The Letter Killeth

 “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal.2:16).

Trying to make sense of the Bible on its on terms may be challenging but it is a worthy pursuit. This often means that our long-held presuppositions and formulations must be adapted, if not altogether abandoned. Being faithful to Scripture means being formed by Scripture. Such formation only occurs when we don’t attempt to “shout down” the voice of Holy Writ whenever it attempts to assert itself. Heeding God’s voice in the sacred text requires a posture of humble submission that first hears that voice speaking on its own terms.

When I approached the book of Galatians a decade ago, I came with a lot of openness. Unfortunately, my mouth was open more often than my mind. I did not let the fact that the pieces of the biblical puzzle were square dissuade me from pressing them firmly into my tight, round grid. In the end I made them all fit. But this is more of a testament to the strength of my arm than the strength of my argument.

As I have been slowly making my way back through the letter I have been trying to square my circles to little avail. The texts have edges that I simply cannot smooth away. I think it best to use the inspired blocks to build upon rather than try to use them to shoot marbles. These days I am much more interested in allowing the text to tell me what it means, rather than the other way around.

With that I turn to one of Paul’s foundational building blocks: “του έργου νομου.”

Paul famously declares, “by the works of the law no flesh is justified”(Gal. 2:16).  This seems to be an allusion to Psalm 143, “for no one living is righteous before you.” This Psalm has often been used as a defense for the doctrine of total depravity: No one living can be justified by the law because no one can actually keep the law. God requires perfect obedience; perfect obedience cannot be rendered; therefore no one stands righteous in the sight of God. I agree with those conclusions but I have my doubts as to whether that is what the text really implies.

In an attempt to approach a viable interpretation, we need to ask three questions: What does “justify” mean to Paul here? What exactly are the “works of the law”? How does Psalm 143 inform (and form) Paul’s argument?

We begin with the Psalm. Like several other Psalms, David is under attack by his adversaries, and he cries out to the Lord to rescue and deliver him (1, 3, 7-9, 11). He asks God to destroy those who are oppressing and afflicting him (12). His confidence is grounded in the fact that he is the servant of the Lord (12b), and has the benefit of past mercies to which he can point (5-6). If Should God grant his request, it would be a manifestation of his faithfulness and righteousness (1). The Lord would thus prove himself righteous and just by delivering his servant.

According to David, the Lord also proves his faithfulness by refusing to enter into judgment with his servant: “In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness, enter not into judgment with your servant” (1b-2a). So it is righteous for God to overthrow David’s enemies and it is equally righteous for him to deliver David.

David’s plea to not be judged is supported by the phrase that Paul echoes in Galatians 2: “for no one living is righteous before you” (2b). This seems to be the logic: David is the servant of the Lord; the Lord has some obligation to deliver his servant, and through deliverance he demonstrates his covenant faithfulness. However, if God were to enter into judgment with him, David would surely be destroyed since no one is righteous before God. So in order to prove that he is righteous, the Lord has to refrain from judging David. Forgiving David’s sin would not be an act of mercy that somehow cancels God’s righteous justice, rather it would be an expression of his justice.

This should help us to begin answering one of the questions from arising from Galatians 2: What does Paul intend by his use of the term “justify”? If he means anything approximate to what David meant in Psalm 143, then “justify” must mean something like the following: To deliver from his enemies by destroying those enemies and forgiving the sins of the supplicant. While the forgiveness of sins is embedded in the righteous judgement of God, the whole of that judgement doesn’t consist of forgiveness alone. God’s justice must be a judgment that delivers, or else it really fails to answer David’s prayer.

Psalm 143 also gives a bit of help in understanding what is meant by “the works of the law.” If we keep in mind the context of the Psalm, the statement cannot merely be referring to  “boundary markers” or symbols of national identity as some advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul suggest. Actually, the Psalm doesn’t mention the law explicitly, but there are moral overtones present in David’s fear that God might enter into judgment of him. In truth, David prays that the Lord will refrain from judgment because David is a sinner, and as such, has sinned.

Paul’s introduction of the term “flesh” into his paraphrase of the Psalm is deliberate and important. This term describes the state of fallen man in Adam. It is “flesh” that cannot be justified by the works of the law. This seems to be an accurate summary of what Paul says more definitively in Romans 7: When the law comes to a “fleshly” man it kills him. Deliverance, in the way that David hoped for in the Psalm, requires something other than the law.

It seems that there is warrant to take the phrase ἔργων νόμου (the works of the law) as a subjective genitive rather than as an objective genitive. In his book, Paul and the Torah, Lloyd Gaston also argues that “the works of the law” is a subjective genitive. What kind of practical implications does this carry for the interpreter? This means that the “works of the law” are the works which the law works, specifically the works which the Torah works. It might be rendered as, “what the law does,” or “what the law accomplishes.” Interpreted as such, it does not refer to the obedience which one may or may not render to the prescriptions or prohibitions of the law. Instead, the “works of the law,” are the works worked by the law.

This reading would be in keeping with other parallel Pauline phrases such as δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, πίστεως Ἰησοῦ, and ργα τῆς σαρκός (*though this one may function more properly as a genitive of production). On this scheme, the “righteousness of God” refers to the righteousness that is or is done by God, the “faith of Christ” refers to the faithfulness of Jesus in his sinless life and sacrificial death, and the “works of the flesh” are the deeds which are caused by the “flesh”.

Why can no one be justified by the work worked by the law? Because the law “works wrath” (Rom. 4:15). The law condemns and it kills all those who are “in the flesh”; this is the working of the law. The works of the law are precisely what the readers need to be delivered from, since what the law works is curse. It seems fairly obvious that a law that imposes a curse cannot deliver from that curse and then, in turn, give new life.

In Galatians, the Law and the Flesh unite to form an unholy alliance. Their end is death and destruction.  Torah becomes a sword wielded by Sin and the Flesh in order to rule in unrighteousness. The Law can never save as long as it is under the reign of Flesh. The faithfulness of Jesus, a man who has crucified the flesh in every possible way, becomes the only hope of righteous deliverance.  Resting in his faithfulness brings freedom from both the condemnation of the law (the works worked by the law) and the domination of the flesh (the works worked by the flesh).

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

There is still much more to be said but this should be enough to get the cogs turning.


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