Sundoulos - Spring 2011

Dean's Column

Justification: Has the Church Misread Paul?

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

Controversy over Paul’s teaching on justification has simmered in scholarly circles for decades. “Fresh” interpretation of the Apostle’s writings, known as the New Perspective on Paul, has fueled the dispute. Scholars associated with the New Perspective have focused on Second Temple Judaism as the cultural background of Jesus’ ministry and the growth of the early church; many helpful insights have flowed from this work.

However, significant concerns have surfaced over the New Perspective’s reinterpretation of the doctrines of justification, God’s righteousness, and the role of good works. The New Perspective sees God’s own righteousness as faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, and justification as primarily an eschatological concern, reserved for final events, and based on good works.

John R. W. Stott referred to roots of disagreement about the nature of justification when more than 20 years ago he described skepticism of some about its historic understanding:

How, people ask, can we possibly believe that God needed some kind of ‘satisfaction’ before he was prepared to forgive, and that Jesus Christ provided it by enduring as our ‘substitute’ the punishment we sinners deserved? Are not such notions unworthy of the God of the biblical revelation, a hangover from primitive superstitions, indeed frankly immoral?1

To some, the church has been wrong for centuries.

In recent years, the debate has found its way from the thin air of scholarly circles into the church. The writings of persuasive scholar/churchman, N.T. Wright,2 have served to popularize New Perspective views. Wright’s re-evaluation of the church’s historic understanding of Paul leads him to conclude that justification is primarily a final judgment concern. Justification will be on the basis of Spirit-led works throughout a believer’s life.

The positions taken by New Perspective scholars have been described by many as a paradigm shift. It has been suggested that these views are “nothing less than a fundamental repudiation not just of that Protestantism which seeks to stand within the creedal and doctrinal trajectories of the Reformation but also of virtually the entire Western tradition on justification from at least as far back as Augustine.”3

Serious questions are raised by this controversy:

  • What did Paul intend?
  • Was Paul’s understanding of justification really different than the church, particularly since the Reformation, has interpreted it to be?
  • Do recent scholarship and new perspectives bring fresh insights that bring us closer to Paul’s intent?
  • Is the righteousness of God His covenant faithfulness as claimed by Wright and others? Or is it God’s moral purity, an aspect of His holiness, as affirmed by the church for many centuries?
  • Has the church been wrongheaded about the nature of salvation through the centuries since the Reformers?
  • Has Paul truly been misread as the New Perspective claims?

Why is this controversy important for ministry? Rather than serving to clarify what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, the new perspectives make less transparent Jesus’ expectations for His followers. Scripture seems clear: Christ provided what is required by God. Salvation depends on what Christ has accomplished, not our own inadequate good works4 (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16).

Notes

1 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 111.

2 N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

3 Carl Trueman, essay read to the Tyndale Fellowship, Cambridge University, 2000; published by Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk.

4 John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway Books, 2007).


Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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