One of the great errors and misunderstandings the typical Christian reader, including pastors, have of Paul’s writings is an error that has passed down since the time of Luther. Luther found in Paul’s writings an echo of his own theological opponents. He read Paul in light of his own situation and thought he found there an exact correlation.
Haven’t we all done that? We read in the Bible about enemies and problems or we read about promises and we sometimes see specific references to our own situation there. I’ve heard people claim that their parents were definitely going to put their faith in Yeshua based on Acts 16:31. We could find countless examples.
Luther had his own struggles as an Augustinian monk. He had been convinced by his colleagues and the religious climate of his order that he could only be saved if he merited it by his obedience and repentance. He was reportedly an austere monk, flagellating himself and denying all pleasure, hoping that by extreme sacrifice he might merit a place in God’s love. God was a severe schoolmaster and Luther his whipping boy.
He also famously took issue with those who were selling indulgences. By donating to the building of great cathedrals, supposedly the donors would shave centuries off their expected time in purgatory. Purgatory is the idea that most people will need to go to a place like hell for a little while to pay for their sins before being accepted into heaven. The church in Luther’s day claimed that it had stored up the merit of Christ and various saints in a sort of bank and that they had the authority to dole that merit out to those who purchased indulgences. (Church history buffs, correct me if I have erred in these descriptions.)
So when Luther began to see through these deceptions and errors, he found in his reading of Paul (and Augustine) the exact kinds of issues he was facing. Paul spoke of a righteousness of God manifested apart from the law (Rom. 3:21). Luther found in all this an idea of a righteousness that God gives to believers in Yeshua as a gift: imputed righteousness. The righteousness of law, he saw as the kind of path he had been pursuing as a monk. The law of Judaism, he determined, was about working very hard to measure up and earn salvation.
Luther also was aided in his thinking by Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, the followers of a British monk named Pelagius. Pelagius did not believe we were born in sin or that our human natures were corrupted and unable to do good. He believed that it was possible to become perfectly righteous. This, in fact, was what God required.
Luther remembered his struggles with sin in his little monastic cell. He remembered trying to purge himself with a leather whip, resisting sin to the point of bloodshed.
As he read Paul’s critique of the law, Luther thought he found the perfect analogy in Judaism to his own struggles with a form of Catholic monasticism. The Jews were like Pelagius. Paul was like Luther, one who came out from within a corrupt movement and reformed it.
It’s not hard to see Luther’s reading of Paul and the law as a viable possibility. I saw it that was myself for years. I continue when reading Paul to force myself to see Paul speaking about Judaism as I know it to be and not the kind of Judaism I learned about in Bible college.
There is the Judaism of fantasy and the Judaism of reality. The Judaism of fantasy is a system of merit devoid of grace. The Judaism of my Bible college days is a system in which naïve people imagined that they were able to be perfectly righteous in keeping the Torah. Jesus came along, I was told, to show them they couldn’t do it. They should throw in the towel and become righteous by faith. That is, if they would believe in Yeshual, God would count them righteous without keeping the law.
As I said, it is not hard to read Paul and see this reading as legitimate. Much of what Paul says does seem to fit this theory of Judaism. Let me share a few examples. As you read these verses, imagine Judaism as a system of keeping laws to earn salvation. It’s easy if you try:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law (Rom. 3:21).
You are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).
Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4).
Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13).
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Gal. 5:18).
So, was Luther right? Was Judaism in Paul’s day a sort of Pelagianism? Would a person need to perfectly keep the Torah to earn God’s love? Was Paul setting people free from a system of failure, hypocrisy, and self-torment?
Wait until tomorrow and we’ll see . . .