The Need for Perfect Law-Keeping, Part 2
The previous post took a brief look at the Reformed understanding of Justification and why the notion of “Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness” is both logically and exegetically problematic. This post will continue to focus on the exegetical problems, this time in Paul’s Epistles, particularly the first five chapters of Romans (which many Reformed consider to be the definitive passages on the doctrine of Justification).
Paul begins Romans by telling his audience that his Apostolic focus is proclaiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy, particularly in His Messianic lineage and in His Death and Resurrection (1:1-4). This conforms to one of the most famous summaries of the Gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, where Paul reminds the Corinthians of the two most important points of the Gospel message are that Christ died for our sins and was raised, each ‘according to the Scriptures’. Strikingly absent from these Apostolic interpretations of Old Testament prophecies is any mention of Christ keeping the Law in our place, despite the fact the Reformed teach it’s an essential component (along with forgiveness) for getting right with God.
The next thing Paul tells his audience is that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (1:16-17). But what is this “righteousness of God”? In one the most definitive passages on Justification, Romans 3:21-26, Paul explains God’s righteousness is revealed through the Cross: “Being justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Of all places we should expect to see Christ’s perfect law keeping in our place, 3:21-26 should be the place. But the only component Paul mentions for God’s righteousness to be revealed, making God to be “just and justifier,” is the redemption achieved through the Cross.
This theme of God being “just and justifier” (3:26) is immediately carried over into another key text of the New Testament, where God is said to “justify the ungodly” in Romans 4:5-8. In this key text, Paul connects the dots for us even further: “Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven… blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” Note that Paul is quoting Psalm 32:1-2 here, and says that David was speaking of ‘counting righteousness’ (i.e. Justification). And yet there is no mention in Psalm 32:1-2 of ‘counting righteousness’, only the forgiveness of sins. The only coherent explanation for this apparent ‘discrepancy’ of the Apostle telling us that David spoke of ‘crediting of righteousness’, when in fact David never used those words, is if Paul is saying the two concepts are equivalent: To be forgiven of sin is equivalent to being regarded as righteous. Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret “reckoning righteousness” with the “Imputed Righteousness of Christ” (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense. For Paul, forgiveness is sufficient, as has been shown over and over. Paul even concludes the chapter by reaffirming Christ’s work for us: “Who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:25). Surely if Christ’s Righteousness was part of the equation, Paul would have mentioned it in Romans 4, rather than (yet again) only mentioning His death and resurrection for us.
It’s plain to see from the survey so far that this ‘justification by faith that brings us peace before God’ (5:1) is squarely because “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6), nothing more. In fact, Paul couldn’t have said we have been “justified by his blood” (5:9) if justification refers to keeping the law perfectly, because ‘blood’ is hardly a synonym for perfect law keeping. It simply refers to us being “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (5:10), which goes back to the original point of this series: Adam was originally in relationship with God, without having first perfectly kept the law, and reconciling is simply restoring to us that broken relationship.
With this reconciliation theme in mind, we can see why Paul transitions immediately into contrasting Adam to Jesus (the New Adam) in Romans 5:12ff. Paul beautifully encapsulates the work and effects of these “Adams” as follows: “By the one man’s disobedience [Adam] many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [Jesus] the many will be made righteous” (5:19). This ‘obedience’ of Christ was His Suffering and Death for us, as Paul has made it abundantly clear already. No mention of keeping the law perfectly in our place. In fact, using the principle of Scripture-interprets-Scripture (Cf Westminster Confession 1:9), when we look at the only two other times “obedience” is applied to Christ, Philippians 2:8 and Hebrews 5:7-9, we see they plainly refer only to His Suffering for us (no mention of His “Active Obedience”).
Though enough has been said thus far, it should be noted that one common text some Reformed appeal to in support of Christ’s Imputed Righteousness is Romans 8:3-4, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The Reformed claim that the phrase “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us” means that Christ was sent both to die for us and to keep the law perfectly for us. But there are a couple of problems with this claim. First, it is only an assumption, with no other clearer texts ever saying Christ kept the law perfectly for us (Cf Westminster 1:9). Second, the logic of Paul’s argument isn’t saying that Jesus did two distinct things for us, but rather that the condemning of sin is what made way for the law to be fulfilled, as in a cause-effect relationship. Third, the Reformed interpretation doesn’t really follow the context and leaves the tail end of the verse hanging. The context is of Christians living their new life through the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, directing them to live as they should. Catholics read the tail end of 8:4 simply as Christians being the ones who fulfill the righteous requirements of the law, since they walk according to the Spirit. It makes little sense for Paul to be speaking of Christ keeping the law for us because Christians walk according to the Spirit. And again using the principle of Scripture-interprets-Scripture, other Pauline texts confirm the Catholic view, particularly Galatians 3:13-14. In that text, Paul says Jesus died to remove the curse of the law, which paved way for us to receive the Holy Spirit, since the Old Covenant being broken was a road block preventing this blessing and it needed to be atoned for first (Heb 9:15). Building on that, Paul is also very clear that Christians are called to “fulfill the law” in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14, so it makes perfect sense to read Romans 8:4 as Christians fulfilling the law rather than Christ fulfilling because they couldn’t’. Lastly, the Reformed claim fails to realize that the Biblical term “fulfill” has nothing to do with perfect obedience and never sinning. The Biblical term “fulfill” simply means to bring about the full purpose of something not yet realized, typically referring to prophecy being fulfilled (as when Judas is said to have fulfilled the Scriptures by betraying Christ), and in this case refers to the Holy Spirit enabling us to love as we ought to.
The next and final post of this series, Part 3, will look at 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:9. As we now begin the discussion, I again ask that we stay on topic and not go on tangents (e.g. Mary, Papacy, Sola Scriptura).