This article looks at the biblical teaching on justification in contrast to the claims of the New Perspective on Paul.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2017. 3 pages.

The New Perspective on Paul

To paraphrase Martin Luther, justification is the standing or falling article of any church. If we get justification wrong, all is lost. If we understand it rightly and receive it by faith, all is won. From the earliest days of the New Testament church, the biblical doctrine of a free justification has suffered violence by false teachers — teachers who have tried to dethrone God by introducing man’s work in salvation. The greatest modern attack on the doctrine of justification is what has been dubbed the “New Perspective on Paul” (hereafter — NPP). While it may have the word new in it, there is nothing new about it. It is simply a modern rendition of a nineteenth-century error that focuses on the historical-critical method of interpretation. When traced to its fountainhead, it bubbles up from European Enlighten­ment Rationalism, which claims that logic, science, and the human mind uncover the Bible’s true meaning. To the NPP, the Word of God is not its own interpreter; man’s reason is. Nowhere is this more prevalent than the NPP’s attack on the doctrine of free justification. Because its tentacles have reached even into some Reformed circles, we would do well to give it our brief attention.

What the Scriptures Teach🔗

It is always best to begin with the truth before discovering the error. It is in the light that we see light, and it is in a biblical understanding of justification that every contrary teaching will be revealed.

The doctrine of justification answers the question, how can fallen man be made right before a holy God? There would be no need for the doctrine of justification if Adam had not sinned and plunged himself and all mankind into sin and misery. The words “judge,” “judgment,” and “justification” in the Word of God only make sense in the context of man’s sinfulness. On the other hand, it is equally true that there would be no possibility of being justified in God’s sight, if God did not provide a way of salvation where there was no way. Therefore grace is the most beautiful word on the believer’s tongue. It has never been said better than the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which teaches,

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

From here we see God as a Judge pronouncing judgment, and at the same time God as gracious, restor­ing blessed peace and life to a fallen people. The pathetic effort of Adam and Eve to hide and clothe themselves, after discovering that they were naked, only highlighted the need for God’s sovereign intervening mercy. Their sin and guilt could not be covered through their own creative and deceptive works. It was God who provided the suitable clothing by way of sacrifice, which typified both the method and manor of so great a salvation that would one day come. For our first parents to come near God, it was necessary to have garments provided and approved by Him. So God slew two animals and imputed a covering for their nakedness. Thus the first death in the world was the first sacrifice for sin. Here, then, the doctrine of justification began, and its ever-revealing truth rolled on through the whole of the Old Testament into the New.

In the historic Reformed church, it is universally believed that the word justification is the key that unlocks man’s pardon. The English verb justify comes directly from the Latin word justificio, which is a forensic word that belongs to the Roman law-system. In its rightful context, it declares a guilty person free of blame and retribution. It is a Greek law-term, which declares one righteous. But how does one become justified in the sight of God? The Puritan James Durham, after asking this question, says, “It consists not in the infusing of grace, nor in the sanctifying, or of making a profane person holy ... but in the absolving of a sinner from the guilt of sin, or acquitting the guilty.”1Justification is not something a believer contributes to. It is an act of God’s free grace. In this act, the sinner is completely passive and has the finished work of Christ legally imputed to him. Regeneration and justification are the two controlling elements that prove salvation is completely one-sided. Justification is between the Savior and the sinner, between a justifying God and a pardoned soul, but it is the free giving of the righteousness of Christ in His passive and active obedience to the soul. It is all grace stemming from eternal love. Love begins, love carries on, and love finishes it. In free justification, grace must have all the glory, and unmerited favor must crown the work with eternal praise.

The New Perspective’s Teaching🔗

The NPP teaches that justification is not only legal, but also covenantal. James Dunn, a pioneer of the New Perspective, teaches that “one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.”2If you look closely at Dunn’s words, you can see that he is teaching that justification is covenantal, based on works, with an atonement component. As long as you are a part of the covenant community and observe the law as given by Moses, you are justified in the sight of God. The NPP teaches that in the Old Testament, this was primarily observed by circumcision, the Passover, and the law. They insist the same holds true for the New Testament believer. They are brought into salvation by birth, initiated into the covenant by baptism and maintain their salvation by law keeping, good works, and the sacraments. In either case, so long as you remain within the covenant community of God and observe its commandments and sacraments, your justification is secure. However if you do not obey the law and keep the observances, your justification will be lost. Norman Shepherd furthers this idea when he says,

Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification.3

Shepherd wants a forensic justification in reference to Christ’s cross, as well as a present and future justification which keeps the Christian in the state of justification by obedience. He asserts that “the righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day.”

These brief examples show a major departure from historic Reformed truth. Historically, justification was considered a one-sided sovereign work of God by imputing an alien righteousness to a sinner. In the NPP, justification is a mixture of covenantal obedience and the cross of Christ. Unfortunately, this new theology has made its way into some Reformed congregations and denominations under the name Federal Vision. The Federal Vision proponents have harvested the NPP for certain elements that conform to their overly objective view of the covenant of grace, and have married it with a Kuyperian theology that stresses the outward elements of the covenant, to the neglect of a personal faith and repentance. The fear of the Federal Vision teachers and adherents is that salvation has become too baptistic/individualistic, and too much stress has been placed on personal regeneration.

Let’s not Minimize🔗

The temptation will be to open the door on this subject on the grounds of brotherly love, scholasticism, and even plain old polemics. But the NPP doctrine is not just another Prot­estant rendition of justification; it obscures justification and redefines salvation itself.

The consequences of this error have serious theological implications. A not-so-subtle form of presumptive regeneration enters into the church, rearranging the core question of the gospel. The NPP claims it is wrong to start with reprobation and move to regeneration when dealing with the doctrine of the covenant. They believe that we must leapfrog over the fundamental question of “What must I do to be saved?” and land squarely on “What does the Lord require?” This kind of unfortunate language appears to contravene the Scriptures which say, “Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart” (Ps. 26:2); “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12); and, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:5). To the NPP, if you are born into the covenant and remain faithful to the church, you are simply assumed to be justified. Now you are commanded to observe covenantal maintenance by law-keeping, thus preserving your native-born justification.

This is the crux of the question: is justifying faith an obedient faith as the NPP community asserts; or is justification an alien (Christ) imputed act? To ask it another way: Is justification tied to the covenant of grace in a purely external sense, or is there an inward vitality that must be personally appropriated? Those who follow the New Perspective believe it is fundamentally externally covenantal.


Most Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in North America today have taken steps to condemn both the New Perspective and Federal Vision and reaffirm the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther’s discovery, or we should say recovery, of this doctrine must remain precious to the faithful church of Christ.

When we speak of justification, it should always be in light of its intent: to bring condemned rebels into a right standing before their God. This is not attained by birth or baptism, or kept by covenantal obedience. To simply think of church members as being in union with Christ by baptism and legal obedience is to forget the most vital portion of the gospel. Indeed, many today are so emphasizing the mere outward element of the covenant that they are (practically speaking) omitting its weightier matters. Personal inward union is the only true union with Christ, and in justification, there must be a one-to-one correlation between a justified sinner and union with Christ. Any substitution of church-ism, no matter how creative, in place of imputation and the internal application of the Spirit, is to supplant justification and turn the gospel on its head. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith cannot be replaced by a covenantal obedience. We must be diligent in both our understanding and application of every aspect of Christ’s precious cross-work; for it is all about Him, or as William Gurnall says, “We are justified, not by giving anything to God — what we do — but by receiving from God, what Christ hath done for us.''4


  1. ^ James Durham, Christ Crucified: Or the Marrow of the Gospel in 72 Sermons on Isaiah 53 (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2001), 479. 
  2. ^ James Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 5.
  3. ^ Norman Shepherd, “Justification by Faith Alone.” Reformation & Revival Journal 11, No. 2, Spring 2002.
  4. ^ William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 433.

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