In 16th century Germany, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther made a theological discovery that would shake both Rome and Europe and gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.
Luther had discovered that “God’s righteousness meant not ‘the righteousness by which he is righteous in himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God’ (Douglas Moo, Romans, p. 71). You see, for Luther and the other Reformers justification by faith, “How can a sinful person be made right with God?”, was at the center of their theology and their fight against Rome and its works-based salvation.
But what if Luther’s sixteenth century Europe had looked like the 50s and 60s in North America, the times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and the racial problems?
Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Durham, England, James D.G. Dunn has a take on the matter:
One cannot help wondering whether European history over the last century might not have been radically different, particulary if Lutheran Germany had been able to keep more fully alive that understanding of justification by faith [“God accepts persons withouth reference to whether they have been born into a particular race, or not (Romans 9:6-8)”]. And an invaluable weapon against apartheid has also been too much lost sight of in South Africa, another country which prides itself in its biblical heritage and its Reformation roots. Not that Anglo-Saxon Britain and North American can afford to strike judgmental postures on this subject, given the tendency of so many churches in affluent countries to identify Christian civilization with, for example, Victorian culture or American way of life. Justification by faith is a banner raised by Paul against any and all such presumption of privileged status before God by virtue of race, culture or nationality, against any and all attempts to preserve such spurious distinctions by practices that exclude and divide. (The New Perspective on Paul, revised edition, p. 205, emphasis added)
Not to trivalize Martin Luther’s discovery, one I’m sure that was necessary at the time, but it was not fully developed in light of all that Paul wrote about justification by faith.
For Paul, justification by faith also had to deal with the racial reconciliation of both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles in the Body of Christ, the One New Humanity (Eph. 2:11-21; Gal. 2:11-21), which is at the heart of the gospel, as Paul understood it (Romans 1:1-7; 15).
But Martin Luther, the Reformation, most of Christendom, and the Old Perspective on Paul have missed this crucial aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There simply can be no true and complete announcement of the gospel of Jesus Christ when we continue to “exclude and divide” along racial and ethnic lines (Gal. 2:11-14; 3:7-14).