For the last thirty years or so, New Testament scholarship has offered a “new perspective” on Paul that reexamines Paul’s past relationship with Judaism as an apostle of Christianity. E.P. Sanders was the first to promulgate this “new perspective,” who defined his view on Jewish soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) as “covenantal nomism.” According to Sanders, the Jews did not believe in works righteousness. This is because, he says, obedience to the Law was not the way of getting into salvation but the way of staying in salvation (Seifrid, 20). The people of Israel were already predestined to salvation in the Abrahamic covenant. So, because they were predestined to salvation in God’s covenant with Abraham, they were already “in.” To stay in, God prescribed the Law as works of obedience for them to remain in God’s election. The only way a Jewish person could lose their salvation, according to Sanders, was through open rebellion against God and unrepentance.
What does this have to do with Paul? This has to do with Paul’s doctrine on justification. Because God selected the people of Israel based on the Abrahamic covenant for salvation, Sanders and his successors claim that Paul’s doctrine of justification is the same justification (predestination) of Israel that the Gentiles now share in (21). In other words, because of Christ, Gentiles are preselected as members of the nation of Israel, and now that they are members of Israel, they have to become Jewish and thus have to do the works of the Law in order to remain in God’s preselected salvation.
This is problematic for a major noteworthy reason. Jesus made clear that He is the only way to salvation—that no one can come to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). Even if it is true that the Jews were to keep the Law in order to stay in salvation (and now Gentiles), Jesus’ statement here completely negates that—the Law insofar as its works require salvation (whether that be getting in or staying in) becomes irrelevant in the face of Christ’s work. In other words, the “new perspective” on Paul is ignorant of Christ’s work being sufficient for all and His work superseding the Law; and, furthermore, covenantal nomism as obedience to the Law to “stay in” salvation is still works righteousness.
Justification by Faith Precedes the Law
Seifrid calls the new perspective on Paul “nothing more than an old, insipid moralism” (21). So, Seifrid offers a correction: Instead of a new perspective on Paul, Seifrid changes the preposition and calls it the perspective from Paul. Sanders and his successors view Paul as completely breaking away from his Jewish past. Conversely, Seifrid contends his breaking with his past “is paradoxically jointed to his continuity with it.” This is why Paul is able to identify with his fellow Jews “according to the flesh” (22). Paul’s new perspective stems from the faith given to him by God’s grace (the new covenant in Christ), not on God’s preselection of Israel in the Abrahamic covenant (more on this “breaking away” later).
For Sanders and his successors, God’s grace is merely His preselection of Israel to salvation. That is certainly part of it, but for Paul, God’s grace is also the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4-8). The receivers of God’s grace are “all” who have sinned, and His grace is received through Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24). Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” doing the works of the Law to “stay in” salvation cannot be possible. Even if that were the purpose of the Law, not a single person could do enough works to “stay in” salvation. After all, none are righteous (Romans 3:10-18; Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3). Assuming it is true that the Law is not how a person “gets into” salvation but “stays in” salvation, salvation is still dependent upon the work of the person rather than the work of God and therefore insults the merit of Christ. Indeed, this places the power of the human will over the power of God’s will.
In fact, the Law never claims to offer salvation (for that belongs to the Gospel alone). Paul uses two significant Old Testament figures to prove this: Abraham and David. Abraham, Paul contends, was not justified by works but by faith. As Scriptures says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). God had not given the Law yet. So then, justification by faith precedes the Law. Therefore, Paul concludes, justification by faith takes precedence over works of the Law.
Similarly, with David, Paul says:
And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:5-8; cf. Psalm 32:1-2)
Seifrid concedes that Sanders and his successors “[understand] that God’s grace to Israel includes the forgiveness of Israel’s sins.” However, “Sanders explicitly excludes from the scope of ‘covenantal nomism’ any open and defiant rebellion against God… a rejection of the Lord’s covenant” (23). According to Paul, the entire human race is guilty of this defiant rebellion against God, even Israel! That is what Sanders and his successors are ignoring. Therefore, doing the works of the Law as “staying in” salvation is irrelevant, i.e. they don’t work! Even in the Old Testament, the Jews did not stay in salvation by obedience to the Law—which is still works righteousness—but by faith in God’s promise, just as Abraham and David believed.
The Law in Perspective of Christ
So then, how do we correctly understand Paul’s relationship with his Jewish past? It is exactly as that, as Seifrid says, “Paul’s statements about Judaism are essentially statements about his own past” (23). At times, Paul does break away from his Jewish past as fits the pastoral occasion (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), but he ultimately identifies himself as part of the nation of Israel (Romans 9:1-5). Seifrid says it best, “His break with his past was not an abandonment of it, but a coming to see it in a new light” (23). Thus, the new perspective from Paul sees the Law, Judaism, and the fallen world in light of Christ crucified and risen.
Returning to the inclusion of Gentiles, it was this inclusion in Paul’s ministry (as well as Peter’s) that increased the concern for where salvation is found. Is salvation found in Christ alone, or must one also obey the Law to be saved? In his covenantal nomism, Sanders describes “boundary markers” between Jews and Gentiles, which were ethnical. “Gentiles were notorious not only for their uncircumcision and for ignoring the Sabbath and the food laws, but also for their immorality and idolatry” (24). For the Jewish converts, circumcision was a sure sign of inclusion in God’s covenant and thus one’s obligation to obey the Law.
So, the issue stands: assurance of salvation is either found in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, or in the Law (an issue Paul, Barnabas, and others addressed before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, which concluded with not burdening the Gentiles’ consciences with obedience to the Law for salvation). As one can guess, for Paul, salvation is found in Christ alone. “According to the apostle, the new creation—the circumcision of the heart worked by the gospel—transcends the law of Moses that bears witness to it and effects true obedience in the human heart” (24; cf. Romans 2:28-29). Paul wasn’t creating a new teaching; this teaching is found in the Law of Moses itself (Deuteronomy 30:6). So, even the Law itself claims salvation—life in God—comes by faith and not circumcision (obedience to the law, i.e. works righteousness). Nevertheless, the Jews of Paul’s day twisted the purpose of the Law as the means by which one acquires salvation. Even if their understanding of obedience to the Law was to remain in salvation, as Sanders claims, this theological framework is still works righteousness.
Sanders’ covenantal nomism ultimately has to do with works vis-à-vis the final eschaton. He and his successors claim that “one is initially justified by faith, but one’s works shall finally count toward salvation in the final judgment” (26). If one is initially justified by faith, but salvation still depends on one’s works, then faith cannot justify if salvation is still dependent on the person’s works in the end. There can be no justification by faith where works is the basis for which salvation is guaranteed. Indeed, faith becomes irrelevant in this equation. This type of works righteousness is known as synergism, which is incredibly self-contradicting. Thus, covenantal nomism is nothing other than another type of synergistic works righteousness theology—in Seifrid’s words, “an old, insipid moralism.”
Synergism basically says the Holy Spirit does 99.9% of the work, and the final outcome of one’s salvation depends on the person’s “yes” (0.01%). In the end, everything depends on that 0.01% and the work of the Holy Spirit becomes insufficient and irrelevant, which is remarkably blasphemous. For Paul, our obedience does not effect salvation; rather, salvation effects our (new) obedience (Romans 6:4-5; 8:1-3; Galatians 6:15). As the Lutheran Confessions say (AC XX.27-29):
Further, it is taught that good works should and must be done, not that a person relies on them to earn grace, but for God’s sake and to God’s praise. Faith alone always takes hold of grace and forgiveness of sins. Because the Holy Spirit is given through faith, the heart is also moved to do good works.
Conclusion: There is One Israel—Inclusive Israel, not Ethnic Israel
As Sanders worked to reconcile Paul’s doctrine of justification with prior obedience to the Law, he contended that Paul’s justification by faith was not the salvation of the individual but the salvation of the group (i.e. Israel)—that because the Gentiles’ justification is the same as ethnic Israel’s, they have to become Jews. However, Sanders misses Paul’s redefinition of Israel. God’s promise is no longer to ethnic Israel, but inclusive Israel (Romans 9:6-8). Thus, considering the context, Paul considers himself a Jew not just in the ethnic sense, but also in the inclusive sense since it is by faith in Christ in which he officially and actually becomes a part of Israel.
As Seifrid notes, “It was this inclusivity which proved to be a stumbling block to Paul’s contemporaries. They could not accept the idea that Gentiles could be saved without Judaizing” (27). Even Paul’s Jewish contemporaries knew he was not talking of an ethnic Israel but an inclusive Israel—that Gentiles now belong to the nation of Israel because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why the Jews were so against the soteriology of the apostles—that salvation is dependent by faith in Christ apart from works of the Law (Romans 3:28), i.e. works have no place in Paul’s soteriology. (This is where a longer conversation on the two kinds of righteousness can be discussed—that our vertical/passive righteousness before God is justification by faith, and our horizontal/active righteousness before man is by works of the Law. But I will not dive into that here. However, it should suffice to say that works of the Law have no place before God insofar as salvation is concerned, but works do have a place before man to do good towards one another, i.e. love for the neighbour.)
Paul’s doctrine on justification by faith radically altered the Jews’ prior soteriology. Even if the Jews’ obedience to the Law was not a “getting into” salvation but a “staying in” salvation, it is still a works righteousness soteriology since salvation still depends on one’s works in that theological framework (synergism). The new perspective from Paul is one that transcends all ethnic boundaries based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who offers salvation to all based on His merit alone and not on obedience to the Law to remain in salvation, whose salvation is given as the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Seifrid, Mark A. “The New Perspective from Paul.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14, no 3 (2010): 20-35.