Sunday, July 17, 2011

The New Perspectives on Paul

A cadre of scholars has claimed that they now have a “new perspective” on the teachings of Paul. According to this reassessment, Paul never regarded legalistic works righteousness – the earning of salvation through good works, as opposed to trusting in God’s mercy – the problem of 1st century Judaism. Instead Judaism’s problem was that they regarded other ethnic groups as inferior or unworthy of salvation. Of course, it is not a matter of either-or, but rather both!

Associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Timothy Gombis, agrees with the cadre that the problem hadn’t been works righteousness (self-righteousness):

• Because of this “new perspective,” scholars now recognize that Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic. (Christianity Today, July 2011, 48)

In support of this new perspective, Gombis offers a single Dead Sea Scroll, which has a grace perspective, as evidence. However, this “evidence” falls miles short of proving that the Judaism of Paul’s day was grace-centered and not legalistic. Any number of Dead Sea Scrolls couldn’t prove this. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures are also grace-centered and Messiah-centered. However, this didn’t insure that the Israelites were open to the message. Thinking that he had proved his point, Gombis then concludes,

• The problem in the early church, therefore was not the temptation towards legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism.

Gombis is right about several things. Judaism had an “ethnocentrism” problem. And the early church inherited their Jews-only mindset. Therefore, they believed that non-Jews would first have to convert to Judaism in order to be saved. However, his assertion that they weren’t tempted "towards legalistic works righteousness,” is far off base. We are all tempted to look towards our legalistic performance to assure ourselves of our standing before God. Even more importantly, the Jews were not only tempted, they wholeheartedly embraced this thinking.

We find evidence for this throughout the Gospels. Jesus often denounced the most righteous people of His day on account of their self-righteous legalism:

• "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

The religious leadership appeared “as righteous” because this is the image that they presented to the world. They were men of eminence because they deserved it! They performed legalistic acts to be seen favorably by men (Matthew 6). This pattern of life is not true of people who trust in God’s mercy alone.

In fact, everyone seemed to partake in this legalistic works righteousness worldview. After talking with a man of status, Jesus informed His disciples,

• “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

The disciples were astonished by this. The riches of the rich man demonstrated that he had achieved favor before God. He was the cream of the crop. In perplexity they exclaimed, “Who then can be saved?” They had regarded the rich man as supremely worthy of salvation. If salvation was impossible for the rich man, then it was also impossible for them:

• Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" (Matthew 19:27)

Peter and the others thought that they were purchasing salvation with their legalistic sacrifice of “everything.” They still didn’t understand that salvation was a free gift. This legalism is reflected in so much of their speaking. When they saw a man born blind, they naturally concluded that his misfortune was either the result of his sin or that of his parents. When others who they deemed as unworthy – not just gentiles – wanted to approach Jesus, the disciples tried to impede them. However, when those with status – the legalistically worthy – wanted to approach Jesus, well then, that was entirely a different matter (John 12:20).

It can also be argued that almost all of Jesus’ parables were directed towards the legalistic self –righteousness, which seemed to infect everyone. The parable of the Prodigal Son exposes the legalistic righteousness of the obedient son who claimed that he had never disobeyed his father (Luke 15:29), and he therefore was the more legalistically deserving. Jesus told this parable to the scribes and Pharisees who complained that Jesus was keeping company with unworthy, undeserving sinners (Luke 15:2). Evidently, they thought themselves legalistically deserving. Clearly, they had no understanding of grace.

Jesus also told a parable about two men entering the Temple:

• To some who were confident (“trusted” NKJV) of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable. (Luke 18:9)

When we trust in our own righteous behavior, we have no idea about depravity and grace. The other man lacked the confidence to even look up. Instead, he cried out for mercy and was forgiven. He had mercifully been stripped of legalistic works righteous, but this had only been the case for a small group of people.

Jesus had been rejected by His people, not because of an innocent mistake in Biblical interpretation, but because their hearts were so hardened by self-righteousness that they didn’t even believe in Moses:

• How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? "But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" (John 5:44-47)

That greatest praise from God occurs when one sinner comes to repentance, disavowing any notion of legalistic works righteousness. The religious leadership wouldn’t believe and repent because they felt that their own righteousness would suffice. They therefore gladly received the praise of men, convinced that they deserved it. Full of themselves, they didn’t even believe what Moses had written. How then could they believe in Jesus?

Everything they did suggested that they were trusting in their own legalistic righteousness. They didn’t submit to the baptism of repentance of John, because they felt they didn’t need to repent. Their own righteousness was sufficient.

Volumes can be written on the subject. How would Gombis counteract these Biblical observations? He offers that Paul continued to follow the law, citing his taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 21:23-26), proving that “Paul wasn’t anti-Jewish.”

This is absurd. I don’t know any respectable theologian who would claim that Paul was “anti-Jewish!”. Besides, this isn’t the issue! Paul’s primary concern wasn’t about following the law, but rather following the law for the wrong purpose – to achieve one’s own legalistic works righteousness. Although he preached against circumcision, his concern wasn’t about the physical act or the requirement of the law – he even had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). Instead, his concern regarding circumcision was that it was being urged as a first requirement to obtain a righteousness that supposedly would come by virtue of our works performance. Similarly, taking a Nazarite vow didn’t reflect Paul’s faith in his own righteousness obtained through observing the law.

It is amazing that anyone would suggest that Paul was not concerned about legalistic works righteousness. In many places, he emphasizes that we are saved by grace apart from any works of the law (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-5; 2 Tim. 1:9; Romans 3:26-29). Why would he continue to make this disclaimer unless his people were being seduced by a works theology? And this was exactly his concern. He spoke very strongly against the legalistic circumcision party:

• Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh. (Philip. 3:2-3)

No one could put any “confidence in the flesh,” to attain their own righteousness through obedience. Paul explained that if anyone was able to have this confidence, it was he. However, he determined that he was not going to trust in any of his accomplishments to achieve his own righteousness. Instead, he would reject any form of self-trust:

• But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philip. 3:7-9)

Paul wasn’t calling the law or even his obedience to the law as “rubbish.” Obedience is important, but trusting in our obedience to win the favor of God represents a rejection of the righteousness that is given as a free gift from our Savior. On the one hand, Paul affirms that we must uphold the essence of the law (Romans 3:31), but this is not to achieve our own righteousness. But on the other hand, if we are trying to obtain a righteous by our works performance, we are in bondage to the law and have been separated from the grace of Christ:

• It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:1-4).

The problem wasn’t they law but our attempt “to be justified by law,” a rejection of the righteousness that can come from Christ alone. There is a wealth of evidence that the culture of Paul’s time was immersed in legalism, as is the case with any culture. Legalism is the religion of man following his rejection of God.

Gombis presents two other arguments to support his case that Paul wasn’t concerned about legalism. He states that “Paul never calls upon the Jews to reject Judaism.” While this is true, it is also irrelevant to the point Gombis is trying to make. The problem wasn’t with the Judaism of the Bible; the problem was with what men made of it – a vehicle to achieve their own righteousness. Instead, Paul argued that the law was given to show us our sins (Romans 3:19-20) and thereby to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:22-24) – a deterrent against legalism, lest any should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

Gombis presents one final argument. On at least two occasions (Acts 23:6; 26:4-6), Paul called himself a “Pharisee.” Gombis seems to reason from this that Paul was therefore affirming their entire religious stance. Consequently, they couldn’t have been legalists.

Such an interpretation is utterly unacceptable. Paul certainly affirmed the church, but not everything about it. He had many complaints against churches and individuals. He would have much more complaints in regards to the Pharisees. Instead, Paul was merely affirming that he belonged to that particular party.

To deny the clear Biblical concern about legalistic works righteousness is to detract from the Gospel. This is because legalistic self-righteousness has always been humankind’s refuge once God’s righteousness is rejected. It’s the only opposition to the Gospel. It says, “I don’t need God and His domination over my life. I can handle my own life. I’m righteous in myself.”

We find this principle manifested even at the beginning. Once Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word, they resorted to their own self-righteous means. They covered themselves with fig leaves instead of confession. They foolishly trusted in their ability to hide from God, instead of crying out for His mercy. They resorted to their own lies and half-truths, instead of seeking His forgiveness.

To suggest that the 1st century Jews were free from self-righteousness is not only a gross misunderstanding of Scripture and human rebellion, it also deprives the Gospel of the fullness of its meaning. I am dismayed that Christianity Today continues to publish such unbiblical works without any rebuttal.

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