A Brief Look at Matthew and Paul on Justification

Intro

Did Matthew and Paul have opposing views on justification by faith? It is no secret that the Christian community has wrestled with “reconciling” Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith” (particularly in Romans 3:20-5:21) with other writers in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew, James).  In an article examining Christian salvation in the Synoptic Gospels, Neufeld writes,

“The First Gospel has generated the most scholarly discussion, because, of the Synoptics, Matthew most overtly affirms Moses’ Law and bases kingdom entrance on obedience. Neither of these fit easily into the traditional Protestant gospel.”[1]

However, is there an actual difference or only a perceived difference between Matthew and Paul arising from varying factors such as literary genre and style, specific audiences and occasions for writing, etc? It is my conviction (as well as the general Christian conviction) that the NT authors are united in their understanding of the roles of faith and obedience in the doctrine of justification.

Justification in Matthew

The OT proposes faith to not only encompass belief, but also faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance. This is observable in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 1:20-23 records Joseph’s angelic vision regarding the supernatural conception of Mary’s child. The angel commands Joseph to the name the child “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In Matthew 1:24, Joseph’s belief in the words of the angel resulted in righteous behaviour. Not only do we see an early example of a man who demonstrates faith working in obedience, but Matthew also makes us aware of who Jesus is and what he came to do – “saving his people from their sins” is not an altogether divorced concept from Paul’s teaching on imputation[2] in justification based upon the work of Christ (Romans 4:1-8). Further, John the Baptist preached repentance and fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:2, 7-10). Repentance should not be thought of something separate from faith – it is trust that leads to a change of heart. This hand-in-hand relationship between faith and obedience can be observed throughout Matthew’s gospel (e.g., 4:20, 22; 13:44). Two remaining matters must be noted: 1) nature of narrative and 2) Matthew’s emphasis on a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. First, one should not expect a doctrinal excursus in Matthew on justification. It isn’t his purpose nor the purpose of narrative genre to examine doctrine in the way that an epistle does. Rather, Matthew seeks to offer his readers with a record of the person, life, ministry, and redemptive acts of Christ with narrative emphases on Christ’s teaching (see 5:1-7:29; 10:1-11:1; 13:1-53; 18:1-19:1; 24:1-26:1) and on eschatological judgment and salvation based upon faithfulness and obedience (25:31-46). On this latter note, we move into the second point, conclude and transition by stating that Matthew’s emphasis on obedience for salvation in the eschaton does not deny that a person must believe in Jesus as the one who has come to “save his people from their sins” and has come to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), but rather faith and repentance are necessary precursors to this obedience. The people who follow Messiah must be distinguished by a better righteousness than that of the religious leaders of the day.

Justification in Paul (Romans)

A similar example may be observed in Hebrews 11. There, we read that “by faith” many people recorded in the book of Genesis (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) followed God in obedience and righteousness. However, in Genesis, only Abraham’s belief is highlighted (Genesis 15:6)! It shouldn’t be assumed that faith was not beneath and upholding the obedience of these people. One can deduce from the narrative that all of these people trusted YHWH, and their trust resulted in obedience.

It is this one example of “mentioned-faith” in Genesis that Paul picks up on in his discussion of justification in Romans 4. Abraham, who is the father of those who believe whether circumcised or uncircumcised, served as the perfect OT example/illustration to help instruct a Jewish-Gentile Christian congregation on what it means to be credited with righteousness following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death and resurrection provided God “the judicial means” to remain just while justifying sinners (Romans 3:26). By faith in the gospel, a positional shift takes place in which God looks upon the individual’s faith and credits it as righteousness (rewardable behaviour even?) because even though the sinner can do nothing to earn such a judicial decree, satisfaction of wrath and provision of righteousness has occurred in the work of Christ. Yet, one must not think that Paul avoids obedience (Romans 1:5; 5:19; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19; 16:26) and its relationship to faith and righteousness. Indeed, he views the goal of his apostleship to speak of what Christ had accomplished through him “in order to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and deed” (Romans 15:18).

Relationship between Faith and Obedience in Justification

Therefore, do Matthew and Paul speak as one? Can Paul’s emphasis on the positional, judicial, and immediate nature of his doctrine of justification by faith be reconciled to Matthew’s narrative emphasis on the nature of one’s righteousness and its ability to stand at the eschaton?  I believe so. James is helpful here. In chapter 2 of his epistle, we are again given the example of Abraham whose faith was tested,

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21-24).

True, justifying faith is a faith that results in obedience, faithfullness in righteousness, which is a faith that will stand before the Judge in the eschaton. Paul and Matthew would agree.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John S. Feinberg. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997.

Neufeld, Edmund K. “The Gospel in the Gospels: Answering the Question “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” From the Synoptics.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 2 (2008): 267-96.

Ortlund, Dane C. “Justified by Faith, Judged According to Works: Another Look at a Pauline Paradox.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 2 (2009): 323-339.


[1] Edmund K. Neufeld, “The Gospel in the Gospels: Answering the Question “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” From the Synoptics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 2 (2008): 268.

[2] Imputation is that necessary action of justification in which our sins are no longer counted against us, and righteousness has been credited to us in Christ.

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