The Peril of Modernizing Paul

Justification Reconsidered Stephen Westerholm is a helpful voice for those of us opposed to the New Perspective(s) on Paul – perspectives which have been around for forty years or so.  In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul and also gives a biblical defense of the historic or classical perspective.  Since it is only 100 pages, this is a great book for those who want an introduction to this discussion; it is also good for readers who want to review the errors of the New Perspective(s) and be refreshed with a fine defense of the traditional view.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

“The problem comes …with what Stendahl [an early advocate of what is now called the NPP] denies; and, ironically, it was precisely by modernizing Paul that Stendahl made welcome his suggestion that others, not he, had modernized Paul.  Our secularized age has undoubtedly thrust earlier concerns about human relationships with God into the background – if not rendered them completely unintelligible.  Conversely, in our multicultural societies, acceptance of people from ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than our own is more crucial than ever to community peace.  Both negatively and positively, then, Stendahl posits a Paul attuned to modern agendas.”

At the end of the chapter, after discussing the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, Westerholm concludes:

“How can sinners find a gracious God?  The question is hardly peculiar to the modern West; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went.  But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation.  In substance though not in terminology in Thessalonians, in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians, thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), chapter 1.

shane lems

A Metanarrative Distraction?

N.T. Wright and others in the New Perspectives on Paul movement have given us some helpful insights into biblical theology.  We should not deny this even if we might very much disagree [as I do] with the NPP’s [re]definitions of justification, covenant, law, etc.  I have to admit, though, when I read Wright, I often question his interpretive emphasis on Israel.  It seems to me that Wright finds the story of Israel under almost every interpretive stone in the Bible.  J. I. Packer hints at this well in his contribution to the book, In My Place Condemned He Stood.

“In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible’s overall story of how God’s plan to bless Israel, and thorough Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ.  But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, in one way or another, Luther’s primary question: how may a weak, perverse, and guilty sinner find a gracious God?”

“Nor can it be denied that real Christianity only starts when that discovery is made.  And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great metanarrative, distract us from pursuing Luther’s question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel.”

“The church is and will always be at its healthiest when every Christian can line up with every other Christian to sing… P. P. Bliss’ simple words, which really say it all:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with this blood –
Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

J. I. Packer, “Introduction: Penal Substitution Revisited” in In My Place Condemned He Stood ed. J. I. Packer and Mark Dever (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).

shane lems

Wright, Reformation, and Gospel

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ I’ve found Cornelis Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ to be a great Reformed resource for interacting with recent revisions of justification as found in the New Perspectives on Paul.  Venema’s chapter describing N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul is especially helpful, clear, and fair.  As I read this chapter (5), I tried to capture the main points by writing marginal notes.  I’m going to put those marginal notes below along with a summary of Venema’s comments, which I hope is beneficial for our readers.  I strongly recommend getting this book and reading the chapter; these points obviously need to be explained more than I do here.

What are some of the main points of N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul?

1) First-century Judaism was not legalistic.  Wright’s perspective is that Paul was not concerned about Jewish legalism because Judaism in the first century wasn’t really legalistic.  Wright says it this way: “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”   One implication of this perspective of Wright is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are completely wrong in their interpretation of Paul, works, the law, faith, and justification.

2) Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism.  Paul’s problem with Judaism was not ‘works-righteousness’ or ‘legalism,’ but perverted and prideful nationalism.  For Paul, Wright says, the law doesn’t have to do with legalism, but national privilege of which the Jews became proud.  One implication here is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about legalism, antinomianism, justification, and Christian liberty.

3) The gospel is not primarily about salvation of sinners.  Instead, for Wright, the gospel is about who is Lord.  The principle message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King who gained a victory in the cross and resurrection.  But the gospel does not really have to do with how to be saved, or how to find favor with God.  That, in Wright’s perspective, distorts and narrows the gospel into individualism.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are mistaken when they say the gospel has to do with a sinner being saved from sin, God’s wrath, and hell.

4) Justification is not about soteriology, but ecclesiology.  In other words, Wright says that Paul’s doctrine of justification doesn’t have much to do with being accepted by God.  Rather, justification is about who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”  “Justification,” Wright notes, “is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.”  Again, one implication here is that the Reformed and confessional discussions of justification as a judicial act of God’s grace alone through faith alone are totally misreading Paul and therefore incorrect.  In fact, Wright clearly says that the Reformation tradition turned the doctrine of justification “into its opposite.”

5) God’s righteousness is not something he can give to his people.  Wright’s view is that “the righteousness of God” means only that God is faithful to his promises, that he is trustworthy.  Wright denies that the righteousness of God can be credited or imputed to the account of a sinner.  Wright doesn’t deny that there is some forensic aspect to “the righteousness of God,” but he does deny imputation.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about imputation (i.e. our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us).

6) Faith is a badge of membership, not an instrument that receives a gift from God.  The nationalistic Jews saw the works of the law as something that distinguished them from Gentiles and thus Gentiles were excluded from the covenant community, in Wright’s perspective.  However, since Christ has come, the only badge of belonging to the covenant community is faith.   This of course goes against the grain of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, which explain that saving faith is an instrument that receives God’s free gift of righteousness and shows itself by good works.

7) Substitutionary atonement isn’t overly important.  For Wright, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection was a fulfillment of Israel’s exile and restoration, but not necessarily a substitutionary atonement for condemned sinners.  Christ’s death and resurrection are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is extended to God’s people worldwide, but not necessarily a propitiative, expiative, and penal substitution through which the curse was removed for sinners.  Since Wright’s definitions of justification and faith aren’t primarily about salvation from sin, so his discussion of Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t primarily about salvation from sin.  Obviously, the Reformers and the Reformed confessions very much stress substitutionary atonement.

All of this information is found in chapter five of Venema’s book, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.  I’ve edited it to keep it brief, but again, I recommend reading it for yourself.  I trust the perceptive reader will now at least begin to understand why confessional Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran churches have strongly spoken out against the New Perspectives on Paul and N. T. Wright’s revision of these key Christian doctrines.  N. T. Wright’s views are critical of and contrary to Reformation doctrine.  One cannot hold to the truths of the Reformation and to Wright’s revisions; it is logically impossible.  Both cannot be right.

And as our regular readers know, I’m with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  I believe they are much closer to Paul’s teaching than that of the NPP and N. T. Wright.  Venema’s book has been helpful for me in this area.  The Gospel of Free Acceptance In Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).

rev shane lems

Justification, Imputation, and St. Paul

  Herman Bavinck said this around 100 years ago – it has to do with justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

“…It is said in Rom. 4:5 and 5:6 that God justifies the ungodly.  It is impossible…to use stronger language.  The opponents of imputed righteousness should not lodge their objection against Luther and Calvin but against Paul.”


The quote is found in Bavinck’s outstanding discussion of justification: Reformed Dogmatics IV.213.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa