Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 1: First Century Judaism

Justification has always been a topic and doctrine of vast importance within the history of the church. However, it began to gain major attention with the Reformation of the 16th century. After all, Martin Luther said that “justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church or individual stands or falls,” with John Calvin echoing his fellow Reformer when declaring that “justification by faith alone is the hinge of the Reformation.” And indeed it was. 

The Reformers understood the Roman Catholic Church (aka RCC) to teach a justification that was accomplished through works, not on faith alone. Faith was, of course, how one approached God, but the individual was then thought to be justified by doing certain things and living in a certain way, a doctrine which the Reformers saw to be utterly anti-biblical. When looking at various passages, they were convinced that one is justified by faith. Paul was faced with legalistic Jewish teachers trying to convince Christians that they could be justified by works, they thought. It seemed as though Paul was facing the same problem back then that Luther, Calvin, and others were facing with the Roman Catholic Church! So they began to search the Scripture to see how Paul responded to these false teachers.

In doing so, the very nature of what Paul meant by justification was rethought. Justification was not a process, but rather a legal declaration that took place in the divine law court. Jesus accomplished perfection in his life and on the cross, our sin was imputed to him as his righteousness was imputed to us. O, the beautiful and great exchange! This just and holy God could then look on Jesus, who took on the wrath we deserved and gave us the righteousness we could never earn, and in turn pardon us. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the Roman Catholic Church and the protestant reformation was birthed.

That legacy still lives on today in the countless evangelical churches across the world. But, did the Reformers get it right? That is the question that has been recently asked by a number of people who belong to a very loose and general label known as the “new perspective on Paul” (aka NPP). While opinions and the way various authors and theologians expound their ideas differ, the NPP is characterized by a common conviction.

The nature of first-century, second temple Judaism was gravely misunderstood by the Reformers. Martin Luther especially saw this religion as a legalistic, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” religion, in which one entered into relationship with God by first achieving a certain moral standard. Jews did not think that they could approach God and be accepted by following a certain set of rules, or “the works of the Law”. Rather, they understood that they were already a redeemed people. The Law was not given to them in order to get in, nor  even to stay in! But it was given to them by God as act of grace to a people already redeemed, to show them how he desired them to live as a response and to set them apart from the world. This was coined as “covenantal nomism” by E.P. Sanders in his 1977 work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism“.

In other words, Jews didn’t believe in works righteousness. This, however, was a driving factor in much Reformation thinking. It was with this assumption (which was caused because of the RCC’s belief in works righteousness) that the Reformers began to look again at justification. And this shaped how most Protestants and Evangelicals today understand justification as well.

So what does Paul mean when he speaks of justification? Did the Reformers catch a hint of truth in responding to the RCC understanding of justification at the time? What was Paul actually responding to and how does he do so? How did Paul’s Jewish background and worldview affect his view of justification in light of Jesus, post-conversion? These are all questions that will be discussed in future posts, being a part of a series on the New Perspective of Paul, dealing specifically with justification.

However, in conclusion, the NPP expresses a concern on how Judaism has been represented ever since the Reformation. When looking at Judaism as a legalistic, works righteousness, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” religion and Paul responding to it as such, language can get jumbled up and misunderstood. Someone reading the Paul’s epistles can find her/himself asking questions that Paul never originally set out to answer. This is very important when tackling justification, especially in a post-Reformation mindset and worldview.

[originally posted in the Collaborative Theology tumblr blog]

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