The Reformers’ Understanding Of Paul And The Law -- By: Irvin A. Busenitz

Journal: Masters Seminary Journal
Volume: TMSJ 16:2 (Fall 2005)
Article: The Reformers’ Understanding Of Paul And The Law
Author: Irvin A. Busenitz


The Reformers’ Understanding Of Paul And The Law

Irvin A. Busenitz

Vice President for Academic Administration and
Professor of Bible and Old Testament

For about two thousand years the doctrine of justification by faith has been the bedrock of Christianity, but recently the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has proposed that such a teaching rests on a misunderstanding of Paul that was propagated by the Reformers. The NPP advocates a view of second-temple Judaism that was free from legalism and focused on an exclusivism based on racial privilege. Such texts as Acts 13:38–39, Luke 18:14, and Rom 9:30–32 show that Judaism of that day was definitely legalistic, however. Rabbinic writings of the same period confirm that fact. Writings of early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Augustine reflect the church’s belief in justification by faith as a contrast with early Jewish legalism. Thomas Aquinas and other Roman Catholic sources of the Middle Ages show a belief in Paul’s picture of Judaism as teaching justification by human merit. Luther continued the tradition of the church’s belief in justification by faith and its antithesis, the works of the law. Though differing slightly from Luther’s view of the law, Calvin concurred with him that justification before God was unattainable without divine intervention in regeneration. Evidence is clear that the Reformers were not merely reacting to conditions of their day as the NPP contends, but continued a tradition of justification by faith alone handed down from the early church.

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No doctrine is of greater importance throughout the history of mankind than the doctrine of justification. Since the opening pages of human history, man has had an insatiable hunger to know how to have his sins atoned for and how to propitiate the demands of a holy God (Job 9:2; 25:4). Furthermore, in the evangelical world, no doctrine has been of greater import and significance than justification by faith alone—the Reformation principle of sola fide. Martin Luther rightly contends that

“if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”1

Despite the bedrock foundation of this marvelous truth, history’s earliest records display mankind’s repeated abandonment of God’s gracious provision of divine accomplishment. The pentateuchal records ...

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