At the end of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, he makes a curious statement (Acts 13:38-39). It’s hard to figure out what he means. There’s no way a translation can be neutral, here. You have to interpret stuff to make it coherent. What does Paul say? I’ll quote the Common English Bible for a good, representative translation–pay attention to the areas I underline, because that’s where the question marks are:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn’t be put in right relationship with God through Moses’ Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with GodActs 13:38-39, Common English Bible
The two questions are this:
- What do the two words mean that the CEB translated as “be put in right relationship with God?” Your English version probably has “justified” or “made righteous.” What do they mean, in this context?
- Next, what exactly is Paul referring to when he refers to “Moses’ law”?
These questions don’t have obvious answers. I’ll briefly explain why and provide my own conclusions, in reverse order.
What is Moses’ law in Acts 13:38-39?
How is Paul seeing “Moses’ law,” here? There seem to be at least three options:
- If Paul is taken literally, then there was no salvation before Christ. If true, then Abraham wasn’t justified—but that is false (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3)—Old Covenant saints were justified by faith. This option is incorrect.
- If Paul is obliquely referring to the perversion of the law under which so many Jews groaned (cf. his own experience—Rom 7—that the law was the vehicle for righteousness), then it could make sense because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and taught a correct view of it (R.J. Knowling, Acts, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, p. 297; F.F. Bruce, Acts, in NICNT, pp. 278-279; Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p. 488; John Calvin, Acts, p. 572).
- Or, if Paul is referring Jesus making the final atonement and granting perfect peace in heart and mind (Schnabel, Acts, in ZECNT, p. 584), this could also make sense.
The second sense seems to be best because, as Bruce notes, that’s the way Paul frames the matter in his epistles! This is perhaps the most difficult bit of Paul’s argument to follow in Romans and Galatians. Paul generally didn’t argue against the Old Covenant law as it really was. Instead, he argued against the perverted form of it that was common in his day. Unless you get that, I don’t believe you’ll get his discussions of the law v. gospel in his epistles. This has been the source of endless confusion among both pastors and church members. The law was never a vehicle for becoming righteous. It was a prescribed code to regulate an existing saving relationship, and to bring awareness of your own sinfulness–so you’ll embrace the Messiah when he comes to fulfill the law’s demands in your place. Your children don’t do their chores in order to become part of your family. They do their chores because they already are part of your family, and are simply meeting obligations of that relationship.
So, I believe we should assume both that (1) Luke captured the sense of Paul’s words correctly (contra. C. K. Barrett, Acts, in ICC, 1:650), and (2) that Paul was consistent in the way he framed the law and the Gospel when he spoke to Jewish audiences. When he said Jesus could free them from the sins which the Mosaic Law couldn’t, he was in essence saying “you were taught you’d be made righteous by following the law, but you can’t do it right, and your sins always remind you of that! But, guess what? Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free from that never-ending treadmill of failure, that unending quest to earn salvation!”
What do those two words mean?
Look at your bible. What can Jesus do, that Moses’ law (properly understood) could not do? English translations vary. Here are some different usages (I paraphrase the sense but keep their word choices):
- ESV, NASB, RSV: Moses’ law couldn’t free you, but Jesus will free you.
- ISV: Moses’ law couldn’t justify you, but Jesus will justify and free you.
- NLT: Jesus will make you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
- NET, KJV, Jay Adams, CSB: Jesus can justify you, but Moses’ law could not.
- NEB, REB: Jesus can acquit you, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
- NIV: Jesus will set you free, which is a justification Moses’ law couldn’t achieve.
- Phillips: Jesus can absolve you, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t set you free.
- CEB: Jesus will put you into right relationship with God, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t put you into right relationship with God.
- N.T. Wright: Jesus can set you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t set you right (the same sense as CEB, above, but with different words).
As far as what on earth δικαιωθῆναι and δικαιοῦται mean (our two words), the most logical sense is “freedom” from the perversion of the law that Judaism too often championed. That is, freedom from the error that Moses’ law was a vehicle for salvation. That idea is wrong; it was never a means of “being made right” before God. Rather, it was the prescribed shape for one’s already existing relationship with God by faith in the promised Messiah! This is the same “freedom” Paul championed in Romans and Galatians.
I believe that, in his conclusion at Acts 13:38-39, Paul is calling them to believe in Jesus as Messiah and obliquely pushing against their false idea of salvation at the same time. He doesn’t stop to explain why their perverted view of Moses’ law was wrong. He assumes they hold this wrong view (he’s speaking during a synagogue service!), and that assumption is behind his statement that Jesus can free them from the weight of perfection they assume they must meet, according to their wrong view of Moses’ law.
As far as translation goes, here are my thoughts:
- You must strike a balance between translation and exposition. That is, if your translation veers off too far into explaining what it means, then you’ve lost your balance. That means a translation has to be willing to leave some ambiguity on difficult subjects, or it won’t be a translation. That’s why commentaries and sermons exist–to explain and apply.
- The renderings “justify” and “made righteous” are of little value. They communicate nothing to unbelievers. I think we ought to freshen the concepts up by setting these words aside, and choosing words that actually communicate.
- There are two good options for translating these words. First, it could carry the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
- If you choose the sense of acquittal, you mean that Moses’ law could never do that for you, but Jesus can. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that Moses’ law was ever meant to do that, so you’ll have to assume that Paul is implicitly referring to the wrong version of Moses’ law that was common at the time. This is possible.
- If you go for the “freedom from *****” scenario, you’re basically saying the same thing, but you’re framing it more as a welcome escape from an impossible burden–“I can’t follow the law perfectly, so I’m always gonna be a failure, so how do I escape this unending cycle!?” So, Paul says, “freedom is here, and it’s in Christ!”
With either option, you have to assume a great deal about what Paul means when he speaks about Moses’ law. You can only get that from his epistles, primarily Galatians and Romans. This isn’t the place to “prove” a position on that score, so I’ll simply conclude with that. My answers to the two initial questions are:
- Both words give the sense of “freedom or release from a claim or obligation that no longer has any hold.”
- When Paul refers to Moses’ law, he means the wrongheaded interpretation of Moses’ law that was common at the time–that the law was a vehicle for achieving a right relationship with God.
After all that, here is my translation of Acts 13:38-39:
γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται
So, understand this, brothers and sisters: forgiveness of sins is announced to you right now, through Jesus, and from all those sins from which you weren’t able to be set free by Moses’ law—by Jesus everyone who believes is set free!
 This is very odd grammar. In γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, there seems to be an implied imperative subject (which could be rendered as “let this”), of which γνωστὸν is the predicate nominative. The result is something like “Therefore, let this be known to you …” I made it more colloquial.
 I take καταγγέλλεται to be a descriptive present, picturing an event unfolding at the time of speaking. The wording “right now” tries to capture that flavor. It’s very tempting to ditch the passive voice and render it as a present (e.g. CEB), but I resisted the urge.
 The preposition expresses personal agency.
 Jesus is the pronoun’s antecedent.
 This is καὶ, in an additive sense (cf. Tyndale; N.T. Wright, Kingdom New Testament). It could be ascensive (Barrett, Acts, 1:650), but I decided it was best as additive.
 δικαιωθῆναι is a simple infinitive, complementing οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε. The word here, commonly translated “righteous,” carries the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
 I take ἐν τούτῳ to be depicting personal agency (“by/through Jesus”), but it could be the object of the verb (“everyone who believes in Jesus,” cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:651).