Is the Traditional Protestant Concept of Justification by Faith a “Legal Fiction”?

new perspective on paul

In my town we had a radio station that called itself “the new 102.” The name was short. It rhymed. They added a catchy tune. Ten years later, they were still calling themselves “the new 102.”

The New Perspective on Paul is just a little like that. It started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so it isn’t exactly “new.” On the other hand, contrasted against nearly 2,000 years of Christian interpretation, it’s just a babe.

The first time I heard about the New Perspective on Paul, I was in seminary. It was one of those topics that received brief mention in one or two New Testament courses, but got buried underneath all the other things I needed to know to complete my degree. By the time I graduated, all I knew was that there was a New Perspective on Paul. I wondered what it was.

Dr. Stephen J. Chester’s course helped me see what I was missing. Mobile Ed’s Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective is a fascinating plunge into one of the most important controversies in modern biblical scholarship. Is justification by faith, works, or a combination of the two? What did Paul mean when he said in Gal 2:15–16:

We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (NASB)

The New Perspective on Paul: Surprisingly Complicated

If you are thinking to yourself that this is very straightforward, think again. What are the “works of the Law?” What does it mean to be “justified,” and how, exactly, does justification by faith happen? And while we’re at it, what is the “nature” of a Jew as opposed to that of a Gentile?

One of the keys to understanding Gal 2:15–16 is having a correct understanding of first-century Judaism. And that is precisely where E. P. Sanders threw in the monkey wrench when he published his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. In it, Sanders said that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was a religion of grace, not works righteousness.

In the years that followed, many NT scholars began to rethink Paul’s teaching on salvation and justification by faith. In particular, they began to question the interpretations of the Reformers. Among some of the new ideas:

  • “Works of the law” refers only to boundary markers between Jew and Gentile (like circumcision).
  • The idea that God finds Christian sinners “not guilty” because Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to them is a legal fiction.
  • People are justified because, through Christ, they have become a member of the people of God.

In Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective, Dr. Stephen Chester tackles these controversies by delving into not only the interpretations of New Perspective scholars, but the interpretations of the Reformers and early church leaders, as well. The teachings of Luther, Melanchthon and Calvin unfold like complicated, many-petaled flowers—the nuances of their theology put my simplistic understanding of salvation, justification and sanctification to shame.

And in the process, I was moved, emotionally and spiritually, to take a closer look at my relationship with God and the way I live my life.

In Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective, Dr. Chester seeks to answer a key question: “Does the New Perspective on Paul lead to fresh and faithful expressions of the gospel or does it lead to false and faithless expressions of something that is less than the gospel?”

However one answers that question, Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective can lead to a richer understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross and a fresh examination of one’s own walk with the Savior.


Continue exploring the New Perspective on Paul with Stephen Chester’s Mobile Ed: NT395 Perspectives on Paul: Reformation and the New Perspective. When you pre-order this course you’ll save $100! Pre-order now.

Lori Shire is a contributing editor for Mobile Ed. She graduated from Ashland Theological Seminary with New Testament and Old Testament master’s degrees in biblical studies.


  1. Relating to this topic, being against the penal substitution theology You can read this Facebook page: principledlegalstandard (there’s also a print book).
    And there’s books (one of them free until Today) by Brian Zahnd over at
    Btw, instead of the words “justification”, “righteousness”, I use “rectified/rectification”.

  2. Herb Persons says

    Okay, where does James 2 fit in?

  3. Herb Persons says

    Where does James 2 fit in?

  4. There is definately a great deal to learn about this issue.
    I really like all the points you’ve made.

  5. Geoff Johnson says

    Although I found the post itself interesting as an overview of the key points of disagreement between traditional Reformed Theology and the New Perspective theology, I take issue with the title of the post. The title suggests that the content of the post will critique Paul’s theology of justification, but that is not the case. It is not Paul’s view that the New Perspective discredits as a “legal fiction,” but rather the interpretation of his view as espoused by theologians in the Reformed tradition. This may seem a technical point, but the practice of conflating what Paul taught with what one or more theologians THINK he taught is a serious fallacy that too many Christians of all traditions fall into.

    • Tyler Smith says

      Geoff, that is an excellent point, and not technical at all. It’s the crux of the issue. I’m changing the title. Thanks for keeping us honest!