History Makers: The New Perspective on Paul with Dr. Guy Waters

Stephen Nichols (SN): We are visiting again with our good friend Dr. Guy Waters. Dr. Waters, welcome back.

Guy Waters (GW): Thank you, Dr. Nichols.

SN: Most of the time we look to the past in the church but church history is being written. But it’s being written today. And I suspect if the Lord were to tarry, that as the church history books are written, one of the things they will talk about of the early twenty-first century is the New Perspective on Paul. You’ve written a number of books on the New Perspective. Would you tell us, what is the New Perspective on Paul?

GW: The New Perspective on Paul is not as new as it used to be. It’s been around forty years or so, but it is an epochal movement in the study of Paul. It begins with the reevaluation of the Judaism contemporary to the New Testament writers. It argues that we need to understand that Judaism was a religion of grace. If we think of it as a religion of works we have misunderstood what it was about. Now that raises a question, of course, because if Judaism is a religion of grace, then why does the New Testament take issue with Judaism? If Judaism was a religion of merit or of works, and the gospel is a gospel of grace, then we understand the difference. But if they’re both promoting grace, then where’s the difference?

The New Perspective argues that the real difference between Judaism and first-century Christianity lay in a couple of areas. One, of course, was Christianity’s conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. But beyond that, the New Perspective argues that Christianity was advancing inclusivism, that is to say, that the people of God included not only Jews but also Gentiles. That becomes significant in the way in which the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification comes to be reenvisioned. Justification is no longer understood to be the way in which a sinner is declared righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ and received through faith alone. Justification is said to speak of God’s declaring a person, Jew or Gentile, to be a member of His covenant people, His church, because of that person’s faith. Faith is that person’s badge, his identifier, his identify marker, not works of the law, not Sabbath or circumcision or other distinctively Jewish ordinances. So justification has historically been understood in the church to answer the question of the Philippian jailer—”What must I do to be saved?” And the New Perspective says, “That’s the wrong question. Justification as Paul advances it is not really concerned to answer that question.”

SN: It seems like if you want to have the gospel you need to have the doctrine of justification, and behind that you need to have the doctrine of imputation. Is that what’s at stake here?

GW: The problem is that when they do begin to talk about the salvation of the sinner, it’s done in such a way that there’s no place for imputed righteousness and it becomes Christ’s work on the cross plus the work of the Spirit in me, my good works as a Christian. These combine so that I can be just or accepted on the day of judgment. And there’s nothing new about that. That’s precisely the position that the Protestant Reformers were protesting against at the time of the Reformation.

SN: Dr. Waters, thank you for helping us understand this crucial departure from the orthodox understanding of the gospel.