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.

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.

Beyond Justification by Faith: Faith as the Resolution to Pluralism and “Postmodernism”

Faith is potentially the entry point into meaning, a coherent and dynamic personal engagement with the reality of God and the world. Faith, rightly understood, is the answer to foundationalism and ontotheology and their collapse. Faith is not dependent upon sure and certain knowledge nor does it presume a singular, stable culture, but presumes (from its inception with Abraham) a plurality of cultures, a dynamism in apprehending reality, and an always unfolding personal dimension of growth in wisdom and understanding. Abraham as the prototype of faith leaves his home, family and culture, departing from the unified Babel-like world recorded in Genesis 11, to go into an unknown country. Babel’s foundations were singular, unified, and presuming to attain the heavens (absolute and certain), based on literal concrete foundations not subject to mortality and death. The survival of the culture, through the tower, is the enduring meaning pursued in Babel.

Abraham departs from Babel, and his personal journey (there are no distinguishable persons in Babel) is defined in regard to his encounter with God. There is nothing certain, nothing permanent, and nothing concrete, in his life’s journey. He has the promise from God, and on this basis, he negotiates life’s uncertainties, but most particularly the defining reality of death. The promise from God is his means (meaning) of triangulating between the reality of God, his own mortal reality, and the hope for an enduring life in a son. This triangulation concerns his own bodily self-understanding, counting in his being as good as dead and Sarah’s womb being dead (4:19). Abraham’s understanding of the world depends upon the interpretive lens of the promise and his faithfulness is the point of apprehension. His experience is made intelligible, when it would otherwise be chaotic and futile in the face of death, due to his faithfulness to the promise of life.

This intelligibility is at first laughable, for both Abraham and Sarah. They are not simply dismissive, but the coherence of their life through faith is not evident, especially in the twenty-five some years prior to the birth of Isaac. Faith is not reasonable, it does not accord with experience, and on the surface, it appears to contradict the way things are (though it is not internally contradictory). Abraham has resurrection faith, according to Paul (4:23-25), which means he has an intelligible vision (though it may not be rational in the normal sense, it is not contradictory).

The how of God’s capacity to deliver on his promise is beyond Abraham’s ability to explain, as is evidenced in his attempt to help God along by siring a child through Hagar, his slave. His dependence upon and abandonment of natural explanation is part of his growing faithfulness. Nature is not definitive, life’s circumstance is not definitive, as faith encompasses these realities in a larger understanding. The reality of God does not simply trump other realities, but it brings a coherence and intelligibility they intrinsically lack.

This understanding on the part of Abraham is more than assent to facts, or even trust in a promise, as his entire life’s journey of faithfulness constitutes his recognition and confirms – as Paul describes it, that just as God can create from nothing so too, he can give a son to Abraham: “in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17). God is not known or determined on the basis of the world, but the world and its reality are known and understood through an integrated knowledge of God. God is not caused, but causes all things, and this is the determinate reality in which Abraham lives his life. It is the insight provided by faith.

Abraham spent his life seeking understanding on the basis of faith, and this understanding pertained to his life, his body, his marriage, and his world. His faith is no abstraction, nor a set of dogmas, nor a law, nor a particular doctrine, but his faith pertains directly to the person of God and himself. He can abstract from God’s ability to give him a son, and God’s creation of the world (and vice versa), but this abstraction is grounded in personal reality. His faith opens him to an understanding of the world, and this understanding changes the fabric of his experience, his self-consciousness, and refracts back on his understanding. In other words, faith launches understanding, coherence, intelligibility, and meaning, and these things cannot begin elsewhere, for either Abraham or those who have his faith.

What is at stake in chapter 4 of Romans, first of all in Paul’s battle with the Judaizing false Teacher and then in justification theory, is nothing less than the meaning of faith, the meaning of Christianity, or the meaning of meaning and understanding. Where faith is defined by law (and law here may be any imagined static structure) propositions, dogma, or an imagined stable tradition (positive theology) are determinative. Meaning, rather than being personal, dynamic, continually engaging an unfolding reality, is static, impersonal, and objective. Christianity is reduced to a system or belief in a static set of propositions. Meaning is reduced to grasping the system, and understanding is not concerned with personal reality or a dynamic engagement with the world’s reality. Rather than faith being an ever deepening engagement with God and the world – evinced in an ever-deepening wisdom and understanding – faith becomes belief in doctrines and propositions. The justification theory arising with the Protestant Reformation, is not only nominalist in its origins, but it gives rise to a faith (a meaning system) which must satisfy itself with an impersonal, static, nominalist faith.

It may be necessary to do a misreading of Romans 4, the reading of justification theory, in order to make clear the absolute alternative represented by Paul’s view of faith. In justification theory, Romans 4 illustrates how faith justifies in place of the law, so that Abraham is to be emulated by all believers so that they too, if they have faith in the manner of Abraham, will be saved. Abraham is the prime example that faith alone (sola fide) saves, apart from works of the law. In this way, both righteousness and faith are given a meaning they simply do not have in this passage.

Abraham, like all who turn to faith, has recognized that he is a sinner and that he cannot please God through the law, and therefore he has faith. His faith fills in the incapacity of the law, a fact Abraham has had to discover (as it is a necessity in justification theory). Abraham trusts in the one who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5), so, though there is no record of Abraham’s struggle with sin, verses 7-8 must apply to him and reference his struggle. We must presume Abraham had a struggle with works righteousness, and his faith is an answer to this struggle (though Paul in no way intimates this). Justification theory requires the encounter of failure in regard to works of the law, as this is the very definition of righteousness, faith and salvation.

Righteousness and salvation are determined through the law, though the law is no aid in meeting these requirements. What is meant by salvation in justification theory is that humanity is sinful (which is defined by inability to keep the law) and faith fills in where works did not cut it. Faith defined by its role in regard to the law is precisely the argument set forth by the false Teacher which Paul is refuting. The Teacher is arguing for the necessity of the law while justification theory argues for the necessity of realization of the inadequacy of the law to achieve good works, but both systems need the law.

There are several problems with justification theory’s account of faith. Though faith is centered on the work of Christ, in place of the law, how can Abraham believe in Jesus, when he does not yet exist. How can he be said to be the father of all who believe, when his own belief (in justification theory) is not Christ centered but God (the Father) centered. Abraham’s faith pertained directly to his life’s journey – he had no son, but justification theory is concerned with law and its requirements. Abraham gives no evidence of an abstract struggle with a universal law. Is Paul picturing Abraham as somehow imputed with righteousness, as defined by the law, before there was law? There is nowhere in the text the notion that legal righteousness is transferred to Abraham, this misses the focus of the promise and the fact that Paul is using the term righteousness, not in reference to the law, but in reference to the life given through Isaac. As Douglas Campbell translates verse 3: “Abraham trusted in God, and it [i.e., his trust] was credited to his advantage with δικαιοσύνη.”[1] “These texts specifically disavow the notion of merit as the basis of God’s action—which would create a forensic-retributive relationship—correlating that act, rather, with ‘trust.’”[2] Paul has stated his intended purpose in 3:21-22: “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.” Justification theory reads this “apart from the law” not as a complete departure from the law, as Paul argues, but as filling in the weakness of the law. Paul is making the case that faith has nothing to do with the law.

Paul is not doing justification theory, and his use of Abraham as an example of faith, has nothing to do with Abraham’s imagined discovery of the inadequacy of the law. Paul is using Abraham as a type of Christ, and of course does not picture a Christless faith as saving. There is no resurrection faith, no defeat of death, no enduring faithfulness, apart from Christ. Abraham’s journey is a type of the journey of Christ, and is not merely one to be emulated. No one is up to the task of faith like that of Abraham, any more than mere mortals are up to taking up crosses, dying, and being raised, apart from the fact that Christ pioneered this course. This is not something merely to be emulated – which would amount to a greater work than any work of the law. Participation in the faithfulness of Christ is the point. Christ did this and Abraham, in his own life-long encounter with death and his resurrection faith, is a type of Christian faithfulness. In both instances, there is a direct trust in God. Christ is not the object of faith, but the means of faithfulness, so that the focus is on trusting God as he did, through him. The Christian does not conjure up this faith through intense effort, but he participates in the faithfulness of Christ, of which Abraham is the key Old Testament type.

Paul’s argument undercuts the necessity of law, by arguing that Abraham’s faith is prior to the giving of the law. Righteousness does not and cannot pertain to the law, but it first of all refers to God’s promise to give Abraham a son, where he had no means of having a son. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS’” (Rom. 4:3). Abraham was declared righteous, and was given life where death reigned, due to his faith. The declaration of righteousness pertains directly to the giving of Isaac – life in place of death: “(as it is written, ‘A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE’” (Rom. 4:17–18). So, Abraham’s faith is organically connected with his predicament, of being childless (without life) in the face of death.

Where justification theory has no role for resurrection in salvation, Paul puts the weight of Abraham’s faith and vindication on resurrection. “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). This definition of righteousness does not and cannot refer to the law, and so too this faith is apart from the law.

Justification theory has misconstrued faith, righteousness, salvation, and the work of Christ, but it has also relinquished the intelligibility fostered by the journey of Christian faithfulness. The immutable classicist concept of culture has crumbled, institutional Christianity has faltered, and postmodernism has presumably cleared away the foundations of the modern, but this homelessness is precisely the context in which faith takes on its fulness of meaning. There is no stable reality to be accessed through culture, science, or institutions, but the dynamism of faith apprehends an order of meaning which is not dependent upon these falsely reified forms of immutability. Through faith we can move forward into the unknown country and not be given over to a futile relativity; rather there is an intelligible, personal, meaning, to be continually garnered on the faith journey. Romans 4 in depicting the meaning of faith but pictures entry into an alternative world, a world of life and meaning, on the basis of the dynamic intelligibility of faith.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 731-732). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 731.

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.