Justification by Christ Alone
by James Akin
The centrality and significance of Messiah's death and resurrection was often misunderstood by Jewish Christians in Paul's day and it led to the conflicts he battled in most prominently Romans and Galatians, but also in Ephesians and Colossians.
It is well known that first century Jews who were looking for the Messiah often understood his role in chiefly or exclusively geo-political terms. In fact, it is still a saying among orthodox Jews of our day, "If Messiah has come, how do you explain the state of the nations?" And Christ's own disciples often interpreted his role in this manner.
This was true even after his resurrection and ascension. In Acts 1 we read:
"To them he presented himself alive after his passion . . . speaking of the
So even shortly after his resurrection the disciples could fall into the trap of interpreting Messiah's role largely as the political deliverer of Israel ("Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"), and the same was true after the ascension, for they kept looking up into heaven for Jesus to return immediately and had to be told by angels to go to Jerusalem, as Jesus himself had just told them to do.
However, on Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon them, the apostles began to demonstrate a clear perception that it is through Jesus that we receive forgiveness of sins. This is evident in Peter's sermon to the crowd: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). The apostles certainly had a recognition before this time of the centrality of Christ's death for our forgiveness, but not in the clear form in which it later came to be expressed.
In fact, it was the lack of a clear perception of the role of Christ's death that caused the problem with the circumcizers among Jewish Christians. The Jews who were expecting the Messiah (and it must be remembered that some of them, such as the Sadducees, were not) would have agreed that, no matter how faithful one had been to God before, if one rejected God's Messiah when he came then one would be transformed from a friend of God to an enemy of God and thus be cut out of the tree of God's grace. Rejection of the Messiah when he came thus constituted a mortal sin in their minds, and it this informs the background to Paul's discussion of Jewish apostasy in Romans 11, where the faith he is talking about is, of course, faith in Christ:
"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief [in Christ, the Messiah], but you stand fast only through faith [in the Messiah]. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief [in the Messiah], will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree" (Rom. 11:17-24).
Any Jewish Christian would have agreed with this, arguing that for their fellow Jews to reject God's Messiah would be a mortal sin, turning them from a friend into an enemy of God, and resulting in their expulsion from the tree of grace. They would thus all acknowledge the necessity of accepting the Messiah for salvation.
But not all Jewish Christians would have understood this necessity in the same manner. Some would have understood aligning oneself with the Messiah as necessary in the same sense that not committing adultery or not committing bloodshed is necessary. In other words, avoiding unbelief in the Messiah would be no different than avoiding any other mortal sin. Acceptance of the Messiah once he comes would thus be something added on to the previous requirements of God as expressed in the Mosaic Law or the Torah.
Aligning oneself with the Messiah would thus be a condition of one's relationship with God but--and this is the important point--it would not be the basis of one's relationship with God. The basis of one's relationship with God would still remain the Torah, the Law of Moses, one's participation in the covenant God made with
It is this misunderstanding of the basis of our relationship with God that underlies Paul's arguments concerning Christ and the Law in his epistles. It is this view that Paul is combating. His interpretation of the function of the Torah in relation to Christ is thus quite different:
"Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made . . . Is the Law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith [in Jesus] came, we were confined under the Law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the Law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith [in Jesus]. But now that faith [in Jesus] has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith [in Christ]. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:19-28).
The Mosaic Law thus served as a custodian or tutor (Gk, paidagogos, "one who leads children") until the Messiah would come and his identity as Jesus of Nazareth would be revealed so we could have personal faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Once Christ came, we would be baptized into his body and thus no longer need the custodian or tutor.
The Mosaic Law had been added because of the transgressions of the people, to make the people aware of them and of their inability to stop them on their own strength, until Christ came and we received the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit so that "the righteous requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (Rom. 8:4). It is thus by being baptized into Christ, not Moses (cf. 1 Cor. 10:2), that we are liberated from sin:
"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the Law but under grace. But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (Rom. 6:3-4, 6, 14, 17-18).
The time the Jews were under the Law of Moses was thus the time that sin had dominion over them, for the Law was powerless to give them the ability to fulfill its righteous requirements. It is thus Christ who is the basis of our relationship to God, not the Law. If a law had been given at Sinai which could make us alive to God, then righteousness before God would indeed have been by the Mosaic Law (Gal. 3:21b). But since the Mosaic Law did not make alive, sin had dominion over us until our baptism into Christ and our consequent liberation from sin so that we now might be slaves of righteousness instead (Rom. 6).
It is thus Christ who is the basis of our relationship with God, not the Torah or the Mosaic Law. This is why the preaching of circumcision is such a corruption of the gospel and why Paul so bluntly declares:
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-10).
The circumcizers were postulating that it was the Torah, not Christ, which is the basis of our relationship with God, and thus preaching a fundamentally different gospel. They were not simply making the mistake of adding circumcision to the message of Christ (though that would have been fatal enough); they were actually adding Christ to the message of circumcision, postulating the old, Mosaic covenant as the basis of union with God.
That is why Paul has to harp so hard, not just on circumcision, but on the Mosaic Law and why it was given, and even more importantly than that, why it was not given. He is thus postulating to radical alternatives--salvation through Christ against salvation through Torah, or salvation through the New Covenant against salvation through the Old Covenant. Even if you add Christ to the message of the Torah or the Old Covenant, it is not enough. Christ is not a mere add-on, even a necessary add-on (as the consequences of rejecting Messiah would be grave), he is the basis of our relationship with God.
The Torah is not now and never was the basis of our relationship with God. When the crowds at Sinai were sprinkled with "the blood of the covenant" by Moses (Ex. 24:8), it was not enough to purify the people from sin. Thus God promised the coming of a New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:
"Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of
The institution of this covenant came with Christ, when he sacramentally applied (either actually or symbolically) his "blood of the covenant" to the disciples (Mark 14:24), his covenant being, of course, the New Covenant, as the parallels in Luke and Paul make clear ("This cup . . . is the New Covenant in my blood," Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25).
Thus the apostles became "ministers of the New Covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6), contrasting the Law of Moses (cf. 2 Cor. 3:7) with the Spirit-filled New Covenant of Jeremiah (2 Cor. 3:8).
And the author of Hebrews informs us:
"Now the point in what we are saying is this: We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. . . . Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: 'The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a New Covenant . . . not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant . . . This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.' In speaking of a New Covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:1-13).
Hebrews thus makes the same point as Romans and Galatians. It is the New Covenant of Christ (as foretold in Jeremiah 31), not the old covenant of Moses, which is the basis for our relationship with God. In fact, the Mosaic covenant could never have been the basis for our relationship with God, for if it was sufficient to establish our union with God then the Lord would have never prophesied a New Covenant in the first place.
"[T]he blood of Christ . . . [shall] purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of the New Covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. . . . Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the Law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats . . . and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, 'This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.' . . . Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the pouring out of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these" (Heb. 9:14-15, 18-23).
The book of Hebrews thus integrates the key covenant-texts of Exodus 24:8, in which Moses sprinkled "the blood of the covenant" on the people, and Jeremiah 31:31-31, where God prophecies the coming of the New Covenant under Christ.
Therefore the author of Hebrews tells us that by becoming Christians we have come "to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel" (Heb. 12:24). And Peter tell us that we Christians are "sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood" (1 Peter 1:2).
The initiation of the individual into this New Covenant is, as with the Old Covenant, accomplished by the performance of a ritual of initiation. In the case of the Old Covenant, this was the rite of circumcision. As Genesis tells us of the significance of circumcision for union with the covenant:
"And God said to Abraham, 'As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant'" (Gen. 17:9-14).
This is why Paul campaigned so hard against circumcision as a requisite for salvation. Circumcision symbolized union with the Old Covenant because it brought about initiation into the Old Covenant. Thus Paul must campaign against circumcision as a requisite for salvation in order to combat the idea that the Old Covenant is the basis of salvation. It is this campaign which the prime force moving in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, with strong echoes in Ephesians and Colossians.
In order to conduct this campaign, Paul must face objections on two fronts. First, the must argue for the non-necessity of circumcision, and secondly, he must argue for the non-necessity of the Old Covenant, especially as it finds its expression in the Torah (or Law) of Moses.
He argues extensively for the non-necessity of circumcision in Romans and Galatians. In Romans 4 he uses the example of Abraham in Genesis 15 to show that a person could be righteous before God even without circumcision. He states:
"[B]lessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin. Is this blessing pronounced only upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised? We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised" (Rom. 4:8-10).
The reason Paul goes to the example of Abraham in Genesis 15 is thus that it enables him to point out Abraham's righteousness before God even without circumcision, meaning circumcision is not a condition of righteousness, which implies that the Law of Moses is not necessary for salvation.
But a Jew could say, "Come on, Paul. Be fair. Obviously Abraham did not need circumcision in Genesis 15, because the command to be circumcised only came in Genesis 17." But Paul is ready with an answer to explain why circumcision was given if it was not a condition of justification:
"He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the Torah but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the Torah who are to be the heirs, (Romans 4:11-14).
Circumcision was thus not to make Abraham righteous but to do two things: First, it represent the righteousness he already had by faith (for like all of the sacraments of the Old Covenant, it obviously could not confer grace as do the sacraments of the greater, grace-filled sacraments of the New Covenant). Second, the fact that Abraham was justified while he was uncircumcised shows ("makes") him to be the spiritual father of both Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles (the uncircumcised).
There is more to this last statement than a simple poeticism. Paul was not saying that Abraham was the spiritual father of Jews and Gentiles in a nebulous, poetic sense, but in a very real, concrete sense. The reason concerns why one of the reasons the promise would be null and void if it was the adherents of Torah. Paul hints at the reason when he states that the promise "did not come through the Torah but through the righteousness of faith"--which is obvious since Abraham's story occurs long before the books of Moses were written, meaning the promise was not part of the Mosaic revelation. However, while Paul intimates this in Romans 4, he explicitly states it in Galatians 3:
"And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. . . . [T]hat in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man's will, or adds to it, once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many; but, referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' which is Christ. This is what I mean: The Torah, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the Torah, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise" (Galatians 3:8-9, 14-18).
The sense in which Abraham is the spiritual father of both Jews and Gentiles is thus the fact that the promise was given that, in addition to his descendants, the Jews, "In [him] shall all the nations be blessed." Abraham is thus the father of both Jews and Gentiles (in fact, the word for "nations" is the word "gentiles" in Greek and Hebrew).
The reason that inheritance being based on Torah would make the "faith is null and the promise . . . void" is that "The Torah, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void." The promises to Abraham would be "null and . . . void" (Rom. 4:14) if the coming of the Torah had changed the conditions on the promise 430 years later and thus "annul[ed] a covenant previously ratified . . . so as to make the promise void" (Gal. 3:17). For as Paul. says, "no one annuls even a man's will, or adds to it, once it has been ratified" (Gal. 3:15).
Interestingly, in both Romans 4 and Galatians 3 after Paul has proven that the Torah is not necessary for salvation he then immediately offers an explanation of why the Torah was given. This is natural since it heads of the objection, "Then why did God even give the Torah if it doesn't save?" In both cases he also gives the same answer: That the Torah was given to make clear the sins of the people.
In Romans 4:15, he says: "For the Torah brings wrath, but where there is no Torah there is no transgression." Obviously Paul does not mean that there no sins are committed before the Torah. He explicitly says the exact opposite in Romans 5: "sin indeed was in the world before the Torah was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam " (Rom. 5:13-14a). Adam's transgression, like those after the time of Moses, were committed in defiance of a divinely revealed law ("Do not eat of the tree" in Adam's case). Yet death still reigned over the people between Adam and Moses because sin continued to exist -- and to be judged. When Paul says "sin is not counted" he means "sin is not recognized." And indeed people recognize sin much more clearly when there is a divine command because it is harder to rationalize (thus even though masturbation is as clearly and unambiguously against God's natural law, which the Bible appeals to in sexual matters [cf. Rom. 1:26-27], as homosexuality is against the natural law, people often rationalize the former in a way they don't the latter because masturbation is not explicitly condemned in the Bible). Thus the Torah was given as a moral code to reveal to the people of Israel their sins, but because of the effect giving a law-code has to unregenerate human nature (Rom. 7:7-13), it ends up causing additional sin and thus "the Torah brings wrath."
When Paul treats the same question in Galatians 3 he says the same thing: "Why then the Torah? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal. 3:19, 22-24) The Torah thus fulfilled a pedagogic function to reveal our sins to us and teach us the need for faith in Christ, but once Christ has come and we are empowered so that we are no longer slaves of sin we no longer need the Torah.
Today we no longer live under the Law of Moses, but as Paul says, under the Law of Christ. Thus in Galatians, he tells us: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and in discussing the fact he is not under the Torah he says: "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the Torah I became as one under the Torah -- though not being myself under the Torah -- that I might win those under the Torah. To those outside the Torah I became as one outside the Torah -- though not being without a law toward God but under the Law of Christ -- that I might win those outside the Torah" (1 Corinthians 9:20-21).
In any event, in both Romans and Galatians, when Paul shows the non-necessity of Torah for salvation, he follows the same chain of thought, moving from the fact that to Abraham salvation was promised to both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 4:11b-13, Gal. 3:7-8), so that when the Torah came it could not undo this promise (Rom. 4:14, Gal. 3:15-19) as would happen if the Gentiles were required to become Jews, to an alternative explanation of the Torah as a pedagogical device to reveal our sins to us (Rom. 4:15, Gal. 3:19a, 22-26). This, in essence, is Paul's central argument for why Torah, and thus the Old Covenant, is not necessary for salvation.
The salvific alternative that Paul presents to entering Torah through circumcision is entering Christ through baptism. Thus he writes: "So that the Torah was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:24-29).
The promise to Abraham that the Gentiles would be saved is thus fulfilled by baptism into Christ. As Martin Luther wrote, baptism "works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal life to all who believe" (Short Catechism), or as St. Peter declares: "God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:20b-21). Thus baptism saves us, not by the physical action of the water removing dirt, but by the spiritual action of God removing our sins. As Paul was told: "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name'" (Acts 22:16). Thus even though the saving action, in the ark and in baptism, is performed by God, it is salvation through water.
Thus as the Jews became children of the Old Covenant, which did not save (hence Paul's argument in Romans and Galatians), today we become children of the New Covenant through baptism, the "circumcision of Christ" or "Christian circumcision" -- "In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (Colossians 2:10-13). Thus we who were dead in our sins are made alive with Christ in baptism.
But while baptism corresponds to circumcision as the thing which makes one a member of the covenant (the unsaving Old Covenant in the case of circumcision and the saving New Covenant in the case of baptism), Paul is less concerned about the way one gets in as he is with what one is getting into for salvation. Thus circumcision is simply a means to an end to becoming a member of Torah to Paul, and baptism is simply a means to and end to becoming a member of Christ to Paul. The important things for him (at least in Romans and Galatians) are Torah and Christ, because one saves and the other doesn't.
Thus Paul declares that we "know that a man is not justified by observing the Torah, but by faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16), because "if righteousness could be gained through the Torah, Christ died for nothing!" (Gal. 2:21), and so those "who are trying to be justified by Torah have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4), and so Paul makes it his own goal to "be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Torah, but that which is through faith in Christ" (Phil. 3:9).
So contrary to the circumcizers who thought Torah was the basis of salvation, with the requirement of aligning with the Christ merely an addition requirement, Paul declares that this is a damnable heresy (Gal. 1:8-9, 5:4), that Christ is the basis of salvation, not Christ plus Torah, and thus that salvation is by Christ alone.