The Relationship Between the Gospel and Justification

The Relationship Between the Gospel and Justification March 18, 2020

People often equate the gospel and justification by faith. They claim the gospel is a message about how individuals get saved. However, this post explains why they are not equivalent. Justification by faith is an implication of the gospel.

I trace out Paul’s logic below, highlighting six interconnected ideas that reemphasize the importance of honor-shame themes.

1. Jesus is King over the world.

Paul’s gospel declares this core message: Jesus is the King, the promised Christ from David’s line, God’s royal son (Romans 1:1-4; 2 Samuel 7:13-14). Through Christ, God rules the earth. Romans 10:9 concisely proclaims, “Jesus is Lord.” In Romans 2–4, Paul begins to unpack the implications of this gospel.

2. Christ is not only the king of Jews; he is the king of Gentiles.

Since Jesus has authority over the world, including life and death, he is not merely the king of one nation. The Christ of Israel is king over all nations. This is the same logic used in Romans 3:29-30, where Paul defends justification by faith by appealing to monotheism.[1] Because there is one God, he is God of Jews and Gentiles. The line of thought applies to the one true king, whom God resurrected.

3. Both Jews and Gentiles are included among his people.

Christ’s identity determines the identity of everyone in the world. In effect, this comment echoes the chorus of Romans 4. God made a “promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). Therefore, Paul concludes, both Jew and Gentile belong to Abraham’s family.

4. Gentiles do not have to become Jews.

Before God, Gentiles need not be ashamed because they lack the heritage, tradition, or whatever distinction they think gives Jews special privilege. God is not partial to either Jews or highly respected Gentile Greeks. Just as Jews are not righteous before God based on group identity, so Gentiles are neither excluded nor put to shame because of social distinctions.

5. Gentiles do not have to do works of the Mosaic law.

Who we are determines what we do. Likewise, who we want to be shapes how we attempt to gain that identity. Socially, circumcision marked Israel’s collective identity. Those who obeyed the Mosaic law were regarded as Jews in a national-ethnic sense.

This view of the law is the key to Paul’s logic. “Circumcision” concerns more than moral rule keeping. When Paul’s opponents say Gentiles must be circumcised, they in effect claim God and thus his king reign over Israel but not the nations. Why does Paul reject justification by works of the law? Circumcision symbolically severs Christ’s kingdom into factions.

At this point, we should highlight a significant but easily missed observation. The opposite of Paul’s doctrine of justification is not salvation by “good works” in some general moral sense. Otherwise, there is no need to press the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Theoretically, Gentiles could just as well do “good works” without being Jewish and certainly without being circumcised.

On that note, it’s hard to imagine why circumcision would be a point of contention at all if Jewish identity were not the fundamental issue at stake. There is nothing inherently moral, good or bad, about cutting one’s foreskin.

6. Gentiles are justified and ultimately save by faith.

If God’s promises come via the law, “faith is null and the promise is void” (Romans 4:14). Not only does “the law bring wrath” (Romans 4:15), it limits membership in God’s people to Israel. God’s promise would be threatened. God’s own honor is at stake.

If the law cannot bring God’s blessing to the nations, what can we conclude? In Romans 4:16, Paul answers, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.” Faith alone honors the righteousness of God, who keeps his promise (Romans 4:20-21). Thus, we see how justification by works dishonors God.

Justification by works limits Christ’s honor. He becomes one nation’s king, whom a rival kingdom shamed on a cross. By contrast, justification by faith turns our attention to the glory of the resurrection. Paul uses these precise terms to describe the justifying faith of Abraham (Romans 4:17-19).[2]

Paul shows the subtlety of the Jews’ confusion. For them, circumcision validates their claim to be God’s people. Even Paul notes that Abraham received “the sign of circumcision as a seal of [his] righteousness” (Romans 4:11). Yet readers of Genesis 15 see that God justifies Abraham prior to receiving circumcision.

Though circumcision marks a person’s identity in a secondary sense, it was not the fundamental proof of Abraham’s justification. Faith in the gospel proves who are God’s people.

[1] For similar logic, compare Galatians 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:5; Ephesians 2:18; 4:5-6. The two lines of reasoning (Christ as King of kings; God as one) are not only parallel. They converge when we recognize the royal implications of monotheism (see especially Isaiah 40–66). Because there is one God, there is only one King. See Romans 3:29-30: “Or is Christ the king of Jews only? Is he not the king of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since Christ is the one true king.”

[2]The writer of Hebrews (11:12, 19) reinforces Paul’s interpretation in Romans 4.

** This post is an excerpt from pp. 95–97 in Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes.

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