Paul and Justification: From Covenental Nomism to Life in the Spirit, From Promise to Fulfillment

by Fr. Terence J. Keegan, O.P.


In Gal 3 Paul quotes the story in Gen 15:


“God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gn 15:5-6)


Paul uses this story as proof for his contention in Gal. 2:15 that “man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”


The letter of James, however, refers to a different story, the story of the binding of Isaac in Gn 25 and says:  “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Gal. 3:21-24)


These two letters are not really opposed, rather they were written at opposite ends of developments that occurred among early followers of Jesus.

Paul is at the beginning of these developments.  He was almost at ground zero.  He was a Hellenistic Jew who described himself as “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”  (Galatians 1:14)


His concern in his life and in his writings was his relationship with God, a relationship that, as a Jew, was based not on works of the Law but on the gift of the Covenant God made with Abraham.  The works of the Law of Moses were not for him or the Jews of his day a means of establishing their relationship with God but rather the faithful Jews response to the gift of the Covenant.   The Law served as a protector or a guide for those still under the bondage of sin.   The relationship of the Law observant Jew with God is better known as Covenantal Nomism rather than as works righteousness.


For those still under the bondage of sin the gift of the covenant contained within itself a promise of future salvation which Luke wrote about in Zechariah’s Benedictus


Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free….  He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all of the days of our life. (Lk 2:68, 72-75)


The promise contained in the gift of the Covenant was fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit.


A short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus Paul had an experience of Jesus that convinced him that the promise had been fulfilled, that he at last had been delivered from his bondage to sin and was at last free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.  He described this experience as a call through grace in order that he might preach Jesus among the Gentiles.


This experience is related three times in Acts 9, 22 and 26 with varying and even contradictory details.  In the Church’s liturgy it is celebrated on Jan. 25 as the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.  Conversion, however, is a misnomer.  Paul did not change from being a Jew to being a Christian.  On the one hand Paul remained a Jew for the rest of his life, observing the Law.  During his last visit to Jerusalem where he was arrested and eventually sent to Rome he was worshipping in the Temple.  On the other hand at the time of his experience of Jesus the term Christian was not yet in use.  Christianity, as a distinct religion, did not yet exist.  In Acts 11, two chapters after the story of Paul’s experience it is mentioned that it was in Antioch where followers of Jesus were first called Christians.  It is quite possible that this term in its origin was somewhat pejorative, like the term Moonies for the members of Rev. Moon’s Unification Church.


Almost all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews who, as members of the Covenant community, continued to observe the Law.  Early Gentiles who were baptized, like Cornelius and his family, would have been incorporated into the community of Jewish believers in Jesus.  Even after the destruction of the Temple followers of Jesus continued to gather in the synagogues.  It was only toward the end of the first century that the rabbis decided to exclude them from their synagogues, calling them heretics, not Christians.  Some claim the parting of the ways between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity occurred around this time.  Others feel the process had only just begun and the definitive parting of the ways came much later.  In any case the parting of the ways when Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism would be recognized as distinct religions was not even on the horizon in Paul’s day.


In Galatia, after Paul had first preached there, Law observant Jewish followers of Jesus told the Galatians that they too should observe the Law.  Participating in the fulfillment of the Covenant presumed, for them, participating in the original Covenant.  The gift of the Holy Spirit was a gift based on a previous gift. The gift of the Covenant.  It was as if the new gift was nested within the former gift.  Even the way Paul lived his life reflected this perception of the relation of the two gifts.


Paul’s encounter with the Galatians had presented a new and unique situation.  The Galatians of north central Asia Minor were a Celtic people who had separated centuries earlier from the westward migration of Celts across South-Central Europe.  A related branch of Celts eventually ended up in Ireland as the Gales.  What was unique about the Galatians was that they were exclusively gentile.  There was no Jewish community for them to become part of.  Paul, reflecting on his inaugural experience, realized that his call to preach to the Gentiles did not entail incorporating them into the Covenantal Community.  The gift they had received was indeed a fulfillment of the gift of the covenant to Abraham but it was a distinct gift that could bring the life of the Spirit on its own.


Insisting that the Galatians did not need to become part of Covenantal Israel Paul wrote in Gal. 2:15 “man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  With these words Paul introduced justification as a theological term that would be pondered by churchmen for the next two thousand years.


For Paul, however, justification was not a theological term.  Literally the term dikaiosand its related forms, often translated as justice or righteousness, refers to a judicial declaration. To justify someone’ is a legal act by means of which the person involved is acquitted of guilt, but Paul is using it along with several other terms in metaphorical senses in order to express the new relationship with God made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus and based on the new gift of the Spirit.


In 1 Corinthians he wrote, “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:28-30)


Other metaphors used by Paul to describe the new life of believers ‘in Christ’  include ‘liberation’, ‘freedom’, and ‘reconciliation.’


The position that justification was attained through works of the Law is probably not what the Jewish preachers had told the Galatians.  Paul, however, had observed them as behaving as if works of the Law could bring justification, could secure their relationship with God.  Paul discredits this position to emphasize for the Galatians the freedom given to them in the free gift of the Spirit.


When he first preached to the Galatians they too experienced this gift an experience of which he reminded them when he wrote


Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2-5)


The gift of the Spirit was all that was needed to enter the new relationship with God, all that was needed to achieve the freedom promised in the covenant.  Freedom for the Paul, however, was not autonomous, deistic freedom.  Freedom was a matter of what governed ones lives.  Humans could either lead lives under the rule of the flesh or lives under the rule of the Spirit.  When one lived by the flesh one was a slave, a slave to sin and, if one was a Covenant Jew, a slave to the Law.  The Law being the tutor or guardian that attempted to shield the Jew from the power of sin, though not with complete success. The new relationship with God made possible by Jesus made it possible now to live by the spirit, i.e., to live lives free from the power of sin, free from subjection to the Law.


Paul wrote to the Galatians:


The law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 4:24-29)


However, what Paul had written in Galatians caused many of the early followers of Jesus to consider Paul as a misguided extremist.  His letter to Rome tries to deal with their concerns.  Rome is unique among the communities to whom Paul wrote.  Paul had never visited there although he intended to go there on his way westward to Spain and hoped the community would receive him well and support his further journeys.  Also Rome, like Galatia, had been, for a while, exclusively Gentile.  Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, including Jewish followers of Jesus.  Left behind were the Gentile followers of Jesus who, apparently had not continued to live as Covenantal Jews.  When Nero allowed the Jews to return questions arose in this newly mixed community of Jews and gentiles that Paul attempted to deal with as he explained the intent of what he had said to the Galatians.


While for Paul the distinction between Jew and Greek does not matter in terms of one’s relationship with God, in some other ways it does matter.  He insists that even though the Gospel came first to the Jews both Jews and Gentiles have all sinned and are equally in need of the salvation that comes from Jesus.  But Paul rejects the suggestion that his teaching implies that being a Law observant Jew does not matter.


In chapter 3 he asks “Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?” (Gal. 3:1) and answers “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Gal. 3:2)  Paul and all the Jewish followers of Jesus have received the gift of the Covenant which bears the promise of salvation.  Gentiles who are now receiving the gift of the Spirit and able to live in the freedom of the Spirit are indebted to the bearers of the Covenant Promise.


Paul then deals with related questions.  If works do not matter and one’s relationship with God is based on God’s free gift is Paul saying that sin does not matter?


In chapter 6 he asks two questions: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” 6:1 and “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” 6:15 His answer to both is “By no means!”  explaining that those baptized into the new life of the Spirit should live by the Spirit.  Here he emphasizes what he had said to the Galatians


For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.  I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Gal 13-25)


A final objection Paul deals with concerns the Law.  “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Rm 7:7); “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Rm 7:12);  “the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.” (Rm 7:14).  For Paul, the Law was good it simply lacked the power to save.


When the Letter of James was written near the end of the first century the community of followers of Jesus was taking on distinctive characteristics, the parting of ways had begun, adherence to the Law of Moses was no longer an issue.  The Letter is not concerned with works of the Law but with the good works, the works of the Spirit, which for Paul characterize the one who lives by the gift of the Spirit, the gift of Grace, the gift of Faith.


It is with this understanding of works that James writes: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?…So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Jas. 2:14, 17)


When Paul began his missionary activity all he had to rely on was his experience of Jesus.  At that time there was no Christianity, there was no Christian creed, a list of doctrines that orthodox followers of Jesus accepted.  By the end of the first century formulations of what constituted orthodox doctrine were developing as evidenced in the Pastoral letters where Timothy and Titus are advised to pass on carefully to other teacher the truths of faith.  This is the kind of faith written about in James when he says: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.”  (1 Tim. 2:14-19)


Paul and James are really in agreement.  Speaking of creedal faith James can say that even demons believe.  If one simply believes as demons do then the fruits of the spirit will not be manifest in one’s life.  If one has the faith of which Paul speaks, the faith which justifies, i.e., living the relationship with God made possible by the gift of the Spirit, good works, the fruits of the Spirit, will be manifest in one’s life.

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