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.