Time for a few thoughts on the “Law” article I posted lasted time to get us started on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) topic.

First, I think the article is telling in its summary of how modern reformed theology (and so, much of evangelicalism) has essentially filtered Paul’s statements about the law through the Reformation debate / rejection with / of Catholic theology about faith and works. It’s a classic example of using the 17th century as a hermeneutical grid for the New Testament.  As I have said many times, we can talk about how we owe it to Scripture to interpret it “in context,” but the context for the Bible is not the Catholic Church, Reformation, or modern evangelicalism — it’s the context in which it was produced and which (in part) produced it.  That’s why the NPP (to me) is largely the “1st century perspective on Paul.”

Second, the article helped me come up with this summary of what the NPP is saying (at least with respect to the issue of the Law.

1. Salvation for the Jew was not via a “works merit” system. No Jew would say your works earned you salvation. It was God’s grace in electing you *as a Jew* (“making you Jewish) that = salvation. Works were a way to maintain standing within the elect community. Since no Jew would say anyone could do that perfectly, forgiveness and grace were regularly needed.

2. This Jewish view of the role of works with respect to salvation is therefore very close to common evangelical notions about sanctification. A big difference is how one gets into the community of the people of God. For the Jew, one was born into it (election). For most evangelicals, one enters the family of God by faith in the work of Christ. I know some reformed folks who believe you’re born into it, too, by election — and must later believe (and have that faith “confirmed” — which sounds a bit like bar / bat mitsvah to my ear).   Maybe the NPP is a little close for comfort there (i.e., it’s easy to not feel too Pharisaical when the Pharisees get defined as fire-breathing legalists).

3. Paul rejected the notion that being a Jew meant salvation by election (in Romans 9-11 he describes how that was set aside). For Paul, one needed to be “in Christ” (as opposed to being “in Israel”). Therefore, when Paul talked about the works of the law not being able to justify anyone, he was targeting those laws that made someone distinctly Jewish – i.e., laws that resulted in entrance into the Jewish community or maintained that membership (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.). In other words, Paul was opposed to any practice or understanding of the Law that amounted to arguing that salvation meant being Jewish. Keeping those laws (to be Jewish) didn’t justify anyone.

4. Whenever Paul states a position of morality, whether speaking to a Jew or a Gentile, he uses the Law to do so. This shows Paul was not opposed to the Law. But here we speak of morality and ethics, not laws that “made one Jewish” as though that could save anyone. Paul is not inconsistent here where one keeps in mind (above) what he was targeting / opposed to.

In my view, the NPP clarifies Paul’s talk about the Law, but it actually doesn’t resolve the issue of “what is the relationship of faith and works in salvation?”  I’ve blogged my thoughts on that already. Readers may recall me saying “no one is in heaven who didn’t believe” or “no one is going to heaven who doesn’t believe.” I don’t believe there is any sin one can commit that results in forfeiture of salvation. But I do believe people stop believing, and they ain’t going to heaven. We can argue or wonder if they ever really believed prior to their change of heart. I really don’t care. I don’t try to answer too many questions that require omniscience. I don’t have that much time. My answer in any respect is the same: No one is going to heaven who doesn’t believe — so “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

With that as backdrop, here’s what I’d ask a pro-NPP person and an anti-NPP person (think N.T. Wright and John Piper, respectively, if you want, but I’m generalizing).

Would you affirm or deny the following:

1. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior will be in heaven.”
2. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior and do good works will be in heaven.”
3. “People who believe in Jesus as Savior and don’t do enough good works will NOT be in heaven.”

Do you think a pro-NPP or anti-NPP would reject any of these statements? Let me be blunt.  If you can’t see a pro-NPP person affirming #3, then you have no right to say they are altering the gospel. It is one thing to argue about the role of works in relation to saving faith, but #3 will separate the “salvation by merit” folks from those who reject that idea.

Feel free to chime in.