New/Old Perspective on Justification 3

Plenty of pastors and Christians really don’t know what the flap about the “new perspective” is about, and unfortunately some have raised fears to the level of apocalyptic in order to warn folks away from the “new” perspective. It is also true that some, mostly early in the discussion, contended the Reformation completely misunderstood Paul … and so a book like the one we are examining is enormously helpful. The problem is translating this into the language that ordinary Christians can both comprehend and, at the same time, see it’s significance. In essence, the new perspective argues that a more accurate view of Judaism leads to some shifts in what Paul is actually saying. Not least when he uses the term “justification.”

Put more concretely: since Judaism was not a works religion, Paul was not opposing “works” righteousness. Everything flows from this. I just finished reading a book that seminary students and pastors-out-of-the-know on this issue need to purchase and read. Kent Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction. Brief, accurate, and balanced … a really, really good introduction to all things new perspective. Including the major criticisms being leveled at the new perspective. Now done, let’s move on to the post….

Thanks to the fine efforts of James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy,  the book, Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books), provides good voices for a variety of views.

How would you describe or define justification? how about the Reformed view?

They begin by letting the “traditional Reformed” view speak first, and Michael Horton represents that view well. Horton’s chp is wide-ranging, shadow-boxing here and there with opponents of the Reformation view as well as outlining that view, and so I will have to summarize some main points:

It all begins with humans as born in sin; original sin; dead in sins and trespasses. Therefore, all human deeds are inadequate.

Justification is about God’s declaration and not one bit about transformation (the Catholic view [terms here were infusion of grace vs. imputation/impartation]). Justification then is forensic, judicial, and a declaration.

This justification is based on imputation, that is, double imputation: our sins are imputed to Christ (and he absorbed the wrath and carried them away) and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us so that we have an “alien” righteousness. This justification is by faith alone, by grace alone. Faith is the means, grace is the source, Christ alone is the ground. Christ’s active and passive obedience provide the foundation for the imputation.

The Reformation distinguishes between the righteousness that God is and the righteousness that God gives. The former leads to judgment; the latter to justification by grace. The gospel is about justification as gift.

Horton criticizes esp NT Wright, Mark Seifrid and Robert Gundry. Horton then is subjected to response by:

Mike Bird: Horton doesn’t respect the fluidity of justification/sanctification in the NT, and needs to look more at Gal 5:5; 1 Cor 1:30; Rom 5:19; 6:7. Horton categorically separates forgiveness from justification too markedly while the NT makes them closer to one another. Horton’s view of imputation is too tied to merits. Most importantly for Bird, Horton doesn’t recognize the social issue at hand when Paul champions justification: the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. For Horton, this is anthropology (every sinner); for Bird there is more ecclesiology (how to get Gentiles into the people of God).

James D.G. Dunn: without saying so Dunn reveals an issue — for Horton “new perspective” too much means Tom Wright and not enough Sanders and Dunn. So, Dunn’s points, and Dunn sees the new perspective modifying Reformation and not junking it, are ignored when they would have toned down some of Horton’s response. In essence, Horton forces Reformation theories of double imputation onto everything in Paul and the Bible. Horton, for example, wants Christ’s “righteousness” to be imputed when the Bible says it was Abraham’s “faith” that was “reckoned/imputed” as righteousness.  He doesn’t think Horton takes Paul seriously enough.

M-V Kärkkäinen: K. observes the total absence of a Lutheran perspective in the book. And Horton’s “canonical” view of Reformed is not without its own problems. Luther’s own view of the Christian life moved beyond the justification debate. He doesn’t like the merits approach of Horton. He thinks Horton has overdone the forensic as the exclusive view. Luther is not so one-sidedly forensic. He thinks the anabaptist emphasis on doing is quite biblical. The fathers weren’t much concerned with justification and it makes one wonder if some Reformed emphases are late rather than biblical.

O’Collins: he thinks Horton is too forensic and can be helped with relationality and by seeing the declaration as a performative utterance. He makes too sharp of a distinction between justification and sanctification. He thinks Horton overinterprets Isa 53 in Reformed terms (I agree that Horton does this).

"I'm referring to the hyper-personalized "soterion gospel" as McKnight puts it. Everything revolves around "personal ..."

Is Evangelicalism A Part Of Modernity?
"Embedded rather than "hidden" is probably a better terminology, but the point I think he ..."

Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture ..."
"Here is the problem with one considering the Bible as fallible: one only has one's ..."

Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture ..."
"I assume by the gospel you mean also that we ought to obey all Jesus ..."

Legalism: Old and New Perspectives

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • T

    One thing I would like more people to say in these debates (and Dunn may be the one saying it) is that it seems the NP is saying that Judaism may not have required “works” in the sense of “earning salvation from God” per se, but did require “works” in the sense of taking up the marks of jewishness and joining that people group and covenant as they interpreted it, as a prerequisite from being accepted by God. So the “works” were still add-ons to faith in Christ, and they essentially said, “You Gentiles have to become part of us Jews (via circumcision, festivals, etc.) to become/remain with God’s people, to become/remain justified before God.” This isn’t all that different from the Reformation’s view of how a bad “works” mentality functioned, unless I’m missing something.

    What I’m saying is that too many have said (about or on behalf of the NP) that there’s no overlap b/n the Reformed view of “works” and Paul’s (or the Judaizers’ for that matter). I do think the historical work shows that the Reformation view of this concept needs some correction, but it’s not out in left field, or at least not in a different ball park.

  • Scot McKnight


    You are right about Dunn’s and Wright’s (hey, include me too) view of “works.” One of the big issues in this debate, and it is brought out in Yinger’s book, is if one can prove that Paul by “works” means the principle of works and by “law” means the principle of the law, so that one can also then posit a kind of human striving principle vs. a grace principle.

    In my view, the evidence for this principle quest is minimal if not non-existent. What this NPP has shown me is that there is a significant imbalance at work among many in the Reformation mode of thinking, and this NPP is actually out-Reforming because it’s forcing people back to the Bible and letting the Bible reform us.

  • Wait so is Dunn presenting his view as more Reformational than Wright? That would be exciting.

  • Robin


    When NPP proponents say things like “1st century Judaism was not a works-based religion” could you clarify what they are actually claiming.

    Are they claiming that none of the three major theological camps we are aware of (Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes) were “works based” and looked to the works of the law (as children of Abraham) for their salvation.

    Or are they saying that the majority of Jews weren’t works-based.

    I think the extent of that claim matters when you read Paul because his letters are very much apologetic responses to challenges that could have come from any of the three groups, and there is no (a priori) reason to think the opponents were the same in each letter. So in Corinthians he could have been dealing with a church influenced by garden variety gnostics or Sadduccees who were denying the resurrection, but his “opponents” in Galatia might have been other groups who did believe in works-based Judaism.

  • Robin

    If you believe that there were ZERO Jewish groups in the first century that relied on their works, then the take away would be “Paul is never addressing works-based religion in his epistles”

    But if you believe that most didn’t practice works-based religion, but that certain sects did, or the diaspora in certain locales did, then the take away would be “Don’t look for a works-based boogeyman in every epistle, but he might have been addressing it in some churches.”

  • D. Foster


    Imagine if someone became a Christian, but refused to be baptized or to partake of Eucharist. Would you say this would be grounds for refusing this person to be a member of the Church? I would. Not because I think Baptism or the Eucharist saves you, but because these are the outward expressions of faith in Jesus established for the Church.

    Substitute the Law for Baptism/Eucharist and you have a pretty good idea of how the Jews thought about “works of the Law”: not that you are saved by doing them, but that these are the outward expressions of fidelity to YHWH.

    Paul’s contention is not with this underlying idea of outward expression: he is saying that the outward expression has changed.


  • T


    Yes, Paul is addressing those who are requiring Jewish “works” like circumcision, festivals, etc. in order to join or remain part of God’s people, or to be/remain right with God. But most of these Jewish “works” that many jewish christians were insisting on for the Gentile believers weren’t “moral” as much as they were markers and boundaries distinguishing God’s people (the jews) from everyone else. Nothing inherently moral or immoral about circumcision, or eating ‘unclean’ foods, or celebrating the jewish festivals, and most of the traditions surrounding these things. But these were what many jewish Christians were insisting that the Gentiles do to join or remain “God’s people.” Paul was saying, no, God has accepted the Gentiles as Gentiles, and continues to do so, based on their loyalty to Christ alone, not because they have taken on any of the so called “works” or markers of the Jewish covenant and people.

    So Paul is addressing a “you’ve got to become like us” kind of Pelagianism, if you will. So, wherever we see, for instance, an American missionary binding American cultural norms together with Christ as one package, we are hitting the sweet spot of Paul’s concerns in the NT with “works.” It’s when we let our preferred “markers” for God’s people (don’t drink, don’t chew?) come to replace the only mark that matters “faith expressing itself through love” that we run afoul of Paul’s central concerns. I don’t think, for instance, that many “don’t drink, don’t smoke” baptists think they are ‘earning’ God’s salvation by following that rule or by insisting it for others, but they are running afoul of Paul’s central concerns when we see the issue arise in his letters.

  • T


    But the issue in Paul isn’t “refusal” by some Gentiles of baptism or eucharist, it is insistence by some Jews on circumcision and similar things.

    I’ve never run into anyone who has refused eucharist and/or baptism, other than Quakers, whom I would not reject as brothers on that basis. On the contrary, I’ve benefitted greatly from several Quakers’ writings over the years. Regardless, the new “markers” for Paul aren’t baptism and eucharist, but “faith expressing itself in love” or “new creation.” Those are “all that matters” according to Paul, and their absense would potentially be a basis for treating someone as outside of Christ and his Church.

  • I’m not convinced that 1st century Judaism was not works-centered.
    I have read Sanders,Dunn,Wright and the Talmud and the Mishnah.
    This is all built on the assumption that Sanders is right on his interpretation on Judaism.
    I’ve been reading the Talmud for over a year ,the Mishnah too.One of the things that is super clear is that they did believe in “works”-perfection- and that they were 100% extremist in everything.
    One rabbi say ” We study torah and do works to gain merit with God”
    And “if one does not study Torah he should die”. Not a lot of Grace in those to quotes. Of course it all depends on how they define those words.
    Then looking at the groups of 1st century Judaism and how extreme they were on membership,does show that it was to some degree on “works”-proving ones self to community and God- and with that no fault was allowed.
    I’m just not so sure….

  • We have to keep in mind that Paul isn’t writing against Judaism in general in his letters, nor does he frame his statements about justification within the context of Judaism in general. These are written to ‘on the ground’ situations involving Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians, and he’s addressing these conflicted situations. So, while conceptions up and running in Judaism are highly valuable, what matters is how Paul perceives the problem in those churches and how he addresses those specific situations.

    The wider-lens view of Judaism must be kept in mind so that we don’t make wrong generalizations (“Judaism was legalistic, therefore Paul is…”), but we just have to keep in mind that Paul addressed very specific groups having tensions in which Jewish Christians were involved. That makes Judaism relevant, but only as part of a wider picture.

    It’s almost like speaking about how a pastor in Iowa addressed a conflict-resolution situation based on “what Americans believe.” That may be relevant, but there’s a whole lot more that goes into it.

  • Britt (#9), it’s generally thought that later Rabbinic Judaism isn’t a good representation of what Palestinian Judaism was like in the 1st cent. Talmud and Mishnah represent later discussions (3rd-6th centuries). One of the errors was reading Rabbinic Judaism back into the Judaism of the 1st century.

  • Thanks Tim!
    I’m aware of that/the yeas that is.But…..There is no doubt that the Talmud and Mishnah represent the views and teachings,lessons of pre and post 1st century Judaism.It’s the teaching and development of their history.
    The dead sea scrolls also are a very helpful with insight into this as well.

  • That’s the debate, Britt — while certainly related to earlier tradition(s), to what extent do they represent the Judaism of 1st century Palestine? Certainly opinions will differ, but probably the majority of scholars discount conclusions about 1st cent. Judaism from rabbinic Judaism.

  • Scot, does Horton go after Seifrid & Gundry on imputation? If so, it’s just interesting that a Reformed person goes after Wright (NPP) & two NPP critics (Seifrid & Gundry) on justification. The lines in various debates aren’t so easily drawn!

  • DRT

    I admit I get confused with all the definitions of terms being ones that mean the word loses its initial meaning, so I will tell it in my own words and see if it sticks.

    Some background to my thoughts. I believe that in the 1st century people’s future was more intimately tied to their ruler’s than in ours. So if you followed Caesar and he was killed, well you may be killed. Or if you follow Barabas and he is killed, you may be killed. More pointedly, if you follow Jesus and he was killed, you may be killed, and many were.

    So it means much more in that society to join a clan.

    Joining a clan seems to be a two way street. Having Roman citizenship is not something automatically given to everyone. Likewise, a religious leader, especially a Rabbinic Jew has to accept the person, not simply have the person say they want to join. They would have to justify their application into their clan.

    So, I believe that Paul set a new course. He said that all you have to do is say that Jesus is your leader and you will automatically be justified, per my previous paragraph, and accepted into his clan.

    No doubt you had to do more to be justified for your beliefs to be a Jew. You still need to do quite a bit more, I talked to them about becoming one…..

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, yes, he criticizes both Seifrid and Gundry, but not extensively.

  • Derek, we’re dealing with more than outward expressions of faith in Acts 15:1 “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'”

    Why would Peter call simply “outward expressions of faith” a “yoke our ancestors can’t bear” and then contrast it with grace? (Acts 15:10-11)

  • Scot McKnight

    One of Sanders’ points, and one made by all NPP folks, is that what “works” means in a rabbi is not necessarily what “works” meant to Luther and Calvin, and neither does it have to be connected to a soteriology as framed by Christian thinking.

    One of the great books of the last few years, widely neglected, is Gary Anderson’s book on Sin, in which he shows that the metaphor for the implication of sin changed from “burden” to “debt” and that metaphorical world was used by Jews — but because they used “debts” and “merits” doesn’t mean they meant works-righteousness.

    Don’t forget this: Jesus often used “reward” as a motivation for our good works or for our obedience. Does this mean he was operating in a works righteousness soteriology? All of us, probably, would say No. Why then do we excuse Jesus but not the rabbis? This was Sanders’ burden: to show that works in Judaism emerged from a covenant-shaped faith.

  • scotmcknight

    Peter, your comment about Peter is one of the most important texts I see in the NT for a challenge to the NPP. I’ve heard some say Peter just didn’t underestand Judaism, but that won’t wash with me. Some then tie that statement of Peter’s to James’ comment about being guilty of the whole for one infraction, and that too cuts into some stuff in the NPP. But the fundamental insight of Sanders I think is nearly incontestable: Judaism wasn’t a works righteousness religion where folks lived before God on the basis of merits. They were “saved” (if they thought like that) or they were going to make into the Age to Come because they were Jews (that can be seen say in Matthew 3:7-10) and because God had covenanted with them not because they had enough merits to cross the line.

    I take that for granted as a historian. There are some texts that cut into that but I still want to use that general view to see the whole and in which to see text like Peter’s and James’. Wondering what Tim Gombis is thinking here…

  • That’s a great question, Peter (#17), and I wish I had a good explanation for it!

    I’m with you, Scot, that as a general picture, it doesn’t work to depict Judaism as legalistic, but neither does it work to across-the-board say that there isn’t anything like legalism or something like a sense of sufficiency from Jewish identity, which usually manifests itself in something very close to legalism.

    Boy, oh boy, that Acts 15:10 text — tough nut to crack! It clearly won’t work to say that Peter doesn’t get Judaism, but I wouldn’t feel good about him indicating that the Mosaic Law or Israel’s heritage was a burden to the nation and their fathers.

    Any clues to be found in Luke’s strategies in crafting Peter’s speech here…?

  • Scot, I wonder what you think about self-righteousness as it relates to works-righteousness. Are these two sides of the same coin or are they different? I can’t read the Gospels and think that Jesus would have accepted the Pharisees theology as grace-based. Who was Jesus representing with the older brother in Luke 15?

    Sometimes I feel like we’re maybe thinking too simplistically when we say 1st century Judaism was not merit-based. Sometimes I think NPP folks think that the Lutheran Paul only makes sense as a reaction to the most blatant, obvious attempts to earn God’s acceptance. But even the 16th century catholic church wasn’t a religion of works righteousness by these standards. It certainly had a theology of grace built in. So my question is not whether 1st century Judaism had a theology of grace, but whether Paul would have recognized it as such.

    Good thoughts.

  • D. Foster

    Peter G,

    Let me clarify my take on this issue.

    1. The Jews did not officially teach or believe in works-based righteousness in the sense of, “You perform A, B, and C, and then you’re in.”

    2. The Jews believed that YHWH had elected Israel: being born an Israelite constituted being part of God’s people.

    3. The Jews believed that God had set out a specific way of life for the Israelite people that is prescribed in the Law, and that one must live out their fidelity to YHWH through the deeds of the Law.

    4. The Jews believed if someone chose to reject this way of life, then that person could not be included among God’s Covenant people.

    5. Legalism had crept into the hearts of many of the Jews so that they emphasized outward works to the exclusion of inward purity; though this was not their explicit teaching.

    6. The early Christians believed that with the coming of Jesus, God now prescribed a new way of life—which centered around fidelity to Jesus and his teachings—that replaced the function of the Law, and that many of the Covenant mandates (such as circumcision) were no longer demanded to be part of the Covenant people.

    7. The early Christians believed that this new way of life in Jesus required the Covenant people to live out their fidelity to Jesus through deeds of faith(fulness), such as described in the Beatitudes.

    8. Many Jews claimed that deeds of the Law were still part of this new program for the Covenant people, and the Christians disagreed.

    9. Paul’s primary goal in dealing with the Law is to elaborate on point #7 and to refute the Jews in point #8.

    10. The Reformers got this all mixed up and people like Ed Sanders, J.D. Dunn and N.T. Wright are trying to get us back on the right track.

    What are your thoughts?


  • T (#7), nicely put.

    Scot (#18), I wholly agree. Anderson’s book is a gem! Well researched and thoroughly enlightening. I refer to it often.

    One of the issues the Reformers had was equating Paul’s issues with the Jews with their current issues with the Roman Catholic Church. The reaction (Protest) firmly placed those lenses on the text. This, for the Reformers, “works” has to mean to Paul what it meant to the Pope in 1500. That may be a generality, but what appears to be a cultural defining marker in the debate and why going “back to the Bible” is so important yet often resisted by Reformers who think the 1500s was equal to the first century in perspective.

  • davey

    Comment 2. by Scot McKnight
    “the evidence for this principle quest is minimal if not non-existent”

    I think your proof requirement is misplaced. It is not ‘terms’ such as those that need nailing down, but the thrust of requirement to do the works of the whole of the law that marks Judaism as a works religion. Not a straw man of striving to please God of oneself, but the idea of there being some work requirement that needs fulfilling.

    Comment 18. by Scot McKnight

    what does “works” mean in a Rabbi, and what is their soteriology?
    Why does Paul say that if the law is taken on the whole law has to be kept? Isn’t it because otherwise the Jew is not saved.

    Comment 19. by Scot McKnight
    “the fundamental insight of Sanders I think is nearly incontestable: Judaism wasn’t a works righteousness religion where folks lived before God on the basis of merits. They were “saved” (if they thought like that) or they were going to make into the Age to Come because they were Jews (that can be seen say in Matthew 3:7-10) and because God had covenanted with them not because they had enough merits to cross the line.”

    It is not incontestable. Paul criticised both those who thought they would be saved because they were Jews and those who thought keeping the law did the trick. It is Sanders and his followers who have elevated a mistake into a dogma.

    Comment 6. by D. Foster
    “Imagine if someone became a Christian, but refused to be baptized or to partake of Eucharist. Would you say this would be grounds for refusing this person to be a member of the Church? I would.”
    “how the Jews thought about “works of the Law”: not that you are saved by doing them, but that these are the outward expressions of fidelity to YHWH.”

    On the first part, I think your attitude is mistaken. On the second part, I think you are mistaken. Paul quotes the OT as saying do these and live.

    Comment 22. by D. Foster
    “2. The Jews believed that YHWH had elected Israel: being born an Israelite constituted being part of God’s people.”

    Paul usually had his work cut out to show the Jews that their belief was mistaken. When you build all the other points around this, it all goes pear shaped.

    “9. Paul’s primary goal in dealing with the Law is to elaborate on point #7 and to refute the Jews in point #8.”

    Not Paul’s primary goal. To refute Christian Jews.

    Comment 7. by T

    Works in Paul’s usage are not only the boundary markers.