Some notes on N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.
Chapter 5 – Galatians
Like other authors, Paul cannot ever say everything that needs to be said all at once.
Justification in Galatians means “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.” (p. 116) The “works of the law” in Galatians are not referring to morality, but to the elements of the law that divided Jews from Gentiles and marked them off as a separate people. Rather than being marked off by the law, the people of God now are marked off by faith, by trusting in Jesus the Messiah.
What, according to Wright’s reading of Galatians, was the purpose of the law? He says,
The law was given to keep ethnic Israel, so to speak, on track. But it could never be the means by which the ultimate promised family was demarcated, partly because it kept the two intended parts of the family separate, and partly because if merely served to demonstrate, by the fact that it was impossible to keep it perfectly, that Jews, like the rest of the human race, were sinful. The Messiah’s death deals with… this double problem. (p. 118)
In much of contemporary Christianity, the perceived problem Jesus came to address was the fact that I – and everyone else – am a hell-bound sinner in need of salvation so I can spend eternity with God. Wright sees Paul in Galatians identifying the problem differently. The problem Paul sees is defined in terms of Abraham, Israel, and God’s covenant – and the appearance that God’s way of working (the law) wasn’t working to achieve God’s desired ends. For Paul, therefore, the Messiah comes “So that we (presumably Jews who believe in Jesus) might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (p, 124) God’s original plan, laid out in the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 (1. I will bless you; 2. All nations on earth will be blessed through you) is still in effect. The problem was Israel almost always settled for the first part of the promise and cared nothing for the second part. They liked being the Chosen People, but forgot that they were Chosen specifically to be God’s agents of blessing to the rest of the world. The Messiah came to fulfill that unfulfilled (and apparently unfulfillable) mission. Through this way of looking at things, doctrines we separate – soteriology and ecclesiology – are held tightly together. This point is absolutely essential for understanding Wright’s take on justification.