The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 11)


Chapter 11: Justification by Grace through Faith


1972: One major objection remains to the premise that Jesus’ social ethic was active and important in the early church. The primary message of Paul has been understood to be justification by grace through faith, especially since the Protestant Reformation. Works (i.e. social ethic) has nothing to do with Paul’s major emphasis … or does it?

Modern scholarship has called the traditional understanding of Paul into question. Stendahl challenged the traditional view on three points:

  1. Paul is not preoccupied with personal guilt.
  2. Paul didn’t view the law as a tool to make people see their guilt—it was the gracious order of God for the Jewish people as they awaited the Messiah.
  3. Paul didn’t understand faith as a personal journey of self-discovery—it was a statement that the Messiah had come, which separated Jews from Christians.

Paul’s main concern was the social form of the church: should Gentiles follow the Jewish law? When he speaks of his sin, it’s not personal guilt so much as his failure to recognize the Messiah.

Paul made it clear in Ephesians 2:11-26 that the hostility which Christ ends is not God-man, but Jew-Greek. This same thing is discussed in Galatians 2:14ff. The works of the law that don’t justify are not good deeds, but the Jewish attempt to force their law on Gentile believers. Justification, then, is God’s peace-making between Jew and Gentile. Even Paul’s letter to the Romans is rife with his concern for Jew-Gentile unity.

The strongest text that would use to stress individualism is, “If anyone be in Christ he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 AV). As we saw earlier, it’s better to translate this, “If anyone be in Christ, there is a whole new world!”

1994: Much of this chapter is rooted in the renewed study of first-century history. This view of Paul begins to transcend the anti-Jewish bias of European scholarship from earlier generations.


It’s strange reading a whole chapter on the New Perspective on Paul without hearing the words, “New Perspective” mentioned. I’m sure interaction with Sanders, Dunn, and Wright would only strengthen what Yoder was trying to say.

I felt at times that he was being too reductionistic. It’s as if in his attempt to stress the social ethic of Jesus in Paul’s writing about justification, he denied any personal aspect. Of course, this wasn’t his intent—the pendulum had shifted so far toward the individualistic, a good dose of social emphasis was needed.

The one thing that struck me as very interesting was Yoder’s view of Luther. He emphasized that Luther’s reading of scripture was determined by his own questions and preoccupations. Luther was concerned with personal holiness so that’s the problem Paul answered. Yoder took the whole chapter to show that the social dynamic between Jew and Gentile was Paul’s concern. I can’t help but wonder if the social dynamic is as much Yoder’s question as personal holiness was Luther’s.

< Ch. 10: Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State

Ch. 12: The War of the Lamb >

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