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