In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul (Part 1)

I am by no means an expert—in fact, I’m probably not even “well-versed”—in the New Perspective on Paul and the various views that fall under that umbrella. My education on the NPP came experientially, as I began to sense a disconnect between what my Lutheran upbringing taught me and what Scripture says, especially the gospels.

I came to see that the version of Lutheran salvific theology I was raised to believe was not in the Bible. Jesus never said anything that amounts to, “The difference between those who will spend eternal life with me and those who will spend it in hell is that those who will spend it with me are in intellectual agreement that my upcoming death and resurrection will pay for their sins, and those who will spend it in hell will think it didn’t happen at all, or will not believe they are forgiven by my death and resurrection, or possibly will never be told this.”

That’s not to mock those who do believe this—I did, for the first twenty years of my life, and though I pride myself on my Biblical intelligence, it took a shamefully long time before I noticed this disconnect. Once I committed to reading the gospels with an open mind, it became clear that the above statement sounds nothing like what Jesus preached. In my view, it takes some serious theological stretching to conclude that the above statement is even Paul’s own soteriology, unless you were raised to believe it and not to question it. 

After I discovered this was the case, I read Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines, which does a marvelous job of tracing how this incorrect theology came to be held within mainstream Protestantism, outlining what it misses, and correcting it.

It has been my own personal ministry ever since—and I believe it to be perhaps the most important domestic ministry one can embark on—to seek to persuade those who, like me, had a wholly anti-Christian understanding of Biblical salvation. After all, everybody in this country knows the name of Jesus Christ; few can tell you what it means to convert to Christianity. 

In my research, I came to discover that the Biblical definition of salvation was contained in the soteriology of the New Perspective on Paul. Two online resources that I find generally have Biblical interpretations of most issues, Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition, are my go-to websites for informational articles, so that was where I went next.

The Gospel Coalition’s Article on New Perspective Soteriology

Unfortunately, I was a bit disheartened when, in reading up on the NPP on The Gospel Coalition’s website, I found out they took a decisive stance against it. My disheartenment quickly turned to irritation as I read the article in which a representative explained his disagreement. The author misrepresents (or misunderstands) the New Perspective stance on justification and engages in logically fallacious arguments against it. The article in question can be found here.

It may very well be that the NPP is incorrect; if that is the case, the truth will win out eventually, and no distortions are necessary. Yet, a Christian website I hold in high esteem has a basic explanatory article on the NPP that dismisses it as false by misrepresenting what it says. That is what spurred me to critique the article, a critique which also serves as a defense of New Perspective soteriology and a refutation of traditional-Protestant soteriology.

The article in question is “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul” written by Robert J. Cara. The first issue that it erroneously presents is in the summary itself: the idea that the NPP espouses a two-justification system of salvation, initial justification and final justification. It does not. Instead, the NPP 1) defines salvation as both justification and sanctification and argues that genuine justification necessarily produces sanctification, 2) defines sanctification as, not works done by the believer, but the work of the Spirit in the believer to change the believer’s heart-orientation and then bring about Jesus’ righteousness, and 3) defines how the Spirit effects this work: through the obedience of the believer to Jesus’ instructions in the Gospels.

By portraying the NPP as a two-justification system, Cara makes it very easy to argue it is not Biblical, an argument that begins and ends like this, “Don’t you dare add anything to the gospel of Jesus Christ!” Of course, the NPP’s counter-argument is, “I’m only adding back in what got subtracted!”

Covenantal Nomism and Obedience

Cara begins the body of his article by explaining E.P. Sanders’s concept of covenantal nomism and his conclusion that Paul wasn’t arguing against a works-righteousness soteriology because, in Jewish culture, such a works-righteousness soteriology did not exist. This conclusion leads to another: since Protestant soteriology is largely developed in opposition to a broader conception of works-righteousness soteriology, the Protestant view is incorrect or deficient in some way. Cara is correct in summarizing Sanders’s conclusions and NPP beliefs so far.

As Cara clarifies how NPP scholars arrived at this view, namely that the phrase “works of the law” as it appears in Romans and Galatians refers to Jewish boundary markers and not works-righteousness, he writes, “Note that the New Perspective does not see these boundary markers [Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws which separate Jews from Gentiles] as part of a larger category of works-righteousness as the traditional-Protestant view does.”

On this point, Cara exposes the Protestant soteriology to immediate defeat. Speaking as only a 2nd-year graduate student studying Bible and Theology, I have not read a single scholar who, in discussing the Old Testament covenants, concludes that the Jews viewed obedience in keeping the Sabbath, circumcising their children and foreigners, and submitting to dietary restrictions as earning their own salvation.

Cara claims that the NPP’s view on OT covenantal nomism is based on misunderstanding Old Testament covenants, but any serious examination of the conditional, Old Testament covenants understands that the covenants are gifts from God (grace-based) and that there was an expectation of obedience to the laws of the covenant, without which the covenant would be considered broken. This is demonstrated by what results from Israel’s lack of obedience. Scripture makes clear that Yahweh allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to fall, and later allowed the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah, because they had broken the covenant with God (and presumably, her apostasy had reached such a degree that, without such drastic action, the nation would not have returned to worshiping Yahweh). 

In short, obedience didn’t “merit” the grace that God gave—it was simply the condition God placed upon Israel in order for the covenant to continue. Cara actually states that this is the NPP’s conclusion. He is right. He develops a counter-argument of sorts against this later.

Initial and Final justification

Cara claims that some NPP scholars (e.g., Dunn and Wright) contend that there are two justifications, initial and final. Perhaps this is indeed explicit in Dunn and Wright’s work and I simply haven’t discovered this yet. If that is true, then scholars like Dunn and Wright are partially responsible for the misunderstanding, as they are inviting disagreement by introducing new terminology to explain existing concepts that simply need to be clearly defined.

Even if this is true, however, Cara is incorrect in concluding from it that “initial justification, which is by grace through faith, is not related to final justification, which is “the imputation of Christ’s work to the believer through works, albeit done in the Spirit.” Even if we used the inaccurate dual justification definitions, the NPP would then state that initial justification produces final justification.

The New Perspective soteriology suggests that A produces B; Cara claims that the NPP soteriology is that A is unrelated to B. Cara’s claims are clearly false, but the NPP’s soteriology needs to be clarified, with this dual justification system being discarded. At that point, we can evaluate it in light of Cara’s refutation, and in light of scripture.

Cara’s Arguments and Conclusion

Cara proceeds by transitioning from explaining the NPP’s beliefs to arguing against them, a move which will allow for my clarification of the NPP soteriology while refuting Cara’s points. His arguments against the New Perspective is summed up as follows: 1) the NPP is an approach to justification which partially includes works-righteousness, and 2) imputation of Christ’s work to the believer is denied by the NPP. 

He then concludes that, on the NPP approach, “justification is no longer a once-for-all declaration that by grace alone God declares sinners to be righteous in his sight based on the work of Christ alone through the instrument of faith alone.”

Justification is a declaration, but it is a declaration that God is giving to us now from a point in the future. As such, God is not denying the reality of our present situation; rather, He is stating something that is a reality to Him, but is not yet a reality to us. For it to become a reality to us, something has to change in our present situation. That change occurs based on the work of Christ alone through the instrument of faith alone, but we will define what that means in a moment. First, it is important that we fully understand what God is declaring and why, with regard to justification. God’s declaration is not, “You are now righteous in essence, even though you are not, because I say so.” It is not, “Even though you are not righteous in essence, I will overlook this and consider you as righteous for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross.” Instead, it is, “You will be righteous, rest assured, so I will call you righteous now and consider you as righteous now because it is guaranteed that, through my work in you, you will become righteous.”

The differences are difficult to distinguish in certain ways (at least to me), so I find a metaphor helps. The difference is:

1) denying that your clearly abusive spouse is abusive at all (“you are now righteous even though you are not because I say it is so,”) 

2) acknowledging the abuse but, for the sake of the sacrifices that made the marriage possible, ignoring it whenever it occurs (“even though you aren’t righteous, I’ll overlook it for Jesus’ sake,”) 

and 3) turning to your spouse and telling them “I know you are abusive now, but I will treat you with such love that you will eventually stop being abusive at all—therefore, I will act as though (declare that) you have already ceased your abuse, by forgiving you when you are repentant without denying the reality of any physical abuse that still takes place.”

To be clear, the analogy is not perfect, because (tragically) one’s love for their spouse is not guaranteed to bring an abusive person to a state where they are no longer abusive. By contrast, God’s work in a believer who is justified is guaranteed to effect this change. Therefore, God can make this declaration with 100% confidence that it will be proven true, even though it is technically not yet a reality.

Occam’s Razor as Fallacy

Protestant soteriology ignores the practical importance of declaring one to be justified as a necessary step in bringing about that justification. To the Protestant, there are simpler explanations possible.

Those simpler explanations, however, ignore the practical need for the declaration to come in advance of an expected reality. When questioned as to how, specifically, the relationship between God and us is repaired, the Protestant answer is either answer 1 or answer 2 from above (the silly, nonsensical ones). The NPP’s answer is answer 3.

When questioned as to how and when that character is changed, they have no answer other than to predict that God will do it with the snap of His fingers on the Day of the Lord. The NPP’s soteriology does have an answer: the change occurs during sanctification, which always occurs after genuine justification, the point at which the heart-orientation is changed.

Tim Arrington grew up in the LCMS before he began attending non-denominational churches about a decade ago. He is in the final year of a Master’s program at Lincoln Christian University studying Bible and Theology. He lives with his wife Brittney and their 2-year-old daughter Amelia in Pittsburg, Kansas.

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