David Stern’s Torah “Torah” in the Justification of sinners: A legalistic spanner in the works


David H. Stern is a Messianic Jew whose “Complete Jewish Bible” is a unique melange of translation, paraphrase and commentary. “Unique” in the sense that the New Testament tranche is solely Stern’s execution.

Stern’s view is that the New Testament is a book written by Jewish believers in Yeshua/Jesus for Jewish believers in Yeshua; and these Jewish believers did not cease to practice the whole Torah. For these reasons Stern maintains that all believers in Yeshua should observe the “law” (the Torah – Mosaic Law) which, says Stern, has been carried over to the New Testament. For Stern, the New Testament is a natural extension of the Torah. When Stern in his translation puts “Torah” in inverted commas, he means “legalistic observance.”

Torah” has two meanings: the Five books of Moses – the “Law” (Pentateuch) and the whole Hebrew Bible. Our focus is on the “Law.” Certain laws such as the sacrificial laws fell into disuse after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.

I examine the concept of “justification” and discuss how Stern’s reworking of the New Testament text in his “Complete Jewish Bible” results in the original meaning of “justification” becoming very similar to the rabbinical and Roman Catholic view of the term, namely, that justification means faith plus works (the law). In his effort to prove that the New Testament does not replace the Mosaic law but merely extends it, I shall argue that Stern illegally replaces the word “law” (which Paul always refers to in Greek as nomos) in certain verses of the New Testament with “legalistic observance.”

Protestant, Roman Catholic and Rabbinical views of “justification.”

First, I contrast the majority Protestant view with the Roman Catholic view on justification. Second, I compare Stern’s translations of biblical texts with translations generally accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Third, I show the similarity between Stern’s view, the Jewish view and the Roman Catholic view of justification.

Justification” for the Protestant means “being made righteous” in the sense of being made right with God, not by our own efforts but by God. We are justified by grace through faith:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Works are the fruit of faith but not a condition for justification, that is, for being made right with God: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). 

The majority Protestant view is explained in the Westminister Confession of Faith (Chapter XII):

Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

Stern and like-minded Messianic Jews agree they are justified by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8), and that good works (Stern’s obedience to the commandments of Torah) do not save. So good works accompany faith, which “worketh by love” (last words of Westminster Confession above).

In rabbinic Judaism, faith means faithfulness (emunah), that is, faithfully fulfilling God’s commandments (mitzvot). A common Jewish view of Christianity is that faith in Jesus is all you need to be saved, and so a person can subsequently do what he likes, and still go to heaven. There are indeed some Christians who say that the way a Christian lives (his works) is totally irrelevant, because the moment you believe, you are saved. Once you believe, they say, you can sin as much as you like, for doesn’t Jesus say,” I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life”(John 6:47)? Most Christians reject this abberation of the Gospel. If you were to realise what a great mercy it is for God to make you aware of your sin, you could never think this way. “If we (Christians) confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The Roman Catholic position on justification is presented in Canon 24 of the Council of Trent:

If anyone says that justice [justification] received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. (Council of Trent sixth session, celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547, Decree concerning Justification).” (My underlining).

In Al Mohler’s “The Briefing” of 14 March 2013, in which he discussed the election of Pope Francis I, he criticised a popular evangelical view that on core doctrines (for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth) and social issues (for example, marriage and poverty relief), evangelicals and Catholics belong together. No mention was made of the far more important doctrine of justification. Rome says it believes in justification by faith but will not say it believes in justification by faith alone, which is the main pillar of Protestant Reformation. (See Trent above).

 Contrary to Trent’s view of Protestants above, the Protestant believes most firmly that works are “the fruits and signs of justifications obtained” This Protestant position, though, would not say that works are “merely” (Trent above) the fruits of justification, because this might create the impression that works don’t matter in salvation.

Justification, sanctification and salvation

 How many times have I heard a Christian say: there’s justification, which occurs when you are born again, and then there’s (the job of) sanctification! By sanctification they mean, if not in such rustic words, don’t just sit on your pristine born-anew bottie and talk holy talk; stand up and walk the holy walk.

Although Christians have indeed to sanctify themselves through living close to God and doing godly things, Christians who bisect the Gospel into two chronological stages, justification and sanctification, have a paltry idea of what both terms mean. In 1 Corinthians 1:2, we read: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” Although the same Greek word “hagioi” is used in both “sanctified” and (called to be) “saints,” the first means that at the moment of justification, you become (you are passive) sanctified (holy). That is what the following scripture means: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” ( 1 Peter 2:9). (See I know I am justified; now I must focus on the job of sanctification).

And “salvation?” If you are an evangelical Christian and someone asks you, “Do you believe in faith alone?, you’ll politely growl – if the questioner is another evangelical Christian – “What a dumb question, of course I do!” The meaning of “faith alone” is that one is justified by faith alone, not by faith plus works. That is not to say that faith is found alone, for works are involved, but not as part of your justification but as part of your salvation. The general Protestant view is that works are the fruits and signs of justification obtained. It also matters much what kind of good works you do once you believe – not for the purposes of salvation but because “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). (See Faith and Jerks: The Bible out of context is a con; that’s why James White is not going to hell).

Examples from David Stern’s New Testament translation

I now examine Stern’s translation of several New Testament texts. My clarifications/comments appear in square brackets. Emphases in bold are mine.

Galatians 5:1-6 (Complete Jewish Bible)

 5:1 What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom! Therefore, stand firm, and don’t let yourselves be tied up again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Mark my words — I, Sha’ul, tell you that if you undergo b’rit-milah [circumcision] the Messiah will be of no advantage to you at all! 3 Again, I warn you: any man who undergoes b’rit-milah [ circumcision] is obligated to observe the entire Torah! 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous [justified] by God through legalism have severed yourselves from the Messiah! You have fallen away from God’s grace! 5 For it is by the power of the Spirit, who works in us because we trust and are faithful, that we confidently expect our hope of attaining righteousness to be fulfilled. 6 When we are united with the Messiah Yeshua, neither being circumcised nor being uncircumcised matters; what matters is trusting faithfulness expressing itself through love.

I focus on verses 3 and 4:


3 Again, I warn you: any man who undergoes b’rit-milah [ circumcision] is obligated to observe the entire Torah! [νόμος nomos] 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous [justified] by God through legalism [νόμος nomos] have severed yourselves from the Messiah! You have fallen away from God’s grace!

Here is the ESV (Protestant) translation:

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

The Douay-Rheims (Roman Catholic) translation says the same thing.

And I testify again to every man circumcising himself, that he is a debtor to the whole law. You are made void of Christ, you who are justified in the law: you are fallen from grace.

Pick up any translation in any language of these verses, and you will find the word “law” in verse 4. Stern has his own “New Perspective on Paul” (N.T. Wright), and like Wright, He admonishes us to dig below the level of the words on the page to the deeper levels. So, in verse 3, the first instance of nomos, he is happy to stay firmly planted on ground level and translate it as “law” (Torah). In verse 4, the second instance of nomos, however, he wants, like a good deconstructionist, to dive below the surface to the hidden sedimentations – hidden even from Paul. (In rabbinic Judaism the text has multiple levels of which the surface level is the first and shallow level.) Why, in verse 4, didn’t Paul write the Greek for “legalism,” the “abuse of the law,” if that is what he meant? Because that is not what he meant.

Stern does a similar job in his translation of Romans 3:20: For in his sight no one alive will be considered righteous [justified δικαιόω dikaioō] on the ground of legalistic observance of Torah (νόμος nomos) commands, because what Torah (νόμος nomos) really does is show people how sinful they are. Here is the ESV: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

 Stern – “legalistic observance of Torah commands”; ESV – “works of the law.”

 Here is Stern’s Romans 3:28: Therefore, we hold the view that a person comes to be considered righteous by God on the ground of trusting, which has nothing to do with legalistic observance of Torah commands (νόμος nomos)The ESV translation (and similarly in all other translations) follows the grammar of the Greek,which is once again “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου “ergon nomou”): 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works (ἔργον ergon) of the law (νόμος nomos).

According to Stern, Paul must have meant “legalist” in the places Stern has indicated. Stern’s reasoning is that Paul was a Torah observant Jew, and so couldn’t have meant that one could be righteous without observing the Torah, which Paul says is good:  “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).

Consider the term “righteous.” There is a very important distinction, touching the very nature of “justification” itself, between (a believer) considered as righteous (justified) and becoming righteous (“sanctification” – living a holy life). In the first meaning, at the moment of regeneration (born again) Christ imputes his righteousness to (puts his righteousness into) the believer. This is the meaning of “justification.” In the second meaning, these justified believers, who have been given a new nature, have a radically different attitude to sin: they hate it, even more so when they fall into sin. They, alas, remain divided in themselves in that they (their sin nature) often want to do what they (their new nature) don’t want to do (Romans 7:13-25). They try to live a holy life, which is what “sanctification” means. With this distinction dangling under our kilts, let us return to Stern’s and the ESV translations of Romans 3:28:

Stern – “Therefore, we hold the view that a person comes to be considered righteous by God on the ground of trusting, which has nothing to do with legalistic observance of Torah commands (νόμος nomos).

ESV Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (νόμος nomos).

 And Romans 8:1-7 (ESV):

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,[c] he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (ESV).

Here is Stern’s reworking of Romans 8:1-3:

“Therefore, there is no longer any condemnation awaiting those who are in union with the Messiah Yeshua. 2 Why? Because the Torah of the Spirit, which produces this life in union with Messiah Yeshua, has set me free from the “Torah” of sin and death. 3 For what the Torah could not do by itself, because it lacked the power to make the old nature cooperate (pace Calvin), God did by sending his own Son as a human being with a nature like our own sinful one [but without sin].”

In Stern there are three Torahs: the Torah of the Spirit, the “Torah” (his inverted commas) of sin and death (verse 2), and the Torah by itself (verse 3). The “Torah” (in inverted commas) is Stern’s “legalistic observance” and the Torah by itself is the holy Mosaic Law. But this bifurcation into “Torah” and Torah is not there in the Greek text. Stern, of course, says that it is implied. We, however, are no longer under the law, writes Paul (Galatians 3:25). But – and this is what Stern is grappling with – he also writes, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). And in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, we read:

7 if the ministration of death, written, and engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look steadfastly upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which glory was passing away: 8 how shall not rather the ministration of the spirit be with glory? 9 For if the ministration of condemnation hath glory, much rather doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. (See A Jewish view of the Christian view of the LAW).

This “ministration of the (Holy) Spirit” does not mean that followers of Jesus/Yeshua need not live a godly life. It does not mean that all you have to do is have faith and ignore the Lordship of Christ/Messiah over your life. Christ’s Lordship is his “Lawship.” The law/Torah holy as it was, administered death, because it made us conscious of our sin, and showed us how helpless we are without God’s mercy. It was not Stern’s “Torah” above of legalistic observance that brought death but the holy Torah itself. After one is justified (by grace through faith), the law previously written on stones – the Ten Commandments – becomes written into our hearts. The law is one among several of our scriptural pedagogues:

[14] But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it [15] and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [16] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17 ESV).

Followers of Jesus/Yeshua don’t do the works of the law for their salvation but in their salvation, and in this sense they are not under the law, under the ministration that, before they were born again, brought death. I’m sure Stern would agree.

[I]t’s certainly discouraging, says S Lewis Johnson, to discover that in the Christian life you find yourself doing the very thing that you hate to do.  And so the things that you want to do you can not do, and the things that you hate to do you find yourself doing them.  The tendency is to try all forms of Christian legalism, introduced taboos.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t do the other thing.  And that will be pleasing to the Lord, and you will be victorious in your Christian life.  Or resolve even harder with your will.  Perhaps, even spend more time in prayer or witnessing, giving out the gospel.  These things surely are the means by which we may find merit before the Lord God.  But we discover that Christian legalism will not do in the Christian life.  We discover as Paul has told us here in this passage that we’ve read in our Scripture reading that we are slaves to indwelling sin, and something must be done in us now. So the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the unfolding of something done for us and something done in us.  Christ dies for our sins on the cross, and the Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts to complete the work of redemption by doing something in us; something that is not completed until the time of the resurrection, but something that is going on constantly” (S. Lewis Johnson, The Struggle – Romans, 7:13-25).

“Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. 9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. 10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. 11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. 12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”

What about “not one jot, not one tittle!” Enough already; do you want me back on the bottle! 

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