Well, the Naked Bible Reading Group on the NPP has started up. I gave everyone a week to read Kent Yinger’s short book on it (The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction), and posting has begun. What follows is my most recent post. I thought it might be useful to share here.
Hopefully this will make sense (and there are no embarrassing typos).
Premise A: We do not merit salvation – it is not something God owes us at any point.
Premise B: Salvation is therefore extended to us by the grace of God.
Premise C: We have to believe in this gracious offer — that it is real and true, that its Giver can deliver the goods.
Premise D: The offer has some intellectual content that is the object of this belief (i.e., what is the thing or things I must believe in Premise C?).
Q: Does salvation stop here? Is intellectual assent / belief the *only* element of salvation? Is it the lone essential element? Or, are works added? That is, does God ask that something be done on our
part for salvation, to any degree? If so, how are these works not essential to salvation? How is salvation then not merited? This seems to be a theological Catch-22.
I’ve answered this in past posts on the blog this way:
“For by grace are you saved through faith without works is dead.”
Does this mean:
1. The absence of works / godliness indicates faith is absent (i.e., you don’t believe). This means belief (faith) is primary; it is what gives life to works. The reverse is not true. (Note: absence here means absence — a complete lifestyle direction away from faith, an abandonment of any pursuit of godliness — not a struggle with sin).
2. The absence of works / godliness kills or drives away faith. This would suggest that ungodliness is more powerful than faith. It wins.
In regard to these options, what about the role of the Spirit, especially his indwelling of the believer (Rom 8:9-11; James 4:5)? While the NT clearly says the Spirit can be quenched, does that mean the Spirit is killed or driven out (as opposed to stymied or hindered)? One can argue that the Spirit left Israel as a result of apostasy, but a careful reading shows that was the Spirit’s (God’s) decision. The Spirit wasn’t defeated while resisting apostasy, as though Israel’s apostasy killed or defeated the Spirit. The apostates were forsaken by the Spirit. Taking that to option #2, it does not appear that ungodliness kills the Spirit and so it does not appear it can kill faith. Rather, the Spirit works in the believer to convict him/her of ungodliness. This means #2 is not coherent. Back to #1 then: the absence of works indicates faith (and so, the Spirit) is absent.
But what about the warnings against unbelief? Can the believer choose to no longer believe? Would the Spirit (God) abandon the believer when there was no more belief, or when belief was surrendered?
My take: If “unbelief” refers to doubt or losing heart (uncertainty), I would answer “no” to these last two questions. If “unbelief” refers to a turning away (the definition of apostasy) from faith to worship another god or no god at all, I’d answer “yes.” Because …
“No one is in heaven who did not believe.”
And so for me, I choose #1 above (the absence of works / godliness indicates faith is absent), which means in turn that I answer the “Q” under the listed premises this way: Salvation is by faith. Belief is what is required. Works are essential to salvation, but not the meritorious cause. Meaning: works are essential in that they validate the real presence of faith. This does not mean believers do not struggle with sin, or that they never have doubt or uncertainty. It means that one must believe to be saved, and if one really does believe, the Spirit will produce fruit in that person, perhaps (always, to be honest) not what he could produce, but there will be fruit. God does not believe for us, though. Neither does he force belief on us. He made us his imagers. We share some of his attributes, one of which is freedom. We must choose to believe in his offer of salvation. If we turn from it and do not (or no longer) believe, we are not going to be saved.
I believe further that salvation worked this way in both testaments, and that some core NPP ideas are consistent with that (but I have a fundamental bone to pick as you’ll note below). To illustrate, let’s start with Sanders’ Jew:
Sanders’ Jew would say:
1. God has chosen Israel by election. This elective act was an act of grace.
2. Salvation was then by grace, but not really by faith — it was by election.
3. Salvation was therefore for the Jew. One had to be in the elected nation, the “covenant community” to be saved.
4. The law was graciously given by God not to merit salvation (one cannot merit election — and Deut 7:7-8 makes it clear that election was pure choice on God’s part) but to maintain a right relationship with God.
5. The law was therefore required to maintain a right relationship with God.
6. The law provided a means of atonement when the law was transgressed. This, too, was grace.
My own view is that Sanders’ Jew misunderstands election, and allows election to displace personal faith. (And I’ve seen that in reformed Christian circles. too). Salvation was about “being in” the covenant community, not individual faith. Paul rejected the idea that “being in” (being Jewish) = salvation. Salvation is about faith (for Paul, faith in Christ), not being Jewish. Yes, a Jew can believe salvation is by grace (= election) and keep the law to maintain that relationship with God — but if there is no faith, there is no salvation. I think this is why Paul appeals to Abraham in Romans 4 *for the Jew* – he wants the Jews to see that, even in the OT, faith was required. Same thing for Paul’s use of David (David is praying for forgiveness in personal belief; he doesn’t appeal to election for forgiveness — he goes to the God he believes in). Paul makes this point (that salvation does not derive from the election of Israel) in Rom 3:9, 2:25-29 (it’s about the heart – i.e., faith/belief). John the Baptist makes the point as well — one cannot depend on election (Matt 3:9-10).
Many of you will recall my own view of election. It factors in here for sure. Election did not guarantee salvation; it made salvation possible in that those in the elect community had access to the truth (“the oracles of God”). They would be exposed to the truth and the need to believe it. Believers are a subset of the elect. Circumcision got you in where you had access to the truth. Then you had to believe. Same for any practice of infant baptism (I’ve blogged before about how I think that nearly all denominations who practice this screw up its meaning). It puts the infant into the covenant community (the church) which has the truth they need to believe. It doesn’t guarantee anything beyond that exposure (and in many churches they sadly still won’t hear the gospel as they grow up).