Getting the Gospel Right

Cornelis P. Venema

The emergence of the "New Perspective on Paul" is one of the most significant developments in recent New Testament studies. Although advocates of the New Perspective differ on a number of points, they generally agree that the "older" perspective of the Reformation, which emphasizes the teaching of justification by faith alone, misinterprets the apostle Paul. If this central claim is true, something of a revolution is needed in our understanding of the gospel.

Although the New Perspective on Paul has been discussed primarily in academic circles, it has influenced some sectors of the evangelical church, including Reformed and Presbyterian churches. It is difficult to measure the extent of this influence. However, it represents an important challenge to churches that stand in the heritage of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Evangelical and Reformed believers whose confessions articulate the Reformation view of justification through faith alone, cannot afford to ignore this challenge.

In this article, we will first summarize the historic Reformed view of justification. Then we will sketch the main tenets of the New Perspective. We will conclude with some critical observations on the principal claims of New Perspective authors.[1]

The Reformation Doctrine of Justification

When considering the Reformation view of Paul's doctrine of justification, we must state it as clearly as possible. It is not enough to say merely that believers are "justified by grace through faith." In the classic Protestant view, believers are said to be justified before God by grace alone (sola gratia) on account of the work of Christ alone (solo Christo), and this free justification becomes theirs by faith alone (sola fide). Each of these expressions is an essential part of the Reformation's understanding of justification.

In the Protestant view, justification is a judicial declaration by God. It is the pronouncement of the believer's innocence in God's court. That is, God declares the justified person righteous. The opposite of justification, then, is condemnation or being declared guilty (Rom. 8:33-34). By contrast, the Roman Catholic view is that justification includes a process of moral transformation equivalent to what, in evangelical terms, is known as the work of sanctification.

To the Reformers, the importance of justification can hardly be exaggerated. To be brought before a human court and judged innocent is a matter of some importance. But to be brought before God and receive his verdict of innocence is a matter of supreme importance. Accordingly, justification is a principal benefit of Christ's saving work, which reveals God's grace toward undeserving sinners whom he saves from condemnation and death (Rom. 5:12-21). In this perspective, justification is a thoroughly theological and soteriological theme, which demonstrates God's righteousness in delivering sinners from their awful plight (Rom. 3:21-26).

In their protest against the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, the Reformers insisted that justification is an entirely free gift of God's grace. So far as their acceptance with God is concerned, believers rest their confidence, not in anything they might do in obedience to God, but in God's gracious favor demonstrated in the free provision of redemption through Jesus Christ. Consequently, the Reformers emphasized that the righteousness by which believers are justified is not a personal or inherent righteousness, but an "alien" and "imputed" righteousness (iustitia aliena et imputata). The believer's justification rests upon the righteousness of someone else, namely, Jesus Christ. By means of his obedient life, suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ met all the obligations of the law and secured the justification of his people (Rom. 4:25).

If justification is free and unmerited, and based upon a righteousness graciously imputed to believers, then people can receive it only by believing, not by doing good works. "Grace alone," "Christ alone," and "faith alone" are corollary expressions. If we are saved by grace alone, then our works cannot be a necessary precondition for our being accepted by God. According to the Reformers, this is precisely what "faith alone" asserts. Faith, which accepts Christ and trusts in his saving righteousness, is the only instrument by which to receive the free gift of justification before God (Rom. 3:27; 4:16; 5:1; 9:30-31; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9).[2]

The New Perspective on Justification in Paul

Advocates of the New Perspective on Paul object to several features of this Reformation perspective on justification. Three prominent components of this new view need to be considered.

First, the New Perspective is shaped by a new view of Second Temple Judaism (the Judaism during the days of Jesus and Paul). E. P. Sanders, a key figure in the development of the New Perspective, maintains that the Reformers misunderstood Paul's doctrine of justification because they misunderstood his opposition to Judaism.[3] When the Reformers opposed the medieval Roman Catholic teaching of justification by (grace and) works, they assumed that Paul was opposing a similar error among the Judaizers. The New Perspective argues that no such legalism existed within Second Temple Judaism. Rather, in the Jewish "pattern of religion," entrance into the covenant was "by grace," though it was maintained by obedience to the law. According to Sanders, the Judaism of Paul's day taught a form of "covenantal nomism [law keeping]": people entered the covenant community of Israel by God's gracious initiative and "stayed in" it by means of their obedience to the law. Since Judaism did not teach justification by works, some other explanation for Paul's conflict with the Judaizers is needed. By reading the Reformation dispute about justification into Paul's polemics against the Judaizers, the Reformers failed to recognize the actual historical occasion for Paul's development of his doctrine of justification.

Second, the New Perspective contends that Paul's view of the law in relation to justification was shaped in opposition to Jewish exclusivism. James D. G. Dunn, for example, insists that, when Paul speaks of the "works of the law," he is referring to the "boundary marker" requirements of the law (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, feast day observances).[4] When Paul says that no one is justified by works of the law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16), he is not opposing those who seek favor with God on the basis of their works. Rather, Paul uses this language to condemn the Judaizers' unwillingness to admit Gentiles into the covenant people unless they submitted to the identifying marks of covenant membership set forth in the law of Moses. According to the New Perspective, Paul's doctrine of justification does not address the soteriological question of how guilty sinners find acceptance with God. Rather, it answers the ecclesiological question whether Gentiles are included within the covenant family of God.

Third, in light of the claims made by Sanders and Dunn, the New Perspective offers a different view of what Paul means by "justification" than what the Reformers taught. Perhaps the best-known New Perspective proponent, N. T. Wright, argues that Paul's doctrine of justification was formulated to identify who belongs to the covenant family of God.[5] Paul's view of justification by faith, supposedly, is that the only "badge" of identity required for membership in God's people is faith in Christ. Justification is all about who belongs to the people of God. Justification is not so much about how guilty sinners can find favor with God. It is primarily about covenant membership or status. When Paul says that a believer is not justified by the works of the law, he is simply insisting that Gentiles may be heirs of the promise to Abraham without having to become Jews. Furthermore, although Wright acknowledges that justification language functions within the setting of the law court (the justified person is the one who receives the favorable verdict of the judge), he, like many New Perspective authors, rejects the idea that the justification of believers requires the imputation of Christ's righteousness.

A Critical Assessment of the New Perspective

Undoubtedly, my sketch of some important features of the New Perspective does not do full justice to the complexity of the newer approaches to Paul's doctrine of justification. However, my summary is sufficient to permit me to make some critical observations on the new approach.

Despite the claims made by advocates of the New Perspective, recent study of Second Temple Judaism does not require a revolution in our understanding of Paul's teaching. Even if the pattern of religion in Second Temple Judaism was a form of covenantal nomism, as Sanders and others maintain, this hardly warrants the sweeping claims of the New Perspective. This covenantal nomism easily accommodates a form of religious practice that regards acceptance with God as based upon grace plus good works. Indeed, covenantal nomism seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval Roman Catholicism. The Reformers objected to the Roman Catholic teaching that God's grace in Christ was not a sufficient basis for the believer's acceptance into and continuance in God's favor. The parallel that the Reformers drew between the teaching of the Roman Church and the Judaizing heresy that the apostle Paul opposed, was that they both wanted to make human works a partial basis for the believer's justification. Nothing in Sanders's study of Second Temple Judaism invalidates this claim.

Even though New Perspective authors have properly called attention to the particular occasion for Paul's polemic against the Judaizers, they have not demonstrated that Paul's use of the language of "works" or "works of the law" refers only to those boundary markers that distinguish Jews from Gentiles. The apostle Paul certainly emphasizes that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to become a recipient of the covenant promise to Abraham. But as he develops his teaching on the law and the works of the law, he expresses the themes that are integral to the older perspective of the Reformation. Paul speaks of "works" or the "works of the law" to refer to all that the law requires (e.g., Gal. 3:10-14; 5:2-4; 6:13; Rom. 2:6; 3:20, 28; 4:2-4; 9:32). The requirements of the law encompass all the moral demands of obedience to God. Furthermore, Paul rejects the way of works, not simply because it excludes Gentiles, but also because no one, whether Jew or Gentile, is able to do perfectly what the law requires and thereby obtain acceptance with God (Gal. 3:10; 5:3; Rom. 3:19-20; 5:20; 7:5-12). The boast of his opponents, which New Perspective authors view as a racial or ethnic boast, also includes the claim that their obedience to the law commends them to God (Rom. 3:27-4:8; 9:30-10:8; Phil. 3:2-11).

Although advocates of the New Perspective insist that justification identifies those whom God acknowledges as his covenant people, this view is inadequate. It fails to do justice to the biblical context for Paul's treatment of justification. For example, in Romans 1-5, Paul treats justification principally as an answer to the problem of human sin and guilt. Although there is an ecclesiological dimension to the subject of justification (Who belongs to the covenant family? Are Gentiles as well as Jews included?), the basic issue is emphatically of a soteriological and theological nature. Paul's argument in Romans 1-5 raises a question that goes far deeper than a consideration of who belongs to the covenant people of God. The question raised is: how can guilty sinners, who have culpably broken the law of God and are subject to condemnation, be received into favor by a righteous God whose wrath is being poured out upon all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men?


Although the New Perspective on Paul has captured the attention and convinced many contemporary students of the apostle Paul, I do not believe that it will prove to be enduring. Already a number of scholarly and popular evaluations of the New Perspective have exposed its inadequacies as a true alternative to the Reformation view.

To reduce the matter of justification to the inclusion of Gentiles within the covenant family of God, is to minimize the primary point of Paul's teaching. As the Reformers rightly insisted, Paul teaches that all sinners, whether Jews or Gentiles, are acceptable to God on the basis of Christ's work for them. Since no one can possibly be included within the covenant family of God on the basis of the works of the law, God has demonstrated his righteousness by providing a Savior whose obedience and propitiatory death are the basis for being received into his favor. In the setting of the argument of Romans, therefore, justification is all about the forgiveness of sins and the granting of a new status of righteousness in Christ to otherwise guilty sinners. Paul's teaching about justification is not simply about who is a member of the covenant, but goes to the deeper issue of who has a right to stand before God. Justification is about God as the one who justifies the ungodly. And it is about nothing, if not the salvation of guilty sinners.

No doubt, the New Perspective on Paul invites evangelical and Reformed believers to a fresh reading and study of the epistles of Paul. As they do so, I am confident that they will discover the same gospel of free justification that the Reformers affirmed in the sixteenth century. Although the gospel of Jesus Christ declares more than the good news of God's gracious acceptance of sinners on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, it certainly declares this good news. For all who have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, no news could be more desperately needed or gladly welcomed.


[1] This article briefly summarizes my recent book, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006). For a more extensive assessment of the New Perspective, see my The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), and Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004).

[2] The definition of justification in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 70, summarizes well the Reformation view: "Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone."

[3] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

[4] See Dunn's article, "Works of the Law and Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.10-14)," New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 523-42.

[5] For a popular presentation of Wright's view, see his What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997)-reviewed in this magazine on pages 25-26.

The author teaches theology at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, where he is also president. His new books on justification are listed in the first endnote above. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2007.

New Horizons: February 2007

Getting the Gospel Right

Also in this issue

Justification: What the Debate Is All About

Justified Now and Forever

Understanding the "Federal Vision"

A Review Article: Paul for Everyone, by Wright

Catch the Wave: OPC.org

Helps for Worship #15: Prayer of Confession (Part 1)

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