Book Reviews

Justification Reconsidered

Rethinking a Pauline Theme.

Stephen Westerholm Grand Rapids November 14, 2013

This book is a concise introduction to the issues related to “revisionist” proposals concerning the Pauline doctrine of justification (vii). Chapter 1, “The Peril of Modernizing Paul,” juxtaposes two questions: Was Paul concerned with how to find a gracious God, or was his only concern the place of Gentiles in the church and in the plan of God (2)? Westerholm interacts with Krister Stendahl (known here for his article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 [1963]: 199–215), who claims that the first question is a creation of Western culture. Westerholm highlights Paul’s correspondence to the church at Thessalonica (considered by Westerholm to be Paul’s earliest teaching on justification) and Corinth, which emphasizes how sinners can find a gracious God. From these two books he shows that Paul’s good news was an offer of salvation from divine judgment. Sinners are declared righteous and escape God’s wrath when they place their faith in Christ. To hold Paul’s concern for Gentile inclusion at the expense of his concern for finding a gracious God leaves nothing left that is appealing to Paul’s gospel.

Chapter 2 asks the question “Is Paul’s justification a Jewish doctrine?” Anyone who will enter a doctoral program or who will be writing on or thinking through the NPP will eventually need to read E. P. Sanders’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1997). This book is widely regarded as the most influential book on Paul in recent memory. Sanders claims that Paul’s concept of grace is the same as Judaism’s, in that salvation was not thought to be earned by good works. According to Sanders, Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism because salvation is by grace, judgment is according to works, good works are a condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not earn salvation (25). Westerholm qualifies these claims in the following three ways: (1) A contrast of grace and works is not native to Judaism, but it is for Paul. (2) Paul’s emphasis that salvation is completely by divine gift stands in stark contrast to Judaism, which maintained some merit was involved. (3) The decisive contrast for Paul from Judaism is the absolute necessity of salvation as a divine gift since mankind is incapable of doing salvific works. Contra Sanders, Westerholm maintains that Paul thought differently than other Jews regarding the nature of grace. Paul’s version of salvation is completely dependent on grace apart from human works.

Chapter 3 answers the question “Are ‘sinners’ all that sinful?” The emphatic answer is “Yes!” Westerholm synthesizes Augustine, Luther, and Calvin by stating that humanity is truly not good and is incapable of doing good. Calvin’s illustration of mankind naturally obeying the second half of the Decalogue and disobeying the first half illustrates this point well. In chapter 4, “Justified by Faith,” Westerholm lays out N. T. Wright’s view of righteousness. In sum, Wright believes that God’s declaration of justification determines who is a member of the covenant, but this initial justification does not guarantee God’s verdict of justification at the final judgment (57). While denying this definition of justification, Westerholm praises Wright for his creative mind by claiming that not since Schweitzer has Paul been portrayed in such a coherent fashion. Westerholm summons those who criticize the NPP to look again to the Scriptures to see if there might be something to it, and he challenges those who embrace the NPP to be honest about their reading of Paul to see if it is really in accordance with Paul. Westerholm argues that Augustine and Luther understood Paul correctly: “Only by faith in Jesus Christ can sinners be found righteous before God” (p. 74).

In chapter 5, “Not by Works of the Law,” Westerholm addresses the NPP view that the controversy in Galatians was not that Paul’s opponents were legalists, claiming that salvation is earned by keeping the law, but that the controversy was over circumcision and food laws. Westerholm argues that “the works of the law” and “the law” are interchangeable and that for Paul they are not just “boundary markers,” though they include these. Paul’s argument is from greater to lesser in this sense. If none of the law is sufficient to save mankind, then keeping circumcision and food laws is impotent to save as well.

A key point for Westerholm in interpreting Paul’s justification formula concerns the interpretation of Romans 2:13. According to Westerholm, this text should be interpreted in light of 3:20. It is not Paul’s goal in 2:13 to hear his audience say, “Yes, I can keep the law and be saved,” rather it is to “shut up every mouth” that might bring an excuse for sin before the Judge or claim any kind of merit that would cause one group to elevate themselves as superior to another. Whereas the NPP views initial justification by faith for unbelievers and final justification by works for believers, Westerholm argues that all of salvation is by grace apart from works. If salvation is apart from law for initial salvation, it also must be apart from law for final salvation.

In Chapter 6, “Justification and ‘Justification Theory’” Westerholm interacts briefly with Douglas Campbell’s monograph, The Deliverance of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), which depicts the justice of God and his benevolence as mutually exclusive. Westerholm shows that God’s justice and goodness are in perfect harmony. He reiterates that salvation is entirely of faith in contrast to good works of any kind, bringing about a sanctification that marks the assent not only of the mind but also the entire being to the goodness of God found in the doctrine of justification.

Chapter 7, “In a Nutshell,” offers Westerholm’s concluding thoughts. We should not confine ourselves only to texts that speak of justification or we will miss vital dimensions of Paul’s thought (p. 98). However, it is good to consider carefully two books that the NPP dramatically impacts, namely Romans and Galatians. All students of Scripture would do well to know these books well, being careful not to distort their message. Galatians 2:16 is emphatic that “no flesh” will be justified by the law. The law refers to all righteous deeds found in the Mosaic Law, not just boundary markers. Negatively, Paul says that justification is not by works of law. Positively, he says that justification is through πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (possibly “faith in Jesus Christ” or “faithfulness of Jesus Christ”). Westerholm reiterates that “righteousness” does not mean “membership in the covenant” and that it never did and never will (98). What the righteousness of God is, and the righteousness that God demands from humanity, in Paul’s view, is provided to allpeople indiscriminately on the basis of faith, apart from works. If we had to provide any of this righteousness ourselves for initial or final salvation, it would hardly be called “good news.”

This is a great resource for someone who needs to get at the core issues of the NPP quickly from a traditional standpoint. In light of the sweeping popularity of the NPP and the challenges it presents, this book will help the reader see that the question “How can a righteous God accept the guilty as righteous?” must be answered if we are to correctly define justification. Westerholm does a great job, in a small space, arguing why he believes the traditional way of explaining justification does better justice to Paul than the NPP.

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