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The Reformed tradition has generally interpreted the Pharisees and Judaizers of the first century as advocating for works-righteousness: for wanting to earn right standing before God by keeping the law. This reading was a natural one for theologians who were reacting to the genuinely works-based system of Roman Catholicism; the sacramentalism of Rome, built on human tradition, with its ardent insistence that works of the (new) law are required for salvation, invites obvious comparisons to the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day—and the New Testament’s reaction to it (cf. Matthew 15:3–9; 23:1–36; Galatians 2:11–16 etc). [See The Council of Trent, Session VII, Canons On The Sacraments In General, Canon 4.]
The pertinent question when interpreting Scripture, however, is not how are we inclined to read this in light of our situation? but rather, how would the original audience have understood this in light of their situation? Clearly there were errors in classical Judaism to which the New Testament responds—that was the situation of the original audience. But assuming that those errors were the same as Rome’s on the basis of a prima facie similarity is not good hermeneutics.
Indeed, although the notion of Jewish works-righteousness is held essentially as an article of faith by many Reformed Christians, I’d like to submit that it is strikingly awkward to harmonize with the Jewish thought-world itself, and even with the passages in which it is supposedly on display. It seems to me that the standard Reformed readings assume the very thing they interpret the New Testament as proving—and they assume it without regard for how antithetical works-righteousness was to the Jewish mindset.
To understand this, we’re going to have to do a bit of thinking about legalism, and then about covenant.
For the record, I do not identify as holding to the New Perspective on Paul. For one thing, NPP is an umbrella term for a range of broadly similar views, so it’s not that helpful for specifying what I actually think. For another, I have not read closely or widely enough among NPP scholars to be confident I can accurately represent their views. For a third, from what I have read, much of the NPP is openly liberal or heretical—so it’s an umbrella I’d avoid standing under. All that said, however, the customary Reformed kneejerk of labeling any New Perspective scholarship as automatic heresy is just as execrable as the same tendency with regard to the Federal Vision. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Is final justification unchristian? (February 2018).]
Legalism v. works-righteousness
Many theologians would say that legalism just is works-righteousness; I want to resist that definition because it makes thinking clearly about the use of the law extremely difficult. I believe the collapsing of the one into the other by Reformed theologians is precisely what has started us up the garden path. I’ll therefore be taking the following definition, in line with common usage:
Legalism: the judging of conduct in terms of strict adherence to precise laws.
I think this definition makes much better sense of that common Christian adjective, legalistic. When we say that someone is legalistic, we don’t necessarily mean that they believe they can earn God’s favor. Rather, we mean that they are placing great emphasis on the law. Usually this is negative; they are turning otherwise neutral regulations into requirements that bind the consciences of others, contrary to the freedom we have in Jesus.
But notice that the requirement of careful law-following is not inherently negative; Torah itself is legalistic, in the sense of judging conduct in terms of strict adherence to precise laws. Legalism is only generally negative in our modern context, because under the new covenant we are free from Torah—so legal requirements tend to be man-made inventions.
Pharisaical Judaism certainly suffered from similar man-made inventions. Even though Torah was characterized by positive legalism—requiring strict adherence to God’s good laws—the Pharisees turned this into a negative by inventing new laws that obviated Torah itself (e.g., Matthew 15:3). But notice: this has nothing inherently to do with teaching people to earn their right standing before God. There is simply no logical connection between requiring people to follow laws (whether God’s or man’s), and requiring people to earn God’s favor.
Legalism and works-righteousness are logically separate issues, and the one does not automatically entail the other. We cannot assume from the mere fact that the Pharisees rigidly demanded adherence to their own traditions, that their motivation for that adherence was earning God’s favor.
To give a modern example, I have met legalistic Christians who are convinced that we should all be teetotalers; yet they don’t think for a moment that what they drink earns them right standing before God. Their concern stems from their desire to be faithful to God’s commands—not from a desire to earn God’s favor. Similarly, why think that a Jew was trying to earn God’s favor by not eating pork? Any of God’s people is convinced they must be faithful to those of God’s commands which apply to them. In the modern day, we all know not to murder, not to steal, not to commit adultery—yet none of us think that obeying these laws earns us anything. When Christians are accused of legalism, it is usually because they think that more commands apply than actually do; being wrong about which commands we must obey does not, in itself, mean that they are trying to earn God’s favor—nor that we must not obey any laws at all!
Legalism can certainly lead into works-righteousness. Precisely because the emphasis is on adherence to the law, it can easily swing into performance-based merit. But it is not identical with performance-based merit. If it were, at some point we would all be labeled heretics.
This preamble is important because Torah is all of a piece. Although the Reformed tradition is in the habit of distinguishing between moral, civil and ceremonial laws, the Mosaic covenant itself does not draw these distinctions internally; Torah is a single unit—every regulation is part of the same covenant. [For a fuller explanation of what I mean here, see D. Bnonn Tennant, Is the Sabbath still required for Christians? (April 2016).] Since adultery is still adulterous, and murder is still murderous, and thievery is still…thieverous…(Romans 13:4), it is hardly surprising that Jewish converts might therefore infer that Torah as a unit was still in effect, so that obedience to it was still a requirement of being faithful to the Anointed in whom they had put their trust. Moreover, since it was Jews who were the sons of God through Abraham—and to be a Jew entailed doing Torah—it is hardly surprising that Jewish converts might think doing Torah was necessary for a gentile to become a son of God.
There’s no point getting all hoity-toity, as if we are too discerning to see even the veneer of plausibility in this kind of reasoning. The disciples took it seriously enough to devote an entire council its consideration (Acts 15). In hindsight, with the theological working done for us, we can all agree that it’s mistaken. But is it mistaken because it presupposes earning God’s favor; in adding to the finished work of Jesus? If so, why does Paul not simply remind the Galatians straight up: tetelestai?
No, to assume that first century Judaism had this unerring impulse to earn God’s favor by keeping the law of Moses seems no more charitable than to assume modern Christians are trying to earn God’s favor by keeping the law of love.
I say all this not to prove that first century Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness. I have not proved that. I say it only to establish that the mere concern for legal adherence is not identical with the belief that right standing before God is on the basis of legal performance. We need to have this clearly in mind to see how the standard Reformed view fumbles classical Jewish thinking. My contention is that Reformed theologians actually project their own error—a performative view of covenant—onto Judaism. To understand this, we now need to turn to consider the distinction between contracts and covenants.
Contracts v. covenants
The very idea of earning right standing before God is actually—I believe—an awkward, modern imposition on the Jewish thought-world. Not being a historical theologian, I can only venture to speculate as to its origins; but aside from the obvious reaction by the Reformers against Roman Catholicism, my hypothesis is this:
Reformed theology has tended to view covenants as judicial contracts rather than as familial commitments.
This is a surprisingly important distinction, because it snowballs into all kinds of theological skewage.
As today, contracts in ancient times were thing-oriented; they were legal agreements assuring some benefit. And, as today, they specified terms and conditions which could be objectively checked—such that if a party failed to perform them, they were in breach of the agreement.
But this is not how covenants worked; they were, by contrast, person-oriented—and so breaches were not primarily performative but relational. Whereas contracts required performance, covenants required loyalty. I’ll put this in a succinct callout box, because it’s so important you’ll want to refer back to it:
A contract established a legal bond of obligation to certain performances in pursuit of particular benefits. A covenant, by contrast, established a kinship bond of obligation to a person—from which any benefits would then flow.
As Elmer Martens puts it,
Both covenant and contract have obligations, but with this difference. The conditions set out in a contract require fulfillment of terms; the obligation of a covenant is one of loyalty … A ticking off of terms in check-list fashion can reveal a broken contract, and the point of brokenness can be clearly identified. A covenant, too, can be broken, but the point at which this transpires is less clear, because here the focus is not on stipulations, one, two, three, but on a quality of intimacy. Of all the differences between covenant and contract, the place in covenant of personal loyalty is the most striking. [ Elmer A. Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (Baker, 1981), 73. Cited in Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2015), loc. 897 (emphasis mine).]
But now consider how Reformed theology tends to treat both the covenant of grace and of works, as seen in its gospel preaching; two contracts are described: first, the contract of works which we have breached by failing to perform the T&C, and second the contract of grace, based on Jesus’ performance of the T&C—i.e., his active obedience—which we can assent to make ours by signing our faith on the dotted line. Even the covenant between Father and Son is treated as a contract, in which the Father assures to the Son the benefit of a people with right standing before him, upon his performance of Torah.
This treatment of covenants as performative contracts has a follow-on effect. Because the entire Reformed mechanism of salvation is based on performance—on the idea of Jesus earning our salvation—it treats any suggestion of restoring personal fidelity to the covenantal center as an attack on the gospel itself. [For a fuller discussion, see D. Bnonn Tennant, Is final justification unchristian? (February 2018).] The theological over-emphasis on legal performance results in a view of the gospel as a message of personal moral restoration, of deliverance from the inability to personally satisfy God’s legal requirements, rather than what the New Testament presents it as: good news about a kingdom. The Reformed picture is like that of servants who have incurred various penalties for failing to meet the requirements of a contract with their master. These penalties are paid by another—Jesus, whose contractual performance was without blemish.
The problem is that it is not the picture primarily painted by the New Testament—and it is not that picture because it puts Jesus on the level of a slave. The Reformed view here loses a foundational biblical theme which both the Jews and the New Testament authors kept clearly in view: sonship.
Slavery v. sonship
Reformation theology has no clear concept of the gospel as being about God’s dynasty; his family-kingdom.
The Jews, by contrast, understood Israel to be Yahweh’s adoptive son (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1), and the New Testament authors understood Jesus to be the embodiment of Israel (Matthew 2:15–16). As sons, neither Israel nor Jesus had to earn their inheritance—because that just isn’t how inheritance works. A son doesn’t earn his father’s assets, nor his father’s favor: he has right standing before his father simply by virtue of being his son; he receives his inheritance simply because his father loves him, and not because he engaged in the requisite legal performance to merit it. The natural state of a son is to have favor in his father’s eyes, and to receive his inheritance—to lose these, he must be disowned. [See the section on the disinheritance of mankind at Babel in D. Bnonn Tennant, What is the kingdom of God? Part 4: a tale of two seeds (February 2017).]
Both Israel and Jesus were, by default, entitled to Yahweh’s inheritance—a literal kingdom on earth—because they were his sons.
In this respect, the Reformed tradition gets things precisely backwards: whereas it sees God’s favor as something the Jews thought they had to actively earn through legal-religious performance, the Jews themselves surely saw God’s favor as something they had to actively lose. Being a son of Abraham was sufficient to include you in God’s people and make you one of his own children; all you had to do to inherit the kingdom was remain faithful to God, as any son must remain faithful to his father. This logic is implicit in the Baptist’s warnings to the Pharisees (Matthew 3:7–9; Luke 3:7–9), and especially clear in John 8:31–42. Here, the Jews argue that they are sons of God because they are sons of Abraham, and are thus not enslaved to anyone—presumably meaning the powers that rule the gentile nations (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8–9 ESV; Psalm 82). Jesus, of course, corrects them: he explains that they are indeed slaves, not to other gods, but to sin, and that they must be set free by the Son.
This is exactly the same argument Paul uses in Galatians 4:1–7, speaking to both Jews and gentiles. He describes them all being previously slaves to stoicheia—which to Jews could refer to the elementary principles of Torah, and to gentiles the elemental spirits ruling the cosmos (cf. v. 8). [ Clinton E. Arnold, “Returning to the Domain of the Powers: ‘Stoicheia’ as Evil Spirits in Galatians 4:3,9”, Novum Testamentum (January 1996), vol. 38, fasc. 1, 55–76.] But now their freedom has been purchased by the Son of God; they are no longer under spirits of slavery, but a Spirit of adoption.
The point is not that God didn’t require the Jews to keep his law. Rather, it is that the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees presupposes that the Jews didn’t think their standing with God was on account of their law-keeping, but rather their sonship (cf. Matthew 3:7–10). By the same token, the reason Jesus gives that they don’t have standing with God isn’t because they have failed to keep Torah, but because they have the wrong father (John 8:42, 44). They therefore could not please God through even the most perfect and meticulous performance of the law (cf. Romans 14:23; Proverbs 15:8; 21:3 etc).
The same principles are in play with Jesus himself: as God’s son, he did not have to earn anything, and was not judged on strict performative grounds any more than human fathers judge their sons in such a way. His standing before God was not on account of Torah, but on account of sonship. It was Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father that mattered, of which his faithfulness to Torah was merely secondary evidence. He was not a slave being judged on contractual performance, but a royal son being judged on covenantally representing his Father’s interest into the world.
This is what makes Jesus the second Adam, and why the New Testament is at pains to emphasize Jesus as the image of God. Adam, the first son of God (Luke 3:38), was tasked with imaging God’s kingship into the world. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, What is the kingdom of God? Part 1: representation and rulership (January 2017).] He failed. This vocation then later fell to God’s new kingdom, Israel; they also failed. Last comes Jesus, who because he is the exact imprint of God upon man (Hebrews 1:3), cannot fail to image him perfectly, and thus qualifies to be an eternal king over Adam’s kingdom, inheriting the life intended for Adam and promised to David’s descendant—also described explicitly as a son of God (2 Samuel 7:12–17; Psalm 89:19–37).
Once again, this could not be more obvious than in John’s gospel. Chapter 5 in particular stands out: when Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, he does not deny it—
But he answered them, “My Father is working until now, and so I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:17–18
Notice: Jesus explicitly agrees that he is working on the Sabbath. John glosses this without apology: “he was breaking the Sabbath.” Performatively speaking, Jesus was in breach of Torah (cf. Luke 6:1–5). Yet he is vindicated rather than condemned. Why? Because he breached Torah as a faithful representation of his Father. As he goes on to explain at length, he is without sin because he is such a perfect proxy of his Father’s will that he does nothing of his own accord, but only what the Father gives him to do (John 8:19–24). It is precisely because Torah is a covenant and not a contract that he can please God by violating the very sign of that covenant (cf. Exodus 31:13)!
The myth of performative righteousness
This is the basic paradigm of ancient covenants. And it is plainly the paradigm of first century Jews with regard to God’s covenant with them. Their thinking is basically this:
- God has graciously adopted us as royal sons through his covenant;
- We therefore have favor in his sight and entitlement to his inheritance—despite our failings;
- We must hold fast to him as faithful sons, imaging his rule as revealed in his laws, lest he disown us.
Now this is not to say works-righteousness wasn’t a problem under this paradigm; it was a continual danger. The Pharisees certainly screwed up item 3 by taking observance of the law as issuing in faithfulness, rather than faithfulness as issuing in observance of the law. Their hearts were for their system, rather than for God and neighbor. Precisely because they thought they automatically had God’s favor, they were tempted to resort to mere outward observance rather than actual faithfulness. Hosea 6:6 is a good example—notice, these wicked Israelites don’t think offering sacrifices earns them something before God, but rather that their outward observances are sufficient for maintaining the favor they had by default as his sons (cf. Malachi 1:6ff). But God demands by comparison steadfast love from them: חסד, chesed—loyal goodwill, personal faithfulness.
Since the conditions of justification have not changed across time, we can safely assume that this demand corresponds to the same one articulated by the gospel itself: πίστις, pistis, typically translated “faith.” Given the equivalence of these demands, it is obvious that faith is no mere assent, nor even just trust, but rather what is meant by the phrase “in good faith.” Neither chesed nor pistis have unambiguous English equivalents, but they both refer to faithfulness and allegiance, loyalty and obligation—especially in action. [For a convincing grammatical-historical study of how pistis was used in the classical world to refer especially to covenantal loyalty between subjects and their kings, see Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, March 2017).] Indeed, James appears to be dealing with the very same mindset as Hosea, only under the new covenant his readers are presuming to offer not empty sacrifices, but empty lives (James 2:24).
So the basic paradigm was that the Jews had God’s favor by default, by merit of their covenantal adoption. But how, then, could they have possibly seen the law as a means to earn that favor? The idea is incoherent given the basic presuppositions in play.
Indeed, to dispute the basic covenantal paradigm here is functionally equivalent to disputing that the Jews even understood the difference between contracts and covenants. This would be rather like a historian 2,000 years from now supposing that people today routinely confused marriages and business partnerships. Given the kind of basic, socially ubiquitous distinctions these are, this is really a supposition of breathtaking incompetence—one that carries a heavy burden of proof. Now imagine, further, that these future historians never themselves commented on the distinction between business partnerships and marriages, and routinely talked about the share of stocks held by husbands and wives compared to their children.
At what point would we want to acknowledge that the confusion is not with the people getting married?