Paul in Perspective: Part 1, Luther and Sanders
Every evangelical has heard a presentation of the gospel that runs something like this: you are a sinner, unable to save yourself. But God, being rich in mercy, sent his only Son to live the perfect life you should have lived, to die the death you should have died, and to rise again three days later victorious over the sin and death you brought upon yourself. All you have to do is believe in him, and Christ’s perfect record will be counted as your own.
This message has gone by many names—justification by faith, salvation by grace alone, Sola Fide—but at the end of the day, it is what many call the gospel. And it is this gospel that many cling to as their future hope. However, it wasn’t always this way, and it is starting not to be this way again.
Although the church has always believed that we are saved by grace, the message of “justification by faith” began to take its shape from a boisterous German named Martin Luther, who lived around the turn of the 16th century. With a knack for debate and a promising law career on the horizon, Luther would soon have a dramatic encounter with mother nature that would forever change his fate, and that of the entire church. While on his way to Erfurt, Germany, Luther was nearly struck by lightning and famously cried out, “Help me, Saint Anne! I will become a monk.” And so he did.
Luther became the monk, a monk to rival all monks, by committing himself to long nights slept on cold floors, hours spent confessing the most trivial of sins, and even self-flagellations. He was a real-life Silas (the pale, scary dude from The DaVinci Code), although slightly less crazy. In his words, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” But he knew that he still fell short.
Luther’s medieval mind was not prone to think of God as the God of love we take for granted today. For him, God was insatiably holy, unable to allow any sin into his presence. It was this view of God that worried Luther. God was a righteous God who punished unrighteous sinners of whom Luther knew he was foremost despite all his effort.
Burdened by this impossible standard, the Augustinian monk found refuge in the books of Romans and Galatians. There, he found statements like “by works of the law no human being will be justified” (Rom 3:20), and “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ” (Gal 2:16). For Luther’s parched soul, these words were a fresh morning spring.
He realized that the righteousness that he so craved was not something he could obtain on his own. It had to be given from God and received by faith. It was an alien righteousness, earned by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that clothed the sinner who merely accepted it. Luther himself was safe because God made it so in Christ, not because he confessed everything he needed to or punished himself sufficiently.
Luther came to understand that his attempt to earn a right standing before God was legalistic, and this epiphany changed the way he read the books of Romans and Galatians. Paul’s polemic was not a call to a righteous life. It was an acknowledgment that no life was righteous. Those who wished to be made right with God could not do so “by works of the law.” They must do so by faith. Paul condemns the former as legalism. He presents the latter as the gospel. Luther’s “new” understanding of Paul set the clerical world on fire, and it has burned in evangelical hearts ever since, that is, until E. P. Sanders.
A New Testament scholar teaching at Duke, Sanders challenged Luther’s legalism-versus-grace view of Romans and Galatians in his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The legalism Luther and others found in Paul’s most famous letters had flesh and blood. Paul wasn’t attacking some abstract notion. He was attacking the Jews of his day. These Jews, Luther thought, were the ones Paul condemned as legalistic, those who were ignorant of the righteousness of God, and sought to establish their own (See Romans 10:3).
In Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders asked whether or not this legalistic view of the Jews fairly represented their writings. Through a detailed analysis of the Jewish texts written during the time Paul would have written Romans and Galatians, Sanders argued that the Jews did, in fact, believe in grace. The Jews thought God had chosen them not because they were righteous or mightier than other nations (one can hear echoes of Deuteronomy 7:7 here). God had chosen them simply because he loved them and had made a covenant with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This, Sanders claimed, cannot be labeled legalism. It even sounds a bit like Paul.
It was clear that the Jews of Paul’s day did think you had to obey the commands found in Exodus in Deuteronomy to stay in the covenant, but to get in was God’s choice alone. Sanders dubbed his new view, “covenantal nomism.” The first part (covenantal) refers to God’s free choice in choosing Israel to be his people. He alone decided to make a covenant, a binding relationship, with them. The second part of the label comes from the Greek word nomos, which means law, and it refers to the obligation of the Jews to keeps God’s law in order to stay in. Therefore, covenantal nomism simply means getting in is free, but staying in costs something.
Sanders pressed his discovery further. If the Jews of Paul’s day were covenantal nomists and not legalists, then Paul could not be pitting the gospel of free grace against legalism as Luther and others understood him to have done. These legalists didn’t exist. Sanders argued that statements from Romans and Galatians listed above cry out for alternative explanations, and whatever those explanations are, they cannot return to the old way of construing the Jew of the second temple period as a legalist. They also cannot return to the grace-versus-legalism understanding of Romans and Galatians.
Multiple scholars have offered new understandings of Romans and Galatians in Sanders' wake, and it is to these that I will turn in the next post before I provide a critique of Sanders himself.
Jarrett Ford is a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Adjunct Professor at Boyce College. He and his wife Julia have four kids and live in Louisville, KY.