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New Perspective

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Author Matt Johnson

November 3, 2020

The New Perspective & Moral Government Theory

The New Perspective argues that since the Protestant Reformation the apostle Paul’s writings have been consistently read through a Lutheran / Reformed theological framework, rather than in their natural context of first-century Judaism. Adherents of the New Perspective maintain that a form of eisegesis has taken place whereby Protestant theologians have consistently read reformed meanings into the Apostle Paul’s words that he never originally intended.


Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl was the first to propose that a traditional reformed understanding of salvation was being read into Paul’s writings in a way that did not align with first century use. E. P Sanders then expanded on this belief in his work Paul & Palestinian Judaism. Sanders posited that while some forms of Roman Catholicism did develop concepts of works righteousness that the reformers opposed, it is wrong to assume that the apostle Paul was dealing with the same problem in first century Judaism. This thinking has been further popularized by the writings of James D.G Dunn and N.T Wright. 


It is believed N.T Wright was the first to use the phrase “the New Perspective on Paul” in his 1978 Tyndale lecture. But the term is now used widely in New Testament scholarship and whether stated explicitly or not, the New Perspective often underlies much of the debate about how Paul understands salvation and especially what he means by works of the law, righteousness by faith and justification. That is, the New Perspective on Paul is not dealing with issues on the fringes of Pauline scholarship, but on the very meaning of the gospel message itself. How is a person made right with God? Was Jesus imputed with our guilt and are we imputed with his righteousness, by faith alone.


This paper will argue that the New Perspective ends up articulating a gospel that is no gospel at all. The gospel that Tom Wright now puts forward seems closest to the moral government theory of the atonement first articulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). This theory of the atonement states that Christ’s death on the cross has not paid the penalty for sin, but it has revealed God’s displeasure at sin. In Christ crucified God has shown humanity His hatred of sin. Therefore, man must learn from this dramatic revelation of God’s displeasure and live in right relationship with God. But sadly, this is no gospel at all, for Christ has achieved nothing objective to secure our salvation. 

The Reformed Understanding Of Paul

 The Christian gospel is the good news “that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom.3:28). The reformers interpreted Paul’s statement to mean that people can be right with God by faith in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection without meeting his standards expressed in the Old Testament. This is good news for those who have disobeyed God’s law (or struggle to keep God’s law) because the status of righteousness is now freely conferred on everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther states; “This doctrine [justification] is the head and cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour…” John Calvin also says of justification, “that this is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we must devote the greater attention and care to it.” However, despite such warnings the New Perspective on Paul confidently promotes a completely new understanding of works of the law, righteousness by faith and justification.   


The Meaning of Words

As we begin to grapple with the “New Perspective on Paul” (herein NPP) it is worth considering the following proposition; “on Sunday the Swans smashed the Dockers at the SCG.” In Australia the obvious meaning is that the Sydney Swans football team defeated the Fremantle Dockers in an Australian Football League match played at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But the NPP would have us believe that this is not the necessary meaning. It may well mean something entirely different. The “swans” may refer to literal swans that live on Kippax Lake, in Sydney’s Centennial Park. These swans are well known for being aggressive at nesting time. So “smashed” may mean to dive bomb, drive off or to chase away.  The “dockers” may also be a colloquialism for the dockworkers at Patrick Stevedores in Botany Bay. We might then conclude that dockworkers from Patrick Stevedores were attacked at the Sydney Cricket Ground by black swans who were nesting nearby in Centennial Park. 


This is a plausible historico-grammatical interpretation of the phrase and herein lies the problem of the New Perspective. Tom Wright maintains that the traditional protestant understanding of terms, like “works of the law”, “righteousness of God”, “justification by faith” and “penal substitutionary atonement” are all wrong. The New Perspective argues that during the reformation Martin Luther was so entrenched in Catholic understandings of works righteousness that he read into certain biblical terms incorrect meanings that were then blindly systematized by John Calvin, and unwittingly accepted by all Protestants. But before we label Luther a poor exegete and call into question 400 years of reformed protestant theology it is worth considering the Bishop of Durham’s historico-grammatical exegesis of Paul and whether he can provide a coherent theology of salvation that glorifies God? To these questions we now turn.


1.1.1) First Century Jews did NOT rely on Works Righteousness (NPP)

Through careful historical research Tom Wright asserts that work’s righteousness was not a Jewish problem in second temple Judaism. That is, Jews in Jesus’ day were not trying to make themselves right with God by obeying the law because no serious-minded Jew considered entry into the covenant people of God attainable by law keeping. Rather, all right minded Jews knew that their standing before God was secured by God’s election of Israel as his covenant people and that obedience to the law was Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace. The New Perspective calls this Jewish response to the law covenantal nomism and it rejects the idea that first century Jews believed they could merit salvation by obeying the law. 


However, supporters of the New Perspective acknowledge that first-century Jews did wrongly believe that adherence to Israelite customs placed them in a more favorable position before God. Observance of things like circumcision, food laws and sacred days gave the Jews a sense of religious superiority over Gentiles. Wright maintains that Paul’s condemnation of the law was really a condemnation of the elevated status arising among the Jews because of the ceremonial law. When Paul denigrates “works of the law” he is not denouncing legalistic righteousness before God because no right-minded Jew thought in this way. Instead the denunciation of “works of the law” was a denunciation of ceremonial badges improving ones standing before God. 


The NPP maintains that because Augustine was dealing with the grace plus works heresy of Pelagius and Luther was wrestling with the grace plus works teaching of Roman Catholicism they both failed to understand Paul’s true ceremonial meaning. Instead, due to their own contemporary situation Augustine and Luther engaged in eisegesis believing that like the Christians of their day, first century Jews were also relying on works of the law to attain righteousness in God’s sight. Consequently, Romans and Galatians were interpreted as polemics against the Jewish idea that people could make themselves right with God by obeying the law. This view was then widely accepted by Protestants who came to believe that Paul’s condemnation of the “works of the law” was a general condemnation that anyone could become righteous before God by obeying the moral law. But the New Perspective directly challenges this belief, asserting that Augustine, Luther, the reformers and subsequently the entire Protestant church misunderstood Paul’s true ceremonial meaning.   


1.1.2 First Century Jews did rely on Works Righteousness (OPP)

The fundamental premise of the New Perspective that first century Jews did not believe in works righteousness should be questioned biblically, experientially and historically. The apostle Paul talks about his own striving for “legalistic righteousness”, which is expressed as “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (Phil.3:6, 9). Jesus also tells a parable to denounce Jews who “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Lk.18:9) and he condemns the Pharisees “who justify themselves in the eyes of men.” (Lk.16:15). In at least one of these cases the self-righteousness that Jesus condemns is not based on ceremonial badges like Wright suggests, but the moral law. The self-righteous Pharisee looks to the fact that he does not steal, commit adultery or do evil like other men (Lk.18:11-12). 


Furthermore, it is plausible to read Roman’s and Galatians as condemnations of works-based righteousness. Experientially this made sense to Christian theologians and pastors who saw the insidious evil of “works based righteousness” creep into God’s church. Legalism is so endemic to fallen man that even where grace alone is preached God’s people continue to struggle with superior self-righteousness when their Christian walk is going well and hopeless self-condemnation when it isn’t.

But Wright would have us believe that nowhere in the Bible is ‘works righteousness” a problem for right thinking Jews.

Wrights leading premise that “works of the law” were not a problem for Jews in second temple Judaism should also be challenged historically. In the Wisdom of Solomon, a deutero-canonical book of the second temple period, the Jewish author states; “the love of wisdom means the keeping of her laws; and to keep her laws is the warrant of immortality.” Similarly in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) the author says; “If you respect your father, you can make up for your sins, and if you honor your mother, you are earning great wealth.” “The Lord will not forget the kindness you show to your father; and against your sins it will be credited.” In both of these second temple Jewish texts works righteousness is the warrant of immortality and the basis of spiritual pardon. Finally, Augustine who is also considerably closer to second temple Judaism than Tom Wright says “most disastrously, they (the Jews) set about to “establish their own righteousness” rather than receiving that which comes from God; deeming themselves competent to fulfill the law in their own strength, they did not seek the grace to be found in Christ“ (De grat. et lib. Arb 12.24; Serm. 156.4). Historically, good evidence exists to suggest second temple Judaism was influenced by works based righteousness and to suggest otherwise is simply not true. 

Now it is worth pausing at this point because every other subsequent premise of the New Perspective builds on this fundamental belief that second temple Judaism was not affected by “works righteousness”. But the burden of proof still remains with the New Perspective. Why should we entertain Tom Wright’s elaborate house of new theology when good evidence exists biblically, experientially and historically to suggest “works righteousness” has, is and always will be a problem for true religion. 


1.2.1 Justification in the New Perspective is Ecumenical, not Soteriological

It is true to say that the New Perspective has reinterpreted almost every aspect of the phrase “justification by faith.” Historic protestant Christianity has always taught that justification is a forensic term, taken from the law court whereby God imputes or credits righteousness to those who believe in Jesus. Although Paul entertains the theoretical possibility that “those who obey the law will be declared righteous by God” (Rom.2:13), he remains adamant that because of sin “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law.” (Rom.3:20) The good news however is that “a righteousness from God apart from law, has been made known… This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Rom.3:21-22). So the focus of justification in historic protestant Christianity is primarily man-ward and it answers the question of how man can be declared righteous before God. Man is righteous before God through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Wright however would have us believe that justification by faith is primarily God-ward and it answers the question of how God is declared righteous before man. So justification and the righteousness of God is all about the ‘vindication’ of God’s covenant faithfulness. God is justified (read – vindicated) because through Jesus’ faithfulness He fulfills the covenant promises with Israel revealing Himself to be righteous. Wright says, “The gospel, Paul declares, proves that God is in the right despite appearances: he has kept covenant with Abraham, has dealt properly with sin, has acted and will act without partiality, and upholds all those who cast themselves, helpless, on his mercy (Rom. 1:16-17; 2:1-16; 3:21 – 4:25).  God has, in other words, shown ‘righteousness’ in the sense appropriate for the judge and the Lord of the covenant.  He is thus able to anticipate the verdict of the last day (Rom. 2:1-16) and to declare in the present (Rom. 3:21-26) that all who believe the gospel are already within the covenant community.” Historic protestant Christianity acknowledges that as the perfect God-man – Jesus does vindicate God’s covenant faithfulness and reveal God’s righteousness. But to read into “justification by faith” ONLY a God-ward vindication and not a man-ward bestowal of righteousness is a misrepresentation of the biblical texts. 

Righteousness is not only revealed by Jesus’ faith(fullness), righteousness also comes to those who have faith in Jesus Christ (Rom.3:22; Gal.3:22) Yet nonetheless Wright continues to teach justification is not “how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian. So if I have read Wright correctly then the declaration would be something like, “God has fulfilled His covenant to Israel in Jesus Christ. God’s blessing has now come to all (denomi)nations and the good news is you have been incorporated into the people of God.” The response would then be “Excellent! Although I am a Gentile I will live as one of God’s people as I await the coming of God’s kingdom. 

As many people have observed justification for Tom Wright is not so much about personal salvation as incorporation into the people of God. It is not soteriological, but ecclesial and ecumenical. Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics have all been included in God’s Kingdom through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and blessing has now come to all (denomi)nations. Wright makes much of this ecumenical outworking of his doctrine saying that properly understood in its biblical and historical context, justification calls the church to a more communal self-awareness, an energetic pursuit of unity, a commitment to holy living and a courageous confrontation with the powers of the world. Now pause and consider that while Wright continues to assert that justification is not soteriological but ecumenical, he is inadvertently making ecumenicalism his new soteriology. 

1.2.2 Ecumenicalism and the New Perspectives Path to Salvation

NT Wright does believe in a hell of sorts. It is not the historic protestant hell of eternal torment, but again a new perspective on annihilationism. Humans who turn away from God become beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.’ Again Wright’s exact meaning is hard to grasp. But these “non-people” appear to pass beyond hope and beyond pity into some sort of non-existence. Naturally, we may want to question Wright’s definition of hell, but it is worth asking who will end up in such circumstances according to the NPP? The natural conclusion would be all those who have failed to live with “a communal self-awareness, an energetic pursuit of unity, a commitment to holy living and a confrontation with the powers of the world.” Indeed, earlier advocates of the New Perspective, such as E.P. Sanders were quite open that this was the logical outworking of covenantal nomism. “All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group that will be saved.” Suffice to say, such a New Perspective on salvation is quite an old perspective that brings the counter-reformation full circle to that which is expressed in the Catholic Council of Trent, albeit with slightly less emphasis on sacraments. Salvation is contingent on grace and good works. 

Despite great protests that the “pop” presentation of the New Perspective, “get in by grace, stay in by works” is unfair; it seems that salvation by grace and good works may be not so far from the mark. 

1.3.1 God’s Righteousness in the New Perspective is not Imputed.

On the issue of salvation the great divide between historic Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism has been over whether God’s righteousness is imputed by faith alone or imparted by faith and good works. Protestants believe that by God’s grace the righteousness of Jesus is imputed (read credited) to everyone who believes, apart from their works. Catholics maintain that by God’s grace the righteousness of Jesus is gradually imparted to those who believe and practice good works.

1 Corinthians 1:30 states; “It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Wright says, “It is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text” In Wright’s opinion this is the only passage in the Bible that offers any support for the doctrine of imputation. Yet, he goes on to also dismiss imputation from this text arriving at the conclusion that there is no biblical warrant for God imputing righteousness to those who believe in Jesus. But what is the New Perspectives alternative to imputation? 

Wright himself recognizes that in some sense God does declare believers to be righteous. He says “according to the NT, the people of God do indeed have ‘righteousness’.  This is not, strictly speaking, God’s own righteousness (though cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), but… it is the right standing of a member of the people of God.  ‘Righteousness’ thus comes to mean, more or less, ‘covenant membership’, with all the overtones of appropriate behavior.” So in the NPP people aren’t credited with righteousness, but they are called righteous if they have become members of the covenant community by baptism and they conduct themselves with behavior suitable for a Christian.

Although this is not strictly a Catholic view of impartation it is linking man’s righteous standing before God to both faith and good works. The accepted view of righteousness required by the Catholic Church is:

  • that the initial grace is truly gratuitous and supernatural;
  • that the human will remains free under the influence of this grace;
  • that man really cooperates in his personal salvation from sin;
  • that by justification man is really made just (righteous), and not merely declared or reputed so;
  • that justification and sanctification are only two aspects of the same thing, and not ontologically and chronologically distinct realities; 
  • that justification excludes all mortal sin from the soul, so that the just man is no way liable to the sentence of death at God’s judgment-seat. 


When Wright rejects imputation of righteousness by faith alone but acknowledges that in some sense God “declares” Christians to be righteous it would appear that the New Perspectives great ecumenical doctrine of justification is in fact moving in a decidedly Catholic direction. Righteousness is now contingent on “covenant membership” and “appropriate behavior”. 

1.3.2 God’s Righteousness in the Bible is Imputed.

Despite Wrights rejection of imputation, the Bible is full of passages that talk about God crediting righteousness to those who believe. In the Old Testament God credits righteousness to Abraham (Gen.15:6) and Phineas (Ps.106:30). In both cases the Hebrew word means “to impute”, and is actually a specialized sense of “to make a judgment.” Similarly in the New Testament righteousness is credited simultaneously to Abraham and those who have faith (Rom.4:3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23; Gal.3:6; Jas.2:23). The Greek word credit (logivzomai) means to reckon, calculate, look upon as, or consider to be. The clearest expression of imputation is provided by the Apostle Paul when he says God “calls things that are not as though they were. (Rom.4.17). God calls people that are not righteous, as though they were righteous when they believe in Jesus. This is the true meaning of imputation and it led to Martin Luther’s famous datum that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. The imputation of God’s righteousness to those who believe in Jesus is biblically defensible and it fills the heart with faith, hope and love for God. Christians can be assured that they are objectively right with God because Jesus’ righteousness has been credited to their account and their sin has been credited to Jesus’ account (2Cor.5:21) 

 Wright, however rejects the concept of imputation altogether, both God’s righteousness to man and man’s guilt to Jesus. Speaking about the imputation of sin to animal sacrifices and the scapegoat in particular he says; “My sense is that within certain sub-traditions of Protestantism the word ‘imputation’ has been made to carry far, far more baggage than it even begins to in the NT, and that’s a warning sign to me. As far as I can see, Paul’s central statements of something that I might be prepared to say ‘imputation’ about are in a passage like Romans 6, where the logic runs: by baptism, you are ‘in Christ’; therefore what is true of Christ is true of you; therefore, specifically, his death and resurrection are true of you; therefore you must calculate this, do the sums, work out who you actually are – and then live accordingly… 

 One wonders what baggage the word imputation carries in the New Testament? But given that Wright rejects all the biblical references that speak about the imputation of righteousness to believers, it is not surprising that he also rejects the imputation of man’s sin and guilt to Jesus. It is true that the Bible does not specifically say that our sin was imputed or credited to Jesus, but the logic is evident in many biblical texts. Paul makes it clear that sin can be imputed or counted when he says “sin is not taken into account (imputed – logivzomai) where there is no law.” (Rom.5:13). But inferentially sin can be counted where there is law. 

 According to Jesus in the parable of the unmerciful servant, sin is likened to a spiritual debt that people run up before God (Mt.18:23-35; Lk.7:41-43). But the King cancels this debt (presumably at loss to himself) and Christians are encouraged to cancel the debts that others have with them. Elsewhere the Bible explains that the debt is cancelled because the Son paid the ransom price for us (Heb.9:15; 1Tim.2:6; Mk.10:45). It is hard to comprehend how Jesus paid this spiritual debt if the debt wasn’t credited or imputed to his account. Similarly, Isaiah the prophet talks about Jesus bearing this debt for his people. “The Lord has laid on him, the iniquity of us all” (Isa.53:6). Likewise, the apostle Paul says; “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor.5:21). The danger in denying imputation, both Jesus righteousness to believers and man’s sin to Christ is that it leaves the Christian church with an entirely subjective atonement that fills the heart with fear, uncertainty and self-preserving love. Has the debt been paid?


1.4.1 Hugo Grotius and not quite Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Finally, we turn to the big question among reformed evangelical protestants; what does Wright mean by penal substitutionary atonement? Sometimes labels and terms are important. It is important to know the difference between SCEGGS (Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School) and the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground) before you drop your daughter off to school. Similarly before you boo and jeer the dockers it is good to know whether they are an Australian Football League team from Fremantle or real dockworkers from Port Botany. One is a bit of fun on a Saturday afternoon. The other may get you killed. The point is theological terms and what they signify are important for ascertaining friend from foe, truth from heresy and life from death. 

 The difficulty with Tom Wright and the New Perspective is that traditional biblical terms are now loaded with significantly new meanings: works of the law are no longer works of the law, instead they are ceremonial badges; the righteousness of God is no longer the righteousness of God, but covenant faithfulness; faith in Christ is no longer faith in Christ, but the faithfulness of Christ and imputation is not really imputation, but it may be incorporation into Christ through participation in the body of Christ. So what does Wright really mean when he talks about substitutionary atonement? The radical reconstruction of so many biblical words continues to bamboozle scholars and Christians alike who genuinely seek to understand the prolific writings of Wright. We know the words Wright is using are biblical, but trying to grasp what they signify in the New Perspective is like taking hold of an eel covered in vaseline. 

 Anyone who has spent some time in Wright’s world will know that he’s preferred theory of the atonement is Christus Victor. In the 1930’s Gustaf Aulen did a series of lectures where he espoused that there were three main theories of the atonement contained in Scripture. The first is the Latin or objective theory first outlined by Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. It operates within a legal-judicial framework whereby God incarnate offers, as man, for man, the perfect satisfaction for mankind’s sin. This objective view of the atonement was further developed during the reformation so that the penalty incurred by man’s sin was paid by the substitutionary death of Christ to atone God’s wrath. In reformed protestant churches this theory represents a traditional explanation of the gospel and is referred to as Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The second is the subjective view that maintains Christ was the “representative man” who became the perfect example for humankind to emulate and thereby gain God’s favor. Expressions of Christus Exemplar or the representative man theory are most often heard in liberal churches that encourage people to follow Jesus without ever addressing the penalty that needs to be paid for sin. Gustaf Aulen argued that a third option is the Christus Victor theory of the atonement that focuses on God’s victory over sin, death and the devil. Jesus defeated for man, all that man was unable to defeat when he died on the cross and then rose victorious from the grave. Thus, Jesus takes away our fear of death and our fear of the dark spiritual forces at work in our fallen world. This is Tom Wrights preferred view of the atonement, which he beautifully articulates in “Jesus and the Victory of God”.


 Reformed protestant Jim Packer provided a masterful analysis of these three main theories of the atonement at the Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture in 1973. In “What did the Cross achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” Packer states that Penal Substitutionary “denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It acknowledges that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further.” Packer is clear that although the other two views of the atonement “regularly set themselves in antithesis to” substitutionary atonement, substitutionary atonement in fact “takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins”. 

 The fact is, that while Protestant Christians have generally acknowledged a place for the Christus Victor and Christus Exemplar theories of the atonement the consensus has been that penal substitution is the fullest explanation of Scripture.  

 Tom Wright however, is now giving pride of place to Christus Victor as the first theory among equals. For him the Christus Victor motif explains the cross as the moment of “decisive victory over the ‘principalities and powers’” and he dismisses the historic preeminence given to penal substitutionary atonement. He states, Substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether. This leaves the reader believing that Wright is an advocate of both Christus Victor and (penal) substitutionary atonement, with a new emphasis on Christus Victor. Wright’s position appears to be nothing more than a change in historic priority and not critical substance.  But the question remains what is penal substitutionary atonement without the imputation of sin? 

 In the New Perspective advocated by Wright it must be recognized that penal substitutionary atonement is no longer penal substitutionary atonement, but a rebirth of the old moral government theory of the atonement. In the 1600’s Hugo Grotius proposed a fourth view of the atonement that was further developed by Methodist theologian John Miley in the late 1800’s. Robert Reymond explains that the governmental theory of the atonement “holds that Christ by His death actually paid the penalty for no man’s sin. What His death did was to demonstrate what their sins deserved at the hand of the just Governor and Judge of the universe, and permits God justly to forgive men if on other grounds, such as their faith, their repentance, their works, and their perseverance, they meet His demand.” Greek orthodox theologian John Romanides suggests that, “on this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to “pass over.” This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God’s requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or its equivalent; instead, Christ’s suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment.Thankfully this fourth view never gained wide acceptance among orthodox Protestant Christians, because it was seen as a gross perversion of penal substitutionary atonement.

In Christian Theology 2nd Ed. Millard Erickson explains that the main characteristics of moral government are as follows; 

  1. God is holy and righteous and has established laws in his moral government. Sin is the violation of those laws. But the dominant attribute of God in this theory is love, not justice. God has the right to punish us for our sin, but it is not necessary or mandatory that he do so. He can forgive sin and absolve humans of guilt”. But He has chosen to [forgive sin] in such a way that it manifests at once both his clemency and severity.
  2. . Christ’s death served as a substitute for punishment.

It was in the best interests of humankind for Christ to die. Forgiveness of their sins, if too freely given, would have resulted in undermining the law’s authority and effectiveness. So;

* Christ’s death was a substitute for a penalty, not “an actual penalty” 

* God demonstrated through Christ’s death “what God’s justice will require us to suffer if we continue to sin.” 


Readers will have to judge for themselves whether Moral Government Theory is the natural and necessary interpretation of a Penal Substitutionary Atonement that is devoid of imputation. But it is in this vein that I believe Tom Wright’s exposition of substitutionary atonement is best understood. He says, in the death of Jesus God had condemned sin, passed and executed judicial sentence upon it (Romans 8:3). God’s great ‘No’ to evil had been acted out in the person of Jesus, the person who could and did represent Israel as its Messiah, and hence the person who represented the whole world. 


Wright states the cross is simply God’s “No” to everybody’s sin, expressed in his Son so that we may all take his offer of forgiveness seriously. But the cross is “yes” to nobody because Jesus has not borne the sins of the world, nor even the elect. Again Wright “speaks of the God who made the world and loves it so passionately that he must and does hate everything that distorts and defaces the world and particularly his human creatures. And the Bible doesn’t tell an abstract story about people running up a big debit balance in God’s bank and God suddenly, out of the blue, charging the whole lot to Jesus. The Bible tells a story about the creator God calling a people through whom he would put the world right, living with that covenant people even when they themselves went wrong, allowing them to become the place where the power of evil would do its worst, and preparing them all through for the moment when, like the composer finally stepping on stage to play the solo part, he would come and take upon himself, in the person of his Son, the pain and shame, yes, the horror and darkness, yes, but also, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in Paul and Acts and Hebrews and 1 Peter and Revelation, in Ignatius and Irenaeus and Augustine and Aquinas, in Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Hooker, in Herbert and Donne and Wesley and Watts – he would take upon himself the condemnation which, precisely because he loves us to the uttermost, he must pronounce over that deadly disease we call sin.” 


Although Wright’s statement sounds a lot like Penal Substitutionary Atonement, without imputation it must be understood in terms of the Moral Government theory. By dying on the cross Jesus achieved nothing more than the flood, the plagues in Egypt or the exile to Babylon. His death on the cross was simply God’s “No” to sin. It was a divine revelation of God’s wrath against sin intended to produce repentance and covenant faithfulness. If you do not accept God’s forgiveness and you fail to live as a faithful covenant member you will experience a punishment that is akin to Jesus dying on the cross leaving you as a “non-person” in a hell of sorts. But this means the Moral Governance Theory is little more than a subjective backhand to the Christus exemplar forehand. Follow Jesus and you will live. Don’t follow Jesus and you will die a horrid death. So the gospel of the NPP becomes something like: Jesus shows Christians how they should live a moral life (Christus Exemplar), the cross is a warning for failure to comply (Moral Government) and the hope is that in following Christ we may truly become righteous partaking in Jesus victory over Satan, sin and death (Christus Victor). 


Now if this is a correct reading of N.T. Wright’s prolific writings then it is simply a new articulation of an entirely subjective gospel. Nothing objective has taken place to deal with a person’s sin or change their standing before God. Entry into the covenant people of God may be by grace, in that the offer of salvation is now available to all (denomi)nations, but it is still fundamentally a works-based righteousness whereby people secure their salvation through participation in Christ. Christ has saved no one. He has simply revealed that God’s covenant now extends to all nations and that people should therefore live appropriately in light of Jesus’ death and victory over evil.


Conclusion – the End of Deconstruction

The New Perspective being advanced among evangelicals by Tom Wright should be rejected in the majority. Wrights premise about “works of the law” is unjustified biblically, historically and experientially. His reinterpretation of the “righteousness of God” in purely covenantal ways ignores the moral perfection associated with the term in so many biblical passages. His unpacking of “justification by faith” in a purely God-ward direction ignores the man-ward focus so evident in Roman’s 1-4. Finally, Wrights rejection of “imputation” results in a moral government theory of the atonement where Christians are left with no real assurance of salvation. 


The New Perspective does not offer liberation from a Lutheran captivity of the church, but a blatant return to pre-reformation Babylon. Historic Protestant Christianity knows that God’s wrath has not just been revealed in Jesus death. It has been satisfied for everyone who believes. Jesus isn’t just a representative bearing a picture of God’s wrath. He is our perfect substitute who came to earth and died in our place to bear the full and final penalty for sin, so that we can be saved. Our sins were imputed to him on the cross and his righteousness is imputed to us when we believe. Thus, by faith, we can stand before God righteous, acquitted of sin and with no fear of judgment. This is God’s gift to sinners through Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. To Him be the glory, now and forever. Amen.


If we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached, let him be accursed.” 


1 W.F Arndt & F.W Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th edition (Chicago Press, 1952) – states that Paul uses the word almost exclusively of God’s judgment. So that when spoken of men the word “justified” (Gk. dikaiovw) means to be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous (Gk. Dikaioß), p.196 

2 Ewald Plass, What Luther Says (Concordia Publishing House 1959); W 30 II, 651. Luther also states If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.” W 40 I, 48.

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 726 – 3.11.1.

4 N.T Wright, What Saint Paul really said (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 1 edition, June 1997)

5 Sanders, E.P, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977; 75.

6 Eisegesis is the cardinal sin of assuming the author is the reader. Eisegesis reads into the text meanings not intended by the author, while exegesis endeavors to uncover the intended meaning of the author. 

7 See also Lk.10:29 – “but he wanted to justify himself…” 

8 Wisdom of Solomon, 6:18-19

9 Wisdom of Sirach, 3:3-4

10 Wisdom of Sirach, 3:14

11 Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2004), 15. 


13 The New Perspective posits that passages in the Bible that talk about “faith in Jesus Christ” (ie Rom.3:22, 26; Gal.2:16; 3:22) should be translated the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Although it is a plausible translation of the Greek words, it does not to justice to all the texts and one could suggest that Wright is doing the very thing he accuses Luther of doing.   

14 NT Wright, What Saint Paul really said, 28.

15 NT Wright, What Saint Paul really Said, 157-161.

16 NT Wright, Surprised by Hope (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005), 195

17 E.P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977)

18 NT Wright, What Saint Paul really Said; 123

19 NT Wright, What Saint Paul really Said; 107.


21 suggests that it is by baptism, you are ‘in Christ’ and thus all that is true of Christ is reckoned to the believer.


23 Wright states; “Finally, for Piper justification through Christ alone is the same in the future (on the last day) as in the present, whereas for Paul, whom I am following very closely at this point, the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life that the justified-by-faith-in-the-present person then lives.”

24 R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer & B.K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1980), 330. 

25 W.F Arndt & F.W Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon, 476.


27, The ‘reckoning’ thus takes place within, and as part of, incorporation into the people of the Messiah.

28 Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor – an Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. (Trans. A.G. Herbert, London: SPCK, 1950) 

29 J.I Packer, Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood, “What did the Cross Acheive?  The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Crossway Books, 2008) or

30 J.I. Packer, “What did the Cross Achieve”, 78.?



33 John Miley The Atonement in Christ (1879);

34 Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 479

35 John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998

36 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 806-7

37 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 807

38 NT Wright, Evil and Justice of God (Downers Grove, Ill, IVP, 2006), 88


40 Galatian 1:8

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