Archives For Righteousness

This title may have attracted some witch hunters seeking evidence to burn N.T. Wright at the stake. If this is you, then better go back and read the previous four posts. The title, as the rest of you may know, means that this is the last of our New Perspective posts, which may elicit a blend of “yeahs” and “boos.” In any case, I’ll wrap up this series by laying out my own views about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ve insinuated throughout that I’m not an advocate of the NPP, and yet I’ve tried to accurately and fairly represent it in the previous posts.

So, what do I see wrong with the New Perspective? Three things.

First, NPP proponents (broadly speaking) see Paul and first-century Judaism as having the same structure of salvation, but different identify markers. If I just lost most of you, let me explain. It’s typical of NPP interpreters to see Paul and Judaism as having the same understanding of grace and works. Both Paul and Judaism, they say, believe that salvation is by grace and our works are nothing more than a response to grace. This is pretty much what Sanders, Dunn, and even Wright would say. Or in the words of the brilliant NT scholar, Morna Hooker, “just as Palestinian Judaism understood obedience to the Law to be the proper response of Israel to the covenant on Sinai, so Paul assumes that there is an appropriate response for Christians who have experienced God’s saving activity in Christ” (Hooker, “Covenantal Nomism,” 48).

My only problem with this understanding of Paul and Judaism is this: it’s just not true. Having studied the original documents of Judaism for the last 6 years, I must say that while they were not robustly legalistic (merit mongers working their way to heaven apart from grace), they weren’t as “Calvinistic” as Paul (please excuse the anachronism). Our beloved Apostle believed that “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) and—take note of this—nowhere in first century Judaism do we see such a radical assertion. A section of the Dead Sea ScrollsIn fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are famous for being “hyper-Calvinists” (tongue in cheek) and even they don’t make such ridiculous claims. For the Scrolls, “God atoned” for and “justified the righteous, and pronounced the wicked to be wicked (CD 4:6-7 [a famous scroll from the Dead Sea]). God doesn’t justify the ungodly—that would be offensive! But for Paul, it was not only affirmed but necessary, since we’re all ungodly! Paul believed that all—including Jews—are insatiably sinful and can do no good on their own. This leaves only the wicked to be justified by God—even though this was considered heretical and absurd by most Jews in the first century. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3), but his Damascus road experience really rattled him something fierce. Paul’s view of divine grace is unparalleled in first-century Judaism. (I’ve got a few caveats here for those interested.)

Second, the phrase “works of the law” cannot be limited to Jewish boundary markers. I may have built a good case for this in my first two posts, but a close look at all the passages shows that “works of the law” refers to the demands of the old covenant law which Israel failed to keep. Dietary regulations may be emphasized in Galatians 2:16 and perhaps in Romans 3:28 (I still have my doubts here), but in all other instances (e.g. Rom 3:20; Gal 3:2, 5, 10), “works of the law” refers to the demands of the Mosaic law as a whole. So when Paul says that no one is justified by works of the law in Romans 3:20, he’s simply saying what he says elsewhere: that righteousness did not and cannot come through law (Gal 2:20-21; 3:21; Rom 4:4-5; 7:6-8:11). Limiting Paul’s critique to ethnocentrism cannot account for Paul’s driving point: we’re all jacked up and in need of unilateral grace to be saved (Rom 4:4-5 my translation).

Third, and somewhat related to the previous point, although the NPP has very helpfully brought to light the importance of the Jew/Gentile issue in Paul, this should not be pitted against a more classic reading of Romans and Galatians. In other words, we need to distinguish between the unique and surprising content of justification by faith (Rom 4:4-6)—that God declares righteous his ungodly enemies—and its universal scope (Rom 4:9-16)—that this salvation is given to Jew and Gentile on the same basis. The “Old Perspective” seemed to emphasize only the former, while the “New Perspective” the latter. Both, to my mind, are beautiful and true.

Let me end, however, by tipping my hat one more time to the New Perspective. Having read piles of stuff written by NPP advocates, I’ve been forced to go back and bury my nose in the text of God’s precious word. It’s been tedious at times, but overall I feel that I have a better grasp on what God was breathing out through the pen of Paul. And any time we are forced to revisit the text with fresh eyes, new questions, and a sensible spirit, that’s a pretty good day at the office. So let me end by encouraging you with the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who on the eve of his exile from Nazi Germany, exhorted his students with these words:

“We have been studying cheerfully and seriously…And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the Scripture that has been given to us.”

–Karl Barth, on the event of his formal farewell to his students in Bonn, just prior to his expulsion from Germany in 1935.

We wrapped up the previous post with a question: “What role do works play in our future justification?” We’ll get to that question below, but first, let’s throw on the table the whole Piper/Wright debate that’s been going for a few years. The gist of it is that Piper thinks Wright has seriously revamped the gospel, and Wright thinks that Piper is reading too much systematic theology back into the text. I’ve been a little discouraged by the whole exchange, since both Piper and Wright have hugely impacted my life as a preacher, teacher, scholar, and Christian. I value them both for somewhat different reasons, and I’m a bit saddened to see two gems miss each other like two ships passing in the night.

But lets back things up a bit. How does N.T. Wright fit into the New Perspective? In a nutshell, Wright’s views about Paul’s view of the law and first-century Judaism were already crystallized right around the time that E.P. Sanders published his tome in 1977, and a few years before Dunn christened “the New Perspective” with his essay in 1983. However, Wright has just as many disagreements with Dunn and Sanders as he does agreements, which means he can hardly be the poster child for the New Perspective. So you can love N.T. Wright, and not be New Perspective, which is pretty much where I fit in. There’s tons of things I love about Wright’s view of the New Testament. But I’m not “New Perspective” (whatever that means, anyway).

So what is it that’s roped Wright into the whole NPP movement? Here’s the gist:

First, Wright agrees with Dunn about the meaning of “works of the law” (e.g. Rom 3:20, 28); namely, that they refer to Jewish boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.). Second, Wright believes that first-century Judaism was not legalistic (though many old perspective proponents, including myself, would agree with that). Third, Wright tends to see Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians along the lines of Jew/Gentile relations, and not strictly how a sinner finds forgiveness before a holy God. The two streams of thought, of course, are not at odds; it’s usually a matter of emphasis.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot in common between Dunn or Sanders and Wright. The first two, in fact, are quite Arminian, while Wright is much more Calvinistic—despite what you may hear from his critics.

Now that we’ve got a running start, what is it about Wright that’s ruffled Piper’s feathers? There are actually 8 different issues, but for the sake of space and your precious time, let’s deal with the 2 big ones.

First, Piper believes that Wright’s understanding of final justification is a serious aberration from the gospel. Again, Wright thinks that our final justification will be on the basis of the total life lived by the power of the Spirit, and Piper thinks this is tantamount to justification by works. But remember, Wright never says that our initial justification (the thing that happened at conversion) was on the basis of any ounce of good behavior. We were “ungodly” when we were justified in the past—Wright agrees with this, and so does Paul (Rom 4:4-5). But Wright says that God will judge all people according to works in the future (Paul agrees with this as well; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12), and this means that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future (not past) justification. But Piper is not at all comfortable with works playing such an important role in our future salvation. Piper, however, does “believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (Future of Justification, 110).

Did you get that? Piper says that works are the evidence of genuine faith and will be necessary for our future salvation; Wright says that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future justification.

Basis vs. evidence; salvation vs. justification. That’s the gist of one of the most blistering points of contention between Piper and Wright. And interestingly, at a conference a year a go, I heard Wright say that he was unaware that he’s been using the phrase “basis” and explained that he in no way was saying that Spirit generated works replace the work of Christ as the foundation for our past, present, or future salvation. What he meant and what his critics thought he meant were two different things.

Personally, if they got together at a pub and worked this out in the context of brotherly Christian dialogue, I wonder if they’d really be that far apart. I mean, all Wright is pushing for is what John MacArthur trumpeted back in the 80’s with his whole Lordship salvation gig (that obedience matters for the final day), and no Evangelical would accuse him of denying the gospel.

Oh, wait a minute. They did. Um…this is awkward. Ok, let’s move on.

Second, Piper goes after Wright for denying the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In sum, Piper believes that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law was credited or “imputed” to our account, so that when God looks at us he sees the perfect, sinless, obedient life of Christ in us. Wright thinks this is fine theologically, but doesn’t see it clearly taught in Scripture. For Wright, “the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him,’ but the righteousness of Christ is not the sinless obedience of Jesus that he merited before God on earth, but “that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection.” And what is true of Christ is true of us by virtue of our union with him; as such, we received the righteousness of Christ (see Piper, The Future, 121-23).

Let this be clear, then. Wright believes that we have an “alien” righteousness; that our righteous status before God is not our own; that it has been given to us by God through Christ by virtue of his resurrection. I emphasize this because I’ve heard people accuse Wright of saying that our works constitute our righteousness and this is what vindicates us before God. But man, that’s a pretty butchered view of what Wright is saying, and if he did say that, I’ll tie the noose. But he hasn’t. In his own words, God’s justification is his “judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the law-court verdict, ‘in the right’” (Wright, Justification, 206).

Okay, I have yet to stick my neck out on where I stand on these issues, so I’ll close with a response to these two issues. First, future justification on the basis of works. This is a huge issue and to understand it fully we’d need to comb through some pretty tough passages. But in short, I think that Paul does believe that there will be a future justification and it will be “according to works” (Gal 5:4-6; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12). The phrase “according to” is desperately vague, however. Will works be the “evidence” of genuine faith (Piper) or the “basis” of the verdict (Wright)? I’m going to mildly side with Piper on this one, though as we’ve seen, I don’t think Piper and Wright are actually saying different things. The unilateral work of Christ, whose death and resurrection was a free gift toward the ungodly (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11) must form the foundation for our past, present, and future verdict—hence the word “basis” (see too Rom 8:31-34 in the context of future justification). Everything we do flows from that unconditional gift. So I’m totally fine with the word “evidence;” I’m even okay with the word “condition” to speak of the role of works on judgment day, since according to Paul our works are created and sustained by the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit. So when we receive a positive verdict on judgment day—when we will be justified—it will be God pronouncing “well done good and faithful Spirit, who took a pile of dung and squeezed a beautiful gem out of it.” This ain’t works-righteousness, friends. It’s God being well-pleased with his own work in our lives.

Second, imputed righteousness. I’m going to side with Wright on this one. As much as Piper’s view makes some theological sense, I just don’t see it in the text. Piper sees it everywhere—in Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:6-9. But it just isn’t there. Paul never explicitly says that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law and credited this obedience to our account. And plus, this seems to assume a covenant of works (you theologians know what I’m talking about) that I don’t see in Scripture either. In any case, what matters most for me is that our righteousness that vindicates us before God is not our own. It comes from Christ, who is inherently righteous (he didn’t need to earn it through obedience the law), and is given to us freely by virtue of his death and resurrection—this seems to be exactly what Paul says in Romans 4:25 and 5:18-19.

There’s much more I can say, but let me just remind us that the whole debate about the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a New Perspective thing. Neither Sanders nor Dunn made it a big deal, and Wright never made it a big deal—he sort of mentioned his view in passing in 1997, which whet the swords of his critics.

Ya’ll sick of this New Perspective series yet? Hang in there, we’ve got one more post, where I’ll lay out my main contention with the New Perspective on Paul.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to blog about the New Perspective, but have been reluctant, since I’m not sure that our readers are all that interested in it. But just this week, I’ve had quite a few people ask me about it—real people, not seminary students or scholarly geeks—so perhaps a number of you out there are asking this question: What is the New Perspective on Paul?

Or, if you haven’t asked that question, perhaps you’ve wondered what John Piper has been all fired out about in a couple of his recent books: Counted Righteous in Christ and The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. The last one, of course, is a direct response to a well known, though in some circles still unknown, British theologian. So what’s all the hubbub?

Well, it all began back in 1977, when a biblical scholar named Ed Sanders published a book titled Paul and Palestinitian Judaism. In it, Sanders studied a bunch of different Jewish documents, written around the time of Jesus, to see if they promoted a legalistic theology. For most of church history, it’s been assumed that Judaism was a religion of works, where Jews stock piled good deeds, hoping that one day the good would outweigh the bad. This has been taken for granted among virtually every Christian for hundreds of years, so Sanders went to the proverbial horse’s mouth to ask whether or not the Jews themselves promoted this sort of legalistic religion. The answer he came up with in so many words was “no, they did not.” Judaism very much believed in the grace of God for salvation; obedience was simply a response to grace, not a means of earning God’s grace—the same as Christianity.

The question that follows, then, is what was Paul arguing against when he preached justification by faith, if it wasn’t Jewish legalism? Sanders didn’t do a great job of answering this question, but other scholars stepped in and teased out an answer. The one who picked up the mantle with the most zeal was a British scholar named James Dunn. Dunn gave a lecture in 1982 titled “The New Perspective on Paul.” This lecture, published a year later, gave traction to Sanders’s study and, probably unexpected at the time, gave a name to this new way of understanding Paul and Judaism. Dunn agreed with Sanders that Judaism was not legalistic, but took things a step further by using this new view of Judaism to better understand Paul. So, for instance, Dunn argued that Paul’s phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) does not refer to legalism, or works-righteousness, but ethnic exclusivity. In other words—and this is really the heart of the debate—when Paul says that we are “justified by faith” and not “by works of the law” (Gal 2:16), he wasn’t arguing against works-righteousness but against a Jewish disdain toward Gentiles. These “works of the law,” says Dunn, refer to those laws that traditionally distinguished Jews from Gentiles—circumcising your sons, not eating pork, observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says that we are not justified by “works of the law,” he’s basically saying that we are not justified based on our ethnic heritage—which is what John the Baptist and Jesus said in so many words.

So how do Dunn and others argue this from Scripture? The clearest inroad to their argument comes in Romans 3:28. Here, Paul gives one of his clearest statements about justification by faith.

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).

Now, ask yourself, is Paul arguing against works-righteousness, or against excluding Gentiles from the covenant? If works-righteousness, then Paul will probably follow this statement up with something about trying to work your way to heaven. But if excluding Gentiles, then he’ll probably follow it up with something about Jew/Gentile relations. So which is it? Well, here’s what Paul says:

“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom 3:29-30).

If you’re following my point, then you’re catching the gist of the New Perspective. If you’re not seeing the difference, then it may be good to read Romans 3:28-30 again. In any case, it seems that Dunn has a point. Paul clearly follows up his statement about justification by faith with a rhetorical question about God being both for Jews and Gentiles and this is the beauty of justification—it is by faith and not by one’s Jewish identity, or “works of the law.”

All of this may be old news to some of you; for others, it’s the first time encountering this discussion. So let me bring this discussion to a close and let you digest it a bit. I’ll pick it up again tomorrow with more thoughts, but let me end by giving a few pastoral challenges.

First, just because something is called “the New…” doesn’t mean it’s bad. So don’t make the mistakes of already thinking the New Perspective is evil and heretical if you haven’t taken the time to understand it. Quite a few pastors got their underwear in a bunch when Martin Luther spouted off his “New” doctrine a few centuries ago, but we’re all grateful he did. “New” isn’t bad; unbiblical is bad, so you need to sort out whether the New Perspective is biblical or not. I’ve already given you one biblical point in favor of it—Romans 3:28-30.

Second, there is no such thing as the New Perspective. (I’ve been using this phrase throughout simply because it’s well-known.) I cannot emphasize this enough. Like the term Baptist, or Presbyterian, there is no such thing as a monolithic movement called “The New Perspective.” There’s no denomination, no membership fee, no badges, uniform, or annual conference to attend. There are so many perspectives within the broad umbrella of “the New Perspective” that it’s utterly unhelpful to even use the phrase the New Perspective unless you realize that there is much diversity within this school of thought. So asking the question: “Are you New Perspective” is unhelpful, imprecise, and reveals a good deal of ignorance in the one asking the question. It’s like asking someone if they’re Baptist. What does this mean? For some, being Baptist means you’re Arminian, or against women in ministry, or believe in congregational rule, or that you are theologically conservative, or that you don’t dunk babies, or that you’re theologically liberal, or pro elder-rule, or for women in ministry, or that you’re Calvinistic. (The chiasm was intentional, by the way; I was feeling creative.) Many within the broad umbrella of “THE” Baptist denomination disagree vehemently on a wide range of issues, and the same is true of the so-called New Perspective. And, if I can be so frank, most people who try to categorize other people using that phrase are on a witch hunt and want a black and white “yes” or “no.” So be careful! The villagers are agitated, the pitch-forks are sharpened, and they be comin’ home baggin’ them a witch, so you’d better answer right! But seriously, the very demand for a “yes, I am New Perspective” or “no, I am not” reveals a thick level of ignorance, and, in many cases, arrogance. No one who understands the issue would ask that question.

Third, the whole New Perspective thing has got way out of hand. I did my entire Ph.D. on the issue and I would easily say that 90% of the critiques are fueled by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge—none of which made the list of Christian virtues. Rarely is the Bible even opened when a witch is put on the stand. (It’s ironic and sad that charges of being “unbiblical” are made with a closed Bible.) I’ve seen relationships destroyed, ministers fired (or hired), churches split, and unchristian dialogue flood the Internet based on this issue—and it’s rarely governed by the text. Perhaps this whole issue hits home a bit because my name has been tossed around here and there as being a big New Perspective proponent. And I am totally ok with this except for one major problem: in everything that I’ve published on the subject, I’ve argued against the New Perspective. How does that happen? Fear, anger, lack of knowledge. So any time my name may be lumped into the whole discussion, just know that this is clear evidence that much gossip and ignorance has shaped a critique that’s been made under the banner of being biblical.

In the following posts, I’ll discuss other features of the New Perspective, how N.T. Wright fits into the whole thing, and why I disagree with it. So stay tuned!