Sunday, August 14, 2011

Out of Perspective

In the previous three posts I have discussed the issue of legalism in response to an article by Timothy Gombis in Christianity Today titled, "The Paul We Think We Know." Gombis endorses a New Perspectives view that seeks to minimize the pervasiveness of legalism in first-century Judaism and reinterpret Biblical passages that are clearly dealing with the issue of legalism.

Because of this effort to downplay the effect of the erroneous view that one could establish a works-based righteousness by works of the law, Gombis asserts, "First-century Judaism didn't have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem." Gombis holds that Jewish believers in Paul's day wanted to convert Gentiles professing faith in Christ to Judaism because they viewed Christianity as being inherently Jewish. Thus, Gombis refers to Romans 3: 20, which says,

"because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight;for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." (NASB)
This, says Gombis, is not to refute Jewish legalism, but refers to the fact that "God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish." If this is his New Perspective on Romans 3: 20 then he needs a New New Perspective. Paul does often address the fact that the gospel is offered to both Jews and Gentiles, but in Romans 3: 20 he is making two points:

1) By the works of the law (Greek: ergown nomou) no flesh (sarch) will be justified, or declared righteous, before God;

2) through the law is the real knowledge (epignowsis) of sin.

The first point establishes that no human will be judged righteous because he earned his righteousness by keeping the law. It is a clear repudiation of legalism. The second point clarifies that, rather than having the achievement of a meritorious righteousness as its goal, the purpose of the law is to reveal to the sinner his sinful condition. This too refutes the legalistic notion that the purpose of the law is to earn a righteous standing. In Romans 3: 20 Paul emphasizes that the law does not justify and the law is not intended to justify, but rather to reveal sin. In Romans 3: 21-28 Paul explains that justification is a gift, by grace through faith, concluding in verse 28,

"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works ofthe Law." (NASB)
The idea that Paul is not making a carefully developed case against legalism, or the false notion of works-based righteousness, cannot be sustained by a close reading of the text. The apostle makes very clear in the first three chapters of Romans the manifold ways both Jews and Gentiles have transgressed the Law, concluding in Romans 3: 9-19 that all humanity is under sin, then begins in Romans 3:21 and following to explain that righteousness is not earned but is a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. Note the summary of his case in verses 23-24 of Romans 3 (NASB):

"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;".
It is, no doubt, a direct doctrinal challenge for the legalists of Paul's day and also through the centuries since. We should be careful not to detract from Paul's clear teaching about the righteousness of Christ credited to the believer by grace through faith. In declaring the believer righteous, God did what the law could not do. That is the truth Paul preached.

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