrinsic advantage through the law. Paul does not see people as even theoretically capable of knowing and keeping God’s law and thus pleasing God (whether Jew or Gentile). According to Paul, one can come to God only through Christ.

On the other hand, Paul does not believe God is a wrathful, retributive God, set to punish and destroy most of the human race. Rather, he considers that what happened in Adam is reversed in Christ: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Paul does not believe people are capable of pleasing God apart from Christ. For him, there is no backdoor, available light, or two-tiered law-system; rather there is either the first Adam (who brings death), or the second Adam (who brings life), and nothing in between.

Where the Teacher is focused on the wrath of God being poured out on humanity (1:18), Paul is focused on the love of God poured out on humanity through Christ: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). It is not that the enemies of God (inclusive of all humanity) can make peace through law-keeping. Dependence on anything short of God (law, ethnic identity, idols, etc.) brings on its own inherent punishment. Paul explains, that the fleshly person exists in an agonized, “wretched” orientation to death and the law, which they might think empowers them unto salvation (7:7-25), but it actually disempowers and makes them God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5-8) “as the sinful mind,” whether the sinner knows it or not, “is hostile to God.”

Though Paul, in chapter 4, will explain the role of the law and Jews through the life of Abraham, in chapter 5 he sees all of humanity as entrapped by the force of sin and death: Adam unleashed death and “death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (5:12). Thus, “death reigned from Adam until Moses” (5:14). The only solution is one of apocalyptic deliverance and divine rescue, and this is precisely what Paul argues. “The agonized ‘I’ of chapter 7 even cries out for such a solution: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (‘Thanks be to God … Jesus Christ our Lord’: Rom. 7:24–25; see also 8:21, 23).”[5] This is and must be an unconditional event, as human capacity in Paul’s perspective has nothing to offer. “A pessimistic anthropology dictates an unconditional solution. And no criteria for its activation, appropriation, or reception by humans are apparent in this text, while what causality or agency is apparent is attributed to God: ‘those whom he foreknew he also predestined … those whom he predestined he also called’ (8:29–30; see also 5:6–8, 10).”[6] As Campbell concludes, “People who exist in this dire condition—and we all do according to Paul here—are obviously incapable of accurate theological reflection or of any positive action, ethical or salvific. They need to be rescued first and then taught to think about God and to behave correctly, hence the text’s repeated emphasis on deliverance (7:24b; 8:2; 12:2).”[7]

Romans 1-3, apart from acknowledgement that Paul is giving voice to the Teacher and countering his argument, is contradictory within itself and stands opposed to Paul’s gospel presentation in 5-8. The Teacher sees law-keeping as a necessity for Christians. Paul’s refutation of this notion and the Teacher’s affirmation of it are combined in justification theory, effectively combining the contradictory argument that the law is necessary and that the law is of no advantage. The result is neither Paul nor the Teacher, in that justification theory pictures the failure of the law as the necessary impetus to become a Christian. Paul did not have such a low view of Judaism, and certainly the Teacher did not think or teach this. In turn, the Teacher has a very high view of rationality and Paul gives no credence to human rationale and ability. The fusion of the two in justification theory is both: humans are capable of understanding God, the world, the law and themselves, but are completely incapable of doing anything about it.

Justification theory, as a result, posits a different problem than that pictured by Paul. Where Paul sees humanity as completely captive to the orientation to death, and thus deluded in their ability to understand God, themselves, or the world, justification theory pictures humanity as their own competent ground for knowing and understanding, though people need help in regard to the law. Where Paul would set aside the law entirely, against the Teacher who thinks it a necessity, justification theory fuses the two with disastrous results: the law is the ground for Christ and the gospel. The work of Christ is one of law-keeping, law-satisfying, and law-establishing, as the law informs and grounds the work of Christ in justification theory. Where for Paul, Christ sets aside the law, justification theory has taken up the false gospel of the Teacher and makes the law foundational, rather than seeing Christ as the one true foundation.

This shows itself in the forward perspective of both the Teacher and justification theory, apprehending Christ through the law. Where for Paul, everything is grounded and understood in light of Christ (a retrospective view of creation, Abraham, Moses, the law, Judaism, etc.), in the false gospel, Christ is reduced to a legal fiction, legally covering human incapacity in the sight of God. Justification theory sides with the false gospel of the Teacher, in making law, retributive justice, and the forward-looking perspective (understanding Christ through the law, rather than understanding the law through Christ) primary.

Douglas Campbell, in his massive work, has lifted the burden of confusion surrounding Romans and justification theory. His detailed argument makes the conclusion irresistible, that justification theory has mistaken the false Teacher for Paul and passed on a muddled and confusing gospel. I have argued Paul would call what is preached and taught in justification theory the accursed gospel, or no gospel at all (as I have explained here in regard to Galatians). On the other hand, recognizing that Paul is giving voice to and refuting this false Teacher, is the first step in recovering the fulness of Paul’s gospel.  

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings


[1] Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 343). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition

[2] Jewish Antiquities 18.81–84. Cited in Campbell, 1086..

[3] Ibid, 593.

[4] Ibid.   

[5] Ibid, 65-66

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 63.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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