“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation—created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2 :8-10
Editor’s note: That fact that The Wall Street Journal printed this article is worthy of discussion. For those interested in the discussion raised by the New Perspective let me suggest you read the rest of the chapter—Ephesians 2:11-22.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” This and related Pauline assertions were central to the 16th-century Reformation, and they remain integral to the self-understanding of Protestants around the world. That self-understanding has been challenged over the past three or four decades, owing to a dispute over a single word: “works.”
The Protestant Reformers applied Paul’s denunciations of works-based righteousness directly to late-medieval Catholicism’s use of other good works to merit salvation: indulgences, prayers, sacraments, pilgrimages. The Protestants insisted that salvation is entirely a gift of God, received by faith. Even faith is part of the gift. Good works are the proper response to that gift but contribute nothing to its attainment. This served as the Protestant doctrine of “justification” for half a millennium.
Beginning in the late 1970s and ’80s, a coterie of loosely Protestant biblical scholars have insisted that the Reformers got justification wrong. Their view, called the New Perspective on Paul, is associated most closely with James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright. (The first two are skeptical of the Bible’s historical veracity; the last is a liberal evangelical.) These scholars begin with the contention that the Protestant reformers mistakenly read 16th-century debates about grace and works into the writings of Paul
When Paul insisted that no man is justified by “works” or “works of the law,” they insist, he wasn’t criticizing the Judaism of his day as a legalistic or works-based system of earning divine favor. Why not? Because Second Temple Judaism—the Judaic faith from roughly six centuries before Christ to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.—was never the sort of crassly works-oriented religion the early Protestants wrongly assumed Paul was inveighing against.
Mr. Sanders, in “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” (1977), denotes the religious worldview of first-century Jews by the term “covenantal nomism.” To simplify: The Jews of Paul’s day fully believed salvation was of grace—God chose the Jews, after all, not vice versa—but they also believed obedience to God’s commandments was necessary to remain within the divine covenant.
What did Paul mean, then, when he wrote that salvation is by grace and not “works,” as his Judaistic opponents believed? Messrs. Dunn and Wright contend he was talking about cultural “boundary markers” separating Jews from gentiles. These include rituals and practices such as sabbath observance, circumcision and food laws. Everybody agrees that Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, believed that the Christian gospel penetrated all cultural barriers. After all, Paul wrote that “in Christ Jesus” there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female.” The New Perspective interpretation, however, makes Paul’s message of oneness and inclusion the whole Christian gospel. The sinner is “justified” simply by being included in the church.
As the New Perspective on Paul gained acceptance among a significant number of divinity faculty and seminarians in Anglophone institutions in the 1990s and early 2000s, adherents of the traditional Protestant view pushed back. The traditionalists point out that Paul sometimes uses “law” in ways that can’t possibly denote mere cultural boundary markers. There is some evidence, too, that Second Temple Judaism at various times and places lent itself to precisely the kind of credit-and-debit legalism the Protestant reformers saw, or thought they saw, in Catholicism. Don’t all religions, at least sometimes?
My own suspicion is that the New Perspective achieved popularity mainly because young Protestant ministers would rather talk about inclusion and breaking barriers than about the guilt of sin and the pointlessness of trying to erase it by a regimen of good deeds. That’s understandable. But surely the older message hasn’t lost its relevance.
Even in this permissive, materialist age, people go to extraordinary lengths to atone for their guilt. Consider the vast numbers of Americans who spend their days maniacally trying to prove their upright status in the eyes of secular deities—conspicuously announcing their support for enlightened causes, loudly denouncing bigotry and xenophobia, proclaiming their sympathy with the marginalized and their loyalty to ethically manufactured products. How delightful it might be to hear that salvation is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should virtue-signal.
Mr. Swaim writes a column on political books for the Journal.
Appeared in the May 17, 2019, print edition.