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Grace and Works in Paul’s Biblical Theology


The goal I have set myself here is to explore some of Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament with respect to his teaching that salvation comes by grace through faith and not by works of the Law.  I want people to see how Paul derives this fundamental teaching of his from the Old Testament.  Paul spent much of his time arguing with Jews that their own Scriptures teach that righteousness and salvation come by grace from God and not by their own works of the Law and then, if so, that God’s saving grace has further and fully been revealed in Jesus, the Redeemer in Zion of Jacob’s transgressions.  My further goal is to present this material in as brief a space as possible.  Of course, the arguments can well be expanded (including interaction with existing interpretations) and need to be were I to work them up into a journal article.  Indeed, some arguments here are original and deserve that further attention.  Yet I want to get the arguments out for a broader audience and sooner rather than later.[1]

A Note on Scholarship [for students and scholars]

Some readers will be interested in how all this relates to the New Perspective on Paul, and so a few words are offered here.  Much of the discussion of the Law and of works in Paul’s theology has focussed either (1) on the flow of Paul’s thought in his letters or (2) the contemporary Jewish literature.  The latter approach particularly came about with E. P. Sanders’ examination of much of Second Temple Jewish literature.  His conclusion was that Judaism was not a religion of works, as it had been claimed for centuries and particularly by Martin Luther,[2] but a covenantal nomism.  By this he meant that Judaism’s ‘pattern of religion’ entailed the beliefs that one ‘gets into’ the covenant of God by grace (not works), and that one ‘stays in’ by grace as well as by living according to the expectations of the covenant (works).  Well over half of Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 was devoted to this part of his argument, and many have either agreed with his conclusion (despite some passages in IV Ezra that should be considered) or slightly modified it.  This consensus is half of what people have come to call the ‘New Perspective on Paul.’  It is actually a collection of perspectives that (1) reject the claim that Judaism was a works righteousness religion in the 1st century AD and (2) further interpret Paul largely in terms of a social concern for his Gentile mission, namely, ‘How does Paul answer the matter of the two groups of Jews and Gentiles with respect to a variety of issues, such as the Law, works, works of the Law, justification/righteousness, the righteousness of God, the ‘faith of Christ,’ and the atonement.

Three ‘pieces’ to this discussion have often seemed missing to me over the years, and I do believe that there should be no ‘perspective’ on Paul without them.  First, much of the discussion is based on a scholarly consensus that has not been secured even if it exercises a position of ‘academic correctness’: namely, that Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him.  Were we to accept purely for argument’s sake that this is a legitimate conclusion, every scholar should still entertain letters written in the ‘Pauline circle’ within a short time of Paul as a ‘check’ on his or her own reading of the undisputed letters.  Ruling out a discussion of, e.g., Ephesians 2.8-9 on Paul’s view of grace and law is, in my view, a flaw in method.  Second, and by the same token, other 1st century Christian writings (the rest of the New Testament) should also be given consideration.  So, e.g., Acts 7.53; 13.39; Heb. 7.19; 10.1; James 2.8-12; 4.11 as well as Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees ought to be weighed as well alongside whatever one thinks Paul has said about the Law.  Even if one thinks that there were differences, this should be a part of the study: if there is one essential aspect of academic research in ancient texts, it is that those texts be read in context.  We might, then, have expected Sanders not only to consider Second Temple Jewish texts but also 1st Century Christian texts in his assessment of Paul.

Yet there is a third piece to the discussion that has often been missing and that, to me, makes all the difference.  Paul has been treated as a ‘theologian’ in the sense that his letters can be read as a theological argument.  He has also, secondly, been treated as a Christian interacting with Jews—hence the study of Paul in the context of second Temple, Jewish literature.  Yet the third piece to a study of Paul must surely be to investigate Paul as an interpreter of Scripture—Paul the exegete.  (And there have been scholars doing just this, such as Francis Watson and Richard Hays).  The New Perspective on Paul has, however, so set Paul in the context of his missionary purposes and the social situation in his churches that it has almost inevitably ignored him as an interpreter.  So, e.g., what if what Paul says about the Law is not so much a word about contemporary Judaism but about how to read the Biblical texts?  Not to draw too firm a distinction here, the point is more one of emphasis (for surely Paul’s letter to the Romans is addressing real issues in the church and is not simply a theological treatise).  The purpose of this essay is to explore this third missing piece to so much of the present interpretation of Paul.

Key Old Testament Texts for Paul’s Theology of Faith

In his arguments that righteousness comes by faith, not works, Paul turns to several key texts (one of which must be followed in the Septuagint) that share the key vocabulary of ‘faith/belief’, and two of them share the vocabulary of ‘righteousness.’  Jewish interpretation in the 1st century accepted that two texts could be considered together for interpretation if they shared a common word—a principle Paul uses a number of times in Romans.

Habbakuk 2.4

Facing terror from the Chaldeans (ch. 1) and affirming God as his Saviour (3.18), Habakkuk reports God to say, ‘the righteous person shall live by my faith/faithfulness’ (Hab. 2.4, LXX [my translation]) or ‘the righteous one shall live by his faith’ (Hebrew [my translation]).  Paul writes, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ (Rom. 1.17; Gal. 3.11).  The point in Habakkuk seems to be that the righteous person has faith in God.  Earlier, in Hab. 1.13, Habakkuk asks God why He passes over in silence when the godless (the Chaldeans) swallow up the ‘righteous’.  Hab. 2.4 is God’s answer—the righteous will live by faith, that is, by faith that God will deal with the unrighteous (ch. 3 broadens the issue beyond the idolatry and violence of the Chaldeans to other forms of wickedness).

Genesis 15.6

Abraham’s reaction to God’s covenant promises to him is one of belief, and God ‘considers’ his faith as righteousness.  We read, ‘And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen. 15.6).  In English, we switch back and forth between the words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’, but the nouns and verbs are the same in Hebrew, and the same is true of Greek.  Thus, the English reader should see the same word behind the word ‘faith’ in Hab. 2.4 as we have here behind ‘believed’.  Moreover, both texts have the word ‘righteous’ in slightly different forms.  Thus, two words overlap between the two texts.  The word ‘consider’ or ‘count’ or ‘reckon’ in this verse will be important for Paul’s further interpretation (as he expounds this in Rom. 4).

Isaiah 28.16

In the Greek translation of Isaiah 28.16 (different from the Hebrew), we read: ‘and the one who believes on it [the foundation, a precious stone, lithos] will certainly not be put to shame’ [my translation].  Here we have the catch word ‘believe’ again.  The word ‘stone’ further links this passage with another stone passage in Isaiah: ‘And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem’ (Is. 8.14).  The stone is positive in Is. 28.16 and negative in Is. 8.14, yet Paul links these two verses in a combined quotation in Rom. 9.33 to explain the failure of Jews to attain reaching the Law leading to righteousness even though pursuing it.  That is, the Jews stumbled on God’s provision of righteousness because they were pursuing the Law not by faith in what God provides but by works of their own (Rom. 9.32).  I believe that ‘put to shame’ in the LXX of Is. 28.16 (not the Hebrew) accounts for Paul’s wording in Rom. 1.16 (despite the frequency of such language in the OT): ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (ESV).

God’s Grace

While none of the texts mention the word ‘grace,’ they all express some aspect of God making a provision that evokes only belief, not works, on the part of others.  These texts are foundational for Paul’s understanding of (1) righteousness or salvation by God’s grace, (2) the response of faith, and (3) the fact that works, or works of the Law, do not attain righteousness when it comes from God.  Moreover, Is. 28.16 identifies the ‘rock’ with Christ Jesus, and for that point we can also note a third ‘rock’ text in the Old Testament that was used of Jesus: Ps. 118.22: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’

A Further Text: Psalm 32.1-2

In Romans 4, Paul adds a quotation from David that agrees with Gen. 15.6.  David says, ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit’ (Ps. 32.1, ESV).  The word translated here as ‘counts’ is ‘logizomai’ in Greek and could also be translated ‘imputes’ (NRSV) or ‘reckons’.  The word was also used in Gen. 15.6, hence Paul’s use of the two passages in Rom. 4 is based on this linking word—however it gets translated.  This can be missed in translation, though.  The NRSV, e.g., uses ‘imputes’ in Ps. 32.2, ‘reckoned’ in Gen. 15.6, and ‘reckoned’ throughout Rom. 4 (where it appears 11 times).

Again, while lacking the word ‘grace,’ we have here another text from which Paul derived his understanding of God’s grace over against works.  In this psalm, David recognizes that there is no hope for him because of his transgressions.  The only hope is in God’s covering his sin, His not counting/reckoning his iniquity.

What is the Trouble with the Law?

In a nutshell, the Law was like a light that could show where sin was but it could not help someone who needed help to avoid sin.  It could discipline the sinful person, but it could not make him or her righteous (cf. Gal. 3.24-25).  The Mosaic Law was, as Paul says, holy, just, and good (Rom. 7.12). It was laid down for the ‘lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane’—in other words, it gives guidance to those who need it and not to the innocent (1 Tim. 1.9).  It was granted because of transgressions (Gal. 3.19).  The trouble for the Law arose when it was put to other purposes.  Paul states that the Law did not serve the function of making one righteous at all.  It simply has no power: ‘if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law’ (Gal. 3.21b).  It rather reveals and clarifies sin.  It worsens the situation by extending sin into a further, egregious act: knowing transgression of God’s revealed Law.  Paul says, ‘Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet"‘ (Rom. 7.7).  In itself, though, the Law has no power and, in this absence, the power of sin enters the situation.  As Paul says,

Romans 7:8-11  But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.  9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived  10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.  11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

And earlier, Paul had argued, ‘For "no human being will be justified in his sight" by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3.20).

Israel’s Failure to Attain Righteousness through the Law, Israel’s Sinfulness, Righteousness of God, God’s Redeemer, New Covenant, Inclusion of the Gentiles

The theological themes listed here are major themes not only in Isaiah but also in Paul.  Yet they all appear in a single section of Isaiah that catches Paul’s attention in Romans: Isaiah 58-60.  Perhaps the argument can be set forth most succinctly as follows (this part of the argument deserves a scholarly article on my part, but I hope that readers can follow the suggestion well enough here, even if some further reading of the texts noted):

  • Jews trying to follow the Law remain sinful: Isaiah 58.1-59.15 (cf. Rom. 2.17-3.20, with Rom. 3.5-17 quoting Isaiah 59.7-8).
  • As there is no one righteous (the parallel texts of Ps. 14.1, 3; 53.1, 3; and Is. 59.4, 16; cf. Rom. 3.10), the righteousness of God comes in judgement (Is. 59.16-19; cf. Rom. 1.18) and God’s Redeemer comes from Zion to deal with transgressions (Is. 59.20) by establishing a new covenant (Is. 59.21) (cf. Rom. 3.21-26; and note that, since Paul combines Is. 59.20-21 with Is. 27.9 in the next point, below, the atonement, kphr, mentioned there fits with Rom. 3.25).
  • As Israel is redeemed (Is. 59.20-21; or ‘saved,’ Rom. 11.26, quoting Is. 59.20-21a and Is. 27.9) from sins and restored from the nations, the nations will also come to Israel’s light (Isaiah 60.1-22).

 Grace and Law in Deuteronomy 30

In Romans 10.6-8, Paul uses Deuteronomy 30 to demonstrate that the two paths of grace and life and Law and death (Dt. 30.15) were already set up in Moses’ time.  The path to righteousness of the Law would lead to sin and exile.  But the path of grace was the path that saw that the righteousness of the Law was given by God, not attained by works.  Paul interprets the possibility of doing the Law (Dt. 30.11-14) as God’s grace in Christ Jesus (Rom. 10.6-8).  Making this interpretation possible is, once again, Is. 59.21, which repeats the words of Dt. 30.14 that God’s Word (Law) is in Israel’s ‘mouth’ in reference to the new covenant of God’s Redeemer from Zion.


The argument here is that Paul’s doctrine of grace is based on a certain reading of key, interlocking Old Testament texts (and ones that do not use the word ‘grace’).  His view of the failure of the Law also derives from these considerations—perhaps especially Is. 58-59.  The same passage also accounts for Paul’s view of the ‘righteousness of God’ and the redemption and atonement of Jesus to deal with transgressions.  Paul’s views on these theological issues do not require some context in 1st century Judaism, even if his interpretations are relevant and applied to specific situations.  They need to be understood as an interpretation of Old Testament texts.

[1] This essay is dedicated to the Trinity Church, Franschhoek, South Africa, fellowship group meeting to study God’s Word on Wednesday nights.
[2] In his unfinished commentary on Romans, Augustine identifies the theme of Romans in this way: Romans "poses a question like this: whether the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ came to the Jews alone because of their merits through the works of the Law, or whether the justification of faith which is in Christ Jesus came to all nations, without any preceding merits for works.  In this last instance, people would believe not because they were just but, justified through belief, they would then begin to live justly" ("Unfinished Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans", 1.1; Text and Trans. Paula F. Landes).  Luther may have read Romans more individualistically than Augustine, but the two seem to agree fairly closely otherwise.