How can sinners find a gracious God? How can the unrighteous be made or declared righteous in the presence of a holy and perfect God? These questions, of course, presume that humanity has—to put it mildly—a problem, an incredible and desperate plight that can only be rectified by God.
Traditional Protestant interpretations of Paul generally begin with a focus on the human problem. Think of popular forms of evangelism like the so-called “Romans Road”—a method that uses Romans to describe salvation and in which the first verse is Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Or Cru’s Four Spiritual Laws, which declares “man is sinful and separated from God” (law 2) before moving on to the solution found in Jesus Christ. Or, think of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where the sermon’s incredible appeals to hell and divine wrath function to shock and awake the unconverted out of their slumber and into the hands of a merciful Savior.
Now this may seem to you to be blatantly obvious and uncontroversial; perhaps the majority of my readers will have the response: “This is exactly how I go about sharing the gospel with others.”
Is it possible that the church at large has missed something?
Perhaps some of you will also say: “I came to faith in Jesus Christ precisely because I was confronted with this plight, namely, my sinful nature, my inability to please and obey God, and the awful eternal consequences of these realities.” This form of evangelism and proclamation of the good news is strongly rooted in a certain understanding of Paul, especially influenced by Romans and Galatians, that has by and large gone unchallenged in its broad form for the past half millennia.
Despite the history and pedigree of this reading of Paul’s theology, revisionist readings of Paul are increasingly holding sway in many North American universities, seminaries, and, more gradually, churches. This means that many newly trained scholars and pastors see matters quite differently. Stephen Westerholm notes in his Justification Reconsidered: “By now a generation of scholars has arisen for whom the more recent proposals represent the only way of reading Paul to which they have been seriously exposed” (Westerholm, vii).
Taking Paul (and Pauline Studies) to Church
Understanding why the traditional understanding of justification by faith has been called into question is important. After all, the revisionists may be correct. Is it possible that the church at large has missed something, misinterpreted key Pauline texts, and/or moved too quickly from ancient text to contemporary life and experience? Even if we find that our answers to these questions are largely negative and that our basic construal of Paul is accurate, being forced to wrestle with and rethink what the Pauline texts say should force us to a stronger commitment and confidence in what we believe.
For these reasons, I am eager to witness the Henry Center’s upcoming Trinity Debate, which will feature Douglas Moo (Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College) and Douglas Campbell (Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School), two of the more influential Pauline scholars currently writing. In anticipation of that debate, I would like to provide some surrounding context that lays out some broad contours of the contemporary discussion, what’s at stake in the discussion, and why it matters for the church.
In what follows I will devote two posts to examining the traditional account of justification by faith, relying heavily on Douglas Moo. I will then turn to the recent work of Douglas Campbell, whose major book The Deliverance of God both critiques the traditional take on Paul and provides an alternative reading that, in his view, avoids the pitfalls of the traditional interpretation. My concern throughout this series is not to critique or evaluate either position, but to fairly and accurately (albeit briefly!) present both sides in order to provide greater clarity for the general Pauline reader and faithful disciple of Christ.
I hope that these posts, along with the debate itself, will inspire the readers to continue to listen to, wrestle with, and faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated by Paul, his servant and apostle.
An Outline of the Series
- The Traditional Interpretation of Paul and Justification: The Plight of Humanity
- The Solution to Humanity’s Plight: Atonement, Justification, and Faith
- Douglas Campbell’s Challenge to the Traditional Interpretation of Paul and Justification
- Campbell’s Apocalyptic Perspective on Paul: Rereading Romans 1–3
 Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), vii.