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.

Justification by faith is central to the mission of God to bless all the peoples of the earth; part 1

I highly recommend, first of all, that you read the recent blog post at HonorShame.com: “The meaning of Romans 3:23”. The author‘s explanation of this often-quoted verse brings out the honor-shame dynamics in the context of Romans 1–3.

The author points to the fact that Romans 3:23 speaks to the sinfulness of peoples (Jews and Gentiles)—more than to the general sin of individual persons. The blog post provides helpful background information for my blog post below.

For the sake of convenience, a key paragraph from the HonorShame.com blog is provided below. (Remember, this is about the verse, Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”)

Simply put, all does not mean “every single, individual person.” Rather, all means “both Jews and Gentiles,” or “every ethnicity.” Or most succinctly, it means “all peoples,” instead of “all people.” The primary categories in Romans 1-3 are groups, not individuals. Romans addresses the relationship between two groups of people. Group A consists of ethnic Israelites, “the circumcised,” “the Jews,” “those under the nomos/Torah.” Group B is the Gentiles, “the uncircumcised, “the Greeks,” “those without nomos/Torah. So, when Paul says “all” he has in mind both of these groups—Jews and Gentiles. The use in Romans 3:23 means “all peoples” more than “every individual.”[1]


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’ll look at two passages in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome—Romans 3:28–30 and Romans 4:16–18, plus Galatians 3:7–9. All of these passages deal with justification by faith and the all-peoples mission of God.

This blog post is part one. We examine Romans 3:28–30

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

Explicit and positive

We start with the obvious. The verses contain a truth that is both explicit and positive concerning the all-peoples emphasis. God will justify persons from among both Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles (the uncircumcised). Together, this represents all the peoples of the earth. God will bless all peoples. No people group is excluded from God’s blessing. It connects with God’s original promise to Abraham to bless all the peoples of the earth through his family (Gen 12:3, 15:5, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14).

To emphasize the radical nature of God’s gift-of-salvation-offered-to-all-peoples, Apostle Paul asks: “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” (Paul is identifying the default Jewish attitude that God belongs to the Jews only—the basis for Jewish “boasting.)

Then Paul answers, “Yes, of Gentiles also”. Concerning this answer, Robert Jewett writes:

Paul contends that the relationship of the “Gentiles” and the “Jews” to God is now exactly the same … God is the God of both ethnic groups. The revolutionary equality of all nations before God that flows from the Christ event is emphatically stated by Paul’s response to the interlocutor’s question: ναὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν (“Yes, [God] also [belongs to] Gentiles).[2]

Note well the explicit-positive principle: All nations are equal before God. It is a revolutionary idea. Paul was articulating a Christ-centered gospel which was utterly fresh—a brilliant, positive hope in his world of the Roman Empire. It challenged the status quo of empire-adoring Romans … of ethnically proud Jews … and of culturally elitist Greeks. Can you hear this gospel speaking to our world as well?

Implicit and negative

And now, the not-as-obvious. There is an all-peoples emphasis in Romans 3:28–30 that is more implicit and negative. It is implicit in the phrase, “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”. Jewett, commenting on Rom 3:28, writes:

God’s granting of righteousness through faith in the crucified Christ counters the seemingly universal tendency to claim honor on the basis of performance or social status. It eliminates claims of cultural or ethnic superiority.[3]

In the book Saving God’s Face, Jackson Wu also addresses the ethnic issues of Jew and Gentile in the doctrine of justification by faith as taught in Romans and Galatians. After a lengthy nuanced discussion covering various perspectives, Wu concludes:

“[T]his gospel message (Gal 3:8) inherently necessitates forsaking the primacy of ethnic identity. The gospel directly challenges ethnocentrism; it is no mere corollary or application.[4]

Wow. “The gospel directly challenges ethnocentrism; it is no mere corollary or application.” Do you hear the force of these words? Ethnic, tribal or national identity is to be secondary to the believer’s primary identity as citizen in God’s kingdom, family member in the household of God (Eph 2:19). I believe it is this, our most-honorable identity in Christ, that subverts ethnocentrism and is part of the core of the gospel.

What is the implicit and negative all-peoples emphasis? It is that faith in the crucified Christ “directly challenges ethnocentrism” and “eliminates claims of cultural or ethnic superiority”. Faith in the crucified Christ necessitates forsaking ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism, cultural elitism, racism—this is what we are to negate through the gospel.

It includes and excludes

Of course, the gift of salvation in Christ includes the personal gain of eternal life and the hope of heaven. But what if we embraced a fuller meaning of justification-by-faith in Rom 3:28–30 as described above? If we did, the gift of salvation might profoundly impact the believer’s relational world when it excludes from the believer—attitudes of cultural, national, tribal, or ethnic superiority.

An audacious thought: Could this all-nations, global gospel have prevented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when a majority of the nation was considered Christian? Could this all-nations, global gospel have a profound impact today in America—in our deeply polarized social and political climate?

Every expression of elitism, racism, and nationalism will one day fall in submission to the Lordship of Christ. This is part of a gospel expressly designed by God to bless all the peoples of the earth.

Conclusion: Could it be that the Western, individualistic legal-framework gospel emphasizes personal conscience and individual conversion—while at the same time, it unduly marginalizes the relational, social significance of the all-peoples, all-ethnicities gospel? Is this because in Western theology, the common understanding of justification by faith is missing the ethnic, relational, or social dimension of what Apostle Paul intended?

Next post: Part two—Romans 4:16–18 and Galatians 3:7–9


FOOTNOTES

1. Robert Jewett confirms this exegesis: “To fall short is an honor issue and it resonates with the competition for honor within and between groups in the Greco-Roman world. . . . Despite the claims of Jews and Greeks to surpass each other in honor and despite their typical claims that the other groups are shameful because of their lack of wisdom or moral conformity, Paul’s claim is that all fall short of the transcendent standard of honor.” In Jewett: Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 280.
2. Ibid., 299.
3. Ibid., 298.
4. Jackson Wu: Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series), (Pasadena: William Carey International University Press, 2013), 276–7.

Justification by faith is God’s means of salvation—to “exclude boasting”

An important passage for the doctrine of justification by faith is Romans 3:21–27.

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—

[22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

[23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

[24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

[25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

[26] It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

[27] Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

[28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

There is a relationship here between 1) justification by faith, and 2) boasting. The necessity of the first makes for the exclusion of the second.

In order to better understand this relationship we must first grasp the meaning of the word “boasting” in the intensely competitive social context of the Roman Empire. Robert Jewett says that “it is ordinarily overlooked that Rome is the boasting champion of the ancient world, filled with honorific monuments and celebrations of imperial glory.”[1]

In the social context of the Roman world, honor competition and boasting were as common as breathing. Scholars have a name for this honor-shame dynamic: “challenge and riposte”.

U.K. theologian John M. G. Barclay, author of Paul and the Gift, explains the intense rivalry and  widespread practice of “boasting” in the social world of Apostle Paul:

Paul lived in a face-to-face society where self-advertisement [boasting], rivalry, and public competition were a perpetual cause of tension in every day life. …

As recent research has emphasized, almost all social relations and Paul’s cultural context were both ordered and threatened by the competition for honor. In the absence of “objective” measures of quality (such as educational qualifications), a person’s worth was heavily dependent on his public reputation, a “dignity” energetically claimed and fiercely defended. The pursuit or defense of honor was, many ancient commentators claimed, the chief motivating force for action: “by nature we yearn and hunger for honor, and once we have glimpsed, as it were, some part of its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and suffer in order to secure it” (Cicero, Tusc. 2.24.58). …

And challenge was, indeed, the very essence of this culture. Honor was derived from comparison, from placing oneself (or being placed by others) higher on some hierarchical scale, in which one person’s superiority means that another is comparatively demeaned. This made honor ever the subject of contest: indeed, the ordeal or test was the very arena in which honor was proved. In this environment, every claim to honor [boast] was a real or potential provocation, and every challenge required an active riposte. Honor was a precious but unstable commodity, requiring active promotion [boasting] and persistent demonstration in a court of opinion that continually looked on with a critical eye.[2]

So what does Paul mean when he says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27)? Two considerations:

  1. The commonplace social dynamic of boasting in the Roman world—normally considered honorable—is in reality, to be “excluded”. Curiously, this word “excluded” comes from the Greek word ἐκκλείω (ekkleiō), which means “to be shut out”. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used—Gal 4:17. It is a shame term. Why? Because to be excluded is shameful. The irony is plain: The default social practice of making honor claims (boasting)—is actually shameful from God’s perspective!
  2. When Paul asks, “Then what becomes of our boasting?”, is he referring only to ‘we Jews’ who make honor claims (who are boasting) about the “works of the law” (Rom 3:28)? Or is Paul referring to the broader category of ‘we humans’? I believe the context demands that Paul cannot be only referring to Jews, because the preceding verses, Rom 3:21–26, clearly speak with universal intent. I like how Barclay puts it: “His point is to exclude from God’s reckoning not only one but any form of symbolic capital that might be taken to constitute a source of worth before God”.[3]

Ok, so justification by faith means no boasting. But what’s the point? Community!

Yes, justification by faith means that boasting is excluded—what not to do. But there is also an enormously positive intent in Paul’s overall message. Paul has in mind the social community of the church, the body of Christ. Keeping in mind Rome‘s default culture of honor competition, envy, and boasting, we turn again to Barclay, whose insights concerning Paul’s letter to the Romans harmonize with Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

The assembly of believers forms a new community of opinion, constituted by the gift to the unworthy. Within this community there arises, of course, an alternative system of worth, a new form of “symbolic capital”: here, some are to be honored as teachers of the word (6:6) and others given responsibility as “spiritual people” … insofar as they are attuned to the Spirit. But—and this is the second characteristic of Paul’s social strategy—the hallmark of this alternative system of value is that it is specifically directed against rivalry; the greatest honor is for those who work against the competitive spirit of honor itself. As we have seen nearly all of the characteristics catalogued as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23) are directed toward the construction of community, from love downwards. … What counts among believers, according to Paul, is precisely the antithesis to arrogance and competition.[4]

The only kind of rivalry that is acceptable in the Christian community is to “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). This “antithesis to arrogance”—this against-rivalry-ethic—is also plain in Romans 12:14–19.

Conclusion: By understanding the honor-shame dynamic of “challenge and riposte” and the prominence of “boasting” in the Roman Empire, we better grasp the doctrine of justification by faith. It is God’s means of salvation—to “exclude boasting”—which, in turn, leads to the creation of a loving community that abides in Christ, in unity, against rivalry.


1. Robert Jewett: Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 295–6.
2. John M. G. Barclay: Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 433-4.
3. Ibid., 484.
4. Ibid., 435.