Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Setting Of Justification Excludes Baptism And Other Works

Disputes over justification often focus on what the source in question refers to as the means of justification and what that source tells us is excluded. For example, Romans 3:28 includes faith while excluding works of the law. I've argued many times, such as here, that other factors should be getting more attention than they typically do. The tax collector in the temple in Luke 18:10-14 wouldn't have been baptized in that context, the thief on the cross wasn't baptized on the cross, and so on. The contexts in which people are justified often exclude baptism and other works. We shouldn't just argue over what terms like "faith" and "works of the law" mean in passages like Romans 3:28. We also should take a broad range of other relevant evidence into account, like what I just referred to. What I want to do in the remainder of this post is discuss one of those lines of evidence, one that gets much less attention than it should.

Paul sometimes gives us a sequence of events surrounding justification (Romans 10:8-17, Galatians 3:2). In the Romans 10 passage just cited, faith is placed in the context of hearing. The same occurs in Galatians 3. In the latter passage, Paul goes on to cite the Old Testament illustration of Abraham in Genesis 15:6. What Paul seems to have in mind in all of these passages is believing response to the proclamation of the gospel. The faith in question happens at the time of the proclamation. In the Genesis 15:6 context, Abraham wasn't baptized, and he didn't do any other works. A similar example from the New Testament is Cornelius in Acts 10:44-48. And his justification is treated as normative, not exceptional (Acts 11:17-18, 15:7-11). It's not just a coincidence that Cornelius' experience lines up so well with Abraham's. Cornelius isn't an exception to the rule. He's an illustration of the rule. The "hearing" context in passages like Romans 10 and Galatians 3 is important, since it provides significant information about the setting of justification, a setting in which the person justified is merely believing a message he's hearing (sola fide), not getting baptized or doing some other work. (For a response to the claim that baptism isn't a work, see here. But one of the points I'm making in this post is that baptism and other works are excluded even if we don't classify them as works. Just as it would be absurd to argue that the tax collector in the temple or the thief on the cross was baptized, it would be absurd to claim that individuals like Abraham, Cornelius, and the people hearing with faith in Romans 10 and Galatians 3 were being baptized in the relevant contexts. Baptism is excluded even if it isn't considered a work.)

One potential way to try to get around what I've argued here is to claim that there's a significant passing of time between the hearing and the faith, which allows an inclusion of baptism, even though baptism isn't mentioned. So, somebody may hear the gospel message proclaimed, then get baptized a few minutes, a week, or a year later and be justified through faith at the time of that baptism. Thus, both hearing and faith were involved, though with a significant passing of time between the two and a context of baptism added.

But we know that the normative figures (not exceptional) Abraham and Cornelius were justified apart from baptism. Romans 10 goes into substantial detail about the events surrounding justification without even mentioning baptism. And even in a briefer passage like Galatians 3:2, it's gratuitous and a less likely interpretation of the evidence to read into the text baptism and some significant passing of time between the hearing and the faith that are referred to. The coupling of hearing and faith seems to rule out every form of justification through works, including sacramental forms.

Paul was the spiritual father of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:15) through the proclamation of the gospel to them, not through baptizing them (1:17). The two (the proclaiming of the gospel and baptism) can't be equated or considered inseparable, as 1 Corinthians 1:17 illustrates. We can't assume that baptism is inherent in proclaiming the gospel or in hearing it with faith. Given the distinction Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 1:17, a distinction that we should recognize by reasoning through the issues even if Paul had never spelled it out, it's striking that he doesn't include any reference to people being sent to baptize in Romans 10 or any reference to the Galatians receiving the Spirit through baptism. (On the problems with appealing to Galatians 3:27 as a warrant for including baptism in this context, see here. For a response to the common argument that assuming the inclusion of baptism in passages that don't mention it is no different than assuming the inclusion of repentance in passages that don't mention it, see here.)

And I want to reiterate a point here that shouldn't have to be reiterated, but, unfortunately, does need to be. We shouldn't even have to be going to passages like Romans 10 and Galatians 3 to establish what I'm arguing here. The fact that people were justified through faith alone prior to and during Jesus' public ministry, a fact that many opponents of justification through faith alone have acknowledged, should settle the issue. The idea that the means of justification changed after Jesus' resurrection or at some other point in time is often asserted without much supporting argumentation and is contrary to the evidence, as I've argued elsewhere.

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