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Last Days Justification
Galatians 2.16 in biblical and occasional context

by Tim Gallant

When Paul writes that even Jews - who are "not sinners of the Gentiles" - know that justification is not through the works of the law, but through faith in - or, the faithfulness of - Jesus Christ (Gal 2.15-16), what does he mean by justification?

There can be no doubt that justification is used in Scripture over against the idea of condemnation. This is one reason why justification is - rightly - tied in our minds to the forgiveness of sins; in discussing justification in Romans 4, Paul brings up the case of David, citing forgiveness texts from the Psalms (Rom 4.7-8).

Are we to gather from this, however, that "justification" is simply a general term, and that when we speak of Abraham's justification, David's justification, and those of the Christian believer, we are simply speaking univocally? While that is a frequent (if unstated) assumption, there is reason to think that the biblical writers (not least Paul) see things otherwise.

Isaianic anticipation of justification

Paul frequently shows heavy debt to the book of Isaiah, particularly in Romans, which contains his chief exposition of justification. Although explicit justification language is not strewn all over the landscape in Isaiah, judgment terms are, and the concept of justification lingers close to the surface throughout much of the latter part of the book. The exile to Babylon is envisioned legally, as a judgment; restoration is considered as the removal of inquity (Is 40.2; cf Jer 31.34). Israel collectively is identified as Yahweh's servant-witness - albeit, as a blind one (43.8-12; cf 42.18ff). The Servant is the one who will bring forth justice, both for Israel and the nations (e.g. Is 42.1-4).

Beyond that general conceptual background, however, the term justification itself appears in several key places.

First, in Isaiah 45.25, God says that Israel will be justified in Him. "In the LORD all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory." That tells us where justification will be found, and also hints at when, since it comes in the immediate context of God saying that all men shall come to Him, that every knee shall bow to Him and every tongue take an oath (45.22-23). In brief, there is eschatological - "last days" - expectation here.

Second, in the middle of a passage where the Servant speaks of giving His back to those who struck Him and His cheeks to those who plucked His beard, of being put to shame and being spit upon - the Servant says in Isaiah 50.8, "He is near who justifies Me; who will contend with Me?" This indicates that the Servant - whether envisioned corporately (e.g. as Israel) or individually (the coming Servant, whom the New Testament writers take to be Christ) - requires and anticipates justification at Yahweh's judgment seat. (Cf also 49.4.)

Third, in Isaiah 53.11, we are told that the righteous Servant, for all His suffering, will justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.

What can we learn about justification from these Isaianic passages? First, justification is the Lord's work; and further, justification is in Him. Second, justification is something that had to happen to the Servant Himself, whether we are speaking of Israel collectively, or Israel's singular representative. And third, even as the Servant was justified, He in turn would justify many, and He would do that by bearing their sins. From Isaiah, we see that there is a last-days-justification, and that this involves the Servant. The coming justification for the people will be granted via the representative. In the later language of Paul, justification is in Christ.

Justification and covenant

N. T. Wright has correctly identified Romans 4.11 as a gloss on Genesis 17.11. Whereas Genesis says that circumcision is a sign of the covenant, Paul says that God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision, epexegetically articulated as "a seal of the righteousness of the faith" Abraham had while still uncircumcised. Which all indicates that the justification-righteousness word complex - despite their disparity in English, these words are cognate in both Hebrew and Greek - is essentially covenantal in nature. To be "righteous" is to enjoy good covenantal standing; to be "unrighteous" is to be judged and found wanting in terms of covenantal norms. To justify someone, then, means to declare him to be in good covenantal standing, and (in terms of how this functions in the Old Testament context) to carry out judgment in his favour, as necessary. (Note that when God first makes covenant with Abraham, it involves blessing those who bless Abraham, and cursing those who curse him, Gen 12.3. The judgments God carries out are thus enacted in terms he has set with His covenant partner.)

This focus upon covenant, of course, is not to deny in any sense that justification is a forensic (legal, courtroom) term; that legal character was established very clearly above. Our concern here is to clarify that this legal cast derives from the covenant. Hence the frequent observation by the commentators that the prophetic writings largely consist of "covenant lawsuits" by Yahweh over against His people, with the prophets acting in His stead somewhat along the lines of prosecuting attorneys.

Isaiah reinforces that connection between covenant and judgment (including justification), as well. The Servant is appointed to be judge of the nations (42.1-4); hard on the heels of that, He is said to be a covenant to the people and a light to the Gentiles (42.6; cf 49.8). (Further ties between justice and covenant are elaborated in 61.8.)

Last days justification in Galatians 2

Now, the point with regard to the eschatological nature of justification is quite simple, and it assists us in seeing how it can be that there was both justification under the old covenant ; and yet, that the old covenant does not provide the justification which interests Paul. That Pauline justification draws upon the eschatology anticipated by the prophets, an eschatology which was inescapably concerned with the matter of justification.

On the one hand, the Servant in His individual manifestation (I qualify thus, because Isaiah shifts back and forth between individual and corporate senses) is only anticipated under the old covenant; thus the justification involving Him does not arrive until He arrives.

But then, also, the prophets identify the anticipated day as a new covenant (Jer 31.31-34). And if, as is suggested above, justification is covenantal, that would imply, quite by the nature of the case, that a new covenant would entail a new justification. (Indeed, Jer 31.34 itself speaks of a future forgiveness of sins in connection with the new covenant, even though there was clearly an individual forgiveness of sins already available at the time.)

When Paul says, therefore, that justification does not come through works of Torah (Gal 2.16), he is not merely saying that one cannot earn one's own salvation by good works. That's true enough; but it simply wasn't an issue in context. Peter was neither thinking such nor implying such by his actions when he withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles, which is the issue in context (Gal 2.12).

Withdrawing from table fellowship is not a matter of merit legalism; it is a covenantal matter. Otherwise, Paul himself would be a merit legalist when he tells the Corinthians not to have table fellowship with those who are called brothers but are impenitent fornicators, covetous, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or extortioners (1 Cor 5.11). The clear implication of that instruction is that those who practice such things are not covenantally faithful: they are unrighteous.

Thus, Peter's fault is in no way oriented toward merit legalism; nor is it that he withdraws from table fellowship generally. Such withdrawal was mandated by Paul himself. The issue here is the covenantal basis of the withdrawal.

When Peter withdraws from table fellowship with believing Gentiles, he is identifying them as covenantally unrighteous. But of course, that judgment is not a valid judgment in terms of the new covenant, which has brought about a new justification apart from Torah; and in fact, Peter's action places him - rather than the Gentiles whom he implicitly, even if unintentionally, judges - as condemned (Gal 2.11; the versions that render this "he was to be blamed" or "he was self-condemned" weaken the force of the original, which simply says that he was condemned). Christ has vindicated a community of Jew and Gentile, and by cutting himself off from that vindicated community, Peter was, in effect, cutting himself off from new covenant vindication itself. (My observation here is not intended to speak to Peter's eternal standing - "If he died that day, he would have gone to hell!" I am simply pointing out the text's own connections between condemnation in 2.12 and justification in 2.16, in terms of the argumentative context and biblical background.)

In sum, the expectation of what would happen to the Isaianic Servant (justification, which He in turn would share with others), as well as the expectation of a new covenant (and thus, a new justification), help us find our way in understanding the Pauline doctrine of justification. This doctrine does not countenance merit legalism, but neither is it raised within the context of that particular discussion. Rather, Paul is concerned to defend the definitive act which God has accomplished in vindicating His Servant, Jesus Christ, the Just One, and thus effecting an eschatological vindication for those in Him - a vindication of Jew and Gentile, and thus a vindication apart from Torah, which separated the two as a dividing wall.

tim gallant creative © 2006