I understand that N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop, has been promoting this teaching in evangelical churches. Source

According to Wright, "Paul in the twentieth century, then, has been used and abused much as in the first. Can we, as the century draws towards its close, listen a bit more closely to him? Can we somehow repent of the ways we have mishandled him and respect his own way of doing things a bit more?"

Sounds eminently reasonable to me. However, after reading this section re on his theological views, I found myself somewhat confused, and so I would appreciate a simplified summary of what he says about Justification, Righteousness, Covenant and works of the Law.

This article from the GotQuestions website presents arguments against the New Perspective on Paul, as does John Piper's 2007 book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright.

I understand that Wright has addressed the issue of Justification in his 2009 book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul's Vision, but I do not have access to it. A very brief summary of his reply can be read in a 2009 interview by Trevin Wax, where he refers the reader to a fuller response in his book Paul: In Fresh Perspective.

  • New perspective on Paul has nothing to do with resurrection, but primarily with the meaning of "works of the law", "righteousness", "justification", "faith of God/believer/Christ", and most of all the meaning of "covenant" as understood by Paul vs. Luther. It also has nothing to do with the historical Jesus issue but more with Paul's eschatological understanding of why Jesus came. Commented May 25 at 16:59
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    The following words (Wikipedia link) stand out (to me) as being wholly contrary to Reformed, Protestant faith : Finally, Wright's definition of ‘justification’ within Paul's letters acknowledges that the term is *not associated*, as has commonly been perceived, *with one's personal needs necessary to attain salvation*, but instead with what marked someone as a member of God's people.. Justification by faith, in regard to one's own personal sins and in regard to one's own personal standing before Almighty God, was a cornerstone of the Reformation. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 25 at 18:43
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    @GratefulDisciple - The Wikipedia link has a section entitled 'Historical Jesus' which deals with Wrights' views on Jesus and his resurrection. I am willing to focus purely on the subject of justification, righteousness and works of the law and covenant, so will delete the other tags. As for scoping, I ask for the views of people who support reformed theology, which I take to mean Protestants. However, I am happy to ask this question of Catholics if you think that would be appropriate?
    – Lesley
    Commented May 26 at 11:35
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    @Lesley The term "historical Jesus" signals views of non-Christian scholars who don't think Jesus has divine nature. That section on Wikipedia article on NT Wright has to do with how he defended traditional view of Jesus. It has nothing to do with New Perspective on Paul, only reflecting new research in the Jewishness of Jesus. About Catholic scoping, that makes the Q less interesting because Catholic and Orthodox theologies are a lot less affected by NPP than Protestants. The scoping of this Q to Reformed Protestant is good. If you want, you can have another one for Lutherans. Commented May 26 at 14:36
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    I found a reformed position articulated very well : amazon.com/Future-Justification-Response-N-Wright/dp/1581349645
    – Mike
    Commented May 30 at 9:57

1 Answer 1


I am not an expert on NT Wright but I scanned one of his chapters on Justification purely out the interest that your question has aroused. I am Reformed in my view.

All quotes are from NT Wright's 2014 book What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?.

His basic reasoning appears to be like this.

First he thinks understanding the Jewish mind at the time of Paul is key to understanding Paul. Then he wants to redefine the word "justification"

'Justification' is a law-court term, and in its Jewish context it refers to the greatest lawsuit of all: that which will take place on the great day when the true God judges all the nations, more particularly the nations that have been oppressing Israel. God will, at last, find in favour of his people: he will judge the pagan nations and rescue his true people. Justification' thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant (Israel is God's people) on the one hand and the law court on the other (God's final judgment will be like a great law-court scene, with Israel winning the case). Learning to 'see' an event in terms of two great themes like these is part of learning how first-century Jews understood the world.

In other words it's not about individual justification but national justification.

With this in mind he then wants to join justification with eschatology.

Put these two (justification and eschatology) together, and what happens? 'Justification', the great moment of salvation seen in terms of the fulfilment of the covenant and in terms of the last great law-court scene, would thus also be eschatological: it would be the final fulfilment of Israel's long-cherished hope. Putting it another way, the Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last.

In other words, he reinforces the idea that Justification is not an individual thing but again, he reasserts it is a national justification afforded to the people of God.

He talks around a few other points in various parts of scripture where Paul is trying to help integrate the Jews and Gentiles under the new gospel. His main goal is to argue that this collective view of group justification, or rather simply being declared a genuine member of God’s people is really what Paul is all about and not about personal justification, having a personal relationship with God, or entering into salvation by faith.

In his concluding remarks he makes the summary around Romans 9:30:

Thus (to follow the train of thought from verse 9:30 onwards), while Gentiles are discovering covenant membership, characterized by faith, Israel, clinging to the Torah which defined covenant membership, did not attain to the Torah. She was determined to have her covenant membership demarcated by works of Torah, that is, by the things that kept that membership confined to Jews and Jews only; and, as a result, she did not submit to God's covenant purposes, his righteousness (10:3f.); for Christ is the end or goal of the law, so that all who believe may receive covenant of his people. But 'the gospel' is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ. If we could only get that clear in current debates, a lot of other false antitheses, not least in thinking about the mission of the church, would quietly unravel before our eyes. Let us be quite clear. 'The gospel' is the announcement of Jesus' lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. 'Justification' is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other.

My impression of the argument is that he simply tries to invert the logic of Paul with no real compelling reason:

  1. Firstly, he seems to neglect the real problem of sin and the terrors of conscience that much greater men and greater thinkers of the past have fled to Christ for refuge. Men like Luther who found a much more persuasive view of Paul’s theology.

  2. Secondly, by assigning such glory to become a member of God’s people as something so much more than receiving the riches of Christ through an imputation of his righteousness, something Paul clearly argued, he seems to insinuate a preposterous idea: that being considered a member of God’s church is able to comfort a sinner individually through identification of the collective body. This is pure nonsense to a great and mighty sinner like me.

I get the feeling the author of the book simply has never sufficiently felt the dread of the Law of God and never really felt how incredible a cleansed joyful conscience apart from works of the law can be. He does not seem to understand the reformers' hearts. He sets himself up, not standing on the shoulders of giants but standing much lower, on a little stool of his own ideas, criticizing the great men of God with unconvincing trifles about collective membership and futuristic justifications of those bodies.

Why he dislikes the individual salvation so much, I will never understand. By emphasizing the collective he seems to actually draw attention away from Christ, whom the sinner so desperately needs individually.

Basically in summary, as a Reformed believer, I take this as another book of hog-wash. I prefer to read Luther.

  • "He does not seem to understand the reformers hearts", "Why he dislikes the individual salvation so much" That's unfair to NT Wright! What he (and other NPP proponents) do is to correct Luther's view since it was Luther who misunderstood Paul. It's "new" to us, since Luther's view has been so influential for 400 years until Schweitzer's recovery of Paul's eschatological Jesus and Sander's later recovery of Paul's view on justification and covenant mangled by Luther. Commented May 26 at 15:07
  • If you read NT Wright's other books including his magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God, you will discover how NT Wright values personal awareness of sin, conversion, and justification, as much as Luther and your next door Evangelical but NOT using Luther's wrong understanding of "law vs gospel" since that's a theological accretion. There's a way to defend Protestant doctrine "justification by faith alone" (which NT Wright holds) without using Luther's specific "law vs gospel" antithesis (should be "sin vs gospel"). After all, didn't Paul say that the law is holy and good (Rom 7:12)? Commented May 26 at 15:19
  • @GratefulDisciple - Appreciate your insights, but does the “New Perspective on Paul” teach that Paul’s doctrine of justification was only concerned with the Gentiles’ standing in the covenant community and not at all about a guilty sinner being declared just before a holy and righteous God? Perhaps I should ask this of Lutherans?
    – Lesley
    Commented May 26 at 15:44
  • @Lesley "not at all" is the key phrase here, which is not true. Why does it have to be "either or", not "both and" ? There are other passages by Paul including in the Romans itself that has to do with justification of individual sinner. A careful exegete and theologian needs to be very aware of each step lest he/she ends up imposing theological understanding foreign to Paul, thus putting the cart before the horse: theology driving interpretation (in this case Luther's understanding driving interpretation of Romans). Commented May 26 at 16:00
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    Also, they do NOT criticize Luther's piety or in Luther's standing up to RCC or Luther's role in starting sola fide. They just think Luther was wrong about Judaism, and of course they realize that Luther didn't have the benefit of the Dead Sea scrolls and other Biblical research hundred of years since then. Doctrine construction is NOT the same as exegesis. It's the exegesis that changes. but Protestant doctrine sola fide is still intact vis a vis Catholic version, but may need to be adjusted in the formulation to be more faithful to what Paul meant in Romans, Galatians, etc. Commented May 27 at 0:18

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