Did Martin Luther really understand Paul’s teaching on justification by faith?

See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness (Habakkuk 2:4 NIV)

Paul quotes the above in Romans1:17, a verse instrumental in Martin Luther’s reconstitution of the doctrine of justification being by faith alone, an interpretation with which I concurred for the first thirty years or so of my Christian life. However, the Old Testament scripture that Paul is quoting (above) needs to be examined in context.  Hebrew scholars are not entirely agreed on the translation, but the above (from the NIV) can be seen to be consistent with the context of the OT passage and remains faithful to the Masoretic (Hebrew) text. Paul utilises the LXX (Greek) form “faith” within his doctrine of justification, albeit that pistis can equally be translated as faithfulness (e.g. Rom3:3 with regard to God’s faithfulness); the two (faith and faithfulness) are not that dissimilar in the way I have come to understand the matter either.

But firstly one has to consider why Paul was quoting from the Old Testament in this context. It surely affirms that he was not introducing an entirely new concept: hence ”AS IT IS WRITTEN, the just/righteous shall live by faith/faithfulness”. That, indicates Paul, had always been the case. Habakkuk likewise affirms that “the just” are not regarded as righteous in God’s eyes because they have perfectly fulfilled a law or are morally perfect but because they are faithful to what they know to be right, which in the Jews’ case meant being faithful to Torah. Such faith or faithfulness is a virtuous quality  that furnishes a guiding principle  resulting in endeavour.  It is not a standard which in the Lawgiver’s case might well be perfection for He is perfect. If justification were dependant on the perfect fulfilment of law, fallen man, including God’s chosen people would be scuppered:

 “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Gal3:10-11) .

 Paul summarises the matter both for Christian and everyman in Gal2:16, which more and more theologians (and some more modern bible translations) now recognize should be translated as follows:

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we (Christians) have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

The understanding of faith I am presenting will be novel to many, but it is what I have been shown and it works, both in the context of the Christian faith and broader providence. Paul’s polemics in Romans and especially Galatians concerned the fact that Christians are justified, not by the deeds of Torah (works of the Law) as certain Judaisers were insisting but by faith in Christ which of course involves being faithful to His teaching. Likewise, at the universal level, people of good will are accepted (not “saved” but pardoned) because they defer to the light of God’s moral precepts for humane living as revealed through their conscience. That provides a guiding principle to which they endeavour to be faithful for their own peace of mind; it results in their showing compassion towards their fellow man, especially those in need (i.e. “the Son of Man” Mt25:37-40). Such are not morally perfect (some far from it) but they are faithful to that guiding principle which is innate and so is not dependant on “special revelation” or the practice of a religion (Mt25 again – religious faith is not mentioned).

Yet in all of this Paul ensures that to Christ goes the glory for according to Gal2:16 as translated above the ultimate meritorious cause of God’s gracious acceptance of man’s imperfection is “the faithfulness of Christ”, referring especially to His atoning death in which He paid the price for human sin.

Neither does this detract from the urgency of the gospel or the essentiality of the  Church, for God has for ever been calling out from the world a people (Greek: ekklesia) to be His own, whom according to Paul must “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, living soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works (Titus2:12-14).

Now that does require special revelation and religious practice along with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and mystical participation with Christ; only possible for those who are baptized Christians and partake of the spectrum of grace provided within the Church (cf. Jn6:53-57), resulting in “Christ in  you, the hope of glory (Col1:27).

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Related blog: justification through Christ's righteousness  &   Rahab: faith or works


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