Sanders’ Errors On Paul, Jews And Justification

The influential liberal Protestant writer E. P. Sanders claims: “…on the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism – grace and works – Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism. There are two aspects of the relationship between grace and works: Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in’, but they do not earn salvation.” [1] When Sanders here refers to “Palestinian Judaism”, he means the Jews in Paul’s time who were living in Palestine and who had not received Jesus Christ. Sander’s expression “remaining ‘in’” refers to having a right standing before God under the Mosaic Covenant.

There are a number of problems and errors in Sander’s above comments:

 

         It may be true that the majority of Jews in Palestine in Paul’s time believed that entry into the Mosaic Covenant was purely by God’s unmerited grace. But it is difficult to be sure that this was true of all the many and varied Jewish sects and groups.

         The New Testament and Jewish literature of the period show that most or all Jews in Palestine believed that the condition for remaining in the God-given Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants was doing works of Law. But this is contrary to Paul’s teaching. He attacks the idea that the condition for anyone remaining in the Abrahamic, Mosaic or New Covenant is doing works of Law or good works in obedience to the Mosaic Law.

In Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16 and 3:11 in Greek, Paul uses the present tense of the expression “is justified” when insisting that no human has ever been justified or declared righteous in an ongoing or continuous sense through doing works of Law. Note that in Greek, the present tense usually refers to the ongoing nature of the action. In Romans 3:28, Paul said: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” In the context of referring to obeying the Mosaic Law, Paul said in Galatians 3:11: “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Note Paul did not say that even one person can be justified in an ongoing sense through obeying the Mosaic Law.

By using the present tense of “is justified” in Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16 and 3:11, Paul concentrated on attacking the false Jewish idea that they could maintain their grace-given right standing before God under the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants through obeying the Mosaic Law.

         In Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, Paul opposes the teaching of many non-Christian Palestinian Jews that a righteous standing before God under the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants at the Final Judgment could only be obtained on the condition of obedience to the Mosaic Law. In these two verses, Paul uses the future tense when referring to God justifying people at the Final Judgment.

In Romans 3:20, Paul said: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Paul insists here that in future not one person will be declared righteous before God through their actions in obeying the Mosaic Law. In Galatians 2:16, Paul states: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” In Greek, the latter expression “shall be justified” is also future tense.

         Observe the expression “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” in Romans 3:28 applies differently in one sense to non-Jews than what it does to Jews. This is because non-Jews were never and will never be under the Mosaic Covenant.

 


 

[1] E.P. Sanders, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of patterns of Religion”, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, page 543.

 


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