A Premature Understanding Of Justification In Galatians
As a bible college student I tend to take steps back from what I previously held theologically in order to get a better understanding of the text in the bible. I am currently in my third year of my undergrad and I must say, while there are things that I still adhere to, there are loads of previously held beliefs that I have either discarded or gained fresh perspective on. Justification in particular, long debated in the West. As I was reading through Dr. Preston Sprinkles blog (one of my favorite theologians and an excellent professor) on the NPP (New Perspective on Paul) and having read some NT Wright as well as formal study on justification, I gained a better understanding of Paul regarding Justification in Galatians 2. The topic I want to focus on is the context of these verses and whether a reformation understanding of faith versus works fits with Pauline theology. This will not be a thorough defense of the NPP on Galatians 2 – merely a general overview of the context with hopes that it will cause the readers to consider this angle and give it some thought.
A premature understanding of justification, in my experience, is the understanding that we are imputed or declared righteous before God by having faith in Him; it is not by doing good works to get into heaven. I do not deny this, but is this Paul’s concern in Galatians 2 where he first mentions that we are justified by faith? My quick answer is no. Now keep in mind that I don’t have an issue with justification by faith, as Jesus makes it clear in the gospels that by faith we are saved. Lets first take a look into the context of Galatians 2. Assuming you all know the Galatian issue, I will cut straight to the context of justification in chapter 2.
The Case of Peter and Paul
Peter was dining with the gentiles but withdrew himself when the Jewish Christians came. Paul then rebukes Peter’s hypocrisy because he is having table fellowship with gentile believers but withdraws himself out of fear because the Jews believed that one must stay in line with the Jewish boundary markers and Gentiles must observe the Torah (I.E. Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision). Paul even assumes this by rebuking Peter for forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal. 2:14). Subsequently, Paul says that we are not justified by the works of the law but by faith. What does works of the law mean in this context? Is it the same as producing fruit (good works) that perhaps we accuse the Catholics of doing? Is it fair to say that Paul here is arguing about doing good to somehow make it into heaven? In context, the answer seems to be, no. I believe Paul here is talking about ethnocentrism. You are not saved by keeping your Jewishness nor should the Jews force gentiles to be like Jews because justification doesn’t come from your identity as a child of Abraham, but by faith in Christ. Therefore, the context doesn’t seem to fit with our modern understanding of works (producing fruit to get into this magical place above the clouds).
Many New Testament writings reveal the social and theological rift between Jews and Gentiles. Whether believers or non-believers, there is clear separation. In Galatians we read of the same issue, but Paul steps in and says its not about keeping your Jewishness (works of the Torah), nor making others be like Jews, but what brings the two together and justifies them is faith. This makes sense since throughout the entire bible being a Jew meant to be distinct from other nations. They were different, and rightly so, and by maintaining their uniqueness they have some form of access to God. In fact, being different was the sign that God made a covenant with them (see Abrahams covenant on circumcision). It doesn’t take much thought to wonder why the Jews wanted Gentiles to hold to their customs. Proselytizing wasn’t intended to increase the numbers and influence of the Jews, but perhaps the Jews were concerned for god-seeking Gentiles into entering and remaining in the covenant.
Concluding with some “Sprinkle”
Preston Sprinkles’ post said it best. Now I’m not saying this is what he believes, please read his Blog Post on the NPP. But this quote seems to sum up what I’m trying to say.
“Paul argues against ethnic exclusivism by saying that justification is by faith and not by one’s ethnic heritage. That is, justification in God’s covenant does not require that you stiff-arm other ethnic groups by forcing them to keep the ‘works of the law’ (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath, and bacon-free breakfast)”
In conclusion, it doesn’t really make sense to view Galatians as a works righteousness issue versus justification by faith issue. The text is concerned with that to a point, but its not concerned with our modern understanding of works versus faith. Galatians 2 has everything to do with table fellowship/ethnocentrism. Paul is not angry with Peter if Peter obeys the law of God, he is angry with him for assuming that keeping the distinctives of the Torah (sabbath, food laws, circumcision which are things that separate the Jew from the Gentile) and forcing gentiles to be like them is what reconciles humanity together with God. Therefore we are justified by having faith in God, not by adhering to the customs of Jewish life.