Covenant and Justification

The New Perspective on Paul has become a topic of much concern, debate, and intrigue as of late, and as a recent new comer to the NPP (at least I agree with some of it) I would simply like to comment on the realtionship between covenant and justification in Paul’s writings.

I would simply like to comment on a few passages in Romans to show that Paul’s usage of the word “justify” or “justification” or the like, are meant to primarily teach about covenant status/membership. What I will say will not negate the judicial/forensic aspect of justification, since to be in covenant is to have your sins forgiven, and justification is also all aobut God punishing sin as the righteous judge. But again, I believe that Paul’s Primary usage of “justify” and “justified” and “justification” are meant to be understood covenantally.

In Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul is speaking about how both Jews and Gentiles are justly under the condemnation of God. The reason Paul is doing this is so that he can affirm with the Jews that the Gentiles are both sinners and both are justly under God’s wrath; and yet, he wants to humble the Jews pride in their covenant status by making sure that his fellow Jews know that it is not just Gentiles who are sinners and deserving of God’s just wrath, but also the Jews. The reason Rom. 3:10-18 was written, “None are righteous, not even one…”, was to let the Jews know that their own Scriptures declare this truth, and since the Scriptures have universal authority over the whole world, when the Scriptures make a claim that “all are under sin“, it serves to leave the whole world accountable to God, so that every mouth is silenced, especially the Jews.

Now I believe that the key to understanding this letter is to keep in mind the question, “Who are the Covenant People of God?” or “How can we tell who are the Covenant People of God?” Now let us go back to chapter 2 and see where the first usage of “justification” comes up, keeping in mind our question about the covenant people of God.

12For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. Romans 2:12-14 ESV

In v. 12 Paul is speaking of Gentiles, as ones who have sinned without the law. The law meaning, that which the covenant people of God possess. How do we know who were the Covenant people of God in the OT? Simple, they were the ones who had the law.

In v. 13 is contrasting the Gentiles who did not have the law with those who had the law, i.e. Jews. But, what Paul is arguing for here in v. 13 is that, just because you Jews had the law, which proved your covenantal identity, doesn’t mean squat if you are not actually obeying it.

Now when Paul uses the word “righteous” in v. 13, I believe it best to be PRIMARILY understood as “covenant status“, and secondarily meaning a person’s moral character. Moral character is involved since the whole conversation is about “doing” vs. “hearing” the law. But remember, Paul is arguing about how we know who is actually in covenant with God. Suffice it to say then, that a person who is “righteous” (v. 13) is a person who is in covenant with God, and they are proved to be so, not because they simply have the law and listened to it being expounded upon in their synagogues, as the Jews did; but they prove to be in covenant because they actually obey it. And the way Paul describes a person who is in covenant with God is to use the word “Justified.”

Paul continues on in the rest of chapter 2 explaining to the Jews that just because they have the law doesn’t mean squat unless they actually obey it. In v. 25 Paul begins talking about circumcision. Circumcision was the external sign of being a covenant member. So when Paul says “Circumcision indeed is of value, if you obey the law, but if you break the law your circumcision becomes un-circumcision“, he is telling them their covenant status becomes null and void. They become non-covenant members. Thus, when Paul says at the end of chapter 2 that “a Jew is one inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter “, he is saying that true covenant membership is a spiritual reality, one of the Spirit and the heart, and not by external means such as circumcision and being hearers of the law.

Paul begins chapter 3 saying,

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Rom. 3:1-2 ESV

If covenant membership is really all about the heart, then what advantage does the Jew have? Simple, they were the ones entrusted with oracles of God, so they had the greatest advantage over everybody in knowing what the truth of God was. Paul then asks rhetorically, “What if some were unfaithful (i.e. to the covenant)? Does their (covenant) unfaithfullness nullify the (covenant) faithfulness of God? ” Then, in order to show God’s covenantal faithfulness he quotes Psalm 51:4 which says,

“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.”

Psalm 51 is the Psalm David wrote after the Bathsheba incident. David called out to God and asked Him for mercy according to His steadfast love, or His Hesed, His covenantal love. David is admitting that He has been covenantally unfaithful, but he also knows that God is faithful to His covenant and He will prove to be faithful to His covenant (and His Own Righteous character and nature). God will prove Himself to be righteous (covenantally and morally) and Paul and David describe God’s covenantal faithfulness with these words:

“That you may be justified in your words and prevail when you are judged.”

My point being that the word “Justified” is used to describe God’s covenantal faithfulness.

And then Paul goes into the covenantal guilt and unfaithfulness of the Jews, as well as the guilt of the Gentiles in Rom. 3:10-20. Now here is where the fun begins. Paul says in v.21, that the righteousness of God (i.e. God’s covenantal faithfulness and moral righteous character) has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. Meaning the Law and the Prophets bear witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness that has been manifested apart from the law, i.e., it is not found in Israel among God’s covenantal people, and not found in that which is their badge of covenantal identity, e.g. the law.

V.22 now explains then how it is that God has remained covenantally faithful, and morally “righteous” in His nature and character, apart from the law, which is the very means of identifying the covenant and its people.

22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This passage we can see very clearly that God’s righteousness is not just covenantal faithfulness, but is very much His moral “righteous” character and nature revealed in Punishing sin, which has been done in Christ Jesus. Now in verse 26, we can understand that to mean that God is just (in punishing sin, i.e. He is morally “righteous”) and He is the justifier (the one who declares a person to be in covenant with God, with their sins forgiven) of the person who has faith in Christ, of either Jew or Gentile.

V. 27ff, Paul addresses what then becomes of the Jews boasting as the covenant people of God. He says their boasting is excluded, not by works of the law, i.e. covenantal badges of identity such as circumcision and Sabbath keeping, and dietary laws, but is excluded by a law of faith. “For we hold that a person is justified apart from the works of the law.” Now here we can see how easy it is to see that Paul uses the word “justified” to mean covenantal identity. We can further demonstrate with the following verse when Paul says, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Hence, “justification” is something that is intrinsically “Jewish”, and it now belongs to the Gentiles. We know this to be true, because “He will justify the circumcised (Jew) by faith and the uncircumcised (Gentile) through faith.”

When we understand this covenantal aspect of justification, we can see here that Paul was not battling with Proto-Pelagians, though I am sure some existed, but Paul was dealing with those Jews who believed that they were in Covenant with God simply because they were the ethnic descendants of the people who received the law, and they were marked out as the people of God by circumcision. They believed themselves to be the people of God because of circumcision and other “works of the law” when what was really needed was faith. And it was the Gentiles who were declared to be the people of God because they had faith. And the term that Paul uses to declare a person to be in covenant with God is “Justified.” Chapter 4 deals with Abraham and how he was declared to be a covenant member by faith and not by circumcision, thus strengthening Paul’s argument.

When we read Romans through this light, the whole book illuminates and its truth spills forth out of the pages. I would highly recommend that you take the time to read Romans, and Galatians, in this light, understanding that the key question is “How do we identify the covenantal people of God?” When we ask this question, we will see that this is clearly what Paul is seeking to answer. But again, this does not mean that the forensic aspect of justification is not true, or even that Paul is not seeking to address the forensic aspect. But it means that the covenant aspect of justification was his primary concern, and intrinsically tied in with the covenant is the forensic aspect.

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Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works

By Rev. Norman Shepherd

Presented to the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
November 18, 1978.

  1. By nature all men are sinners and are under the wrath and condemnation of God.
  2. There is nothing that any man can do to save himself from condemnation or to contribute to his salvation in any sense or at any point, so that any attempt on the part of man to save himself not only fails but even serves to compound his guilt.
  3. Justification is an act of God, by which He forgives sinners acquitting them of their guilt, accounts and accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the title of eternal life.
  4. The term “justification” may be used with reference to the acquittal and acceptance of a believer at his effectual calling into union with Christ, or with reference to the state of forgiveness and acceptance with God into which the believer is ushered by his effectual calling, or with reference to God’s open acquittal and acceptance of the believer at the final judgment (Matt. 12:36, 37; Rom. 3:22,24; 5:1; 8:1; Gal. 5:5).
  5. The ground of justification or the reason or cause why sinners are justified is in no sense to be found in themselves or in what they do, but is to be found wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ and in his mediatorial accomplishment on their behalf.
  6. By faith the sinner receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness as held forth in the gospel, and in this way is justified.
  7. In the application of redemption in the case of adults, justification is by faith and the sinner must believe in order to be justified; however, the justifying verdict and the gift of faith are received together at the moment the sinner is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.
  8. Elect infants who are saved in infancy and other elect persons, incapable of, or prevented from exercising faith or repentance or yielding obedience to Christ, are justified when they are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.
  9. In the case of redeemed infants, justification precedes faith in time, but regeneration given together with justification in union with Christ inevitably manifests itself in the exercises of faith, repentance, and obedience to Christ as the child matures.
  10. Although believers are justified by faith alone, they are never justified by a faith that is alone, because faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit is given together with all the other gifts and graces flowing from the cross and resurrection of Christ, and the exercise of faith is coterminous with the exercise of the other gifts and graces so that when a man begins to believe he also begins to love God and bring that love to expression through obedience to God (West. Conf. of Faith XI, 2).
  11. Justifying faith is obedient faith, that is, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), and therefore faith that yields obedience to the commands of Scripture.
  12. Faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith and neither saves nor justifies; living and active faith justifies (James 2:14-26).
  13. Faith and repentance are so inextricably intertwined with each other that there cannot exist a true and saving apprehension of the mercy of Christ without a grief for and hatred of sin, a turning unto God, and a purposing and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments (West. Conf. of Faith, XV,2).
  14. Repentance, inclusive not only of grief for and hatred of sin but also of turning from sin and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments, although not the ground of forgiveness, is nevertheless so necessary for all sinners, that there is no pardon without it (West. Conf. of Faith XV, 3).
  15. The forgiveness of sin for which repentance is an indispensable necessity is the forgiveness of sin included in justification, and therefore there is no justification without repentance.
  16. Prior to regeneration in union with Christ, sinners can neither believe, nor repent, nor perform deeds appropriate to repentance because they are dead in their trespasses and sins.
  17. Regeneration is such a radical, pervasive, and efficacious transformation that it immediately registers itself in the conscious activity of the person concerned in the exercise of faith and repentance and new obedience.
  18. Faith, repentance, and new obedience are not the cause or ground of salvation or justification, bur are as covenantal response to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the way (Acts 24:14; II Peter 2:2, 21) in which the Lord of the Covenant brings his people into the full possession of eternal life.
  19. Those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are his disciples, who walk in the Spirit and keep covenant with God, are in a state of justification and will be justified on the day of judgment; whereas unbelieving, ungodly, unrighteous, and impenitent sinners who are covenant breakers or strangers to the covenant of grace, are under the wrath and curse of God, and on the day of judgment will be condemned to hell forever, unless they flee from the wrath to come by turning to the Lord in faith and repentance (Psalm 1; John 5:28,29).
  20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).
  21. The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb. 3:6, 14).
  22. The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14).
  23. Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; 1John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9).
  24. The “works” (Eph. 2:9), or “works of the law” (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16), or “righteousness of my own derived from the law” (Phil. 3:9), or “deeds which we have done in righteousness” (Titus 3:5) which are excluded from justification and salvation, are not “good works” in the Biblical sense of works for which the believer is created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10), or works wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 5:22-26), or works done from true faith (I Thes. 1:3), according to the law of God, and for his glory, but are works of the flesh (Gal. 3:3) done in unbelief (Gal. 3:12) for the purpose of meriting God’s justifying verdict.
  25. The Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone does not mean that faith in isolation or abstraction from good works justifies, but that the way of faith (faith working by love), as opposed to the “works of the law” or any other conceivable method or justification, is the only way of justification. (John Calvin, Institutes, III, 11, 20. “Indeed, we confess with Paul that no other faith justifies ‘but faith working through love’ [Gal. 5:6]. But it does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ.”).
  26. The Roman Catholic doctrine that justification is a process in which the unjust man is transformed into a just man by the infusion of sacramental grace confuses justification with sanctification, and contradicts the teaching of Scripture that justification is a forensic verdict of God by which the ungodly are received and accepted as righteous on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
  27. The Roman Catholic doctrine that faith merits (congruent merit) the infusion of justifying grace, and that faith formed by love performing good works merits (condign merit) eternal life contradicts the teaching of Scripture that justification is by grace through faith apart from the works of the law.
  28. In the right use of the law, the people of God neither merit nor seek to merit anything by their obedience to God, but out of love and gratitude serve the Lord of the Covenant as sons in the household of the Father and in this way are the beneficiaries of his fatherly goodness (Mal. 3:16-18).
  29. The proclamation of the gospel of sovereign grace must include not only a setting forth of the sufficiency and perfection of the Redeemer Jesus Christ as the only name under heaven given among men whereby they must be saved, but must also include an earnest appeal to sinners to come to Christ in faith, to forsake sin and unrighteousness, and to perform deeds appropriate to repentance (Acts 26:19, 20).
  30. Jesus Christ cannot be received as Savior without submission to him as Lord in one and the same act of faith, and he cannot be received as Savior and Lord unless he is presented as Savior and Lord in the proclamation of the gospel.
  31. Because faith is called for in all gospel proclamation, exhortations to obedience do not cast men upon their own resources to save themselves, but are grounded in the promise of the Spirit to accompany the proclamation of the whole counsel of God with power so that the response of the whole man called for in the gospel is wrought in the sinner.
  32. The election of God stands firm so that sinners who are united to Christ, justified, and saved, can never come into condemnation; but within the sphere of covenant life, election does not cancel out the responsibility of the believer to persevere in penitent and obedient faith since only they who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13).
  33. Though believers are never without sin in this life, they have no excuse for sinning inasmuch as they have died and are risen with Christ; nevertheless, their sin does not bring them into condemnation only because it is covered by the blood of Jesus to which the believer has continual recourse in prayer.
  34. The justification, sanctification, and life of the believer reside wholly and exclusively in Christ Jesus, and therefore the proclamation of the sole-sufficiency and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ is a source of perpetual assurance, encouragement, and comfort to believers in their warfare against Satan in obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.