The New Perspective on Paul

While taking Tom Schreiner’s class “Theology of the New Testament” and reading his excellent book New Testament Theology, I have given some thought to the “New Perspective on Paul.” In trying to wrap my mind around the New Perspective, I’ve done my best to distill its main tenets here and give what I believe is a proper response to it.

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is a label that covers a variety of attempts to better understand the writings of the Apostle Paul. Perhaps the theme that unifies these new perspectives is the notion that the Reformers fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s writings. The Reformers’ “old perspective” held that Paul was speaking against legalism–attempting to gain a right standing with God by adhering to the law. This new perspective (as represented by James Dunn) claims that Paul does not speak against works-based salvation, but against Jewish exclusivism that stressed the need for specific identifiers such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and the purity laws. Paul was concerned that this ethnocentrism excluded non-Jews, who did not wear the badges of Jewish identity.

Much of the debate hinges on what is meant by “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans. The new perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean those external badges of Judaism. The traditional perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean “those actions or deeds required by the law” (Schreiner, 527).

Dr. Schreiner and other New Testament scholars find the new perspective unsatisfactory. Paul was not arguing that the Jews were excluding the Gentiles based on their failure to wear the external badges of Judaism. Rather, he is arguing that both Jews and non-Jews are guilty because they have failed to perfectly uphold God’s moral law. No one keeps everything the law requires; therefore all are guilty before God. It is difficult to maintain that Paul’s references to the law always meant those external badges of Jewish identity.

We can learn some things from the new perspective on Paul. For example, E. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism chastens the idea that Judaism was solely about legalism. But the danger of the new perspective appears to be that it weakens Paul’s polemic against works-based righteousness. The glory of the Gospel is that it offers us that which we cannot gain by working for it. In offering the “alien” righteousness of Christ, the Gospel both slays our pride and gives us the only righteousness God will accept.

Divine Sovereignty in John’s Gospel

John stresses the theme of divine sovereignty along three distinguishable, but closely related themes: divine sovereignty in salvation, divine sovereignty granted to the Son, and divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each theme carries a special significance. To summarize,

  1. The theme of divine sovereignty in salvation puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort and locates it in God’s gracious initiative from conception to completion.

  2. The theme of divine sovereignty granted to the Son signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

  3. The theme of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work signifies that Christ’s crucifixion was no accident, but an eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans. As such, it demands from us a response to believe in the Son for eternal life.

John’s emphasis on divine sovereignty occurs in connection with three related themes: man’s salvation, Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Concerning the first theme—man’s salvation—John makes it clear that the right to be a child of God originates exclusively from God’s sovereign will. He states this both positively (“[God] gave the right to become children of God,” 1:12) and negatively (“who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God,” 1:13). This list of three negatives is intended to rule out any human contribution to salvation. No one becomes a child of God by his or her biological heritage (“not of blood,” a polemic against the ethno-exclusivity of the Jews). Neither can one become a child of God by sheer determination or coercion (“nor of the will of man”). God’s sovereign determination alone can bring about a person’s spiritual birth.

The very metaphor of salvation as rebirth (or birth from above) also speaks to the sovereignty of God in salvation. Jesus was making a statement of fact, not issuing a command, when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (3:7). This statement can be rendered literally, “It is necessary (dei) for you [plural] to be born again/from above.” By its very meaning, birth does not imply any origination or even participation with the person being born.

John emphasizes in chapter six even more explicitly that God is sovereign to save. He quotes Christ as saying, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). Negatively, but even more striking, Jesus states, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). Echoing words and ideas from 1:13, Christ says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (6:63). And again he stresses that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (6:65). Thus the metaphor of the new birth and explicit statements regarding God’s divine initiative in salvation bolster this theme of God’s sovereignty in originating man’s salvation.

Besides emphasizing God’s sovereignty with regard to the origin of salvation, John also emphasizes God’s sovereignty with regard to the perpetuation of salvation: God is sovereign to keep those whom he saves. Christ says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (6:37). Linking God’s sovereign will with a believer’s future resurrection he says, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (6:39). In the very next verse he emphasizes the same thing: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). In words that have spoken great assurance to believers of every generation, Christ says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:28-29). God’s sovereignty in securing a believer’s salvation is also highlighted in Christ’s high priestly prayer: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction” (17:12). If that last phrase, “except the son of destruction,” seems to weaken the point of God’s sovereignty in securing salvation, the reader needs only to continue reading: “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The “loss” of Judas as part of God’s sovereign plan was stated earlier in chapter six: “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas . . . for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” Thus John emphasizes God’s sovereignty in securing believers in salvation.

John’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation serves a twofold purpose. First, it puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort or inheritance. As a sovereign decision of God, salvation cannot be earned. A salvation that is earned or inherited is no salvation at all. Second, it locates salvation, from beginning to end, in the gracious initiative of God John. Salvation was never sourced in man to begin with. Someone who thinks of salvation as something that he or she can “lose” fails to understand salvation from God’s perspective. Believers cannot lose their salvation because salvation was never theirs to lose (in the Johannine sense). Rather, God holds believers in an eternal grasp that will not be loosened (John 10:27-30). These two truths are pregnant with practical application. We see that works-reliant faiths are fraudulent, man-centered philosophies. We also see that faith groups claiming that salvation can be lost falsely understand salvation to be a work, based on man’s efforts, rather than rightly understanding salvation to be a work of God’s sovereign initiative. Further, a person who has believed in Jesus (and is bearing the kind of fruit Jesus said would be true of believers) need not fret about whether he or she has “lost” salvation. Neither should we fear that such assurance will lead to careless, presumptuous living. Someone who is truly born of God will bear God’s likeness (1 John 2:29; 3:9). Someone who consistently fails to show God’s likeness demonstrates rather that he or she never trusted in Christ, not that salvation was “lost.”

John emphasizes God’s sovereignty also in connection with the authority of Jesus Christ. The sovereign initiative to save originates with the Father, but is given to the Son. Jesus explains that the Father “has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). Having been granted this authority, the Son has the sovereignty to call the dead to life (5:25). The Father ordains who will come to the Son, and “gives” these to him (6:39). The Father also ordains the Son as the way a person comes to salvation: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). We see that sovereignty in salvation has been given to the Son because Jesus clearly claims that he himself will raise up believers in the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54). That the phrase “raise it/him up on the last day,” occurs four times within fifteen verses signifies its importance. Also, Christ’s claim that “he will live because of me” stresses this same idea (6:57), as well as Christ’s sovereign statement to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25-26). Again in John 10, the Son’s sovereignty to grant salvation blazes into view: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Perhaps the most remarkable statement concerning the Son’s sovereignty in salvation is found in 5:21: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” John could not be any clearer about the divine prerogative of the Son to save.

John emphasizes the sovereignty of the Son to signify that the Son deserves honor equal with the Father, indeed, that he is one with the Father. Jesus has full authority to grant life to whomever he wishes (John 5:21). Therefore, he should be honored just as much as the Father is honored (5:23). In fact, the actions and honor of the Father and the Son are so inextricably tied that to failure to honor the Son is failure to honor the Father (5:24). Jesus takes this even a step further in explicating his sovereignty in the security of salvation (John 10:27-30). He says that no one can snatch a believer out of his hand, and in the next sentence he says that no one can snatch a believer out of his Father’s hand. Whose hand is it, then? It is both the Father and the Son’s, for, as Jesus shockingly claimed, “I and my Father are one.” The neuter gender of the word “one” implies that the Father and the Son are a single entity. The Jews’ response demonstrated that they understood Jesus to be making full claim to deity (10:31). Thus, John’s emphasis on the Son’s sovereignty in salvation signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

Finally, John traces the theme of divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is helpful here to note John’s use of the verb dei (“it is necessary”) in connection with divine necessity. Jesus alludes to his atoning death in 3:14 by saying, “So must (dei) the Son of Man be lifted up.” In 10:16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must (dei) bring them also.” We find this language of divine necessity even on the lips of Christ’s opponents who queried, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be (dei) lifted up?” (12:34). Finally, John uses this verb in connection with Christ’s resurrection from the dead: “For as yet [the disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that he must (dei) rise from the dead.” Thus John’s use of dei emphasizes divine sovereignty, especially with regard to Christ’s atoning work.

Besides this verbal clue, we find explicit statements of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s death and resurrection. John is careful to point out the many prophetic fulfillments concerning Christ’s death. In so doing, it is clear that the crucifixion was in accord with God’s sovereign plan, and only superficially the result of an angry mob and compliant Roman rulers. Further, Jesus emphasizes his sovereign control over his death and resurrection when he says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:17-18). No clearer statement about Christ’s intentionality in his atoning death could be made. The crucifixion would not be an event coerced by the Jews or hijacked by the Roman government. Rather, it was an exercise of Jesus’ sovereign will, veiled in the fury of his opponents. When on trial before Pilate, Jesus was intent on stating that Pilate’s authority to crucify him was only derived from God: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (19:11). Thus, John stresses divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s work of atonement.

By stressing divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work, John signifies that the crucifixion was no accident (John 10:17-18)t. It was the eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans (3:14). Jesus’ death and resurrection are far more than historical events. We should not think of Christ’s crucifixion as what was done to Jesus, but as what Jesus did. In love he laid down his life as a ransom for the sins of the human race (John 3:16). No one can see the cross and resurrection as anything less than the pivotal moment in history. In fact, because Jesus’ death and resurrection was his sovereign decision, it demands more from us than mere observation. It demands from us a response to believe in him for eternal life (John 11:25).

Roles of Tongues-Speaking in Acts: Doxological, Eschatological, Missiological and Soteriological

There are only three instances of tongues-speaking recorded in the book of Acts: 2:1-13, 10:44-47, and 19:1-7. The most extensive instance, of course, is Pentecost. On one level, speaking in tongues at Pentecost played a doxological role since the apostles and others were were testifying to God’s mighty (salvific) works. The means (foreign tongues) and content (subject matter of the speech) of tongues-speaking caused the audience to be amazed (Acts 2:5-12). When Cornelius and other Gentiles with him spoke in tongues, their content also was doxological: “extolling God” (Acts 10:46).

But testifying to God’s greatness comprises only one layer of the significance of tongues-speaking in Acts. Apparently the most important role was to demonstrate the certainty of the Holy Spirit’s arrival as the inauguration of a new age. The phenomenon of people speaking in languages they never learned was so astounding that it demanded an explanation. Luke chose the four descriptors “bewildered” (2:6), “amazed” (in both 2:7 and 12), “astonished” (2:7) and “perplexed” (2:12) to describe the audience’s reaction. Their verbal query, “What does this mean?” was exactly the response God intended. In answer to this question, Peter cited Joel 2:28-32, explaining saying that this tongues-speaking signaled that the new age of the Spirit had broken into the present order. The ascended Christ was beginning to pour the Spirit upon all flesh (2:33). Speaking in tongues was the first sign that this was taking place.

Yet there is an even more specific role of tongues-speaking in Acts. When Cornelius and others in his household (Gentiles) were converted, they too received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, Luke’s purpose in recording this account was to demonstrate that the gift of the Holy Spirit had transcended ethnic boundaries. His wording is unmistakable: “The believers from among the circumcised [Jews and possibly proselytes to Judaism] were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45, emphasis mine). And what indicated that the Spirit had been poured out? “For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46, emphasis mine). When Peter heard the Gentile converts speaking in tongues, he rightly concluded that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit to the same extent and in the same way he and the other Jewish believers had. These Gentiles, too, should be baptized (10:47). Beyond indicating that the new age of the Spirit had arrived, speaking in tongues provided the litmus proof that the Holy Spirit’s pouring out had flooded beyond ethnic boundary between Jews and Gentiles (see also Eph. 2:18).

The account of the Ephesian believers speaking in tongues also demonstrates that Gentile believers could receive the Holy Spirit. But since that understanding had clearly been established back in Acts 10, Luke’s emphasis here is different. Here he is concerned to show that the Spirit only indwells those who make Jesus the conscious object of belief. The Ephesian “disciples” had been baptized into John’s baptism. Paul clarified for them the role of John’s baptism. It was merely preparatory for the coming of Jesus Christ. Only after they were baptized in the name of Jesus did they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by their speaking in tongues.

From the foregoing analysis, we can distill in Acts four distinct roles for speaking in tongues. The first role is doxological. Speaking in tongues brought glory to God both by the miraculous nature of the event itself, and by the content of what was being proclaimed (Acts 2:11, 10:46). The second role is eschatological. Speaking in tongues indicated that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on all flesh as the inauguration of the new age (Acts 2:16-21, 33-36). The third role is missiological. Speaking in tongues validated the spread of missions beyond the borders of Israel since the Spirit was poured out on anyone, Jews or Gentiles, who believed in Jesus (Acts 10:46-47; 11:15-18). Finally, speaking in tongues serves a soteriological role. Faith in general or faith wrongly directed is not sufficient to receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus must be the conscious focus of faith (Acts 19:1-7).

Jesus the Divine Servant: Suffering, Substitution, Exaltation

Before taking Theology of the New Testament with Dr. Thomas Schreiner, I was familiar with the concept of the servant of the Lord. But my understanding was sketchy: it lacked cohesive structure. After I heard Dr. Schreiner’s lecture on this topic and studied the section in his book that deals with it, I grasped the overall framework, thoroughly enough, at least, to give a summary here. As part of Christology, the study of Jesus as the servant of the Lord compels me to stand in awe–and worship. I’ve framed this topic in answer to three key questions: (1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?” (2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as the Isaiah’s servant of the Lord? (3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

(1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?”

In order to understand Jesus as the servant of the Lord, we must investigate this term in Old Testament context, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy. In some passages, Isaiah clearly uses “servant” as a referent for the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4). But in other passages, Isaiah uses “servant” to refer to something distinct from Israel: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6). In this passage the servant must be distinct from Israel becomes he redeems Israel and brings salvation to other nations. We see this distinction also in Isaiah 42 where the servant is commissioned to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7). Thus, this “servant” in Isaiah cannot refer to Israel exclusively.

As we read Isaiah’s famous passage on the suffering servant (52:13-53:12), we see even more clearly the features of this servant. He will be exalted (52:13) yet marred beyond recognition (14). He will bear Israel’s sorrows and stand as substitute for the punishment of their sins (53:4-5). Somehow his life will extend beyond the “grave,” for he will “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (53:9-10). Thus, we see not only that this distinct servant redeems Israel, but also how he redeems Israel—by vicarious suffering.

We find it clear that by “servant,” Isaiah could mean either the nation of Israel or a person who is distinct from Israel. But this question lingers: “If this individual is not the nation of Israel, how are the two related?” Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue when it says that the servant “was numbered with the transgressors.” If we understand “the transgressors” to mean individual Israelites, then the servant is a part of Israel, yet distinct from it. Dr. Schreiner suggests that the servant (distinct from Israel) serves as a representative of Israel. As Israel’s representative, the servant “is both Israel and transcends Israel” (New Testament Theology, 264).

(2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as Isaiah’s servant of the Lord?

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not explicitly link Jesus to Isaiah’s suffering servant. But they drop enough clues to lead us to this conclusion. In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 when he states his mission for coming into the world: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words “serve,” “ransom” and “many” provide links to Isaiah 52:12 (“servant”), 53:5 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), and 10-11 (“many”).

John’s gospel forges an even stronger connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Isaiah’s servant. His theme of Jesus being “lifted up”(John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) hearkens back to Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” We sense that John was immersed in the words and ideas of Isaiah, with his theme of people’s failure to believe and hardening their hearts (John 12:40, cf. Isaiah 52:15, 53:1).

(3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

From Isaiah and the gospel writers, we understand that Jesus’ identity as the divine servant points to his role of sacrificial substitute for humankind (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:5). Whereas Israel failed to perfectly serve the Lord, Jesus steps in as Israel’s perfect representative and bears the punishment for her failures (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’s vicarious service and suffering becomes the pathway to his exaltation (John 12:32-36). Consistent with God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the benefits of the servant’s (Jesus’) exaltation extend beyond the borders of Israel, bringing the offer of salvation to all nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:5-7; John 12:20-23).

Eschatological Tension and Practical Christian Living

In his New Testament TheologyThomas Schreiner emphasizes the already/not yet feature of eschatology which is pervasive throughout the New Testament. This perspective on eschatology essentially sees us living in an age in which God’s promises are inaugurated, but not consummated. Christ’s resurrection, as the fulfillment of Old Testament anticipation, has “started the engine,” and the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that we are in motion. But we have not arrived at our final destination, in terms of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. Once you identify this tension, it’s hard not to see it in nearly every New Testament author.

In a lecture for his New Testament Theology class, Dr. Schreiner demonstrates this eschatological tension in the Pauline epistles. For example, Romans 8:15 indicates that “we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (a present possession), yet in Romans 8:23 we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” According to Ephesians 2:8, those who have faith in Christ “have been saved,” but 1 Thessalonians tells us to don “for a helmet the hope of salvation,” arguably a reference to a future event. Even in justification, which we tend to think to be exclusively “already,” there is eschatological tension. Paul could say in Romans 5:1 that “we have been justified by faith,” and yet in Galatians 5:5 that “we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” This is not to say that those who believe in Christ are not fully righteous, or that justification is a process aided by human effort. It is to say, rather, that our righteousness has not reached its culmination in an eschatological sense. The world does not recognize God’s verdict about us. Even our own consciences do not always recognize God’s verdict about us (2 Peter 1:9). But there is coming a time when our justification will be consummated.

We see this tension also in Paul’s imperatives and indicatives. When Paul exhorts his readers, he grounds those exhortations in doctrinal truths, specifically related to the person of Christ. He tells his readers, in essence, “This is who you are in Christ, so here is how you should live.” But we often see the imperative and indicative overlapping, or in tension. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, Paul urges the Christians to “cleanse out the old leaven [permeating sin]” and in the same breath tells them that they are “really unleavened.” They are already pure, yet they are not yet pure. Colossians 3:9 indicates that Christians have already “put off the old self,” but in its sister passage, Paul exhorts his readers “to put off your old self” (Ephesians 4:22). Is Paul being contradictory? Or rather do we see that truth about who are already are compels what we must become? Here is eschatological tension practically applied.

Keeping in tension the “already” and “not yet” aspects of these doctrines has important implications for practical Christian living. Overemphasizing the “already” can lead to moral laxity. On the other hand, overemphasizing the “not yet” can lead to frustrating perfectionism. With regard to politics, veering too sharply toward the “not yet” can lead a person to shun any sort of civil involvement. On the other hand, an imbalance toward the “already” can give someone the drive to “fix” the world through political and/or moral reform, and bring heaven to earth. As New Testament Christians, we live between eschatological inauguration and consummation. We are certain that Christ’s death and resurrection has secured our redemption. We enjoy eternal life now. But we also realize, with deep longing, that the fullness of all these promises is yet to come.