Killing Palestinians for Jesus: Christian Zionism and Justification Theory

Palestinian Christians have written an open letter to Western Christian leaders and theologians condemning their complicity, not only in the destruction of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinian Christians: “some of us lost dear friends and family members in the atrocious Israeli bombardment of innocent civilians on October 19, 2023, Christians included, who were taking refuge in the historical Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza.”[1] The letter sets forth Palestinian Christians’ commitment to nonviolence, universal peace, and the condemnation of national ideology and racism being mixed with Christian teaching. The letter is a desperate plea to Western Christians to come to Jesus and oppose the ethnic cleansing unfolding on the world stage.

The irony of American Christians, predominantly evangelicals, blindly supporting Israel’s destruction of Palestinians, is that this is a repetition of the moral and theological error, which Paul and the writers of the New Testament condemned. The privileging of the law, of Israel, of circumcision, of food laws, is a “wall of hostility” or a “work of the law” undone in Christ.

It is not that Judaism is displaced, nor is it a distinct entity apart from what is being done in Christ, nor is the covenant with Abraham a distinct promise from that fulfilled in Christ, rather Israel is made complete in Christ, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians). Israel is not made complete through land holdings in the Middle East, but through inheritance of the earth and a drawing in of all nations and peoples. This is the picture in both Testaments. Egypt and Assyria (Is. 19:24-25), foreigners of every nation (Is. 56:6-8; Ez. 47:21-23), those who are far off (Zech. 2:11) and those who are the traditional enemies of Israel (Egypt, Philistia, Babylon, Tyre, and Ethiopia (Ps. 87:1-7)) will be counted part of Israel and part of God’s plan for world-wide redemption.

In the New Testament Jesus calls himself the true vine of Israel (Jn. 15:1-11) through whom all believers are incorporated into Israel (Jn. 17:20-21). Paul describes those who were once aliens to the commonwealth of Israel as being made citizens through Christ (Eph. 2:11-21). He has abolished “in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:15). Paul makes it clear that to cling to the ordinances of the law is synonymous with enmity, which Christ has brought to an end by incorporating all believers into a singular temple (Eph. 2:20-22).

As Paul describes it in Romans, Gentile believers are grafted onto the branch, which is Israel (11:26). Both James and Peter describe the dispersed Christians as dispersed Israel (James 1:1; I Pet. 1:1) and Peter describes Christians in terms which the Old Testament preserved for Israel: “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION” (1 Pet. 2:9). Revelation pictures heaven come to earth in terms of a cosmic new city, Jerusalem, into which all peoples are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 21:12). Israel is not replaced but completed by the church. The church and Christ are not distinct from Israel, but the fulfillment of the promise given to her in Abraham, the establishment of her Temple, and the incorporation of all the earth and peoples into her precincts. There are not two covenants, two Israels, two temples, two peoples, but one singular new people. Israel is expanded and universalized, so as to include all the earth and all people.

The great irony is that it is Christian people who are insisting on a separate covenant, a separate race, a separate temple, and in so doing they are literally defending the wall of hostility. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, the wall of hostility of the law, torn down and ended by Christ is once again being erected. The nationalism which killed Christ, in favor of the nation and religion of Israel, is that which continues to kill the body of Christ (in the name of Christ) today. The reification of the law, as if the Mosaic law, Judaism, and Israel, were an end in and of themselves, apart from Christ, is the Judaizing false teaching that threatened the early church and which much of the New Testament is aimed at preventing.

Justification theory has played a key part in making the law foundational to the work of Christ (rather than relativizing, suspending, and setting aside the law in light of Christ), and this has led to the conviction that the Jews must have a central role to play in a future millennial kingdom. This Zionism, or essentializing of the nation state was present among English Protestant colonists, who began to think of the United States as the city set upon the hill, like Israel. As Robert Smith has described it, “These hermeneutics, adapted by English colonists, were transposed into the apocalyptic foundations of American national identity and vocation.”[2] As James Skillen has noted, the point “at which the particular connection between Americanism and evangelicals . . . becomes truly significant for foreign policy” is the Puritan heritage of Americans seeing themselves as “a city set on a hill to be a light to the nations.” This heritage, “is the root that still gives light to the national identity, affecting even those who are not Christians or associated with a house of worship.” American evangelical support for the State of Israel “is based on the civil religious faith that God has chosen America to be the kind of new Israel that helps shepherd the survival of the Jewish state so that Christ’s return will come about as prophesied.” Skillen concludes, it is “more accurate to say that Christian Zionism is a specific kind of political theology arising from within the American civil religion.” [3]

Donald Lewis, in his history of Zionism concurs, that Christian Zionism is not primarily about the “restoration of Israel,” or about Jewish recovery of “the land” or even about Christian understandings of prophecy, but it is about how Protestants have framed their identity. Protestant identity has primarily been “hammered out on the anvil” of Christian relationship to Jews. “The ethno-nationalism that Christian restorationists fostered in England in the seventeenth century was largely focused on Protestant England’s duties toward the Jews, and from there this ethno-nationalism spread to America and in the last few decades has flowed to the ends of the earth.” American Christian nationalism, within this frame of understanding, is based upon being a nation that “blesses Israel.” Christian Zionism is attached to a form of Christian nationalism that constitutes a violent alternative form of the faith. Lewis concludes, “Christian Zionism today is an ever-widening stream and is expanding rapidly in many directions; it is a river that has burst its banks and is flooding new territory.” [4]

The specific origin of Israel as the anvil upon which to hammer out Christian identity has its roots in justification theory (the understanding worked out in the last several blogs here and here), in which the work of Christ is defined according to the requirements or condition of the law. Paul’s point is that Christ is the condition defining the work of the law and the purpose of Israel. There are no legal, ethnic, or contractual conditions which constrain the work of God in Christ. Israel has not created herself or determined herself. God has chosen, and it is not that this choosing conveys any significance on the quality of those so chosen, or that those chosen have done or could do anything to be chosen or not chosen. God chooses: He chooses Sarah, Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:9–11). The potter can do whatever he wants with his clay, and thus if God has fashioned Israel for a particular purpose, namely to bring in the Gentiles, who are we to protest. As He says also in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God” (Rom. 9:25–26, NRSV).

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul argues that there is a singular covenant given to Abraham and fulfilled through Christ, which is inclusive of all people. As he argues in Romans 9-11, Israel is not the end point of this covenant, but the means of its historical mediation, as the Messiah would arise through the generations descending from Abraham for the blessing of all peoples. The people of God can include pagans should God wish to call them, and this is obvious from the arbitrary and unconditional choices He has made in the selection of Israel.

Paul describes Israel stumbling over the same stone which Christian Zionists have stumbled over. Isn’t Israel special, not just because she has brought the Messiah into the world? She is God’s chosen people, and if everyone is chosen to be in Israel, isn’t this wildly arbitrary? Isn’t it an abandonment of Israel?

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Israel is formed from a neutral clay for God’s purposes, which included all people. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Pagan inclusion in the saved people of God, then, seems to be not merely a possibility latent in the divine action of calling but a reality prophetically foretold.”[5] This was always God’s plan, and it is not “as though the word of God has failed” or has drifted off course. “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6). As Campbell writes, “We can virtually hear the Teacher accusing Paul in such terms: ‘Has the creative and saving word of God drifted off course?! Your gospel seems to suggest that it has, dragging pagans into the people of God! Indeed, it seems destined for shipwreck …’”[6] And indeed, between the false teacher, justification theory, and Paul, we have very distinct portrayals of Israel.

Israel in justification theory, represents a “timeless, ahistorical, individualistic, and contractual” arrangement.[7] For the false teacher, the law, and its significance are, likewise, eternal. While for Paul, Israel was never simply an ethnicity or specific national identity, but a medium in God’s purposes being worked out in Christ.

These are incompatible portrayals of Israel, and Christian Zionism clearly sides with the false teacher and justification theory. In fact, Christian Zionism seems to fall under Paul’s critique of seeking to establish a righteousness over and against the righteousness of Christ. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Israel has failed to acknowledge Christ and has imagined the law could deliver its own righteousness, apart from Christ (actually a possibility posed in justification theory). Israel is running a race (a striving or agon) that has ended, and they have stumbled in the process. “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law” (9:31). Pursuing righteousness through the law they missed the law.

As Paul argues, in chapter 4 and elsewhere, the law was a medium whose significance was preceded by the promise and fulfilled in Christ. “The law competition and striving is over. If the Christ event is the end of the race for the law, in the sense almost of being the finish line, then the key point is that the race is over (see Phil. 3:2–16). Any subsequent racing on the part of Jews is therefore misdirected if not ludicrous.”[8] Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness” (Rom. 9:30) and they weren’t even in the race. The racers, the Jews, are running aimlessly, stumbling over faith, and meanwhile the race is over and the crown is awarded.

The mistake of Israel and the mistake about Israel, is not that she stumbled prior to Christ, in being Jews and keeping the law. The stumbling is over Christ, after the race has ended. She has not responded to Christ, but has continued to cling to the law, to cling to Judaism as an end in itself, when the end was in Christ. Prior to Christ’s arrival, Jews kept the law, and understood the Scriptures, but she has stumbled over the stumbling stone. “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33). Those who have faith will not be put to shame, otherwise stumbling Israel is out of the race. Jewish pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law (as a futility), is a post-Christian phenomenon. To assign an ongoing significance to this race, which is finished, is to miss Christ. To ignore the Christ event, the righteousness of salvation given by God, renders subsequent pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law a false religion, a false alternative, and not one of two possibilities. In this, Christian Zionism is not of Christ, but a false teaching on the order of assigning righteousness to “works of the law.”

The immediate fruit of this anti-Christ teaching is the slaughter of Christians in Palestine and the cry of Palestinian Christians pleading for their very survival in the face of a theology of ethnic cleansing. In their open letter, Palestinian Christians embrace the fullness of the peaceable gospel, and unlike the majority of American Christians, they recognize nationalism, of any brand, is a perversion of the all-embracing, universal gospel: “We are also profoundly troubled when the name of God is invoked to promote violence and religious national ideologies.” The problem is, American Christian nationalism and Christian Zionism, arise from the same soil and history, in which national, religious, and ethnic identities are fused with the name of Christ, privileging the law over the unconditional good news.  


[2] Robert O. Smith, “More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation”: The Roots of American Christian Affinity for the State of Israel (PhD submitted to Baylor University, 2010) from the Abstract.

[3]James W. Skillen, “Evangelicals and American Exceptionalism,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 4:3 (Winter 2006): 45, 46. Cited in Smith, 2-3.

[4] Donald M. Lewis, A Short History of Christian Nationalism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021) 7-8.

[5] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 777). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[6] Campbell, 780.

[7] Campbell, 780.

[8] Campbell, 791.

Beyond Justification: Revelation, Love, and Salvation

Guest Blog by Jonathan DePue

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed by Paul Axton on his Forging Ploughshares Podcast about my forthcoming book, co-authored with Douglas Campbell, Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel (March 2024). Paul and I decided that it might be helpful for folks, or at least peak people’s interest in the book, if I wrote a summary of the book as a companion to the podcast episode–explaining some of the key moves that Douglas and I made throughout. 

But instead of simply jumping right in, I wanted to take some time to explain the rationale of the book more generally. I have been working with Douglas for just over a decade, having first met him when I matriculated at Duke Divinity School in 2013. And prior to that I was fortunate enough to have begun studying Paul and learning Koine Greek during undergrad from 2009 to 2013. There I was introduced to some of the best Pauline scholarship that rejected what I knew then as the “Lutheran” reading of Paul (a term coined by the famous Lutheran scholar and minister Krister Stendahl). I could sense that this dominant, so-called “Lutheran” reading was destructive (especially towards Jews), highly individualistic, and depicted a God that clashed fundamentally with the God of cosmic reconciliation revealed in Jesus Christ–a God who was irrevocably committed to his people, Israel. But I found the alternatives, especially from certain advocates of the New Perspective on Paul and of the Sonderweg (“two-ways of salvation”) approach, to be less than compelling.
Then, for the first time in 2013, I read The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (henceforth DoG). Everything started clicking into place.

I began to understand that the conventional construal of Paul that I knew as “Lutheran” had problems that were deeper, broader, and harder than most scholars had grasped. Douglas demonstrated that the issue was not just a bad reading that could be attributed to Luther or to the Reformation per se; it was that there was a whole prior construct at work informing the interpretation of Paul’s words, sentences, paragraphs, and key theological claims. Douglas dubbed this “justification theory” (henceforth JT). JT isn’t so much a reading that can be lifted directly out of the text (this in itself is an impossibility) but functions much like what Hans-Georg Gadamer called a Vorverständnisse or a “pre-understanding” which combines received expectations concerning what certain words and phrases mean in just under 10 percent of Paul’s texts. This prior construct then informs and controls how one interprets Paul’s justification data, and goes on to capture what Paul wrote everywhere else. It is, like theologian Willie James Jennings has put things, a “Christian imagination.” JT is just in the water. 

What, then, are we to do with the fact that Paul has been colonized by a harsh, retributive, and contractual prior construct–namely, JT–that prioritizes a particular reading of a minority data set and exerts influence out of all proportion onto the rest of what Paul wrote?

DoG offered what I think is the only successful solution to this problem if we want Paul to be a coherent thinker (and I think we should). With extraordinary historical-critical insight, linguistic mastery, philosophical rigor, and theological depth DoG was a force that Pauline scholars could not ignore—although they tended to misunderstand and misrepresent its arguments (see, well, pretty much all of the reviews of DoG that dropped shortly after its publication). To be fair, it was a difficult book that surpassed 1,000 pages in length and was perhaps rhetorically structured in such a way that immediately turned off those who committed to JT (whether they called it that or not) as if it were a theological golden calf. 

In 2018, nearly a decade after DoG’s publication, I felt it was well past time to repackage the arguments of the book by prefacing and then explaining them in a way that was a bit more rhetorically sensitive and accessible–not just for scholars of Paul, but for students, pastors, and lay people. These realizations coupled with my intense desire to share the decades of research that Douglas had done with as many people as I could was really the impetus for our book, Beyond Justification. And thankfully, I was able to persuade Douglas to co-author it with me. 

The book itself has taken on many iterations over the years, but Douglas and I eventually settled on a structure, argumentative flow, and tone that we believe will help readers grasp what Douglas has been trying to say about Paul and the gospel for years. 

Chapter one, “God’s truth,” kicks off the book with the correct theological starting point–the epistemological question concerning how we know the truth about God. We know God by attending to where he has chosen to reveal himself, namely, in and through his Son, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit. And Paul himself attests to this starting point centered on Jesus quite clearly. Paul’s experience with the risen Lord was quite dramatic and unique, so many other people in his churches probably did not experience revelation in the same way. And Paul knows this. His converts are able to be drawn into the dynamic of revelation as the divine Spirit of Christ searches the depths of God and further reveals the truth about God to them. And we too, wherever we are, are encountered by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ in just the same way–a truth mediated to us by Christ’s Spirit. We don’t find it; it comes to find us. The key thing is that the same process of revelation arrives under the control of the sovereign, self-revealing Lord of the universe and extends from Paul’s own experience, to his churches, and to us thousands of years later.

In God’s self-revelation, we now learn critical things about who this God is. In chapter two, “God’s Love,” we argue that Paul attests to a God of three persons; God is actually constituted by these persons–a divine family of relationships. And not just any sort of relationships but ones of love. God, therefore, is love. And we see this love most clearly in the event of God sending his beloved Son to die for a hostile humanity before they do anything in response. God’s love therefore must be unconditional, and he has always been this way even from before the foundation of the world. Indeed it is this loving divine communion that explains the creation of the cosmos. God elected to create a people to share in this divine communion, and he did this all out of his deep love for us. This is guaranteed by the free activity of God’s Spirit who draws humanity into fellowship with God in Christ forever. We are effectively adopted into God’s loving family to be holy, happy, and blameless–despite whatever tries to knock this divine plan off track. God will always rescue his creation because this is the sort of God revealed in Christ. This is the divine secret (Gk mystērion) that lay at the heart of the cosmos–a loving family that never lets go or gives up on its children.

So if this is what God is really like, how does God respond to attempts to interfere with God’s loving purposes for the cosmos in order to reestablish his divine plan? This is what we address in chapter three, “God’s salvation.” In the light of who God is, we need to know exactly what is messing things up. Paul says quite explicitly that the cosmos is enslaved to the powers of Sin, Death, and the Flesh–along with associated evil powers roaming about. Creation is in bondage with no way to set itself free. We are utterly incapacitated. God’s solution to this dismal plight can be summarized as a two-part story of descent and ascent.

First, God the Father sends his Son to enter into this enslaved cosmos and take on human flesh. Christ assumes all that is harming, damaging, and incarcerating us; he bears all of this as he journeys faithfully to the cross. He is executed, and Sin, Death, and the Flesh are terminated in his execution. Second, Christ is of course raised from the dead and enthroned on high where he is acclaimed as Lord in a transformed body not of flesh but of pneuma (spirit). Through Christ’s Spirit, we are grafted on to this journey of descent and ascent as we enter into the extinction of our current sinful condition. Christ died therefore we all have died. And in Christ, we are raised with him beyond this enslaved state and are set free to respond to God with a full and joyful obedience. Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection. We live out of this resurrected location now and await our final resurrection when we too will be given new spiritual bodies like Jesus. We are saved, then, as we participate in Christ’s faithful life, death, and resurrection. Indeed God’s plan for the cosmos is brought back on track through Jesus and the Spirit. This is Paul’s gospel–his Good News (Gk euangelion).

In part two of this blog post, I will continue summarizing the chapters of Beyond Justification, beginning with a certain construal of Paul, namely, JT, that appears to be doing something very different from the gospel that we have presented thus far.

An Alternative Understanding of Sin and Salvation

The understanding of salvation that I and maybe the majority were reared on, or the typical Protestant understanding (as in justification theory) is that all people recognize God and his righteousness, and experience the incapacity to keep the law. This inability to keep the law is definitive of both the human problem and the solution of the cross of Christ. We come to Christ, having realized we cannot keep the law and that only Jesus can fulfill the laws righteous demands and pay the penalty for transgression. Much of this understanding is drawn from just a few texts, mainly in Romans (and primarily in the first 4 chapters of Romans). I want to pose a different picture of the human problem and a different soteriology, based on an alternative reading of Romans.

As I have argued (here and here), this common Protestant understanding is a result of fusing the words of the false Teacher, as found in 1:18-32 and scattered through the first three chapters, with the teaching of Paul. The human predicament, judging from the rest of Romans, turns out to be much worse than described in Romans 1:18-32. In this description, people know God and know what they should do (keep the law) but do not do it (implying in the description a means of escape through the law), but in the rest of Romans Paul describes people who are in bondage (8:15-6), who have been deceived and enslaved by a lie (7:7-15), who are hostile to God (8:7) and this hostility is the best they can do. Death reigns (5:14), both in the literal sense and in that life is ordered by this reality (5:12). People attempt to engineer reality, through the law (1:18-2:21), through the flesh (7:5, 25), through the elemental principles of the cosmos (Gal. 4:3, in a parallel passage), such that they can negotiate death but all of their various means of escape are deadly.

Far from the law offering a potential means of escape, either through law-keeping or through Christ’s law-keeping, the law is deadly in the same way that flesh is deadly. Though people imagine they can defeat death (through law or religion) in what is called “the covenant with death,” death reneges on the supposed arrangement (9:32 referencing Isaiah 28). The human arrangement with death, which Paul sums up as the sin condition (the law of sin and death, 8:2), deals only in death – there is no life in the arrangement.

Though 1:18-32 pictures a universal capacity to recognize God and the law from nature, it turns out (at least according to the rest of Romans), Paul is not optimistic about people perceiving the problem let alone coming up with a solution. Far from some sort of deep anthropological insight on the part of humanity, Paul pictures a deluded humanity. A deadly exchange has taken hold universally, corporately (chapter 5) and individually in the human psyche (chapter 7) and Paul spends most of the first 4 chapters of Romans explaining how the perceived solution, the law, is bound up with the problem. The deception in regard to the law, through which death takes hold as the perceived means of escape, is obscuring the singular solution: the gospel. That is, God has provided a resolution to the human predicament, but because the problem has been misunderstood (due, in part, to false teaching) the solution is now misunderstood and obscured.  Thus, Paul is writing this letter.

Paul explains the problem, in light of the solution (7:7-25), as the problem cannot otherwise be grasped. As Douglas Campbell explains, chapter 7 is not simply a psychological portrayal of pre-Christian experience. “Essentially, it supplies a theological analysis of non-Christian ontology, whether that is present in the non-Christian (as seems obvious to the Christian) or in the Christian (as seems at least partly to be the case on this side of the end of the age). Hence, it is fundamentally retrospective—the result of a vantage point available only in Christ, which supplies the key theological categories and insights for constructing it.”[1]

Chapter 7:7-25, referencing Adam, is more complicated than mere legalism. Judaism per se is not the problem, though the law of Moses creates the same sort of problem. The reality of the human predicament may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description, misses how it is that sin has deceived in regard to law. In other words, Christianity as we have it in much of Protestantism (justification theory) is implicated in the problem inasmuch as the problem and solution are thought to be defined by the law.

In Genesis 3, it is not that the command per se is problematic, but due to the lie of sin (as Paul describes the work of the serpent) the presumption is that the command is the means of access to life. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.  For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:10-11). Paul is not describing a slowly dawning awareness in the struggle to keep the law, and then the recognized inability to do so. He is describing the deception as it occurred in Genesis and which continues to reign. This is not someone who has deep cognitive awareness of their sin problem. This person is deceived, controlled by the flesh, and serving the desire of the flesh (7:5, 7, 8, 14). This individual is controlled by death, with chapter 7 providing a detailed account of 5:12-21, of how it is that death came to reign and continues to reign in the human race.

It is not a matter that no one can keep the law, and this is why they are not justified, though this is how verses such as Galatians 3:10 are often read. As Daniel Boyarin notes, a better understanding is not to imagine there is a problem with the doing of the law. Most Jews, like the Pharisee Paul, assumed they kept the law perfectly. The problem is not that it cannot be done, the problem is imagining that the doing is the main thing. “We could rewrite the verse, then, as: ‘Everyone, who [precisely] by doing it does not uphold all that is written in the book of the Law, is under a curse’; i.e., by doing it, by physical performance, works of the Law, one is not upholding all that which is written in the book of the Law, and that is the curse, because ‘all that is written’ implies much more than mere doing!”[2] As Paul, argues in chapter 4, it is faith that precedes the doing of the law. Or as he states it in 3:27, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” But as he argues (in chapter 4), this is an idea that can be extrapolated from the law. The law points beyond itself to the faith of Christ. As Boyarin maintains, “It follows from this that those who live by faith are the righteous, i.e., the justified. He then argues that those who live by the Law do not live by faith, since the verse in Leviticus explicitly reads ‘He who does them lives by them,’ i.e., one who does the commandments lives by them and not by faith. Since, then, we know from Habakkuk that the righteous live by faith, he who lives by them and not by faith (and, thereby, does not fulfill the Law) is not righteous—is not justified.”[3]

Boyarin maintains Paul is arguing in a manner familiar to the Rabbis and Pharisees: “Paul is using methods of interpretation that would not surprise any Pharisee (I suspect) or Rabbi, although the results he arrives at would, of course, shock them to their depths.”[4] The law is a curse if the doing of it, or the having it, is thought to be adequate. According to Campbell, “The curse’s basis is actually life in Christ—a life of freedom, adulthood, inheritance, and the Spirit. In comparison with this life, Judaism under the law is confined, immature, harsh, and oppressed, and hence also cursed; it is the life from which Christians have been ‘purchased.’”[5]

The law does not produce faith nor resurrection, though it is based on faith (resurrection faith, 4:23). “In short, by acknowledging the crucified and resurrected Christ, and relying on him for deliverance—a deliverance that is already in some sense inaugurated (so vv. 17–20)—Paul observes that Jewish Christians have automatically displaced law observance from a critical saving and transformational role.”[6] There is no room for “works of law” even in the anteroom to faith. One does not progress through works of the law, to despair about keeping the law, to faith. Galatians, like Romans, describes a setting aside of law: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:15). “Because transformation comes through the Christ event, works of law have been negated (at least in relation to transformation), along with any subsequent construction of their importance.”[7]

As Louis Martyn argues in regard to Galatians, the false teachers (who seem to be the very one or ones in Rome) are arguing Christians need the law, in particular circumcision, so as to curb the desires of the flesh. But Paul equates this reliance on the law as equivalent to reliance on the flesh. “Abraham, in their estimate, would have defeated the desire of the flesh by keeping the law, beginning with circumcision. So, Paul’s juxtaposition of flesh against Spirit, specifically refers to the foreskin of the penis. Their reliance on the law is literally reliance on this piece of flesh.”[8]

This reliance, as depicted in Galatians, is the equivalent of being a slave to the elementary principles of the cosmos. The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing (in Gal. 3:28 and 6:15), is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs (earth/air, water/fire). The problem with the law, the problem with the flesh, and the problem with “this present evil age” reduce to the singular problem that the “elements of the cosmos” (στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου) have been made absolute (a divine dialectic) and have not been understood in relationship to God. Whatever Paul might mean by these elements, it seems that the law and the flesh are counted among those things which held all people captive (Gal. 4:3).

The same dynamic is at work in Romans 7. It is not a matter of the law of the mind gaining control of the law of the flesh, as both are part of the dynamic (dialectic) of the law of sin and death . It is not the body over and against the spirit that is the problem, but this dialectic, as in Paul’s pitting of his mind against the body is definitive of the predicament. He sees two laws at work: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7.23). The point is not that one of these laws is right and the other is wrong; the point is there is a war being waged in which the individual is the victim, and only Christ can end this struggle.

As Martyn notes, the antinomies that served as the building blocks of the universe have disappeared.[9] The cosmos founded on opposed pairs no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ. The cosmic order, in which law versus no law, circumcision versus uncircumcision, or flesh versus spirit is broken open by Christ: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the cosmos has been crucified to me, and I to the cosmos. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).

As Paul explains in chapter 8, there is an incapacity – but it is not an incapacity of the will or of someone attempting to keep the law and finding they are not able. Rather, there is an incapacity to recognize God, due to an innate hostility in the fleshly mind: “it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8). This hostility arises in conjunction with the flesh and the law. It is not a matter of separating the law from the flesh, but it is a matter of doing away with the law as the basis of understanding the problem (sin) and the solution (salvation).

In chapter 5 of Romans, when Paul turns from the problem of the false Teacher and the law, he provides a picture of the problem and solution (from chapters 5-8) revolving around death and life: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). This pictures “life” in the future age, but it also references a different sort of life now. People are baptized so that they “might walk in newness of life” (6:4).  In this new life the oppressive measure of the law has been set aside in being joined to Christ (7:1-3). Rather than the law serving to define salvation, with its being set aside the reign of death has ended (5:21). Salvation is rescue from death and the reign or rule of death through sin (5:18). This simple observation comes with a host of implications in regard to God, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the nature of reality and experience.

In contrast with justification theory, the primary human problem is not God’s anger due to transgression of the law, but captivity, deception, and hostility arising through sin and death. Both chapter 5 and chapter 8 mention an inherent hostility to God. The sons and daughters of Adam are fundamentally God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5–8) as “the sinful mind is hostile to God” (8:7). Romans 7 describes the inner workings of this hostility, which does indeed include the law, but not as a point of recognition and enlightenment but as the place where deception, desire, and death enter in. In 7.7ff the law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control.  Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7.24) or “the law of sin and death” (8.2).  The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

While the problem is more tragic and all-encompassing than pictured in justification theory, the good news is that the solution is more all-encompassing (universal) and unconditional. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (5:10). Here there is no angry deity punishing legal transgression by taking out his wrath on Christ. This salvation speaks of a loving God transforming the cosmos and the very make-up of the human psyche and subject. This salvation is transformational, a passage from death into life, a passage from flesh – law – elementary principles into new life through the Son and the Spirit. The old order of bondage, enslavement to law and flesh has been defeated and the new age is inaugurated. This is an apocalyptic intervention into a bondage in which a right understanding of God and the human situation are impossible. Deliverance, rescue, resurrection and new creation are inaugurated by God through Christ, and this alone allows for salvation and a consequent right understanding (Rom. 8:20–23).

[1] Campbell, Douglas A.. The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 141-142). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1994)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Campbell, 425.

[6] Campbell, 844.

[7] Campbell, 846.

[8] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 294.

[9] Martyn, 570.

Romans 1:18-32: The Premise of False Teaching Rejected by Paul

The discussion in the first 3 chapters of Romans only broaches Paul’s main point in his gospel. This discussion concludes that all are culpable, all have sinned, and there is no advantage to having the law, but by chapter 7, it is not just that the law is of no help, but the law itself is implicated in the problem. In chapter 7 Paul is referencing the commandment given to Adam and Eve, so that the law and its problems are universalized. It is not only Jews who have a law problem, all people in Adam have the same problem.  It does not matter if the reference is to Jewish or Gentile law, the law of Moses or the law theoretically written on the heart. It does not matter what the source of this law is, as sin creates a deception in regard to the law. Romans 7, implicating the law (period) as giving rise to sin, needs to be kept in mind in chapters 1-3, as in many traditional readings Paul will be attributed with teaching a contradictory understanding to his conclusion in chapter 7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . ..  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (7:7a; 10-12). Far from teaching that the law is foundational to the gospel, Paul teaches that the gospel delivers those in bondage to the law. Chapters 1-3 is an illustration of how this bondage works, while Romans 4-8 pictures how rescue occurs. Read retrospectively, we can see that Paul is building a case in these first three chapters, not just that the law is of no advantage, but that the law is part of the problem.

It is not just that the human problem is not to be perceived in terms of law and its transgression, but this wrong perception is the problem. The law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control. Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7:24) or “the law of sin and death” (8:2). The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death due to law (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

In Paul’s depiction of the Subject, participation in the Trinity is displaced by participation in the law. Specifically, the law displaces relationship with God as Abba, and instead of being found in Christ the struggle with the I or the ego is definitive, displacing life in the Spirit with a death dealing deception. Righteousness perceived on the basis of the law is the sin problem directly addressed by Christ: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). Being made dead to law (whether Jewish or Gentile), delivered from its strictures, is a key part of salvation.

If we should imagine Romans 1:18-32 is the last word or even the beginning word in regard to the human situation, the conclusion is that the wrath of God is primary. There is no mention of the love of God, which Paul will describe as primary (in chapter 8). The compassion of God has no place in this understanding, and God’s mercy – at least for these pagans – is absent. God judges and condemns, and the notion that he might forgive cannot be contemplated, as God’s righteousness demands judgment. But we know Paul does not think wrath and retribution are the essential nature of God, though in this presentation, all people, but especially non-Jewish people, are culpable and damned. They know what they should do and yet cannot help themselves. They have a law written on their heart, they have a natural revelation about God, but they have chosen to be idolaters and have become sexual predators and perverts. They could have enlightened minds, but instead they are totally depraved with their hearts completely darkened.

In this system, it is not clear whether the culpability is assigned to individuals or to the group as a whole, as it seems some got sin rolling with initial sins, and then this block of humanity suffers the consequences. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “It speaks in strongly condemning tones about others: ‘they have sinned and sinned and sinned again, . . . and I can assure you personally that God is angry with them’ (‘since he and I are on such good terms,’ one is tempted to add).”[1] The “they” here, as a result, is unclear. Who exactly has this philosophical opportunity to recognize the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of God? It seems an original few may have ruined it for the rest. “After a foolish rejection of the single transcendent God, the disobedient pagans in the passage are rapidly overwhelmed by lusts . . . becoming so immersed in depraved behavior that they generate an entire culture of idolatry and sexual immorality (so vv. 23–27). The pagans are collectively trapped.”[2] By the end of the passage, philosophical man is gone, and subsequent generations are inundated with sinful passions and ultimately murder. Is it fair that they still be expected to know God and act accordingly. Can they “fairly be expected either to perceive a transcendent God or to act in accordance with that God’s wishes.”[3] It would seem there is a fundamental inequity for those who suffer the consequences of the decisions of those given the original opportunity. Where an original few had the possibility to save themselves at the judgment through wisdom, those who come after are tricked by wisdom.

Wisdom is now foolishness, which shows itself in their worship of the creation. They are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Ro 1:29–32). God is angry, retributive, and punishing. Pagans are going to die in their sins, and they deserve it. They are getting their just deserts.

If this is simply Paul’s opinion, we hear nothing of the self-indictment which will come later in the letter, or in notions that he is the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15). Are pagan idolaters peculiarly sinful in Paul’s theology, and how does this accord with his notion in Galatians that Judaizing Christians are guilty of idolatry? Whoever Paul is giving voice to, it is in the third person, and he or she is not included among these pagans and their idolatrous ways. As Campbell has described it, this person “has taken the ethical and rhetorical high ground in relation to the pagans, with a striking absence of self-knowledge . . ..  He speaks of God, perhaps as something of a self-appointed representative; indeed, he discloses the future wrath of God now in his own preaching, thereby in part deploying it himself! But this figure has not included himself within this orbit of fallibility. He stands outside and above it. Hence, even if there are elements of truth in what he is saying, the tone of his judgment is potentially repugnant.”[4]

Is this Paul’s starting premise in regard to the human situation, or is this in fact the understanding of a false Teacher he is refuting? What is at stake in our reading of the opening of Romans is nothing short of our understanding of reality. In Romans there are two possible anthropologies, cosmologies and theologies. If we do not clearly sort out the difference here in Romans 1-3, the danger is we will imagine the false anthropology, ontology and theology are presumed by Paul. In these verses retributive justice is the only option, judgment is on the basis of works, and all people have access to full knowledge of God through revelation (they would not need Jesus Christ if they had only done what they know is right).

It is easy to imagine the Teacher giving the amen to 1:18-32, and then extending the argument. “These pagans do not have the benefit of the Mosaic law, by which means idolatry is avoided and enlightened thinking capitalized upon. We possessors of the law control our base desires – you will not find sexual perverts or gossips among us. We circumcised ones, by the very efficacy of this sign receive the benefits of having our desires curtailed.” Texts, such as Maccabees, describe the virtues conveyed by the law – “the goodness or rightness, wisdom, self-control, and courage—to conquer their own bodily appetites and passions even in the most extreme circumstances, here excruciating pain, fear, loss, and humiliation under torture (and this at the hands of dissolute passionate pagans, it should be noted!).”[5] Paul may be arguing so extensively in regard to circumcision, as this is the key sign the Teacher emphasizes. Philo explains the advantages conveyed by circumcision, and the Teacher may presume as much:

It prevents disease (4), “secures the cleanliness of the whole body” (5), makes “the part that is circumcised … [‘resemble’] the heart”—and both organs are, after all, concerned with generation, the heart of thoughts and “the generative organ … of living beings” (6), and allows the seminal fluid to proceed easily, making those nations practicing circumcision the most numerous (7). Philo goes on to suggest, however, that these rationalizations are traditional (8); he supplies two further arguments of a symbolic nature that are closely related to one another. First, circumcision “is a symbol of the excision of all the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, through that one which is the most impervious of all” (9). Similarly, circumcision is a symbol of “discarding that terrible disease, the vain opinion of the soul” (10). Here, then, circumcision is symbolic of the excision of vice and of the achievement of a superior ethical state, which Philo goes on to link immediately not merely with sound sexual ethics but with the absence of idolatry.[6]

The Teacher cannot imagine how sin is going to be curtailed and ethics instigated apart from circumcision and the Jewish law. These pagan Christians will need to be circumcised, they will need to practice Jewish ethics, and only in this way will they be declared righteous at the judgment.

Whether or not there is a specific false Teacher who may have proposed this understanding (the proposal of Douglas Campbell), what is obvious in chapters 2-3 is that on the basis of the premises here laid out, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul has set up a sting operation.

Romans 1:18–32 sets up a homiletical sting operation. The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then, in Romans 2:1, the sting strikes: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteous is “without excuse” (anapologētos) before God (2:1), just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are anapologētos (1:20).[7]

As Campbell points out, many interpreters understand that Paul is trapping someone in their own argument, but the problem is who (or whom) and why? This is not the argument of a typical Jew, but more than likely the argument of a false Teacher on the order of the Judaizing false Teacher in Galatia. This Teacher acknowledges Christ but only in conjunction with the law – setting the work of Christ on the foundation of retributive justice, the primacy of wrath, and the necessity of good works. In this understanding Paul is made to agree with the basic theology of 1:18-32, while in the following chapters he is trying to evoke a bit more self-awareness on the part of someone who would presume to judge someone else. “One ought to be aware that one is in the same boat, so to speak; the judge is also a sinner and ought to acknowledge this. Hence, this turn (in chapter 2) is designed to jolt the figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others (see esp. 2:3–5).”[8] But is this all that is going on here; namely that Paul wants potential judges of others to repent and receive forgiveness? If this is aimed at Jews in general, does Paul consider hypocrisy intrinsic to Judaism. If this is all there is to it, this judge seems a bit stupid (in Campbell’s words), in preaching just deserts and then excluding himself. Is this what the typical Jew does? Are Jews as a class of people, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid?

According to Paul then—and for the argument construed in these terms to work—Judaism is not merely contractual, conditional, perfectionist, monolithic, and ahistorical, but innately judgmental and hypocritical! It necessarily includes an internal insensitivity to sinfulness, combining this with a rigorously judgmental attitude to outsiders. In short, Jews are stupid as well as conditional. They promulgate a system that, to a man, they do not live up to themselves, but they nevertheless attack others on ethical grounds and are unaware of their own ethical shortcomings.[9]

While some Christian’s may perceive Judaism in this anti-Semitic manner, I presume not many Jews will see themselves in this portrayal. If it is simply Judaism Paul has in mind, is he presuming that this hypocritical Jew is squandering his opportunity to repent (2:4). Is Paul trying to get a stubborn Jew to repent, receive forgiveness, and be saved – and all of this without mention of Christ. Can a pagan or Jew, in the non-Christian phase here described, receive salvation if they repent and start living up to the law? Does phase one of human history, and phase one of the law prior to Christ, contain the possibility of salvation through the law?  

If those trying to do good deeds prior to Christ can sin and then repent, being forgiven those sins, then they may well arrive at the day of judgment effectively righteous. Given the appropriate contrition—which could presumably take place on their death beds if necessary—such individuals would have been forgiven their sins and shortcomings and so be righteous. God would then have to declare them that and save them on the day of judgment, and they would then have been saved independently of Christ, the church, Christian preaching, and Paul![10]

Given these presuppositions, presumably most Jews will be able to repent and be saved and there is no need for Christ.

Lest anyone should miss this is not and cannot be Paul’s understanding of the gospel – he says as much in 2:16: “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” In the middle of this presentation, he notes that all of this is contrary to his gospel. His gospel is not a law-based system, but a Christ based system. Though this is only mentioned in passing, Paul will soon make it clear that Christ does not deliver by means of the law but he delivers from the law. But before Paul lays out his gospel, he is going to show the absurdity of a law-based gospel, a law-based judgment, or a law-based understanding of God.

Chapter 2, in universalizing the presumptions of 1:18-32 undermines the Teacher’s notion. He has passed judgment and has not included himself but presumes to judge all of the pagan world, not submitting himself to the same criteria. This Teacher presumes that because he is a law-keeping Jewish Christian, he has met the required standard. In his understanding, the law and circumcision are the means and measure of righteousness. Possessing the law, including or marked by circumcision, must be the means of constraining the sinful passions, evident especially in pagans. The law saves as judgment will be according to works of the law. If this were the case, then Jews and especially Jewish law-keeping Christians would be at a definite advantage (the Teacher’s point).

Paul is not simply trying to convince a hypocritical Jew to repent, he is arguing this entire system makes no sense. He concedes that circumcision may have value if you practice the law, but if not, it is a worthless sign (2:25). On the other hand, the opposite is true: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (2:26). Paul’s point is the law does not aid in righteousness, and as he will eventually argue, it disenables righteousness.

Paul argues, that according to the criteria of the Teacher there are potentially bad Jews and good pagans. “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:9–10). Paul may be ironically quoting the Teacher in this construal of first and last, as to be damned first may not be a privilege, and there is no real difference between Jew and Gentiles in this scheme (to say nothing of Christian or non-Christian).

This Teacher must be boasting about the efficacy of the law: “you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth” (2:19–20). In the Teacher’s view, the law automatically conveys an advantage, such that those who possess it are to be the guides to the rest of blind humanity. Paul gives an historic example (also recorded by Josephus) of some Jews who do not live up to this standard (2:21-24), not to prove that all Jews are charlatans and robbers of temples, but to show that the law and circumcision do not convey the automatic benefits the teacher imagines nor automatically make the Jews the chosen race. 

Having extracted a firm commitment from the Teacher to the principle of soteriological desert, he uses this principle to eliminate an entire set of supposed Jewish advantages—advantages as the Teacher defines them, that is. The Teacher must submit to these eliminations or be exposed as inconsistent if not hopelessly self-contradictory. Paul seems well aware, moreover, that the principle of desert, when it is strictly applied, is peculiarly destructive to historical and elective concerns. Its strict application can produce quite appalling results, if it is pressed.[11]

By 2:29 Paul has rebutted the Teachers arguments using his own premises: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28–29). By the Teacher’s argument it may be concluded, against the Teacher, that it is righteous gentiles who may judge unrighteous Jews. Jews, even, or especially, by his premises, must be accorded no special privilege.

Paul, however, is going to reject this entire scheme. He does not believe God is retributive, or that righteousness is determined by the law, and so too the traditional reading of 3:1-9 is reversed. Verses 2, 4, and 6 are advocating justice and judgment by works. Paul is usually attributed with this portion of the argument, but this is the Teacher’s argument. It is Paul (in 1,3,5,7 and 9) that questions the advantage of the Jew (3:1), who argues the law is nullified by a lack of faith (v. 5), who suggests a strict works-righteousness system is unfair (v. 7), and who questions that the Jew has any advantage. If we miss Paul is refuting the arguments of the Teacher, not only do we end up with the premises of 1:18-32 but we are likely to get his argument in 3:1-9 exactly wrong, attributing to Paul the argument of the false Teacher and attributing to Paul’s interlocutor (in the traditional understanding) Paul’s point.

The alternative is to recognize that Paul, using the premises of 1:18-32, has refuted the false Teacher. In 3:19-20 he silences the Teacher by driving him into a corner through a series of scripture quotations, the very ones on which he relies. The Teacher may imagine he is rescuing Christian converts by insisting they keep the law, the only way of being saved in his scheme. Paul, on the other hand, considers the teaching that the law is primary as falling short of the true gospel.

Paul makes it clear at the end of chapter 3, should there be any question, he rejects law as the basis of righteousness, he rejects retributive justice, and he rejects the entire scheme of the false Teacher. He clarifies the starting point of his gospel at the conclusion of the chapter:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (3:21–24).  

This clinches the argument, but it also serves as the beginning of Paul’s full explanation of the unconditional gospel.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 546). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 359-360.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Campbell, 546.

[5] Campbell, 564.

[6] Cited in Campbell, 566.

[7] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 389. Cited in Campbell 362-363..

[8]  Campbell, 363.

[9] Campbell, 364-365.

[10] Campbell, 367.

[11] Campbell, 551.

Paul’s Gospel Challenge to the Romans: From Sin as Law Breaking to Sin as Bondage to Law and Death

In addition to refuting the false Teacher in Romans, Paul is also challenging the Roman Christians to accept a more comprehensive understanding of the work of Christ. His very reason for writing, and eventually visiting, is to explain the gospel (1:15). Paul is presuming they have not heard the gospel in its fulness, and he is eager that they would have this more complete understanding so as to be able to resist the false Teacher, but also so they might enjoy a deeper faith. Where he is moving them from (or his point of departure), is their view regarding the work of Christ (in 3:23-26), in which atonement is said to be “for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions.” Their understanding is true, in so far as it goes, but it does not go very far, and so Paul is beginning with what they understand and building from there. They may be so focused on the efficacy of Christ’s death that they fail to consider the resurrection (as his defeat of death and the beginning of his rule over the powers).

The Roman Christians, as we gather from the way in which Paul builds his case, may simply believe Christ has replaced the need for sacrifice for sin in the Temple (even the false Teacher probably believes as much), but they may not have grasped the cosmic implications of Christ. As Douglas Campbell writes, “Christ’s death functions more as an apparent replacement of the temple cultus, which cleanses or wipes various individual transgressions from the relevant worshipers and their consciences (see Heb. 9:11–14, 24–28). Hence, there is no further atoning role for the resurrection to play.”[1]  They may be looking forward to a future vindication in their own resurrection, but fail to apprehend the notion of a resurrection life now (present participation in the life of Christ). They seem to have missed that sin is not simply breaking laws, but an orientation to death defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection (as Paul will explain shortly, in some detail). (Thus, Paul’s true thesis for the letter may be his opening focus on resurrection in 1:4). It is not that the Roman understanding is wrong per se, but their limited understanding has left them vulnerable to the false Teacher.

In this understanding, God is concerned with good and bad deeds, and the judgment will be based on an accounting of these deeds. As Paul sums it up, “God will render to each person according to his deeds” (2:5) and only “the doers of the law will be justified” (2:14). But of course, this is not Paul’s position, because he immediately refutes this notion saying, “that from the works of law no flesh will be justified” (3:20). Paul’s teaching is that justification comes “by faith, apart from works of law” (3:28). The problem is the Romans may have such a limited notion of faith as to imagine it is defined by law keeping – Christ satisfies the law and faith is trusting in this fact.

The false Teacher has been able to take advantage of their narrow understanding, and Paul is simultaneously refuting the false teaching and broadening their understanding by presenting his more radical gospel. He is doing this on two fronts; showing that the problem of sin is more serious than they imagined, and then showing that the answer of salvation is also cosmic, fundamental and all-encompassing. Where their faith is attached to law and transgression, the resurrection faith which Paul will begin to spell out entails cosmic new creation.

To convince them of his more radical gospel their basic concepts of justification, judgment, and sin, are going to need to be reworked in light of the work of Christ, and this will involve a new hermeneutic. The concept of the false Teacher, which the Romans may share, is that justification is through works, judgment is on the basis of works, and sin is concerned with bad works. This is hardly an adequate understanding of the depth of the human predicament and the need for rescue, so Paul broadens their understanding of sin, moving them from focus on sin as a mere act to picturing it as bondage to deception.

Rather than speaking of plural “sins” Paul speaks of sin as a singular force. As Louis Martyn points out, “While Paul uses the word “sin” in the singular rather frequently, the plural form emerges only four times in the genuine letters.” Martyn provides an examination of all the plural uses of the word, and concludes, “Only when he is quoting traditional formulas does Paul speak of Jesus as having died for our sins (Gal. 1:4; I Cor 15:3).”[2] As long as the Roman Christians think of sins as defined by works of the law (“for the sake of release from previously committed transgressions”), they will consider the human predicament as concerned with outward works and signs (such as circumcision). In turn, God will be understood through the law, as the one who punishes and rewards, and justice and judgment will also be law-based determinations.

What becomes obvious by Romans 7 is that Paul’s definition of sin (deception in regard to the law) is manifest in the gospel of the false Teacher (his false gospel is sin at work). The Romans are susceptible to this false teaching, inasmuch as they have also misconstrued the importance of the law. Paul argues Christ is the righteousness of God revealed (not the law) but they may be a long way from this concept. Isn’t the law the righteousness of God revealed, they might ask? How can Paul say the gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (1:17)?

Paul’s depiction of the work of Christ (righteousness enacted) as release from a death-dealing deception (in chapters 5-8) is a new concept (if 3:23-26 reflects the extent of their initial understanding). The Roman Christians may be similar to Christians today, who hold to justification theory. Neither group seems to fully comprehended that in Paul’s gospel, Christian faith is a participation in the work of Christ (living out his death and resurrection) so as to break free of the bondage of the power of sin. Salvation is not merely a cleansing nor baptism the spiritual equivalent of a bath. Note, that he begins by questioning whether they know the full meaning of baptism: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (6:3-4). As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Christians are not merely enabled to live, purified, in the present world, but their very being is transformed and they enter a new world.”[3]

So, Paul’s task in Romans is to bridge a gap in the thinking of these Christians. He is going to try to move them from a child-like view of sins, to a more profound recognition of sin, and thus strengthen their recognition of the work of Christ. He does this in the immediate context by appeal to the life of Abraham.

 In chapter 4, he demonstrates from the story of Abraham that the law is not definitive of the faith of Abraham, but the life journey of Abraham (in which he was given the promise of life in the face of death) is definitive. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Where the Romans may consider righteousness as defined by the law, Paul connects it to the faith of Abraham, which precedes the law. “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (4:10). Abraham’s faith is not defined by the law, as there was no law. Abraham is the prototype of faith, and yet his faith is nothing on the order of that described by the false Teacher (or justification theory), in which law is determinant.

The law is secondary in the life of Abraham, a mere sign of the promise of life: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (4:11). Certainly, he is the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Abraham’s faith stands juxtaposed to the notion that faith is in regard to the law, or that faith is objective and static (rather than dynamic and lived out). Abraham’s life journey, his active trust in God, leaving his home country and family, and his continued journey literally and metaphorically into the unknown, describe a participatory, lived out faith.

Abraham does not feel a guilt-stricken conscience before the law; that is not even a possibility. Law does not figure into the equation at all. Rather, Abraham’s faith was exercised in his orientation to the promise of life in the face of death: “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (4:13).

Paul concludes his depiction of the faith defining role of Abraham as culminating in resurrection faith: “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24). Righteousness is not primarily a legal term for Paul, but it pertains directly to Christ, and his making right that which is wrong. Where death reigned prior to faith, now life reigns through Christ and resurrection faith.

The Romans may have had a weak view of the resurrection, viewing it as the reward or end point of cleansing from sin. Paul’s view is more radical: Cleansing and freedom from sin are not the achievement leading to resurrection rather, “Cleansing and hence freedom from Sin [is the] freedom of resurrection.”[4] Resurrection is the liberating event bringing about freedom from the law of sin and death, and this is enacted in Christ for all who have faith. As illustrated in the resurrection faith of Abraham, one’s life course is liberated from death through faith. Christians are liberated from the very structures of sin through resurrection faith. This is the atoning, liberating work accomplished by Christ, displayed by Abraham, and definitive of Christian faith. This resurrection orientation is itself salvific in its defeat of the orientation to death, which is sin.

In Romans 5 Paul takes this a step further, juxtaposing Adam and Christ: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). Death reigned in Adam and this accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), and just so, “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here sin is a singular, ethical, epistemological, and ontological force that has captured the human race, not just in physical death but in an orientation which is death dealing. Paul describes this as a primordial deception, a covenant with death, or the law of sin and death. In chapter 7 he explains how the dynamic of this lie works in conjunction with the law, or simply with human understanding of the law. There is a fundamental deception in regard to the law, by which sin enters in: “sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). In this chapter Paul describes the topography of the human Subject, as the dynamic of this lie takes hold. Chapters 5 and 7 explain how it is that this law of sin and death has captured the human race, while chapters 6 and 8 describe how Christ frees from the death dealing bondage of sin.

Far from the law playing a guiding or defining role, in Paul’s gospel the law is the occasion for sin. It may be that it is not only the false Teacher implicated in this deception, but the Romans, through their own inadequate notion of atonement have given him an opportunity. But this is not the peculiar trick of the false Teacher, or a peculiar weakness on the part of the Romans, as Paul explains, this deception in regard to the law is the universal human problem resolved through the work of Christ. In his gospel, the law is displaced with a participatory faith in Christ which nullifies the law of sin and death.

[1] Douglas A, Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 709). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 1997), 89. The rest of the quote from Martyn reads: “Of these four instances one is a sentence Paul explicitly identifies as an early Christian confession (I Cor 15:3); a second stands in the broad context of that confession (I Cor. 15:17); the third functions in effect as a plural adjective modifying a plural noun (Rom 7:5, “sinful passions”) and the fourth emerges in the present verse.” Martyn is referencing the verse in Galatians 1:4.

[3] Campbell, 709.

[4] Campbell, 710.

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

[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.

Contrasting Unconditional and Conditional Salvation in Luther and Romans 7

Is Christ meeting the condition of the law or creating new conditions? Is human knowledge and insight the condition through which God is apprehended, or does Christ exceed and challenge the condition of human knowing, serving as an alternative ground of knowing? How we answer these two key questions is determinate of our understanding of Christianity and the world, providing two alternative foundations and two opposed forms of the faith (conditionalim or unconditionalism). In the former, the law (either the Jewish law or natural law) is the precursor to understanding Christ and in the latter, Christ is the means of understanding the law. In both instances, the law is inclusive of Judaism, the Old Testament and natural law (inclusive of human understanding and knowing). So, in reality, the two questions boil down to one question, concerning the foundation for reading scripture and understanding the human condition, the world and God. The conditional form of justification by faith (hereafter, also called justification theory) presumes that faith is the condition that meets the requirements of the law and satisfies human recognition (knowledge) of failure to meet these requirements (thus preparing for justification), while the unconditional form of justification by faith presumes that faith, justification and Christ are not conditioned by anything, but are themselves the beginning and end, the condition and goal. Conditionalism and unconditionalism are opposites, and yet they often are melded together in both theology and biblical exegesis, as if one can hold both positions at once. As a result the unconditional good news has been obscured, as its implications for every area of theology have often not been acknowledged.

The problem in sorting out systems or individuals who may teach conditionalism or unconditionalism, is that the two systems most often exist together in much of Christian understanding. For example, Martin Luther attempts to set theology on new ground through his justification by faith, in which faith is not a work of the law. Faith replaces what he perceived as the law-driven, works-righteousness, of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, but the problem is he does not clearly delineate a system in which faith surpasses the conditionalism of the law. While we might credit both Luther and Calvin with attempting to articulate an unconditional salvation, Luther’s justification theory is responsible for releasing justification theory into the interpretive tradition and thus making faith itself the condition. In the modern period, justification theory (conditional salvation, with all this entails) will become the predominant form of the Protestant faith if not the shaping force in modern culture, philosophy and society (to say nothing of biblical interpretation). While it may have been Luther’s intent to describe an unconditional gospel, what results is confusion and contradiction in which this intent is obscured.

For example, in his commentary on Romans (hereafter, LLR) Luther maintains, “faith must be there to ratify the promise, and the promise needs the faith on the part of him to whom it is given.”[1] God gives the gift of righteousness, but it must be grasped by faith. Luther provides the example of a patient who can only be healed by a doctor if the patient acknowledges his sickness (LLR, 69). In other words, as in justification theory, the patient or the sinner recognizes his sin before an omnipotent and righteous God, and recognizes he has broken the law, and therefore is prepared to receive the treatment of coming to faith. As he states it in The Proceedings at Augsburg: “it is clearly necessary that a man must believe with firm faith that he is justified and in no way doubt that he will obtain grace. For if he doubts and is uncertain, he is not justified but rejects grace.… [T]he justification and life of the righteous person are dependent upon his faith.”[2] Not just any faith, or partial faith will do, but an intense faith free of doubt is necessary. Any hint of doubt means he is not justified, and more than this, it means he has rejected grace. Uncertain faith sounds a lot like a condition, which like the law, may leave a person not only uncertain of his status but despairing of his ability to attain it. In this understanding, faith is intangible, and dependent upon the individual to conjure up and to block out all questions giving rise to uncertainty.

This condition might drive one to despair. At least the law provides a tangible, objective criterion, but this faith condition occurs completely within the individual. Luther acknowledges that one must despair of their ability to keep the law, but the question arises if the condition of faith now calls upon the individual to exercise the very power he proved incapable of under the law. In justification theory, the sinner has the requisite knowledge of God, sin and the law, to be driven to faith so as to relieve the pressure of the law, but faith seems to exercise its own sort of pressure. Faith is not itself the righteousness or ability but the condition that precedes and enables it.

Douglas Campbell provides extensive examples of Luther’s picture of faith as the condition for salvation, but then provides examples from Luther of the opposite – unconditional faith. Again, in his commentary on Romans, Luther pictures faith more as a gift than an accomplishment: “We must understand that this doing or not doing must be freely accomplished by the love of God with all one’s heart and not from a slavish fear of punishment or from a childish desire for advantage, and that this is impossible without the love that is shed abroad by the Holy Spirit.”[3] Luther concludes, “it follows irrefutably: one does not become a son of God and an heir of the promise by descent but by the gracious election of God”[4]; and further states that “[a] man owes his ability to will and to run, not to his own power, but to the mercy of God who gave him this power to will and to run. Without it, man could neither will nor run.”[5] Campbell notes that some Finnish Lutherans picture Luther as affirming apocatastasis or deification (participation). “The Finns argue vigorously that Luther’s justification language and argumentation presuppose this more fundamental, intimate, participatory, and even deificatory stratum.”[6] Campbell concedes that this language is present in Luther, but concludes that this is because Luther is ultimately contradictory.

He then demonstrates the same contradiction in Calvin and Augustine. Luther’s justification by faith has injected this contradiction into much of the Christian world, but Campbell’s point is that this confusion has a long lineage, and to arrive at a consistent understanding will require an examination of the implied anthropology, epistemology, and theology, of conditionalism and unconditionalism, demonstrating they are opposites and cannot be melded. Where they are melded, the implications of the unconditional gospel are lost. Exegesis alone will not accomplish the task, as either one will unwittingly hold to both positions or bend passages toward justification theory. A comparison of the two systems and demonstrating the difference will show the inconsistency of trying to do both, and will recover the full implications of the unconditional gospel. On the other hand, each of the two systems tend to rely on particular passages which seem to teach justification or those passages which teach the opposite. We might, for example, take Romans as our primary text and read according to conditionalism or unconditionalism.

Portions of Romans might seem to be teaching conditionalism (maybe chapters 1-4) and unconditionalism (5, 6, and 8), while chapter 7 would be the place these two systems collide and the contention is brought out, with the conditionalists reading 7:7-25 as the typical struggle with sin in all people leading to conversion (or describing the continued Christian struggle with sin), and the unconditionalists reading it as a depiction of the deception regarding the law binding all people in a futile bondage. In the former, 7-25 is describing what one is delivered to (either as a Christian or a Christian in process) and the latter reads the struggle and deception of Romans 7 as what one is delivered from. The contrasting epistemology, anthropology, doctrine of revelation, theology (doctrine of God), Christology and atonement, drawn from this chapter, bring out the differences and demonstrates the impossibility of doing both.


In terms of epistemology, justification theory reads Romans 7 as evidencing full awareness of God and the law and one’s incapacity to keep the law. The passage (from 7-25) depicts a dawning awareness, concluding with the desperate cry of faith in verses 24-25. Justification theory requires a correct understanding of God, the law, and the self in light of the law, and this serves as the launching pad for faith, thus the passage is read to demonstrate this case.

The unconditionalist notices that the movement of 7-25 is not one of freedom of thought (dawning realization) but depiction of a growing incapacity and enslavement, giving rise to death. Whatever death Paul might have in mind here, it is probably not appropriate to equate death and freedom (the passage is inclusive of both thought and will). The infection of death has taken up residence in every part of this person: “For I do not understand my own actions” (v. 15). Only retrospectively, in light of Christ, does understanding occur. This understanding does not allow for the optimism surrounding human knowing found in justification theory.


The inherent anthropology connected with justification theory pictures the person as sufficient ground, in that rational human capacity and ethical insight are required as the first stage in conditionalism. Sin may darken the mind, but this occurs primarily in regard to the final stage. Prior to that, everyone is thought to reason their way to desperation and depression regarding God, the law, and their interior state. For the conditionalist, 7-25 seems to be a perfect example of the introspective conscience of all human beings. They have correct information about God, the world and the law, and for this reason they know the good, yet the are unable to carry through and do it: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15, ESV).[7] Here is the self-loathing and depression sufficient to deliver to faith and salvation. The trajectory is forward looking, presuming that these are the valid premises, the right sort of knowledge, the correct understanding of the law, to reach the correct conclusion.

The unconditionalist presumes 7-25 is a retrospective view from a Christian point of view, not of the correct premises and conclusion reached prior to meeting Christ, but of the one who is deceived and in bondage. The passage details what its like to be controlled by “the flesh” (vv. 5,14) and, as in Adam, what it is like to be subject to death and desire (vv. 7-8). This corrupted and deceived person is unaware of what has gripped him. Only one who is a Christian can look back on his former manner of life and understand the inherent deception and bondage of his former condition. He could not have known this consciously or introspectively, as this individual is spiritually dead: “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). Paul states it even more sharply in chapter 8: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (8:7).

Where justification theory may read this as Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness and experience or even his continued Christian experience (a true account of his psychology), unconditionalism regards this as an account of his actual existence, but due to deception it is an account he was not conscious of at the time. Philippians 3:6 may be a more accurate representation of Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness, where he imagines, as a Pharisee, he is sin free and perfect in regard to the law. Romans 7 may be his true report on Philippians 3, as Paul will acknowledge he was the chief of sinners and did not know it at the time. Only retrospectively, from the viewpoint of salvation, can he write Romans 7, as he did not know what sin was or the nature of his bondage apart from salvation. Only in light of salvation is the deceptive work of the flesh revealed. In this understanding Christ rescues and redeems humankind from a lie that is not exposed apart from the truth of who he is.


This entails two very different accounts of revelation, with conditionalism presuming Christian revelation primarily informs about the final stage of the human condition and does not function in regard to the law (in the initial stage). The law (either natural law or Jewish law) is a primary source of information in recognizing Christ, providing the conditions he would fulfill and the means of understanding his work. The law tells of the problem, which Christ answers. Israel, the Temple, and the Jewish system, form a coherent system, which apart from Israel’s failure, was inherently adequate. If the Jews had kept the law of their scriptures and Gentiles had kept the law written on their heart, the incarnation would not have been necessary.

Unconditionalism equates revelation in Christ with salvation, in that the previous bondage did not allow for right thinking in regard to the law. Where conditionalism presumes to read the Bible and history in an unfolding chronology, with revelation culminating in Christ, unconditionalism presumes that it is only from a retrospective view provided through the truth of Christ that creation, the law, the Old Testament, and Israel can be rightly understood. Now we understand, as portrayed in Romans 8 (a singular example of a New Testament theme), that Jesus Christ reveals, sums up, and concludes creations purposes.

In brief, in conditionalism, the law is the condition which Christ adheres to, affirms, and satisfies. The particulars of this condition (a particular understanding of Israel, the law, and the human condition) are required. Unconditionalism does not predict the necessary singular condition of Israel (Judaism may in fact be any number of things, as we know from the New Testament, it is) and the law (which may be any number of things which serve in place of God). Jesus is the determining factor in understanding the human condition, Israel, and the law.


Though God makes no appearance in verses 7-24, the conditionalist is not bothered by the impersonalism and focus on the law, as this is assumed to function like God. Where the unconditionalist might suspect it is sin that is oppressing and punishing, the conditionalist attributes this directly to God and his retributive nature. In justification theory, God functions like (or in and through) a retributive legal system, oppressing and punishing, and thus moving people along to faith (or not). The motive is both fear and oppression, and these are not incorrect but accurate perceptions of God. God’s impugned honor or anger is the central fact about God, at least in stage one of justification theory. Thus 7-24, though it is missing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (which will be the focus in chapter 8), these verses are thought to provide a right depiction of God. The oppression, which Paul describes as being delivered from in chapter 8, is the oppression of God, with God equated with the law.

The unconditionalist notes that this oppression and punishment do not flow from God, but from sin, the misorientation to the law, and the inherent weight of deception. God, prayer, hope, Christ, and the Holy Spirit make no appearance because this person only knows of law and chronic suffering and oppression, due to the deception of sin. This is the deception and bondage Christ exposes and delivers from, and thus we learn of God’s unstoppable love (8:35 ff). God is love and cannot be equated with death (or the law of sin and death), but the fear of death may be mistaken for a fear of God due to sin. Christ does not confirm this picture of the law or this understanding of God, but delivers from this inherently punishing conception and situation: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Ro 8:1–2). The condemnation has just been described in 7-25 as flowing from sin, deception and death – or as Paul calls it, “the law of sin and death.” God cannot be equated with this law, and where he is, it must be due to the lie of sin.  

Christ and the Atonement

Conditionalists read 7-25 as the anteroom to understanding the work of Christ. Since this is taken as an accurate depiction of God, Christ takes the oppression of sin upon himself. He might be said to be the sinner, and feel the same burdensome weight as described in these verses.

The unconditionalist argues that Christ does not suffer with an introspective conscience nor does he become subject to the particular suffering detailed in 7-25. This is the suffering of the first Adam (with continual allusions to Genesis 3), but Paul has pictured Christ as the 2nd Adam who has defeated these evil forces plaguing humanity (chapter 5). There is a different form of suffering detailed in chapter 8, which depicts the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Christian, but as in the death of Christ this is not God torturing Jesus, but sinful humanity meting out their vengeful, retributive justice (8:35-36). Christ does not fulfill and confirm this retributive justice, but delivers from it. The retributive system, and not the Father, kill him but this is the retribution of sinful men. Christ defeats retribution, revenge and violence by not responding with force, violence, or retribution, but by submitting to these forces and humbly dying on a cross. Through Christ’s resurrection life the reign of death, violence and retribution have been defeated and displaced. So, Jesus did not die to bear retributive punishment, but through his death he defeats the sinful need for retribution and thus displaces this system entirely.

Retribution is not the condition Christ completes, but that which he overthrew. The law does not enlighten, as it only bears fruit for death (7:5). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6). The written code was not God’s means of reign or rule, but describes the means through which sin and death reign. Christ has displaced this rule, and has not confirmed and extended it. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18–19). The universality of fall and redemption is not dependent upon individual conscience, human knowing, or natural understanding of God and law. The entire movement is framed around Christ and his rescue from enslavement to sin and death. One does not get to Romans 8 by means of 7-25 but by defeat of this condition. This is the meaning of the atonement.


The two accounts focus on very different aspects of the problem, with conditionalists noting that it is the law that gives rise to Paul’s problem, and unconditionalists conceding that the law is part of the focus, but in particular it is deception and sin in regard to the law. The reality of the human problem may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description may miss how it is that sin has deceived in regard to the law. This deception is not a general incapacity but a specific failure, which holds all of humanity and creation in a bondage Paul describes as futility. If Paul is thinking of Genesis, it is not that the law is particularly problematic, but the presumption that the law itself (through transgression or the knowledge of good and evil) is the means of access to God. It is made determinate – the gateway to life – which is what justification pictures but which Paul connects to a lie. “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good” (Rom. 7:13). Both systems agree sin is the problem, but conditionalists focus on the law and picture the knowledge surrounding the law as trustworthy (with Christ confirming this), and unconditionalists focus on deception in regard to the law and Christ’s defeat of the power of sin and death. Conditionalism relegates the work of Christ to a clean-up operation involved in the final stage of salvation, with human knowledge serving as an initial adequate ground, and Christ serving to satisfy God’s retributive justice. Unconditionalism displaces the lie surrounding God (his supposed angry retribution exposed as a lie displaced by love). The unconditional gospel also exposes the lie surrounding human knowing and anthropology, as man cannot serve as his own foundation for knowing and being. Conditionalism is individualistic and tends to picture salvation as a legal fiction, which may leave one in the same reality before and after salvation (with Romans 71-25 seen as possibly describing the typical Christian). The key import of the work of Christ in this understanding, is to avoid God’s anger, primarily in regard to hell and to go to heaven. The focus is not universal and cosmic but individual, legal, and pertaining primarily to the future. Unconditionalism pictures a universal or cosmic salvation, with Christ as the center of revelation and salvation (unfolding both backward and forward). Jesus Christ is the completion of creation’s purpose, and the ground of human knowing.

In this short space the ramifications for ethics, church, and real world salvation have not been filled out, but the implications may be evident: there are two forms of the faith that need to be clearly delineated so that the fulness of the unconditional good news of the gospel is not diluted with that which is no gospel at all.

(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

[1] All references in what follows are to Wilhelm Pauck, ed., Luther: Lectures on Romans, LCC 15 (London: SCM, 1961), lxvi. Cited in Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 251). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, & Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957–), 31:25–26—hereafter LW. The Proceedings at Augsburg (31:259–92). Cited in Campbell, 253.

[3] LLR, 197, Campbell, 266.

[4] LLR, 266, commenting on 9:6. Campbell, 267.

[5] LLR, 269, commenting on 9:16 and citing immediately Phil. 2:13 in support. Campbell, 267.

[6] Campbell, 265.

[7] Quotations will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

Justification By Faith: Unconditional Good News or the “Accursed Gospel”

The gift of the Reformation and of Martin Luther to the world is recovery or rearticulation of the unconditional, free grace of the gospel which can be summed up as “justification by faith.” The problem is, this same phrase can be used to describe the opposite; namely conditional salvation defined and bound up with the base line condition of the law. The unconditional good news is easy to understand, but the goodness and joy of the good news can and has been twisted so that this simple gospel truth, justification by faith, has (most?) often been made to fit Paul’s description of “the accursed gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8) which is no gospel at all but the human problem repackaged as the solution. It may be easiest to start with the good news, as this is uncomplicated, unconditional, singular, and straight forward but we (certainly I) may have missed it due to all the obstacles thrown in the way. So, the implications of this good news and the ways in which it may be twisted into bad news needs to be spelled out so as to secure the love, peace, and profound joy that comes with the unconditional gospel of Jesus Christ.

Alvin Kimel has done us the favor of gathering up and gleaning through a variety of sources, and through 40 years of effort as he describes it, “the unconditionality of God’s love for humanity.”[1] Kimel describes his discovery of the work of the Torrance brothers, James and Thomas (which first came to my attention through the work of Douglas Campbell), Robert Jenson, and Gerhard Forde – two Reformed and two Lutheran theologians, respectively. He describes his moment of awakening in encountering James Torrance’s description of the significance of the Reformation (worthy of extended quotation):

The important thing is that in the Bible, God’s dealings with men in creation and in redemption—in grace—are those of a covenant and not of a contract. This was the heart of the Pauline theology of grace, expounded in Romans and Galatians, and this was the central affirmation of the Reformation. The God of the Bible is a covenant-God and not a contract-God. God’s covenant dealings with men have their source in the loving heart of God, and the form of the covenant is the indicative statement, ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who has made a covenant for us in Christ, binding himself to man and man to himself in Christ, and who summons us to respond in faith and love to what he has done so freely for us in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we are awakened to that love and lifted up out of ourselves to participate in the (incarnate) Son’s communion with the Father.

Two things are therefore together in a biblical understanding of grace, the covenant of love made for man in Christ, between the Father and the incarnate Son. (a) On the one hand, it is unconditioned by any considerations of worth or merit or prior claim. God’s grace is ‘free grace’. (b) On the other hand, it is unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us. God’s grace is ‘costly grace’. It summons us unconditionally to a life of holy love—of love for God and love for all men. The one mistake is so to stress free grace that we turn it into ‘cheap grace’ by taking grace for granted—the danger of the ‘antinomianism’ against which Wesley protested. The other mistake is so to stress the costly claims of grace that we turn grace into conditional grace, in a legalism which loses the meaning of grace.

The fallacy of legalism in all ages—perhaps this is the tendency of the human heart in all ages—is to turn God’s covenant of grace into a contract—to say God will only love you and forgive you or give you the gift of the Holy Spirit IF . . . you fulfill prior conditions. But this is to invert ‘the comely order of grace’ as the old Scottish divines put it. In the Bible, the form of the covenant is such that the indicatives of grace are prior to the obligations of law and human obedience. ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I have loved you and redeemed you and brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, therefore keep my commandments.’ But legalism puts it the other way round. ‘If you keep the law, God will love you!’ The imperatives are made prior to the indicatives. The covenant has been turned into a contract, and God’s grace—or the gift of the Spirit—made conditional on man’s obedience.[2]

The foundational shift Torrance describes is from contract to covenant. A contract describes a condition, such as payment or an “if” statement (if you do this, I will do that), where a covenant is an unconditional promise without prior obligation or requirement. God has acted in Christ to redeem the world and to deliver all people from bondage. This apocalyptic, cosmic deliverance is nothing short of recreation, new birth, or death and resurrection. Torrance carefully describes, this is neither antinomianism nor legalism but is “unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us.” This gift requires our life but of course it is not an exchange of life for life, but the relinquishing of the grip death has upon us in order to live. Costly grace costs everything, but this everything amounts to nothing as we have invested ultimate value in a lie.

Part of the problem in receiving and fully comprehending this good news is the confounded (deceived) nature of the bondage. “The house of bondage” from which God delivers is a full-blown “reality,” inclusive of a world economy and psychic reality. That is, the full extent of the unconditional, apocalyptic and universal nature of the deliverance may not be appreciated apart from an accurate description of the bondage. Legalism, in Torrance’s description, captures a prime manifestation of this reality but the all-inclusive nature of the bondage (constituting its own world) undergirds legalism.  But before turning to describing how covenant may fall back into contract, the absolute unconditional, free grace needs to be clearly staked out.

Kimel turns next to Gerhard Forde, who expresses the absoluteness of unconditional grace, asking, “What must we do to be saved?” His answer:

absolutely nothing! We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” When one sees that it is a matter of death and life one has to talk this way. The “nothing” must sound, risky and shocking as it is. For it is, as we shall see, precisely the death knell of the old being. The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection.”[3]

Forde seems to recognize that his “nothing” may raise questions, but the point is to firmly drive home the unconditional nature of grace. He says, the “‘nothing’ must sound, risky and shocking as it is.” We have entered into new territory, a new way of thinking and conceiving the world, thus the silence that should follow the “nothing.” Once one is grasped by faith, this becomes the lens through which everything is perceived. No longer does retribution, punishment and fear determine reality, and no longer can anyone claim advantage over another, as all have fallen short, all have walked according the ways of the prince of this world, all were in bondage, and the same “all” are those who are delivered. When asked why this makes people so angry, Forde gives the following response:  

Why indeed? Because it is a radical doctrine. It strikes at the root, the radix, of what we believe to be our very reason for being. The “nothing,” the sola fide, dislodges everyone from the saddle, Jew and Greek, publican and pharisee, harlot and homemaker, sinner and righteous, liberal and orthodox, religious and non-religious, minimalist and maximalist, and shakes the whole human enterprise to the roots. It strikes at the very understanding of life which has become ingrained in us, the understanding in terms of the legal metaphor, the law, merit and moral progress. Justification, the reformers said, is by imputation, freely given. It is an absolutely unconditional decree, a divine decision, indeed an election, a sentence handed down by the judge with whom all power resides. It is as the later “orthodox” teachers like to say, a “forensic” decree: a flat-out pronouncement of acquittal for Jesus’ sake, who died and rose for us…

The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness knows where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat-out “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake”? Is there not some price to be paid, some-thing (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such a thing as a free lunch, can there?

You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source—the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control.”[4]

One’s very being or ontology is changed by the breaking in of love and grace. This is a different way of conceiving God, the world, and humans. Prior to the work of Christ death was the controlling factor in life, and this was the condition put upon everything. The law seemed to provide a measurement or condition to deal with death, just as idolatry attempted similar negotiations. Psychology drives home the point, revealed in the Bible, that the fear of death (sometimes called God) which may be conscious or unconscious, is determinative of the psychic struggle. No one but God has the power to deliver from death and this has occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ. Reality is on a different ground, producing a new world order and a recreation of the human psyche.

The relinquishing of the old order may be disturbing, as some like Paul, may have exceeded their peers in religiosity, moral progress, and attaining heaven, but now all of this is counted as garbage. The human salvation system, which promised life, only produces death and this may be anger provoking news for those who invested everything in saving their own life. The reality may be slow in sinking in as the enslaved have found security in their enslavement. For Adam, the reality of death is determinate and this reality seemingly must be negotiated. A contract must be drawn up, consciously or unconsciously, and the terms of exchange enacted. This fear of death reigns, and only in Christ can we defeat this enslaving fearful orientation. To simply break open the tomb (the tomb which makes life conditional), and give life where death was the bottom line, means the conditions we have negotiated no longer apply.

As Kimel concludes in regard to his approach to ministry, “This liberation requires nothing less than our death and resurrection. The preacher is so much more than an encourager to live well and do good works. He is a prophet of the Kingdom, speaking the Word of God that accomplishes what it proclaims (Isa 55:11); he is a priest of the eschaton, giving to communicants the Body and Blood of the glorified Lord.”[5] This is the good news that the preacher, evangelist, and prophet proclaims. Everything must give way in support of this gospel message, which will mean a redefinition of what it means to be human, a reworking of epistemology, and a relinquishing of every form of conditionalism, with its focus on death, punishment, and retributive justice.

The problem in apprehending free grace lies in the failure to reorder and apprehend everything in light of its unconditional nature. In short, this unconditional gospel is universal, apocalyptic (or a breaking in to a world and system of a different order.) It is not retributive, imagining that suffering is required for penalty and payment, and thus it is not focused on God’s anger but on the love of God (and wrath as a subcategory of love). There is no room for God being eternally angry and there cannot be a category of eternal punishment. Most importantly, the nature of human bondage is directly tied to death, law and punishment, so that the manner in which justification by faith may be misconstrued, is simply an example of the universal human bondage to sin, death, and the devil from which unconditional grace saves.

 Douglas Campbell works out this misconstrual, working in close conjunction with the Torrances, but he calls this failure “justification by faith.” Paul, after all, initially accords the name gospel to those who are preaching what he then says is no gospel at all, but is an accursed message. So too there is “justification by faith,” the answer to the problem, and then there is “justification by faith,” the problem repackaged as the solution. Though it may appear a confounding of problem and solution, sorting out the two simply means following Paul’s argument concerning a law-free gospel, and that “gospel” which the false teachers bind to the law. The law always requires conditions and the gospel frees from every form of conditionalism. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:24–26). The law is not the standard for faith, but faith, trust, and covenant are primary.   

The false teachers’ accursed gospel makes the law primary and Christ secondary, so that Christianity is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship, and though we are still calling it justification by faith, both justification and faith have taken on a different meaning. In short, justification is measured by the law. Rather than justification or righteousness referring to the world changing apocalyptic breaking in of the love of God, righteousness is measured and distributed according to the law. Faith, in turn, is defined in conjunction with Christ’s meeting this condition in his death (his life, resurrection, the church, and the Holy Spirit, are rendered secondary), so that the death of Christ becomes the primary and perhaps singular focus. One is saved by applying the legal benefits of Christ’s death to one’s personal law books. One is not saved by taking up the cross and following Christ and being loving and faithful with and through his extended body. One might or might not do such things, but this does not pertain to salvation.   

In brief, according to this understanding, Old Testament law and natural revelation are a system in which one is justified or made right in the eyes of God through works of the law. No one can keep the law perfectly, and therefore everyone fails to be justified. This produces feelings of guilt and depression, but the gospel allows justification, not by works but by faith, which is the new condition (in Arminianism at least). Whenever anyone hears the gospel, they are so happy to be relieved of their burden of guilt for sin. Now they realize that all they have to do is have faith and their sin problem is taken care of. The exchange between the Father and the Son has taken care of the condition, and now one believes this fact and they are saved.

There are several problems in this system, in that law is the standard of measure for Christ and faith, rather than Christ setting aside the law. Justification or righteousness, rather than referring directly to God, refers to law (perhaps a kind of secondary manifestation of God), leading to a depersonalized or fictional element to the entire procedure. Faith consists in believing Christ has met the conditions of the law, and in this sense, faith goes nowhere, as it seems to reduce to faith in faith (that which meets the condition). In this system, to speak of imitating the faithfulness of Christ makes no sense, as Christ’s primary work is in conjunction with meeting the requirements of the law, which is inimitable. Again, faith is not so much participation in or being joined to Christ, as it is the application of an imputed righteousness (a kind of legal fiction).

At the same time, this justification by faith sets a very high standard on both human capacity and incapacity. Jews have the law through revelation and scripture, but what the Jews have through special revelation, everyone else has through the law written on the heart or natural revelation. Under this system everyone, both Jews and Greeks, recognize that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and just and that he has a law which everyone must obey perfectly, if they are going to be justified. So, all have the capacity to recognize God and his absolute standard, but no one has the capacity to live up to this standard.

In the doctrine of Original Sin, as we get it from Augustine, everyone knows enough about God to know his perfect standards, but no one knows enough or can do enough to keep this standard. We all know enough to feel really depressed about our situation in life. In fact, if one does not feel guilty and depressed they have missed the first condition of coming to Christ. They may feel proud, and they may be stubborn, a particular problem with the Jews, but most people finally reach the condition of feeling bad, then they are prepared to hear the gospel message. Luckily, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and now the problem with the law, the reason for the guilt and depression, is resolved.

I suppose we can all adjust our conversion story to fit this model, just as Paul’s conversion is pictured along the lines of Luther’s. On the road to Damascus, Paul must have been struggling with his introspective conscience, feeling guilty and miserable until he meets Jesus, who relieves him of his guilt and depression. He meets Christ and understands deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment.

Misery may be the anteroom to many forms of conversion, and perhaps we can chalk misery up to some form of consciousness that we have broken the law. However, after more than twenty years in Japan (a place largely unexposed to justification theory) I never met anyone who had this perception of God, sin and the law, and this is not the way Paul describes his former pride in his religious achievement. Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law (in fact, this fits common Japanese self-perception). As he describes in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6).

Romans 7 might be cited as support of Paul’s guilty conscience, but this chapter is Paul’s retrospective view, about either himself or Adam, from the perspective of a Christian. This is not a narrative about conversion, but about being trapped, and deceived. There is no clear route from Romans 7 to Romans 8, apart from the appearance of Christ and the breaking in of a new order. Romans 7 describes the pre-Christian condition and the nature of deception, and it is a lie that includes Paul’s notion of self-salvation as a Pharisee. It is a lie in which one is entrapped by the law of sin and death, and the law is the object of deception, and the deception is such that one is not aware of his own condition.

The question arises as to exactly what law both Jews and Gentiles share, and obviously, it is the law of sin and death (the law of deception). But in justification theory, law plays a key role in making one guilty about their sin, so the law is a primary force in prompting acceptance of Christ. But what law? If it is something along the line of the ten commandments, do we expect everyone to know about sabbath keeping, and the details about sexual morality? If it concerns the details of the Jewish law, should we expect everyone to know in their heart about not eating blood, about not cutting the forelocks, and about circumcision?. Can we glean a universal ethical standard from the Jewish law, separate from the details of this law?

Maybe there is not one law code but two, and then not one ethical system but a mix, but then we end up with a tightly regulated and specific ethical system, and a more general natural law. Since the law directly reflects the character of God (in this theory), and all infractions are duly punished, the two-system method seems flawed.  As Douglas Campbell concludes, “Either the model must claim that the Jewish law, in all its detail, is derivable from the cosmos through natural revelation or it must work with two ethical systems – one a more general set of ethical principles applicable to all and discernible in the cosmos, and the other a more extensive set with additional distinctive practices incumbent only on Jews and accessible primarily through revelation and texts.”[6] This system is grounded in retributive justice, so that according to how well people do with the prescribed rules, this will determine their punishment. But is this retributive justice on the basis of two distinct standards – the Jewish and Gentile standard? The exact perfect standard by which all are judged is unclear.

On the other hand, if the law is posited, as Paul explains in some detail in Romans and Galatians, not as the anteroom to the gospel but as the law of sin and death, then the universality of deception in regard to the law (Mosaic or otherwise) is accounted for. The law does not set the condition for salvation, but is what unconditional salvation delivers from.

There is clearly a problem in the presumed disjunction between what all people are capable of knowing and what none of them are capable of doing. On one hand they have intellectual capacities, I am suspicious are non-existent. Is it really the case that all people can derive the same basic facts about God, such as his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his righteousness, from nature? Can they then go on and deduce the same uniform ethical requirements – and then, though they are capable of all of this, are they completely incapacitated to do what they know is right? All of this feeds into the false gospel’s notion of faith and justice. “Justification theory posits a God of strict justice who holds all people accountable to a standard they are intrinsically unable to attain, and this seems unjust.”[7]

Or could it be that this perception of God, as law-giver, punisher, and destroyer is the pagan equivalent of deifying death? Isn’t this the lie from which Christ delivers rather than a truth he verifies and satisfies?

There is a further conflict in exactly what it is everyone is expected to know and how this connects to faith. Christianity and Judaism are based on historical revelation, yet the presumed universally shared knowledge is not historically specific but more of a philosophical understanding. That is, the criteria by which people are judged are universal, yet no one can live up to these criteria, so we have Christianity, which is historically specific. So, we have one criterion to condemn and another to save, but what is key is both criteria serve as a condition. As Campbell concludes,

 It is of course a much less arduous criterion than the rigorous demand under the law for ethical perfection (or even for 51 percent righteousness), but it is a criterion nevertheless. It is Luther’s own incapacity, now ruthlessly exposed, that demands this significantly reduced criterion, but the need for a criterion per se is grounded in the model’s opening assumptions. Justification is a voluntarist model throughout, focused on the deliberations of a rational individual, so any such individual must at the crucial moment do something![8]

The answer to Luther: faith saves, not due to the prior criterion of the law nor on a presumed capacity and incapacity for knowing and doing, but on the fact that death reigns in the sinful, deceived orientation to the law, and Christ delivers from sin and death and this is, as Paul describes throughout his gospel, universal, cosmic, for all people and creatures, and is the consummating fact of the eschaton when: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:10-11). Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation enacted in the life of the believer. In the justification system, faith does not seem to address any issue, or change the person beyond believing a set of facts. And the question arises, why these particular facts? But in unconditional salvation, faith is the uprooting of the orientation to death, in that being found in Christ is to be found in his resurrection life.

I conclude where Alvin Kimel concludes, with the Apostle Paul:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:11-14).

This circumcision is not of the law but that performed on the heart by Christ. In the same way baptism, with its death and resurrection, is not an act of the one being baptized but a being acted on by Christ. Forgiveness is freely granted in the “making alive” of God through Christ. “The old Adam has been slain, and we now live in the Eucharist of the eschaton. We are saved by the nothing of grace because God’s love is absolute and unconditional: God wills our good, and he will accomplish it. He has sealed his commitment in the death of his Son.”[9] Through faith God is saving, cancelling the condition of the law (and its death dealing deceit) through the cross.

(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

[1] Alvin Kimel, David Bentley Hart, Destined for Joy: The Gospel of Universal Salvation (p. 103). The Gospel of Universal Salvation. Kindle Edition.  

[2] James B. Torrance, “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace,” Theological Renewal (June/July 1978): 7-15. The article has been reprinted in Trinity and Transformation (2016), ed. Todd Speidell, pp. 276-287. Cited by Kimel, 104-105.

[3] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life (1990), p. 22. Quoted in Kimel, 22.

[4] Forde, 22-23. Quoted in Kimel, 107-108.

[5] Kimel, 109.

[6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 41). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[7] Campbell, 45.

[8] Campbell, 25-26.

[9] Kimel, 112.

Douglas Campbell’s Framing of Paul Through Ephesians

The frame in which the book of Ephesians might be viewed, as Douglas Campbell sees it, is not as a late and pseudo-Pauline writing, but as an early work, central to Paul’s theology, an understanding which entails several revolutionary shifts. Overall, the understanding of the New Testament, and Paul specifically, must be understood, not through an atonement theory based on contract but one based on covenant (which entails an entirely different theological tenor), but this overall shift points to a series of major turns in theology and exegesis. This is the self-described description of Campbell, which accounts for his peculiar theological understanding and placement of Ephesians (as central) in the Pauline corpus. He notes that there were a series of major shifts occurring during his seminary years in the 1980’s which laid the framework for his theology.[1]

First, the publication of the work of Krister Stendahl in 1963 had thrown into question, what he calls the “Lutheran” understanding of Paul, in which Paul’s main problem was a guilty conscience arising from his inability to keep the law. Paul’s struggle was seen in light of the introspective struggles of Augustine and Luther, and salvation was seen primarily in terms of guilt and its relief. Stendahl notes that, “In the history of Western Christianity — and hence, to a large extent, in the history of Western culture — the Apostle Paul has been hailed as a hero of the introspective conscience. Here was the man who grappled with the problem ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do is what I do . . . (Rom.7:19).”[2] As I have pointed out in my work on Romans, this misreading of Romans 7 marks the major forms of the faith (is this the conscious non-Christian Paul, or is this Paul’s reflection on his non-Christian life from a Christian stand-point, or is this simply Christian Paul?).[3] This background, according to Stendahl, gives rise to the Western notion of “justification by faith”: “hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection.”[4]

This does not line up with Paul’s own description of his conscience in Philippians and elsewhere:

In Phil. 3 Paul speaks most fully about his life before his Christian calling, and there is no indication that he had had any difficulty in fulfilling the Law. On the contrary, he can say that he had been “flawless” as to the righteousness required by the Law (v.6). His encounter with Jesus Christ — at Damascus, according to Acts 9:1-9 — has not changed this fact. It was not to him a restoration of a plagued conscience; when he says that he now forgets what is behind him (Phil. 3:13), he does not think about the shortcomings in his obedience to the Law, but about his glorious achievements as a righteous Jew, achievements which he nevertheless now has learned to consider as “refuse” in the light of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”[5]

Justification by faith, Stendahl notes, is going to mean something very different if the notion of guilt, and relief from guilt, is not the primary lens for reading Paul or understanding Judaism. Stendahl notes the point which will be developed and built upon in what is called, “The New Perspective on Paul”: “for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.”[6]

Second, in Campbell’s telling of the story, it was E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977, which brought home the fact that Judaism, as it is characterized under the typical Protestant notion, as a “work’s righteousness” religion, gives a legalistic account of “justification by works” that is unrecognizable to Jews. The inherent antisemitism of this understanding, which in the post-Holocaust world was a key concern, added to the recognition of the false portrayal of Judaism in typical Western, mainly Protestant, understandings.  

As James Dunn notes, “What is usually taken to be the Jewish alternative to Paul’s gospel would have been hardly recognized as an expression of Judaism by Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh. Sanders notes that Jewish scholars and experts in early Judaism have for long enough been registering a protest at this point, contrasting rabbinic Judaism as they understand it with the parody of Judaism which Paul seems to have rejected.”[7] Sanders quotes Solomon Schecter as an example: “Either the theology of the Rabbis must be wrong, its conception of God debasing, its leading motives materialistic and coarse, and its teachers lacking in enthusiasm and spirituality, or the Apostle to the Gentiles is quite unintelligible;” and then James Parks: “… if Paul was really attacking ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, then much of his argument is irrelevant, his abuse unmerited, and his conception of that which he was attacking inaccurate.”[8]

The fact that New Testament scholarship and the framing of Paul’s understanding (through such key scholars as Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Kasemann) is based on this Lutheran model, with its rejection the entire field became suspect.

 Sanders also demonstrated that Judaism is based, not on a contractual relationship of law keeping, but on a covenantal relationship:

In particular, he has shown with sufficient weight of evidence that for the first-century Jew, Israel’s covenant relation with God was basic, basic to the Jew’s sense of national identity and to his understanding of his religion. So far as we can tell now, for first-century Judaism everything was an elaboration of the fundamental axiom that the one God had chosen Israel to be his peculiar people, to enjoy a special relationship under his rule. The law had been given as an expression of this covenant, to regulate and maintain the relationship established by the covenant.[9]

The relationship of the covenant was primary, and the law was added only as a guide to maintain the relationship. “So, too, righteousness must be seen in terms of this relationship, as referring to conduct appropriate to this relationship, conduct in accord with the law. That is, obedience to the law in Judaism was never thought of as a means of entering the covenant, of attaining that special relationship with God; it was more a matter of maintaining the covenant relationship with God.”[10] Sanders refers to this understanding as “covenantal nomism” – which he defines in the following manner:

covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression … Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such … Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect.[11]

There are multiple implications to this understanding of Paul, which Sanders did not pursue. He simply assumed Paul’s Judaism was different than that of his fellow Jews.

The third thing that Campbell notes, which pertains to the above points, concerned the question of Paul’s “center” (which Campbell refers to as the question of the nature of Paul’s “gospel” or his “soteriology”). With the questioning of the Lutheran Paul, there was a turn to nineteenth century German theology, such as that of Albert Schweitzer focused on “being-in-Christ.” Schweitzer claims, “The doctrine of righteousness by faith is therefore a subsidiary crater, which has formed within the rim of the main crater – the mystical doctrine of redemption through being-in-Christ.”[12]  The question arose as to how to reconcile these two understandings of Paul. Was Paul inconsistent or was the scholarship on Paul flawed?

Fourth, Campbell mentions the impact of the work of Richard Hays, and his understanding that “various phrases in Paul were best understood as references to the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’ as against (Christian) ‘faith in Jesus.’” This coincides with a participatory notion of faith, in which Jesus is not so much the object of faith as the model of faith which his followers emulate.

The fifth contributing influence concerns Campbell’s studies under Richard N. Longenecker, who proposed an alternative frame for understanding the order of Paul’s letter writing. “If Galatians was Paul’s first extant letter (as Longenecker proposed) then the shape of his theological project was rather different from an account that positioned 1 or even 2 Thessalonians first . . . The language and concerns distinct to Galatians and Romans look rather less programmatic and rather more occasional if the latter biography holds good.”[13]

As Campbell concludes, “In short then we were taught in the 1980s at Toronto that some of the key details in Paul’s biography, which affected the interpretation of some of his key letters, were being vigorously contested.[14]

In Campbell’s description this all became coherent and constituted an alternative reading only with his encounter with the work of Thomas and James Torrance. Under the Torrance’s influence he came to a fuller understanding of exactly what might be entailed in a covenantal relationship:

Because the basis for the relationship is precisely this ground, of love, the covenantal actor reaches out to the other and establishes the relationship independently of any action by that party. It is therefore an unconditional and gracious act, and the relationship with the other is a gifted one. The covenantal actor has “elected” to enter the relationship and so taken the initiative. That actor has also thereby functioned “missiologically” and “incarnationally” — in the case of God literally — in stretching to the other actor’s location and, if necessary, meeting them right where s/he is. Once established, moreover, this relationship then extends through time, irrevocably. It lasts as long as the love of the loving covenantal actor lasts, hence, in the case of God, through eternity. And the relationship is consequently characterized by complete loyalty and unswerving fidelity.[15]

Though Campbell does not extend this particular essay to his own framing of Paul and the role he would assign to Ephesians, it seems evident these moves clear the ground for something like a return to the early church understanding of the centrality of Ephesians. As I indicated in my previous blog, Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[16] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[17] In the estimate of Origen and Jerome, “…Ephesians, that epistle of the apostle which stands in the middle in concepts as well as order. Now I say middle not because it comes after the first epistles and is longer than the final ones, but in the sense that the heart of an animal is in its mid‐section, so that you might understand from this the magnitude of the difficulties and the profundity of the questions it contains.”[18] As Ernest Best shows, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Hermas, and other Apostolic Fathers knew and used this letter as a key to understanding Paul.[19] However, “with the reformation, and the modernist quest that followed it, the letter came increasingly to be read as a unified discourse with its own distinct message.”[20]

As Martin Wright demonstrates in his PhD dissertation, “Ephesians is deeply embedded in the CP (Pauline Corpus) . . .  it serves an integrating function within the Corpus, and above all . . . patterns of reception and reinterpretation across the Corpus are far more complex than the bifurcation between “authentic” and “spurious” letters can admit.”[21] Wright engages Campbell’s “framing” of Paul noting that in this understanding Colossians and Ephesians are  authentic, “the latter is really the “Laodiceans” of Col. 4:16, and together with Philemon these letters constitute a ‘single epistolary event’, dating from an imprisonment in Asia Minor in 50;59 they therefore precede 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans . . . .”[22] This leads to consequential conclusions as to the centrality of Ephesians:

The place of Ephesians (“Laodiceans”) in Campbell’s schema is intriguing. In his view it is not prompted by any particular crisis, but gives “an account of pagan Christian identity” to a Gentile congregation not founded by Paul. . . . But as a result, and because Campbell locates the letter before 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans, its role in the CP is transformed. Ephesians becomes a distinctively “unconditioned” statement of Paul’s gospel, more so even than Romans; its echoes throughout the Corpus reflect its closeness to the heart of his theology, with motifs first articulated here to be developed later on, perhaps transformed in the crucible of conflict and schism. This is of course the opposite of the usual modern position, that Ephesians is a late text drawing together strands from various earlier Pauline letters (though it sits well with Origen’s view quoted at the beginning of this study). As Campbell realizes, if his frame is accepted, one consequence will be “a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought.[23]

As Wright goes on to note, this means that Ephesians is not occasioned by a particular false teaching (the rise of a rival Jewish-Christian Teacher spurring the discussion in of law, grace, faith and justification/righteousness in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans) as the writing of Ephesians precedes these events. What we have in Ephesians then, according to Campbell, is a summation of Paul’s gospel for a people otherwise not familiar with it.

Campbell sums up Paul’s gospel by highlighting four points:[24] 1. a realized eschatology: Resurrection, ascension, rule, life all come together as the predestined plan of God, and this rule is not simply to a future eschatological fulfillment (though this is not absent in Ephesians, e.g., 1:14; 2:7; 4:30; 5:5; 6:8, 13), the distinctive emphasis of Ephesians is of a present or realized eschatology (e.g., “we are now seated with him at the right hand of God, 2:6).

2. “Secondly, it is (as a direct consequence of the foregoing) a radical understanding, in that it cuts to the root (the radix) of sin in the sinful being of humanity and the present cosmic order, which is full · of oppressive evil powers that have a foothold in that corrupt being (notably sin and death; they plague the flesh- Gk sarx).” What we learn in this gospel is that resurrection and enthronement defeat the Powers (the prince of the power of the air, Eph. 2:2). It tells us that the power (the power of sin and evil) is defeated in the defeat of death, and that this power of death is that which is wielded by the principalities and powers and by the prince of the power of the air. The gospel of Paul is the mystery revealed in this reign over the Powers (3:9-10). Satan’s power over the nations is ended (3:1-13) and every Christian can participate in this defeat (6:10-20).

3. Campbell notes the Trinitarian aspect of Paul’s gospel which he elsewhere combines in an understanding of the participatory or perichoretic understanding. Paul “uses a sexual metaphor informed by Gen 2:24, understanding sexual union as oneness or unification, as that text suggests. This usage denotes the unity of close relational intimacy, along with close bodily contact without any erasure of differentiation or individuated personhood, and supports a perichoretic account of the divine unity.”[25]

Humankind was created for participation and relationship with God, and the intimacy of this participation is part of the mystery revealed (5:32). Christ’s salvific work (the mystery revealed to all the saints, 1:1; 1:9) brings about unity of all things, “things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10), inclusive and represented by the unity of Jews and Gentiles (3:1-6). This saving union with God marks the medium and goal of the Christian life. Christians are to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (4:3) through the oneness of the body, as “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you also were called into one hope . . .. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4–6a). The point of the apostles and prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, or the point of the church is building up the body of Christ “until all of us attain unity of the faith” (4:13) with “the whole body being joined together and united together by every binding ligament of support” (4:16). This gospel unity stands in contrast to the dividing powers controlling those alienated from the life of God” (4:18). Christians are members of one another (4:25) because of Christ’s victory over the alienating power of death and the resultant unifying and life giving of the Spirit (5:14-15) through the predetermined will of the Father.

4. “Fourthly and finally, the model is clearly utterly unconditional: no human act can initiate or effect the eschatological irruption of God-or the Father’s sending of the only Son. People are simply caught up in the irresistible purposes and creativity of God, as Paul himself was outside Damascus . . ..” Paul opens Ephesians with this understanding of God’s unconditional plan: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (1:3-6). Paul informs us, “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11). All “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (2:4-6). As Campbell puts it, “A new person, and new humanity, has been made. Note, this is not to subordinate the second creation to the first: in Paul the second clearly prefigured the first cosmically, and also vastly exceeds it . . .”[26]

Though I have drawn from Campbell’s early work to his most recent work to highlight the role of Ephesians, I think I have been true to the progression of his thought. In conclusion his summary of the gospel could just as well be a summary of the key role of Ephesians, which he notes:

The secret of the universe and the point of the great narrative that encompasses us all is God’s plan to draw us into a community imaged and formed by his resurrected Son. The risen Jesus will have primacy but also a rather extraordinary equality with those who surround him and look like him. Everyone in this community will therefore be a “brother,” bearing the image of the Resurrected One. . .. Our destiny, then, is to be a “band of brothers,” which is to say, “a family of siblings.” This is God’s great plan that lies at the heart of the cosmos. Its fulfillment is the story that enfolds us all, and it is the only story that really matters.

Just the same notion is expounded at length in the opening section of Ephesians. There Paul uses the form of a blessing— entirely appropriately, since it is a blessing— to convey the insight that fellowship with the triune God lies at the heart of the cosmos. Such is his enthusiasm that he articulates this notion in one sentence that runs on for twelve verses (vv. 3– 14). This purpose existed “before the foundation of the world: that we should be holy and blameless before him, having been chosen in love” (v. 4). At the heart of the cosmos, its inception, its existence, and its future, lies the divine plan to create us and to enjoy us in fellowship. And this plan entailed initiating this relationship by creating us and then calling us and drawing us into communion in the loving movement often known as election, the Greek literally meaning “calling out,” hence “summoning.”[27]

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul

[1] Douglas Campbell, “Covenant or Contract in the Interpretation of Paul.” Participation: The Journal of the T. F.  Torrance Theological Fellowship (2014) 183-184

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” First delivered as the invited Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, September 3, 1961 ; it is a revised and footnoted edition of the “article “Paulus och Samvetet,” published in Sweden in Svensk Exegetisk Ârsbok 25 (i960), 62-77. Accessed online at

[3] Seem my work, Paul V. Axton, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul (London: T & T Clark, 2015).

[4] Stendahl, “Introspective Conscience”

[5] Stendahl, Ibid.

[6] Stendahl, Ibid.

[7] James Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” The Manson Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Manchester on 4 November 1982. Subsequently delivered in inodified form as one of the Wilkinson Lectures in the Northen Baptist Theological Seminary, Illinois, under the title “Let Paul be Paul”. Accessed online at

[8] Dunn is quoting Sanders, Paul, p. 6. See the fuller survey “Paul and Judaism in New Testament scholarship” on pp. 1-12.

[9] Dunn, Ibid.

[10] Dunn, Ibid.

[11] Sanders, Paul, pp. 75, 420, 544. Quoted in Dunn.

[12] A. Schweitzer, Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1930, 2 1954). Quoted from Carsten Claussen, “Albert Schweitzer’s Understanding of Righteousness by Faith according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans” “Romans through History and Cultures Group”; SBL Annual Meeting 2007 in San Diego

[13] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[17] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[18] Origen and Jerome, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, ed. and trans. Ronald E. Heine (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 77. This part of the commentary survives only in Jerome’s version, but Heine attributes much of it, including the quoted passage, to Origen.

[19] Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, ICC
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 115–17. Quoted in Oscar E. Jiménez, Metaphors in the Narrative of Ephesians 2:11-22, (Brill, 2022) 2.

[20] Max Turner, “Book of Ephesians,” in Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 187. Quoted in Jiménez, Ibid.

[21] Martin Wright, Breaking Down the Dividing Wall: Ephesians and the Integrity of the Corpus Paulinum, (Durham theses, Durham University, 2018) 10.

[22] Wright, 10.

[23] Wright, 80-81.

[24] Outlined in Campbells essay, “Covenant or Contract.” I am filling out his outline from Ephesians.

[25] Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics (Kindle Locations 1441-1445). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[26] Campbell, “Covenant or Contract.”

[27] Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, Kindle Locations 1699 – 1711.

Sorting out Apocalyptic Theology

Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to what is referred to as a Lutheran (a useful misnomer) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others) to Paul, presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure is key, there has not been as much work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. Beverly Gaventa’s criticism of Douglas Campbell, that in throwing out the tepid bathwater of justification theory or Lutheranism, he seems to have forgotten the baby altogether, is not altogether accurate or fair but the point is well made that in doing the hard work of showing the failings of other theories, a great deal of work still has to be done in describing exactly what sort of force sin, death, and the devil constitute. Is the problem primarily anthropological or does the emphasis fall on the satanic and demonic, and exactly how is it that Christ breaks in and undoes this system?

While apocalyptic theology has a genealogy through Albert Schweitzer and Wilhelm Wrede, which emphasized demonology as the problem and eschatology as the solution, this sort of reduction has mostly been abandoned. There is still an appreciation of the cosmic nature of this focus but there has been a mass departure from reduction of the power to demons and the solution as future. However, the present emphasis on an inaugurated eschatology and a folding of demonology into an animate sin and death, does not mean that there is a unified or clear agreement on the meaning of apocalyptic theology. Disagreements and ambiguities prevail in both descriptions of the problem and solution. What I will suggest in the conclusion is that my work on Romans 6-8 may provide a bridge between disparate descriptions of the problem and solution and how, specifically, the plight of sin is addressed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Following the format, which I have already criticized, it seems necessary to begin to describe apocalyptic theology by describing its departure from other approaches. The failures and inconsistencies in salvation history, Lutheran theology, and the insufficiencies of the new perspective on Paul, point to the need for something like an apocalyptic understanding.

As Douglas Campbell explains it, an apocalyptic understanding stands in sharp contrast to a contractual or Lutheran theology. (I have explained this in some detail here.) A Lutheran Plan A/Plan B approach is one in which one must travel through Plan A to get to the better plan B. In this understanding, trying to observe the Law teaches one that she is a guilty sinner and so needs to move on to plan B with Jesus. This contractual or Lutheran approach has inherent contradictions (e.g. there is the simultaneous need to rationally recognize one’s failure yet this sin entails rational incapacity), it contradicts Paul (e.g. Paul, as a Pharisee, had a clear conscience and never seems to pass through Plan A), and it seems to entail inherent anti-Semitism (Jews are the prototypical sinners and Judaism is the archetypical failed religious system, and they should be smart enough to realize their sinfulness so they must be the most recalcitrant or most unreflective of people).[1]

The New Perspective on Paul has attempted to mitigate several of these elements in that “works of the Law” are not equated with works righteousness but with boundary markers of being Jewish, such as circumcision and food laws. Wright has attempted to take this insight and apply it to his own version of the problem, in that his Plan A is not about the individual but it pertains to all of Israel. His salvation history project does not so much reject, as expand upon the Lutheran project. For Wright, Plan A is now the story of Israel’s historical and corporate journey to arrival at Plan B, the church. He attempts to fully incorporate the Old and New Testament, intertextually and progressively, making the Old necessary for the New: the church’s story is told in relation to Christ’s story; Christ’s story is told in relation to Israel’s story; Israel’s story is told in relation to Adam’s story. The focus on knowledge of God’s presence and activity within history imagines history must always be read in one direction – from Adam forward till we come to Christ. As Campbell points out, there is no clear explanation as to how a still unstable Plan A, now focused on sociological boundaries in the new perspective, points to belief in Jesus. The Lutheran model, with its relief of guilt from sin etc., at least made sense.

The critique of Wright by other apocalyptic theologians, beyond his overdependence on the particular unfolding of Israel’s history, is that he seems to bypass the need for God to break through the world so as to give his own person as the subject of knowledge. Jesus claims that he is the way, the truth, and the light, yet Wright has collapsed divine self-disclosure into history, identifying that disclosure too simply with the objective consideration of the historical events behind the texts of Scripture. God is known by our “critically realist” knowledge of his historical activity, given to us by the accounts of Scripture, behind which it lies. Scripture records and bears witness to these events, but the question is if its own disclosure and communicative character are obscured?[2] The New Testament, in an apocalyptic understanding, reads history and reality the other way round, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ, who is not explained by history but serves as the interpretive key for history.

In the American context, the work of Louis Martyn has been central in setting up the parameters upon which most apocalyptic theologians will agree. In his work on Galatians, Martyn maintains Paul’s argument is not intended to describe the progress of salvation history but to say you can live in one of two relationships: a relationship with law or a relationship with God. You can be a slave to the law and what is the same thing, to the fundamental principles of the world, or you can be a son or daughter of God (4:6-7). The focus is not on history but on what world a person occupies, and transference from one world to the other depends upon God’s intervention into the first world and delivery to the second.

Though historical or temporal categories are present in Galatians they serve the purpose of illustrating the problem of cosmic bondage. Paul recounts his personal history and alludes both to the history of Israel and to the history of the Galatians to illustrate the problem of slavery in each instance. Paul conflates the history of Israel and the history of the Galatians, as he and his fellow Jews were enslaved under the elementary principles, and he associates these same elements with the Galatians’ former life in idolatry. If the Galatians were to embrace circumcision, it would constitute a return to the very same elements to which they had been enslaved when they were pagans.

Paul was transformed through a direct intervention by God on the road to Damascus, revealing his Son to him, just as the Galatians were transformed as God intervened and gave his Spirit when Christ was portrayed as crucified before their eyes (3:1). Paul’s purpose is not to provide an overview of salvation history, but to explain the nature of the Galatians’ transition from slavery to freedom as they have been transferred to a new world “in Christ.” Paul is not interested in the history of Israel for its own sake, and he is not trying to show how Israel’s salvation history would benefit either Jews or Gentiles. Paul may think Israel was in a different situation than the pagans in that he distinguishes between the child and the slave but this is in no way a description of some sort of intermediate state, as is revealed in his focus on explaining the similarities. All suffered a form of oppression and all in Christ have received adoption as children.[3]

Sigurd Grindheim maintains, time in relation to world history, salvation history, or cosmic history is not interesting to Paul. The Galatians’ history, their move from slavery to freedom is the only history Paul is interested in. Paul’s references to his personal history and to the history of Israel serve to illustrate the nature of this transfer and to describe the two domains that the letter intends to contrast: slavery under the law and adoption to sonship.[4] The Galatians and Paul have been liberated from slavery by God’s direct intervention through Christ’s act of redemption and, by extension, so have all Christians.

To summarize Martyn, in his own words, and the parameters he lays out:

Paul’s view of wrong and right is thoroughly apocalyptic, in the sense that on the landscape of wrong and right there are, in addition to God and human beings, powerful actors that stand opposed to God and that enslave human beings. Setting right what is wrong proves then, to be a drama that involves not only human beings and God, but also those enslaving powers. And since humans are fundamentally slaves, the drama in which wrong is set right does not begin with action on their part. It begins with God’s militant action against all the powers that hold human beings in bondage.[5]

•J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 87.

In Campbell’s depiction, “The unconditional, revelatory, transformational, and liberational aspects of this event mean that it is appropriately described as ‘apocalyptic.’”[6]  The world has been taken captive, and Christ is the liberator from this captivity.

In the words of Beverly Gaventa;

Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death).  

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: John Knox, 2007), 80.

Apocalyptic clearly refers to cosmic bondage and liberation but what, exactly, is the identity of the cosmic power that has enslaved? Where Ernst Käsemann assumes Paul means the demonic, in a literal sense, Martinus C. De Boer assumes Paul speaks of sin in this way to make an anthropological point.[7] Though Martyn speaks of “real enemies” and “genuine powers,” Shaw suggests the phrases are ambiguous. As he says, “he identifies the curse of the law as chief among them, which, given his account of the law, can hardly be a demon by another name.”[8] There is an “ontological incompetence,” in Campbell’s words, but its cause is not clear or agreed upon. As Shaw concludes, deploying the words of Colin Gunton, the contemporary apocalyptic interpreters appeal to the demonic for its power of metaphorical characterization “which would otherwise defy expression.”[9]

Demonizing sin may at times serve in place of explanation of both the problem and its solution. The role of faith, for example, and how an individual comes to faith are not clear. As the question was put to  Käsemann, “If God’s intervention on the human stage, exorcising the world of its demons, is 100% of the equation, where is human subjectivity in any recognisable form?”[10] As Gaventa has put it in her critique of Martyn, “Martyn’s avoidance of conversion language and earlier individualistic readings of Galatians has taken us too far here, so that even the function of Paul’s self-reference in the letter’s argument (or re-proclamation) does not become clear.”[11]

As long as the demonic is in view the tendency is to see the solution in terms of a purely future eschatological solution (e.g. Schweitzer, Wrede). Where sin and death are the focus, as in contemporary apocalyptic theology, there is focus on a realized eschatology in the death and resurrection of Christ, but the burden becomes one of saying how the work of Christ defeats these powers and how the individual incorporates or is incorporated into this victory.

There is a near equal divide among the apocalyptic theologians with some suggesting there is an ontological release (e.g. Gaventa) from the powers and the others suggesting it is a revelational epistemological release (e.g. Martyn), but even here the explanation is considered wanting. According to Bruce McCormack, readers “are left with a rich battery of images and concepts. But images and concepts alone, no matter how rhetorically powerful, do not rise to the level of adequate explanation. How is it that the ‘rectification’ of the world is achieved by Christ’s faithful death?”[12] While participation in Christ through the Spirit (e.g. Campbell) and revelation or an epistemological release (e.g. Martyn) are pointers, explanation is left wanting.  

What I would point to in conclusion, is that the role of deception which has certainly been noted in an apocalyptic understanding, can potentially bring together the ontological and epistemological divide. I believe sin as a lie, oriented to death by deception in regard to the law, can also go some way in detailing exactly how Christ’s death is a defeat of the power of sin and death and it can help resolve the continuing question and divide over the law.

In the original debate between Käsemann and Bultmann, part of what was at issue was the role of the body and the corporate or individual implications of embodiment and language. As Käsemann would note, in a very Wittgensteinian mode, communication of the self with the self is rendered possible by an already existing communication with and in the environment (language is an embodied capacity). At the same time, this poses the possibility for a simultaneous disruption within the self and between the self and the environment, where communication is broken through deception. The biblical term “body,” as with Wittgenstein, is inclusive of the linguistic capacity that sets man simultaneously into communication and poses the possibility of confrontation or a split within himself, with others, and with God.

In Paul’s depiction, within deception lies the simultaneous possibility for cosmic and personal alienation and enslavement. The fact that the satanic and demonic are consistently linked with the lie of Genesis, but also the lie of religion (the covenant with death, in Isaiah), and that this lie is equated with sin, points to how Christ’s exposure of this lie is both ontological and epistemological in its cosmological import.

In brief, Paul pictures creation and the Creator as containing an infinite depth of communion and communication that has been displaced by a world of deception. In my next blog I will spell out in detail how this understanding fills in the gaps in contemporary apocalyptic theology.

[1] Campbell spells this out quite brilliantly in Deliverance, but is available in his review of Wrights Volumes on Paul and The Faithfulness of God –

[2] “History, Providence and the Apocalyptic Paul” –;jsessionid=FA0FD8F9F020B597D401884CE00C1150?sequen

[3] Sigurd Grindheim, “Not Salvation History, but Salvation Territory: The Main Subject Matter of Galatians,” New Test. Stud. 59, pp. 91-108 © Cambridge University Press, 2013, doi:10.1017/S0028688512000264 accessed here –

[4] Ibid, Grindheim

[5] I am here utilizing the fine dissertation by David Anthony Bennet Shaw, The ‘Apocalyptic’ Paul: An Analysis & Critique with Reference to Romans 1-8, Fitzwilliam College.

[6][6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 66.

[7] Shaw, 139.

[8] Shaw, 143

[9] Shaw, 144

[10] “A Tribute To Ernst Käsemann and a Theological Testament,” 391. Shaw 145

[11] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Review of Galatians by J. Louis Martyn,” RBL, 2001, Ibid

[12] Bruce L. McCormack, “Can We Still Speak of ‘Justification by Faith’? An In-House Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul,” in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, ed. Mark W. Elliott et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 167. Shaw, 160.