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.