Bible Question:

A good friend of mine (who is also a pastor) strongly endorses N.T. Wright and the New Perspective, which troubles me. The New Perspective on Paul is a movement that seeks to redefine what Paul meant by justification and works of the law, with the end result being that its proponents deny the doctrine of imputation of Christ's righteousness and redefine justification to mean something that the Reformers did not teach. Alister McGrath has said of the movement that if N.T. Wright is right, Martin Luther was wrong. Do you know anything about this and do you have an opinion?

Bible Answer:

This new theological doctrine referred to as “The New Perspective on Paul” is gaining acceptance among some evangelicals. This is unfortunate because this new teaching is not biblical truth. It is error. New teachings typically evolve over time rather than occurring instantly, and that is true with this teaching. Some believe that N. T. Wright initiated this new teaching, but that is not true. The new teaching actually began with E. P. Sanders, a professor at Duke University, when he authored a book titled “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” in 1977. Later D. G. Dunn created the phrase “The New Perspective on Paul,” and afterward N. T. Wright championed the false teaching.

Evolutionary Beginning

Sanders’ book laid the foundation for this false teaching when he challenged the historic understanding of the Jewish religion by claiming that the Judaism of Jesus’ time was not a works oriented religion. Sanders believes that the first century Judaism was based on grace and did not teach that eternal life was gained by works. Sanders refers to Qumran, Apocryphal, Pseudepigraphical, and rabbinic documents to support his view that Judaism was a religion that believed God saved men and women by grace and not on the merits of their works. In short, he advocates that Judaism was not legalistic or into rule keeping. Unfortunately, Sanders has based his conclusion on materials that were written two hundred years after the time of Jesus (R. L. Reymond, “The Sanders/Dunn ‘Fork in the Road’ in the Current Controversy Over the Pauline Doctrine of Justification by Faith.”). That is a long time during which culture and theological beliefs can change. We must remember that after Jesus’ death, the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel were both destroyed in 70 A.D. At the same time, Christianity was shaking the world with the message that God loved the world and that God was not primarily interested in our outward conduct so much as He was in the heart attitude of each man and woman. The impact of the destruction of the nation of Israel and the influence of Christianity on Judaism can only be imagined. It must have been significant. Yet, Sanders assumes that the documents he refers to reflect a Judaism that was unchanged since the days Jesus walked the earth.

An Error

But the most grievous error is that Sanders discounts the biblical accounts and gives greater favor to secular materials than to the inspired scriptures written by multiple authors under the control of the Holy Spirit. If Sanders is correct, then Jesus was mistaken throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) when He corrected the teachings of the Pharisees. On numerous occasions Jesus stated, “you have heard . . . but I say to you . . . ” Jesus would then explain that God was not simply interested in the outward sins, but He was more interested in the sins of the heart. Jesus called them to a change of the heart. It is clear throughout the gospels that He rebuked the Pharisees repeatedly for their legalism and rule keeping religion. On one occasion, Jesus said the following:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. (NASB) Matt. 23:23

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. (NASB) Matt. 23:25

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. (NASB) Matt. 23:27

The inspired scriptures record that Jesus rejected their religion of external conduct and external righteousness repeatedly. On one occasion Jesus was asked by a young man what he should do in order to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16-25). Jesus responded by telling him to sell everything he had. The young man was grieved and walked away.

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? (NASB) Matthew 19:22-25

Then Jesus turned to His disciples and told them that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There are two things that should be noticed. The first is that the young man did not ask about how to have more grace or faith. Instead, the man wanted to know what new works he should do in order to earn eternal life. Second, we should notice that after Jesus told them that it was difficult for a rich man to enter heaven, the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” Their question should not be confusing when we realize that the Jews taught that alms giving granted one favor with God in obtaining eternal life. Therefore, the disciples were astonished when they heard that even a rich man would have trouble. They realized that if a rich man would have trouble, then the disciples who had very little money would not be able to obtain eternal life. Both the disciples and the rich man assumed that works gained them eternal life – not faith alone.

The Apostle Paul echoed the same idea when he wrote by the Holy Spirit the following words,

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel are that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (NASB) Rom. 10:1-4

The message is simple. The Jews thought that salvation was gained by law keeping and not by faith. The Jews attempted to achieve salvation by doing it their own way – “going about to establish their own righteousness.” The apostles repeatedly called their fellow citizens to believe rather than work for their salvation. This is contrary to Sanders’ conclusion.

Sanders ignores some significant writings of the ancient period at the time of Jesus in reaching his conclusion. One notable giant is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who states that eternal life was achieved based on merit.

. . . the reward for such as live exactly according to the laws is not silver or gold; it is not a garland of olive branches of small age, nor any such public sign of commendation; but . . . God hath made this grant to those that observe these laws . . . that they shall come into being again, and at a certain revolution of things shall receive a better life than they had enjoyed before. (Flavius Josephus, Apion II)

Josephus also says this in his “Discourse to the Greeks on Hades,”

. . . to those that have done well an everlasting fruition; but allotting to the lovers of wicked works eternal punishment. Josephus is talking about works in order to go to heaven. He is not talking about grace and faith.

Sanders has also ignored 2 Esdras 7:77-133; 8:33-56 which was written about A.D. 70 by a Palestinian Jew. These passages clearly talk about God’s granting men and women eternal life if they keep His rules. R. L. Reymond points out that there are also several Qumran manuscripts (1QS 11:2-3; 1QS 3:6-8; 8:6-10; 9:4) which state that “my righteous deeds . . wipe away my transgressions.” Eternal life was not granted by grace.

The Motivation

By selectively picking his literature, Sanders has attempted to change our understanding about the Jewish perspective of how one obtains eternal life. If we accept his conclusion (which Dunn and Wright have), we must then explain what Jesus and Paul were talking about. That is, if Jesus and Paul were not attempting to counter a “false concept about eternal life” then what were they talking about?

In short, Sanders and Dunn conclude that since the Jews believed that salvation was by faith, then Paul was arguing that Gentiles should be accepted as members of a group called “the righteous.” If both the Jews and the apostles believed that salvation was by grace – by faith, then what was the issue in Galatians? E. P. Sanders and Dunn believe the tension between Paul and the Jewish leaders was about including Gentiles along with the Jews.

It should be noted that both Sanders and Dunn are liberal theologians and reject some of the essential historic doctrines. They have selectively chosen the extra-biblical writings to support their false teaching. It should be remembered that such writings are not inspired and have been rejected as canonical by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Sanders and Dunn do not believe that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles. In short, they are attempting to impose their social agenda on the pages of scripture by changing our understanding of the culture and times in which Jesus lived. This appears to be the goal of the “New Perspective on Paul.”

The False Teaching

Wright’s view on “The New Perspective on Paul” is presented in a book that he authored with the title “What St. Paul Really Said.” In this book, Wright supports, defends, and champions the “New Perspective on Paul.” He is incorrectly viewed as the author of this new false teaching. At the London Reformed Baptist Seminary in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London on 10 January 2004, Phil Johnson summarized this false teaching as follows (“A Defense of the Old Perspective on Paul”):

So, what is being taught by those who advocate the New Perspective on Paul? In a nutshell, they are suggesting that the apostle Paul has been seriously misunderstood, at least since the time of Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, but even more since the time of Luther and the Protestant Reformation. They claim that the first-century Judaism has been misinterpreted and misconstrued by New Testament scholars for hundreds and hundreds of years, and therefore the church’s understanding of what Paul was teaching in Romans and Galatians has been seriously flawed . . .

Mr. Johnson adds that this is a “pretty audacious claim” that the New Perspectivists are now correct. He then summarizes Wright’s views in four comments:

First, regarding first-century Judaism, the New Perspective on Paul claims that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not really a religion of self-righteousness where salvation depended on human works and human merit . . . The Pharisees were not legalists after all . . the Pharisees were not really teaching salvation by human merit” . . .

Second, regarding the apostle Paul, the New Perspectivists are very keen to absolve Paul from the charge of anti-semitism – and therefore they deny that he had any serious or significant theological disagreement with the Jewish leaders of his time . . . His conflict with the Judaizers and the Pharisees had to do more with racial and cultural differences than with any kind of . . . issue about salvation . . .

Third, regarding the gospel, the New Perspective on Paul claims that the gospel is a message about the Lordship of Christ, period . . . To quote Tom Wright (p. 45 of “What St. Paul Really said”), “[The gospel] is not . . . a system of how people get saved.” He writes, “The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved . . . [The gospel is] the announcement of a royal victory.” (p. 47) . . .

Fourth, . . the New Perspective claims that traditional Protestant Christianity has seriously confused and distorted what the apostle Paul taught about justification . . .

In short, according to Wright, there is no need to present a gospel about Jesus dying for our sins, since supposedly the Jews already believed that salvation was by grace and not merit. In a speech that Wright gave at the Rutherford house in Edinburgh on 25-28 August 2003, he says this,

“The gospel” is not “you can be saved, and here’s how”; the gospel, for Paul, is “Jesus is Lord.”

If the real gospel is that “Jesus is Lord,” then we need to ask, “Is Jesus’ death even important?” Why did John the Baptist declare and the apostles preach, that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)? Wright answers our question with this,

. . . the announcement that Jesus as Lord functions as . . . the means of grace, the vehicle of the Spirit. And, since the gospel is the heraldic proclamation of Jesus as Lord, it is not first and foremost a suggestion that one might like to enjoy a new religious experience. Nor is it even the take-it-or-leave-it-offer of a way of salvation.

In short, Jesus’ death for our sins appears to be unimportant. It would appear that Wright believes that the real tragedy was that Jesus was rejected as Lord. The good news is that Jesus is Lord – not that He died for our sins AND is Lord.

Wright believes that the gospel is not about sin, forgiveness, or being declared righteous, but simply that Jesus is Lord. If he is correct, why did the Apostle Peter tell the Jewish leaders that salvation is only through Jesus?

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (NASB) Acts 4:12

Peter did not include a statement in this passage to the effect that Jesus was Lord. His message was only about eternal life.

According to the Apostle Paul, the salvation message – the good news – is about Jesus dying for our sins,

Brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures . . . (NASB) 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

The gospel is not “Jesus is Lord.” The gospel is that Jesus died; He died for our sins, then returned to life, and is the Christ. Salvation is about sin AND Lordship.

Wright redefines the New Testament meaning of “righteousness” because he must redefine it to be consistent with the new teaching. He states this,

. . . righteousness never becomes . . . an attribute which is passed on to, reckoned to, or imputed to, his people.”

He believes that righteousness is a term that refers to God’s covenant faithfulness for those who have eternal life. That is, God’s righteousness is not about being saved but about belonging to a group called the “righteous.” Phil Johnson has an insightful comment when he states the following:

And Wright is so hostile to the notion of righteousness . . . that he goes so far as to paraphrase the traditional concept of righteousness out of Philippians 3:9 completely. In the actual text, Paul says that His great hope as a Christian is to “be found in [Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:” but according to Wright (p. 124) Paul is really “saying, in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ.” So righteousness becomes covenant membership.


In short, these advocates view justification as a second-order doctrine. It has nothing to do with salvation. The “New Perspective on Paul” hinges on the assumption that E. P. Sanders’ extra-biblical literature findings are more important than scripture. Sanders has assumed that documents written hundreds of years after Jesus’ time reflect the belief system of Jesus’ time while ignoring documents written close to the time of Christ. This is a huge leap of faith. The gospels and the New Testament epistles give us a consistent perspective on Jewish thought at the time of Jesus. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, and the early church fathers indicate that the Jews believed in a salvation based on works. Therefore, we must conclude that Sanders is wrong. If the foundation of this false teaching is wrong, then the implications motivating the “New Perspective on Paul” are simply false teachings.