Is lack of righteousness the problem?
In the various presentations of the New Perspective on Paul or NPP, the centrality of the call upon sinners to repent and believe in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of forgiveness and eternal life with God when they do is seriously compromised. Think about these words from the end of John 3: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:36).
The solemnity of these words strikes everyone who reads them. The difference between everlasting life and abiding wrath is belief in the Son. What is it that must be believed? The answer to that question is the reason why John wrote his Gospel. After recounting the crucifixion and resurrection John focuses upon Thomas’s doubt and the Lord’s answer to that doubt. Jesus stresses belief in Him in that context. Then John adds his summary:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (Jn. 20:30)
So what is the gospel? Venema quotes N.T. Wright as saying,
Let us be quite clear—the gospel is the announcement of Jesus’ Lordship which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham; now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. Justification is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family on this basis and no other. (Cornelis Venema in By Faith Alone, edited by Gary LW Johnson & Guy P Waters, 43).
What Wright appears to be saying is that the gospel which we must believe is that Jesus is Lord. There is no mention here of the cross and Christ becoming sin for us. There is nothing said about His death and resurrection for us. All that needs to be done, so it seems, is that people believe that Jesus is Lord and that includes them in the covenant family in Him. No word about our sin and God’s judgment! Venema introduces this quotation with the following words:
If the gospel is not about how people get saved but the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, this is implications for our understanding of what Paul means by justification. This doctrine, though an essential, albeit subordinate theme in Paul’s preaching, does not address the issue of how guilty sinners can find favor with God. This would be to assume that Paul’s gospel focuses upon the salvation of the individual rather than [as the NPP would have it] upon the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the consequences of that Lordship for the realization of God’s covenant promises to Israel.
The gospel according to the NPP in sum
This is the gospel of the New Perspective:
As it was proclaimed to Israel by Jesus and by Paul and others, the Gospel was that Israel’s exile was over. Important to Wright is this view that ever since the Babylonian captivity Israel had been in exile. Even though they were in their own land, they were still in exile because they were under Roman rule, and so did not have self-sovereignty. The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Messiah, is for Wright the solution to Israel’s exile. They are to believe that Jesus is the Messiah; that Jesus is Lord. Having that badge of faith acts as the new and only badge of entrance into the covenant and is what justifies them.
Clearly there has been a radical shift of emphasis!
Clarity on justification
Wright likes to say this idea of justification as a kind of “gas” or a substance that can pass from one person [Jesus] onto another person [the sinner] is nonsense, unbiblical, and is, in fact, mythological. Before dismissing everything in that statement it should perhaps be admitted that this is the way certain schools of thought (and some in the Reformed churches come to mind), have sometimes construed justification. It is not uncommon in certain types of Reformed theology to be taught a view of justification as “transformative” of the person who believes in Christ. In this teaching justification and sanctification merge or overlap. The classical view of the Reformers was that justification was only “forensic”—a one-time legal decision made by God on behalf of the believing sinner. This approach does indeed view justification as an ongoing power: as a continual justifying faith to final perseverance.
However, justification should not be seen as “transformative.” Sanctification is “transformative,” but not justification. Justification has to do with God being just and justifying the sinner who believes on Christ. As I have said, it is a legal decision not based on our righteousness but rather on the righteousness of Christ and our faith in Him.
So Wright is correct here, at least in part. Still, that doesn’t mean that the whole idea of justification as the forgiveness of sin through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the individual is done away with! God must deal with sin.
Furthermore, this idea that Jews saw themselves as still in exile is not persuasive. As Douglas Moo points out,
It is very unlikely that Jews like Paul, however self-satisfied, thought that they were living in the age of eschatological restoration [i.e. the Messianic Kingdom]. The Jews’ failure to recognize that Jesus Christ initiated the eschatological righteousness of God was itself due to a continuing and persistent preoccupation with the law. Here again we see the problem in using exile as an overall explanatory concept. The satisfaction that Paul and many Jews expressed with respect to their personal religious condition [e.g. Phil. 3:4-6] suggests that they were certainly not thinking of themselves as personally still in exile; even as they, undoubtedly to varying degrees, would have recognized that their mere residence in the land of Israel did not bring an end to exile in the way that the prophets had foretold. (Douglas J. Moo in, Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, edited by D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, & Mark Seifrid, 205).
What Moo is saying is that Paul, before he was converted, seems to have been self-satisfied and did not see himself as being in exile! He was perfectly happy with his religious condition while being unhappy with Roman occupation of his land. Therefore, Wright’s interpretation of the way Jews viewed themselves in Paul’s day seems to be skewed. As Moo also points out, the coming of Christ would have only exacerbated the sense of exile (if there was one), not relieved it.
Now, everybody is wasting for Wright’s fourth volume in his massive Christian Origins and the Question of God because in that book we will have a full explication of his mature position. I predict that we will see a much more nuanced position where he will give more of a place to individual justification and substitutionary atonement for sin than he appears to have done in books like The Climax of the Covenant. But we are still going to see this added emphasis of corporate identification in the covenant on the basis of faith; we’ll wait and see what happens there.
(One more to come…)