Published on February 23, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

1680; revised, 2013 | 112 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books at a Glance

About the Author

Stephen Westerholm is professor of early Christianity at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. His books include Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters and Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics


Stephen Westerholm explores the heart of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification in dialogue with recent revisionist scholars such as Krister Stendahl, N.T. Wright, and others. He makes use of texts from throughout the Pauline corpus and draws on Martin Luther’s transformative insights into Galatians 2.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Peril of Modernizing Paul
Chapter 2: A Jewish Doctrine?
Chapter 3: Are “Sinners” All That Sinful?
Chapter 4: Justified by Faith
Chapter 5: Not by Works of the Law
Chapter 6: Justification and “Justification Theory”
Chapter 7: In a Nutshell


Chapter One: The Peril of Modernizing Paul

The burden of this book is to explain on a popular level one way which Paul uses to describe salvation: justification. We will look at revisionist approaches to this doctrine and at Paul’s own teaching.

One of the most significant pieces of New Testament scholarship of the twentieth century was an article which sought to re-establish Paul in his first-century context for the modern reader. Krister Stendahl’s “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963) was a landmark in that respect. As we will see, many subsequent views about how to understand Paul’s relationship to the law, the covenant, righteousness, justification, and the Jew-Gentile order took their starting point from at least some of Stendahl’s insights.

Under critique in Stendahl’s article is Augustine’s “introspective conscience,” expressed clearly later in Martin Luther’s guiding question: “How am I to find a gracious God?” Luther universalized his own struggles with guilt and right-standing and applied them to Paul’s teaching, according to Stendahl’s reading of the Apostle.

When Paul says that one is “justified by faith, not by works of the law,” what is he really saying in the context of the early church, that Jew-Gentile mixture? Luther saw there in Galatians, an epistle which held a special place for him, a bold Gospel message about how to be delivered from guilt, judgment, and the condemnation of the law: here was an answer to Luther’s question! On Stendahl’s view, however, Paul’s question was quite different. Stendahl argues that Paul is really telling his audience about “the place of the Gentiles in the Church and in the plan of God.”

In Stendahl’s judgment, Paul was telling the Galatians how Jews and Gentiles could live together in one community of faith. “Works of the law,” then, referred to particularly Jewish practices of circumcision, food laws, and other rituals. Gentiles could, in fact, be in the covenant community “by faith” and forego those Jewish rites. They did not need first to become Jews in order to enter the covenant community.

But what moved Gentiles to enlist in a community of believers in the first place? We do not imagine that they suddenly felt the need to become Jews. Of course, no one envisions Paul circumnavigating the Near East delivering a message of how to be free from a guilty conscience either. What we do find is Paul warning of an outpouring of divine wrath and sudden destruction in one of his very earliest epistles (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:3; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). In this light, the question of how to find a gracious God arises fairly naturally, for ancients as for moderns.

And what do we find in Paul’s later teaching? As Paul’s thought crystallizes and as he writes to Christians he has never met (Romans), we see many of the same themes in more systematic language. We read of the transition from enmity/wrath/slavery to peace/grace/redemption there as well (e.g., Romans 3:24, 1 Corinthians 1:30) in a doctrine of justification (e.g., Romans 3:20). Sinners, ready to receive judgment, are regarded as righteous because of Christ’s righteousness. This is not in place of Jewish ritual observance strictly speaking (one track for Jews, one track for Gentiles); rather, the righteousness that comes by faith is something Paul says the law could not provide. It solves the problem of sin’s penalty (Romans 8:3, 4, 4:4-10).

Finally, it is worth noting that Paul contrasts the law and gospel as the condemning function and the saving message respectively: why would Gentiles want to place themselves under such a condemning entity as the law? Paul explicitly connects these themes in Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, granted to everyone who believes.” The law, conformity to which brings favor, cannot ultimately make one righteous and thus able to escape the judgment of the wicked. Only believing in Christ does that in Paul’s teaching.

Chapter Two: A Jewish Doctrine?

Next we turn to consider the contribution of E.P. Sanders and his monumental book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). The book’s reputation as an accurate portrayal of the apostle’s teaching is mixed, but it has definitely succeeded in “banishing the worst caricatures of Judaism from scholarly discussion.”

Sanders set out to destroy the notion that the Judaism of Paul’s day taught salvation by works: one’s merits needed to outweigh one’s demerits measured by the standard of law-conformity. Rather, God’s electing favor toward his covenant community (Israel) “saved” them; in other words, Judaism taught salvation by grace. Legalism cannot be, therefore, the thing Paul found wrong with Judaism. True law-keeping maintained that relationship, but conformity to the law was envisioned as a sign of basic agreement with God and his ways: one’s keeping of the law, while never perfect, was a statement that he was on God’s side and thus qualified him to remain in God’s covenant sphere of grace. This is the Judaism Paul is interacting with. Furthermore. . . .

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Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme

1680; revised, 2013 | 112 pages

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