Tag Archives: justification

Covenant and Justification #3 (N.T.Wright)


N.T.Wright and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul

Rowland S. Ward


One of our younger adult members/readers asked for something on a matter of current discussion in Anglican circles in Sydney and which will have its impact on everyone in due time. Here’s my effort to explain the issues in brief.

‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins
and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness
of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone’ (
Shorter Catechism, 33).


The term ‘new perspective’ was coined by J.D.G.Dunn in 1982 to describe the new approach to Paul’s theology he was advocating which was built on the work of several earlier scholars such as E.P.Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977. It now is embraced by quite a range of scholars. One world-renowned Pauline scholar and articulate Anglican evangelical, N.T. (Tom) Wright (b. 1948), the current Canon theologian of Westminster Abbey is well known. For the purpose of this article the position Wright takes will be considered as explained in his numerous books including What St Paul Really Said (Oxford, 1997).

What is the new perspective?
The claim of the new perspective is that first-century Judaism was not a merit -based religion but a covenant community created by God’s grace. Far from suffering the affliction of an introspective conscience, and a struggle to keep the law by works-righteousness, mainstream Judaism understood that through God’s covenant they were already right with him. The law (nomos) was not a means of getting saved but of staying saved. Keeping God’s law was the appropriate response to God’s covenant mercy.

Paul’s problem with Judaism was not works-righteousness in the sense understood by the Protestant Reformers, but the insistence on a covenant status for Jews and Jews alone. This insistence effectively denied that Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile. It was illustrated by Jewish insistence on the symbols of ethnic privilege, which the new perspective regards as Paul’s ‘works of the law’, namely, circumcision, the sabbath and the Mosaic code. Hence Paul’s affirms the full status in the church of the Gentile believers in Galatia apart from such requirements.

Wright: What Paul really said
Wright’s understanding of Paul is somewhat as follows: Paul teaches the representative and substitutionary work of Christ in propitiating the wrath of God. Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history so as to fulfil all God’s covenant promises. As .he Last Adam he inaugurates a new humanity. God’s justifying verdict on Jesus in his resurrection is passed upon believers now in anticipation of the final acquittal in the Day of Judgement. That final acquittal, or future justification of believers, will be in accordance with the whole life of grace led under the Spirit’s leading.

God’s grace operates by the powerful working of God’s Spirit through the preaching of the gospel, transforming hearts and minds and producing faith in Christ as the risen Lord.

The difference between a first century Jew and a first century Christian was not so much their attitude to salvation. Both held that salvation is through God’s gracious covenant, and that good works are the result of faith working through love. Both aim to serve God with a clear conscience and look for ultimate acquittal at God’s bar of justice following God’s review of the deeds of this life. The difference lies in their attitude to Jesus. The Jew rejects him as the Messiah and insists on covenant status for the Jew only, complete with its badges of circumcision, the sabbath and the food laws, ‘the works of the law’ in Paul’s phrase. The Christian believes Jesus is the Messiah who brings the promised vindication of God’s people, establishing his church among all nations, and rendering the distinctive old covenant requirements superfluous. Faith in Jesus is enough.

Justification is not the exercise of mercy, a description of how one is saved, but a declaration about someone who has already received mercy, who is already a member of the renewed- covenant community


We may find value in aspects of the new perspective, particularly in its reminder we should consider Paul’s letters in the first -century setting and not simply read them through Luther’s or Calvin’s 16th century eyes. The Jew-Gentile conflict was a very relevant issue. However, significant problems exist for the new perspective.

1. First-century Judaism
The claim about first-century Judaism is r certainly not without apparent credibility in the light of the Old Testament. The Abrahamic covenant is gracious. The covenant God made with Israel was also gracious, given to a redeemed people to be kept as their appropriate response of gratitude, whatever we might say about other aspects to it. The Jews had no occasion to claim their privileged position was deserved or merited by them.

However, the question is, ‘Was this non-meritorious law keeping in the context of a gracious covenant, really the dominant form of Judaism in Paul’s day?’ Significant academic contributions I from a variety of viewpoints are critical [eg D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien & Mark Seifrid (eds), Justification and Variegated Nomism, v. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism].

Indeed, we might assume that as common experience shows an inveterate tendency in religious people of whatever persuasion to look to who they are or what they do as the basis on which they expect God to deal kindly with them, that this was so in first-century Judaism too.

But don’t assume: let’s go no further than the Bible itself. First, the ordinary reader of the Bible sees that the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as ‘the messenger of the covenant’ (Mal 3 :1), its very substance (Is 42:6), which thus meant a repudiation of that covenant.

Second, he sees that the majority of Jews did have an emphasis on works-righteousness however disguised by assertions of God’s mercy. ‘We are God’s children through his gracious covenant with our father Abraham’, might be and was the claim, and in the next breath it might be negatived by conduct and shown never to have been properly understood. The Old Testament prophets had a fair bit to say on this, and the New Testament likewise. The very privileges of the Jewish people became the stumbling block. The real problem was the self -sufficiency in their hearts behind such confidence in the badges of racial descent or other distinction. It was not enough to claim Abraham as one’s father (Lk 3 :7ff). Indeed, OT and NT alike distinguish between spiritual Israelites and physical Israelites. ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel.’

In the same way as much of Judaism, Roman Catholicism was and is a religion emphasising salvation by grace through faith. But closer examination shows that human merit is not excluded. Traditions God never gave us to keep, and practices inconsistent with a gracious salvation, are required and regarded as instrumental causes of salvation along with faith in Christ. That’s even written into the theory since the Council of Trent (1545-63), and it is certainly intertwined in popular grass-roots Catholicism, even today.

2. Justification
There can be distortions on the subject of justification arising from imbalance in our Gospel understanding. Certainly we are not justified simply by believing in justification by faith alone, but through real faith, that is, self-abandoning trust in Jesus Christ ‘who was raised for our justification’. Luther had a negative attitude to the epistle of James because he thought it conflicted with his favourite doctrine, while there are many who down-play the law of God as a rule for believers in the interest of an approach to grace that easily drifts into a divorce between faith and conduct.

It is our own Scottish Presbyterian ‘Rabbi’ Dr John Duncan (1796-1870) who said ‘the Person of Christ is fundamental’. He adds: ‘Justification by faith is the meeting-point of many doctrines, a rallying centre of theology; but it is not the foundation doctrine’ [J.M.Brentnall (ed.), ‘Just a Talker’-
Sayings of John (‘Rabbi)’ Duncan
(Edinburgh 1997, p. 102]. To the extent that the centrality of Christ and union with him by faith is brought out, I think we have a healthy corrective to some popular presentations of the Gospel. However, is the classic definition of justification correct, or is it not? It does not exhaust everything that may be said, but I cannot see that the indictment in Romans 1-3 of all humanity, both Jew and Gentile, provides us with any: opportunity to limit ‘the works of the law’ simply to Jewish distinctives. The application must be extended to all that God requires whether we are Jews or Gentiles. God’s demand has always included spiritual and ethical righteousness. That is why all of us fail (Rom 3:19) and need the righteousness of God found in the Messiah, ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ (Jer 23:6; Rom 3:21ff.) imputed to us. Any working is regarded by Paul as antithetical to salvation through faith (Rom 4:5), while Paul discards everything he could have through law-keeping so as to have the righteousness which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9). To soft-pedal ‘transfer’ language, and thus not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the ungodly, and to speak of righteousness primarily in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness, is a serious shift that has repercussions all down the line.

The traditional Protestant law/gospel contrast is to the point, even if Paul’s immediate concern in some contexts relates to how the gospel creates the one people of God rather than to how an individual is saved. Justification is the status of everyone who trusts in Jesus. Membership in God’s family flows from justification but is not its meaning.

3. Faith and works
In the classic view, justification is grounded on what Christ has already done, and the Day of Judgement will confirm and declare it. However, Wright says, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life” (WSPRS, p. 129). On this language it is rather hard to avoid the idea of justification as involving faith and works in a way that does not match Paul’s teaching on grace and the justification of the ungodly. It seems dangerously close to teaching a dual instrumentality of faith and works as held by traditional Roman Catholicism, especially if it is said, “God gets us into his covenant but we keep ourselves there by non-meritorious works through the Spirit’s enabling.”

All true Protestants stress that faith ‘is never alone in those justified but is always accompanied by all other saving graces; it is not a dead faith but works by love’ (WCF 11:2). We are not suspicious of good works, but we put them in their proper place as fruits of the new relationship. We broke God’s law and came under its condemnation; Christ fulfilled God’s law for us and bore our condemnation. We cannot think of our acceptance with God in terms of our faithfulness to the covenant, but in terms of Christ’s obedience as our representative head.

Thus, the meritorious ground of justification, of which the resurrection of Christ is declarative, is Christ’s death, the instrumental cause of justification is faith, and good works justify evidentially, as the proof and demonstration of God’s saving act. Rewards are not due as wages earned, but through the grace of God in Christ crowning not our merits but his freely given gifts. These are important distinctions. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When he shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, then may I in him be found;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.


The new perspective offers some good insights but seems to introduce its own distortions. Of course all our traditions must be judged by Scripture, and we are all creatures of our own age.

The new perspective seems to react to the excessive individualism among many Protestants. It has reflected with some sense of guilt, and rightly, on Christian complicity in the Holocaust, and it recognises the importance of Christian unity, bewailing, again rightly, the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide in a spiritually needy world. Its interpretations seems more influenced by such factors at crucial points than by what Scripture actually says.

The Presbyterian Banner, May 2002

Covenant and Justification #1 (Covenant of works)



Rowland S. Ward


The Presbyterian Benner – March 2002


The origins of the doctrine of the Adamic covenant
In the early years the Reformation the relationship of God to Adam was not developed in terms of the covenant idea. It was recognised that through Adam sin and death had entered the world and that death had passed on all men since all had sinned (Romans 5:12). However, this was not understood at first to have involved a breaking of a pre-fall covenant in Eden but to have been a natural transmission to Adam’s posterity. The period following the fall of man was viewed as a period in which God related to his people through a covenant of grace, a covenant in germ in Genesis 3:15, and greatly elaborated in the covenant with Abraham which is fulfilled in Christ. The law given to Israel through Moses some 400 years after Abraham, was viewed as a particular administration of the covenant of grace.

The authors of the great Heidelberg Catechism (1562), Zachary Ursinus (1534-83) and Caspar Olevianus (1536-87) were important in the development of covenant thinking. As early as 1562 Ursinus spoke of a ‘covenant of nature’ in reference to the law of nature including the moral law given at creation. Olevianus also speaks of a ‘covenant of creation’ broken in Eden and renewed as a ‘legal covenant’ to Israel at Sinai. The gifted young Englishman Dudley Fenner (ca.1558-87), employs the expression a ‘covenant of works’ to describe the covenant with Israel. However, it is only in the 1590s that the covenant of works with Adam attains real clarity in Reformed thought. The Scotsman Robert Rollock was a pioneer in 1597.

The Adamic covenant is not a revolutionary departure from the views of early Reformers such as Calvin, since Christ’s work as the Last Adam is clearly a covenantal work. Jesus himself refers to ‘the new covenant in my blood’, and passages such as Romans 5:12ff, and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 44-49 draw parallels between Adam and Christ. It was thus an easy and logical step to recognise the First Adam as also standing in a covenantal relationship with God. Thus the covenant requiring obedience which was broken by Adam was seen as fulfilled by Jesus Christ, who obtained salvation for his people by his perfect obedience to the Father. The covenant with Israel at Sinai was seen as an administration of the covenant of grace, although not without aspects that illustrated the principle of inheritance of God’s blessing through obedience.

The nature of the Adamic covenant
The very idea of a covenant suggests an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for humanity, the lesser party, to receive a blessing of great richness in which the world given to his care would share, a blessing not otherwise open to him. One can look at the relationship from different angles. As the original relationship, to be fulfilled through use of the endowments given him, it may be called the covenant of creation or of nature. Being made with Adam before sin it may be called the covenant of innocence. As made between parties who were friends it may be called the covenant of friendship or of love. The blessing in view may lead us to call it a covenant of life, while the requirement of obedience to God suggests the term legal covenant or covenant of law or of works. Consideration of the tender love and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour. A neutral term would be Adamic covenant.

The terminology is not the issue but the distinctive significance of the Adamic covenant, particularly that eternal life could only be had in the way of obedience. It is unhelpful and unwise in my opinion to speak of the pre-fall covenant as one of grace, since grace has its proper definition only in the context of human demerit. We should reserve that term to the post-fall reality of redemptive love.

In Protestant theology ‘covenant of works’ has been the common expression for the pre-fall covenant, and is contrasted with the covenant of grace instituted after the entry of sin. Since the moment of Adam’s disobedience salvation by works is impossible to us; we are shut up to reliance on another, even Jesus Christ, the Last Adam. His obedience is the ground of our righteousness before God. A living faith lays hold of Christ who has secured deliverance from condemnation, and an everlasting righteousness which is reckoned to the account of every believer.

The significance of the Adamic covenant
The concept of the covenant with Adam is not academic but highly significant.
1. It reflects the intimate bond of love between God and humanity. Emphasis on the stipulations by God and the obligations on humanity must not lead us to caricature the covenant as a mere commercial contract. This would be a gross distortion. God is love. He cannot help but love the innocent creature made in his likeness.
2. The covenant with Adam opens the way through God’s goodness for humanity’s full potential to be realised because it provides the means by which God may crown the creature made in his image with glory and honour such as he could never attain in any other way. After all, no creature can claim rights over against his Creator as if he could earn blessings. However, God can promise a rich inheritance by his covenant, and he does so.
3. God’s covenant relationship with creation and particularly with humanity assures us of a predictable world and a consistency in God’s relationship with it. The power of God as the Creator and his authority as Governor of all things might suggest insecurity, if there was no covenant relationship.
4. The covenant also more adequately accounts for the spread of sin to Adam’s descendants than natural transmission, for it operates on the principle of representative or federal headship and imputation, as is also the case with Christ and believers. ‘For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:19).
Creedal expression
The covenant with Adam is implicit in the fundamentals of historic Christianity, but is explicit most adequately in reformed theology. While it is not explicit in the 16th century Reformed creeds it is largely implied in them. It is expressed in the Irish Articles composed by Archbishop Ussher in 1615, and is thoroughly elaborated in the Westminster Confession (1646). The Savoy Declaration (1658) of the Independents and the London Confession (1689) of the Baptists only slightly modify Westminster’s language. It also found a place in the Helvetic Consensus (1675), although for other reasons this Creed did not have the general acceptance of those already mentioned. It is referred to in the Articles of the Dutch Classes of Walcheren (Zeeland) in 1693, while an interesting statement of the doctrine is found in the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Confession of 1823. These statements each reflect the level of consensus at the time of their composition, and there is room for varieties within the species of covenant theology to exist legitimately. No doubt it is proper to avoid over-elaboration where Scripture is not explicit. However, the danger in our time is more likely to be an under-emphasis than anything else.