Justification and the New Perspective

The New Perspective now feels old.  Or to say it differently, it has gained stability in the academy and in the church.  Tom Wright, its leading salesperson, is as intelligent as he is winsome.  He also has the instincts of a pastor.  Hence the Everyone’s Commentary, which has quickly become a staple in the church, is reaching, well, everyone!  The New Perspective is leaching into the pews at an accessible rate.  So, as we think about justification I think it’s a good idea that we address the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).

Let me begin by saying that Robert Cara, Provost, Chief Academic Officer and Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, has gifted the church with a book titled, Cracking the Foundations of the New Perspective. It is a text meant to equip pastors who are ill-equipped to answer arguments rooted in Second Temple Judaism made by advocates (e.g. James Dunn and Tom Wright) of the NPP.  In fact, Cara is quick to remind us that the NPP is really just that, a new perspective on Judaism.  How so?

Well, let’s first think of the Apostle Paul.  What was Paul’s beef with the Jewish leaders regarding salvation?  Simply put, they had pursued righteousness as if it could be obtained on the basis of their works (Rom. 9:32).  In other words, Cara says, Paul was arguing against a legalistic works righteousness view of salvation. [1]

However, proponents of the New Perspective understand things differently.  According to them, the Jews were doing no such thing!  In fact, say NPP advocates, the Jews understood salvation to be a matter of grace and not works.  Thus, to them, Protestants have misread Paul. Instead of reading the text on its own terms NPP advocates charge interpreters with having read medieval Catholicism back into Paul’s theology.[2]  Well, what does all of this do to justification?

After affirming E. P. Sanders reading of Judaism as a religion of grace, N. T. Wright corrects him for maintaining a faulty Protestant view of justification. In other words, Wright contends that Sanders helped us correct our view of Judaism but failed to help us with justification.  So, Wright comes to the rescue.  He says, “What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear.  It is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘ how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.”[3]  Yes, you read correctly, justification, according to Wright, is not about salvation.  To put it another way, justification, for advocates of the NPP, has to do with ecclesiology (church membership) and not soteriology (salvation). This obviously has implications for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, which is architectonic to justification.  For instance, Wright rejects the idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness out of hand.[4]

Cara ends his book with a capstone of sorts. For those, like Cara, committed to a high view of Scripture we want to know how all of this shakes out with regard to the Bible. Cara takes us into the classroom with his students. After reading Ephesians 2:8-9 he asks, “[how] Dunn will justify his view that Paul does not use ‘works’ as a works righteousness soteriological principle that is contrasted to a grace soteriological principle.”[5]  The answer is quite simple.  Dunn and those like him deny Pauline authorship to those texts that do not fit their theory.

But it’s not only Ephesians but Titus and II Timothy as well. These three texts appear to contrast works righteousness with grace and they all receive little to no attention from NPP authors. Why? Because, say Cara, “[for] many all three of these texts are from ‘Deutero-Paul.’[6] And the supporter of the NPP must take this position because if one were to concede that these texts from Paul were contrasting a works righteousness soteriology with grace, then one would also have to concede works righteousness existed in Second Temple Judaism.[7]

Consequently, the NPP is not just about whether Judaism was a religion of works or grace. It has serious implications for justification, imputation of righteousness and the canon of Scripture.  In this sense, Luther was quite right.  Justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.  If you pull this block out of the foundation it is not long before other stones begin to loosen and so weaken the whole structure.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is Professor-elect of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

[1] Cara, Robert. Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus/Mentor, 2017), p. 22.

[2] Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 114.

[3] Ibid. 122.

[4] Ibid. 98.

[5] Cara, 127.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 131.


Jeffrey Stivason