Justification by Faith and the New Perspective on Paul

Introduction

Since the early 16th century, the doctrine of justification by faith (JBF) has been a center point of Protestant / Reformed faith and a bane to the Roman Catholic theologians. In the era of Johann Tetzel and his monetary form of salvation, the reformers rediscovered the force of JBF and the books of Romans and Galatians. In the later part of the 20th century, a “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) has developed, bringing a perspective that challenges some of the root presuppositions of JBF.

In this essay, JBF will be examined from a Biblical and theological perspective. Following, an examination of NPP will provide the key concepts that are brought into confrontation with the Reformed / Evangelical understanding of the doctrine. Ending the essay will be a critique of NPP.

Justification by Faith

            Martin Luther did not invent JBF in 1517, but he was the one who brought it to the forefront of theological discussion at that time. His study in Romans led him to a spiritual breakthrough – his faith was no longer dependent on any work or religious act he or any man did. It was entirely dependent on what Jesus did on the cross in God’s plan of salvation. This revelation caused him to call into question those in the church (such as Tetzel) who found JBF not only heretical but also an inconvenience to their financial endeavors.

            But what exactly is this doctrine that caused so much angst in the early 16th century and following? Essentially, the doctrine involves one’s standing before God.[1] The starting point is the hard truth that no human can be perfectly good (Romans 3:9-18, 23). No human can work their way to salvation (3:19-20). The person who desires salvation must therefore be justified before God to receive salvation. Justification (δικαιόω) doesn’t mean to make righteous, but to declare righteousness.[2] The infection of sin, spread throughout humanity, limits the human’s ability to follow the Law (make righteous) perfectly.[3] To be justified, then, is an action that is outside the human (declare righteous).

            Justification then is an act of judgment. God judges one to be saved or unsaved. As discussed above, humanity can do nothing on its own to save itself from God’s justified judgment. This is where faith comes in. JBF (δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει) is not just a qualification for salvation, but the “medium for salvation.”[4] Faith (πίστει) is an act of putting trust into something. That something is Jesus. This faith is expressed in the “formula” given in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. (CSB – emphasis mine)[5]

Faith is trust in Jesus, who died (paid the legal penalty) and resurrected (defeating the penalty for sin – death). When humans put their faith in Jesus, they are then justified before God not by what they did, but by what Jesus did. This saving work by Jesus is a gift to humanity – it is grace. This gift of grace is what led Paul to declare in his letter to the Ephesians:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9 emphasis mine)

And to the Galatians:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19-21)

JBF is putting trust into the finished work of Jesus and receiving the gift of grace which then justifies us before God. God offered no other way to reconciliation with Him – it is only through Jesus.

The New Perspective on Paul

            The NPP brings a new debate to the arena. NPP asks if Paul meant that all believers need JBF or that only the Gentiles need this. Noted NPP advocates E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn put forth several claims that have led to this new discussion. First, NPP advocates hold that first-century Judaism is not a religion based on work but faith.[6] Second, NPP advocates that JBF is more of an evangelism tactic Paul used in his mission to the Gentiles.[7] Third, Paul was misunderstood by the Reformers[8] in that he did not experience a conversion (change of religion) in Acts 9 but a call to preach to the Gentiles[9] whose integration into the Christian church was his main concern[10] , not Jewish legalism[11] in which the Law was a badge of identity for the Jew.[12] These points lead NPP advocates to argue that there was a two-covenant system. The nomism covenant (works and Law) for the Jews and JBF for the Gentiles.[13]

Critique of the New Perspective on Paul

Wesley, in his great sermon on JBF, stated:

“It is also far too easier to take for granted than to prove from any clear Scripture testimony that justification is the clearing us from the accusation brought against us by the law… whereas we have transgressed the law of God and thereby deserved the damnation of hell, God does not inflict on those who are justified the punishment which they had deserved.”[14]

JBF must not be taken for granted. Although the NPP attempts to understand Paul’s first-century worldview, they make several errors on the way. First, to state that the first-century Jewish faith was not based upon works falls short of the facts. While there is Rabbinic literature that emphasizes the חֶסֶד (loving-kindness, grace, eternal love) of God, there is far more literature supporting the view of Jewish legalism.[15] Second, while Paul was called to the Gentiles, and JBF was a central component of his apologetic with the Gentiles, it was not a tactic he used exclusively to Gentiles (evidenced by Romans and Galatians not written exclusively to a Gentile audience but a mixture of Gentile and Jewish believers).

            Third, there is no doubt when one reads Acts 9 and following there is a significant transformation of Paul. However, this transformation – conversion – was a fulfillment of his Jewish identity more than a change in religion. JBF was, at last, the central point of being a Jew. The history of Israel had been pointing towards Jesus all along. Instead of fighting Jesus, Paul converted and joined Him. Fourth, the notion of two different covenants at the same time is in error. Yes, there was an Old Covenant, given to various Old Testament individuals to communicate to Israel. But that Old Covenant was fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the New Covenant brings the presence of God out from the Tabernacle / Temple and into the lives of every person (Jew and Gentile) who puts their faith in the atoning death of Jesus, his resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

            There is an essential point that the NPP advocates bring to the discussion. It is indeed vital to know the first-century worldviews and ideas – Jewish and Gentile. If one is to understand Paul’s words, one needs to understand why he used certain words for certain people. The context of the world of the New Testament is of paramount importance for exegesis.  Justification then is central but also part of God’s great plan to rescue humanity from sin. To quote N.T. Wright:

“It would have been taken for granted that “God’s righteousness” referred to the great, deep plans which the God of the Old Testament had always cherished, the through-Israel-for-the-world plans, plans to rescue and restore his wonderful creation itself, and, more especially, to God’s faithfulness to those great plans.”[16]

JBF is the central component of the New Covenant for every human. Paul was very concerned with the integration of believers from different religious backgrounds, but that integration only compliments the essential doctrine of JBF.

Bibliography

Bloesch, Donald G. Essentials of Evangelical Theology Volume 1: God, Authority, and Salvation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.

Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020.

Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology Volume 3: Sin and Salvation. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 2004.

Stuhlmacher, Peter. Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey. Edited by Kenneth J. Collins, & Jason E. Vickers. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2013.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.


[1] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 61.

[2] Ibid, 63.

[3] Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology Valume 1: God, Authority, and Salvation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing1998), 227.

[4] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology Volume 3: Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 2004), 490.

[5] All Bible passages taken from Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020).

[6] Peter Stuhlmacher and Donald A. Hagner, Revisting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective (Downer’s Groove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), Kindle Edition Location 628.

[7] Ibid, Location 638.

[8] Ibid, Location 648.

[9] Ibid, 655

[10] Ibid, 658.

[11] Ibid, 663.

[12] Ibid, 667.

[13] Ibid, 667.

[14] John Wesley, The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collecton for the Christian Journey, ed. Kennth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville, TN: Abbington Press, 2013), 138.

[15] Stuhlmacher and Hagner, Locations 686-690.

[16] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 178.

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