Not to give the New Perspective people too much credit, but something jumped out at me reading Romans. I’ve been reading it four times in the last few months in different spots plus listening to it and I’ve noticed that the whole argument of the book when it pertains to justification by faith appears to be a response to the false teaching that adherence to the Jewish Law is salvific.
Because the Jewish Law does not figure too central in our thinking anymore, I think this gets forgotten and we as good Protestants get focused on how salvation is not by works (doing good in general, sacraments, etcetera) while Paul really was not addressing this idea.
Rom 1 and 2 show how both hedonistic and self-righteous gentiles are alike under sin and are culpable to the “Law of Nature,” which is a sense of God’s Law one can derive from his or her own conscience. The latter part of Rom 2 and then Rom 3 speak of how Jews likewise, regardless of the privilege of having of the Law, are under sin. Even the sin list of Rom 3:10-18, though it implicitly includes gentiles, is not really directed at a gentile audience but rather to Jews (a point that Chrysostom recognized in his homilies on Romans.) Verse 9 makes this pretty clear: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
If you read chapter three, the “we” are Jews and the “they” are gentiles. So, when Paul brings David, Isaiah, and other Old Testament writers as witnesses against the whole world (showing how Jews and Greeks alike are under sin), Paul is not doing so for the reason we often think of when we go through the “Romans Road” preaching to unbelievers. Rather, he is proving to self-righteous Jews that their own Law, when used lawfully, shows that they stand condemned.
This is why Paul says in verse 19, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed.” Hence, Paul’s emphasis I think is often lost because our audience generally is not Jewish.
So, when Paul speaks of faith alone in the latter part of chapter 3, he is clearly doing so to disprove salvation-by-Law-adherence. Verse 22 states, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” So, Paul is showing how the Law is used lawfully, and that on the basis of the Law gentiles cannot be excluded from salvation, because they by faith can attain to the same righteousness that Jews can.
This point is important, because the New Perspective people try to teach that though good works are still needed for salvation, they are just not the good works as stipulated in the Jewish Law. However, this is not Paul’s point either. We can extrapolate this much from Romans 4, because before Abraham did anything he was made righteous by faith.
However, this is not the key emphasis of Romans 4 either, though it is true.
In Romans 4, the example of Abraham is given for two reasons. First, he existed before the Mosaic Law and was able to attain righteousness despite its non-existence. Second, he attained to righteousness by faith and not by doing any specific command or work. So, we as Protestants immediately get comfort from this as we see we do not need to follow the slavish works of Romanism, or run of the mill good deeds, and think that we need to add these to our account to make up for what Jesus could not do—perish the thought.
However, this is not what is on the forefront of Paul’s mind and the preceding, though true, is anachronistic. Paul clues us in what is on the forefront of his mind in Rom 4:16: “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”
Paul’s discussion therefore was not in order to speak against works righteousness, even though by consequence he does disprove works-righteousness. Rather, the whole point was to show that both Jews and gentiles can be saved by the same faith and therefore the Law does not serve as a differentiator for who is saved and who isn’t.
This need to correct the Jews’ misunderstanding of the Law figures prominently in chapters which we read from totally different perspectives. When we read Rom 5 we think “original sin.” Though original sin is part of the discussion, Paul’s point in bringing it up is to show, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:21). So, Paul is concerned with the lawful use of the Law than he is about infants being born with sin, though the latter is true.
In Romans 6, Paul responds to a counterargument against the lawful use of the Law–if the Law does not bring about righteousness, why not just sin? In Rom 7, we often take solace in the fact that Paul struggles with living a righteous life just like us, but the chapter really is not about this. It speaks of how the Law works within the heart of a believer, making sinfulness more sinful and thereby making grace more gracious. Again, it is about the lawful use of the Law.
Likewise, Rom 8 shows how a Spirit-led life replaces slavish adherence to the Law. Need I go into detail about how Romans 9 through 11, though it teaches predestination, is specifically about how those with the Law have been hardened as a means to bring in the full nation of [spiritual] Israel?
I hope by bringing this up, there may be a greater appreciation of Paul’s thought.