c) 2012' name='copyright'/>Michael DeShane Hinton: The Faith vs. Works Principle in Paul

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Faith vs. Works Principle in Paul

There is no doubt that Paul uses a principio argument with regard to faith vs. works as the means to achieve salvation:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

                 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
                                and whose sins are covered;
                 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:1-8 ESV)

In order to understand this passage we must assume like Paul a broad perspective and narrow scope.

First, it’s broad perspective can be explained in terms of salvation history, that is, the movement of God away from Judaism, a parochial and traditional religion, to Gentile Christianity with it universal appeal.  Those that resisted change have been called the circumcision party or Judaizing teachers.  They were also called dogs!  But in his polemical argument against the Jews, Paul focused on receiving circumcision as the symbol of converting to Judaism.  Therefore, in the immediate context of his principio argument above we find the following verses:
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.  (Romans 4:9-12 ESV) 

This passage also determines, second, the narrow scope of his principio argument, which is the question of whether the new Gentile believers should follow the law.  In other words, should they become Jews?  Paul’s answer is simple.  Abraham was not circumcised when he was chosen.  He received circumcision, the work at issue, only after he believed and was reckoned as righteous.  In this way Abraham became an example, as Paul said, the father of all that experience God as he did: sequentially to trust and obey.

Now, in order rightly to apply this “no works” principio argument in preaching and teaching we must exercise intellectual discipline.  It is a logical fallacy to apply a polemical argument about salvation history to the personal discipleship of an individual Christian.  Paul used the example of Abraham to make an argument that justifies admission of believing Gentiles as a class in the unfolding historical plan of God.  But it would be wrong to take that argument and apply it in reverse order to individual people.  Paul said, for instance, stepping back from his argument with the Judaizers: 

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.  (Galatians 5:6 ESV) 

So, Paul envisions on the personal level a faith that works.  Likewise, he is not against the moral law but sees it as essential to salvation for the individual: 

He will render to *each one* according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life … For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the *doers of the law who will be justified* … For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the *righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled* in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Romans 2:6-7, 13, and 8:3-4 ESV, emphasis mine) 

One might be tempted to say, in light of the immediately argument above, that pneumatology replaces legalism or works righteousness in Christianity.  But “legalism” often gets a bad rap!   “Works righteousness” is a canard used by anti-Catholics that do not understand the broad perspective and narrow scope of the no works principle in Paul.  In truth there is nothing in the New Testament to say that an individual Christian ought not to work, pursue righteousness, or obey God’s holy word.  In fact, obedience is required and conditions met in order to receive the Spirit: 

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38 ESV) 

And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  (Acts 5:32 ESV) 

The "no works" principle then applies only to arguing for the independence of Gentile Christianity in the broad perspective, admitting that Gentiles had not been in covenant previously and could not point to any works of the law that qualifies us.  Gentile Christians are justified by the Faith “apart from” works of the law (Judaism) as a mere function of historic reality.  God forgives us Gentiles for past sins (Romans 3:25) and invites us to enter covenant relationship through the blood of Jesus.

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