By Brandon Robbins –
Discussing the debate on the New Perspective of Paul (NPP).
Every year my family gets together from across the country for the thanksgiving holidays. Many of my nieces and nephews gather in my father’s library to play a game on my father’s rather large chess table. If you are not a part of our family and you look out to the library you might suppose the kids are playing chess. After all, they are using a chess table and chess pieces, so it must be a game of chess. On further investigation, however, one would notice that the pieces are often in a very strange configuration for a game of chess, and the children don’t move the pieces quite in accordance the rules of chess. When asked what game they are playing, the answer is quite simply, “Checkers, of course.”
This little game the kids play in my family reminds me of the debates going on about the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). The critics of the NPP often claim that it promotes works salvation or legalism. The reply to this critique from those within the NPP is simply that this is false and a total failure on the critic to understand their view. The term “legalism” makes no sense in the world of NPP (more on this point in a moment). Often it seems to those within NPP that their “chess game” is being critiqued with “checkers” advice. This debate about Paul is more complex than a simple misunderstanding of a passage here or there. NPP and traditional reformed theology (TRT) are operating on a completely different paradigm for understanding Paul, and this fact often confuses the dialogue between these camps.
According to those within NPP, this confusion stems from a misunderstanding of early Judaism and falsely assuming that 1st century Pharisaism and 4th century Pelagianism were pretty much the same thing. It is believed that Luther misunderstood Paul to the point that we have not only misunderstood Paul but mistranslated key passages of Scripture. Basically, it is thought that our theology has gotten in the way of pure exegesis. The basic claim is that the church, since Luther, has been blinded by a false understanding of Paul’s narrative context.
My hope and prayer in this article is to show that TRT has the proper understanding of Paul over and against the claims of NPP. To show this, I will interact mostly with N.T.Wright’s version of NPP especially as expressed in his interpretation of Romans. Specifically, we will focus on the NPP’s concept of merit in general and how it relates to legalism. Second, we will flesh out the concept of merit in Romans’ as it relates to the doctrine of imputation. Thirdly, we will evaluate the understanding of covenant within NPP. My fourth and final point is to show how all the above applied to the individual is an important theme in the letters of Paul.
N.T. WRIGHT AND “MERIT”
The paradigm shift created by NPP is seen most clearly as we look at the book of Romans. For N.T. Wright, Paul in Romans does not lay out how someone gets into the Christian faith. Rather, Paul’s concern is about how God can be found in the right given the current situation of Israel, the people of God. More specifically, Wright believes Paul’s main concern in his letters has to do with how God can be found to be faithful to the covenant with Israel given the kind of Messiah Jesus was and the situation his people find themselves in now after the Christ has come and brought fourth the messianic age which involves the fact of gentile inclusion. N.T. Wright states:
Paul invokes the great stories of God, Israel and the world because his view of salvation itself, and with it justification and all the rest, is not an ahistorical scheme about how individuals come into a right relationship with God, but rather tells how the God of Abraham has fulfilled his promises at last through the apocalyptic death and resurrection of his own beloved Son.
According to adovocates of NPP, the problem with TRT is that it looks at Paul on a purely existential level. We focus on individual religious experience instead of the covenantal story Paul is telling. Following Luther, the church has looked to Romans to find out how we can stand before a righteous God. NPP claims that Romans does not really answer that question. When Romans speaks of “righteousness” (as in “the righteousness of God revealed” in Rom. 1:17) Wright believes it to be speaking of God’s covenantal faithfulness. The book of Romans is not about how I can become “right” with God, therefore, giving a “how to” guide for individuals becoming righteous. But Romans focuses on how God is both faithful to his creation and to his covenantal promises. As Wright often says, Paul is telling us how God is faithful in how he is setting the world to its rights.
Readers often do fail to see the redemptive-historical nature of Romans and focus purely on the existential. It is proper to assume that Paul does have the broader concept in mind. As one critic of NPP, Richard Gaffin, has stated,
The New Perspective is preoccupied with broad, corporate, salvation-historical, covenantal, Israel-and-the-nations concerns. Properly so. . . .But the New Perspective assesses them in a way that leaves uncertain or even dismisses as peripheral in his teaching matters related to individual salvation from sin.
In other words, in its emphasis on a legitimate aspect of Paul’s teaching, NPP assumes that Paul has little concern about the nature of individual salvation. NPP misses the point of the covenantal context. Paul works through the great stories of redemption to explain how it is that God has and does save his people. In no way do I doubt that the concept of “righteousness” entails covenantal faithfulness, but I think it is this and more.
Another area where NPP and TRT are playing different games on a chess board has to do with the issue of legalism thought to be found within NPP. Much of the debate around the NPP focuses on whether this perspective teaches a legalistic view of the Christian faith. To be a legalist you have to believe in merit. You have to believe that you earn something or that your works are somehow efficacious to salvation. But, NPP not only denies that individuals can earn merit, they deny the notion of merit altogether. Even Christ did not earn merit of any type. If your system of salvation denies merit of any kind, then it is hard to make the charge of legalism stick.
Nevertheless, some statements from N.T. Wright and others in NPP might lead one to the charge of legalism. Wright says, “Justification by faith is. . .something which happens in the present time as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future.” Statements like this lead most of the readers of Wright to assume that he clearly teaches legalism. In response, however, Wright would likely insist that he is not saying that the whole life led “earns” or “merits” salvation. What he is trying to do, rather, is to move the term “justification” out of a discussion of soteriology to ecclesiology. Justification is a statement made after someone responds to the call of God and responds in faith (See Rom. 3:26). This declaration is not based on merit of any kind, so Wright would say. So when the legalistic charge is given, they assume a failure to understand their view.
Whether NPP advocates are actually guilty of legalism or not is outside the scope of this article. What I want to argue, instead, is that removing the notion of merit from the biblical narrative is unattainable. Consider Romans 5:18-19: “Therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Notice Wight’s commentary on this passage:
The Isaianic servant, to whom reference is being made, was obedient to the saving purpose of YHWH, the plan marked out for Israel from the beginning but that, through Israel’s disobedience, only the servant, as an individual, can now accomplish. The ‘obedience’ of the Messiah in 5:19 therefore corresponds closely to the ‘faithfulness’ of the Messiah in 3:22. It refers to his obedience to God’s commission (as in 3:2), to the plan to bring salvation to the world, rather than his amassing a treasury of merit through Torah obedience.”
First of all, it is not the TRT but the Roman Catholic tradition that supports the claim that Christ earned a “treasury of merit.” This quote from Wright comes right after he summarizes the TRT on the passive and active obedience of Christ, which I will site later. So, Wright either does not understand TRT on this matter, or he is misleading his readers on purpose. In any case, how is it that Christ has brought salvation to the world? Again for NPP, God is setting the world right therefore, bringing about “salvation.” Meaning God is putting the world back in order through Christ. But it seems that this passage speaks to what God has done in Christ to bring men both individually and corporately to a state of righteousness. God brings salvation to the elect by uniting them to Christ, and due to their union they receive the salvation in which Christ’s life, death and resurrection is the means or merit by which this is made possible. In TRT, Christ as the faithful servant was the obedient servant to the law in the way those in him could not be. It is clear that Paul is saying that just as those who are united to Adam (which is everyone) all died in his sin, all those who are united to Christ have salvation. As in Colossians 1:22 Paul states: “He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless.”
In a spoken lecture I heard Wright state: “Those in the reformed camp think it is wrong for everyone to be legalist except Christ.” Meaning it is wrong to assume Christ has earned or merited the salvation of those “in Him” in anyway. Let us look at a few more passages that refer to this Adam/Christ comparison:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spreads to all men because all sinned. . . . Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom. 5:12,14)
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. (1Cor. 15:22)
There is no doubt that Christ was found to be faithful as the last Adam in a way the first Adam was not. It seems a simple and obvious thing that Adam failed to “do something” and Christ “did something.” The something that Christ “did” somehow effects the life of all those in Him. If we have a Christ who earned no merit, we have a Christ who provided no atonement, and we have no hope for a future salvation.
WRIGHT AND IMPUTATION
Along with the denial of merit those who hold to NPP often deny the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers. Yet, as we have seen, Paul tells us that Christ was faithful where Adam was not. Christ, the last Adam, did something that the first did not. Adam had a law to obey and failed to do so. Christ obeyed the law unto death and by that purchased freedom for all those who put their faith in Him. N.T. Wright admits as much in his commentary on Romans 8:1: “Sin’s condemnation has been effected in the cross of God’s Son, and those who are ‘in the Messiah, Jesus’ discover that what is true of him is now true of them.” But, what was true of Jesus? Was he not found faithful to his covenantal obligations born under the law? Therefore, it would seem that those “in Christ” are found faithful to the covenantal obligations. That would sound much like a TRT view of the imputation of Christ righteousness to me, yet Wright fails to make the connection. Let us now turn back to Wright’s commentary on Romans 5:18-19
A long tradition within one strand of Reformed thought has supposed that Paul was here referring to Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law. In this view, Christ’s ‘active obedience’ and his ‘passive obedience’ work together. His active obedience acquires ‘righteousness,’ which is then ‘reckoned’ to those ‘In Christ’; his passive obedience, culminating in the cross, deals with his people’s sins. . . . Although, “The merits and death of Christ” are sometimes mentioned in this double sense, it is almost certainly not what Paul has in mind here.
It seems to me that Wright dismisses imputation out of hand in this passage without seeing the implication of the claims he does indeed make elsewhere. Look at the confusion that might be caused by reading Wright’s understanding of Philippians 3: “all is focused on his dying and rising, which have brought God’s people out from under Torah and any sense of being defined by it, and have given them instead a new covenant status, based on the achievement of the Messiah and bestowed upon those who now believe the gospel.” Bestowed? What does Wright mean by “bestowed”? It sounds like imputation! So, why is what Paul said in Romans 5 so fundamentally different?
Now let us look at Wright’s description of the gospel: “The crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by Israel’s God; that he had thereby been vindicated as Israel’s Messiah.” What were the grounds for this vindication? Was it not the fact that Jesus was the true and faithful Israelite fulfilling the requirements of the law? Did he not lead the perfect life under the law? Was he not the true lamb brought forth without blemish? So, because Jesus was faithful—and on the ground of his faithfulness (which also includes some form of moral purity )—Jesus was vindicated.
From all I have stated so far I think N.T. Wright is hard pressed to deny the following logical syllogism: What is true the Messiah is true of all those in Him. What it true about Christ is that he was vindicated (at the resurrection) or justified on the basis of the perfection of his life lead as the faithful covenant representative. Therefore, all those in him are vindicated or justified on the same grounds. Christ also as the last Adam did what the first Adam failed to do and in some way what Christ did is the grounds for why he was vindicated at the resurrection. If what is true of Christ is true of me because I have faith in Him, then the grounds of my vindication or justification is found in being united to him in his life, death, and resurrection. But, this is so clearly what TRT has always taught about the imputation of the righteousness of Christ! It seems to me that Wright and most within the NPP can’t see the forest through the trees.
WRIGHT AND THE COVENANT
After showing that NPP’s denial of the concepts of merit and imputation are at best weak and inconsistent, I now turn to their failure to understand covenant theology. It is supposed that TRT fails to understand Paul’s narrative as a 1st century Jew. I hope to show here that the NPP fails to understand Paul in a true covenantal and canonical context.
NPP focuses on how Paul would have viewed the nature of salvation given the background beliefs he had as a zealous Jew. How, then, would Paul have understood the nature of the covenant God made with the people of Israel? We must go a little bit deeper here. I want to defend the claim that there is one covenant of grace in which God binds himself to his people and promises eternal salvation. Yet within this one covenant of grace we have a period of time in which God invokes a temporal covenant with the people of Israel to hold them captive for a time (Gal. 3:23). This is the covenant God made with Moses—the Sinai or Mosaic Covenant. We can put the issue another way: how did the covenant made with Moses and the one made with Abraham relate?
We need to understand that although the Mosaic covenant is a part of the Covenant of Grace, it did operate according to a different covenantal structure. Michael Horton explains that the covenants we find in Scripture follow “two kinds of arrangements: conditional covenants that impose obligations and unconditional covenants that announce a divine promise.” First, let us look at an example of an unconditional covenant promise:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Gen. 15:17-18)
Here God makes an unconditional covenant promise of land to Abram. The interesting point in this passage is that God places all obligations upon himself for Abram obtaining the land. In fact, we see in this passage an image of God as a smoking pot and flaming torch passing through the sacrificed halves of animals, representing the idea that God himself will meet the obligation of this covenant. In this passage, God literally states, “If you Abram don’t receive the land, let me (the LORD Himself) be split in half (put to death) like these animals.” This passage is a picture of Christ (by His death) securing our salvation apart from any effort on the part of the individual. According to Horton, this type of covenant promise is a picture of a royal grant. A royal grant is a promise the realization of which is secured by the giver (a king) of the promise. Not only is the covenant with Abraham unconditional, but it is also eternal. In Genesis 17:7 we read: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” This royal grant is given as an eternal promise and God alone will meet the conditions.
But, is this the only structure or type of covenant we find God making with people in Scripture? No. Second, Horton also demonstrates what is called a conditional covenant, as seen in the following passage:
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deut. 30:16)
God calls the people of Israel to obey his commandments if they are to be blessed in the land. The implication is that if they do not obey, they will not possess the land and will not be blessed within it. God provides a covenant here, but only for a time to the people of Israel on the condition of obedience. But they did not obey; they failed to meet the conditions of that covenant. Does that mean that every individual failed to obtain eternal personal salvation? No, because this covenant with Moses and the Israelites was never meant to bring individuals to salvation. The covenant of law given to Moses at Sinai was to be a guardian or tutor leading people to the promise that had come to Abraham earlier.
So, is our hope today for salvation conditional or unconditional? To put it another way, is our hope for ultimate blessing based upon the promise and the promise-Giver or on our own personal faithfulness to the obligations imposed? What does Abram have to do with Moses? How do we understand the relationship between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Sinai Covenant? Forgoing the numerous theological considerations involved here, I want to focus on one central issue. If we assume that there are two kinds of covenantal arrangements, we simply need to answer this question: Is the covenantal pattern of eternal salvation conditional or unconditional?
The advocates of NPP believe that “salvation” has always been understood on a conditional model. That is, they interpret salvation under the covenant given to Moses:
“(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last point is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.”
This pattern shown above is known as Covenantal Nomism, which clearly follows a conditional understanding of one’s “right standing” before God. In the 8th part above you see that mercy only comes to those who are obedient to the covenant. This is believed by NPP followers to be how Paul understands salvation before Christ. What is even more disconcerting is that it is also close to the pattern of salvation they believe for the Christian now. Let us look again at N.T. Wright’s definition of justification:
“Those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people, his elect, and ‘the circumcision.’ ‘The Jews’, ‘the Israel of God’. They are given the status dikaios, ‘righteous’, ‘within the covenant.’”
“The whole point about ‘justification by faith’ is that it is something which happens in the present time (Rom. 3:26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Rom. 2:1-16).”
For Wright and those who hold to NPP, the Christian life is played out much like the life of the Jews of ancient Israel as they understand it. Being brought out of the bondage of sin (Egypt) we are now obligated to follow the law. If we are faithful covenant members throughout our lives, then we will be declared righteous. Yes, they claim that this entire enterprise is of grace. They believe this because the law is only given after we have been brought out of bondage. Yet, it is still proper participation in the covenant that is the guarantee of salvation. A person is righteous (in the covenant) as long as he/she remains a faithful member of the community of God. Justification is already proclaimed only in the sense that it is an anticipation of a final declaration after one has been faithful throughout his life.
At the end of the day we have an error in interpreting the concept of covenant within NPP. What NPP fails to appreciate and consider is the other kind of covenantal structures we find in Scripture. And they attempt to force a conditional structure upon the whole biblical narrative. That is, they assume that the Sinai Covenant—which is conditonal and depended upon faithfullness—provided the pattern for salvation. But, Paul tells us of the limited nature of the Law of Moses: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:23-25). The law as a guardian was to lead us to knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20) and also guide us back to the earlier promise given to Abraham (Gal. 3; Rom. 4)—that covenant does provide the pattern for salvation.
It can be said that by their obedience Israel could have remained in the land and received blessing, but not eternal salvation. Our security in our own personal salvation rests not in our continuing obedience (salvation has never been obtained in that way), but the obedience of our Savior. Christ walked in the midst of the pieces on behalf of those who put their faith and trust in Him. Christ fulfilled the eternal promises given to Abraham and put no condition on them! “It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift from God” (Eph. 2:8). The author of Hebrews sums it up well:
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6).
NPP fails to see the great distinction between the Covenant of Grace revealed to Abraham and the administration of the Covenant of Sinai that worked within this covenant for a time. I believe it is this unfortunate commitment to Covenantal Nomism that blinds Wright and others to see the simple nature of salvation by grace. With that said we need to take a brief look at the individual application of Paul’s theology.
PAUL’ CONCERN FOR INDIVIDUAL SALVATION
Is Paul concerned with how people get saved? It is hard for me to understand how NPP overlooks the effects sin has on humanity in the writings of Paul. If God is so holy that those who are in sin can’t stand before him, does Paul not care? Is this issue not important to him? Paul’s main concern throughout the book of Romans is supposed to be, according to NPP, about how God can be found to be in the right given the state of Israel and gentile inclusion in the people of God, not about how one gets into the church. I do think Paul has in mind a defense of “God being in the right,” but I also think it can be shown that he is very concerned with explaining how someone gets into the Christian community. The reason I believe this is in part due to how Paul refers to the effects of sin on the human heart.
Paul often brings up the subject of the inability of the flesh. In Romans 1:18 we are told that man by nature suppress truth in their unrighteousness, and in Ephesian 2 we are told that man is born dead in sin. Is Paul not concerned with how people are brought from this form of slavery to sin into the new exodus of redemption in the Messiah? This sin nature leads man in the flesh to deny and turn away from the true God of creation. As in Romans 3:10-11, “There is none righteous no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” What has God done to overcome this problem in man? Paul is even asked in the book of Acts 16:30 how can someone be saved. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Richard Gaffin calls this question an “ordo salutis inquiry.” The answer to this question: “Believe and you will be saved.” So the answer to how one “gets saved” for Paul according to Acts is “believe.” There is no complex description of Covenantal Nomism here. Salvation is obtained by Faith alone in Christ alone. I have not the space to go through how Paul explains how God overcomes the effects of sin. It is enough to show that it is an issue, a main concern in his writing. Paul is not only dealing with gentile inclusion but with the very application of salvation to human hearts throughout his letters.
Our background beliefs and theological convictions can blind us all. NPP is so focused on the big picture of covenant, redemptive history, and the like, that it fails to see Paul as a pastor reaching out to encourage those he writes to. Although there are a number of things I like about the works of those within NPP like N.T. Wright, their overall paradigm for understanding Paul is inadequate. We need to learn to play chess on a chessboard rather than checkers and stop talking past one another.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
Brandon Robbins is a staff apologist for the Apologetics Resource Center and the graphic designer for Areopagus Journal.
1. N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 32.
2. See Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ. The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-11,
3. N.T. Wright, Paul, 10.
4. This concept is seen thought the writings of N.T. Wright and Richard Hays.
5. N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, 398.
6. N.T. Wright, Paul, 23-26.
7. Richard Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 4.
8. N.T.Wright, Paul, 57.
9. N.T. Wright, Romans, 529.
10.2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference: “Paul’s Perspective: The Apostle and His Theology”
11. N.T. Wright, Romans, 576.
12. Ibid, 529
13. N.T. Wright, Paul, 116.
14. N.T. Wright, Ibid., 40.
15. In the context of the cannon of scripture we see that the whole sacrificial system pointed to Christ. A lamb had to be brought without “defect” according to Leviticus 14:10 it seems logical to infer some form of moral purity is inherent as the concept of the Lamb of God is applied to Christ.
16. This seems to be the point of passage like Rom. 4:25 and 1Cor. 15:16ff.
17. Horton, Michael, God of Promise, 36.
18. Ibid., 41.
19. Rom. 3:20 “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” Also see Romans 4:12-16; Gal. 3:23-26.
20. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 422.
21. Wright, N.T., Paul, 122.
22. Ibid, 57.
23. Richard Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 19.