Posted by: mattcolvin | August 19, 2012

Peter’s Solafideism


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(The Apostles Peter and Paul showing how much they agree.)

Much is made of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Some bold souls also study James 2:14-26, which speaks about the relationship of faith and works in far more detail than Paul ever does. (If you are in certain churches, however, you might need to avoid James. Honest handling of his words could cost you your job as a seminary professor or pastor.)

But I wonder if we have overlooked an earlier, and more foundational apostolic statement of justification by faith in the NT. After being summoned by the Spirit to Cornelius’ (Gentile) household, Peter says (Acts 10), “Now I know that whoever fears God and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” Later, when the “sect of the Pharisees who believed” urges that “It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentiles] and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), Peter retells the story of Acts 10 and explains why it was that the Gentiles were acceptable. How does Peter explain this? He says that “God had purified their hearts by faith”. Thus, the Gentiles’ inclusion is said in Acts 10 to be by fearing God and working righteousness, while in Acts 15, this same inclusion is said to be “by faith.” I conclude that these two criteria are really the same thing.

Like every mention of justification by faith in Paul’s epistles, Peter’s statements are called forth by a question of Jews and Gentiles. (I still remember Schlissel at the 2003 AAPC holding up a copy of Greenville Seminary’s Ordained Servant journal devoted to the topic of justification. Schlissel expressed his amazement that the word “Gentile” appeared only once within its pages, and that in a quotation from N.T. Wright.)

Peter’s doctrine of justification is against justification by works of the Torah, but it requires good works. Does this mean he is teaching works-righteousness? I guess you could say that: “Whoever fears God and works righteousness…” That is, Peter is in perfect concord with James about the necessity of obedience and the completion or perfection of faith by works. Loyal obedience just is faith.


Responses

  1. Well said. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. Great “find!” But I’d submit that it’s even earlier being found first within the Gospels. In Matt 22, Jesus repeats Moses from Deut 6 and Leviticus 19 to wit: Loving God and loving your neighbor are simply summaries of the law of God, and Jesus then says if you want to love me then prove it by keeping my commandments – and he’s not talking to Pelagian Pharisees, this is to his disciples– and if we don’t we can’t say we love him. All of which is neatly summarized in I John 5:1-5. This is the warp and woof of scripture (as your highlighting of Peter and Cornelius underscores. The only way to love God is to keep his commandments; the Scriptures don’t recognize “Christians” who don’t do this. Faith without works is dead. Lord have mercy.

    • Yes, it is Jesus’ teaching too. I just liked the Peter quotation from Acts because it includes the phrase “works righteousness” in a positive sense. And there’s a sense in which Peter’s doctrine is the foundation of Paul’s doctrine, with both answering a Jew/Gentile question. Jesus’ utterances on the necessity of works are mostly uttered to an audience of Jews only.


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