In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul (Part 2)

To recap, Cara concludes that, in NPP soteriology, “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.”

In stating this, Cara betrays a belief that justification is God stating that sinners are righteous even when we are not, because of Jesus’ work. The NPP belief is that justification is God stating that sinners will be made righteous because of a process made possible only through God’s grace, a process called faith.

Most Christians have a difficult time defining grace, but I think grace is exemplified well in the aforementioned example: loving your spouse by giving them time to change and forgiving them so that their guilt and shame doesn’t prevent them from changing. This is how God treats us despite our ongoing sin towards Him and others. 

If you are “gracious” during a conversation, you don’t hold somebody’s slight or faux pas against them, you don’t point it out (at least, not in an accusatory manner or in front of others), and you move past it and let it go. The caveat is that, unless they understand that they’ve committed a faux pas and that you caught it but graciously ignored it, they will not see your actions as graceful. You will have shown grace, but they will not have received it.

Grace is only understood as grace by its recipient if both parties are aware of the offense that was forgiven. And therefore, for grace to have any effect, it must include an acknowledgement of a mistake by both parties and the release of consequences for the mistake by the non-offending party—that is, repentance and forgiveness.

My personal definition is that grace is the delay (and hopefully, ultimately abstention) from a just response to a sin in order that the sinner may recognize their sin, turn from that behavior, and eventually get to a point where they no longer sin in that way. Grace is shown because of a love for the recipient based on the character of the giver of grace, as well as a desire by the grace-giver to have their relationship reconciled.

By Grace Alone

God’s work to bring us to salvation and our work of obedience that makes that possible are two separate systems, just like eating and growing are two separate systems. Because they are two separate systems, we can say that we do not contribute to our own salvation (we don’t grow ourselves by willing ourselves to grow) and that our obedience is a necessary condition for our salvation (we will cease growing and eventually die if we do not eat).

We have to eat in order to grow. The process of growing depends upon the nutrients we gain from eating. However, when describing cell growth, a scientist will not start out with, “First, the subject consumes 1,000 calories.” They will start out with a description of what the body does with the 1,000 calories it has already consumed. The body cannot grow without those calories, but the process of consuming them and the process of using them are different. So too, we cannot be sanctified without studying what Jesus said and did and doing it ourselves, but the process of being sanctified, that is, of having our internal character changed to be like His, is something that He does in us, which we cannot bring about through any willpower of our own.

We control our eating and we don’t control our cell growth, but our cell growth depends upon our eating. We control our obedience and we don’t control our sanctification, but our sanctification depends upon our obedience. Justification may best be understood, in this analogy, as coming to accept or believe that we do need to eat in order to survive. If we truly believe this (and value our lives), we will eat/obey, and God will sanctify us/bring about spiritual growth.

Obedience towards Christ is not the end-goal, it is the means by which the Spirit works to accomplish the end-goal. This happens “by God’s grace.” What “by God’s grace” means is that, because of God’s character and His love for us, He gives us: time to obey, an example of what this obedience looks like, verbal instructions from Jesus on the particulars of this obedience, and forgiveness, not only for when we fail to obey, but even for when we fail to try (just like our body does not wither and die the moment we neglect a meal, but after an extended period of time doing so).

Intentional attempts to obey Jesus are indispensable because they allow the Holy Spirit to impart Christ’s righteousness to us. Our character is changed to be patient as a result of frequent, intentional attempts at showing patience (though it should be noted that external acts of patience without a desire to become a more patient person will not result in a changed character due to a lack of humility). Still, we do not “change” our character by ourselves—that is something that God does inside of us during this process.

Through Faith Alone

This obedience is done “in faith” or it is not done at all. That is, we cannot and will not do it unless we do it in faith. If we are repulsed by the idea of eating, yet our doctor tells us that, unless we eat, our body will not keep growing and we will die, then we would need to overcome our repulsion and eat anyway to survive. Our eating would be done through faith in the doctor— because of our natural repulsion towards eating (in this hypothetical), the only way we would eat is if we had faith in the doctor. And there would be a point at which we would relent from our resistance in our heart and believe in the doctor’s words—a moment of conversion, of placing our faith in him.

We are repulsed by the idea of submission, of obedience. We are rebellious by our very nature. In fact, one of the best things about Protestant doctrine is the teaching that we cannot even make ourselves come to God, to make ourselves want to obey Him. 

But God, our doctor, tells us that there is only one way for our hearts to change. If we have faith in Him, we will listen to Him; because of our rebellious nature and resistance to obedience, the only way we will listen to Him is by trusting in Him over ourselves. This is what “through faith alone” means.

In Christ Alone

“By grace alone, through faith alone” then means “in the time that God gives us, and through the mercy and forgiveness that God shows us (by grace alone), without having proof that the process will work (through faith alone)”. What does “in Christ alone” mean?

In the doctor’s mercy and love for us, he has given us a prescription with plenty of time to take it, but there is no proof this prescription will work. That is “by grace through faith”. The prescription itself is “in Christ alone”. Taking the medicine the doctor prescribes is an action, but not of work, of obedience. To sit back and allow the doctor to administer lifesaving treatment is to submit to that treatment, and the treatment is Christ Himself.

Obedience to anything else, even to the law, cannot help us. Only adherence to Jesus can change our behavior, a fact not lost on Jesus Himself and all the New Testament authors. In fact, the way (and the truth and the life) of Jesus is the only way to change our character precisely because the only way for Christ’s righteousness to be imparted to us is through (our) faith expressing itself through (acts of) love. These “acts of love” are simply obedience to the Father, the very thing that all of Jesus’ words and actions have in common. Not perfect obedience on our part, mind you, just genuine obedience.

This should help to explain what Christ meant when He said that He did not come to abolish the law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. The law of God is not a bad thing, but it can only transform behavior, not the heart. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not fulfill as in “satisfy” but fulfill as in “complete”. He completes it by taking an existing process designed to govern our behavior and adding to it a process designed to change the heart: believing in Him. I can’t say it enough: belief in or faithfulness to Jesus involves taking action, but this action is not work, it is obedience, submission, or surrendering one’s will. Work is enacting one’s will, while following Jesus is surrendering it; still, both include things that you and I do. 

Synergism in Action

This is often where the argument loses many Protestants, because to them, this is just trying to dress up the pig that is works-righteousness. Let me conclude with a direct appeal, however, in metaphorical form.

You are driving to work one morning, traveling about 40 mph, and the light a little ways ahead of you changes to yellow. You see it with enough time to stop, but you also know that if you continue at your present speed, you’ll make it through before the light turns red. But then God nudges you to stop, and even though you want to make the light, you surrender your will to Him and obey, coming to a stop at the intersection. And the moment you would have been in the intersection, just before the light turns red, a semi bursts through the intersection perpendicular to you. You would have been t-boned by the semi and likely killed, along with your spouse and children. 

You did not save your lives, nor would you take credit for doing so. You would give God the credit, because He gave you the urge, the inclination, the conviction, to surrender your will and obey Him. You and I know this to be true: whether you say it aloud or not, you thanked God when He saved your lives.

But He didn’t seize control of your body and force you to push the brake against your will. You took action. When you submit your will to God in this way, He, not you, is responsible for the results. Obedience by you is necessary because God does not force you to submit to Christ. You are not forced to conform your words and actions to Jesus’s. However, you are given the time and forgiveness to do so (the gift of grace), reasons, though no proof, for doing so (the choice of faith), and what the treatment looks like (the life of Christ).

In this way, you are absolutely required to “do” something to be saved, and yet all the “work” that results in your salvation is done by God to you.

Cara’s Conclusion

I apologize for possibly beating a dead horse, but I have a reason for doing so. A great many Christians, educated, zealous Christians, have trouble articulating what being saved “by grace, through faith, in Christ” means. They believe it to be true but, because so many other Christians seem to deny certain aspects, they are unsure of what exactly it means. I felt it productive to analyze the components individually because of their imminent relevance.

Back to Cara’s article…As far as his conclusion goes—that New Perspective soteriology is not compatible with a justification as “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”—I believe that Cara is wrong. 

NPP soteriology is consistent with a view of justification as a singular declaration of our sinlessness in God’s eyes, by His grace, through our faith in Christ alone. That declaration simply occurs in the future, and the process we take to get there is guaranteed to occur provided our faith in the doctor is genuine and we take his prescription. Cara’s mistake is to fail to see that the dominant Protestant understanding of the definitions present in its own soteriological system is incorrect, so the conclusions that many Protestant theologians draw from their soteriology are also incorrect. 

Having defined Cara’s conclusion and shown the NPP to be consistent with salvation by grace through faith in Christ, we can move on to discussing his two supporting arguments—that the NPP’s definition of justification 1) partially includes works-righteousness, and 2) denies the imputation of Christ’s work to the believer.

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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