One of the implications of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), as I understand it, is that Paul's teachings regarding the "works of the law" (in Galatians 2:16, for example) are meant to refer only to "boundary marker" laws, that is, laws like circumcision, diet, and calendar, as opposed to all of God's law.

This can have a significant impact on one's doctrine of justification, as it opens the door for other "works" (besides circumcision, etc.) to be part of the basis of one's salvation.

One challenge to this aspect of the NPP that I've seen is based on other references to the "works of the law" in Paul's writings, where he uses the same phrase but appears to be referring to the entire law. For example, Romans 3:20:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (ESV)

Here, critics of the NPP say, Paul is clearly referring to the entire law, not just "boundary marker" laws, since elsewhere he recognizes many other sins besides failure to circumcise. But to me an even stronger passage appears to be Galatians 3:10:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (ESV)

Here, quoting Leviticus 18:5, Paul's use of "all things written in the Book of the Law," as opposed to some, is seen as plain evidence that "works of the law" to him means more than just circumcision, etc.

Thus, the question:

How do proponents of the New Perspective on Paul respond to challenges to their view of Paul's "works of the law" that are based on Galatians 3:10 and similar passages?

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    Thank you for asking this. We definitely could use more questions about NPP on this site. Aug 7, 2015 at 14:49
  • When you ask about "all of God's law" are you referring to all laws in Deut and the Holiness Code - observing the Sabbath, treatment of slaves, performing ritually correct sacrifices, priestly functions and so on, or are you referring to moral laws? Aug 7, 2015 at 21:52
  • @DickHarfield I'm not sure that it matters. The critics of NPP say faith alone: no works of the law, however the law is understood, can justify a sinner before God. Or am I misunderstanding your question? Aug 8, 2015 at 3:02
  • @Nathaniel That's fine. I asked because your topic is complex and therefore your question is complex, and I was worried about misunderstanding the nuances of your question :) Aug 8, 2015 at 5:40

4 Answers 4


It's interesting that this perspective is known as the the 'New Perspective on Paul', for the idea that works goes hand in hand with faith has been central to the Catholic and Orthodox Church which preceded the Reformed Church and its claim of sola fide. If you were to go to a Catholic or Orthodox Christian in the 12th century and claim that St. Paul thought that faith meant the eradication of good works in the process of salvation, you might have very well been burned at the stake for heresy.

As to Galations 3:10, it is important for us to not 'cherry-pick' verses (even John 3:16) out of their context in order to support a position. It should thus be noted that Paul's inclusion of the verse from Leviticus might be used in a way that is contrary to what the writers of Leviticus were referring to. It should also be noted that the term 'law' is itself requiring contextual analysis in order to derive its actual meaning as intended by Paul (it does not 'instinctively' mean anything). With that said, we should now look at the surrounding context of Galatians to consider what Paul even means when he refers to the 'curse of the law'.

Galations 3:15-18

Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person's will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring: it does not say. 'And to offsprings', as of many; but it says, 'And to your offspring', that is, to one person, who is Christ. My point is this: the law, which came four hundred years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.

The surrounding context in reference to the 'curse of the law' is rather clearly in a 'covenant language'. Even following this passage Paul continues to write how baptism is in essence the 'new circumcision'. N.T Wright would say Paul's speaking about 'badges of covenant membership'. The universal essence of 'doing good' and its relation to salvation for humanity, in other words, is not necessarily being spoken about by Paul. Rather, when Paul speaks of the 'law' he is more precisely speaking about the way the Jewish customs relate to an understanding of God's covenant. 'Law' in other words is referring to the things of temporary power and purpose (such as circumcision, observance of certain days, etc). Paul himself later asserts this understanding of the 'law' as a temporary power in saying that it 'was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made'. Good deeds in no way are a 'temporary' matter, and for Paul to believe such would be to contradict clear statements by Jesus and other apostles all throughout the rest of the New Testament, who vouch for the understanding that 'wisdom is justified by her deeds' and that a 'tree is known by its fruit'. Stating that good deeds are temporary in a justifying nature would even diminish the very good deed Christ did on the cross.

It should also be said that NPP does not support the idea that good deeds alone can attain salvation. Good deeds are supplementary to faith. The one cannot exist without the other, for they justify each other. The language regarding each one thus does not exclude the language regarding the other, for the language of both is typically one in the same.

The NPP isn't really all that 'new'. It's been around in traditional Christian language since the beginning as an assumption that might very have been taken advantage of by its proponents. But the Reformed thought that has stressed sola fide has produced some good by forcing those who support the idea that good deeds must accompany faith to look back into the bible with a new set of eyes. What the bible says is still a resounding 'no' to sola fide.

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    Thanks. This is helpful, but ideally there would be more analysis of the text itself, and citations of NPP proponents. You mention N. T. Wright, and that's great, but don't actually quote him on this. The history of NPP-like ideas is interesting, but that's not really the point of the question: I'm particularly interested in how NPP proponents approach this passage; those with similar views can certainly shed additional light, but they shouldn't be the focus of the answer. Aug 8, 2015 at 20:49
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    I did answer the objection of the verse you posted by referring to the context surrounding the verse. In itself the verse doesn't pose a problem; we have to look at the context to infer what Paul is trying to say. Based on the context that I posted, I think we can fairly deduce that the 'law' IS a speaking about 'badges of covenant membership' rather than 'good works'. I can refer to further sources if you'd like. Aug 8, 2015 at 21:25
  • @ManweElder Further sources would be good. Sep 23, 2016 at 13:36

The New Church (aka Swedenborgian) is a proponent of the "New Perspective on Paul," as commonly called among Protestant circles. The doctrine of the New Church is that in most cases Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" to refer to the external Mosaic rituals of the Jews, and has nothing to do with works of love or charity (see Rom. 2:6, 13; 13:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:10). However in some cases Paul will use the word "works" to refer to self-meritorious works, or works done for the sake of self credit. It is also a doctrine of the New Church that in scripture the word "law" has slightly different meanings, depending on context, as follows:

  1. The law refers to the entire Word or Old Testament.
  2. More exactly, the law refers to the Torah, or the first 5 books of Moses.
  3. More narrowly, the law refers to the external Jewish rituals.
  4. More narrowly, the law refers to the 10 commandments.

It is also a doctrine of the New Church that the writings of Paul do not carry the same weight of authority as the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels and book of Revelation. The quote of Galatians 3:10 is one example of why this is so:

"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them."

This is a quote of Deut. 27:26. In this quote Paul has added the word "all" to the Hebrew text, perhaps quoting it from the Septuagint. As such, this is a slight misquote. The original meaning of Deut. 27:26 is that anyone who does not follow God's law by doing them falls into spiritual condemnation. Paul seems to imply from his misquote that anyone who is not perfect falls under spiritual condemnation.

Since Paul has misquoted Deut. 27:26, and perhaps is using it in a liberal manner to make his point, one must use Paul's context to determine what he actually means by the word "law." Paul refers to the "curse of the law" in Gal. 2:13:

"Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree"

A similar passage appears in Col. 2:14:

"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross"

Jesus thus removed the obligations of the Jewish rituals of the Mosaic law, here called ordinances. That ordinances refer to the external rituals of the Mosaic law can be seen in other passages (Eph. 2:15, Heb. 9:1, 10). These were removed as they were prophetic and He had fulfilled them by His coming. So by the word "law" in Galatians 3:10 Paul is referring to the external Mosaic rituals of the Jewish law, as he is using this quote from scripture in his own context.

  • This is much closer; thanks! Not what I expected by "proponent of NPP" but I can see where you make the connection. I'm still not quite satisfied though (sorry!): why does Paul go out of his way to say "all" if he merely means Jewish rituals? Sep 17, 2015 at 1:35
  • If you're able to quote Swedenborg or another New Church author's interpretation of this verse to answer my question, that'd be even better. Sep 17, 2015 at 1:45
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    It is a misquote, and at this point the word may be added from the Septuagint which Paul quoted. The intent seems to be "all" the rituals. It was customary in that day for Jewish rabbis to use scripture in this way, but Jesus was more exact. Sep 17, 2015 at 2:55
  • Swedenborg uses some of the same references to make his point on "works of the law," but never directly quoted Gal. 3:10. Here is a quote that provides a general overview: "That the works of the Mosaic law which was for the Jews were meant by Paul, we were further confirmed by this, that all the statutes for the Jews in Moses are called the law, and thus the works of the law" (Apocalypse Revealed, n. 417). Swedenborg does make specific reference to Rom. 2:6,13, 13:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:10 to make his point on Paul in several passages, as well as others, but these are too long to quote here Sep 17, 2015 at 2:59
  • @DougWebber Can you add that citation into the body of your answer? Sep 23, 2016 at 13:47

I think the problem is that many people either look to the law completely or use not being subject to the law as an excuse to living however they want. These are two extremes. Paul referred to the law as a "schoolmaster" to bring us to Christ. Based on contextual readings of other writings of Paul it is clear that Paul is not dismissing the law. The law is important. The point is that no one is good enough on their own merit to fully keep the law and live a perfect and sinless life (except Christ, who is God made flesh). This is why the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. In Galatians 3:10 what he is saying is that if we are depending on our keeping of the law to save us we are cursed, because we can't keep it perfectly. In Romans 8: 2-7 Paul says:

"For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."

What he is saying here is that the law is not enough. We need grace. That is not to say that grace gives us a license to ignore God's law, though. In Romans 5:20-6:2 Paul said:

"Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"

In other words, if we accept God's grace we won't want to follow after sin. That is not to say that we will be perfect, but our imperfection will be made perfection through the grace of God who will give us the desire to live lives that are pleasing to Him. James said in James 2: 15-20:

"If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?"

What James is saying here is not that good works saves us, but that is shows our faith. If we say we have placed our faith in Jesus but don't live lives pleasing to Him we are not demonstrating our faith. This is not to say that we will lose our salvation if we don't keep doing good works. Ephesians 2: 8-9 makes it clear:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

In other words, we are saved by faith. Works have nothing to do with salvation. They are, however, important in that they are an outward manifestation of our faith. As Jesus said in Matthew chapter 7: 16-20.

"Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."

Our works are a manifestation of our faith. The truth is that there are many different perspectives among NPP scholars, and it would probably be more accurate to use the plural form "New Perspectives on Paul." As is often the case, there are about as many perspectives out there as there are scholars. Since many see faith and works as both having importance it is likely that there are some who would agree with my statements above, and some that would disagree. NPP scholar N.T. Wright stated "There are probably almost as many 'new' perspective positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them."


One prominent theologian among the NPP is E.P Sanders. In "Paul and Palestinian Judaism" Sanders said that the Jewish people of the first century taught that they were the people of God by virtue of God's covenant with Abraham, and stayed in it by keeping the Law. Paul believed that the only way to become one of the People of God was through faith in Christ and the Old Covenant was no longer sufficient. But, once inside, appropriate behavior was required of the Christian, behavior based on the Jewish Scriptures, but not embracing all aspects of it. Both patterns required the grace of God for election (admission), and the behavior of the individual, supported by God's grace. The dividing line, therefore, was Paul's insistence on faith in Christ as the only way to election. However, Sanders stressed that Paul also “loved good deeds” and that when his words are taken in context, it emerges that Paul advocates good works in addition to faith in Christ.

It seems, then, that Sanders at least would see Galatians 3:10 as an indication that the covenant law of the Old Testament is not enough for election and that dependence on following the law in an attempt to earn one's salvation will result in one being cursed. At least that is my understanding of what Sanders was saying in his writings.

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    It sounds like you are challenging the assumptions in my question, because my understanding of NPP is that many/most of its proponents understand works to be a basis for salvation. I'm not sure that any Protestant would disagree that good works ought to be a manifested once one is saved, as you are saying Sanders believes. Sep 15, 2015 at 13:07
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    Well, I suppose it would be a challenge, though that was certainly not my intent. Like Wright said, however, there is not a single interpretation within the NPP. There are likely many that, like you said, interpret works to be a basis for salvation. Others, however, believe more that works are a manifestation after salvation. I would agree with the latter interpretation personally, since Paul stated in Ephesians that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works. Some leave it there, but Paul also spoke of the fruits of the spirit, and James said "I will show you my faith by my works." Sep 16, 2015 at 5:01

Galatians 3 :10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

(Cf. Deut 27:26; 28:58; 29:29; 31:12; 32:46)

The basic position of NPP view such as E. P. Sanders and James Dunn is that works of the law are done not in order to be justified by to regulate the already justified life. They do not believe the works of the law were ever meant for justification; but the old saints were also justified by faith. They would hold that Gal 3:10 refers only to the Mosaic covenant works instead of God's law in general; since that covenant has been finished and replaced by the new. Paul's argument about the curse to be under whole Mosaic law was to warn Galatians against their inclination towards circumcision, rather than against reliance on efforts or moral-works in general.

Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People by Thomas R. Schreiner

Galatians 3:10

Gal 3:10 is often used to support the idea that justification by works is unattainable, for no one can obey the law perfectly.3 The verse reads as follows:

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’“ At first blush the verse seems to be saying that those who are trusting in their observance of the law (ex ergon nomou) are under a curse because no one consistently keeps the entire (pasin) law. In other words, the logic of Paul’s argument can be described like this:

  1. All who do not keep the law perfectly are cursed (Deut 27:26 cited in Gal 3:10b).
  2. No one can keep the law perfectly (implied premise).
  3. Therefore, all who rely on the works of the law are under curse (Gal 3:10a).

Sanders, however, cautions against such a reading of the verse.4 In the first place, he notes, the situation behind the Galatian letter must be properly understood. Paul was not attacking Judaism in Galatians; instead, his polemic was against Christian missionaries who said “that Gentiles must accept the law as a condition of or a basic requirement for membership” (p. 19). Paul’s main objection to the position of the Christian missionaries was that they insisted on the observance of circumcision and the Mosaic law for membership in the covenant community. In other words, the letter to the Galatians is first and foremost a discussion on the entry requirement into the people of God. Paul insists that faith in Christ, not obedience to the Torah, is the entrance requirement. The important question for our purposes is this: does Paul argue in Gal 3:10–12 that the Mosaic law is not an entrance requirement because no one can keep it? Sanders maintains that this is not what Paul is saying, and he marshalls three reasons to defend his interpretation.

Sanders’ first argument is that in Galatians 3 Paul uses proof-texts with terms such as “Gentiles,” “righteous,” and “faith” to support the idea that Gentiles are justified by faith. Paul selects certain OT passages for his argument in Galatians 3 because they contain the terms which sustain his view that Gentiles are heirs of Abraham by faith. Sanders points out that this terminological approach to OT texts applies to Gal 3:10, for Paul quotes Deut 27:26 in this verse. But the reason Paul cited Deut 27:26 is not because the verse contains the word “all” (which would presumably prove that no one is able to obey the law). The only reason Paul cited Deut 27:26 is because this is “the only passage in the LXX in which nomos is connected with ‘curse’“ (p. 21). The word “all” (pasin), according to Sanders, WTJ 47:2 (Fall 1985) p. 248 by chance occurs in a verse which has the two terminological keys that Paul is looking for, viz., nomos and epikataratos. Thus, the inclusion of the word “all” in Gal 3:10 is not exegetically significant because Paul chose to cite Deut 27:26 only because it contained the words “law” and “curse,” not because it contained the word “all.”

Sanders’ second argument relates to the role of proof-texts in Paul’s line of thought. Sanders declares that the key to understanding a Pauline proof-text is not to interpret the meaning of the proof-text; instead, one should only focus on Paul’s explanation of the proof-text. “I think that what Paul says in his own words is the clue to what he took the proof-texts to mean” (p. 22). Thus, in Gal 3:10 the key to understanding the verse is to see how Paul interprets Deut 27:26, and Paul’s understanding of Deut 27:26 is found in Gal 3:10a. In vs. 10 Paul is merely saying “that those who accept the law are cursed” (p. 22). So, according to Sanders, Paul is not making any statement about the possibility of fulfilling the law; he is simply condemning those who demand that the law be kept.

Sanders’ third argument against the idea that Gal 3:10 proves that complete obedience to the law is impossible is as follows. The function of Gal 3:10–13 in the context of Gal 3:8–14 must be carefully understood. Paul’s thesis statement is found in Gal 3:8: he asserts that Gentiles can only be justified by faith. The OT citations in Gal 3:10–13 do not substantially further Paul’s thesis, but they do provide OT support for his contention that the Gentiles are justified by faith. Paul’s conclusion in Gal 3:14 clearly shows the direction of his argument; all Paul wants to demonstrate is that God justifies the Gentiles by faith. Thus, Sanders concludes that the subsidiary function of Gal 3:10–13 in Paul’s argument shows that he was not trying to demonstrate that it is impossible to keep the law. He says: “These three considerations…seem to me to be decisive against the view that the thrust and point of the argument are directed toward the conclusion that the law should not be accepted because no one can fulfill all of it” (p. 22).

It is necessary at this point to sum up Sanders’ basic understanding of Galatians 3. He claims that Paul is not giving reasons to support his idea that no one can be justified by the law; instead, Paul, who was a master of Jewish exegetical arguments, uses the OT to prove the validity of his position (p. 26). In other words, the reason Paul asserts that justification is not by the law is because he believes that justification is only through Christ (p. 27). “This helps us see that the problem with the law is not that it cannot be fulfilled. Paul has a view of God’s intention which excludes righteousness by the law; his position is dogmatic” (p. 27). From the very beginning, then, Paul’s assumption that salvation comes only through Christ excluded by definition the possibility that salvation could come via the law. In conclusion, Paul did not argue in Galatians 3 that righteousness was not by law because it was impossible to fulfill all of it; instead, Paul’s main purpose was to show that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith, showing thereby that both groups are equal before God.

Galatians 5:3

Another verse which is traditionally used to defend the notion that no one can obey the law entirely is Gal 5:3. Paul is writing to the Galatians and warning them against submitting to circumcision. He says, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law.” Sanders, commenting on this verse, says: “He makes use of the fact that accepting circumcision implies accepting the whole law, however, not to argue that the law should not be accepted because all of it cannot be kept, but as a kind of threat; if you start it must all be kept” (p. 27).

Sanders goes on to say that the only way one can support the traditional view is to slip in some unwarranted assumptions into Paul’s line of thought. The conventional thinking on the verse goes something like this (see p. 27):

  1. One must keep the law perfectly.
  2. No one can keep the law perfectly.
  3. There is no forgiveness if one does not keep it perfectly.
  4. Therefore, one is inevitably subject to a curse when one submits to the law.

Sanders argues that these four points are reasonable and logical, but no support can be found in Paul for points (1)-(3). Furthermore, this kind of thinking cannot be found in the Judaism of Paul’s day (p. 27). Sanders emphasizes that there is absolutely no evidence in Judaism that one must obey the law perfectly. Moreover, one cannot support in Jewish literature the idea “that the law is too difficult to be fulfilled” (p. 28). Lastly, all of Judaism believed that when one did disobey the law that there was a means of atonement and forgiveness. Although the traditional understanding of Gal 5:3 is plausible, it is not supported by any solid evidence.

Also see Is Perfect Obedience To The Law Possible? A Re-Examination Of Galatians 3:10

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    It doesn't really look like this answer is from the NPP perspective. If is is, then can you please edit it to be clearer and include quotes or references from NPP authors.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 29, 2016 at 13:56
  • @curiousdannii added reference.
    – Michael16
    Oct 29, 2016 at 18:55

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