As a pastor, I have had a few laypersons and students ask me about the New Perspective on Paul. It seems there is no shortage of persons who are enamored with new things that regularly come our way. Aside from the problems inherent in reading those who tell us what this group or that individual said or believed without checking the original sources, one finds it a bit disconcerting in conservative circles to have to refute things like the New Perspective in light of the New Testament as a whole. While I recommend research in this area, and in the first installment of this article I recommended Ligon Duncan's brief but scholarly critique of certain aspects of the movement, and then further recommended Kim Riddlebarger in the second installment, perhaps for persons in the pew, the best answer I could give to this dangerous theology is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Third (in connection with the first two points in the first two installments of this article), let me say, academic argument aside, it is the cross of Christ that cuts the heart out of the New Perspective on Paul. Again, the notion that our salvation rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ to our accounts is called into question by the New Perspective. According to New Perspective proponents, justification has nothing to do with judicial standing before God but vindication of one's membership in the covenant community. The concept of imputation as outlined in Romans 4 for example, is largely ignored or redefined. Again, the cross of Christ settles this whole debate. There is a reason Paul said to the Corinthians, "For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)."
Consider Prov. 17:15: "He that justifies the wicked, and he that condemns the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD." Think about this tremendous statement. To justify the wicked is an abomination to the Lord. At the same time, to condemn the just is an abomination to the Lord. And yet, is that not what God does when He saves sinners? Does He not justify the wicked and condemn the just? Did Peter not say, "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:18)?" How can we make sense of such? How can we be saved if these things are an abomination to the Lord?
There is only one answer: imputation. When Christ was put to death on the cross by the Father, the only way for Him to die, and in fact be put to death for sinners, was to have sin credited to His account. God could not condemn the just. Because Christ had no sin of His own, because He was and is sinless, He had to be declared sin in order to be condemned. Paul wrote, "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21a)."
At the same time, the only way for wicked sinners to live is imputation. God cannot overlook sin or view sin with favor. In order for sinners to be right with God, their righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). That verse alone cuts at the heart of New Perspective theology. The point is that sinners must be perfect if they are to stand before a perfectly holy God. Why? Because if they have broken the law at one point, they are guilty of breaking the whole of the law (Jas. 2:10). The only way for sinners to be justified is to have the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to their accounts. God cannot justify the wicked: He may only justify the righteous. Sinners have no righteousness of their own (Rom. 3:10f). They must have an alien righteousness; they must have the righteousness of Christ. That is why Paul finishes his thought in 2 Cor. 5:21 thusly: "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
Let us be plain. If imputation is not a reality, then there is no salvation. Why? If the Lord Jesus Christ did not have sin imputed to His account then He did not die. He could not have died because He had no sin of His own. If He did not die, we are still dead in our sins. Moreover, if the righteousness of Christ is not credited to the accounts of sinners, then there is no one who is saved because "there is none righteous, no not one (Rom. 3:10)" and "the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)."
Here is the beauty of the whole transaction. The Scriptures have already declared that it is an abomination to the Lord to justify the wicked and condemn the righteous. The salvation of sinners actually calls into question the holiness and justice of God. How can God save guilty sinners and yet be holy and just? The answer again is imputation. Paul goes on to say that the righteousness (or holiness and justice) of God is actually on display in the salvation of sinners. Paul says we are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed (Rom. 3:24-25)." Why did God do such a thing? Paul answers in v. 26: "to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." God demonstrates His righteousness and vindicates His own character (the answer to Prov. 17:15) by being just in condemning sin (Christ as substitute by virtue of our sin imputed to Him) and the justifier (by virtue of Christ's righteousness imputed to sinners) of those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Here we see the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone on glorious display.
Let those who seek to deny this glorious transaction have their mouths stopped. Let those who seek to teach a righteousness based on human effort, righteousness, and merit with a little help from God's grace have their mouths halted. Let those who say that all those who give mere mental assent to the person of Jesus and seek to maintain salvation through good works, regardless of whether they rest in the merits of Christ and His substitutionary atonement, and regardless of whatever else they believe, or whatever denomination they belong to, whether it be Protestant or Roman Catholic, have their mouths closed. Let those who would wipe away the blood of the martyrs, the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and the blood of Jesus Christ have their mouths sealed. God has put His righteousness on display, not ours. Let it not be hidden, marginalized, diminished, or destroyed. We are justified freely by grace through the redemptive work of Christ, the propitiatory sacrifice, in combination with no other work. God is just and the justifier of those who believe. Let the New Perspective fall to the ground and the Old Gospel be proclaimed with renewed confidence and vigor that people the world over might be saved by His grace and for His glory.
[Scroll Down for Parts One and Two]
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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