Justification by faith is central to the mission of God to bless all the peoples of the earth; part 2

This blog post is part 2 of this series: “Justification by faith is central to the mission of God to bless all the peoples of the earth”. It is also the fourth blog post in a general series concerning how honor-shame helps us understand justification by faith.


In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the doctrine of justification by faith is tethered to the global mission of God—the blessing of salvation for all peoples. We looked at Romans 3:28–30 in the first post. In this post we consider Romans 4:16–18 in conjunction with Galatians 3:7–8. All of these passages deal with justification by faith and how this doctrine overlaps with the all-peoples mission of God.

First, Romans 4:16–18 …

[16] That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, [17] as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. [18] In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”

What is “it”?

The opening phrase is: “That is why it depends on faith”. What does “it” refer to? It refers to the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise through faith, specifically justification by faith. Robert Jewett writes:

… Paul contends that the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise (which is the subject of this paragraph in 4:13) comes ἐκ πίστεως (“by faith”). This formula harks back to the thesis of Romans drawn from Hab 2:4, that the “righteous shall live ἐκ πίστεως (1:17), which was elaborated in 3:25–30 and 4:5–12.[1]

So although the words justification by faith are not specifically mentioned in Rom 4:16, let us observe that the words from the justification-word-family are mentioned five times (justified, just, justifier, justify, justified) in Rom 3:24–30, referencing faith. They are all elaborating on the fact that it is “by faith, not works”. So the concept of justification by faith may be considered implicit in “it depends on faith”. One could paraphrase this, “That is why the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise depends on justification by faith”.

What is “the promise”?

Next question: What is “the promise” referred to in the phrase “in order that the promise may rest on grace”? This refers to the promise made in God’s initial call to Abram in Genesis 12:3—“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” As stated in the prior post, the promise of God’s blessing-to-all-peoples-and-nations is repeated in 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14). The repetition of the promise indicates a forceful emphasis, a highly significant theme in the purpose, story, and gospel of God.

Why “guaranteed to all his offspring”?

First, let’s recognize that “all his offspring” refers to all the families/ethnicities/peoples of the earth—among whom innumerable believers will have placed their faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:29). The use of the word “all” (πᾶς) is significant throughout Romans. Jewett writes concerning Rom 4:16:

The word “all” (πᾶς) is crucial for Romans, having been employed nineteen times already in the letter, including the close parallel in Rom 4:11 referring to Abraham as the “father of all who believe.” The opening lines of the letter feature inclusive emphasis, addressed to “all those in Rome beloved of God” (1:7), praying for “all of you” (1:8), and serving a mission aimed at the obedience of faith among “all the Gentiles” (1:5), that offers salvation to “all who believe” (1:16). So in this chapter the “righteousness of faith” (4:13) in Abraham’s promise establishes an inclusivity of all faithful people, no matter what their ethnic or religious status may be. [2](Emphasis mine.)

Second, something about the nature of faith in Christ makes it possible, no, guaranteed—to go global! To further spell it out—we must see that the ancient promise of God to Abraham in Genesis naturally results in an honor challenge to the reputation of God. Here’s why: It results in an honor challenge because of the questions that the promise raises in the minds of all humans who would hear about this God and his utterly astounding promise to Abraham.

  • Will God make good on his promise? Is God actually able to deliver on what he promised to Abraham?
  • How exactly, is God going to fulfill his promise to bless all the families of the earth? What will be his means?
  • Could it be that the scope of God’s promise—to bless all the families of the earth, all peoples, all nations—is just hyperbole, mere exaggeration?
  • Was this promise a kind of boasting—God’s way of tricking Abraham, manipulating him into obedience?

Whatever the case, the honor and glory of God’s name is at stake, because the trustworthiness of his promise—across millennia and on behalf of all the peoples of the earth—is in question. Will the honor of God’s name be vindicated?

“Father, glorify your name!”

To further examine this, here’s an excerpt from my book The Global Gospel. I’m addressing the passionate declaration in John 12:28 of Jesus Christ to the Father—just before his being apprehended by the Roman authorities before his trial, flogging, and crucifixion.

When Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name” [John 12:28], he is essentially saying, Father, vindicate your honor! Save your “face”!

Why would the death and resurrection of Christ vindicate God’s honor? Because it is the only way that God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth could have come true. God’s credibility hinged on a means for all peoples to be blessed and redeemed. Yes, God gave the law to Moses and his people; yes, the law revealed God’s righteousness and holiness; but the law was lifeless in that it was totally unable to save (Rom 8:2–3).

There was only one way that God’s plan to bless all families—to reverse the curse among all peoples—could be guaranteed: through a heart-captivating faith that individuals and peoples everywhere would place in the name, honor, and finished work of Jesus Christ, a faith that transcends culture.

With regard to ethnicity this faith needed to be neutral, accessible to and affirming of all peoples. But with regard to ethics, this faith needed to be superior; that is, it needed to have the ability to truly transform people from the inside out, conforming them to the righteousness of the Son of God. Therefore, this faith would be a fulfillment of the covenant promise God gave to his people through Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), but the faith would be untethered from the works of the law specific to Jewish ethnicity and culture, such as circumcision.[3]

God is making sure (it is “guaranteed”, as in Rom 4:16) that all the families/peoples of the earth will be blessed, and that this family of families—which owes its existence to God—will be as universally broad and diverse as originally promised. This in turn gives God maximum honor and relational delight, the maximum praise he deserves.

One more passage to consider: Galatians 3:7–8

In Gal 3:7–8 (below), observe the links between a) justification by faith, b) “the Gentiles” and “all the nations”, and c) “the gospel”.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Without a doubt the context of this passage is the justification by faith of believers from all the nations/people groups. In the book of Galatians, one of Paul’s strategies is to use the doctrine of justification to expose the ethnocentric values of the Jews.[4] According to Jackson Wu, “The doctrine of justification explains who can be justified by explaining how one is justified. ‘All nations’ is the specific locus of the Abrahamic covenant. Faith simply explains how God undermines ethnic exclusivism and so keeps his promise.”[5]

Therefore, justification by faith in Jesus Christ is the only means for the promised blessing to be guaranteed to all the offspring (i.e., all peoples, ethnicities, nations). Why?

  1. Justification by faith is ethnically neutral and culturally fluid (no circumcision or other Jewish cultural traditions required!); it therefore guarantees that God’s honorific blessing can go to all peoples. No ethnic group is excluded. Every people group in all the world is included in the blessing-and-honor-Story of Jesus the Christ. Every tribe will be represented in the royal family (Rom 8:14–15; Eph 2:19; 1 Pet 2:9), with regal access to God the Father (Rom 5:1–2).
  2. Justification by faith leads to the ultimate honor—global worship unto God. God will be seen to make good on his promise; God’s reputation is preserved, his honor vindicated, his name glorified. The Triune God is lovingly worshiped by people from among all peoples, both Jew and Gentile—all ethnicities, tribes and nations (Rom 15:8–11).

Undermining ethnic exclusivism

Most Western and Reformed theology holds the doctrine of justification by faith to be a legal transaction by which God “reckons” individual sinners “not guilty” (Rom 4:3; 4:6, 8:1). The explanation of justification by faith in Grudem’s Systematic Theology is a great example of this legal-framework view.[6] I do not dispute its truthfulness.

Indeed, our personal faith in Christ—faith in his death and his resurrection—is the way that we as individuals have our sins forgiven, become part of the family of God, and are saved from the penalty of sin.

But to speak of justification by faith as a legal transaction only—a legal transaction for individuals—is to marginalize some hugely significant issues concerning social status and group-honor (or dishonor), peoples and ethnicity—in Romans and Galatians.

  • As Jackson Wu writes, “Faith simply explains how God undermines ethnic exclusivism and so keeps his promise.”
  • Jewett writes: “In Paul’s interpretation the God in whom Abraham believed is the same as the father of Jesus Christ who accepts and honors those who have no basis for honor, either in their religious accomplishments, their wisdom, or their social status.” … “[F]aith was the response of converts to the message that Christ died for the impious, and it led to their joining small communities of faith in which righteousness became a social reality as the dishonored were restored to honor, that is, to ‘righteousness.’”[7]

A gospel that speaks to elitism, tribalism, exclusivism

Elitism. Tribalism. Exclusivism. ‘My group is better than or different from your group; my group is superior and your group is excluded.’

Isn’t the issue of exclusivism, whatever the source, a huge problem in our world today? Corporate sin—whether it is along cultural, ethnic/racial/tribal, political, or other lines of social demarcation—seems ever present. These corporate sins concern our individual core identity and group identity … honor and shame … inclusion and exclusion. The question is often over All peoples? Or just some peoples?

The doctrine of justification by faith guarantees that the promised blessing of God travels to all peoples, to the ends of the earth; it is for the salvation-and-honor-in-Christ of persons from among all peoples, not just some peoples. This is not just the goal of the gospel. According to Gal 3:8 this is the gospel (or at least one significant part of it). The glory of God is at stake.


FOOTNOTES

1. Robert Jewett: Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 328–9.
2. Ibid., 330.
3. Werner Mischke: The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Scottsdale: Mission ONE, 2015), 244.
4. Ibid., 134.
5. Jackson Wu: Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series) (Pasadena: WCIU Press, 2012), 270.
6. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem writes, “In this sense of ‘declare to be righteous’ or ‘declare to be not guilty’ Paul frequently uses the word to speak of God’s justification of us, his declaration that we, though guilty sinners, are nonetheless righteous in his sight. … In this sense of ‘justify,’ God issues a legal declaration about us. This is why theologians have also said that justification is forensic, where the word forensic means ‘having to do with legal proceedings.’” Wayne Grudem: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (p. 724). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
7. Jewett, 314–315.


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