Over the last 25 years a growing number of scholars have adopted a new view of Paul’s teaching regarding the law, a perspective which has been simply and broadly labeled as “the new perspective” (hereafter NP). While there are many variations of the NP, in this article I want to set forth the major issues raised by the NP, and explain why I believe it is a dramatic step in the right direction of understanding Paul.
The “Old Perspective”
To really grasp the basic issues raised by the NP, it is important to understand the traditional way Paul has been interpreted. The single greatest influence on interpreting Paul in the last 500 years was unquestionably Martin Luther. Luther struggled with his own sense of unworthiness in the face of a holy God.
I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.
Once he read Romans 1:17, “the just shall live by faith,” in dramatic contrast to the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism, Luther’s misery turned to joy.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. (ibid)
Since that discovery by Luther, Protestantism in general has essentially followed Luther’s reading of Romans. On this view, “law” refers to any system of commands to obey, and in such a system, salvation can only be achieved by perfect works. Since we all sin, this means of justification is impossible. As Luther wrote in his introduction to his commentary on Romans:
The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3 when he says, “No human being is justified before God through the works of the law.”
While there are obviously many variations on the traditional reading of Paul, its basic conclusions can be summarized as follows:
1. “Justification” is a legal term declaring the sinner “not guilty” (or “not punished)”.
2. The basic issue in Romans is how an individual can be declared “not guilty” before a righteous God.
3. “Law” (Greek nomos) is a generic term for any system of commands by God, of which the Law of Moses is only one example.
4. “The righteousness of God” is the gift of righteousness, or right standing, given by God to the sinner.
The New Perspective
The traditional reading of Romans and Galatians assumed that the real problem with the Jews in the first century was legalism, the belief that salvation was earned by perfect law-keeping. This understanding of Judaism was seriously challenged by E.P. Sanders’ groundbreaking 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this work, Sanders surveyed rabbinic literature, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and concluded that the traditional reading of Judaism was a gross misrepresentation.
The Rabbis certainly believed that God would punish transgression and reward obedience, but it is not a Rabbinic doctrine that one’s place in the world to come is determined by counting or weighing his deeds… Although obedience is required, no number of good deeds can earn salvation if a man acts in such a way as to remove himself from the covenant. Obedience and the intention to obey are required if one is to remain in the covenant and share in its promises, but they do not earn God’s mercy. (Sanders, p. 146-147)
Sanders argued that God’s relationship with Israel as a nation was determined solely by God’s grace. God chose the nation of Israel and entered into covenant with it by grace, not because Israel had earned his favor. Whether an individual Israelite remained in that covenant depended on his obedience to God’s law. “Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such” (Sanders, p. 421).
Furthermore, this obedience to the Law did not have to be perfect. According to Sanders, the view that was “universally held” by the Jews was this:
God has appointed means of atonement for every transgression, except the intention to reject God and His covenant. That is, those who are in the covenant will remain in and will receive the covenant promises (including a share in the world to come), unless they remove themselves by “casting off the yoke”. (Sanders, p. 157)
Sanders coined a term to describe this view: covenantal nomism. “Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.” (Sanders, p. 75)
This in turn led Sanders to conclude that in some ways Paul misrepresented Judaism as a system of works-righteousness.
Paul himself often formulated his critique of Judaism (or Judaizing) as having to do with the means of attaining righteousness, “by faith and not by works of law”…Paul agreed on the goal, righteousness, but saw that it should be received by grace through faith, not achieved by works. But this formulation, though it is Paul’s own, actually misstates the fundamental point of disagreement. (Sanders, p. 551)
Sanders concluded, “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.” (p. 552)
Other scholars of Paul have taken Sander’s argument a step further. What if it is not only Judaism that has been misread, but also Paul’s own writings? This is the essence of the NP. Paul was not inaccurately critiquing Judaism as a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” religion. But if that is not the case, what is Paul’s point in books like Romans and Galatians?
Legalism or Nationalism?
The NP argues that Paul was not dealing with the questions that faced Luther in the 16th century, but with the questions facing the church in the first century – particularly the issue of Gentile inclusion into the church. Peter was not criticized for preaching a message of grace and forgiveness; his critics spelled out why they were alarmed: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3, ESV). And when he defended himself, his critics did not say, “Now we understand that we are justified by a system of grace rather than law.” They said: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
This echoed Peter’s own discovery just prior to his preaching to Cornelius. After the three-fold vision of the unclean food on a sheet (was that “pigs in a blanket”?), the voice told him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Once he made his way to Cornelius’ house, Peter said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
It should be clear from this one episode that the issue was not perfectionism or “works-righteousness.” Indeed, Peter flatly says that “doing what is right” is necessary to be acceptable to God. Rather, the issue was, can Gentiles become Christians without becoming Jews first? While it is understandable why many Jews would have believed the answer to that question was an emphatic no, given the fact that all of the first Christians were Jews, the controversy recorded in Acts demonstrates that the issue for the Jews was not legalism as much as it was exclusivism.
No one had to face this issue more that the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. As Luke recounts Paul’s conversion and Paul’s retelling of his conversion, one detail that is carried consistently throughout all three passages is the focus on the Gentiles. “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).
In this connection, it is revealing that when Paul described his conversion before the mob at the Temple in Acts 22, they listened to everything he had to say until he spoke of his commission to preach to the Gentiles. “Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live’” (Acts 22:22). Again, the problem was not legalism, but exclusivism.
The NP and Romans and Galatians
Two of the classic proof-texts of the traditional reading of Paul are Romans 3:28 (“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”) and Galatians 3:11 (“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”). However, the very contexts in which these statements are embedded have to do with the Jew-Gentile issue. Romans 3:29-31 goes on to say, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” And Galatians 3:12-14 says, “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’– so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Frankly, these two statements are non sequiturs by the traditional reading, but they make a great deal of sense in light of the NP.
God blessed the Jews with great privileges, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). However, the Jews proved to be as sinful as the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-12). Paul is careful to exonerate the law itself, which he says is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). The only “weakness” of the Law was the flesh of those to whom it was given (Rom. 8:3). Even then, God’s purpose would not be thwarted. By causing sin to abound (Rom. 5:20), to become “sinful beyond measure” (Rom. 7:13), the Law “imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).
It is almost as if God concentrated sin from all humanity to Israel to Christ himself. This allowed God to do “what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). Or, to use language rooted in the curses of the covenant (Deut. 27-28), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
Consequently, the only way in which the Law could save Israel was as a “guardian” to lead Israel to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Christ is the “end [“goal,” NASB footnote] of the law” (Rom. 10:4). By rejecting Christ, the Jews ironically rejected the only way the Law could have saved them. The choice was Christ or the curse, and they chose the curse, stumbling over the stumbling stone of Christ (Rom. 9:32).
But why did Israel reject the gospel? This is the key issue. According to the traditional reading, the Jews thought they could achieve salvation by perfect law-keeping and did not need God’s grace. If this is not a correct analysis, what was the reason the Jews rejected Christ? According to Paul’s withering criticism in Rom. 2:17-25, the Jews allowed their special status as God’s chosen people to lead to boasting and arrogance toward the Gentiles, despite their own abysmal track record of disobedience. (While my focus here is on Paul’s teaching, I think this point can be made even more strongly from the gospels. Consider the following passages: Matt. 8:5-12; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 3:7-9; Luke 4:16-30; John 8:31-58). To the Jews, the Law was the “barrier of the dividing wall” which maintained their distinct identity from the Gentiles, an identity they wished to preserve even though it meant shutting themselves up under the Law’s curse. It may even be that the phrase, “the works of the law,” refers specifically to the commands which marked out Jews as distinct from Gentiles: circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. Not only was this self-destructive, it was in direct contradiction to God’s stated promise to Abraham that all families of the earth would be blessed (Romans 4:9-17; Gal. 3:15-29; 4:21-31). God always intended for his people to consist of Jews and Gentiles.
The Covenant Context
The prominence of the promise to Abraham in Romans and Galatians is a clue as to the true focus of Paul’s teaching. Instead of seeing the “righteousness of God” (or justification) as a judicial verdict pronounced upon the sinner, “righteousness of God” refers first and foremost to God’s own righteousness in the sense of his faithfulness to his promises and covenant. As Nehemiah prayed, “You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (Neh. 9:7-8, emphasis added). Consequently, when Paul says the “righteousness of God” is revealed in the gospel, he primarily means that the gospel reveals how God will be faithful to his covenant with Abraham. This helps to explain Paul’s emphasis on the promise to Abraham from Genesis 15, which is the text in which God makes the formal covenant with Abraham. And it also helps to explain Paul’s heavy use of the “covenant” texts of Deuteronomy 27-30 in Romans 10 and Galatians 3.
While the “righteousness of God” refers first to his own faithfulness to his covenant, that is not its only dimension. God’s faithfulness to his covenant also involves the vindication of his own people and the judgment of his enemies. This vindication necessarily requires a verdict by God, and so there is a legal dimension to God’s justifying work. And there is both a present and future dimension to justification. It is present in the sense that God pronounces the status of right-standing on those who trust in Christ. And it is future in that there will be a great and final day, the eschaton, when God puts an end to evil once and for all and ushers in the new creation. To appreciate the full scope of Paul’s teaching about justification, we must keep all three of these nuances in mind: God’s faithfulness to the covenant, God’s verdict in the lawcourt, and God’s judgment at the eschaton.
From this point of view, the book of Romans becomes much more unified. Instead of Romans 9-11 being an interesting sidelight, and the end of the argumentative section of the epistle, it becomes the very climax of the letter’s argument. The key issue of those three chapters has to do with God’s covenant faithfulness: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6). And those three chapters are designed to explain why the current state of the church, predominantly Gentile, does not mean God has reneged on his covenant. As N.T. Wright summarizes:
The passage from Romans 9:30-10:21 sets out the results of what God has done in Israel’s history. God has called Israel to be the means of salvation for the world. His intention always was to narrow this vocation down to the messiah, so that in his death all, Jew and Gentile alike, would find salvation. If, however, Israel insists in keeping her status for herself, she will find she is clinging to her own death-warrant. (Wright, What St. Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997] p. 130)
This view also adds meaning to Romans 14-15. Since the entire epistle explains that God’s purpose all along was to unite Jews and Gentiles together in the Messiah, it only makes sense that Paul would also explain in practical terms how Jews and Gentiles should get along.
The NP also falls right in line with the situation Paul addressed in Galatians. The argument in Galatians was not about Luther’s “works-righteousness.” As Paul narrates the problem in Galatians 2, it was specifically about the Jew-Gentile issue. Must Gentiles be circumcised? Can Jews eat with (uncircumcised) Gentiles? We cannot correctly understand Paul’s answers if we do not understand the questions.
Responses to the NP
I think it is fair to say that most NT scholars have accepted the findings of Sanders, at least insofar as the issue of Jewish legalism is concerned. And among evangelicals there has been a strong shift toward reading Romans and Galatians in light of the NP. Even many scholars who would see themselves in the Reformed tradition have acknowledged the contribution of the NP to the study of Paul. For example, see Craig Blomberg’s review of Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said.
However, there has been strong negative reaction to the NP from many Reformed scholars. Why? Because the NP calls into question many assumptions of the Reformation. For example, most NP adherents would say that God’s righteousness is his own covenant faithfulness, which in turn casts serious doubt on the “imputed righteousness” formula of the Reformation. And without the imputed righteousness of Christ, critics say there can be no assurance for the Christian. As one opponent (Paul Barnett) says, “The huge defect with the ‘New Perspective’ is that it denies or obscures the believer’s assurance of salvation.”
From my standpoint, the NP makes great sense of the overall message of the New Testament. Just as God’s covenant with Israel was by his gracious election, so also is the new covenant, with election centered in Christ (Eph. 1:1-10; Gal. 3:26-29). And just as maintaining membership in the covenant with Israel required obedience (including repentance in the event of sin), the same holds true with the new covenant (which explains Paul’s heavy emphasis on obedience in passages such as 2 Cor. 5:10).
This does not mean that we must earn our way to heaven on the basis of perfect law-keeping! Membership in God’s covenant has never required that. Our status of being “in Christ” is a matter of God’s grace, and the obedience we surrender to God is out of gratitude for his love and by the strength which he supplies (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:8-10; Rom. 8:1-13; Phil. 2:12-13).
My own study of Paul in light of the NP is in its very early stages. I have not worked out to my satisfaction all the questions that the NP raises for Romans and Galatians, but it has certainly provided a much clearer context for those books than the traditional reading. It would be just as easy to oversimplify what Paul says in light of the NP as it has been to oversimplify his message in light of the Reformation. I encourage you to take a look at the NP and share your thoughts about its validity and value.
E.P. Sander, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977). This is the book that started the move toward the New Perspective.
N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). This is where to begin if you want to read a concise introduction to the NP. And if you are familiar with Wright’s work you see his obvious influence on my thinking.
N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). This is a collection of Wright’s lectures in which he exegetes key passages in Paul’s writings in light of the NP.
Three recent major commentaries on Romans from the NP are James D. G: Dunn, Romans (WBC), 2 vols. (Dallas: Word, 1988); N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts - First Corinthians Volume 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002); and Ben Witherington with Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). I recently worked through Scot McKnight’s commentary on Galatians in the NIV Application series and really enjoyed his application of the NP to that book.