I can safely say that Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (2004) is easily one of the most important studies I’ve had the opportunity to read. Westerholm is professor of biblical studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I first became familiar with his work through his paper, “Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question?” He writes as an academic, not as a seminarian. He grants, for example, that the epistle to the Ephesians and the pastoral letters might not have been written by the person we know as Paul – but readily owns that, regardless, their content is thoroughly Pauline in nature. This should not put evangelical readers ill at ease. Westerholm has emerged as one of the champions in the defense of the classical evangelical understanding of the gospel – that believers are justified by faith, apart from works, and saved from the wrath of God to come.
What is the Question?
The “new perspective” on Paul (NPP) has challenged the traditional evangelical understanding of justification. Westerholm’s shorter paper was directed at Krister Stendahl, an early exponent of the NPP who saw Martin Luther as a tormented Augustinian monk in search of deliverance from the plight of his conscience. Luther found the Roman church to be a system of legalistic requirements analogous to first century Judaism – at least, this at least is how the NPP understands Luther. It accuses him of making a caricature of first century Judaism in arriving at the conclusion that sinners can only be right with God through faith in His Son. NPP asserts that Judaism was not a legalistic religion; that it was based on God’s gracious election, and did not hold that justification/salvation was earned by human merit. Rather, the external rites of the Law served as “boundary markers” to distinguish God’s elect from others. The problem with Judaism, from the new perspective, is simply that it fails to see that God has opened up His household to those on the outside through Christ. Judaism is guilty of “ethnocentrism.”
Justification from the NPP involves how people get included as the people of God. The Jews who believe in Jesus are “in,” so to speak. Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to get in. And the corporate aspect of “getting in” seems to receive emphasis at the expense of personal conversion. As Simon Gathercole has pointed out the NPP leads to a de-emphasis on conversionism. Justification isn’t so much about how a ruined sinner is made right with God as how diverse peoples are included as the people of God. Personal repentance and faith give way to “participation,” the new buzzword in contemporary “missional” circles.
One of the NPP’s leading lights is N.T. Wright, popular within both northern hemispheric Anglicanism and wider (Western) evangelical circles. Wright’s focus in particular shifts toward “putting the world to rights” (one of his favorite slogans), ecological concerns, and some most ill-informed economic notions (in his reckoning, poor nations are poor because they owe developed Western nations money). In Wright’s narrative theological scheme, the whole world has the potential, through Christ, to become “Israel” -- sans the boundary markers.
Who caricatures Whom?
Reading Westerholm, one realizes that it is the NPP that caricatures Luther. His understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is alleged to flow from a tortured conscience, and that Luther was answering questions Paul didn’t raise. Westerholm proves that Luther was absolutely on track in grasping the essence of justification. Conceding that the matter as concerning the Gentiles came to a crisis in the Galatian controversy, Westerholm skillfully demonstrates how Paul addressed the universal need for deliverance from the wrath to come in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, without any reference to circumcision or other Jewish “boundary markers.” The letter to the Galatians then tackles the question from the perspective of what circumcision and other external “works of the law” actually signify – obedience to the Law, by which, Paul reminds us, “no flesh will be justified in God’s sight.” In Romans 2 Paul shows us that the Jews who boast in the Law by no means keep it. Nor do the Gentiles who, though without the written Law, show the awareness of it in their consciences. The Jewish situation is not a question of “legalism” but of misplaced confidence that the Law represents God’s unqualified guarantee that the nation is on the right footing (even if some fail), and that keeping it will provide for Israel’s future vindication. Paul, on the other hand, shows that all are under sin, whether with the Law or without it. In that framework the apostle begins his classic explanation of how God can remain just and justify (not the masses but) the “one” who believes – apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21-30).
The Law’s Purpose
Luther held the view – held by many today – that the Law served to bring the sinner to a conscious awareness of how far he falls short of God’s moral standard, and thus drives him to look to Christ for salvation. Westerholm refines this, noting that sin was sin long before the Law was given – though the knowledge of it became clearer through the written Law. Rather, the Law served as a pedagogue, a “schoolmaster,” to keep the Jews in restraint until the Messiah came. The Law has been fulfilled by Christ and is fulfilled in those who believe in Him. The Law was never intended to be a way toward justification, though life was promised to those who kept it and judgment promised to those who violated it. The Law anticipated failure, evidenced by the Levitical sacrifices. Jesus Christ embodied all that the Law demanded and provided for (as antitype) by way of sacrifice. To put oneself under the Law now, as the Galatians were deceived into doing, is to “fall from grace,” to make Christ’s saving work of no effect, and to go back into bondage.
The justified Christian lives not by the letter of the Law but by the Spirit, by faith. With Christ he has died to the Law and to sin (which the Law animates in the flesh). This is the classic evangelical gospel, which Westerholm has reasserted for a new generation.
The Law, then, was not a source of legalism (according to the NPP’s caricature of Luther). The Jews sincerely believed that justification was obtained through it; Christ crucified was their stumbling block. It was then up to Paul, a Pharisee among Pharisees, to declare that he desired to “be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Stone by Stone
The implication of this fresh reiteration of justification by faith is the absolute necessity of individuals repenting and believing the gospel. There is no other way to be justified, no other way to be saved. While the Body of Christ, the habitation of the Spirit, and the house of God are the ends, the justification of erstwhile ruined sinners is the means. The apostle Peter tells us that coming to Christ as “living stones” we are built up into a spiritual house. The house is not made of uniform, featureless bricks. It is composed of unique stones, each having its own shape and characteristics. Together these form the dwelling place of God.
My participation in the household of faith is essential (Hebrews 10:23-25). My participation, however, hinges on whether I have been justified, by which I have boldness to enter.