Beckett: The Lutheran Perspective on Paul

You may have read my recent article, The New Perspective from Paulin which I reflected on Dr. Mark Seifrid’s theological critique on E.P. Sanders’ new perspective on Paul. Here, I will be expanding on that reflection by writing more on what the Lutheran perspective on Paul is. I will be repeating myself a few times from the last article, but there are also a few new additions.

For the last thirty years or so, New Testament scholarship has offered a “new perspective” on Paul that reexamines Paul’s former relationship with Judaism. E.P. Sanders was the first to promulgate this “new perspective,” who defined his view on Jewish soteriology as “covenantal nomism.” According to Sanders, the Jews did not believe in works righteousness. This is because, he postulates, obedience to the Law was not the way of getting into salvation but the way of staying in salvation (Seifrid, 20).

According to his view, the people of Israel were predestined to salvation in the Abrahamic covenant. So, because they were predestined to salvation, they were already “in.” To stay in, God prescribed the Law as the means of obedience in which they were to remain in salvation. Sanders’ covenantal nomism has three primary flaws: it misunderstands the use of the Law, it fails to view the Law in light of Christ, and it underestimates the role of faith. Ultimately, and ironically, covenantal nomism is just another form of works righteousness.

The Law in the Law/Gospel Theological Framework

The first error with the new perspective on Paul (NPP) is that it characterises the Law as “a bad thing” that Christ had to abolish. (This is an ironic conclusion considering the NPP’s emphasis on New Testament exegesis, where we find Jesus saying, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfil them” [Matthew 5:17].) Martin Luther spoke of two uses of the Law and Philip Melanchthon added a third use in article VI of the Formula of Concord. The key difference between the NPP theology of the Law and Lutherans’ theology is that whereas the NPP views the Law as “human employment,” Lutherans view the Law as “God’s use of the law” (Heen, 269-270).

The NPP makes the same error as Paul’s Jewish contemporaries: these Jews viewed the Law as requiring human employment to gain/sustain access to salvation (whatever their soteriology truly was), and the NPP likewise views the Law as requiring human employment to remain in salvation. This is why it’s ironic when Sanders and his successors claim the Jews did not believe in works righteousness when in the end, salvation still depends on one’s works under the NPP framework (more on this later).

So, since the Law is not how humans use it, but how God uses it, how does God use the Law? There are debates in Lutheran circles about whether or not there is a third use of the Law, so here we will focus only on the two uses that Lutherans universally agree on. (My opinion: since the Confessions we subscribe to say there is a third use of the Law in article VI of the Formula of Concord, if we want to stay faithful to our Confession, Lutherans should universally agree there is a third use.)

The first use is what Lutherans call the “civil” or “political” use of the Law, in which God keeps all of creation in order. This is commonly known as the Law as a “curb,” in which God uses the Law to “curb” or restrain human sin (e.g. the good, proper use of government that punishes murders, theft, etc. [cf. Romans 13:1-7]; and, i.e., the moral law found in all human hearts that troubles the conscience [cf. Romans 2:15]). As Heen describes it, the Law in Lutheranism and Judaism is a gracious gift of God that “[instructs] humans in their responsibilities, especially to one another and creation” (270).

The second use is what Lutherans call the “theological” use of the Law, which is often described as a “mirror” in which God uses the Law to reveal human sin and thus points us to the only remedy to the grime of our sin: the Gospel. In this way, Heen describes the Law as having a “dialectical relationship” with the Gospel:

[I]t is not as though law is simply to be equated with Israel and the Old Testament and gospel is to be equated with Christianity and the New Testament. Rather, God’s judgment on sin and God’s promise of mercy are held together, the one not existing without the other. What is “bad” in the usus theologicus [use of the law] is not the law (of God), but the persistent sinfulness of humanity. (Heen, 271. This is also known as law-gospel reductionism, which I will cover later.)

In fact, Paul says the Law is holy, righteous, and good because it reveals to us the problem of our sinful human condition and dialectically points us to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 7:12-25). So, what’s “bad” about the use of the Law, as Heen notes, is not the Law in and of itself, but the persistence of sinful humanity that the Law exposes before our eyes, especially our sinfulness to misappropriate the Law.

The Theology of the Cross

The second error of the NPP is that it fails to view the Law in light of Christ—that is, in light of His crucifixion and resurrection. The paradox of the cross is that it is simultaneously “an attack upon sin and the revelation of the depth of God’s mercy… the revealed God is hidden on the cross” (Heen, 271). A theologian of the cross is to be distinguished from the theologian of glory. This distinction comes from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.

The former believes in the limitless, unfathomable mercy of God who forgives all sin and transforms all things in view of the cross and, ultimately, God is revealed in the suffering of Christ. All suffering is to be viewed in the suffering of Christ on the cross—God is paradoxically hidden in Christ’s suffering yet revealed in Christ’s suffering. The latter believes all suffering is evil and is therefore to be avoided and thus relies on one’s own righteousness and/or good fortune. (For example, the prosperity gospel calls people to find comfort in their good fortunes and teaches one can only receive God’s favour through good fortune, as opposed to calling them to receive comfort from Christ who suffered on their behalf, through whom they receive God’s favour based on what Christ has done once for all.)

When the theologian of glory is faced with the full weight of sin, suffering, and misfortune, he looks to himself and assumes he has to do something to earn God’s favour and good fortune. For the theologian of the cross, however, he looks to the cross—Christ who died for him and who has risen for him. He clings to the promise of Christ in the midst of his suffering and misfortune whilst prayerfully and patiently waiting on the Holy Spirit to deliver him from evil, as the Lord has promised. In other words, the theologian of the cross laments. He cries out, “Why, God?” And in his lamenting, he sees Christ on the cross and continues, “Nevertheless, I will trust in Your promises and in who You are.” This is the Lutheran understanding of Paul’s theology of the cross.

Luther is not creating a new theological framework. His framework is derivative of Pau’s in the Corinthian correspondence (1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 10-11) as well as Galatians 3:13 (Heen, 271). So, for both Paul and Luther, the problem is not the Law in and of itself, but the problem of theologians of glory, which are people who view the Law in terms of acquiring righteousness by their own means (i.e. self-righteousness). This is not only the type of righteousness Luther warned in his own day, but also in Paul’s day (Romans 2-3) and even during Jesus’ ministry. It was the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the Pharisees Jesus criticised (e.g. Matthew 23:1-36)—that is, their misappropriation of the Law, not the Law in and of itself. This self-righteousness—this theology of glory—is a persistent problem of humanity that continues to infect the hearts and minds of believers today.


The third error of the NPP is its underestimation of the role of faith. The NPP understands faith as “granting cognitive assent to soteriological propositions (e.g., about the atonement),” and thus views the Law as bad and belonging only to the Old Testament, and the Gospel/faith as good and belonging only to the New Testament. Rather, faith is “trust in God’s promise to be a God of mercy even when one experiences only suffering and the cross,” which is the same type of faith we find in the Old Testament (Heen, 272). The former—the NPP view—is known as law-gospel reductionism, which divorces Law and Gospel from each other. Law and Gospel are not dialectically opposed to each other; they dialectically flow from one another, as we have seen in the second “theological” use of the Law as a mirror.

Both Luther and Paul perceived justifying faith in the Old Testament. In Romans 4, Paul makes mention that Abraham was justified by faith before the institution of the Law. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:4-8; Genesis 15:6). Therefore, Paul concludes, since justification by faith precedes the Law, it therefore supersedes the Law.

Luther loved to make mention of Scripture’s definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Luther makes incredible mention of Jacob’s faith in Genesis 27Jacob receives the promised blessing, but he does not yet have it. He does not have the promise yet, but he nevertheless believes God’s promise—he lives by faith alone. Thus, Luther says, “This is the beginning of the blessing, for what is begun through faith is not yet in one’s possession but is hoped for” (Heen, 273).

Luther’s faith as hope and assurance in things not yet seen is derivative of Paul’s use of πίστις (pistis) as a faith that finds assurance in God’s promises that are not yet seen and received (2 Corinthians 5:1-7; Romans 8:24-25). This is why we as Lutherans can remember our Baptism as the assurance for the new life to come in Christ when He returns to resurrect us from the dead. We do not have our new bodies and new life yet, but when we remember our Baptism we know and trust in Baptism’s promise, which promises new life and new bodies in Christ (also known as the now/not yet reality).

Covenantal Nomism as Works Righteousness

Ultimately, and ironically, the NPP (covenantal nomism) is still a works righteousness theological framework. The NPP’s covenantal nomism ultimately has to do with works vis-à-vis the final eschaton. It claims that “one is initially justified by faith, but one’s works shall finally count toward salvation in the final judgment” (Seifrid, 26). This is an incredibly self-contradicting statement. If one is initially justified by faith, but salvation still depends on one’s works in the end, then faith cannot justify if salvation is still dependent on the person’s works in the end! Faith becomes irrelevant—indeed, invalid—in this framework.

This is most evident when Paul says quite simply, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The word “fall” in the Greek is in the present indicative active, which indicates a continuous action. So, according to Paul, all people—even Israel—have sinned and thus fall short of the glory of God and continue to do so! No matter what we do, we always fall short of the glory of God. We’re doomed! However, Paul continues, “and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). All people perennially fall short of the glory of God, and are thus doomed no matter what they do, but God has justified us as an act of His grace in the redemptive act of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thanks be to God!

The NPP completely undermines Christ’s justifying act, and thus insults His merit. The NPP and covenantal nomism are, therefore, just another type of works righteousness known as synergism. This, then, is not a “new perspective” on Paul but a rather old one. As Seifrid puts it, “an old, insipid moralism” (21).

Synergism essentially 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. In this way, then, the “new perspective” is not new at all; it is simply an old heresy under a new name. For Paul and Luther, our obedience does not effect salvation; rather, salvation effects our (new) obedience. 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.

In other words, because we receive the Holy Spirit through faith, we cannot help but do good works as new creatures of God just as we cannot help but breathe as human beings. As new creatures of God, we do good works simply because it gives us joy to do them, and our doing them pleases God since we are doing them in faith (Hebrews 11:6). Thus, we find the application of the third use of the Law, which says: Now that your sins have been redeemed and you have been reconciled to God, go do what you were created to do. How do we know what to do? The Law tells us.

God did not give the Law as the means by which Jews and Gentiles enter or remain in salvation. God graciously gave the Law to expose our sins, to know how to live in human community and with the rest of creation, and to draw us to His Gospel promise in the Messiah. It is not the Law in itself that is bad, but the human misappropriation of the Law that is bad, which is that theologian of glory in all of us (self-righteousness) we perpetually battle against that seeks to use the Law as the means by which we earn God’s favour when His favour has already been given to us freely in Christ.

Just as with Luther and Paul, the Law is always to be viewed in light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ did not abolish the Law, but He fulfilled it in His work, especially His work on the cross in having died to the Law on our behalf; and also in the work of His resurrection, having defeated sin, death, and the Devil for us. Thus, we are free to obey the Law not as the means to acquiring or remaining in salvation but as the means by which we restrain sin, see our sin and become disgusted of its filth and repent in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and go forth to do its good works for love of neighbour and love of God, just as the Law was always intended to do.


Heen, Erik M. “A Lutheran Response to the New Perspective on Paul.” The Lutheran Quarterly 24, no 3 (Aug 2010): 263-291.

Seifrid, Mark A. “The New Perspective from Paul.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14, no 3 (2010): 20-35.


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