14 Jan 2021
A Commentary by John Stott
Our second response to Professor Dunn’s thesis relates to the question why Paul is so negative about ‘works’. There is no doubt, we agree, that Paul is opposing Jewish exclusivism, especially the notion that the Jews’ favoured status automatically exempted them from judgment. But the whole context suggests that he was attacking merit also, that is, Jewish reliance on moral (and not merely ceremonial) works. For the law by whose works no-one can be justified (20a) is surely the same law which declares all human beings to be sinful (19a), so that the whole world is guilty before God (19b). Indeed, the reason the law cannot justify sinners is precisely that its function is to expose and to condemn their sin (20b). And the reason the law condemns us is that we break it.
If, then, Paul was opposing the concept of salvation by good works, who were his opponents? And how shall we respond to Professor Sanders’ thesis that this was not the stance of Palestinian Judaism? In general, I think Douglas Moo is correct, as indeed I have tried to argue in the Preliminary Essay, ‘that Palestinian Judaism was more legalistic than Sanders has found…. Even in Sanders’ proposal, works play such a prominent role that it is fair to speak of a synergism of faith and works that elevates works to a crucial salvific role.’ Since good works, according to E.P.Sanders, were essential if Jews were to ‘stay in’ in covenant, they played ‘a necessary and instrumental role in salvation’. The alternative possibility, which John Ziesler suggests, is that Paul was ‘opposing a perversion of Judaism, arising out of official Judaism but in spite of it, a popular perversion which did think of earning God’s favour’. That some doctrine of self-salvation was wide-spread in Judaism is surely evident not only in Paul’s polemic but also from the teaching of Jesus himself, for example in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, and above all from our own knowledge of the proud human heart.
Returning to verse 20, we should see it as the climax of Paul’s argument not just against Jewish self-confidence, but against every attempt at self-salvation. For, Paul continues, *through the law we become conscious of sin* (20b). That is, what the law brings is the knowledge of sin, not the forgiveness of sin. In spite of the contemporary fashion of saying that Luther got it wrong, I think he got it right:
The principal point…of the law…is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it sheweth unto them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace, and so come to that blessed Seed, [sc. Christ].
In conclusion, how should we respond to Paul’s devastating exposure of universal sin and guilt, as we read it at the end of the twentieth century? We should not try to evade it by changing the subject and talking instead of the need of self-esteem, or by blaming our behaviour on our genes, nurturing, education or society. It is an essential part of our dignity as human beings that, however much we have been affected by negative influences, we are not their helpless victims, but rather responsible for our conduct. Our first response to Paul’s indictment, then, should be to make it as certain as we possibly can that we have ourselves accepted this divine diagnosis of our human condition as true, and that we have fled from the just judgment of God on our sins to the only refuge there is, namely Jesus Christ who died for our sins. For we have no merit to plead and no excuse to make. We too stand before God speechless and condemned. Only then shall we be ready to hear the great ‘But now’ of verse 21, as Paul begins to explain how God has intervened through Christ and his cross for our salvation.
Secondly, these chapters challenge us to share Christ with others. We cannot monopolize the good news. All around us are men and women who know enough of God’s glory and holiness to make their rejection of him inexcusable. They too, like us, stand condemned. Their knowledge, their religion and their righteousness cannot save them. Only Christ can. Their mouth is closed in guilt; let our mouth be opened in testimony!