The New Perspective on Paul: A Raw Reflection (Part 3)

The last two posts have summed up some key New Testament passages that are foundational for the New Perspective on Paul (Rom 3:28-30; 4:12-14; Gal 2:11-16). James Dunn and others have argued from these passages that since first century Judaism was not legalistic (as shown by Sanders), Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism with his justification by faith, but against ethnic exclusivity. To be justified by faith and not by works of the law means that Jews and Gentiles are justified on the same basis. Justification is primarily a Jew/Gentile thing, and not a grace/legalism thing. If you understand the difference, then you’ve gotten the heart of the New Perspective (NPP). This is where it all began and all other tenets of what New Perspective writers have said flow from that basic thesis.

So what are those other tenets? I’m glad you asked, since that’s what this post is all about. I’ll list these out as succinctly as I can, but remember, not every NPP writer would sign off on all of these. We’re now leaving the world of the New Perspective and into the world of New Perspectives. I’ll begin with just a brief summary of what we’ve already said in the last 2 posts:

  1. Judaism was not legalistic in the first century and Paul was not reacting against Jewish legalism, but against Jewish ethnocentrism.
  2. The phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) refers to Jewish boundary markers, such as circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. These laws excluded Gentiles as Gentiles from the covenant.
  3. Justification by faith is not the central feature of the gospel, but was one of many metaphors Paul used to describe salvation. Justification by faith is largely limited to 2 of Paul’s letters (Romans and Galatians) and doesn’t come up at all in 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians and Philemon, let alone the General letters: 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-3 John, Hebrews. And then there’s James…we won’t even go there. So justification by faith is important, but largely limited to the Jew/Gentile conflicts Paul was battling in Romans and Galatians.
  4. Paul, in his pre-converted state, was not plagued by guilt as he sought to obey the law, and he never saw himself as failing to measure up to the law. While this was true of Luther, Paul’s own autobiographical narratives reveal a “robust conscience,” as Swedish scholar Krister Stendahl used to say, who in Philippians 3 says that he was “blameless…as to righteousness under the law” (3:6; Acts 23:1). Paul’s so-called “conversion” (Acts 9; Gal 1) was not so much a change from one religion to another, but was more of a “call” to a new prophetic type of ministry in the vein of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 1; Ezek 1). He was called, not converted, to be a prophet to bring Gentiles into the covenant (e.g. Isa 2:1-4).
  5. Justification has both a past and a future component. Romans 2:13 uses the term “justify” in the future tense (“the doers of the law will be justified”) and the same idea is implied in Gal 5:4-6, Rom 8:31-34, and other passages. Just as “salvation” and “redemption” have a past and future component, so does justification. Since the future aspect of our salvation takes into consideration our Spirit-wrought works, therefore works will be a factor in our future justification.

We could list several other facets, but let’s stop here and think about that last point (#5) because this will lead us into our next post about N. T. Wright. Do you agree that there is a future component to justification? Why, or why not? (The Bible must be consulted if you post a response; if not, I’ll delete it.) Let me just affirm that there is indeed a past, present, and future component to salvation. Consider the following texts:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). This refers to the past aspect of salvation.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). This refers to the present aspect of salvation.

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9). This refers to the future aspect of salvation.

Salvation has past, present, and future components. We are “saved,” being “saved,” and will be “saved.” And the same is true of all the other salvation metaphors, such as reconciliation and redemption.

But is this true of justification? And if it’s true of justification, then what role do works play in that future justification?

If you’re totally lost, then just know that if you talk about future justification, some people (conservative Bible geeks, anyway) will think you’re catholic, a heretic, or have asked Satan and N. T. Wright into your heart. Martin Luther himself is rolling over in the grave listening to this post (though John Calvin is nodding in mild agreement). Justification, according to most reformers, is a past act with no future component. But again, our goal is not to be reformed, catholic, protestant, or Lutheran, but to be biblical—which is what the reformers fought for anyway. So I ask again: “what role do works play in that future justification?” Everyone agrees, by the way, that our initial or past justification (the thing that happened at conversion) did not take into account any good deeds that we did—for we had none.

Are you with me? Ok, so this is where the whole Piper and Wright showdown comes in: do works play a role in final justification/salvation? We’ll cover that in the next post.