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The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and 'New Perspectives' on Paul Hardcover – November 1, 2006
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Cornelis Venema's work, with the layperson in mind, thus fills a real need in the church. For "at stake is nothing less than the gospel itself, the church's proclamation of the good news of salvation in Christ" (p. ix). These ideas must be engaged, because "if the Reformation misunderstood the gospel, as the New Perspective intimates, things cannot go on as before" (p.2). The Reformation itself would have to be regarded as a massive mistake, something that could have been avoided if only there had been this understanding in 1520.
He correctly perceives that a complicating factor is that if one is to make an informed decision in adopting the NPP, one ought to have a clear understanding of what one is leaving behind (the Reformation view). Unfortunately, many simply do not understand this view, and so Venema has helpfully elected to include an early section reminding us of just what the Reformation perspective is.
This becomes especially helpful when evaluating the foundational claim of the NPP, which is that the Reformation misunderstood Paul's polemic against the Judaizers by drawing a parallel between that conflict and the one between the Reformation and the medieval Roman Catholic church. According to the NPP, the Reformation opposed Rome because it saw in Rome a legalism similar to that which Paul opposed in the Judaism. However, the NPP continues, studies in extra-biblical literature of second-temple Judaism (200 B.C. - A.D. 200) have shown that no such legalism existed in Judaism. Therefore, the argument goes, the Reformation is seriously flawed in one of its foundational concepts and an entirely NPP is necessary.
Venema argues that this is a straw man argument because the Reformation is portrayed as holding a position that it never in fact held. The NPP defines "legalism" as a crass, grace-less, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps Pelagianism. But the Reformation never accused Rome of this, and thus never read Paul as opposing this kind of legalism either. Rather, the legalism that the Reformation was talking about was not Pelagian, but semi-Pelagian, which had a place for grace, but made a necessity for works as part of the grounds of one being acceptable to God.
The pattern of religion that the NPP argues was characteristic of second-temple Judaism is called "covenantal nomism" - the idea that one got into the covenant by grace, but maintained by works of obedience that standing in the covenant. What is ironic is that covenantal nomism is broad enough to be compatible with precisely the semi-Pelagian definition of legalism that the Reformation claimed that Paul was opposing. So it is not correct to say that we need a new perspective on Paul because the old perspective has misrepresented Paul. Rather, a correct understanding of church history will show that the Reformation view had him opposing any mixture of grace and works, and this would include covenantal nomism.
Furthermore, contrary to the NPP portrayal of the Reformation view, Paul was not opposing Judaism per se, but a perversion of Judaism. The old perspective saw grace as underlying both the old and the new covenants. It was a perversion of the old covenant which added works as a requirement to obtaining God's favour.
Venema interacts with the other distinctive claims, the redefinitions of central terms such as "faith," "works of the law," "justification," and "the gospel." He clearly distinguishes the NPP understanding of these terms from the Reformation understanding, and argues that the latter is more true to Scripture.
Where the alarm bells really went off for me, however, was the NPP rejection of what the Reformation claims is the very heart of just what Christ's life and death has to do with us. According to Venema, "one of the most vexing features of the new perspective is its failure to explain the connection between the justification of believers and Christ's atoning work" (p.303). Doctrines which according to the Reformation are absolutely critical, such as the substitutionary atonement and imputation of Christ's righteousness to the justified sinner, are rejected with nothing being offered in their place. And second, many of them believe that justification is not a once-for-all declaration by God in favour of the justified sinner on the basis of this imputation, but that it includes a future aspect which will be based on the entirety of a life lived; in other words, this final justification will be by works. The only ones who are going to get that eschatological vindication are those who have proven their faithfulness through their works.
This is alarming because what is at issue is the nature of grace. To the NPP advocate who denies imputation, you have to ask: if Christ's righteousness, the result of his perfect obedience to the law of God, is not imputed to you, how is it that you have fulfilled the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? And the response to the one who claims that grace is involved in our initial justification, but that the ground of our final justification will be our own works of obedience, is that when you mix grace with works of any kind, you are no longer talking about grace. And if you are no longer talking about grace, you no longer have the gospel. A salvation that is incomplete without the addition of human works is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I while I can see the attraction of the NPP for apparently being a decisive breakthrough in ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, what is the cost? It does not seem that the NPP transcends the Protestant/Catholic debate, as is claimed, after all. Rather, it lapses into a semi-Pelagianism that at its core really isn't that much different from the gospel according to Rome. Venema does not call the NPP a heresy. But he does conclude that "the new perspective ultimately offers a different gospel than that to which the Reformation bore witness - the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone" (p. x).
We don't need a new perspective on Paul, because "the older Reformation perspective on the apostle Paul captures the heart of the gospel in a way that the new perspective does not" (p.306). The NPP says the heart of the gospel is not the good news of how sinners can be saved, but the proclamation that "Jesus is Lord." Certainly that objective proclamation is true, but the Reformation perspective insists that the gospel then goes on to tell us what God's purpose and intention was in sending the Son, and what our response must be. Yes, the Biblical gospel is that "Jesus is Lord" but what that means is "that He died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3) and he had to do so because otherwise we would be under the wrath of God.
According to Venema, the NPP makes primary that which in Paul is secondary: the problem is not primarily exclusion from the community (the NPP claim), but our existence under the wrath of God. The consequence is that the wrath of God, the problem of sin, and the graciousness of grace are diminished.
As Christians, justified by grace alone through faith alone on account of the work of Christ alone, we need to recognize anew the glory of what it means that "he made him who knew no sin to be sin in our place so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21), that seamless robe of righteousness that only will avail before a holy God.
Cornelis Venema's gracious and thorough treatment of the New Perspectives, and his opening up of the Scriptures in defense of the old, shines a bright light on the riches of the inheritance we already have. May we study and grow to understand the magnitude of mercy and grace revealed here before we turn our backs on it in favour of the new.
Venema suggests that "At no time since the Reformation of the sixteenth century has justification taken centre stage as it has done in the biblical and theological discussions of the last ten years." Once again the truch church must "hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that...[we] may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9)." Indeed, we must stand ready to part ways with those who will teach any other gospel.
Since "the doctrine of justification by grace alone on account of Christ alone through faith alone... was [and is] the article of the standing or the falling of the church" the present discussion is an urgent one and one that cannot be avoided. The present debate is not one of mere scholastic interest. As Venema notes, "Whatever the gap between academy and pew, ideas tend to have legs that will eventually carry them into the church. Seminary students who are taught by professors sympathetic to the new perspective will likely allow the seeds to germinate and produce fruit in their own ministries."
This book comes as a gift to the church. May God help us fight the good fight of faith, so that we may one day say, with Paul, "to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you."
Much of this page-turner is outstanding exegetical and expositional scholarship of Professor Venema. In this volume the author converses:
- The history of the Reformation and Justification
- The advocates of the New Perspective
- The necessity of Expiation and Imputation
- Proper interpretation of important biblical texts (Book of Romans, etc.).
Romans 4:5-7 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, 6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
7 " Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is also the co-editor of the Mid-America Journal of Theology. His writings include Getting the Gospel Right, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ. He earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
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