What Is the “New Perspective(s) on Paul”? (Part 2)


Read the first article in this series.

What does “justification” mean?

Dunn explains that “justification by faith” means trusting in Jesus alone for salvation, and not relying on obsolete Jewish boundary markers as covenant preconditions for God’s acceptance (i.e., “works of the law”). Jesus is enough. According to Dunn, Paul’s target is not grace v. legalism, but grace v. outmoded nationalism.

N.T. Wright explains that righteousness is not a changed moral character, but a new declared status—acquittal.1 The true scene is the lawcourt, not a medical clinic.2

It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of “justification,” not the character. It is in this sense that “justification” “makes” someone “righteous,” just as the officiant at a wedding service might be said to “make” the couple husband and wife-a change of status, accompanied (it is hoped) by a steady transformation formation of the heart, but a real change of status even if both parties are entering the union out of pure convenience.3

He breaks decisively with the traditional perspective by saying that “righteousness” is not a substance which can imputed or reckoned to a believer.4 This is dangerously close to the Roman Catholic concept of righteousness as an infusion of grace.5 No, Wright argues, God is not “a distant bank manager, scrutinizing credit and debit sheets.”6 Christ has not amassed a “treasury of merit” that God dispenses to believers.7

But “righteousness as declared status from God” is not the whole story. Wright sets his NPP framework by insisting we read all of scripture through a “God’s single plan through Israel for the world” lens. This means “righteousness” is more than acquittal, because this declared status takes place in a particular context. It is “absolutely central for Paul” that one understand “the story of Israel, and of the whole world, as a single continuous narrative which, having reached its climax in Jesus the Messiah, was now developing in the fresh ways which God the Creator, the Lord of history, had always intended.”8

For Wright, this is the hinge upon which everything turns. “Paul’s view of God’s purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight.”9 He sums up this “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” hinge as “covenant.”10

This is the prism through which we must understand (a) the nature of the law and the believing life, (b) what “works of the law” meant to Paul, and (c) the apostle’s relentless focus on the Jew + Gentile family of God.

In Paul’s day, Wright notes, Jews were not sitting around wondering what they must do to get to heaven when they die. No—they were waiting for God to act just as He said He would (i.e., to show covenant faithfulness), because they counted on being part of His single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.11 They were in “exile,” and waiting for a Savior who would be faithful to God’s promises to them.12

The Gospel is not simply about us and our salvation. It is about God’s plan. “God is not circling around us. We are circling around him.”13 We are making a mistake, Wright says, if we make justification the focus of the Gospel. The steering wheel on a car is surely important (critical, even!), but it is not the whole vehicle.14 In the same way, justification is one vital component of a larger whole—God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” plan.

God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah. Read Paul like this, and you can keep all the jigsaw pieces on the table.15

Because the Christian story hinges upon this covenant, Wright interprets the “righteousness of God” as God’s covenant faithfulness to do what He promised for Abraham. This faithfulness consisted of three aspects: (a) eschatology—God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” unfolding in time, and (b) lawcourt, and (c) covenant.

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated-and so all those who belonged to Jesus were vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.16

What is the relationship between works and salvation?

Paul declares that it is “the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13), and that God will repay each person for what he has done (Rom 2:6). Jesus is the judge at the law-court, and “possession of Torah, as we just saw, will not be enough; it will be doing it that counts …”17

Wright says traditional interpretations of these passages have “swept aside” the implications of Paul’s words. Judgment is—somehow, someway—based on works. It is “a central statement of something [Paul] normally took for granted. It is base line stuff.”18

This “judgment” is not a reward ceremony for believers where some will get prizes and others will not. No, it is an actual judgment at which everyone (including but not limited to Christians justified by faith) must present themselves and be assessed.19 To critics who are alarmed at Wright’s insistence on this point, he replies: “I did not write Romans 2; Paul did.”20 Indeed, “those texts about final judgment according to works sit there stubbornly, and won’t go away.”21

Christians are to “do” things to please God. Joyfully, out of love. To those who accuse him of teaching believers to put their trust in something other than Jesus, Wright declares: “I want to plead guilty …”22

The key, Wright argues, is the Holy Spirit who sets us free from slavery and for responsibility—“being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the Spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I too am doing.”23 The believer “by persistence in doing good” seeks glory and honor and immortality (Rom 2:7). It is not a matter of earning the final verdict or ever arriving at perfection. “They are seeking it, not earning it.”24

This seeking is by means of Spirit-filled living that is a bit of a synergistic paradox—“from one point of view the Spirit is at work, producing these fruits (Galatians 5:22-23), and from another other point of view the person concerned is making the free choices, the increasingly free (because increasingly less constrained by the sinful habits of mind and body) decisions to live a genuinely, fully human life which brings pleasure—of course it does!—to the God in whose image we human beings were made.”25

This is the kind of life which leads to a positive final verdict.26

The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.27

Both Sanders and Dunn are more to the point and suggest Christianity is kinda, sorta a new flavor of covenantal nomism. Dunn writes that the Torah was both the way of life and the way to life, that we cannot play the two emphases off against one another, and that “NT teaching has the same or at least a very similar inter-relationship.”28

As Israel’s status before God was rooted in God’s covenant initiative, so for Paul, Christians’ status before God is rooted in the grace manifested in and through Christ. And as Israel’s continuation within that covenant relationship depended in substantial measure on Israel’s obedience of the covenant law, so for Paul the Christians’ continuation to the end depends on their continuing in faith and on living out their faith through love.29

The difference is that the New Covenant believer has the Spirit, and so the Christian must walk by the Spirit and “to fulfill the requirements of the law.”30 Sanders sees Paul as more transforming old categories than dressing them in new clothes. The apostle uses “participationist transfers terms” to describe his doctrine of salvation:

The heart of Paul’s thought is not that one ratifies and agrees to a covenant offered by God, becoming a member of a group with a covenantal relation with God and remaining in it on the condition of proper behaviour; but that one dies with Christ, obtaining new life and the initial transformation which leads to the resurrection and ultimate transformation, that one is a member of the body of Christ and one Spirit with him, and that one remains so unless one breaks the participatory union by forming another.31

If you break the union (by defecting and not repenting), then you are out—“good deeds are the condition of remaining ‘in’, but they do not earn salvation.”32

What does it matter?

This matters because the NPP will interpret Galatians and Romans quite differently:

  • Judaism is a religion of grace, forgiveness, and atonement—not of legalism.
  • This means Paul is not fighting against legalists. Luther and the Reformers are wrong on this point. So is every major creed and confession the Protestant world has produced in the past 400 years. Like people staring up at the sun and assuming it orbits the earth, the traditional perspective sees but does not understand.33
  • Paul’s real problem is a mis-guided Jewish nationalism its agitators do not realize is now obsolete.
  • So, the “works of the law” Paul rails against are not legalist impulses but Jewish “identity markers.” Being a covenant member means an obligation to be set apart and to “live Jewishly.” The agitators do not realize this is now superseded in union with Christ. So, in this context, “justification by faith” means observing Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit as the new boundary markers.
  • The traditional understanding of “justification” is wrong. It may mean observing these new boundary markers instead of the old (Dunn). Or, according to Wright, it might mean “covenant faithfulness,” in that God is bringing His “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” to fruition (eschatology), on the basis of His declaration that Jesus acquits His people of their legal guilt (lawcourt), because He made promises to Abraham He intends to fulfill (covenant).

This alternative grid produces quite different interpretations of seemingly “obvious” passages. For example, the apostle Paul writes this about ethnic Jewish people:

For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:2-3).

According to N.T. Wright, this “zeal … not based on knowledge” refers to the mistaken impression that Israel was not the center of the world. God intended to work not just for them, but through them for a greater plan for the world. As far as “establishing their own righteousness” goes, Paul means that “they have not recognized the nature, shape and purpose of their own controlling narrative … and have supposed that it was a story about themselves rather than about the Creator and the cosmos, with themselves playing the crucial, linchpin role.”34

In other words, these passages are about misguided Jewish nationalism, not legalism. Christians (especially pastors) should be familiar with the broad outlines of this newer interpretive grid. Pondering these challenges will both sharpen dull edges in our own understanding and strengthen convictions in the face of alternative challenges. It might even change some minds—the Spirit still has more to teach His church!


1 Wright, Justification, loc. 987.

2 Wright, Justification, loc. 994.

3 Wright, Justification, loc. 1002-1005.

4 “If ‘imputed righteousness’ is so utterly central, so nerve-janglingly vital, so standing-and-falling-church and-falling-church important as John Piper makes out, isn’t it strange that Paul never actually came straight out and said it?” (Wright, Justification, loc. 453-454).

5 Wright, Justification, loc. 1938.

6 Wright, Justification, loc. 2216.

7 Wright, Justification, loc. 2747-2748. “We note in particular that the ‘obedience’ of Christ is not designed to amass a treasury of merit which can then be ‘reckoned’ to the believer, as in some Reformed schemes of thought …”

8 Wright, Justification, loc. 307-309.

9 Wright, Justification, loc. 1041-1042.

10 Wright, Justification, loc. 649f.

11 Wright, Justification, loc. 546f.

12 “[M]any first-century Jews thought of themselves as living in a continuing narrative stretching from earliest times, through ancient prophecies, and on toward a climactic moment of deliverance which might come at any moment … this continuing narrative was currently seen, on the basis of Daniel 9, as a long passage through a state of continuing ‘exile’ … The very same attribute of God because of which God was right to punish Israel with the curse of exile—i.e., his righteousness—can now be appealed to for covenantal restoration the other side of punishment,” (Wright, Justification, loc. 601-602, 609, 653-655).

In his Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013; Kindle ed.), Wright helpfully explains: “… the covenant, YHWH’s choice of Israel as his people, was aimed not simply at Israel itself, but at the wider and larger purposes which this God intended to fulfil through Israel. Israel is God’s servant; and the point of having a servant is not that the servant becomes one’s best friend, though that may happen too, but in order that, through the work of the servant, one may get things done. And what YHWH wants done, it seems, is for his glory to extend throughout the earth, for all nations to see and hear who he is and what he has done …

The particular calling of Israel, according to these passages, would seem to be that through Israel the creator God will bring his sovereign rule to bear on the world. Israel’s specialness would consist of this nation being ‘holy,’ separate from the others, but not merely for its own sake; rather, for the sake of the larger entity, the rest of the world,” (pp. 804-805, emphases in original).

13 Wright, Justification, loc. 163-164.

14 Wright, Justification, loc. 948f.

15 Wright, Justification, loc. 326-329.

16 Wright, Justification, loc. 1131-1134.

17 Wright, Justification, loc. 2163-2164.

18 Wright, Justification, loc. 2183-2184.

19 Wright, Justification, loc. 2174.

20 Wright, Justification, loc. 2168.

21 Wright, Justification, loc. 2200-2201.

22 Wright, Justification, loc. 2220.

23 Wright, Justification, loc. 2230-2232.

24 Wright, Justification, loc. 2266.

25 Wright, Justification, loc. 2267-2270.

26 “Humans become genuinely human, genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act, and choose to become people who more and more naturally act (that is the point of ‘virtue,’ as long as we realize it is now ‘second nature,’ not primary), in ways which reflect God’s image, which give him pleasure, which bring glory to his name, which do what the law had in mind all along. That is the life that leads to the final verdict, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’” (Wright, Justification, loc. 2279-2282).

27 Wright, Justification, loc. 3058-3060.

28 Dunn, “Whence, when and whither?,” pp. 74-75.

29 Dunn, “New Perspective View,” pp. 199-200.

30 Dunn, “Whence, when and whither?,” pp. 84-85.

31 Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 513.

32 Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 517.

33 Wright, Justification, loc. 101-114.

34 Wright, Justification, loc. 2966-2967.


NPP just asks for too much, from my point of view. It would take a whole lot more than I’ve seen to be persuasive. To be fair, I haven’t read Wright et al.

But I continue to have difficulty making much sense of the NPP framework(s?).

We are making a mistake, Wright says, if we make justification the focus of the Gospel. The steering wheel on a car is surely important (critical, even!), but it is not the whole vehicle.

Protestant and Reformed doctrine has never even come close to making justification “the whole vehicle.” There is a huge difference between “the focus” and “all there is.” So I’m surprised to him be that sloppy on that point. Whatever else he is, I hadn’t thought of him as sloppy—so maybe that was just a slip on his part? …or I’m missing some context?

If the central idea is that the enemy of grace was ‘outmoded nationalism,’ vs. ‘legalism,’ the concept seems flawed. I can’t really see how ‘outmoded nationalism’ is not just a flavor of legalism. If you have stuff to do to gain God’s acceptance—that is, if there is any kind of “works” at all in “works of the law,” it is still legalism.

On the concept that righteousness is acquittal, this is what the traditional view calls “justification.” But if there is no “bank of merit,” that is imputed, on what basis does this acquittal supposedly occur? How is God “just and justifier” (Rom 3.26) in this view?

God is not “a distant bank manager,

This is also not the traditional view. Why does he inject “distant”? The rest of the statement isn’t far off, but the way he’s characterizing what he’s pushing back on doesn’t incline to respect what he has to say.

Is he asking us to accept his new perspective when he doesn’t seem to fully understand the old perspective? That’s a lot to expect.

The Gospel is not simply about us and our salvation. It is about God’s plan.

This is the heart of all the Reformed confessions.

… well, I’m out of time, so I’ll stop here. Suffice to say that what I have of NPP so far raises way more questions than it answers and causes more problems than it solves. What happens to imputation if there is no righteousness of Christ to impute? And what was the atonement? If “righteousness” is actually what we used to call “justification” and “justification” is “trusting in Jeus alone,” (what we used to call “faith”) aren’t we really just taking all the pieces of the traditional view and swapping what we call them?

It’s like NPP takes all the goods of salvation, removes the labels, shakes the labels up in a bowl, then reattaches them to all the same things that were there before.

Well, I know NTW is no dummy, so I can only conclude that at this point I simply do not understand.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

My sincere hope is that a NPP advocate could read these two articles and agree that they’re a fair representation. I took pains to cite Wright and Dunn in context. Still, I believe you must re-calibrate nearly everything to agree with what they’re saying. For the record, I disagree with NPP! I don’t think you’re wrong to be confused!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Wright’s book Justification is, I believe, replete with caricatures of the traditional perspective. But, he is largely responding to Piper, and I don’t know what Piper wrote, so who knows!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

The problem is that NPP is not singular. Wright has often said there are as many new perspectives of Paul as those that write about it. So yes, it is confusing and not at all convincing in my opinion.

I find NPP very confusing as well. I think it also has something to do with Federal Vision, but I could be completely wrong on that. I do know that modern commentaries seem to spend quite a bit of time dealing with NPP perspectives on the text, and I largely feel that time spent is not all that helpful.

One question I do have is the whole idea of Judaism at the time of Christ and the beginning of the church. Was Judaism wholly taken over with legalism (works of the law required for salvation), or did synagogues in general teach faith in a coming messiah/promises of God for salvation. My thought/guess is that it had largely become corrupt with self-righteousness, while knowing that a messiah was promised but not knowing the significance of the coming messiah, other than expecting some sort of nationalistic leader.

I feel that sometimes there is an element of desire amongst some scholars to find some kind of unique discovery or perspective in their field. Scholars, in general, have a tendency to want to drive the evolution of their field. This seems, to me, to be a natural extension of that. Are we so naive, to feel that the church for the last 2,000 years has had it wrong. That the large scale revivals, the creeds, confessions, catechisms were all somehow rooted or were put into place under the auspice that Judaism and thus Paul's writings were not really understood, and that it was in 1975 that a new and more true perspective has been found. That the Reformation and other church leaders, just didn't understand it, but now we do. Add on top of the fact that NPP is so uncohesive, that most people struggle to understand what is even meant by NPP.

I’m sure there is still plenty of room to better understand the Judaism of Paul’s day, but agree that there is a certain pressure in any academic discipline to take it somewhere your predecessors have not taken it. This is both good and bad. Pursuing excellence in your field—how can that be bad? But when we’re talking about theology and an ancient, unchanging book, the dynamic has to be tempered with ecclesiology (historical theology) and bibiology (e.g., perspicuity) and so on. It’s not like the study of biology or physics.

It’s more like the study of history, but not entirely like that either. It’s unique.

I’m curious if anyone has come across a look at church fathers with NPP in mind, to see what sort of fit there is or isn’t. They would have been closer in time to the Judaism Paul was pushing back on. Did they see the Judaism of that era as having much grace in it? I’m sure much has been written on how they understood justification, or at least soteriology, so that would be interesting.

I’m sure NTW et al are not surprised that Protestants are skeptical of the idea that they botched a huge part (the most important part?) of the Reformation.😀

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

What’s amazing is that NTW is surprised! He is constantly saying that he is being misunderstood. He seems totally baffled that they don’t get him. It defies reason that countless NT scholars are all just misunderstanding him but that is his claim. Piper even sent him the manuscript of his critique prior to publication to make sure he was representing him correctly.

Perhaps I'm not scholarly enough to be impressed by the New Perspective on Paul, but I am unconvinced that first century temple Judaism did not, actually, believe in the works of the law for salvation. There are too many statements to the contrary in Scripture. For example, "Indeed, you are called a Jew, a rest on the law, and make your boast in God," (Romans 2:17) If the Scriptures state that Jews in the first century were trusting law keeping in order to have a right standing with God, that settles it for me, the scholarly N. T. Wright not withstanding.

G. N. Barkman