Sunday, January 29, 2017
The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 5 (Scriptural objections from Galatians 2 and Acts 15)
One of Frank’s primary proof-texts in support of his position was Galatians 2:15. Frank wrote, “But if we need further proof of what Peter’s faith was, we could again look at what Paul tells the Galatians when Peter got spooked by those men of the circumcision, sent from James, when he reminds Peter of what is right and fully knows. He says, ‘You and I Peter, who are Jews of the flesh and not sinners of the nations, know that a man is not justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus, we also believe in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law, seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified.’”
Frank is referring to what Paul wrote in Galatians 2, and provides a nearly-accurate quotation of verses 15 and 16. Unfortunately, the part of his quotation that is not accurate betrays an unwarranted assumption brought to the text. In verse 15, Paul did not write, “You and I Peter, who by nature are Jews…” He wrote, “We, who by nature are Jews…” The assumption Frank is making is that when Paul wrote “we” at the beginning of v. 15, he was including Peter (and, by extension, James and John). However, this assumption begs the question in favor of Frank’s position. If Paul didn’t mean “Peter and I” here, then everything he went on to write would be perfectly consistent with the view that Peter’s understanding of his own salvation and justification was the same as that articulated by James in chapter 2 of his letter to the twelve tribes.
It must be acknowledged that if what Paul wrote in v. 15 should be understood as a continuation of the quote that begins in v. 14, it would be unavoidable to understand Paul’s “we” as including Peter. But it is not necessary to understand the quote to continue beyond verse 14, and thus no grammatical necessity to understand the “we” of v. 15 to include Peter. Other contextual considerations must help us determine who Paul had in mind when he wrote “we” in v. 15. And I think there is good reason – both from this letter and elsewhere in the Greek scriptures – to understand Paul’s “we” to refer to Jewish believers whose ministry was in accord with the administration given to Paul, and who were said to be “for the nations” (such as, for example, Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Silvanus and Timothy). In fact, in the context, Paul makes explicit mention of himself and Barnabas as those who, in contrast with Peter, James and John, were to be “for the nations,” bringing them the “evangel of the Uncircumcision” (Gal. 2:1, 7-10, 13). In verse 9, Paul even contrasts himself and Barnabas with Peter, James and John by using the words “we” and “they!” In other words, Paul had already made a distinction between two clearly defined, separate “ministries” involving two groups of Jewish believers, and Paul’s “we” in v. 15 should be understood in this broader context.
Beginning around v. 13 of chapter 1, Paul had been recounting past events that were pertinent to the issue at hand, and which served to support his apostolic authority and the truth that he and his co-laborers had been dispensing among the nations. This historical recounting ends with the words Paul declared to Peter in Antioch (v. 14), and in v. 15 Paul has “returned to the present,” so to speak. Verse 15 is the beginning of another “phase” in Paul’s doctrinal defense of the truth he had previously taught the ecclesias of Galatia.
Paul mentions the incident involving Peter at Antioch in order to further defend his apostolic authority and ministry, and because it served to support his point that the gentiles didn’t have to become Jews (or “be judaizing”) in order to be saved. Even Peter had come to realize this through the events involving Cornelius, and had to be rebuked for living in a way that was inconsistent with what he’d learned. And if this was something recognized by Peter (as well as James and John), then what the Galatians were being pressured by certain Judaizers to do (i.e., proselytize to Judaism) was inconsistent with not only Paul’s administration and ministry, but with Peter’s as well!
However, Peter’s realizing that a gentile didn’t have to take the sign of the “covenant of circumcision” and thus proselytize to Judaism in order to be saved is a far cry from saying that, like Paul and Barnabas, he had come to perceive the much greater truth that Paul went on to defend in this letter, concerning the righteousness that is based on Christ’s faith alone rather than on anything that we do or don’t do.
Excluding Peter is, therefore, not some “ad hoc” move on my part. It’s an interpretation of what Paul wrote that is informed by the broader context of Galatians, and is in keeping with what we know to be true about the distinct ministries and administrations of Paul and Peter. Paul and Barnabas had been severed to God from the rest of the apostles for a distinct ministry that was in accord with a new administration. And the truth they dispensed to the nations (and those Israelites who came to faith in Christ through their ministry rather than before the start of that administration) was truth that I see no reason to assume Peter, James and John fully understood, and let alone were teaching the Jews, proselytes and God-fearers within the sphere of their “Circumcision-focused” ministry.
When Paul wrote, “We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having perceived that a man is not justified by works of the law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus…” he obviously had in mind those Jews who had perceived the truth of which he wrote. The only way this verse could possibly be evidence for Frank’s position is by assuming that Peter (and James and John) had, like Paul and Barnabas, “perceived” the greater and more recently revealed truth about justification that Paul is defending in this letter to those in the body of Christ. But as we’ve seen, there is simply no good reason to assume this to have been the case.
Another passage used by Frank in support of his position was Acts 15:7-11, where we find recorded the words spoken by Peter at the “Jerusalem Council”:
Now, there coming to be much questioning, rising, Peter said to them, “Men! Brethren! You are versed in the fact that from the days at the beginning God chooses among you, that through my mouth the nations are to hear the word of the evangel and believe. And God, the Knower of hearts, testifies to them, giving the holy spirit according as to us also, and in nothing discriminates between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Why, then, are you now trying God, by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we are strong enough to bear? But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are believing, to be saved in a manner even as they.”
We read that “some” who had come down from Judea (who, Luke tells us, were believing Pharisees) were teaching the new believers from among the nations that, unless they were circumcised (and thus received the sign of the covenant between God and Israel) they could not be saved (v. 1). We further read that this requirement would’ve included, or entailed, keeping the Law of Moses (v. 5).
The meeting in Jerusalem was, therefore, concerned with whether or not those among the nations who were coming to faith in Christ had to become proselytes in order to be saved. It was this question that the meeting in Jerusalem was intended to resolve. The question was not, “Is acting righteously necessary for Israelites to be worthy of receiving eonian life when Christ returns and the kingdom is restored to Israel?” Had this been the question, then I believe that James, Peter and John would have all answered in the affirmative. But again, this wasn’t the question under discussion.
Although Frank emphasized Peter’s words at the council concerning how God had not “discriminated” between the believing Israelites present and Cornelius and his household, it would be erroneous to conclude from this that Peter believed that God had justified both Jews and gentiles through the faith of Christ (as opposed to their justification being based on their own faith and righteous conduct). Again, when Peter spoke at the council, he was simply speaking in defense of the position that gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The Pauline doctrine of justification through the faith of Christ was simply not on Peter’s “radar screen.” But if this wasn’t what Peter had in mind, what was?
That which Peter affirmed at the council in verses 7-11 was based entirely on his prior experience involving Cornelius and his household (which included Peter’s initial vision and everything subsequent to it). It was the truth that Peter learned through this experience that would later (at the Jerusalem conference) be used in defense and validation of Paul’s ministry. As Knoch notes in his commentary, it was by virtue of Peter’s experience with Cornelius that he was able to be convinced by Paul that “God could deal with the nations in a way different from His dealings with the Circumcision. The case of Cornelius was specifically designed to bridge the gap between the two ministries of Peter and Paul.” So it was on the basis of Peter’s experience that Paul’s ministry to the nations was recognized as valid by the ecclesia at Jerusalem (even if certain aspects of it likely remained an enigma to them).
After arriving at Cornelius’ house to share his evangel with him (and in light of all that had already taken place), Peter declared the following: “Of a truth I am grasping that God is not partial, but in every nation he who is fearing him and acting righteously is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). This statement concerning God’s impartiality can, I believe, shed some light on what Peter said at the Jerusalem council. The impartiality that Peter had in mind here was not absolute and all-encompassing, but rather concerned God’s qualified acceptance of both circumcised people (Israelites) and uncircumcised people (gentiles). The divine impartiality of which Peter spoke did not involve God’s acceptance of all Israelites and non-Israelites; rather, it embraced only Jews and gentiles who were “fearing [God] and acting righteously.”
Cornelius’ being acceptable to God was, for Peter, due to the fact that Cornelius was a just man who feared the God of Israel and acted righteously (something recognized by “the whole nation of the Jews”; Acts 10:22). Although Cornelius was not a “full-fledged” proselyte, he was certainly favorably inclined toward Judaism. In fact, Cornelius’ fasting, prayers to God and generous giving of alms “to the people” (i.e., Israelites, God’s covenant people) seems to be the very reason for which he - and not just any gentile living at that time - was used by God to reveal an important truth to Peter (Acts 10:1-5, 31). Moreover, in light of the conditions specified in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3), it can be reasonably inferred that Cornelius and his household were eligible for receiving blessing (i.e., eonian life in the kingdom of God) because they were blessing the covenant descendents of Abraham. Although the uncircumcised (non-Israelite) status of Cornelius and his family would prevent them from having certain privileges in the eon to come (e.g., being able to enter the sanctuary in Jerusalem; see Ezekiel 44:9), they would still be able to enjoy an allotment in the millennial kingdom of Israel (Ezekiel 47:21-23; cf. Matthew 25:31-34, where it’s implied that the righteous gentiles or “sheep” in view are blessed with an allotment in the kingdom in accordance with the Abrahamic covenant).
Thus, Peter recognized Cornelius as one who, lack of circumcision notwithstanding, “feared God and acted righteously.” He qualified for entrance into the millennial kingdom in accord with the Abrahamic covenant. All that was lacking for Cornelius and his household was to hear and believe the evangel for which Peter was made an apostle (which, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, was the “evangel of the Circumcision”). Thus, when Cornelius and his household did hear and believe what Peter declared to them, there was nothing about their uncircumcised, gentile status that prevented them from receiving the holy spirit, and being given assurance that their sins were pardoned.
In Acts 15:9 we read that Peter declared, “And God, the Knower of hearts, testifies to them, giving the holy spirit according as to us also, and in nothing discriminates between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” This has nothing to do with Peter (along with his fellow Israelites) and Cornelius (along with his gentile household) being justified through the faith of Christ. Just as God’s lack of partiality as referred to in Acts 10:34-35 is not to be understood as absolute and unqualified, so the lack of discrimination of which Peter spoke here must be similarly understood. The reader must ask, “In what way, or in what sense, did God ‘in nothing discriminate’ between Peter and his Jewish companions, and Cornelius and his household?” Peter tells us: God “in nothing discriminated” between them in the sense that those in both groups received the holy spirit, and the hearts of those in both groups were cleansed by faith. This fact is fully consistent with the view that Peter’s covenantal status as an Israelite (which involved his being circumcised and keeping the law) was inseparable from his eonian expectation, while Cornelius’ eonian expectation was based on the conditional promise of the Abrahamic covenant concerning gentiles who blessed Israel.
Moreover – and as I noted in my study on the two evangels – it’s significant that, after Peter had finished speaking (and Cornelius and his household had heard and believed the declarations by which they could be saved), Peter then had Cornelius and his household baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:47-48). Peter’s “bidding” Cornelius and his household to be water baptized was no mere superfluous action on Peter’s part. Water baptism was in accordance with his apostolic commission and Israel’s “salvation program,” as it was essential for one’s receiving the “pardon of sins” (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 8:35-38). It follows, then, that baptism was just as essential for Cornelius and his household as it was for Peter and his believing Jewish companions.
Thus, when Peter declared that God “in nothing discriminates between us and them,” he most definitely did not mean that acting righteously was unnecessary for those called through his evangel, or that their justification was - contrary to what James wrote to the twelve tribes - through “faith alone,” and apart from works. But what about the “yoke” which Peter declared in verse 10 had been placed on “the neck of the disciples,” which neither their “fathers” nor they were “strong enough to bear?” It is perfectly consistent with the position for which I’ve been arguing to understand Peter to have had the Law of Moses in view here. Even before Christ’s death and resurrection, it is unlikely that Peter thought he had perfectly kept the law, or that he understood law-keeping to have been the basis for his (or any other Israelite’s) being saved. And yet, despite the failings of all Israelites and their inability to perfectly keep the law, no Israelite was exempt from attempting to keep the precepts of the law as an expression of their covenant loyalty to, and faith in, the God of Israel (for their relationship with God could not be separated from their covenant with God).
Thus, assuming the “yoke” that Peter had in mind in Acts 15 was the law of Moses, we have just as much reason to think that Peter had the same view of the law before Christ’s death as he did after it – and yet, again, Peter would’ve still believed that, as a man in covenant with God, his faith in God would’ve been “dead” apart from his doing what he could to keep the precepts of the law, and seeking forgiveness whenever he failed to keep it perfectly. When the “yoke” is understood as the Law of Moses, it makes sense why Peter would say what he did. Although he would’ve understood that, by virtue of Israel’s covenant relationship with God, he and his fellow Jews were not exempt from trying to keep the law as a necessary expression of their faith in God (and of their faithfulness to their covenant with God), Peter also knew that the law was not the basis for their salvation, and that it was impossible for any man to perfectly keep it. Since Cornelius had already been shown to be “acceptable” to God and to have done what Peter understood as being essential for salvation, it was clear to Peter that Cornelius did not need to become a proselyte in order to be saved.
Peter concludes his speech with the following: “But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are believing, to be saved in a manner even as they.”[i] Does this mean that there was (and is) no difference at all between how Peter, Cornelius and those who became believers through the apostleship of Paul are saved? It must be emphasized that by “we” Peter meant “we who are Israelites,” and that by “they” he meant “those who are not Israelites (i.e., “gentiles”).” He’s referring to two different categories of people, the former of which is comprised of those who are in covenant with God (and thus under the law), and the latter comprised of those who aren’t. Peter was not saying that there was no difference at all between Jews like himself and gentiles like Cornelius. Rather, he was simply affirming that the salvation of those under the law and the salvation of those not under the law both involves, and requires, believing “through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
Moreover, it may be noted that the word translated “manner” in verse 15 (tropos) does not mean absolute sameness, with no differences; it simply means there is some important similarly in view (which, as we’ve seen, is simply that salvation for both groups necessarily involved believing “through the grace of the Lord Jesus”). The same word appears in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, where Christ declared that he often wanted “to assemble [Jerusalem’s] children in the manner (tropos) a hen is assembling her brood under her wings.” But of course, Christ certainly did not mean that there were no differences between his assembling of the children of Jerusalem and a hen assembling her brood under her wings!
By appropriately emphasizing what believers among the Circumcision and believers among the Uncircumcision had in common, Peter more forcefully drove home his point that neither circumcision nor the Law of Moses could be understood as the basis for the salvation of believing Israelites who were not in the body of Christ (i.e., those who comprised the “Israel of God”). However, this doesn’t mean that Peter was saying that circumcision and the keeping of the Law of Moses were in no way relevant or connected to the salvation of believing Israelites. Circumcision and the law of Moses were important for Israelites insofar as they were inseparably tied to their identity as a people in covenant with God (and to whom God had made certain promises that are distinctly theirs, as a people in covenant with God). For an Israelite to consider circumcision and/or the Law of Moses as something that was either unnecessary or only optional (as if it was just a “personal lifestyle choice”) would’ve been to repudiate their covenant standing.