Response to Question re:justification and reconciliation
Gladly. The fundamental issue in approaching these texts (in Romans and Galatians) is rooted in understanding the grid through which we are reading them. If we are starting with an unspoken assumption that every text in Scripture, including the texts about justification, are fundamentally addressing the issue of our personal salvation relationship with God only, we are going to read, interpret and apply them in that light. Especially in American evangelical and even reformed circles in the last 25 years, but dating back to the late 1800’s in the ministries of Charles Spurgeon and D. L. Moody and carried on by Billy Graham and others through the 20th century, there has been a focus on personal salvation in such an individualistic and narrow way that it has become almost impossible for many folks to see anything other than this personal-salvation-only issue around justification. The blinders are firmly in place because of countless repetitions and affirmations that this is the only focus of these passages, and folks only see what they see.
If, however, the texts are taken with a larger biblical and covenantal framework in mind and are actually addressing more than that single issue (which I believe the texts themselves support) than we are going to see and interpret these passages in a richer and fuller way. So the question is this: when Paul is addressing these letters to the Roman and Galatian churches and explaining to them in a deeper way the full measure of God’s salvation purposes in this world, is the reconciliation of the nations to one another (expressed as Jew and gentile reconciliation because the Jews were, and still are, the ethnic group through whom God initiated his reconciliation of the world work), as full, equal members of the family of Abraham, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a central part of understanding the fullness of the gospel proclamation? I believe (along with many others) the answer to that is yes, wonderfully absolutely, and that this issue of reconciliation (to one another as equal members of the family of God) is even at the heart of the discussion of justification in the book of Galatians.
So I will begin with the Galatians 3:6-9 passage: “3:6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
This passage has wonderful, undeniable, personal application for each of us to understand that our own standing before God is based solely on the finished work of Christ- even as Abraham’s was- but I don’t believe that is actually the primary reason the book of Galatians was written, or what this particular passage is primarily addressing. It seems clear to me now the main reason Paul wrote to the Galatian church was because there were Jewish agitators who were trying to exclude some of the Gentiles from full fellowship in the church community unless they followed certain ceremonial practices of the Law (most notably, circumcision Gal 1:6,7 3:10ff, 5:2-6) as the external proof that they really were “children of Abraham” ( one of Paul’s phrases, based on the Covenant with Abraham – Gen 12, 15, 17- to describe being part of God’s kingdom-salvation community), and that apart from keeping those elements of the Law, they were to be excluded from the fellowship. They were not truly part of the reconciled people of God, particularly with the Jews, the first ethnic group singled out as the people of God, unless they demonstrated their commitment to keep the Law through these important ceremonies.
Paul’s answer to this perversion of the Gospel- and it seems clear the whole letter needs to be read with this issue in mind- is that we are in fact a part of the reconciled community of God’s people only and specifically by faith in Christ, who removed the curse of the Law for us (Gal 3:12-14) because none of us could ever be justified and accepted into the family of God (reconciled to one another as accepted members of God’s family) apart from faith in Christ and by the grace of God.
Paul recalls his confrontation with Peter around this very issue to add weight to his argument (Gal 2:11ff.). The very first mention of the term “justification” is used in 2:16, not as a reference to our standing before God, but as a reference to our standing within the community of God’s people. Peter had been separating himself from the gentile believers by refusing to eat with them. Paul’s argument with Peter is that this action was a clear denial of the implication of the Gospel- 2:14, which he goes on to explain and define more specifically as a clear denial of justification – 2:15ff.
So what do “justification” and the “declaration of right standing” by faith in Christ refer to? Inseparably, our standing before God and our standing with one another. They go hand in hand in the doctrine of justification. As Paul tell us in Ephesians 2, reconciliation with one another was purchased by Christ’s death on the cross and is an accomplished fact- we are reconciled, Eph 2:14-18. We are set right with each other, by Christ’s work. Our experience and fleshing out of this unity is as much a dynamic process as our personal reconciliation to God is, but we are not called to practice reconciliation as an implication of the gospel: we are called to pursue unity and reconciliation because it is an accomplished part of Christ’s redemptive work.
When Paul moves the argument along in Gal 3, he is making a further appeal to his statement in 2:15,16 “we…know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” His “consider Abraham” statement in 3:6 is not meant to be an attempt to use Abraham as an example of how individuals get right with God, but as a call for a thoughtful reflection that this issue of becoming an accepted part of the community of God’s people, even for Abraham, was only based on faith, and that all who have that faith are blessed along with him, to now be a part of God’s people. This is stated in full force in 3:26-29 – “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Before I go on to the Romans passage, let me point out that the implications of this are enormous for the church. If we cannot talk about justification without talking about being “set right” with, and reconciled to one another in a context of practical covenant community and care….. wellll…. we have a lot of repenting to do. The Romans 4:13-17 passage (and the whole surrounding context) is saying the same thing as the Gal 3:6-9, 26-29 passages. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 – growing out of the unfolding of his initial statements in 1:5,6 “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” is all about the fact that in the Gospel, and in the righteousness of God that is being displayed to the world in Christ, now, through faith in Christ, the nations are brought into this reconciled, covenant community relationship with God and one another. The promise to Abraham – “I will make you into a great nation” (12:2); “count the stars..so shall your offspring be” (15:5); “you will be the father of many nations” (17:4) – is now being realized in Christ, and through faith in him, you too are a part of this community of God’s people: reconciled to God and reconciled to each other as part of the family of God. I could go on from there, but I think you can get the gist of the argument. Let me shout it from the mountain tops: none of this is meant to undermine all the things we already teach in Sonship or about the nature of God’s grace for us personally or the truths about justification in our relationship/standing with God. It does, however, expand and enrich all that.