The New Perspective on Paul – Part 2

Today we continue in our series on the NPP. Here is the second basic premise I see within the movement:

Justification by faith is not central to Paul’s thought; it only arises in the context of the Gentile mission and is concerned with membership in the people of God.

In one sense this claim is not original to the NPP; one can go back as far as Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) for the claim that justification is a “subsidiary crater” on the rim of the main crater, which for Schweitzer was union with Christ. But the rise of the NPP has resulted in a revival of prioritizing of participation with Christ language over the traditional forensic understanding of justification. The downplaying of justification is accomplished further by noting that Paul stresses the doctrine only in Romans and Galatians. In both cases it is connected to the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, leading many NPP to conclude that the primary emphasis of justification is determining who the people of God are and what marks them off from those who are not the people of God.

To summarize: justification is primarily horizontal rather than vertical, sociological rather than theological, corporate rather than individual.


1. The NPP has helpfully corrected what at at times has been a neglect of the corporate and horizontal aspects of justification among some strands of traditional Reformed understandings. This has provoked an appropriate nuancing of justification to capture its fuller ramifications.

2. But as is often the case, in its effort to “correct” a traditional understanding of justification the NPP has swung too far in the other direction. Granted that justification has horizontal and corporate aspects, the question must still be asked as to which of these are primary. I remain persuaded that justification is first and foremost an issue of an individual’s standing before God in his court of law. From that foundation there are of course ramifications for how believers relate to one another and how we determine who the people of God are today, but they are just that: ramifications.

3. At its best those who uphold the traditional view of justification have recognized the importance of both forensic (justification) and participatory (union with Christ) categories in Paul’s thought. The solution to a perceived over-emphasis on forensic categories is not to re-define or diminish the forensic but to discuss the relationship b/w forensic and participatory categories in Paul’s thought.

4. The fact that Paul does not spend significant space outside of Galatians and Romans does not automatically mean it is not central to his thought. We must recall that Paul wrote occasional letters oriented towards specific situations. In those situations where justification was not a pressing issue, it should not be surprising it is not mentioned. Additionally, if a key purpose of Romans is for Paul to introduce himself and his gospel message to a church he did not plant in hopes of enlisting their help with future ministry in Spain, the fact that he spends significant time talking about justification indicates its importance in his thought.

3 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul – Part 2”

  1. Matt,

    Good analysis. I tend to agree with you, but still think that for too many people justification has been reduced to nothing more than a forensic event. In that respect, the NPP is a helpful corrective.

    Do they go too far? Undoubtedly. But, if the boat is tipping to the point of capsizing—and I really believe that it is—is it surprising that they jump out the opposite side to try and keep it afloat?

    If you look at church history, most of the major reforms went too far in the opposite extreme as they attempted to correct the errors of the status quo. Were they wrong? Undoubtedly, but they were used by God to keep the church on a truer course than if they hadn’t gone too far.

    Personally, I think that the most overlooked aspect of modern US Evangelical Christianity is the little phrase “in Christ” (EN XRISTWi). If we take that out of Paul, we end up with empty rules. If we take it out of the Johannine corpus, we have warm fuzzies. Is there a personal element to that? Of course! Is there a corporate element to that? Undoubtedly! Do we need both emphases? Yes!

    Just an idle musing,

  2. James,

    I agree that “over-correction” is characteristic of the history of the church (quite frankly I think it is probably an inborn human tendency!). To me it seems almost inevitable on issues that are complex or involve multiple factors.

    I personally have benefited from the NPP’s rediscovery of the corporate and horizontal ramifications, but as I have indicated refuse to mistake results from cause.


  3. Yep, I’d say that was a good analysis.

    I would also agree James that the importance of “in Christ” is so overlooked in our church. For this i am appreciative of the NPP, but like you i too think that to reduce it to the level of simply a means to an end would be downplaying the work of God. It is most certainly key theology.

    God’s whole redemptive plan is Christ and always deals with the believer through Christ (Eph 1). What is salvation but being in Christ. Yet the process and parts are God’s as well. I think Paul’s reaction to his own discourse on the gospel is evident in Rom 11

    “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! … For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

    To merely say justification is a “Romans/Gal” issue would overlook that Hebrews speaks a lot of justification through faith, even though (i might be wrong) it doesn’t specifically use the same terminology. I realize we don’t know who wrote it… but whoever it was they were Pauline in some of their arguments.

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