Was There Legalism in First Century Judaism

Or:  Was Jesus and Paul Shooting at Phantoms?

C. W. Powell


[Paper prepared for the Committee to Study Justification for the Reformed Church in the U.S.]

This study was not incorporated into the final report, but some of the content was used.





My assignment was to consider whether or not it is valid to say that Judaism had no legalism.  There is no question that E. P. Sanders has delivered a body of scholarship on this subject, which work has sent ripples through the American perception of the Christian’s justification.   Such things often occur in academia and pass away, having left only a minimal effect on the brothers and sisters in the pew.  Such has not been the case with Sanders’ work.


The reason that there has been an effect on the brothers and sisters in the pew is because the affirmation that Judaism had no legalism would require us to re-examine the theology of Paul the Apostle, for it appears that his main contention with Judaism is exactly at this point.  For instance,


“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”  Romans 10:1-3


If there were no legalism Israel in the days of Christ and the apostles, then it is necessary to think very critically about statements like this and others in the writings of the Apostle Paul.  Either the words do not mean what they appear to say, or Paul was wrong, deceived by his own personal vendetta against the Jews, influenced, no doubt, by his persecutions at their hands.


Sanders takes the latter view.  He is very critical of the Apostle Paul.  He is patronizing, sarcastic, and often infantile in his treatment of the Apostle.  A few examples should suffice.  These are all taken from Sanders book  Paul, A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press.  1991.  There is an impressive body of scholarship from Sanders, but we have used the Introduction because it was written for the purpose of summarizing Sanders’ view of Paul.  Most men and women in the pew have only a cursory knowledge, if any, of Sanders, but they may have been influenced by some of the new ideas about Paul’s views based upon the body of Sanders’ works.  This article is for them.


We may sometimes suspect Paul of rhetorical exaggeration, ‘countless beatings’ is an instance: he promptly counts them.  We can, however, accept the count as accurate. p. 6


This is more worthy of a schoolboy in a high school debate.  Paul doesn’t say that the ones he counted were all he had.  It was nice of Sanders to take Paul’s count as accurate, but the point is puerile.  Such things might get a few polite guffaws in polite American and English academia, but they are little more than pigeon droppings on the Washington Monument, saying more about the pigeons than the monument.


Paul in many ways remained the same [after his conversion].  Paul the apostle shared many of the characteristics of Paul the Pharisee.  One of the principal ones was that he was a zealot fully and totally committed to the course to which he felt called by God.  Further, in both careers he was, by his own modest estimate, the best there was: [here follows quotations from the Apostle, magnifying his office] 


He added, to be sure, that ‘it was not I, but the grace of God’ (cf. Also Phil 4:13), but he thought that God had chosen at least one of his apostles well.  p. 15


After a quoting 2 Cor. 11:5, 21-23, in which Paul affirms what he had been as a Pharisee, Sanders says,


Thus, as Pharisee and as apostle, Paul could say that he was among the best, and there is no reason to doubt his word.  p. 16


Again, the smell of the high school debating club:  “Brutus is an honorable man.  So are they all, all honorable men.”  There is a titter among the tea-drinkers.


Sanders says that Paul was adept in turning aside the attacks made upon him:


He countered these attacks in two ways.  First, he claimed that, though he did not preach with eloquence and wisdom, as did Apollos, he was in fact not deficient, for he spoke the ‘wisdom of God’, which is foolishness to humans: ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’: and by the Spirit he spoke ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:2:16).  His second ploy [!] to defend himself despite his personal deficiency was more effective and shows even better his quickness and resourcefulness: he turned his defects into virtues, and his weakness became his strength.  p. 16.


Once in a while, Sanders does throw a bone to Paul, but he takes away with the left hand what he gives with the right.  He contends that the author of Acts masked the differences between the Apostles, and that some wrote new epistles, like 1 Timothy and attributed them to Paul.  “Such efforts ‘saved’ Paul for mainstream Christianity, and his letters became a central part of the New Testament as it developed between the third and sixth centuries.  His passionate embrace of faith in Christ and the force of his writing have always made him one of Christianity’s foremost spokesmen and by far its most exciting and vigorous theologian-though he is still difficult to understand.”  p. 22.


But the point is made.  Sanders seems to be blind to his own arrogance and is nothing loath to find arrogance and defect in the apostle.  The pigeons come back to mind.  Sanders ought to be grateful that Paul lived, for if there had been no Paul, there would have been no career for Sanders.


We have spent very little time studying those who follow Sanders in his view that Paul was arrogant and mistaken.  This paper is addressed to those who believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Paul and the apostles spoke by the Spirit of God, believing that the words are not the words of men, but the very words of God.   Thus, Paul’s evaluation of himself in his writings is true, being inspired of God.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in Article Three:


We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of man, but that men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter says; and that afterwards God, from a special care which He has for us and our salvation, commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed word to writing; and He Himself wrote with His own finger the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.


The danger to the brothers and sisters in the pew does not come from the curved pinkie set of elitist academia, whose tenured professors so often have engaged in sophistry concerning the Scriptures and look with disdain upon the unwashed masses and feel it is their duty to deliver the ignorant from superstitious credulity with respect to the Bible.


The danger comes from those who accept Sanders position with respect to legalism in Judaism, but are very reluctant to deny the inspiration of Paul’s writings. Because they want to take Paul seriously, but are influenced by the position adopted by Sanders and his followers, they find it necessary to re-interpret Paul’s writing.   They think that Augustine, Luther, Calvin and the Reformed Churches in particular have been one-sided in their interpretation of Paul’s works and over-emphasized justification as forensic.   We are told that this misunderstanding of Paul has caused no end of harm in the Christian community and divided Protestantism from Rome, so we are told.  This misunderstanding has also led to “easy believism” in Protestantism for faith alone is not sufficient, for to faith must be added good works to make it lively, for faith without works is dead being alone.  Besides these, there are other reasons for reexamining Paul, not the least of which will give us a new appreciation for Roman Catholicism and its doctrine of infused righteousness, perhaps even leading to a re-uniting of Protestants with the Church of Rome.  It will also give us a renewed appreciation for Judaism and their faith.  So it goes.


It is not necessary in this paper to treat the large body of writing and the many authors who are engaged in reinterpreting the Apostle Paul.  It will be enough for us to consider the question:  Did Israel seek salvation by the works of the law, or by faith?  Was legalism systemic in the religion of the Jews at the time of Christ?  If there was legalism, was it legitimate for the Jews to seek salvation thereby?


Our method will be this:  we will examine inspired Scriptures, other than those written by the Apostle Paul, to see if the doctrines concerning legalism are found in them.  We believe that Sanders’ method is seriously flawed.  His assumptions appear to include the idea that Paul must be judged by first century Judaism, not Judaism judged by Paul’s writings.  This might be valid except for the doctrine of inspiration noted above, as expressed in the Belgic Confession.   Although certainly Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others were men of their times, yet their interpretation of Scripture was not driven by the religious and philosophic fads of their day.  Instead, they rebuked the religious fantasies of their ages by the Scriptures.  The Spirit that lived in them and moved them was that the Scriptures judged their age, not the other way around.  Those who believe that Paul was so moved by his age will take the same shallow view of the Reformers.  Those who have no clear view of Scripture become cynical in tyranny or neurotic in their self-absorption and guilt.


It is the assumption of this writer that the Scriptures do not contradict themselves.  If the Holy Spirit spoke through the Apostle Paul, the doctrines that he expressed concerning Judaism will be found in the other inspired writings.  Any modification necessary to our understanding of Paul’s writings will not be found in searching the writings of first century Judaism, but in the writings of Matthew, John, and the other apostles and prophets, including the writer of Hebrews.  In this paper we will look at some pertinent passages in Matthew and in John.  We will find that what is found in these apostles is also in the other writers of the New Testament.  Of course, those who believe, like Sanders, that books like 1 Timothy were written by those seeking to defend Paul in his prejudice will not be persuaded by this paper.  It is sufficient for us to address those who believe the Bible, as we stated before.


Before we begin our examination, it is necessary that we try to have a definition of legalism. We do not desire to slay one or two straw men, but a living and breathing heresy that afflicts the brothers and sisters in the pew.


We will derive a biblical definition of legalism from the Apostle Peter.   This writer chooses not to use Paul’s very clear definitions, because it is Paul’s doctrine that is being elasticized..   1 Peter 1:18-20 will suffice: 


Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;  But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:  Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you….”


Legalism is any empty way of life that relies upon the corruptible things of this world to satisfy for sins.  Silver and gold are used as illustrations because they are esteemed most valuable by the men of the world.  The traditions of former generations teach men to rely upon these corruptible things and to turn away from the redemption that was eternally arranged in God before the foundation of the world, even the bloody offering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Calvin says in his commentary on I Peter 1:18:  “When, therefore, Peter condemned the doctrine of the fathers, he viewed it as unconnected with Christ, who is the soul and the truth of the Law.”


It is also true that the offering of Christ was not made on any earthly altar or in any human temple, but He appeared in the presence of God for us.  Its application is wholly spiritual: He was offered to God the Father of all Spirits and He was made an offering for sins to purge our consciences from dead works to serve the living God [Heb. 9:14].


Peter is repeating the warning of the Lord Jesus about following the traditions of the elders [Mark 7:3] in thinking that men can be cleansed by the washing of water after the vain ceremonies of the Pharisees.  The words of Christ are pertinent [Matthew 15-20].


Matthew 15:1-20

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,  Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.


But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?  For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.


Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,  This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.  But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.


And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:  Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.  Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?


But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.


Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable.  And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding?  Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?  But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.  For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.


There are several important things to be observed about this parable that are relevant to the issue of whether or not there was legalism among the Jews.


1.      Jesus said that the Pharisees set aside the law of God by their tradition.  They made the “commandment of God of none effect.”  It was a religion of vanity.

2.      The result was an externalism that left them unclean and defiled before God in spite of all their washings and ceremonies.  It is not that which enters into the man [corruptible things] that defiles the man, but that which comes out of him.  Sin does not lie in the external act but in the wickedness of the heart, the stew from which all sins arise.   Pr 4:23  “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it [are] the issues of life.”  This matches the description of Christ in  Mt 23:27  “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

3.      In dispensing with the “washings” that the Pharisees demanded, Christ was striking at the very root of their externalism and “vain traditions.”  If external things can defile a man, then external rites and ceremonies can cleanse the man.  By affirming that nothing that enters into a man can defile the man, Christ is affirming that nothing external can cleanse him, exactly what Peter says about corruptible things such as silver and gold.  Jesus was not shooting blanks, but was aiming at a very real and vain externalism and legalism according to our definition above.

4.      The effect of their legalism was to make the “commandment of God of none effect.”  The law was robbed of its force and its purpose by their vanities.  Instead of seeing the law in its holiness and grandeur, they stripped it of its glory, using all sorts of devices to justify themselves.  Christ gives one illustration of the sophistry they used to justify not caring for their aged parents.

5.      One of the purposes of the law is to make sin “exceeding sinful.”  Because they reduced the law to ceremony, keeping it could no longer fulfill this purpose, for their hearts were shut against it’s true spiritual meaning.  They were content with appearing righteous before men.


Luke 18:9-14


And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.  


The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.   I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.  


And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.   I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.


Several things can be said about this parable of our Lord Jesus as it pertains to the question of whether or not there was legalism in Israel.


1.                Again, Jesus was aiming at a real target, not some abstraction.   He certainly knew what was in man and His words penetrated to the core of things.   His words in this place were directed towards those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”  Presumably there were those who smarted under His arrows.

2.                He thanks God that he is not like other men.  He does not claim any merit of his own, but gives God glory for everything that he is.  There is no humility here, and certainly not brokenness nor a sense of unworthiness.  But he does give God credit for it all.  He also prayed in the inner man—he did not pray out loud:  he spoke from his mind and spirit.  His error was not that of outward pretense.  His error went much deeper than that.  He was blind to his own arrogance and the horror of his own condition.  The lie was in his own heart.  He only deceived others because he was deceived himself.

3.                The critical point for our purpose is the fact that he feels himself righteous before God on the basis of God’s gifts to him.  He does not take credit for his virtues, but thanks God for them.  He is punctiliously correct:  his virtues come from God; he is supposed to be thankful; he goes to the place of worship and thanks God for these virtues; what more could God want?

4.                He then catalogues all the virtues that he is thankful for.  He isn’t an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer, and certainly not like the publican who was at the place of worship the same time he was.  For our purpose it is important that he only speaks of things of the body, of external things.  He speaks in his heart before God and no doubt thinks himself truly thankful.  But he seems to be unaware of the plague of his own heart.  [1 Kings 8:38]  He seems to be unconscious that only men in the image of God can be extortioners, unjust, and adulterers.  Pigs and dogs and possums cannot commit these things, for they arise from the soul, the image of God, not from the “corruptible things.”  He seems to be unaware of the sins of his soul, for he only names sins that can be seen of men.  He is thankful to God for what he does; the publican is sorry for what he is.

5.                The Pharisee’s frame of reference is interesting: he is focused on his own virtues [the gifts of God] and the publican.  He was not focused on God or even on the sacrifice.

6.                He speaks of the ceremonies that he performs which are even more than the law commanded: he fasted twice on the Sabbath [see the Greek] and gave tithes of all.  We may presume this included the mint, the anise, and the cumin.

7.                It is a good prayer in his eyes.  We can imagine his thoughts of the sweet aroma that would permeate the courts of the heavenly temple and nostrils of God.  This writer suspects that there is no stench in heaven, but that this prayer would have been one, if such were possible.

8.                What was the man’s fault?  He illustrated Christ’s point: the Pharisee flattered himself in God’s eyes and despised others.  He no doubt fancied himself very humble and faithful to God, but he couldn’t see his own arrogance.    He couldn’t truly worship God, because he had his eyes on himself and on others who were not worthy.

9.                His abominable externalism was not because he worshipped in the eyes of men, or did things to be seen of men, but because he trusted in externals.  Externalism is not hypocrisy in itself, for it can be very sincere in trusting in ceremonies and “corruptible things.”  It is hypocrisy only in the sense that the emphasis on ceremonies and the deeds of the body hide the corruption of the heart.

10.            True worship is in spirit and in truth, not in externals.  For the Christian, the true communion in the body and blood of Christ is the recognition that Jesus Christ is the true Bread of Life and that the life of the Christian is tied up in the death and resurrection of Christ.  In this communion with Christ, the believer is crucified with Christ and yet lives.  He lives not in himself or even in the gifts that God gives, but Christ lives in Him.  This life is “by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” as Paul put it.  The first and most basic affection that must grip our hearts in the Lord’s Supper is the fact of our natural guilt before the Lord; we are unworthy of such a feast, but we trust in Christ’s broken body and shed blood alone for the forgiveness of our sins.  What we chew and sip and swallow can never commend us to God.  It is what is going on in the heart of the worshipper that is vital.  Our unworthiness is not primarily involved in what we have committed sin, but that we are sinners.

11.            We are not worthy; we have done no works that are worthy; we have nothing in ourselves even as the people of God to justify us before the Lord; rather, our very life comes out of death.  We are worthy of death, but no life can even come out of our own death.  Though we richly deserve to die our own death cannot give us life, but only the wrath of God forever and ever.  Our life is wrapped up in the death of Jesus Christ

12.            The kingdom of God belongs to those who are poor in spirit, according to our Lord.  The Pharisee certainly did not come in poverty to God.  It is true that he offered to God some wonderful gifts that God had given him, and he was thankful for them.  But he forgot the most important, as his own scriptures declared:  “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”  [Psalm 51:16,17]  Again,  “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.” (Isa 66:1-3)  The very sacrifices that God had ordained became abominable because of the externalism and the alienation of the hearts of the worshipper!

13.            The parable was spoken by our Lord against “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”   It is opposed to anyone who trusts in anything in themselves, included the works of God that they can be thankful for.  No matter how commendable and admirable internal righteous affections might be, and though they be the work of God, they cannot be the basis of any trust concerning righteousness.  What could be plainer?  The publican did not even offer his contrition and poorness of spirit to God as a ground of righteousness, but simply called upon the mercy of God.

14.            The Pharisee was not justified, according to Christ.  The publican was.  The publican was not justified for his prayer and the Pharisee was not lost because of his prayer.  Jesus is not telling us how to be saved, or what prayer to pray to be saved.  Jesus is rather telling us how those who are saved pray.  They pray out of a sense of contrition and brokenness, not despising others, but standing alone before God.  The Pharisee was not alone before God; he had the publican in his mind and he had a bundle of good works on his mind.  He thought he was thankful, but the stink of his arrogance made his thanksgiving stink before God.  It was no sweet savor that ascended from the Pharisee to God.  It was quite the contrary.  The sweetness came from the publican, but not because he was a publican.  [As an aside, the modern publican would probably not be justified either, because he would be up front along side the Pharisee, thanking God he was not a Pharisee.]


John 5:37-40


And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.  And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.  Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.  I receive not honor from men.  But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you.  I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.  How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?  Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.   For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.  But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?


Jesus had greatly offended the rulers because He had healed a man on the Sabbath and had told him to take up his bed and walk.  This was in violation of the tradition of the elders.  The practice of the Jews in keeping the Sabbath days was well known and the Jews were often accused of laziness because of it.  They considered it a badge of honor and a sign of their loyalty to Moses.  In response to their complaint that Jesus had broken the Sabbath, He replied that He worked on the Sabbath just as His Father worked on the Sabbath.  This was even a greater offense to them because in claiming God to be His Father, He was making Himself equal to God. [John 5:18].


Again, in response to their charge of blasphemy, Jesus makes a number of claims concerning His equality with God.  He then attacks their fundamental claim that in doing the word of God given by Moses they had eternal life.  “Search the scriptures;” He says, “for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” 


Their very claim that that were obeying the words of Moses was refuted by the fact that they did not believe in Christ.  They “thought” they had eternal life, but this was a false and vain hope because they misunderstood the meaning of the word that was given by Moses.   Their boast that they had God’s word “abiding in them” was refuted by their unbelief concerning Christ. [John 5:38].  They did not have the true source of life because they did not come to Christ, who is that Source.  [John 5:40] Their whole life was empty and vain because they did not have faith in Christ.


Thus, they stood accused of the very thing that Peter was later to describe, a “vain conversation” received by tradition from their fathers.  Their entire observance of the law, including their fastidiousness concerning the Sabbath was rendered void because they did not believe in Christ.


Their faith was not in Christ, but in their observance of Moses, for this was the ground of their persuasion that they had eternal life [John 5:39].  It was therefore a vain faith, an empty faith.  Faith is validated not by its intensity or by works done in terms of it, but by its object, Jesus Christ.  Jesus declares null and void the faith that the Jew placed in the Scriptures given by Moses and his [the Jew’s] observance of the commandments given by Moses—for this is the meaning of “think ye have eternal life.”  This faith was declared null and void, not because it was not followed zealously nor with great sincerity, but simply because it was directed toward the wrong object.   Faith in Moses and his words could never bring life, if the life-giving element was missing.  The life-giving element was the promise concerning Jesus Christ, without which all observance of commandments and days and ceremonies were vain indeed.


Because of this, Moses himself would become their judge, not because of any lack of zealousness to the law, but because of their lack of faith in Christ.  This means that every “Israelite indeed” who had faith in the promises of Moses concerning the coming of Christ would believe and trust in Christ when He came.  “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed me,” Jesus said. [John 5:46].


If legalism is “any empty way of life that relies upon the corruptible things of this world to satisfy for sins,” then the disease was present in Israel with a vengeance, for they did not trust in Him who had come in His father’s name, but in the things that they did of the law of Moses to be seen of men.  How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?”   They knew nothing of the “rest of God” in their hearts in ceasing from their own works, but contended constantly for the observance of the ceremonies of Sabbath-keeping.



The Apostle Paul, then, is not adding new content to the teachings of Jesus as set forth by the writers of the Gospels, when he affirms that Israel did not find the righteousness of God because they did not seek it by faith. [Romans 9:31-33:  “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone;  As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumbling stone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”]


Paul’s meaning is not that Israel did not have faith absolutely, but that their confidence in seeking righteousness by the works of the law was misdirected and vain.  It is exactly what Jesus said in John 5:  your firm persuasion that you are the people of God and have eternal life is rendered null and void because you are seeking righteousness in the wrong way, by the “works of the law,’ and not by trust in Christ.  These works can never form the ground of any assurance of eternal life for this is a misdirecting of faith to a different object than the Lord Jesus.  What Jesus declared null and void, the Apostle Paul declared null and void.


Jesus also affirmed that faith in Him was all they needed for eternal life.  “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” [John 5:24]   As John would write in his first epistle:  “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life”  [1 John 5:24].  Paul affirms the same thing:  “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God”  [Col 3:3].


Paul did not invent a new disease in Israel, nor did the Reformers and their followers invent a new disease when they said that Israel vainly followed the law, persuaded that they would inherit eternal life by doing so.  Paul and the Reformers were simply affirming what Jesus Himself had said.  No works can form the ground of righteousness, not even those commendable things that the Pharisee could thank God for and attribute to the works of God in him.  Faith in keeping the commandments of Moses, no matter how intense, can never bring eternal life.  That would make expectations of the law beyond its power to perform.  Life is in Christ alone.  The true Israelite” believed in Christ when He came.


The corruptible things of the world cannot defile the already-corrupt soul and neither can they cleanse the soul.  The man is defiled by what comes from him, not by what goes into him.  No man can offer to God any thing of either his body or soul that can redeem him from his sins, for his body and soul belong to those corruptible things that cannot rise to heaven.  If man is to be cleansed from his sins, the offering for sin must be one than can rise to heaven, to the temple in heaven not seen by the eyes of men, into the very presence of God Himself.  It is the blood of Christ, not offered upon earthly altars nor offered before the eyes of men, but offered to God His Father in the horror of darkness that covered the earth in the hour of His passion.  His offering was not before the eyes of men, but in the presence of God Himself and directed to Him.  [Psalm 22 and Hebrews 9:24]


Peter contrasts all the vain offerings that men offer up to God, including those works which the Pharisee can attribute to God working in him, with the offering of Christ which is precious beyond any price.  He includes even those works offered in faith, if the faith be in the works.  We are born of corruptible seed and are like the grass and all the glory of man is like the flower of grass.  It withers and blows away.  Only Christ is born of incorruptible seed for He is the life of men.  It is He who was “foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.”  [I Peter 1:20-25].


So the Reformers did not misinterpret Paul.  Paul did not invent something new and strange in terms of his egoism and vindictiveness against Israel; he simply unpacked what was already there in the teachings of Christ and the other apostles. 



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