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Do we need a new perspective on justification?

Category Articles
Date August 11, 2005

Part I

One of the hottest theological debates in the evangelical and Reformed community today relates, surprisingly, to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. A number of contemporary theologians, including some with evangelical credentials, are suggesting that we need to revisit, correct and move beyond the formulations of the great sixteenth century Protestant Reformers and confessions (and their conservative heirs) on the nature and meaning of justification. The school of thought that is promoting this particular reassessment has been called the New Perspective (or Perspectives) on Paul. What is an evangelical pastor, elder or congregant to make of this? What are the proponents of the New Perspective(s) saying? How should we respond? What’s all the fuss about? What are the pastoral consequences of the various positions? We’ll tackle and try to sort some of these things out in this multi-part article.

The New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP) represents a paradigm shift in the scholarly study of Pauline theology (with ramifications for New Testament Theology as a whole). It calls into question the Protestant Reformation’s reading of and conclusions regarding Paul’s doctrine of redemption and its application to the believer. In other words, it suggests that the Protestant Reformers’ exegesis of Paul on justification and their theological formulations of what Paul taught about our being justified by grace through faith alone, and not by works, based on the work of Christ alone, imputed to us were mistaken. The NPP even questions whether Paul was primarily concerned with the question “how can I be saved?” For instance, N.T. Wright says flatly “that ‘the gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and a historical sense” in What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 60, see also 113-117.

The NPP has its origins in the academic historical-critical tradition, quadrants unfriendly to evangelical approaches to New Testament Theology. Though precursors can be found, for instance in the 1960s in the work of Krister Stendahl, the NPP was really launched through the work of E.P. Sanders, especially his celebrated Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress), published in 1977. If you want a quick taste of the NPP from the original proponents in their own words, see E.P. Sanders, Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), and James D.G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” originally printed in the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 65 (1983): 95-122; and reprinted in The Romans Debate, ed. Karl P. Donfried (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 299-308.

But in the evangelical world, its best-known exponents are James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. It is especially Wright who has mediated the NPP to the evangelical seminaries and churches, and so this little piece will concentrate on him. Wright views his version of the NPP as an essentially compatible corrective to historic Protestant exegesis and theology relating to Pauline soteriology. He says things like “if you start with the popular view of ‘justification by faith’, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 113). This kind of assertion by Wright has produced both positive and negative responses within certain quarters of evangelicalism. Some are convinced that he’s right, and that one can both embrace historic Protestant theology and the NPP without fundamental contradiction. Others, including many respected evangelical and Reformed New Testament scholars and theologians, vigorously contest his claim.

The NPP argues that what distinguishes Paul from his Jewish contemporaries is his core conviction that Jesus is the Messiah for Jews and Gentiles, who are now admitted into the people of God on the same basis. Paul did not view contemporary Judaism as Pelagian, or charge it with teaching some form of works-righteousness. No, Paul’s problems with the common Judaism of his day were ecclesiological, eschatological and Christological, not soteriological. Let me say that again, in English. Paul, according to the NPP, did not criticize Judaism for legalism in its teaching on salvation. As far as Paul was concerned, there was nothing wrong with Judaism’s theology of grace. Paul did not view Judaism as a religion of merit, and expound over against it a distinct doctrine of divine monergism. Instead, Paul charged his Jewish contemporaries (1) with misunderstanding the doctrine of the people of God (ecclesiology), an error especially seen in the exclusive first century Jewish mindset that looked to the “works of the Law,” especially to circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary laws, as badges of covenant membership, rather than to faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah; (2) with a failure to rightly appreciate the Old Testament’s eschatology, especially seen in Judaism’s failure to grasp the ramifications of the eschatological event of the incarnation in which Yahweh has acted to save his people, and (3) with an inadequate Christology, evidenced in the general Jewish rejection of Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

We should pause at this point and comment on the “old perspective” on Paul and the common Judaism of his day that the NPP is supposedly seeking to correct. One reason this is important is because of the caricature of the historic Reformed view that one encounters in even the most evangelical-friendly versions of the NPP (such as with Dunn and Wright). One pro-NPP writer, for instance, asserts that the Reformed position has historically viewed (1) Judaism was a religion of works-salvation in which one merits or earns redemption; (2) that Paul’s conversion was like Luther’s – Paul was dissatisfied with his inherited religion’s inability to give him peace with God, his inability to attain holiness, and his inability to be right with God; (3) that Paul’s essential religion changed when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, that justification by grace was a new religious concept and that Paul made it the center of his theology; (4) that the focus of Paul’s writings was upon how individuals find acceptance with God; (5) that Paul juxtaposed faith and works, believing and doing, as two fundamentally different principles of religion life and salvation; and (6) that Paul taught that law (OT religion) stood in opposition to grace (NT religion).

Well, where does one begin in replying to such a presentation? First of all, let us grant that one can find these kinds of unqualified assertions in generic evangelicalism, especially in dispensational and antinomian circles; but let us also recognize that these kinds of views are found nowhere in Protestant confessional theology without important qualifications. Second, we should note that the historic Reformed and Protestant view of Jewish religion is complex. On the one hand, you will find all the great magisterial Reformers acknowledging that OT religion is a religion of grace, that justification by faith is an OT principle, that faith and works are both necessary in the Christian life, and that there is continuity between OT and NT religion. On the other hand, you will find the Reformers raising the same theological criticisms of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and Paul as they did in their own day. The Reformers also rightly understood that the nature of the Jewish religion fundamentally changed after its final rejection of Jesus as Messiah and its loss of the sacrificial system. The law took on a role in Judaism that it had never held before, and the principal of substitutionary sacrificial atonement diminished.

So, in fact, the “old perspective” recognized that (1) The Judaism of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Simeon, and John was a religion of grace, as God had revealed it, but that when the majority of the Jewish people in the time of Christ rejected Jesus as Messiah, they themselves thereby fundamentally altered the role of the law in their religion (since Jesus and all orthodox early Christians believed that the law pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in him), thus they perpetuated, elaborated and codified mistaken notions about the law that had been developing in Judaism since the return from the exile, creating fertile soil for legalism of various sorts to grow.

(2) The “old perspective” Reformers also recognized that Paul’s and Luther’s experiences were very different. For instance, Paul was admittedly self-righteous before his life-changing encounter with Christ, while Luther was wracked with guilt and felt a total lack of righteous standing with God. However, Paul also admits that despite his self-confidence he was self-deceived as to God’s approbation of his life, and thus, just like Luther, needed God’s grace for salvation and the atoning work of Christ on his behalf. In this way, Paul himself is the perfect picture of the predominant religious problem of the Judaism of his day, self-confident of their righteous standing with God and unaware of their need of the saving grace held out in Christ.

(3) The Reformers, coming from the “old perspective” understood that justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was not a NT doctrine but an OT doctrine, explicitly revealed at least as far back as Genesis 15! In this, they are simply affirming precisely what Paul himself affirms in Romans 4. Furthermore, though they viewed justification by faith as a key Pauline doctrine, they did not necessarily assert that it was the central Pauline doctrine (though they certainly saw it as key, and rightly so, in their dispute with Rome). Calvin, for instance, polemically, thought wrong Roman worship (idolatry), even more than false views of justification, was the key issue in the Reformation; and exegetically he rightly set justification in the larger context of the Pauline doctrine of union with Christ.

(4) Though the Reformers certainly believed that a personal response of faith is required of God from every individual who will be saved, they also strongly emphasized the doctrine of the church, and God’s central plan for his people, his family as a whole. They recognized that we are saved individually into a community, and thus had a better balance on the individual and the corporate aspects of God’s redemption than most today.

(5) The Reformers rightly understood Paul, not as being “against” works, but stressing that one must understand where they fit in the Christian life and where they don’t. We are not saved by good works, but to good works, and that difference makes all the difference in the world. Everyone who believes, also works, but is not chosen by God because of works but unto good works. In other words, the Reformers believed that everyone who is saved is both justified and sanctified, but no one is justified by sanctification. The Reformers rightly understood that everything that Augustine gained in the Pelagian controversy could be lost by sneaking works into justification. The Reformers, by the way, did not view their Roman Catholic opponents as Pelagians, but as semi-Pelagians.

(6) Finally, the Reformers did not believe that OT religion was a religion of law and works, while NT religion was a religion of grace and faith. The Reformers taught that all believers in all ages, Jew or Gentile, were/are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Reformers also recognized that the law had a key role in the Christian life, so that the Gospel enables the believer to delight in God’s moral law.

Until the NPP really comes to grips with the “old perspective” in its best representative forms the value of its corrective criticisms will be minimal. Over the next several installments, we’ll explore the NPP, especially through the writings of NTW; in the meantime I’d encourage interested pastors especially to dig into three books and one ecclesiastical report.

First, Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004). This is, perhaps, the best single book-length introduction and critique of the NPP, written by a PCA minister, professor and scholar. A review of the book can be found in this edition of Reformation 21.Here’s what the highly regarded New Testament Scholar Don Carson has to say about this book. “In the last few years there have been several careful evaluations and critiques of the new perspective. This one excels for its combination of simplicity, fair dealing, historical awareness, and penetration. For the pastor who is vaguely aware of the debates, but who has little mastery of the confusing details, this book’s careful presentation of each scholar’s position is a model of accuracy and clarity. Even those who have been pondering the issues for years will see some things in a fresh light. The ability of Waters to combine exegetical, historical, biblical-theological, and systematic reflections, and all in relatively brief compass, enhances the credibility of the argument. Combine these virtues with pedagogically helpful chapter summaries and an annotated bibliography, and it is easy to see why this book deserves wide circulation. In a domain where the issues are too important to ignore and where polarization is dividing congregations and denominations, it is a relief as well as a pleasure to come across a book noted much more for its light than its heat.”

Second, Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Here’s where you go after Waters. Westerholm’s revision of his 1988 Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith is one of the most comprehensive and penetrating volumes addressing the NPP. Part One helpfully offers the reader summaries of Paul as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley have read him. Part Two updates Westerholm’s 1988 survey of recent scholarship on Paul. Part Three expands and revises Westerholm’s 1988 exegetical discussion of Paul’s understanding of “righteousness,” “law,” and “justification by faith.” The introduction will leave you on the floor laughing.

Third, read D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, eds. Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume Two: The Paradoxes of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). This book is for the intrepid (so go ahead, get volume one as well!). Guy Waters comments that “Following the 2001 companion volume that addressed Second Temple Judaism, this volume concentrates on the biblical and theological issues touching the issues that the NPP have raised concerning the interpretation of Paul. Among the many fine essays in this volume are thorough exegetical studies of Rom 1:18-3:20 (Seifrid), Rom 3:21-4:25 (Gathercole), Rom 5-11 (Moo), and a treatment of Paul’s language of faith and works in Galatians (M. Silva). O’Brien argues in two separate essays that Paul was not a covenantal nomist, and that Paul was called and converted at the Damascus Road. Yarbrough and Carson attempt positively to define Paul’s relationship to the Old Covenant. T. George offers a contemporary defense of the Reformation’s (and particularly Luther’s) reading of the apostle Paul. Each student of the NPP should prioritize a careful reading of this volume. See especially Stephen Westerholm’s chapter “The ‘New Perspective’ at Twenty-Five” – This essay competently surveys recent Pauline scholarship in the wake of Sanders’ scholarship on ancient Judaism and Paul. It both abbreviates and supplements his overview of scholarship in the 2004 Perspectives Old and New on Paul. Westerholm in this essay and in Perspectives is especially helpful in grouping the works of contemporary Pauline scholars into “families” of shared sympathies or similar approaches.”

Fourth and finally, go to the internet, download and read the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (PCA) Report on the “New Perspectives on Paul,” including the theology of N.T. Wright; and on the theology of Norman Shepherd; as well as the so-called “Auburn Avenue theology” or “Federal Vision.” (Presbytery of the Mississippi Valley, 2005). This document is available online at:

After one has read large doses of the NPP, it is helpful to have someone summarize and organize to clear the fog. This report, especially in its documented summary of the NPP and N.T. Wright, will do the trick.

Ligon DuncanPresident of the Alliance of Confessing EvangelicalsThis article is taken, by permission, from the first edition of the new Online Magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals edited by Derek Thomas

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