A New Look at Paul, Justification

This is the fifth in a series based on a paper by N.T. Wright about the New Perspective on Paul. There is no one New Perspective, but there is a trend in various scholars (especially E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T Wright) to take very seriously the historical background of Paul and read him from his own time, not from the time of Augustine or Luther.

Justification. A common explanation in sermons is just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned. A common theological summary of the salvation process is justification, sanctification, and then glorification. Justification is widely regarded as the beginning of the process, or at least in our experience, of salvation.

Yet, N.T. Wright says, this is not how Paul uses the term. Consider a number of “justification” verses in Paul:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. Romans 2:13
…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Messiah Yeshua… Romans 3:24
It 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. Romans 3:26
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:28
…Yeshua our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4:25
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. Romans 5:18
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Romans 10:10

Now here’s the thing about justification. In Paul, it simply does not mean conversion. It is not the beginning point of our experience of salvation. Instead, justification comes in two phases: initial justification and final justification.

Here’s how it works:
1. God’s foreknowledge of the person (his knowing us before we were born, Rom. 8:29-20).
2. God’s marking us out ahead of time (predestination, Rom. 8:29-30).
3. The Call: as N.T. Wright calls it, “the moment when the gospel of Jesus as Lord is announced and people come to believe it and obey its summons.”
4. Justification (initial): God declares that we are (a) right with him/pardoned/declared innocent and (b) we have joined the covenant family of God (Jew and Gentile).
5. Sanctification: the ongoing process of growing in righteousness and good works in the Spirit’s power.
6. Justification (final): God’s final judgment, which is by works. If our works prove our faith, we are finally saved.
7. Glorification: resurrected and made perfect like Yeshua.

Notice that justification is not conversion. Paul refers to that rather as being called (verses like Galatians 1:6). Justification is what God does after we respond to the call. God declares that our pardon is begun, though only in the final judgment is it complete. Nonetheless, the ones in whom God has begun will go to completion (Phil. 1:6).

To be justified by faith means we are initially declared right with God and in the covenant family by believing that Yeshua is Lord. To be justified as a doer of the law (Rom. 2:13) means at the final judgment we will have been found to have been righteous through the Spirit’s work in us making us grow.

Justification is about our Judge declaring us right, including us in the covenant family, and finally, on that Day, declaring our works valid. We are justified by faith initially but by works in the end (see James 2:24 before you stone me, or Romans 2:13).


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Paul, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A New Look at Paul, Justification

  1. Marc says:

    Hi Derek,

    I have a question or some questions.

    You said: To be justified by faith means we are initially declared right with God and in the covenant family by believing that Yeshua is Lord. To be justified as a doer of the law (Rom. 2:13) means at the final judgment we will have been found to have been righteous through the Spirit’s work in us making us grow.

    OK I understand completely.

    What my issues are is when I’m in contact with my Christian brothers and sisters.

    How does a doer of the law play? In other words christianity for the most part rejects the Torah. But just because they reject the Torah it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lawless or Torahless. Are Christians who who obey the weightiest commandments like loving God and neighbor through observable and demonstrably good DEEDS lawless or Torahless?

    I mean can one reject the Torah and be a doer of the Torah and not even know it by obeying the weightiest commands like loving God and neighbor through observable and demonstrably good deeds?

    Please correct me if I’m not on base here. As I see this as a problem helping our christian brethren to see this.



  2. Marc:

    Great question and I believe Paul answers it in Romans. Let me preface this by saying that I believe Paul’s view is as follows:

    1. Jews are to follow all of Torah (we know some commands cannot be fulfilled at present).
    2. Gentiles are to follow the parts of Torah that apply universally, that is, all except the boundary markers like Sabbath, dietary law, temple attendance, and circumcision.

    Here is where I think Paul addresses this:
    For 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. 15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. ROMANS 2:14-16


  3. Marc says:

    Thanks Derek please excuse me are you able to elaborate a bit more on:

    Gentiles are to follow the parts of Torah that apply universally, that is, all except the boundary markers like Sabbath, dietary law, temple attendance, and circumcision.

    I’m Jewish and my wife is a gentile. We have two children together. The short story is I am returning. I became a Christian about a year ago then the Spirit was stirring me up.

    My friend reminded me of a verse in John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you

    He has been has ‘bringing into remembrance’ ALL things that He has said. Not just said in the New Testament but more importantly ALL things in Torah.

    Now although I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I lived as a Jew if you know what I mean. So again I’m returning.

    There are a couple of reasons I had questions. One most importantly being married to a gentile who I love very much and our two children. I believe that God put us together for a reason but I have to admit it’s been difficult. My wife is Catholic so I hope I don’t have to tell the whole ‘spiel’.

    Thanks again,


  4. Marc:

    There are many things that depend on your personal situation. Do you consider your children Jewish since their father is Jewish? Is your wife willing to raise your children with faith in Jesus and in Jewish heritage? In my opinion, this would be best and would be a blessing.

    Life does not always work so neatly, I know.

    I have elaborated on the role of Gentiles and Torah both on this blog and in my book, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork (available at hopeofdavid.com).

    I could say a few things here, but this is a huge topic. It demands more than a few paragraphs. Let me say that the rabbis, Acts 15, and the writings of Paul agree that Gentiles do not need to keep all of Torah, especially not the boundary markers I mentioned earlier. Of course in an intermarriage, this is a different situation. In an ideal world, you and your family could find a meeting place of faith in Jesus and Jewish lifestyle. While rabbinic halakhah may not consider your kids Jewish, I feel that Torah says your kids are Jewish.


  5. Marc says:

    Hi Derek,

    I will admit I’m wishy washy on this subject on is or how much of Torah is binding on Gentiles.

    Doesn’t the Torah say one law shall be both for the native born and sojourner?

    Let’s take Rahab as an example. This might not be a good example. OK let’s take it back way before the 2nd Temple let’s see what the Torah says. Doesn’t the Torah say there shall be one law for the native born and sojourner?

    In other words if a gentile wanted to ‘attach’ themself to Israel and live among them would he/she have to follow and keep the laws(Torah) of Israel?

    Are you saying that the Torah says that those that live among Israel that aren’t native born didn’t have to keep the Sabbath as an example?

    The way I see Acts 15 is a starting point not the finish. That they will hear Moses every Sabbath. Which to me means that it would be a learning process and not all at once?

    If I’m off base please direct me to the Torah.

    I’m not trying to argue or debate, I’m just trying to gain understanding.


  6. Pingback: Postmissionary Messianic Judaism - Part IV

  7. Marc:

    This discussion comes up here from time to time, but I understand you are new to this blog. Also, this is exactly what my book, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork is about. Available at hopeofdavid.com

    The arguments you bring up are commonly used by the one-law or Hebrew Roots movement (some of whom are no doubt reading this, right Adam?).

    Again, I want to keep my reply short and you have brought up lengthy issues.

    Acts 15 does not say, “The Gentiles WILL BE in the synagogue and hear Moses” (future tense), but it says “Moses has been proclaimed.” He is making a point from the past, not about the future. The one-law reading of Acts 15 is a non-starter. To be brief, hopefully with enough so you can underdstand my point, James is making a point about the Gentile mission and the decision that gentiles don’t have to become Jews. He is saying, “After all, though many Gentiles have heard Moses in the synagogue, few have converted. If conversion is required, few Gentiles will be saved.”

    As for the one-law verses, check Exodus 12 again. It distinguishes between the sojourner and the native born. A sojourner may not eat the Passover sacrifice unless they are circumcised (which I would call conversion). Also, Deut 14:21 says the sojourner may by unclean meat from a native-born. Seems the one-law passages are not meant the way Hebrew Roots teachers say they are. They mean that sojourners should be protected by the laws of justice in the land and not be mistreated. They do not mean that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.


  8. Marc says:

    Derek how do we apply the commands today?

    Do these commands have to do with the land?


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