New Perspective on Paul: A Recent Reading Group Post

Posted By on July 9, 2011

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.

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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).

Or

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).

Thoughts?

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18 Responses to “New Perspective on Paul: A Recent Reading Group Post”

  1. CMA says:

    I agree with conclusion 1. And in John 8, Jesus seems to as well. He contrasts the actions of his unbelieving audience with that of believing Abraham. In so doing He seems to explicitly link belief to obedience, i.e. action, as you have done.

    In the Jews case, they sought to kill Jesus (their action and thus disobedience to God’s revelation) and as such demonstrated their unbelief. In Abraham’s case, he converted from paganism to monotheism and left Upper Mesopotamia for Canaan (his action and thus obedience to God’s revelation) and as such demonstrated his belief. Very similar to the bearing fruit discussion Jesus had later in John as you mentioned yourself.

    Honestly, I read John Piper’s response to N.T. Wright and often got lost in the nuance. It seems the center of the dispute is the understanding of justification and how the righteousness of God is imputed to the believer, not the relationship of belief and works. However, as I said, my head is still spinning from the book so I could be confused on the issue.

    Also, the issue you raise above about the relationship between belief and works seems very similar to the debate John MacArthur had with Zane Hodges concerning Lordship Salvation. Disobedience is at best an abuse of God’s grace and at worst unbelief.

    At any rate, wouldn’t John Piper and N.T. Wright agree with your conclusion 1 above? A conclusion that seems to be expressed by Dallas Willard this way, “Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about [Jesus] without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility. To think otherwise is to indulge a widespread illusion that now smothers spiritual formation in Christlikeness among professing Christians and prevents it from naturally spreading worldwide.”

    • MSH says:

      I think a major issue for Piper and his followers is that the NPP does not exclusively (and some may resist it) define justification in forensic terms (they want it = to imputation and nothing else). I suspect they would both agree with #1. Here’s something I put in an earlier post in regard to their arguments with each other:

      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.

  2. Patrick says:

    Michael,

    I would argue that to Paul, belief in Christ was to be an authentic Jew. If one gets in the covenant via faith in Christ , one is then an authentic Jew.

    The covenant is for Jews, to be “forgiven sins” is a promise to Israel, not to the nations. That’s Paul’s view, IMO.

    Isaiah’s Messiah/servant was “My Servant, Israel”. I think Paul saw us in “Israel” as much as “in Messiah”.

    Paul goes to great lengths to show a dichotomy between just a “Jew after the flesh” and “authentic Israel/Jew of faith”.

    He does it everywhere, Philippians chapter 3 where he just tears a new ……. for Jews who claim to be God’s people outside of Messiah and how utterly devoid of value are first birth assets.

    “We are the circumcision, not them”. He says this a lot.

    In Romans 9:6 he makes the case that “all Israel is not Israel” and that the mystery in 11:25-26 is that “all Israel will be saved by bringing in the Gentiles”.

    In Ephesians, Paul explains that previous to faith, those Gentiles had been “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel and were not heirs of the promises, but NOW….”

    So, while Paul rejected just being an ethnic Jew led into the covenant, I would argue becoming an authentic Jew by faith in Jesus as Messiah = entering the commonwealth of Israel/covenant community.

    • MSH says:

      I have no trouble with your first sentence; I just don’t want to add nuances at this point; it gets confusing for some. Sure, a Jew who believes in Christ is of the “true Israel” (and so is a Gentile).

  3. Richard Brown [cognus] says:

    Works of idolatry, etc manifest a condition of “Un-Faith” or “anti-Faith”, in the same way that acts of faith attest to, or at the very least suggest, the presence of the metaphysical “faith in God” within the actor

    God’s salvation [from the wrath, unto the promise, is made available to the least of humankind. "Consider your calling, brothers; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise..."

    The leaders, the pompous, well-connected, noble, wise, and scholarly for the most part rejected Jesus [and John]. Their works, if you will, attest to UN-faith in God. Whatever the NPP-state of Judaism of the day, it did not result in their redemption for the most part – they were destroyed. I am keeping that fact in focus as I consider the attributes of the 2nd Temple Judaism that Paul observed

  4. Benjamin Smith says:

    Very good. Your thoughts on election tie things up very well – did you come across your view in someone else’s work or did you come up with it yourself? And I take it you see James’s ‘justification’ as justification of the original faith, then?

    • MSH says:

      I’m not sure I follow your meaning in the last sentence.

      It’s my view; I didn’t get it anywhere else; but I doubt it’s unique.

      • Benjamin Smith says:

        As in, James isn’t talking about ‘justification by grace alone’ but ‘justification (i.e. confirmation) of justification by grace alone.’

        • MSH says:

          Maybe I’m tired, but I still can’t make sense of this sentence:

          justification (i.e. confirmation) of justification by grace alone (the second half’s “alone” qualifier seems to not require confirmation).

          • Benjamin Smith says:

            Okay, one more shot! James’s ‘justification’ does not mean ‘forgiven of sins in advance of the future judgement’, but ‘justification (validation) of the faith that has brought forgiveness of sins in advance of the future judgement.’

            • MSH says:

              these two seem mutually oppositional. I don’t see how the two options differ (other than wording). They both say faith = forgiveness of sins in advance of future judgment unless you are something excluding faith from the first justification line.

  5. Benjamin Smith says:

    And one other thing… do you reckon this helps to explain Jesus’ warning that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us? i.e. if you’re not showing the fruit of forgiveness, it’s unlikely you have the faith in the first place?

  6. Patrick says:

    Benjamin,

    Are you alluding to the Lord’s Prayer verbiage or other text on the forgiveness issue?

  7. Patrick says:

    Benjamin,

    In Matthew 6:14-15 :

    Jesus says “Your Heavenly Father” as if we are to understand He is speaking to saved people. Then if we do not forgive, He will not forgive us.

    My take right now on this is the same as this statement by Jesus, “You will be judged with the level of forgiveness you exercised”.

    I think He is discussing the judgment/evaluation of believers as opposed to wondering if maybe it means we are in danger of dying “in our sins” if we are not forgiving people.

    Wonder if Michael disagrees?

    • MSH says:

      “heavenly father” may refer to Jews more broadly (to a Jewish audience / Jewish context) since Israel was the corporate son of God (Exod 4:23). Acts 7:24-28 of course uses the fatherhood of God even more broadly (God = the father of all humans kind of idea), but I don’t think that’s really in view here. My point is that I don’t know if “heavenly father” is so specific as you take it.

      • Benjamin Smith says:

        A late reply, I know, but I’d agree with Patrick: the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray ‘as John taught his disciples’, implying this is for those who are already following Jesus.

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