What is the "New Perspective on Paul"? A Basic Explanation (Part 3)

(Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

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…)

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Dan Salter's picture

I'm not sure I follow your criticism of Wright's definition of the gospel. You quote John's summary seeming to identify it as the gospel so that you may show contrast with Wright. But your criticism of Wright was that it did not include the cross, which was not in John's summary either. Of course, you may argue that John's summary includes the cross because it includes everything he wrote about in the book. But that would then be a rather harsh criticism of Wright to expect him to say in his summary statement what John gets to say in his whole book. If we look elsewhere in Wright's writings, the cross is prominent and necessary. So, again, what exactly is your criticism here? Do you actually believe Wright does not think belief in the cross as the means of rescue is necessary??

Here's an N.T. Wright quote from Small Faith, Great God (pp 49-50): "On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.” 

(BTW, Wright's gas analogy is about the imputation of righteousness not justification. "Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.” N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 98)

Paul Henebury's picture


I don't have much time to address your questions in the way they deserve, but here are some pointers:

1. My quotation of John was mainly to show the necessity of individual faith being the 'door' to Christ's righteousness and so justification.

2. I am not saying that the Cross is absent from Wright's view of the Gospel as such (and neither is Venema):  Only the personal, individual element which through faith in the cross brings justification.  Wright alters the message so as to focus more on the community of covenant faith which is now counted together in belief that Jesus is Lord.

3. Wright's view of justification loosens its hold on imputation.  For more on this see D.A. Carson, "The Vindication of Imputation" in Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier, Justification

4. Although all could agree with the quotation about the Cross which you provide, the understandings of it would differ along the broad lines outlined above.

5. Yes, Wright does refer specifically to righteousness in the quote you close with.  However, I was not directly quoting him there, simply making a point.  Wright has some issues with justification via the imputed righteousness of Christ: I was just collapsing the distinction for present purposes.


God bless,


Paul H.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Dan Salter's picture

Paul, I somehow missed your comment, and thus this late response.

Your comment point 2, I suppose, holds my main objection. I don't really think that the personal, individual element through faith in the cross is missing from Wright's understanding. I think that in most of his most publicized works and talks, the NP is so wondered about that he must address those ideas, and those ideas are mainly about this side of the cross. That being so, he tends to speak in terms of covenantal community even regarding justification. Of course, the NP focuses on that because its emphasis, as far as the Jewish community was concerned, is on how they understood their already existing covenant relationship rather than how to get into covenant relationship. Thus, they argue that Paul's concern (and use of the terms justification and righteousness) relate to getting the Jews to understand the difference in being in old covenant community versus being in New Covenant community, not a discussion about how you get in. And (now to my point) that's not necessarily "seriously compromising" the individual call to sinners to repent and believe in the cross.

I'm not sure whether you've read this article (linked below, but you can find it at http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Believing_Belonging.htm). In it Wright discusses both community and individual responsibility. I think it is helpful to understanding what he thinks of the necessity for personal repentance and faith. (article here)

Ed Vasicek's picture

Good article, Paul.  IMO, the cross must always be central when talking about the Gospel, not peripheral (Galatians 6:14).  Whenever the cross ceases to be central to the Gospel, you might not have exactly heresy, but you have imbalance at least. 

I am working on my new book which will be titled, "The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash."  In it, I demonstrate how   Taking this approach means understanding the atonement in light of Isaiah 53 and justification in light of Zechariah 3.

"The Midrash Detective"

Dan Salter's picture

Paul in Galatians 6:14 states that he boasts in the cross. How many times is the word "cross" mentioned in Romans? How can Paul say that he will never boast about anything except the cross and then not even mention it in Romans? He wrote half the NT and mentions it a total of only ten times?! Is the cross central to the gospel for Paul? Well, of course it is! You don't have to mention the word cross for it to be the basis for everything you speak of regarding gospel and right covenant relationship. And so it was for Paul. Could it also be so for Wright, or must we hold him to a different standard? His writing--even his recent writing--mentions the cross and personal repentance from sin and faith in Christ's atoning work as the only rescue from the penalty of death for sin. How many times must he say it before we can consider him to have stopped compromising the gospel?

Paul Henebury's picture

Dan, again I find myself too pulled about to deal with your issue/s with more than a cursory comment.  I have just moved across the States and things are hectic at the Henebury house!!

I do not deny that Wright includes the personal element, nor do I deny that he speaks about the Cross.  Of the latter we both know that I mean it is shorthand for the message of salvation.  In Part 4 I say something about the way the term "works of the law" is understood by NPP's.  I do not want to deal only with Wright, and I took the risk of appearing to single him out when I wrote.  Notwithstanding, he does want to interpret important ancillary matters (imputation, covenant identity, works of the law, etc) in terms which bring the community into sharper relief while somewhat blurring the individual elements associated with repentance, faith, imputation and so forth.  Part Four is done, but needs an edit.  Still, i hope to have it ready soon.  It may help iron out a few things.


God bless


Paul H.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Dan Salter's picture

Paul, I'll wait for part 4. Good luck with the move! I've moved a dozen or so times myself. Hardly ever fun.

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