Perspective on the New Perspective (2) – The Moral Centre

In our last post we used used Romans 4:5 as a test-case to highlight a key difference between the New Perspective and Reformed theology. We saw that for N. T. Wright and James Dunn the “ungodly” are those who are outside the covenant community and “justification” means to be brought into the covenant. In this post I want to talk about some of the difficulties with this new interpretation.

The Meaning of Justification

One weakness in the New Perspective understanding of justification is that it confuses meaning with context. Although justification and the related righteousness language can be used in covenantal contexts (e.g. Isaiah 42:6; Psalm 103:17-18), this is not the meaning of that terminology. Righteousness essentially means being in line with a standard and justification means being declared in line with a standard. Righteousness is not first about relationships or covenants but moral standing.

This can most easily be seen when we examine the synonyms and antonyms of righteous language in Scripture. The words we translate as “righteous” in Scripture are frequently paired with words like “blameless” (e.g. Gen 6:9), “pure” (e.g. Job 15:14), “innocent” (e.g. Job 22:19) and “devout” (e.g. Luke 2:25). When a contrast is being drawn, the antonymns include “wicked” (e.g. 2 Sam 4:11; Psalm 37:12), “guilty” (e.g. 1 Kings 8:32) and “sinners” (e.g. Psalm 1:5).

The same applies to “justify”. This word does not mean to include in the covenant, or be made righteous. Instead it means to declare righteous. It is used in courtroom settings (Exodus 23:7; Deut 25:1) and in opposition to the idea of “condemnation” (e.g. Romans 8:33-34).

In short, there is simply no use in Scripture that would suggest that “righteousness” means “membership of the covenant” or that “to justify” means “to declare someone a member of the covenant.”

The Meaning of the “Ungodly”

For Wright and Dunn the primary reference of the “ungodly” in Romans 4:5 is those who, by nature, are outside the covenant. Yet, although those outside the covenant might well be ungodly, the word itself overwhelmingly points to moral judgment. Thus:

  • It is used of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:23). It is also used by Pharaoh to describe the people of Egypt (Ex 9:27 as opposed to the people of Israel who are “in the right”);
  • It is set up as the opposite of “innocent’ (e.g. Deut 25:1) and “righteous” (e.g. Prov 10:3; Hab 1:13; Isa 55:7).
  • Jude understands the ungodly to be the right recipients of God’s judgment: “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him,” (Jude 14-15).
  • For Paul in Romans 4 the ungodly are those who do not do the work that God desires (4:5) and who are characterized by “lawless deeds,” (4:7).
  • In Romans 11:26, Paul, locates “ungodliness” within Israel (or “Jacob”) – disturbing the idea that it applies to those outside the covenant.

As with justification, the terminology of ungodliness belongs to a moral universe. The ungodly are those who by their actions are fundamentally displeasing to God – those who deserve his judgment.

Paul’s Gospel for the Ungodly

So the New Perspective understanding of Romans 4:5 downplays the striking significance of what Paul says. God’s justification of the ungodly is not simply about including Gentiles in God’s covenant people (though this is certainly a wonderful truth that is affirmed elsewhere in the NT). It has much more to do with God looking at people who deserve to be condemned and declaring those people morally righteous.

Of course this immediately raises the question of how God can do this. In Exodus 23:7 he warns Israel not to pervert justice, since he himself “will not justify the ungodly.” What has changed that allows God to justify the ungodly without leaving himself open the same charge?

If we trace the description of the ungodly through Romans we see how it works. In Romans 1:18, Paul says that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of humanity: ungodliness rightly provokes God’s wrath. But Paul’s next description of the ungodly in 5:6 shows us something new. It tells us that “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

This is the answer. God can rightly justify the ungodly (4:5), even though they are the right objects of his wrath (1:18) because Christ has died for them (5:6). Paul makes the same point in Romans 3:20-21, Jesus’ death is a propitiation (something that turns aside God’s wrath). It means that God can be ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’.

What is more, the result of this death is that we aren’t simply forgiven, we receive “the gift of righteousness,” (5:17) by faith. God gives us a righteousness that is not our own! Although we ourselves are ungodly, God allows us to us to share in Christ’s righteousness (5:19). When we stop trying to “work” for our own righteousness (4:5), and instead put our trust in God who justifies the ungodly, then we receive both the benefits of Christ’s life and death. His death turns away God’s wrath from our sins and his moral perfection becomes ours.

Old Perspective – Still Fresh

This Gospel is old news, but it’s still the best news sinners like us can possibly hear. God declares wrath-deserving sinners to be righteous. Christ’s death satisfies God’s justice and takes away his wrath (3:25-26; 5:6); Christ’s own righteousness becomes ours through the free gift of God and through faith.

Romans 4:5 is a helpful verse if we want to understand the heart of the debates over the New Perspective. But much more than that, it also captures the beauty of the gospel – that unrighteous, ungodly people who deserve God’s wrath and condemnation are declared right by God.

Postscript: Of course, having concluded our mini-study on the “New Perspective,” we have to acknowledge that the New Perspective is no longer very new (the term was first coined in the late 1970s) and a number of scholars are now producing works which explicitly look “Beyond the New Perspective.” To take this into account we’ll add an appendix to this series – a review of the recent book Paul and the Gift, written by Durham University’s John Barclay. This book may prove to be the most significant book written on Paul for a generation, and could well bring an end to the New Perspective as an academic movement.


Photo: Ben Sutherland
, Flickr

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