I’m taking up a few more considerations this week with the aim of getting to grips with the grammar of the gospel. A misconstrued gospel grammar relies upon setting Judaism over-against Christianity as a religion of legalism wherein God’s grace must be supplemented by works.
Though very common, I don’t think this depiction of Judaism is at all helpful or faithful. That debate won’t be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather than discussing Judaism generally, however, we’re better off focusing on Paul as a Pharisee.
The first thing we need to say about Paul as a Pharisee is that he never stopped being one. Before the Jewish leaders, Paul declares, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). This shouldn’t surprise careful readers of Acts. Luke notes earlier that many priests, Pharisees, and thousands who were “zealous for the Law” were part of the first generation of Jesus-followers (Acts 6:7; 15:5; 21:20).
Second, we must understand Paul’s aims as a Pharisee. The Pharisees didn’t hold belief in the resurrection as one of their doctrinal points like our churches regard their doctrinal statements. The resurrection was a political, religious, and cosmic hope. It was synonymous with the climactic day of judgment and salvation to which Jews looked forward with great urgency. Pharisees longed for the God of Israel to fulfill his promises to free them from oppression, defeat Israel’s enemies, and restore the nation to its rightful place as the throne from which God ruled over all the earth.
Israel’s desperation to be freed from domination at the hands of Rome set the agenda for the Pharisees. The nation had been sent into exile for unfaithfulness to their God, for idolatry, for neglecting the Law and its practices. If unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Law led to exile, then renewed faithfulness to the Law at the national level would surely move God to pull the lever of salvation and judgment. The resurrection would occur, Israel would be saved, and the nation’s enemies would be wiped out.
“Salvation,” therefore, had national, international, and cosmic dimensions. God would bring about national renewal, sending the Spirit to give life to the nation. This would set Israel in its proper place internationally. Israel would finally take its place as God’s choice nation, teaching, judging, and shepherding the nations on God’s behalf. Finally, God’s salvation was cosmic in scope, because God’s supra-human enemies—Satan, Sin, Death, and the powers and authorities that oppress creation in the present evil age—would finally be defeated and destroyed.
Before his conversion, then, Paul was part of an effort to bring about a renewed nation, to present to God a purified people, zealous, like Paul, for the “traditions of the fathers” (Gal. 1:14). He was likely convinced that once the nation was pure and obedient, God would be moved to send Messiah who would bring God’s salvation.
Further, this was done through violence, coercion, and persecution of sinners among the people. This explains Paul’s persecution of the early Jesus-followers. Because they were worshiping the one whom God had cursed (Gal. 3:13/Deut. 21:23), they were standing in the way of God fulfilling his promises.
After his conversion, of course, Paul’s ultimate aims don’t change. He is still passionate about the resurrection of the dead and God fulfilling his promises to the fathers (Acts 26:6-7). It’s just that now Paul knows that this eschatological orientation involves suffering with the persecuted, multi-national people of God, praying and longing for Christ’s return, and participating with the Spirit’s project of producing cruciform, non-violent love among the people of Jesus.
All this is to say that using the term “legalism” only confuses things. It leaves many with the impression that before his conversion Paul was convinced that he had to produce good works in order to work his way to heaven. And he was traveling around teaching others that they had to work their ways to heaven, too.
But the contrast between pre- and post-conversion Paul is not that he once was a legalist and is no longer. The contrast had to do with the manner in which he conceived of God fulfilling his promises to Israel. How would this come about? Does God act to restore his people by his own grace? Or can you violently coerce conformity to the Law to produce a people that will move God to act?
The contrast is between coercive and manipulative treatment of God and others, on one hand, and self-giving love for God and others, on the other.
Previously, Paul violently coerced others and sought to manipulate God to act. He now loves others, suffering on their behalf and praying for their good. And his posture toward God is one of deference, praying for and longing for the day of Christ, knowing that God in his wisdom will come to save in his own time.