Many people may have no idea what the “New Perspective” is. Perhaps, you have never even heard of it. I am actually quite thankful for that fact. There is a certain sense in which ignorance to theological controversy is good. We are to be babes in evil (1 Cor 14:20; Rom 12:19). The more and more I stare at this issue, the more I see this new theological understanding as an evil. To be sure, we are all guilty of failing to tell the truth about God. That is the 3rd Commandment in a nutshell.
But we are able to be faithful by God’s sanctifying grace. Part of that faithfulness is “guarding the deposit” that we have been given (2 Tim 1:14). That deposit is defined by Paul in his letters to Timothy as the gospel that “Christ came to save sinners; of whom I am the foremost.” This “New Perspective” is a threat to this very gospel. Indeed, it is another gospel. Justification by faith is not the gospel. However, the gospel cannot be faithfully proclaimed with justification by faith alone as the core of it. New Perspective (NPP) theology seeks to change our thinking on justification. Men like EP Sanders, James Dunn and NT Wright have, in various degrees seek to redefine the doctrine on which the Reformers said the church “stands or falls.”
Here are a few quick problems:
1.) They have allowed “cultural context” to distort the plain reading of Scripture.
The clarity of the Scriptures was on attack during the 16th century. Fundamentally, the Reformers said that the Bible’s basic message of the gospel was discernible to those regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This means that a brother in Africa, with little access to depth cultural analysis, is capable of knowing the doctrine of justification of faith and reading Paul correctly. The Roman Catholic Church used the authority of the church and pope to override the clear teaching of Scripture in many areas. New Perspective advocates do much of the same today. NPP theology is a product of the academy. Church members, those who love the gospel and Christ, are not coming up with this stuff. It requires a certain level of academic acumen to understand. We should not downplay the work of good cultural backgrounds for our understanding of the New Testament. But these backgrounds help, and do not dictate, the meanings of New Testament passages. If we come to Romans 3 and it says “we cannot be justified by works of the law,” it is not faithful exegesis to redefine what Paul is clearly teaching by some abstract study of First Temple Judaism.
2.) They claim to know Calvin and Luther, but they don’t.
NPP advocates will come out and plainly say that Luther and Calvin read Paul wrong. It is interesting that no one, in all of church history, came to these conclusions before. That alone speaks volumes about the hubris displayed among the NPP. They tell us that Luther read what he saw as Catholic pelagianism back into the Epistles of Paul. They say that he saw the legalism that characterized the Catholic changed how he read the Bible. This is historically inaccurate. Carl Trueman, a great Luther scholar, has done a great job of showing the weak grasp NPP advocates have on historical theology. The Jews of Paul’s time would have affirmed salvation by grace alone. Medieval Catholicism was quite similar. But the sola of sola fide is where the tension lies. Luther saw a semi-pelagianism present in the Catholic church, not pelagianism. They knew it would be by grace they were saved, just not grace alone. Those holding the NPP position have shown to know little about those they seek to correct.
3.) Condemnation is the opposite of justification.
The NPP sees justification as an ecclesiastical reality. So then, it is not about being saved by the wrath of God but by being included into the covenant community. But is this how the New Testament presents justification. Let’s look at just one passage. Hear the Word of the Lord: Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21 ESV).
Let’s note a few things. We see here two different men. Our father Adam and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Both did something. Adam has trespassed. Christ has done one act of righteousness. And what were the results of those things? Adam’s trespass led to condemnation. That is the story of Romans 1:18-3:20. We have all rebelled in Adam and are now under the just wrath of God. That is our problem: condemnation. Disobedience has brought this to us. So how do we become free from condemnation? Romans 8:1 says that it is to be found in Christ. What has Christ done? Brought to us present/permanent justification. See in the above text that Jesus’ obedience and not our own has led, not to inclusion into the covenant, but to justification. Justification is being declared righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. He received our sin and we received His obedience as our own. This is the basis of God’s acceptance of us. This is our only gospel hope.
Look for better resources from men like John Piper, Ligon Duncan and Sinclair Ferguson. It is important for us to pray and ask God to persevere us in truth. Nothing can threaten our joy like a misunderstanding of the gospel. The gospel provides certainty. Christ is our righteousness.