The New Perspective on Paul: Justification is Moral Remedy
Eight years-ago this month a friend gave me a copy of N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009). The handwritten note inside the cover said: “To John, A provocative and edifying read.”
Those words encapsulate the challenge and trouble of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). The work of N.T. Wright, a leading voice of the NPP, has indeed been provocative for he boldly tells Protestants of the reformation that we have failed to read Paul correctly.
As for edification in Wright’s work, it is scarce. Not just because of errors but also for the division it sows among brethren.
To grasp just how provocative the NPP is, consider what Wright said in an interview with his publisher: “Much of the reformation and post-reformation formulations of the doctrine were answering that question, About how can I get enough righteousness so that when God looks at me he will see that I am righteous.” Wright says this is absolutely the wrong question: “The question Paul is asking is not, How can you get enough righteousness so that when God looks at you he’ll be happy with you? But how can you be sure you are a member of God’s people.”
Wright’s view of justification is not Luther’s view nor Calvin’s. In Wright’s view justification is “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship” (Justification, 116). Justification is “the assured status of belonging to God’s people” (117).
This means the NPP removes the doctrine of justification from under the heading of soteriology and relocates it under the heading of ecclesiology. Wright states this plainly: “In standard Christian theological language, it [justification] wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119).
Justification in the NPP is not about Christ making a full satisfaction to his Father’s justice on our behalf – it is not about moral standards being met – it is, rather, about one’s status of membership in God’s people. Christ remains at the center of this new perspective, the living Lord uniting the nations under his banner, but the imputation of his personal and perfect obedience is not at the center of this new justification.
To make this innovation work, Wright must redefine the problem of the law which Paul addresses in passages on being justified. For example, in Galatians 2:16, Paul says: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
For Wright, Paul’s negating of works of the law here is not about the evil and failure of legalistic righteousness. In the classical Protestant view it is. But Wright says works of the law in Paul “are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew and Gentile: specifically, in the context of this passage….” (Justification, 117).
The passage he means is Galatians 2:11-16a, a primary text for the NPP. Here Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter over Peter’s breaking table fellowship with believing Gentiles. When Paul speaks of works of the law, Wright says he must be referring only to narrow ethnic expressions of the law - circumcision, dietary food laws, and perhaps washings. In this way Wright can cast justification as
being about Christ ending ethnic boundaries (ecclesiology), more than being about Christ ending ethical boundaries between God and sinners (soteriology).
For Wright’s move in 2:16 to work, Paul could not possibly be expanding the question of circumcision to include the entirety of the moral law. But this foists a restriction on Paul that is out of sync with his own way of speaking later in the letter: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3).
In 2:16 Paul is expanding his complaint against Peter, moving from circumcision to all human moral performances. In fact, by the end of the verse he captures “all flesh” in his net, not just Jews, but any who endeavor to be justified by legal performance. Wright is wrong. His reading of Paul is too new.
The biblical doctrine of justification is about meeting divine moral standards. Not satisfying God’s standard by our own efforts, our legal works, but having Christ’s obedience and satisfaction imputed to us by faith alone (Rom. 4:6, 5:9). Justification by faith in Christ is not provisional nor probationary. It gives the sinner an irrevocable peace (Rom. 5:1), the peace of imputed righteousness. It never gets old.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.