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The Wiles of Works Righteousness

By Matthew Claridge–


Its fitting during a week when we “confessional evangelicals dress up our kids as Zwingli and Bucer for ‘Reformation Day,'” (compliments of Russ Moore) that we would spend some time reflecting on the magnificence of justification by faith alone. In this four-part series I plan to do just  that through some exploratory soundings in the quintessential Reformation book, Galatians.

Reading Galatians, one gets the impression that those in Paul’s cross-hairs were flagrant peddlers of works based religion. They smelled, looked, and sounded like used car salesmen. There was no subtly in their message: “you must earn your way into God’s good graces by obeying the law, starting with circumcision.” Paul expresses continual shock that they could be taken in so easily by such disreputable characters.

But things may not be as straightforward as that. Wolves don’t typically saunter into the flock without the anonymity of sheep’s clothing. Paul’s account may be inspired, but it is also a bit one-sided. And that is not a down side, merely the human side. We are meant not only to relate to Paul’s theological message, but also Paul’s very human frustration. After all, Paul had sweated blood and tears getting those churches in Galatia on their feet (Acts 13-14). He very nearly died in the process (Acts 14.19ff) and, by all accounts, pressed on despite some kind of debilitating physical handicap (Gal. 4.13). And before you could say “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” some “disturbers of the peace” waltz into town and commandeer the churches Paul founded and turn them against not only Paul’s message but against the messenger as well. Paul takes this “personally” in the deepest possible sense—it’s an attack on his core identity as a Christian, as an apostle, and as an individual. I’m no Paul, but I can just imagine how utterly depressing this “rejection” would be.

As personally offensive as this turn of events may be, it’s a good bet those involved didn’t see it that way. They didn’t see themselves as part of a hostile take over of Paul’s territory, nor as plotters in a nefarious scheme to slip in a counterfeit gospel. That’s the way “works righteous” usually works. It comes across as plausible, commendable, reasonable. Though not obviously stated, reading between the lines of Paul’s gospel defense reveals several ways the reasonableness of works righteousness slips in to steal our freedom in Christ.

Justification by cultural preference

In all likelihood, those involved in the Galatian shakeup were self-described “Christian” Jews zealous to preserve what they assume to be a Jewish faith. They very likely thought they were preserving the gospel from Paul’s “liberal” interpretation. This is clear from a number of considerations. That they were ethnic Jews is demonstrated from their overall focus on obeying the Jewish laws (Gal. 4.10, 25, 29; 5.2-4; 6.12). That they were self-professed Christians is at least implied in 1.6 where Paul speaks of their message as a “gospel,” though not one he identifies with. More definitive is the squabble between Paul and Peter brought out in 2.11ff. This Apostolic face-off touched on a fundamental tension, or labor pain, in the birth of the church. While there might be some question over who the “circumcision party” represents in Gal. 2.12, there’s no question in Acts 15.1-2 and especially 21.20-21 that thousands of Jews “zealous for the law” had “believed” in the gospel. The difficulty this raised for the spread of the gospel is evident in how many of the apostles reacted to the situation themselves.

Christianity was born in a Jewish milieu among card-carrying Jews. Circumcising infants, avoiding pork, and observing the Sabbath was in their blood stream. In the early part of Acts, most of the believers were not only Jews but practicing Jews, in one form or another, which included the apostles (Acts 3.1; 10.13-14; 21.20-26). As the Christian faith began to take root in Gentile soil (as the result of God’s explicit directive, Acts 10), the question naturally arose: should Gentiles circumcise their infants, avoid pork, and observe the Sabbath? Should they adopt Jewish customs? If so, shouldn’t such obligations be presented to Gentiles along with the gospel message?

This represented a major cultural and strategic concern for the mission of the church. How can Jews and Gentiles fellowship if they observe radically different cultural practices? After all, no Gentile was circumcised, Gentiles loved pork, and the Gentile week was based on ten days not the Jewish seven. In the interest of church unity, it seemed imperative that Jews and Gentiles be on the same page. Eventually, something had to give.

Now, obviously, there were unique features to this debate. The requirement of Jewish customs ultimately meant more than a declaration of Jewish cultural superiority. To resurrect the Mosaic Law code and observe it as a necessary feature of Christian identity ultimately represented a denial of the redemptive historical sufficiency of Christ’s cross and would involve a return to the “old age” in which the Spirit had not been  given (3.1-5, 14). Both Jew and Gentile would still be dead in their sins.

Though the continuing observance of the Mosaic law carried unique theological baggage, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that anytime the church erects some cultural preference as an entry requirement to the faith we are also denying the sufficiency of the gospel to some degree. Undoubtedly, very few of us would be willing to say with the same forthrightness of the circumcision party, “unless you are circumcised (or educated, or part your hair in the middle, or drink fair-trade coffee, or have only two children, or fifteen children) you cannot be saved” (Acts 15.1), nonetheless such a message comes out in a myriad of other ways in terms of our associations, emphasis, humor, and nostalgic references. In one suburban church I attended, I was grieved at the inordinate amount of jokes directed at one family who had “so many” kids. Often, we are entirely unaware of what we are doing, and what our actions imply—much, I think, like Peter himself. I once heard a church leader make this comment while taking up a missionary offering: “part of this offering will go toward the purchase of Communion dishware, so that our brothers and sisters in Africa can celebrate the Lord’s Supper biblically.” One of my friends in attendance, a MK from Africa, nearly choked when he heard those words.

The issues are never simple of course. For instance, I wouldn’t identify myself as a multiculturalist. I happen to think some, by no means all, Western “cultural assumptions” are and have been more helpful than others (in the spirit of Churchill’s statement, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”). This picture is complicated by the fact that many Western ideas are derived in part from a long interaction with Christianity. Representative, constitutional government and individual rights are among those ideas that not everyone takes for granted. Should we export Western democracy along with our Christianity?

Along similar lines, its difficult to distinguish at times between living “wisely” and practicing the implications of the gospel. Paul felt it “wise” to circumcise Timothy in one context (Acts 16.3) and a violation of the gospel to circumcise Titus in another (Gal. 2.3). Despite appearances, it is possible to comprehend Paul’s logic here. Where the sufficiency of Christ is not at question, Paul felt free to bend and flex as needed so the gospel could be heralded without unnecessary encumbrances. But consider a less “neutral” practice, such as smoking tobacco.

At first, smoking seems like a simple wisdom issue. Whether you smoke or not, it doesn’t change a lick of Christ’s all sufficient atonement for you. But on the other hand, to continue smoking when you are aware of its health hazards seems like a destructive negligence of the “image of God” with which someone is endowed.[1] Yes, we live in a fallen world in which nearly everything we ingest (especially now) is unhealthy to some degree, but does that mean we can just fling caution to the wind and declare, “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die?” Calvin doesn’t appear to think so: “It is very clear what our duty is: thus, if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them” (Institutes, I.17.iv).

I digress on these difficulties not to contradict the principle under discussion, but to highlight the fact that “works-righteousness” is a devilishly subtle thing. It’s often more difficult than we realize to separate our cultural, social, or ideological practices from the sufficiency of the gospel and/or its legitimate implications.

Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.

[1] A further complicating factor is that the manufacture of tobacco products today is quite different from how they were produced generations ago. Without all the added carcinogens and toxins the health cost of smoking is significantly less. However, beyond this general observation, I am in no position to analyze the exact difference in health costs between the modern and traditional manufacture of tobacco products.

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