Justification by Faith

This week’s text stands for many as a pivotal part of the gospel.

May 5, 2013

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Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

This week’s text stands for many as a pivotal part of the gospel.

Many could set their hermeneutical capabilities on autopilot and churn out a whole series on these verses. Possible topics abound: conversion, call, faith versus works, grace versus works righteousness, Paul versus Peter, justification, salvation, life in Christ, the limitations of “the flesh,” atonement, and so on. With so much commentary readily available, it seems, perhaps, most helpful to comment on just two areas: Paul’s description of key moments in his own life of faith and his description of the interplay (not opposition) between faith and works.

Paul’s description of key moments in his own life of faith

First, Paul’s reflections on his life offer a counterexample to a common view of “zeal” or “passion.” Perhaps you’ve heard, “Well, I don’t agree with him, but at least he’s committed to what he believes,” or “I think her beliefs are wrong, but she’s passionate about her faith; I’ll give her that.” While passion and commitment are desirable, they are not, in and of themselves, a virtue, nor are they always beneficial to individuals or communities. Whole communities at home and abroad (including those who call themselves faith communities) have and do support discrimination and oppression — even beatings, lynchings, and murder — while claiming divine approval.

Thus Paul describes his own early life as a persecutor and destroyer as “advanced … beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1:13-14). He says this not with pride but, as he says elsewhere, as an enduring reminder both of how far grace has brought him and of how wrong he could be and how low he could go (1 Corinthians 15:8-11).

Further, both descriptions of his conversion focus not on his personal salvation but on how the Son of God altered his understanding of his purpose — not punishing those who depart from traditional ways but being open to God’s revelation of Christ, even if it meant a radically new direction and purpose. For Paul, he was not made right with God simply so that he’d be right with God. He was made right with God so that he could proclaim the gospel through word and deed, through the testimony of his life.

His public rebuke of Peter (Cephas) follows from that new purpose. Not that he is entitled to become a self-righteous fault finder, but he (as is true for us all) has been called to act “consistently with the truth of the gospel” (2:14) and, when called for, to hold even recognized leaders accountable when peer pressure or fear of losing favor lead them astray. He does not acquiesce to the status quo or stay silent when someone’s actions reinforce deeply embedded discriminations.

Paul essentially says to Peter, “You know better than this. By your actions, out of your fears, you are forsaking the very people God has called you and me to serve.” Like Peter, pastors, board members, congregations, church officials, other leaders, and denominations regularly fall prey to that temptation — protect the money, the offering plate, the membership rolls, the good favor of powerful people, even if that means closing ourselves to Christ and leaving God’s people twisting slowly in the wind.

Pauls’ description of the interplay between faith and works

Verses 15-21 are often interpreted outside their context (Paul’s dispute with Peter) as if their focus is doctrine. Two key questions emerge.

Does the ambiguous Greek phrase, “pistis Christou,” mean “faith in Christ” or the “faith of Christ”? Is the passage fundamentally about “me” and “us” and how we go about finding salvation? Or is it fundamentally about Christ and how Christ goes about saving us? Many choose one side or the other. Others advise that since both meanings are possible we accept both as valid and let both inform our understanding.

Does the passage reflect a conflict between a Jewish attempt to earn salvation by works and a Pauline recognition that we are saved by grace alone — as one commonly and traditionally hears preached? Or does that view misunderstand first century Judaism and Christianity and, thereby, misdirect our attention — as argued by proponents of the “new perspective on Paul”?

One can easily find abundant exploration of both topics. For our purposes, both are briefly addressed by N.T. Wright: “‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’” (http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm).

From that perspective, and following our earlier discussion, one might simply say that works of righteousness do not justify us before God. But even if we are justified, we are not exempt from seeking to live a righteous life. In fact, once justified, we have a greater obligation to do so. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). The passage’s goal is not a correct understanding of salvation. Its goal is that we open ourselves to God so completely that we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (2:20).

As J. Christiaan Beker argued in Paul the Apostle, it makes a difference (a) if we think of grace only as a result of repentance and forgiveness after we’ve sinned, and (b) if we also think of grace as power, power to draw on before we sin. He states, “Grace is an event. It marks a new epoch and a new dominion of power that is antithetical to that of the power of sin” (265). Here, Beker (and Paul) refers to sin in its broadest sense — as that which destroys, that which kills.

Whenever we seek that power to battle our own temptations or to confront publicly those who perpetuate a status quo that diminishes or destroys lives, we exemplify a new proclamation of the Christ who lives in and among us. That’s what Christ called Paul (and us) to do.