Justification in Galatians–Struggles with the NLT

Bible page photoLet me start by saying I’m a huge fan of the New Living Translation and have used it regularly, even if not as my primary bible for teaching/preaching, since shortly after its debut in the mid-90s.  Yes, even after pre-ordering my ESV back in 2001 (my primary bible for almost seven years), being shunned by ESV-only seminary types for years at Southern, and feeling indecisive about the whole formal v. dynamic equivalence bit…I still loved the NLT so much so that toward the end of last year I switched to it exclusively for preaching and teaching and relegated my ESV to the #2 spot.

(Perhaps I’ll write sometime about the reasons I made the jump, but that’s another post for another day.)

Today I write because I’m troubled by how the NLT renders some key verses on justification in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  By way of background, I should say that I’ve always looked to Galatians as ‘the’ treatment on justification by faith in the bible and, with Luther, I view justification as ‘the’ doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  With that in mind, my heart sank when reading through Galatians this weekend and realizing that the NLT makes faith the cause of our justification as opposed to the instrument of our justification.  Here is an excerpt from Galatians 3, the NLT in parallel with the ESV (the emphasis, of course, is mine):

New Living Translation (NLT) English Standard Version (ESV)
1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?
5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith
6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” 6 just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?
7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all the nations be blessed.
9 So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Some thoughts…

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by,” as shown in the ESV (NB, almost every other translation, contemporary or otherwise, follows the ESV here)
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

So how does this stand in relation to a Reformational understanding of justification by faith?  Here are some excerpts from classic Systematics texts or confessions in the Reformed, Lutheran, and contemporary Evangelical veins (again, the emphasis is mine):

  • Louis Berkhof (Reformed):  “Scripture never says we are justified dia ten pistin, on account of faith.  This means that faith is never represented as the ground of our justification.”
  • Wayne Grudem (Evangelical): “Scripture says that we are justified ‘by means of’ our faith, understanding faith to be the instrument through which justification is given to us, but not at all an activity that earns us merit or favor with God.”
  • Book of Concord, Epitome of the Formula of Concord (Lutheran): “We believe, teach, and confess that faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God, for whose sake this faith is imputed to us for righteousness”

It would seem here that the NLT’s translation is at odds with the traditional, Protestant understanding of God’s means of justification.  This saddens me a great deal and surprises me, given the NLT translation team for Galatians (one of whom I studied under at seminary and who I know firmly believes in justification by faith).

I’m looking for some interaction here, good readers…talk to me!

  • Do you think I’m making much of nothing?
  • Is my reading of the NLT not a plain, straightforward reading of the translation?
  • Is the NLT’s rendering here a deal-breaker for teaching justification by faith?

Update (6.3) — after being prompted by several of you, I emailed Dr. Tom Schreiner, who was on the NLT translation team for Galatians.  Part of his reply is included in the comments here.

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9 thoughts on “Justification in Galatians–Struggles with the NLT

  1. Pingback: The Church of Jesus Christ | Sin according to the New Living Translation

  2. I found your blog at random. Thought I’d weigh in. The NLT does retain the “through” translation of the preposition “dia” in 2:16, yet in the same verse uses the causative force for the prep “ex.” In Paul’s writings, “dia pisteos” and “ex pisteos” are used interchangably (cf. Rom 3:30). Granted, both participles MAY be given a causative function when paried with a genitive, but it is presently unclear to me what reason exists for giving “dia” and “ex” different semantic forces.

    I would be tempted to agree with you were the NLT a bit more consistent. I will agree that the present context does present some major problems, though these cannot be solved by grammar alone. I would encourage you to look at the larger scope of Pauline soteriology as expressed by the NLT before throwing your copy out the window entirely.

    Chris Wiles

    • Chris, thanks for taking the time to comment!

      You’re certainly right in pointing out that ‘dia’ and ‘ex’ are used interchangeably by Paul–Gal 2.16 is a great example in the context of the passages I’m looking at. In fact, to make things more confusing, in v.16 ‘ex’ is translated first as an instrumental (“by”)–synonymous with ‘dia’ also in v.16–and then as a causative (“because”). Strange.

      I’m definitely going to root around more and need to read through Romans again in the NLT. This finding in Galatians, however, caught me by surprise quite honestly.

  3. Got your tweets, but it’s been a long day. Just now looking at this. I don’t have an immediate answer, but I’ll think on it.

    Like Romans, Galatians in the NLT was translated by Gerald Borchert, Thom Schreiner, and Doug Moo. It might be worth contacting them to ask. Or contact Tyndale.

    Another option is to ask the folks at Tyndale. I’ve found them very helpful when I have questions like this.

    • Rick, thanks for pondering this with me. I know we’ve shared a similar journey with respect to choosing a translation to teach and preach from. As noted on your blog, Peterson’s arguments in Eat This Book were instrumental in getting me to realize the importance of using a translation in street language.

      BTW, I’m eagerly hoping Keith Williams (Tyndale) will chime in…and I’m drafting a note to Dr. Schreiner to pick his brain on it too.

  4. Another thought…does anyone have the Cornerstone Commentary on Romans/Galatians? I don’t have that particular volume, but I know from reading some of the other ones that occasionally a writer gives a defense of a particular NLT rendering.

    Since we begin Galatians Sunday, I may see if I can find a copy locally.

  5. Here is a snippet from a reply to my email to Dr. Tom Schreiner, one of the NLT translators for Galatians and a prof I had the blessing of studying Greek and NT under while at Southern. He writes:

    “Actually, I wasn’t on the final committee for the NLT, so I don’t know why that decision was made. I suspect that they are using ‘because’ loosely, but I actually agree with you that ‘through’ or ‘by’ is more precise, and for the reasons you state ‘because’ can be misleading.”

  6. Pingback: Justification in the NLT–A Final Look « Taking Thoughts Captive…

  7. Pingback: Justification in the NLT–A Broader Look « Taking Thoughts Captive…

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