By Louis F. DeBoer
Justification by faith was one of the dominant doctrines of the Great Protestant Reformation. It was at the very heart of Luther’s challenge to Rome. Luther himself declared his conviction that the church stands or falls on this doctrine. And ever since, it has been part of the doctrinal bedrock of all those who are Presbyterian and Reformed. This doctrine is not as simple as many may think. The Biblical doctrine of justification has a lot of components to it. And again it has been those who are Presbyterian and Reformed who historically have systematically developed, elucidated, taught, and defended this doctrine, whereas it has frequently been poorly understood and confusedly taught by evangelicals and Baptists. So, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that among allegedly conservative Presbyterians, there should now come a challenge to the traditional beliefs with respect to this doctrine. Not only is that somewhat shocking, but coming from within the Reformed camp it makes this challenge all the more serious, and its consequences far more drastic.
A New Perspective: What is the “New Perspective on Paul”? Well, for starters if there is a new perspective it must stand in opposition to an older perspective. As Paul himself stated it, “In that he saith, A new…he hath made the first old” (Hebrews 8:13). Paul is here speaking of the new covenant, the new covenant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31. New is, therefore, not necessarily bad. In the book of Hebrews God is revealing new truth, the new truth that the old covenant, the Sinaitic Covenant made with Israel at Sinai, is passing away and is being replaced with the new covenant that was prophesied by Jeremiah. Only God can do this. Only God can reveal new truth. Men can discover truth that is new to them, but that is not the same. That is, men can arrive at a better understanding of the truth that has already been revealed in Scripture.
And when men discover what is for them new light or new truth it comes in two varieties. The first is truth that is compatible with existing beliefs and understanding. This sort of truth is very helpful as it elucidates and supports the existing truth. The other kind is truth that replaces what was formerly held. This kind is a little more problematic. It may be new truth, but it may be something else. What appears to be new truth may not be that at all. It may be an old error in a new disguise. This truth seeks to supplant the old truth. One must decide which is actually the truth. One needs to be much more cautious and discerning in handling this kind of “new truth.”
The church of Jesus Christ always needs to be open to new truth. The Scriptures are an inexhaustible mine of truth. A lifetime of study can not begin to tap the wealth that is there. No church should think that it has arrived and has no need of further truth from Scripture. For no church is immune to error and has a perfect understanding of the full system of divinely revealed truth. However, one needs to keep in mind that it is rare that God in his gracious providence to his people would allow the true church to fall into error with respect to the most foundational and essential doctrines of the faith. And when that does happen, as it did in the medieval church, she soon manifests that she is no church of Christ at all.
Now the new perspective on Paul purports to be new truth. It desires to replace the old perspective on Paul. And it deals with a key doctrine of the church, the doctrine of justification by faith. That alone should raise a huge red flag to prospective students of this new view. Can the church of the Reformation have been wrong on some things? Certainly. While we may all agree that the Roman Catholic Church teaches an anti-Christian system of doctrine we may not all agree that the pope is literally the anti-Christ prophesied in Scripture. And similarly, while we may all agree on church government, we may disagree on the doctrine of the civil magistrate and the establishment principle. But could the Reformation church have been wrong on a doctrine that is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Could she have been wrong on the very doctrine that defined her and precipitated her schism with Rome? Could she have been wrong on the doctrine for which hundreds of thousands of her members were martyred? For that matter, could the church have been completely wrong on the essence of Paul’s gospel for all of church history since the apostolic age? Yet that is what the apostles of the new perspective ask us to believe. We will examine their claims.
The Old Perspective
First of all, let us examine the “old perspective” on Paul. The “old perspective” declared that Paul was teaching the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. Let us examine that doctrine. Let us examine what we are being asked to discard. When we speak of “justification by faith” there are two concepts that have to be defined, “what is justification?” and what do we mean “by faith?” To understand this doctrine we will have to expound both. First, what is justification? It is a legal term. It refers to our legal standing before God. As such, it should not be confused, as is frequently done, with our sanctification. Sanctification has to do with our actual state of holiness and righteousness. It is a life-long process and is not complete until at death we become “the souls of just men made perfect.” Justification, by contrast, deals with our official status before the bar of God’s justice.
The creeds of the Reformation uniformly define justification as follows, as is succinctly and accurately summed up in the Westminster standards.
Those whom God effectually calls he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them but by pardoning their sins and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them but for Christ’s sake alone, not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11, Section 1)
Q. What is justification ?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone. (Shorter Catechism, Question 33)
However, before we examine the historic doctrine of justification we need to back up a bit. The traditional gospel, the good news, has always started with the bad news, the fall into sin and man’s hopeless estate before a holy and a just God. Wherein exists man’s state of condemnation before God? It consists in his violation of the covenant of works. This is the covenant that God made with Adam in the garden before the fall. As the Westminster Confession states it…
The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (Chapter 7, Section 2)
This is the covenant that threatened death for disobedience to its terms. As Scripture says…
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
“…the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4).
“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23).
This is the covenant that promised life upon faithful obedience to its terms. Again, as Scripture says…
“Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:5).
The bad news is that we have all broken this covenant, are under its just curse, and having been born in sin and iniquity, in the image of our fallen parents, have no ability to keep its terms.
The good news, the gospel, is that Christ has kept this covenant on our behalf. He hung on the cross in our place and suffered the cursed death that we deserved. He has paid the penalties that this covenant required of those who transgress it. And more than that, he has kept its terms for us. He led the perfect sinless life of faithful and personal obedience that God required of us. These are legal transactions before the bar of divine justice. Our sins are imputed to Christ and he suffered the death penalty that they incur. And Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God, his sinless perfection, his spotless righteousness, is imputed to us. He is clothed with our sins and carries them to the cross. We are clothed with his righteousness and accounted righteous in God’s sight. That is, we are justified. It is by this double imputation that we are redeemed. Both imputations are necessary. The imputation of our sins to Christ, his paying the penalty for them, and our subsequent pardon deliver us from the eternal wrath to come in the lake of fire. And the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us fits us for heaven and fellowship with a holy God. Both are absolutely necessary and both are provided by the great salvation we have found in Jesus Christ.
This is the gospel that has been preached and proclaimed, believed and trusted in for almost 500 years since the Reformation. This is the gospel that millions have trusted in for the salvation of their eternal souls. This is the gospel that has been the hope of God’s elect from the days of the apostles, through Augustine’s confrontation with Pelagius, through the Reformers’ battles with Rome, through the battles with modernism and unbelief, right up to the very present. And this is the gospel that we are now being told is all wrong and is based on a misunderstanding of what Paul was actually trying to teach. This is the old gospel that we are being asked to abandon.
The New Perspective
Now what are we being asked to replace all the above with? What is the “new perspective” on Paul? The new perspective says that the church in general for the past two thousand years, and the reformers in particular for nearly the last 500 years have all misunderstand Paul. The apostles of this novel theory claim that Paul was not at all talking about how we are saved, about how sinners can be justified in the sight of a holy and a just God, of purer eyes than to behold evil, and who can by no means clear the guilty. They claim that this has nothing to do with our judicial standing before God. In fact, they claim it has nothing to do with how we are saved. They claim that Paul’s teaching about justification is not related to soteriology, the Biblical doctrine of salvation, but about ecclesiology, the Biblical doctrine of the church.
The New Perspective believes that the issue of justification in Pauline theology has to do with covenant membership. They believe that Paul was not concerned about how we are delivered from our sins as much as he was concerned about issues of church membership. The reason Paul didn’t need to be concerned about how we are saved from our sins was because they teach that first century Judaism already understood the way of salvation. They claim that we have totally misunderstood the Judaism that Paul contended with. To them, the Judaism of Paul’s day was a religion that believed in salvation by grace and has been improperly condemned as being a religion of salvation by works, human merit, and one’s own righteousness. The problem was not that the Judaizers in the early church were corrupting the gospel and teaching a false way of salvation as much a they were corrupting issues of church membership. They refused to admit Gentiles into the church unless they assumed the Jewish badges of covenant membership such as circumcision and adherence to the ceremonial law. To them the entire issue is what are the badges of covenant membership in the New Testament.
According to the new perspective, “justification” has nothing to do with how we are saved, or how we become members of the covenant community. Neither has it anything to do with how we stay saved, or how we persevere as members of the covenant community. To them, it strictly has to do with how we recognize who is in the covenant community. It has to do with the badges of membership in that community. “Justification by faith” simply means that faith, as opposed to circumcision, observing the dietary laws of Moses, etc., is a badge that enables us to recognize who is a Christian, who is in the covenant community. They are careful to point out, though, that they mean faith in Christ as Lord, and are not referring to faith in a substitutionary atonement or in some saving work of Christ. For they believe that the whole scheme of salvation that the Reformation taught as the gospel is a fabrication based on a misunderstanding of Paul and his issues with first century Judaism.
The following quotes by New Perspective theologians or by commentators on their views will give a sense of how they express these views.
The doctrine of justification by faith came to expression in these key letters of Paul (Galatians and Romans) as his attempt to prove that God’s covenant blessings were for Gentiles as well as Jews, that God was ready to accept Gentiles as Gentiles, without requiring them first to become Jews. The Christian doctrine of justification by faith begins as Paul’s protest not as an individual sinner against a Jewish legalism, but as Paul’s protest on behalf of Gentiles against Jewish exclusivism…Justification by faith is Paul’s fundamental objection to the idea that God has limited his saving goodness to a particular people.
‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”
“Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God. (I’m not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the notion of ‘relationship with God’, but we’ll leave that aside.) The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do, quite obviously, with the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?”
By “the gospel” Paul does not mean “justification by faith.” He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message—to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord—is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has ever heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith is a second-order doctrine. To believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Romans 5:1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table fellowship with all other believers without distinction (Galatians 2:11-21.)
What Paul means by justification in this context should therefore be clear. It is not how you become a Christian, so much as how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.
Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as they together wait for the final new creation.
Such quotations could be multiplied on and on, but these should be sufficient to demonstrate the thrust of the New Perspective in the very words of its originators. Two things stand out as we reflect on these statements. First of all, they emphasize that “justification by faith” has nothing to do with our salvation (soteriology), but has everything to do with ours church membership (ecclesiology), or, as they like to put it, our standing in the family of God. The gospel of justification by faith as involving salvation from sin and death and hell through the atoning work of Jesus Christ is totally eliminated. Secondly, they state that the gospel is about believing in Jesus as Lord. They believe that all who profess Jesus as Lord are Christians and part of the family of God. This is how they define justification by faith, one believes in Jesus as Lord and is thus “justified,” that is, one is “accepted into the family of God.”
The Biblical doctrine is that one must believe in Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. Back in the nineteenth century we had the Keswick movement that sundered the unity of that requirement. They taught that one could accept Jesus as Savior and not necessarily accept him as Lord, introducing the error of the “carnal Christian.” Now we have the opposite error. The New Perspective teaches that one can, indeed must, accept Jesus as Lord, but do not need to accept him as Savior. Indeed, they are strangely silent about Christ’s role as the Savior of his people. We are called to believe on a person, the Lord Jesus Christ, but not to believe on his great work of salvation for his people. The doctrine of believing in Jesus as Lord, without a gospel that deals with our sins, lays the perfect foundation for the various systems of neo-legalism that these views have spawned. Our faithful obedience to Jesus as Lord becomes the basis for our hopes of salvation. This is no gospel, no good news, but the disastrous position that we are on our own when we stand before the judgment seat of a holy God, and have to plead our own merits, rather than the merits of Christ’s perfect righteousness and his finished work on our behalf.
In summary, we are being asked to believe that the crux of the New Testament teaching, that the emphasis of Paul’s teaching, that the essence of the gospel, has nothing to do with salvation and our standing before God, but merely deals with the issues of membership badges of the church! We are being asked to surrender our belief in the historic gospel for a mess of pottage concerning membership badges in the covenant community. That such doctrines can get any traction in churches that profess to be Reformed is truly shocking.
The Origins of the New Perspective
While some of these ideas have been around the theological fringe for some time, the present movement can date itself from 1977 in the publication of E. P. Sanders’ work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism.” This was the most scholarly and comprehensive presentation of what came to be known as the “New Perspective on Paul” to date. However, Sanders was a theological liberal who finds Paul incoherent and ignorant of the true nature of Judaism, so he would never have made much of a dent in conservative or evangelical circles. This was followed up by the writings of James D. G. Dunn. Again, Dunn being a modernist, this additional salvo against the historic faith of the evangelical church was unlikely to meet with significant success. It took a Trojan horse, a pseudo-evangelical, to introduce this heresy into the evangelical church. That function was performed by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright was considered a member of that church’s “evangelical” wing, and he has been a popular speaker at “evangelical” conferences promoting the New Perspective.
As Brian Schwertley stated it,
“E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn are both modernists who accept critical, skeptical (i.e., unbelieving) views of New Testament authorship. They both engage in creative, sloppy exegesis of important passages; impose their paradigm on clear passages that explicitly contradict their viewpoint; and ignore historical and biblical evidence that refutes their presuppositions. N. T. Wright is much more evangelical in his approach to Scripture. However, his central presupposition or point of departure in theology and exegesis involves the heretical “covenant nomism” of E. P. Sanders. Norman Shepherd and the Auburn Avenue theologians have abandoned historic Protestantism and Reformed orthodoxy for heretical concepts developed by Christian liberals.”
The Agenda of the New Perspective
Things do not happen in a vacuum. People do not invent new doctrines mindlessly. They have an agenda; they have theological axes to grind; they have a purpose. What motivated the originators of this perspective to craft this revisionist view of Paul’s theology? Since they have been rather explicit in promoting the alleged benefits of their “perspective,” we can gain a direct insight on what their agenda is. I will cover it under the following heads.
Anti-Semitism: The apostles of the New perspective say they want to vindicate Paul from the charge of anti-Semitism. It seems that to them, Paul’s harsh words against the Judaizers and his low estimation of first century Judaism lays him open to a charge of anti-Semitism. They feel that all of this is solved by the New Perspective’s reevaluation of first century Judaism and redefinition of Paul’s true concerns in his controversy with it. The charge is not very credible. After all, Paul was himself a Jew, with a passion for the salvation of his fellow Israelites. His practice in every place where he went was to preach the gospel first in the local synagogue, if they would hear it. Paul went so far as to say, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 9:3-5). These are not the words of an anti-Semite but of a man desperately laboring to bring salvation to his fellow Israelites trapped in the coils of a false religion, ignorant of their Messiah, and blinded to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. His harsh words concerning their true spiritual condition and their unbelief are a necessary part of calling them to salvation in Jesus Christ.
Ecumenism: The apostles of the New Perspective decry the results of the Great Protestant Reformation. They are saddened that the church of Jesus Christ was split and fractured over theological issues. They feel it is particularly tragic that the separation between Catholics and Protestants was over the doctrine of justification by faith. They believe that both sides in the Reformation misunderstood Paul and that the entire Reformation was a mistake. They now resolve to set forth what Paul was actually teaching in the doctrine of “justification,” in the hope that this will reunite both Catholics and Protestants around the true meaning of Paul’s teaching. Thus they have a twofold plan to undo the Reformation. First, to undo the Reformation theologically by subverting its key doctrine, justification by faith as Protestants have historically believed that phrase, and secondly, to undo the Reformation practically by reuniting the Catholic and Protestant branches of the professing Christian church. They see their doctrine as particularly useful as a means of reuniting all branches of the “Christian” church and greatly advancing the goal of world ecumenism.
Social Justice: Thirdly, they see their doctrine as of great use in advancing the church in its goal of promoting social justice. They believe that there is an “inherent social dimension” to the doctrine of “justification.” Their view of Paul is that he was battling for the acceptance of Gentile converts into the church while the Judaizers were resisting that, insisting that the Gentiles become Jews first by submitting to circumcision, the dietary laws of Moses, etc. To them the doctrine of “justification” is about accepting diversity, about inclusiveness, and about social justice for all men. As one critic of the New Perspective stated it,
“…the NPP purports to help us articulate an understanding of justification that has an inherent social dimension and thus secures a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism amongst evangelical interpreters of Holy Scripture. For Wright, justification is about our “horizontal” relationships with one another and our inclusion in the covenant community more than it is about an individual’s “vertical” relationship with God. Hence, justification, is inherently, for the NPP, about the collective. It’s not about individuals, it’s about the community. Consequently, they argue that this understanding of justification better helps us to work for unity in the body of Christ, and to show how justification is a doctrine that ought to be drawing us together instead of dividing us and separating us.”
Again, the thrust of the New Perspective according to its proponents, is to redefine the doctrine of justification away from soteriology, how we are saved, to a lesson and an example in inclusiveness and social justice.
- The Gospel: Finally, we have do deal with the unstated premise in all this. As one analyst of the Kennedy assassination stated it, “Whoever killed Kennedy wanted Johnson to become President.” That is, any rational assassin would have realized that would be the practical results of his deed. What are the practical results of the New Perspective? What is the unstated premise in all this? It is this: the historic gospel of the Christian church, that was restored in the Reformation, needs to be eliminated and replaced with something else. Furthermore, it is that the traditional concerns of the Christian church relating to the salvation of men’s eternal souls need to be replaced with newer, more mundane concerns, such as inclusivity, ecumenism, and social justice. The final and unspoken item in the agenda of the apostles of the New Perspective is the destruction of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it has been historically proclaimed and believed. In all this they demonstrate their hatred of the gospel and their radical opposition to the church’s traditional emphasis on soteriology. If you doubt this, then the argument from silence becomes absolutely thunderous, for the apostles of this new doctrine have nothing to propose to replace the gospel they are subverting, except the non-soteriological issues outlined above. They have no interest in any gospel that deals with the salvation of men’s eternal souls.
Now there is a common thread to all these concerns. There is a uniformity to this agenda. These are all liberal concerns. Christians are concerned about truth. Christians are concerned about the salvation of their fellow men, about their eternal standing before a just and a holy God. Liberals have other concerns. They do not believe in the gospel. They see no need for it because they do not believe in man’s desperate condition before God. Their concerns, like the Sadducees of old, are all relevant to this present world. Their concerns are typical of the above—a politically correct commitment to diversity that decries any sort of prejudice such as anti-Semitism, the unity of all men in an inclusivist ecumenism, and social justice among men, and of course a contempt for the other-worldly concerns of genuine Christianity. This is a liberal agenda. The New Perspective is an exercise in theological liberalism.
The Attractions of the New Perspective
The famed Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney, once wrote an article entitled, “The Attractions of Popery.” Dabney divided the article between discussions about the legitimate as well as the illegitimate attractions of popery. To put it in current perspective the legitimate attractions of popery would include opposition to abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. The latter would include the historic Romish attractions of pomp and circumstance, of ritualism and pageantry, of the worth of one’s “good works,” and of second chances in purgatory, etc. I’m not sure I can think of any legitimate attractions of the New Perspective. As noted above, the agenda of this belief is essentially a liberal agenda. However, to have gained sufficient following to make this view a significant concern among conservative Presbyterians, it must have some attractions for some people. And in spite of the fact that these attractions are undoubtedly all illegitimate, they have nonetheless been effective.
Since the New Perspective is not gaining much traction among the laity, and only a small minority of ministers are openly advocating it, where is it finding acceptance and what are its attractions? According to J. Ligon Duncan, the New Perspective is especially popular among young seminary students. His article, referenced above, is entitled “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul” and I will summarize some of his conclusions as to why this radical and novel redefinition of a key Reformation doctrine has been so successful at gaining acceptance even among professed evangelicals.
One of the chief reasons assigned to the popularity of the New Perspective is the popularity of N. T. Wright. First of all, he is considered a brilliant scholar without being scholarly, that is, without being boring and pedantic. He is considered witty and entertaining, and has the ability to popularize his ideas with messianic zeal. In short, he is a very effective propagandist for his views. The man is dangerous. Secondly, he has managed to acquire credentials as an evangelical, and even as a defender of the faith. This is partly due to his work in opposing the “Jesus Seminar,” a liberal project to deconstruct the historical Jesus of Scripture with a caricature founded upon the suppositions of modernism. This makes him doubly dangerous. It is truly amazing that man who is a bishop in one of the most apostate and corrupt communions in professing Christendom could gain such a standing among evangelicals. Are evangelicals so enamored of having support from a “bishop” that they are blind to the realities of the situation? When one adds to this the fact that in his opposition to the Jesus Seminar he waffled the issue of Christ’s Messianic self-consciousness, one has to marvel. If Christ did not fully realize who he was, then he cannot have been the omniscient God-man revealed in Scripture. Evangelicalism is surely in dire straits if a man with such uncertain credentials can lead them, as a pied piper, away from the historic gospel of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, certain evangelicals are attracted to the New Perspective because of its emphasis on the “social dimension” of the gospel. Billy Graham started all this by labeling himself as an “evangelical with a social conscience,” so that he could market his ministry to both professing evangelicals and theological liberals who major in social concerns. Since then it has been fashionable to try to have one’s feet in both camps. The New Perspective facilitates this. It professes to be evangelical, while proclaiming a gospel that is redefined in terms of social justice. Another group that is captivated by this aspect of the New Perspective are Theonomists, or Christian Reconstructionists. Additionally, their emphasis on the law makes them particularly susceptible to the various forms of neo-legalism that are the logical fruit of the New Perspective. As Duncan states, and it can hardly be stated any better, “It is amazing how quick they are to discard reformational soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom.” This certainly helps explain why Theonomists, supposedly traditional Calvinists, have been conspicuous in their defense of Shepardism, the Federal Vision, and the Auburn Avenue Theology.
Additionally, Duncan points out that the New Perspective is accepted by many evangelicals because of their ignorance. They think that they are “evangelicals,” but they do not really understand the “evangel,” the gospel. They have never studied the doctrines of the Great Protestant Reformation. They have never read Luther or Calvin. They do not understand the gospel, the soteriology, of the Reformation. Once they get past platitudes about being “saved by grace,” and being saved by “faith in Christ,” they are lost. They cannot explain the details of God’s way of salvation through Christ. They cannot explain terms like justification, propitiation, imputation, etc. They have therefore no means by which to test the statements of New Perspective theologians. They are defenseless when confronted with the New Perspective’s critique of the Reformation. Isaiah said, “Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge.” Evangelicals are being led into spiritual captivity by these false teachers because they, similarly, have no knowledge.
Another issue regarding the attractiveness of the New Perspective is that it diminishes the issue of sin. One would think that this would be a fatal attribute of the New Perspective among evangelicals, but according to Duncan, not so. The strength of the historic gospel is that it deals with the reality of the power and consequences of sin. It seems that many “evangelicals” are only too relieved to diminish the emphasis on such troubling issues. After all, talking about sin can seem very negative. One can avoid dealing with difficult issues of one’s own sin and guilt, and get on with the positive task of building a just society. One can replace matters of introspection, repentance, and personal faith, with the scholarly pursuits of the New Perspective. As Duncan states it, “Call it a rationalist’s once-for-all-time auricular confession, with accompanying perpetual plenary indulgence!”
Ultimately, however, in my opinion, though Duncan lists as many as eleven attractions, the heart of the matter is that this way is attractive to unbelief. The New Perspective offers a way out for men of unbelief who do not want to, for whatever reason, lose their evangelical credentials. They want to be considered “evangelicals,” but they neither understand nor love the “evangel.” They do not believe the gospel. They do not believe the great historic truths of Christianity. They reject Christianity, but do not want to be rejected by Christianity. So, like the Pharisees of old, and like unbelief in every generation, they are happy to play the hypocrite, and prate on about the intellectual achievements of the New Perspective, while despising the historic gospel of salvation through the finished work of Jesus Christ as the only hope for a race of sinful, fallen men. The real attraction of the New Perspective can be nothing less than that it offers a way out for unbelief, a way for unbelief to masquerade its apostasy, and pose in the togs of a redefined orthodoxy.
The New Perspective and the Bible
The essence of the argument for the New Perspective is that “justification” or “justification by faith” is a Pauline doctrine that came out of his battles with first century Judaism to gain the right of admission into the church for Gentile converts. One problem with that approach is that the doctrine of justification by faith is clearly taught in the Old Testament. An examination of a few key texts will establish this. Let us start with the experience of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful. Abraham came into a covenant relationship with God, a covenant that we call the Abrahamic covenant. The terms of entering into covenant with God were…
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly (Genesis 15:5-6).
God required sinless perfection, that is, he required what he required of our first parents in the garden under the covenant of works, perfect obedience to his revealed will. How did Abraham acquire the perfect righteousness required for being in covenant with God? Abraham was a sinner in violation of the covenant of works. God clothed him with a righteousness not his own, a righteousness imputed by faith. As Moses records it…
And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 17:1-2).
Abraham was justified by faith. David also rejoiced that a man could be justified in God’s sight although he was a sinner. He declared:
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile (Psalm 32:1-2).
This is the exact language of imputation that is found is the classic Reformation definition of justification. And that brings us back to Paul. Paul didn’t develop a novel doctrine of justification to deal with a first century ecclesiastical issue. He taught his doctrine of justification by faith directly from the Old Testament, using exactly the texts we have just quoted. Paul says…
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Romans 4:1-8).
And speaking again of Abraham and his faith he continues…
Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness Romans 4:18-22).
Now this has to be terribly hard for the proponents of the New Perspective. If Paul’s doctrine is not based on a first century issue, but is derived from the historic faith of the Old Testament saints, they have a real dilemma. How can they project the ecclesiastical issues of the apostolic age back into Abraham’s and David’s day where there was no issue of gentile inclusivity in the church?
Of course this can also be of some help to them. They could justly argue from this that Judaism, the religion of the Old Testament, was not a merit based religion teaching salvation by works. They could argue that our interpretation of Paul as condemning Judaism as such has to be wrong. And that brings us to the next issue we have with the New Perspective—the question of the true nature of first century Judaism. Did the Judaism of the Apostolic age represent the faith of Abraham and of David, or had it been corrupted into something totally alien to what the Old Testament saints had believed?
What was the nature of first century Judaism? To determine that, we have to deal with the faith of the Pharisees, because the Sadducees were theological liberals who denied the reality of angels, miracles, and a future resurrection, and obviously did not represent the faith of the Old Testament saints. Only the theological conservatives, the Pharisees, could possibly have done that. The Lord Jesus Christ frequently confronted the Pharisees. What was the nature of these confrontations? For starters, he frequently rebuked them for their hypocrisy. If that was the extent of his issues with them, then the case could be made that they were doctrinally sound and taught the true faith, but simply didn’t live up to it, saying one thing and doing another. However, Christ’s issues with them, while including the above charges, clearly transcended just that issue. He also condemned them for their doctrine. Christ gave his disciples explicit warnings about the dangers of the doctrines taught by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees (Matthew 16:12).
Of course proponents of the New Perspective might attempt to argue that while there were some doctrinal problems with first century Judaism, that they were sound in the doctrines of salvation. Yet, that is specifically what the Lord Jesus Christ denied in his confrontations with them. He warned them…
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life (John 5:39-40).
Christ is warning them that they need to study the Scriptures and learn the way of salvation, a way of which they are presently ignorant. Not only did they not understand the Biblical doctrine of salvation, but Christ specifically identifies what they believed instead, what they trusted in for salvation. In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican he identifies the problem with their soteriology.
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Luke 18:9-14).
Christ makes it abundantly clear that what the Pharisees trusted in was their own righteousness. They believed that their own sinlessness and their good works made them acceptable with God. Now, while it is true that a parable cannot be made to “walk on all fours” as the saying goes, meaning every detail of it cannot be pressed into theological significance, every parable has a central truth that is at the heart of its message. And the central truth of this one is that the Pharisees were trusting in their own righteousness rather than in the mercy of God to sinners through Jesus Christ. Only those who trust in the latter, in Christ’s own words, will be justified before God. So we are faced with the conclusion that we either have to believe Christ’s evaluation of first century Judaism or that of the New Perspective. They cannot both be true. For Christians the choice should be easy.
Not only have we the testimony of the omniscient Christ who could search the hearts of men and read their every thought, including what was in the hearts of the Pharisees, but we also have the inspired testimony of the Apostle Paul to the true nature of first century Judaism. Paul’s situation was somewhat unique. While some of the other Apostles had been fishermen, or publicans, or zealots, Paul had been a Pharisee. He had been a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He had lived at the very heart of Phariseeism. If any of the Apostles knew by experience what Phariseeism really was, it was Paul. And what was Paul’s evaluation? Did Paul consider his training as a Pharisee, his Judaistic theology, as a good foundation for his teaching ministry as an Apostle of Jesus Christ? Did he simply take the soteriology of first century Judaism and add to it the identification that Jesus of Nazareth was the expected Messiah? Was the difference between him and the unbelieving Pharisees merely about who was the Messiah and not about how we are saved? Or did Paul totally reject the theology of the Pharisees as a worthless creed that had to be cast out root and branch? Let’s examine Paul’s word on that subject.
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:2-11).
First of all, Paul makes it clear that he has nothing in common with these false teachers of Judaism. They are not considered erring brothers to be corrected and led back into the fold. He calls them dogs and evil workers. The basis of this charge is that they trust in the flesh; they trust in themselves and their attainments; they trust in their own righteousness. By contrast the true believers rejoice in Jesus Christ, trusting in his finished work of salvation. Paul then acknowledges that he has all the credentials for “trusting in the flesh,” for relying on what he was rather than in what Christ had done for him. Having recounted the attainments he achieved as a Pharisee, the attainments that first century Judaism trusted in for salvation, Paul goes on to say that he was willing to lose them all to gain Christ. He states they were worthless, and he counted them as garbage. The Greek word for “dung” being “skubalon” referring to what is cast out to the dogs. Paul then contrasts the two kinds of righteousness that these two different religions relied upon. When he was a Pharisee, Paul had his “own righteousness, which is of the law,” but when he became a Christian he had a righteousness not his own, an imputed righteousness, “the righteousness which is of God by faith.” The result of this change from his own righteousness to the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith is that he will attain unto the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the just unto eternal life. The implication is clearly made that those who trust in their own righteousness are lost, having failed to attain to the salvation that is in Christ and the resurrection unto life. Now, again we have to make a choice between Paul’s own words and the teachings that the apostles of the New Perspective attribute to him. Can Paul really be made to say that the soteriology of the Jewish church of his day was sound? Can Paul really be made to say that the issue between him and the Judaizers was one of church membership? Is the issue here one of one’s eternal state before God, one of life or death in the world to come, or merely one of the badges of membership in the covenant family, of inclusiveness in the family of God? Frankly, it is impossible to reconcile the perspective of the New Perspective with the actual teachings of the Apostle. We will stick with Paul and reject these “evil workers” and their Judaizing doctrines. For we too desire to attain to the resurrection of the just and our hope is in Jesus Christ and his righteousness.
Now, how do the teachers of the New Perspective deal with scriptural testimony such as the above? To counter such devastating testimony from the apostle on the question of his differences with Judaism N. T. Wright is so bold as to radically retranslate the passage. Here are his own words…
“Paul is saying, in effect, ‘I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit. I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah, wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts in which I too will share the glory of Christ.’”
Schwertley says of this retranslation…
“Wright translates the word “righteous” (dikaiosune) as “covenant membership” even though not one lexicon exists in the whole world (whether dealing with classical or koine Greek) that has “covenant membership” as a possible meaning of dikaiosune. Wright so strongly rejects the biblical doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ that he must arbitrarily impose his own meaning on passages which speak of it. Wright is wrong, dead wrong.”
Much more could, and should, be said in refutation of this heresy by the very words of the Apostle himself. However, this is meant to be a brief article and not a comprehensive critique of this view. For further reading on this issue I recommend Brian Schwertley’s forthcoming book on the Auburn Avenue Theology, which deals with this and the other associated heresies of Sheperdism, the Federal Vision, and the Auburn Avenue Theology.
The New Perspective and Theology
Error is rarely self-contained. Theology is a systematic science. Therefore the consequences of theological error reverberate through the entire system of truth like the ripples from a stone cast into a pond. And the more serious the error, the bigger the stone. Let’s examine some of the ripples generated by casting the stone of the New Perspective into the systematic theology of the Reformation.
- Justification: Isaac Watts was a Unitarian/Arian who spent most of his adult life arguing against the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. One book he wrote systematically refuted every standard proof-text for the divinity of Christ without ever explicitly denying his deity. He always maintained that he was a Trinitarian, but was constantly redefining the definition of the Trinity to deny the full and real deity of Jesus Christ. Similarly, the proponents of the New Perspective pose as orthodox Christians. They maintain they still believe in salvation by grace through Jesus Christ. However, their New Perspective has destroyed the traditional understanding of how we are redeemed through the work of Christ. They explicitly deny any doctrine of imputation, whether of our sins to Christ or of Christ’s righteousness to his people. Having destroyed the historic gospel of salvation in Christ, what have they replaced it with? Soteriologically speaking…NOTHING! They have replaced it with an ecclesiastical issue about inclusivity in church membership, in the family of God. This leaves the doctrine of salvation with a gaping hole, with a void where there was once a clear and Biblical doctrine about how we are saved by the atoning and finished work of Jesus Christ. And having destroyed the historic gospel of salvation in Christ, the proponents of the New Perspective are rather vague about how we are then saved. Of course, vague protestations about still believing in salvation by grace through Christ are worthless. Rome has maintained the same position for centuries. Romish theologians maintain that works are necessary for salvation, but we need grace to perform them, and that much of that grace comes through Christ. That gospel, which Luther, Calvin, et al, rejected is no gospel at all.
Although they are vague, they do indicate the nature of their beliefs as far as our actual salvation is concerned. They speak of our “final” or our “eschatological justification.” Now, we have to remember that to them “justification” means acceptance into the covenant community, the church of Jesus Christ, the family of God. So this deals with our final and future acceptance by God. Two things should immediately strike us as we read these words. First of all, they give no explanation of how a holy and a just God can accept sinners as his children and admit them into his family. There is no doctrine of salvation, of how sinners can be forgiven and accounted righteous in the sight of a Holy God and deemed fit for eternal fellowship with a God who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil.” There is still no true gospel. And secondly, whatever this “justification” is, it is still future. Therefore it is still uncertain. Therefore it is still dependent, and although the New Perspective may be vague about what it is dependent on, many of their followers are not. They have clearly taught that it is dependent on man’s works, or as they prefer to put it, man’s “covenant faithfulness.” Now the great thing about the historic gospel is that there is no uncertainty. On the cross Christ exclaimed, “It is finished.” His work of redeeming his people was completed. Paul’s persistent argument in the Book of Hebrews is that while the work of the priests under the ceremonial law was never finished, that Christ has made a once and for all atonement for sin. The good news of the true gospel is that the redemption of God’s people has been accomplished. It is done! And we are assured that it cannot be undone. The golden chain of Romans 8:29-34 cannot be broken. The work of Christ cannot be undone or made void and of no effect. All of God’s elect in Jesus Christ will be saved. God guarantees it. The “gospel” of the New Perspective guarantees nothing. It is worthless. It is a fraud. This is undoubtedly the greatest problem posed by the New Perspective. It destroys the gospel, leaves a huge void in the church’s soteriology, and the anemic caricature of a gospel it proposes to replace it with is no gospel at all. This heresy is fatal to the church of Jesus Christ.
- Becoming a Christian: How do we become a Christian? And more significantly, when do we become Christians? The exact “ordo salutis,” the sequence of events at the time of our salvation is sometimes debated by Calvinist theologians. However, all agree that regeneration, faith, repentance, forgiveness of sin, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, are what occurs when we are translated from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. These are the events that occur when we become Christians. If they have not occurred to us individually, then we are not Christians. Christians are not born. They are made. They are made by the work of the Holy Spirit applying the benefits of Christ’s atoning work to them in time. That is how we become Christians.
Although, strictly speaking, the teachers of the New Perspective are vague on these issues, their disciples are less reticent. The consensus that seems to have developed among those who have chosen to follow this new path, is radically different here also. They believe that we become Christians by our “baptism.” This is a logical extension of the New Perspective’s concerns about ecumenism and inclusivity. All who are baptized are Christians. Christ denying, abortion loving liberals in the PCUSA, and idolaters in the Church of Rome are all Christians. They may be in error. They may be in grievous error. They may be erring brethren, but they are still brethren, by virtue of their baptism. Instead of trusting in the “power of God” unto salvation, we are now to trust in our “baptism.” Instead of founding our hopes for deliverance from the wrath of God to come in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, we are to rely on the sacraments of the church. This also, is a return to the medieval theology of the Church of Rome. This is another of the evil fruits that this heresy has spawned.
- The Authority of Scripture: The theory of the New Perspective is an attack on the authority of Scripture. This is abundantly clear in the writings of Sanders and Dunn. They are theological liberals who openly state that Paul was in error and at best confused about the issues he was dealing with, such as justification. N. T. Wright is more subtle. He presents himself as an evangelical with a high view of Scripture. Nonetheless, from whatever professed stance with respect the word of God, this view constitutes an attack on the authority of Scripture.
Christ taught in the Scriptures that first century Judaism was a false faith with a defective soteriology, and that it trusted in man’s own works of righteousness for acceptance with God. Paul taught in the Scriptures that one’s own righteousness is useless as a basis for being accepted by God. Paul taught that we need a better righteousness, an imputed righteousness, the righteousness of Jesus Christ received by faith. Paul clearly states that this was the issue that he had with first century Judaism. The proponents of the New Perspective have a higher authority than that of Scripture. They think they have better prophets than Christ and Paul. They have as their ultimate standard of truth the works of human scholarship. They have accepted the latest revisionist scholarship that declares that Christ and Paul speaking in the Scriptures were wrong, and that first century Judaism was not a religion that trusted in works, but a religion that believed in salvation by the grace of God.
The fact that men such as N. T. Wright and his deluded followers among evangelicals pretend to maintain a high view of Scripture while advocating the New Perspective does not lessen the charge or make it inconsistent. The inconsistency is theirs. N. T. Wright’s pathetic attempt to retranslate Paul’s charge against Judaism in his letter to the Philippians is proof positive as to what is driving this agenda. This is not an honest attempt to exegete, expound, and apply Scripture. Sanders and Dunn have postulated a radical difference between their view of Judaism and Paul’s. They have openly rejected Scripture’s authority and settled the case based on human scholarship. N. T. Wright, for all his protestations, has also seen the radical difference between the New Perspective and the Scriptural statements of the Apostle Paul. He has chosen not to debunk Scripture, but to rework it. The conflict between Scripture and human scholarship is real for him also, and is to be settled by Scripture giving way. Scripture must be retranslated and reinterpreted to make way for the New Perspective. Either way, the authority of Scripture is compromised, and ultimately it is human scholarship that determines the faith of the church.
- The Perspicuity of Scripture: The issue before us again is the question, “Are the Scriptures understandable?” The issue is, “Can ordinary, sincere, intelligent Christians understand the main teachings of the Bible?” The issue is, “Can ordinary Christians, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, profitably read the Scriptures and thus come to understand the way of salvation?” In other words, can the laity be trusted with the Bible. Rome has always said no. Rome has always sought to deny the Scriptures to the people. Rome has maintained that only the doctors of the Church can properly understand the Scriptures and the people should only be instructed in their conclusions.
Now what are the implications of the New Perspective relevant to this issue? What additional ripples has the casting of the stone of the New Perspective induced in the pond of systematic theology? How has it affected the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture? The answer is that it has significantly undermined it. The implication of the New Perspective is that for 2000 years, for two millennia, all who read the Scriptures, including the early church, the Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church, have all misread and misunderstood the Scriptures. Not only have all failed to understand the Scriptures on this point, but they have failed to understand it with respect to a key issue, an issue that lies at the very heart of the gospel, an issue that is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. The implication is that without the aid of twentieth century revisionist scholarship on the true nature of first century Judaism, the Bible cannot be understood and the real “gospel,” a “gospel” of ecumenic inclusivity, cannot be brought to light. The implication is that without the aid of such experts as Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, the Scriptures cannot be understood. The implication is that people should cease the futility of reading the Scriptures on their own and should only read them after they have been retranslated and reinterpreted by N. T. Wright, et al. If the New Perspective is true then the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is one of the casualties of that conclusion.
Our conclusions here will be materially similar to our conclusions with respect to that other heresy, the Framework Hypothesis. Our first conclusion has to deal with the nature of this new teaching. Is this an intramural dispute between evangelical Christians? Is this a debate between brethren? Unfortunately this is generally the way the issue is framed whenever it is debated. Very few are willing to draw the conclusion that this is anything else. It isn’t politically correct. It isn’t nice. And if there is anything that is unacceptable to contemporary “Christianity” it is failing to be loving…failing to be nice. However, the Biblical record does not support contemporary Christianity in this. Neither the Old Testament prophets, nor the New Testament Apostles, nor Christ himself were “nice.” Rather their ministries were characterized by confrontation. Elijah confronted Ahab and mocked the priests of Baal. Jehu rebuked the godly king Jehoshaphat for his compromising with Ahab and declared, “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD” (2 Chronicles 19:2b). David declared of the enemies of the Lord, “Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22). Christ himself was consistently confrontational in his dialogue with the religious leaders of his day, the spokesmen for first century Judaism, and his rebukes were sharp in the extreme. Today’s evangelicals have been raised on the unscriptural shibboleth of “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” They are all too ready to love the ungodly and to be gracious to those who hate the Lord. They extend the right hand of fellowship to wolves in sheep’s clothing and count heretics and subverters of the gospel as “esteemed brethren.” It is in this context of institutionalized compromise that we have to deal with the serious issues of whether this is a tolerable error to be discussed among brethren or whether it rises to the level of heresy, and whether the apostles of the New Perspective are erring brethren to be dealt with gently or are heretics to be excommunicated from the church of Jesus Christ.
The question before us is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the way of salvation taught in Scripture, a negotiable quantity? Is this something no different than an issue of church government or of eschatology? Can the church exist without the true gospel? Is a church without the true gospel even a church? These are the questions before us. The Pharisees, who came under the withering rebukes of our Lord, at least had a false gospel. They believed in a resurrection and an afterlife and believed they could attain to that by their own works of righteousness. The Church of Rome, similarly, at least had a gospel, even if it was false. But the teachers of this novel view, having destroyed the historic gospel, having removed those passages that teach it from the realm of soteriology to that of ecclesiology, have nothing specific to put in its place. They have left their followers without a clearly defined gospel, a Biblical doctrine of the way of salvation. Like liberalism and modernism, they seem content to go on without one. And their deluded followers in the evangelical camp have replaced the void left by the historic gospel with a false one that is strangely similar to the one that has been propounded by the church of Rome since the Counter-Reformation. They have replaced the gospel proclaimed by Luther and Calvin with something eerily similar to the decrees of the Council of Trent. Now I must ask, is this something that the church can tolerate? Is this something that can be papered over with smiles and collegiality? Is this something that the Church of Jesus Christ can tolerate? In my mind, the answer has to be a resounding NO!!! We are not dealing simply with the garden variety of theological error common to all men, even men of faith. We are dealing with error that is totally destructive of the historic Christian faith. We are dealing with heresy. It needs to be dealt with accordingly.
There is a maxim in the political world that says, “Treason never prospers, for if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” The parallel maxim in ecclesiology would say, “Heresy never prospers, for if it prosper, none dare call it heresy.” Is this one of the reasons that while we see nothing but decline and apostasy all around us, even in conservative evangelical and conservative Reformed circles, we never hear of anyone charged with heresy? Is this why we never hear of anyone accused of being a “false teacher”? The Old Testament is replete with warnings about false prophets. The New Testament is replete with warnings about false teachers. Twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament contain such warnings. The churches are filled with theological confusion, error, and unbelief at historic levels, and yet we rarely hear these warnings repeated for our times, and almost never do we have the state of the churches attributed to the Biblical cause, false teachers. Instead we see these “false teachers” honored as “esteemed brethren.” We see them accepted within the pale of orthodox Christianity. And we see those who would confront them in the spirit of Elijah, those who would strip away the façade of sheep’s clothing and expose the wolves, condemned and rejected as troublesome and unloving. Is that why heresy is even now prospering in the bosom of the churches?
Our conclusion is that unless we adamantly and tenaciously condemn these new views as heresy and condemn those who teach them as false teachers, the churches will be lost for the faith. Let us heed the warnings of the Apostle Paul who gave us the gospel, a gospel of justification by faith. Let us heed his words and not the words of those who have presumed to speak in his name…
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:29-31).
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (Ephesians 5:10-11).
…knowing that I am set for the defense of the gospel (Philippians 1:17).
Only by heeding these admonitions can the church protect herself from those who lie in wait to deceive, if it were possible, even the very elect.