Gabriele Boccaccini is a University of Michigan professor teaching Second Temple Judaism and early rabbinic literature. He’s also a renowned Enoch specialist. I’ve been reading his 2020 book Paul’s Three Paths to Salvation (Eerdmans). I am planning to write a (very) critical book review soon and have it published somewhere. Today’s post only concerns a portion of the book.

Boccaccini calls Paul, most of all, an “apocalyptic” Jew (e.g., 89, 103). He then discusses, in chs. 6-9, Paul’s apocalyptic vision and ministry. Chapter 7 titled “Justified by Faith, Saved by Works” (105-30) is especially troubling to me. His contentions can be summarized as follows:

  • Justification by faith does not mean salvation (121-24).
  • Justification by faith is a “relief” or a “second chance” (119), so to speak, or an important beginning in our faith journey (122).
  • Justification by faith is “not sufficient” for future salvation (123).
  • Justification by faith is “not a guarantee for future salvation” (122).
  • At the last judgment, “only deeds will be assessed” (122).

Boccaccini’s claim is that these were Paul’s teachings, which perfectly cohered with Second Temple Judaism. He maintains that the early believers did not consider their forgiven status to be eternally secured; i.e., it required good works for them to stay in (86-87).

I will critique his book in a scholarly way in the book review that I promise to write. I thought about this chapter a lot today, however, not because of its academic weakness–which is obvious–but because of its pastoral sterility. If my salvation is determined by my own works, not by the finished work of Christ, I am most certainly doomed. As the conservative pastor once said, if I could lose my salvation, I definitely would. Boccaccini’s message may despair our parishioner who is dying of leukemia. His book can terrify the couple in your church who just got a divorce. Boccaccini’s teaching might make the already miserable state of the alcoholic in your congregation even more forlorn. Most of all, it will deprive us of joy of fighting a good fight of faith because our good works are now something to be checked and measured to see if we’re qualified enough to stay in, not something to be received by God as a pleasing aroma coming from his struggling and yet persistent children.

I am a firm believer that Paul’s subversive gospel was not meant to cohere with Second Temple Judaism. The Pauline gospel strengthens and comforts us. It leads us to the life of hope and gratitude that yields fruits of good works, and never to a lawless and libertine life. Paul teaches that you’re eternally right with God by faith in Christ. Nothing–even if it means lack (or absence) of your good deeds–will be able to dislodge us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). This gives us believers true hope and strength for good works.

“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, NIV)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV)

(Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash)

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