I’ve recently been trying to get a clearer understanding of the New Perspective on Paul. This is an approach to understanding the doctrines outlined in Paul’s letters that is gaining increasing popularity among evangelicals. Tom Wright’s book on Justification is one book that gives a good outline of this approach.
I have jotted down six main aspects of justification from the new perspective. These are just starting points in my understanding of this viewpoint. But I trust that they are helpful in seeing some of the similarities and differences of the new perspective and traditional evangelical understanding of the teachings of Paul.
1. Justification is the result of responding to the gospel.
The doctrine of justification is not the gospel. The gospel is primarily the message of Christ’s death and resurrection. Justification is the result of responding to the gospel. When we have done so God not only takes away our sin through Jesus death but also gives us righteousness through the Christ’s resurrection resulting in our justification.
2. Justification depends on the righteousness of Christ
The new perspective denies the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ – i.e. the teaching that Christ’s righteousness is transferred to individuals so that on judgement day that is what God sees. But Wright still says God declares us righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. So how can this be? The next two points explain.
3. Justification is the result of us being ‘in Christ’
Rather than Christ’s righteousness being given to us God simply declares us righteous because as we are ‘in Christ’. As I understand it this means that, rather than God looking at us each in turn and seeing the righteousness of Christ, God looks at Christ and he sees us, the church, as the body of Christ standing there together.
4. Justification is collective rather than individual
Wright argues that the Bible’s narrative culminates in both Jews and Gentiles coming into Christ as one new man. God’s purpose is not primarily about individual salvation but about the creation of a community. Together as part of this new creation we inherit the promises God made to Israel and so enjoy the blessings of the covenant.
5. Justification also depends on the Holy Spirit
Wright emphasises the need to trust in Holy Spirit to keep us ‘in Christ’ so that ultimately we will be judged to be righteous ‘in Christ’ on the day of judgement. However I don’t think Wright is saying that it is possible to lose our salvation as he also argues for the doctrine of assurance. Indeed, the sixth point emphasises this.
6. Justification fills us with joy and anticipation
As Christians we have been declared righteous in Christ. Eschatologically we look forward with great joy to the day when this same verdict will be announced. We live out our righteousness and make every effort to remain in Christ. We have the joy of knowing that our standing before God doesn’t depend on our efforts but God’s Spirit.
What do you think?
I trust that some of these points will add to your understanding of the New Perspective on Paul. I have tried to put them in my own words and I am still trying to get this viewpoint clear in my mind. Please feel free to let me know what you think about how I’ve expressed these six aspects and what you might add to this list.
Justification: Has Wright Got It Right? – a post from a couple of years ago on my old blog
Understanding Justification – a short review and some quotes from N.T. Wright’s book compiled by David Matthew
Current Trends of Thought on Paul and the Gospel by David Matthew
Justification and the New Perspective – a post by Scott Lencke from 2009
The Justification Debate: A Primer – a Christianity Today article from 2009
A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul from The Paul Page