In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul (Part 3)

Unfortunately, Cara explains that the rest of his article will focus on works-righteousness, and that he will not undertake an examination of Old Testament covenantal nomism. It is unclear why he chooses to do this, but to ignore the entire basis for NPP soteriology (and Cara explicitly admits that covenantal nomism is the basis from which NPP theology develops) is argumentative malpractice.

Cara cites only extra-Biblical Jewish texts in an attempt to show that at least a small part of Jewish society had a preoccupation with works-righteousness, and further claims that, since a straightforward reading of Paul’s letters support that he was arguing against justification by works-righteousness and not justification by works of the law, and since some in Israel taught works-righteousness, this is the most likely conclusion. In actuality, of course, if any Jewish preoccupation with works-righteousness was 1) outside of mainstream Jewish views, 2) minor or largely irrelevant to religious life in Israel, or 3) self-evidently fallacious to the educated, Jewish Christians to whom Paul was writing, then Cara’s conclusion is not very likely at all.

More to the point, however, it may be straightforward to us to conclude that Paul was arguing against works-righteousness, but that may just be an accident of history. The last few centuries of Protestant theology have interpreted Paul’s arguments this way without, until recently, any serious suggestions that this interpretation is incorrect. 

Worse, Protestant theology often insulated itself from questions to this effect by labeling any divergence on this point as heresy. If one even suggests anything to the effect of action on our part as a requirement for salvation, their argument can be confidently ignored as heretical, or attended to only for the pleasure of refuting it. Monergism rules, synergism drools.

The NPP contends that this was not a straightforward reading for the recipients of Paul’s letter. Are we to assume, based on the contextual analysis of the early church, that there was a pervasive problem with new Christians trying to earn their way to Heaven when a primary tenet of Christianity, their new belief system and way of life, is that there is no need to earn your way into Heaven because Jesus did the work? 

Or might it be more logical that, at a time when Jewish Christians were having trouble letting go of the religious habits they were raised on, habits they were conditioned to consider the most important aspects of their lives, and when many new Jewish “Christians” were insisting that circumcision and dietary customs were necessary for salvation, that these works, the works of the law, were the issues that Paul was primarily concerned with decrying as unnecessary?

Protestant theology was formulated in response to a heretical works-righteousness that was being championed by the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day. Is it possible that, in opposing that heresy, Luther and co. transposed the main threat to genuine Christianity in their time onto their analysis of the main threat to the early church, and subsequently misinterpreted Paul’s letters because they did so through this lens?

Does Works-Righteousness Include “Works of the Law”?

Cara then says that “works of the law,” even if they do refer to Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, and food laws, should still be considered under the umbrella of “works-righteousness”.

This betrays a basic misunderstanding of both terms. Works-righteousness is working, or earning, your way into heaven based on your production. Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, and the keeping of food laws, or “works of the law”, have nothing to do with production or work. Instead, they were signifiers that one belonged to Israel, that one was part of God’s covenant.

Works-righteousness today looks like feeding the poor and donating your wealth because you believe God will reward you with Heaven. Christianity today looks like feeding the poor and donating your wealth because to do so is good and pleases God, and you want to do good and to please God. “Works of the law” today would be like public confession of Christ, church attendance, and Bible-reading. 

You can absolutely be a Christian and do modern-day “works of the law”—in fact, I would argue that if you are a Christian today, you also do these “works of the law” with some regularity. But none of those “works of the law” prove you do belong to Israel, or that you are a Christian. 

In Old Testament times, God would have considered a man who keeps the Sabbath and food laws and circumcises his children, but who engages in pervasive idolatry, sexual immorality, or child-sacrifice to have broken His covenant. Today, He would consider a man who goes to church and reads his Bible and tells other people about Jesus, but who deceives innocent men to steal their money, indulges his every sexual whim, and ignores the needs of his children to pursue his own desires as outside of His new covenant; such a person repulsed Him then as they repulse Him now. Repulsion to such things, by the way, is a good thing.

It is possible that, to give cover for their works-righteousness, some people will claim their actions, motivated by a desire to earn God’s grace, are really motivated by a desire to please Him. Only God will know, in such cases, what the truth is. But we know that, from a hypothetical standpoint, those motivations are mutually exclusive: as children, we do not obey our parents because we want to make them happy and because we want ice cream; we may want both things, to make them happy and want ice cream, but only one of those things will ultimately push us over the edge and bring us to obedience.

Lessons From the First Family

Cara makes a very questionable claim in fleshing out his argument for this. He says that both the pre- and post-Christ Jewish soteriological systems include faith and works, and that Paul’s soteriology was simply to negate “works” from the New Testament soteriological system. Once again, his point demonstrates he doesn’t understand what “works” are; had he engaged more with the concept of covenantal nomism, perhaps he would have discovered it.

“Works” and “obedience” are not the same. There are acts of pride and there are acts of submission to God. Acts of pride are “works” and acts of submission to God are “obedience”. This concept of works has always been counter to the way of God; this concept of obedience has always been a component in righteousness. This is demonstrated as early as Cain and Abel. Cain worked by trying to curry favor with God through his production; Abel obeyed by giving God the best of what he had. 

But, and this is key, both Cain and Abel took action. The difference is that one’s actions were done in obedience and submission to God, and were sacrificial in nature; the others were done for personal gain, and prideful in nature. Pleasing our parents vs. earning us some ice cream. You can even see it as far back as Adam. By not eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam was obeying. He submitted to God in this regard. However, when he decided to eat the fruit, presumably because he believed the lie that it would make him “like God” and “open his eyes,” he abandoned submission (which was defined by his inaction) for work (defined by his action). He literally went from obedience through lack of work to disobedience through work.

Works Versus Obedience Today

The difference in how we should understand “works” and “obedience” now is much the same (especially considering how significantly Jesus emphasized obedience as an entry requirement for the Kingdom of Heaven). “Works” is the idea that we can produce something apart from God and have it be of any worth. “Obedience” is the idea that we can give to God the best of what we have, the idea that we can submit to Him and trust that He will use our submission for good. 

Obedience is characteristic of those who are saved, who are justified and becoming sanctified, because attempts to obey demonstrate a heart that seeks to submit to God, that has abandoned its rebellious nature and is coming to embrace Christ’s character. Works, no matter how morally good, are characteristic of those who are not because they come from a place of putting oneself first, not God and others first.

Consider, also, that the Church is the body of Christ. For God to use the best of what we have and what we give Him, you and I have to take action; however, we don’t consider that action “works,” we consider it obedience, the duty of a child of God. It is faith expressing itself through acts of love. Cara doesn’t understand this point or won’t concede it, likely because it will significantly weaken his argument.

Works-Righteousness, Works of the Law, or Pride?

Finally, Cara claims that, contrary to his expectations, many NPP scholars agree that texts such as Ephesians 2:8-20 contrast grace-based soteriology with works-righteousness soteriology. I don’t understand why he would think differently. At times, Paul clearly contrasts the truth, that Jesus provides salvation as a gift, against a false ideology that we can earn or work for our salvation.

Importantly, though, Paul is not arguing against a false ideology that is being preached in the churches, but against pride that is bound to creep into a believer’s heart as we grow in our faith and obedience and consequently perform “works.” This is evident from his addition of the phrase “so that no one can boast.” Cara is suggesting that Paul is combating an organized heresy in the early church when he simply knew a pitfall of the maturing Christian would be a desire to take ownership of our works, and wanted to warn us against doing this (Jesus knew it would happen as well, as evidenced by the first half of Matthew, chapter 6).

But Cara pounces on this “fatal admission”, arguing that it contradicts NPP claims that works-righteousness did not exist at this time. I’m sure, as I bet every NPP scholar will agree, that the belief that one could work their way into heaven did exist at the time, both within and outside of Jewish culture. That is not the issue at hand. The issue is whether it was being actively promoted inside the church as compatible with or part of Christian theology, and there is no evidence in scripture to suggest that it was. However, there is plenty of evidence in scripture to suggest that a heretical belief regarding the need to keep up with Jewish customary laws was being preached by Jewish converts in the churches.

The question that would determine whether Cara has a valid point is which is most likely: A) works-righteousness was so prevalent amongst Jewish Christians that Paul was frequently having to rebut it, B) some Jewish Christians who kept Jewish works of the law (Sabbath, etc) believed they were still necessary for salvation, or C) pride crept into maturing Christians’ lives as they grew in faith and subtly convinced them that their obedience to God made them more worthy to be saved.

Cara is correct only if the answer is A, and the answer is undoubtedly B or C, or both. I cannot see why anybody committed to understanding the truth in this matter would choose option A over B or C when no evidence exists for it, and significant evidence exists for option B in scripture and option C in both scripture and in our own experiences. 

Thankfully, this is where Cara concludes his article. I would not recommend reading it other than as a point of reference for this article, for obvious reasons.

Good News for Adherents of Protestant Soteriology

Admittedly, it can be exceedingly difficult for well-meaning but devout and learned Protestants to be willing to consider the truth of the New Perspective. This is because it requires an enormous amount of humility to admit that Martin Luther went too far in his correction of the Catholic heresies of his day.

Fortunately, a belief in the soteriology of the NPP is not a requirement for one to be saved, because one’s faith in Jesus Christ may be genuine even if one’s understanding of how Jesus saves us is incorrect. This is why there is no intellectual requirement for salvation, just a humility requirement for justification and an obedience requirement for sanctification. Genuine faith in Jesus (justifying faith, made possible by the grace of God) will lead to sanctification (that is, the “putting on” of the righteousness of Jesus, which God does to us through, and only through, our obedience to Jesus Christ) unless one renounces that faith.

You can have this genuine faith in Jesus that leads to sanctification even if you believe that all that is needed for you to be saved is to be in intellectual agreement that Jesus’ death paid the price for your sins; a misunderstanding of the nature of salvation is not mutually exclusive with the change of heart-orientation that characterizes it. As C.S. Lewis puts it, we don’t need to understand how nutrition works for nutrients to sustain our bodies as we eat—we simply have to eat. Saving faith in Jesus Christ does lead to obedience, and in obedience, God changes one’s character to be Christ-like, to be spiritually mature, to contain the “greater righteousness” of Matthew 5, without which nobody will see the Kingdom. You don’t need to believe in any of that for it to work—you simply have to obey in faith, and it will work.

This fact, by the way, is how true Christian doctrine has been able to weather every storm it has faced since Jesus walked the earth. No matter how many people twist the gospel to suit their own needs, the defining line between those who have genuine faith in Jesus and those who simply use Christianity for their own ends is a heart oriented towards a desire to be obedient to Jesus, which comes about by grace through faith in Jesus the Christ.

The Difference Between True Believers and Imposters

Which leads to my last point. What happens to those who don’t obey in faith? What about those who hold to the traditional-Protestant perspective and, based on their understanding of this soteriology, do not obey because they believe obedience is optional? Are they saved? Or, to better phrase the question, are they genuine believers of Jesus the Christ or have they been deceived?

I bring this up to explain why NPP scholars and those who believe that it is true so often refer to the concepts of heart-orientation or gospel-allegiance. The difference between a genuine believer of Jesus who does not obey and a deceived-but-professing believer of Jesus who does not obey is the heart-orientation of each.

The believer will have two selves, their sinful self and their new self, born of the Spirit. A person has a new self, born of the Spirit, when a person repents of their sinful nature (a repentance that includes spiritual humility/acknowledging one’s poverty of spirit—that is, having an awareness in one’s heart that they cannot save themselves or change themselves), calling on God to change them and save them, and believing/trusting/having faith that He will do so.

If a person does this and then immediately dies, I am convinced they would be with Jesus in paradise. And I am convinced, through more scripture than I can cite here, that nobody will be with Jesus in paradise who has not undergone this process. This process is, as best I can glean from scripture, that which separates a believer in Jesus from one who is not. Even the thief on the cross demonstrates his repentance and his belief that Jesus has authority to forgive him – and when Jesus tells him that he will be with Jesus in paradise, he undoubtedly trusts what Jesus says.

Old Self and New Self

That being said, this new self, born of the Spirit, needs to be nurtured so that it can grow. Life is either growing or dying, and this new self is no different. It is taking up the same physical space in our bodies as the old, sinful self that is now marked for death. The process of sanctification, then, is that process by which this old, sinful self is put down, so that the new self can grow unimpeded.

Of course, this requires our cooperation to an extent, because we can choose to nurture the old self and neglect the new self. God can sustain the new self for a time even if we deny it food, but we will feed one of our two selves through our actions, and the new self comes with a renewed conscience that consistently draws our attention to our sin. The only ways to get the new self to leave us alone are either to suppress it or to submit to it. Suppressing it until it’s dead is apostasy, and submitting to it is embracing the sanctification that is already happening.

The genuine believer of Jesus who does not obey, who seems to be submitting to the old self, is actually somebody who is struggling to submit to the new self, because they still have some love for sin that is waging a real, internal battle against their love for Christ. The imposter is somebody who pretends to still be fighting this battle, but who has already decided to suffocate this new life. They have given up their new spirit for their old life.

As a result, further exploration on the biblical definitions of justification, sanctification, and salvation is required. It appears that genuine justification is indistinguishable from imagined justification, that sanctification will always follow from genuine justification (but that it can be faked with hard work from those with imagined justification), and that salvation occurs now by the changes in a genuinely justified/sanctified believer’s heart and life, and on the Day of the Lord, when those who are justified and sanctified enter into Jesus’s eternal presence. When we equate justification and salvation, however, we lose this distinction and, with it, an accurate understanding of justification as a conditional promise for salvation dependent upon the perseverance of the subject and salvation as both present deliverance from enslavement to sin and future deliverance from eternal separation from God. 

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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