Getting in and staying in: The ‘New Perspective’ on justification

Over the past 20 years, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the study of the Apostle Paul and his doctrine of justification by faith. In the first of a series of articles, we look at what this ‘new perspective’ is.

The 16th-century Protestant Reformers had a saying: ecclesia reformata, ecclesia semper reformanda (‘the reformed church is a church which must always be reforming itself’). It’s an important saying. It means that the church of Jesus Christ, if we are to remain true to our Lord, must continually be prepared to scrutinize and ‘reform’ its doctrines and practices by the written word of God. Consequently, no interpretation of any biblical doctrine—whatever its pedigree!—should be exempt from this process of ongoing revaluation in the light of what Scripture actually teaches.

As convinced as the Reformers were of the necessity of this principle, equally convinced were they about the meaning and centrality of Paul’s doctrine of justification. In fact, if there was one thing that united all the major Protestant Reformers, it was their uncompromising conviction that the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith was the Bible’s primary way of speaking about God’s acceptance of sinners by grace, through faith, and on account of Christ. As such, justification by faith was regarded as the centre not only of Romans and Paul’s theology, but of the whole Bible. Luther, for example, saw it as “the summary of Christian doctrine” and Calvin as “the main hinge on which religion turns”. Justification by faith came to be regarded as the article by which the church stands or falls—for to get this wrong meant to get the gospel wrong, and to get the gospel wrong is to stand in danger of eternal condemnation (Gal 1:6-9)!

In light of this, it seems highly unlikely that the Reformers ever foresaw a conflict between ‘the Scripture principle’ and their understanding of justification. However, Luther certainly believed that after his death, the doctrine of justification would be subjected to fresh attack and its truth submerged in error once again. It would therefore have come as no surprise to him that the doctrine of justification has been an ongoing source of controversy amongst Christians, and that for much of this century (in particular, the last 20 years) the ‘Lutheran orthodox’ view (so-called) has come in for fairly extensive criticism. Consequently, the Reformed understanding of the nature of justification (i.e. what justification means), the centrality of the doctrine for Paul (i.e. its place in his theology), and the teaching to which it stood opposed (i.e. justification by works of the law) have all been seriously and repeatedly challenged. Moreover, the Reformed doctrine has also been taken to task for being too individualistic, too introspective, too existential and too historically insensitive. These challenges have given rise to ‘The New Perspective on Paul’.

Describing ‘The New Perspective’

‘The New Perspective on Paul’ is not a group or movement as such, but (as the name suggests) a ‘perspective’ which is held by a variety of people in varying degrees. The label itself stems from an article written in 1983 by James DG Dunn in which he outlines the impact of EP Sanders’ ground-breaking volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).1 In this monumental study of early Judaism and Paul’s theology, Sanders set out to demolish the view that Paul’s gospel was contrary to Judaism. Sanders argued that the pattern of religion in Palestinian Judaism was not one of legalistic works righteousness (as has typically been thought), but what he calls ‘covenantal nomism’. Covenantal nomism, according to Sanders, differs from legalism in that the keeping of the law was understood to function within a covenantal framework. In other words, the Jews of Paul’s day understood themselves to have entered God’s covenant by his gracious election, but also understood that they were to maintain, or express, their covenant status by grateful obedience to the law.

Paul’s theology, says Sanders, follows the same pattern: get in by grace, stay in by works. The reason Paul insists that justification must now be by faith (and not the law) is not because of the superiority of grace to merit, but because the covenant is now open to Jews and Gentiles (whereas the law would have made it for the Jews only). In other words, there was nothing essentially wrong with Judaism, except that now that Christ has come, a new covenant is in operation that has ‘changed the rules of the game’. As Sanders has memorably put it, “this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity” (p. 552).

Despite substantial criticism, Sanders’ work has successfully turned the tide of scholarly opinion (particularly in regard to the nature of first century Judaism) to the extent that many now speak of ‘the Sanders revolution’. NT Wright sums up the significance of this ‘revolution’ as follows:

It is, therefore, no longer possible to speak as though Judaism were simply Pelagianism in ancient dress. If we are to discuss the differences between Christianity, in any of its early forms, and its parent society and religion, we must do so with more historical awareness and sensitivity. If this forces us to rethink major theological formulations in the light of what the New Testament actually says and means in its historical context, that should—particularly for those who claim to live by it!—be a cause not for gloom but for excitement.2

In his article, ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, Dunn agrees with Sanders that early Judaism was not legalistic, but thinks that Sanders makes Paul’s doctrine seem idiosyncratic, arbitrary and irrational. Dunn’s own reconstruction lies first in understanding the language of justification as covenant language. That is, when God declares a person ‘righteous’, he is acknowledging that the person is “in the covenant” (p. 190). Second, Dunn contends that when Paul used the phrase ‘the works of the law’, he was not referring to ‘good works’ which sought to earn God’s favour, but to ‘Jewish works’ (such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and the food laws) which marked out Israel’s separation from the Gentiles and thereby became ‘badges’ of covenant membership.

It follows, then, that when Paul denies the possibility of justification through ‘the works of the law’, he is not attacking religious legalism, but a Jewish nationalism which is no longer acceptable because God’s covenant is no longer to be conceived of in nationalistic or racial terms. The change, according to Dunn, is to do with the history of salvation; now that Christ has come and God’s covenant purposes have reached their intended final stage, “the more fundamental identity marker of God’s people (i.e. Abraham’s faith) reasserts its primacy over against the too narrowly nationalistic identity markers of circumcision, food laws and sabbath” (p. 198).

The basic problem with ‘the works of the law’, then, is not that they express human achievement (or lack thereof), but that they express Jewish privilege. Justification by faith, on the other hand, asserts that God is not the God of the Jews only (cf. Rom 3:29) and that covenant membership is open to Gentiles as well.

The Wright perspective

Of all those who stand, speak and write within ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, perhaps best known in evangelical circles is NT (Tom) Wright. Wright’s output is prodigious, and his writings (particularly his popular works) very accessible and persuasive. Because of the significance of his contribution in this area and the extent of his influence, his position is worth articulating in greater detail.

Like Dunn, Wright believes that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was designed to deflate Israel’s boast in her national superiority, and undercut her attempt to confine grace to one race. As such, it was an attack upon a Jewish misunderstanding and misuse of the law—not because it was being treated as a means of earning salvation, but because it was regarded as a charter of automatic national privilege, as if natural Jewish descent guaranteed membership of God’s true covenant people.

According to Wright, first-century Jews believed that possession of the law was three parts of salvation, and that circumcision functioned not as a ritualist’s outward show but as a badge of national privilege. ‘Works of the law’, then, not only demonstrated membership in the covenant but also separated Jews from Gentiles. However, according to Wright (and this is a point unique to him), this racial boast—that national Israel was inalienably the people of God—was publicly undercut by the fact that Israel was still in exile (from a ‘spiritual’ point of view), and yet to experience the fullness of the redemption promised by the prophets.

This is a critical insight for Wright, and one which (to his mind) forms a vital point of contact between early Judaism and Paul’s gospel. For when Saul of Tarsus was confronted by the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, what he was brought to realize (Wright suggests) was that “God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time”. He expands this point as follows:

When Paul was faced with the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, he concluded that the return from exile had in fact happened. Exile had reached its height in Jesus’ death; now he had come through death, through the ultimate exile, and was set free not just from Greece and Rome, from Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas, but from sin and death, the ultimate enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25-6). This meant that the Age to Come, the Eschaton of Jewish expectation, had already arrived, even though it didn’t look like Paul had expected. It meant that Israel had in principle been redeemed, in the person of her anointed representative. It meant that the Gentiles were now to be summoned to join Israel in celebrating the new day, the day of deliverance.3

This, then, is the theological context within which Paul’s teaching on justification is to be understood. Israel, in her Messiah, has returned from exile, and so now both Jews and Gentiles (as the prophets anticipated) can share in the blessings of that return. Hence justification (the affirmation of covenant membership) must be ‘by faith’, rather than ‘by the works of the law’, for the covenant is now open to Gentiles as well as Jews.

The Wright view of justification

Despite Wright’s obvious and grateful indebtedness to Sanders at many points, like Dunn, he too believes that Sanders’ re-reading of Paul (particularly in the area of justification) did not go far enough. For instance:

It still seems to assume, with the old model, that ‘justification’ is a ‘transfer term’ describing ‘how people get saved’, and in consequence that Paul has actually pulled the Jewish theological language-system out of shape … Justification is not, for Paul, ‘how people enter the covenant’, but the declaration that certain people are already within the covenant.4

This insight is also critical for Wright. Whilst he believes that ‘justification’ is law-court language, he is insistent that its meaning be confined to the judge’s declaration that a person already possesses a righteous status, rather than the declaration which grants such a status. Wright expresses the point like this:

[J]ustification is not the means whereby it becomes possible to declare someone in the right. It is simply that declaration itself. It is not how someone becomes a Christian, but simply the declaration that someone is a Christian. It is not the exercise of mercy, but the just declaration concerning one who has already received mercy. This is a crucial distinction, without which it is impossible to understand the biblical material.5

Here again Wright is wanting to find continuity between Jewish theology and Paul’s theology. Justification in Judaism, he maintains, was not about ‘getting in’ but about ‘how you could tell who was in’. Whilst fundamentally a future reality to be received at the resurrection, justification could also be a present (anticipated) reality for those who maintained their covenant membership through obedience to Torah.

What all this means for Wright is that present justification, both for Judaism and for Paul, is all about declaring in advance who belongs to the covenant community of the future. Nevertheless, it is simply a declaration of status—i.e. ‘you are already in’—and not a declaration of entrance—i.e. ‘welcome in’. What then, according to Wright, is the ‘basis’ of justification? How does one ‘get in’?

The Wright way in

The basis (or ground) of justification, in Wright’s understanding, is twofold: “grace and faith, the cross and the Spirit”. That is, the basis of justification is, first of all, objective: the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—grace. Thus, “[j]ustification and atonement are not the same thing: justification presupposes an objective dealing with sin”. However, justification, according to Wright, also presupposes the work of the Spirit—faith. So Wright says:

Justification takes place on the basis of faith because true Christian faith—belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead—is the evidence of the work of the Spirit, and hence the evidence that the believer is already within the covenant.6

Thus, in a secondary (but very real) sense, present justification is based on regeneration (according to Wright). Similarly, future justification is based on sanctification (or moral transformation). As Wright puts it: “Present justification declares on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life”.7 Moreover, it is this fact which makes the present verdict of justification a correct anticipation of the verdict to be issued on the final day. Justification, therefore, is both ‘now’ and ‘not-yet’. Wright explains the logic of this ‘eschatological perspective’ as follows: “Faith is itself the sign of God’s life-giving work, by his Spirit (1 Cor 12:3), and what God has begun he will complete (Phil 1:6)”.8

All of this makes sense, Wright argues, when we understand how Paul has redrawn Jewish end-time expectations so that the end both has come and is yet to come. Paul’s mission, then, was to retell the story of Israel and the covenant as it has now been fulfilled, subverted and transformed by the coming of Jesus and the Spirit. This is why Paul, says Wright, holds on to all the central Jewish doctrines but sees them all as re-defined in Christ and the Spirit.

A key example of this, to Wright’s mind, is the way in which the action of the covenant God of Israel in Jesus and the Spirit led Paul to a rewriting of the ancient Jewish confession of faith, the Shema (cf. Deut. 6:4), in the terms found in 1 Corinthians 8:6: one God, one Lord. This, according to Wright, is the heart of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith: that the community of the people of God, those declared in the present to be righteous, are those whose faith has precisely this content. Thus, he proposes that justification by faith in fact means “justification by belief, i.e. covenant membership demarcated by that which is believed”.9

For Wright, then, the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith answers the question: who are (and so who will be) the true children of Abraham? Accordingly, it is a fundamentally ecclesiological doctrine (i.e. to do with church membership), and essentially corporate. Moreover, Wright is quite emphatic that justification by faith is not the gospel; rather it is an implication of the gospel. For “[i]t is the doctrine which says … that all those who believe the Christian gospel belong together at the same table. It is the basis for that unity of the church, across racial barriers, for which Paul fought so hard”.10 For this reason, Wright regards justification by faith as “the great ecumenical doctrine”, and laments the way in which Christians (e.g., Protestants and Catholics) should ever have divided over a doctrine which, above all else, was meant to unite!


It should be clear from this summary that Wright’s understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is a significant departure from that of the Reformers. Of this, Wright is aware, evidenced by his strong affirmation of Alister McGrath’s suggestion that “[t]he ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins”.11 In fact, with regard to the letter to Romans, Wright contends that the traditional understanding of justification “has done violence to that text for hundreds of years, and that it is time for the text itself to be heard again”.12 This, then, is a challenge which must be taken seriously and answered thoughtfully.

But have we really got justification so wrong, for so long? Do the traditional ways of expounding Paul’s writings really distort his thinking as much as Wright says they do? Does his own reconstruction actually bring us closer to thinking Paul’s thoughts after him (as he claims)? Or has Wright simply introduced his own set of distortions into our understanding of the apostles’ teaching?

These are the questions we shall take up in our next issue.


1 ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ can be found in JDG Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. London: SPCK, 1990, pp. 183-206, and EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. London: SCM, 1977. Page references in the article are to one of these two books.

2 S Neill and NT Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament (1861-1986). Oxford: OUP, 21988, p. 375. Pelagianism was a 5th century heresy which asserted that human beings are able to fulfil the will of God (largely) unaided and so save themselves.

3 NT Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said. Oxford: Lion, 1997, p. 36; (emphasis his), p. 51.

4 NT Wright, ‘Paul and the Theology of Romans’, SBL 1992 Seminar Papers (ed. E.H. Lovering). Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992, p. 211.

5 NT Wright, ‘Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’, in The Great Acquittal (ed. G Reid). London: Fount Paperbacks, 1980, p. 14. (Emphasis his).

6 ‘Justification: The Biblical Basis’, pp. 16, 18.

7 What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129 (emphasis mine).

8 NT Wright, ‘Justification’, in New Dictionary of Theology (eds. S.B. Ferguson and D.F. Wright). Leicester: IVP, 1988, p. 359.

9 NT Wright, The Climax of the Covenant.

10 ‘Romans and the Theology of Paul’, p. 211.

11 Quoted in What Saint Paul really said, p. 115.

12 Ibid, p. 117.

Comments are closed.