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New Perspective is Old Heresy

A Position Paper of Heritage Bible Church

This is a Position Paper of Heritage Bible Church, published by the elders of the church as a guide to help Christians understand an important issue in light of the Scriptures. Complete agreement with the positions of the elders on all matters is not required for a person to serve with this church, but the elders do want you to understand what to expect from the leadership of the church. Interaction with the elders on the contents of this paper or any other issue is always welcome.

Introduction: Newer is not better!
Here in the early 21st century, there are influences in the world of evangelical Christianity which should alarm you. Just as Paul warned the elders in Ephesus in the first century (Acts 20:29-30), there are men who have come in among us–in positions of leadership–who corrupt the gospel.

The purpose of this Position Paper is to help you get acquainted with the crucial doctrines which were identified and defended during the Protestant Reformation. If you know these things, you will greatly strengthen your spiritual immune system against errors carried by “winds of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14) blowing through evangelicalism today.

By knowing the essentials of Protestant doctrine and by knowing the current sources from which these doctrines are being undermined, you will be far better equipped to resist the subtle errors which you are likely to encounter.

A group of current doctrinal errors are sometimes labeled the New Perspective on Paul. We say “sometimes” because some teachers and authors hold to parts of this group of aberrant doctrines, but do not believe the New Perspective on Paul accurately describes them.

These new (but insidiously wrong) winds of doctrine show up in preaching and teaching which emphasizes works as necessary for justification (not just the fruit of justification), blurring the line between faith and works, and blurring the line between justification and sanctification. There is more to it, which you can read about it through internet links provided below.

In the realm of Bible doctrine, “new” is not better. Our goal is never to change our doctrine; our goal is to be faithful to God’s word. From our vantage point twenty-one centuries later, we have many ways to verify that our understanding–as fresh as it may be to us personally–is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. The New Perspective on Paul collides head-on with Scripture and with classic time-honored summaries of the teaching of Scripture.

The “Sola’s” of the Reformation
A helpful way to alert you to these important issues is to begin with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, battled for five vital doctrines. These famous capsules of Bible doctrine are not Scripture themselves, but they are time-honored summaries of essential Bible doctrine.

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”)
The Roman Catholic Church’s view is that the church sits in authority over Scripture, whereas we believe–from the Bible itself–that we are all subject to the authority of the Scriptures. That’s true individually and collectively as a church.

Here’s the way one group of historians and scholars defines Sola Scriptura:

We reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.

We deny that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian's conscience, that the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.[1]

The crucial truth summarized as Sola Scriptura is that the Bible is your spiritual food. Preachers and teachers are placed by God strategically in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12) to help you understand and apply God’s word, but you must feed yourself on His word. Don’t buy into anything a church or any human says unless and until you verify that it agrees with the Bible.

The Bible claims it is the only source of the truth about salvation, and it is the only source of spiritual growth and maturity. Here are just a few key Scriptures:

1 Peter 1:23, 2:1-2: . . . for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God. . . . Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,
Psalm 119:105: Your word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path.

Proverbs 6:23: For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light; And reproofs for discipline are the way of life,

Acts 20:32: [Paul, to the elders of the church] And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

The only thing that builds you up in the faith and teaches you of your inheritance with God is the word of His grace.

We might be 600 years removed from the start of the Protestant Reformation, but we must just as diligently and militantly stand for the truth of Sola Scriptura.

Here are Paul’s instructions to Timothy, at that time a young pastor Paul sent to Ephesus to straighten out a mess caused by some false teachers who were introducing “new and exciting” things into the church–contrary to the Bible. These men were speculating about things and giving credence to things other than Scripture.

1 Timothy 1:3-4: As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.

Later, he explained why he wrote 1 Timothy, in 3:14-15:

I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

If a church is not the pillar and support of the truth, which is God’s word, the Bible, then it is not the church of the living God. Read the Bible! Learn it. Embrace it. Obey it. Learn to love it, even when it makes you uncomfortable.

Solus Christus (“Christ Alone”)
This says that salvation is by (or through) Christ alone. There are no other persons (such as Mary or the saints) that come between you and Christ. There are no rituals or ceremonies by which you must come to God.

From your perspective, this might seem so obvious that you can’t imagine why it deserves any attention. The Bible is crystal clear!

1 Timothy 2:5: For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,

Acts 4:12: . . . And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.

Here’s the way the same group of historians and scholars[2] defines Solus Christus:

We reaffirm that our salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of the historical Christ alone. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to the Father.

We deny that the gospel is preached if Christ's substitutionary work is not declared and faith in Christ and his work is not solicited.

As we said, from your perspective this might be so obvious that you wonder why it should even be mentioned. But you need to recognize the significance of the near-universal dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.

Within Roman Catholic doctrine, there are many encroachments on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Foremost is the issue of the merit system. Roman Catholicism teaches that there is excess merit available from Jesus, from Mary His mother, and from others they deem to be “saints.”

In the Roman Catholic system, you can tap into this reservoir of merit in order to help make up for your sins. That negates the uniqueness of Christ. In the Roman Catholic system, you can pray to God through the saints. That, too, negates the uniqueness of Christ.

At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic church had formally established that there were seven sacramentsbaptism (they mean infant baptism, not the believer’s baptism of the Bible), the eucharist (the mass, in which they believe Christ is afresh again each time), penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination and extreme unction (usually called “the last rites”). You’ll have to rip some pages out of your Bible and add a few new ones to accept those things.

Sola Gratia (“Grace Alone”)
Sola Scriptura responds to the erosion of the authority of Scripture by claiming anything else carries equal authority.

Solus Christus responds to the erosion of Christ-centered worship by adding to it the merits of anyone else.

Sola Gratia responds to the erosion of the grace of God in Christ by adding to it any element of human effort or merit. This also relates to the Roman Catholic system of merit. It has to do with the basis of salvation, which is the grace of God alone.

Here again is a good formulation of the principle of sola gratia from a group of scholarly church historians:[3]

We reaffirm that in salvation we are rescued from God's wrath by his grace alone. It is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.

We deny that salvation is in any sense a human work. Human methods, techniques or strategies cannot accomplish this transformation. Faith is not produced by our unregenerated human nature.

The idea of being saved only by the grace of God, completely as an undeserved free gift flies in the face of every shred of human sinful pride. The only issue is What does the Bible say? It’s clear that you can be saved only by the grace of God:

Romans 3:21-28: But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; . . For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Ephesians 2:5, 8-9: . . . when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.

Acts 15:11: But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, . . .

The New Perspective on Paul is a brand of preaching and teaching among some evangelicals who say that you “get in” to the family of God by grace, but that you must “stay in” by your good works. Such teaching is false teaching:

Romans 11:6: But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

Do you see it? Grace plus anything is NOT GRACE! That’s why the Reformers said what they said: Sola Gratia. By grace ALONE.

Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”)
This doctrine says simply: Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone–neither the church nor any other party is an actor in salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, plus nothing.

You are probably most familiar with the version of this (which couldn’t be any clearer!) in . . .

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Historic evangelicalism has always treated justification by faith as a central biblical distinctive–if not the single most important doctrine to get right. This is the doctrine that makes authentic Christianity distinct from every other religion. Christianity is the religion of divine accomplishment–with the emphasis always on Christ's finished work.

All others are religions of human achievement. Abandon the doctrine of justification by faith and you cannot honestly claim to be evangelical.

Scripture itself makes sola fide the only alternative to a damning system of works-righteousness:

Romans 4:4-5: Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,

When you trust Jesus Christ for justification by faith alone you receive a perfect righteousness that is reckoned to you–it is credited to your account. If you attempt to establish your own righteousness or mix faith with works, you only receive the terrible wage that is due all who fall short of perfection. Israel's apostasy before the time of Christ was rooted in their abandoning of justification by faith alone:

Romans 10:3: [Speaking of Israel] For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.

Here is how this doctrine has been defined in modern times:[4]

We reaffirm that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ's righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God's perfect justice.

We deny that justification rests on any merit to be found in us, or upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ's righteousness in us, or that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.

In our world, there are two assaults on the doctrine of sola fide. From one side, the attack redefines what it means to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). From the other side, the attack adds works of human effort to the simplicity of faith.

1. Lawlessness. Here’s what the first attack sounds like:
“Ralph professed Christ when he was sixteen. He went forward in church and prayed the sinner’s prayer. He was baptized that summer. Ralph hasn’t attended church since he went away to college. Now, in his 30's, since his divorce, Ralph’s drinking has gotten a lot worse than it used to be. The woman he’s living with puts up with him, but I don’t know how long it will last. I’m sure glad Ralph is saved.”

The tragic problem with that scenario is that it waters down the definition of faith. The kind of faith that saves is trusting God to the point that you submit to Him, and your life is changed. It’s more than just giving your mental or verbal agreement to the facts of the gospel that Christ died for your sins.

True faith, wherever it exists, always gives evidence that it’s real. Jesus said (Matthew 7:16), “You will know them by their fruits.” If there’s no fruit, the tree is barren and useless.

James put it this way: James 2:14-20:

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? . . . faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” . . . are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

When you come to God by faith–true, humble, trusting faith–asking that He save you, knowing you have no other hope, God justifies you. That word means that He declares you righteous.

That’s the root meaning of the word justify. It’s the verb form or the noun righteousness and the adjective righteous. That also means that God credits to your account the righteousness which is His. He regards you as “in Christ,” with the righteousness of Christ in place of your own sin and unrighteousness.

Romans 3:20: . . . by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; . . .

Romans 3:28: For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

James was addressing the issue of Ralph. The fruits of Ralph’s life show what Ralph really believes–and it shows that Ralph doesn’t believe God.

There is another use of the word justify which gets to the point of explaining that true faith is faith that works. The works do not secure your salvation, but they justify you in the sense that they make it clear to others that your faith is genuine. That’s how James used the word. James 2 goes on (21-24):

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” is Genesis 15:6. When he offered his son Isaac, it was in chapter 22, about 13 years later. James makes the point that so-called faith which is only mental agreement, is not the kind of faith which saves you; saving faith is faith which changes your life.

Sola fide means there is no other way whatsoever to receive the grace of God and be saved, except by total trust in God. It is by faith, and by faith alone, that you are saved. And if you have that kind of faith, you will be saved, and the changes in your life will be evident. I can’t “see” your faith per se, but I can see the evidence of it in the good works God produces through you.

The faulty doctrine which insists that Ralph is saved, rather than pleading with Ralph to come to the Lord, is called antinomianism, or lawlessness. That’s the disregard of God’s moral laws. If you are adopted into His family, you respect the laws of the household of God. Your obedience won’t be perfect in this life, but your pattern of life will show that you love the law of God.

This attack on sola fide, the easy-believism perversion of the gospel, leaves out sanctification. That’s the fancy word that means “holiness.” God says “Be holy, for I am holy.” [5] That means that when you come to God in genuine faith, it shows up in your life by the evidence of you turning away from sin and turning to God in obedience. The change is obvious, even though you still battle the world, the flesh and the devil.

2. Adding works. The other attack on sola fide does just the opposite of ignoring sanctification. Here’s what the other attack on sola fide sounds like. It’s most likely to come in the words of a preacher, something like this:

Now that you have come to Christ by faith, you are accepted into the covenant people of God. You’re in the family! When it comes time for final judgment, God will examine your works, and your works of faith will determine if you will be justified in the day of judgment.

It’s up to you to persevere in the faith, to make sure you don’t fall away. Your perseverance is required in order for you to be justified in the end.

This attack on sola fide makes justification and sanctification into the same thing. It adds works to faith. It’s exactly the same error Paul blasted away at in Galatians, the same error the apostles and elders tackled in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Faith plus anything isn’t faith. It’s just like what we said about grace: Grace plus anything isn’t grace.

Here’s the two-pronged shocker to this whole subject:

1. There are authors and pastors who claim to be evangelicals who are teaching this new version of old heresy.

2. It is the same error as Roman Catholicism, when it comes to justification by faith.

This is the recent theological movement called the New Perspective on Paul. It’s difficult to pin down, because no one involved with this new twist on bad doctrine seems to agree fully with others who are involved with it. Some who teach it to one degree or another deny this is what they actually believe.

What they do agree on, is that the Reformation understanding of the doctrine of salvation is fundamentally flawed. They say that the Judaism of the first century was not really a self-righteous system of salvation by works based on personal merit. Therefore, they say, the church has misunderstood what Paul was writing about, and the Reformation was the wrong battle over the wrong issues.

In other words, those who accept the New Perspective on Paul reject what Jesus taught about the doctrine of the Pharisees and scribes, they reject what the church has understood clearly from Paul for almost 2000 years, and they believe the Reformation was a major battle over the wrong issues.

The Appendix includes quotations from proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, including a list of the authors most associated with the movement.

Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Only”)
The reformers believed that human beings (such as the saints and popes) and their organizations (the Church) were not worthy of the glory that was bestowed on them.

Here’s the modern statement of the significance of Soli Deo Gloria:

We reaffirm that because salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God, it is for God's glory and that we must glorify him always. We must live our entire lives before the face of God, under the authority of God and for his glory alone.

We deny that we can properly glorify God if our worship is confused with entertainment, if we neglect either Law or Gospel in our preaching, or if self-improvement, self-esteem or self-fulfillment are allowed to become alternatives to the gospel.[6]

Though not the same battleground as the other “solas” of the Reformation, soli Deo gloria is nevertheless important. Even a beloved pastor or author must never be exalted beyond the status granted by God to all who believe: We are all sinners, saved by grace through faith plus nothing.

Appendix 1: Current Events
As the elders of a local church, we are duty bound to warn the flock and protect God’s precious sheep from wolves. With that serious and somber responsibility, we alert you to the primary sources of the New Perspective on Paul.

In 1977, E. P. Sanders published the first book in the chain which leads to the current state of affairs. Sanders’ contention is that Judaism in the days of Jesus and the apostles was not a legalistic system of works-righteousness. Sanders’ theology is not at all conservative. He rejects inerrancy, for example, and does not believe the gospels are reliable historical sources for understanding Judaism.

Author James Dunn is credited with coining the term New Perspective on Paul in 1982, building on the works of E. P. Sanders.

The two most current and prolific authors promoting the New Perspective within evangelical circles in this decade are Norman Shepherd and N. T. Wright. Another promoter of the New Perspective is John Armstrong. Beware of any source which recommends these authors.

We recommend extreme caution concerning the writings of these men–and any others who believe the New Perspective should be promoted in any way. The New Perspective on Paul assaults the doctrines of Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia and Sola Fide.

N. T. Wright goes so far as to say that it is possible that Protestants and Catholics can and should agree on the doctrine of justification, saying it is “the ecumenical doctrine.”[7] We agree with the assessment of Nathan Busenitz:

With regard to N. T. Wright, a close look at Scripture indicates that many of his conclusions are terribly wrong. Openly motivated by ecumenical desires, Wright is reinterpreting biblical language in order to minimize the differences between Protestants and Catholics. While his tactics may be subtle, couched in evangelical language and clothed in scholarly form, his interpretations do more to cloud Paul’s true meaning than to clarify it.[8]

Another helpful article is “Jesus’ Perspective on Sola Fide” by John MacArthur.[9]

We, the elders of Heritage Bible Church, believe that the New Perspective on Paul leads to proclaiming a “different gospel” which is not the true message of salvation (Galatians 1:6-9). The New Perspective is the old heresy of adding works to salvation by grace through faith. We publish this article to alert Christian friends to its presence in modern evangelicalism and to warn against adopting any aspects of this corruption of the gospel.

Available from Heritage Bible Church is a three-sermon series by Pastor Jim Harris which elaborates on the material in this paper. The title is “Pillars and Supports.”

Appendix 2: Summary of the New Perspective
Since the original publication of this position paper, others resources for dealing with New Perspective on Paul have become available. One includes a uniquely thorough summary of the teachings of New Perspective on Paul advocates. The author is Dr. Robert L. Thomas, Professor of New Testament at The Master's Seminary. He began a lecture[10] to the faculty and student body of the seminary with this introduction:

The following summary states erroneous positions advocated either explicitly or implicitly by the New Perspective on Paul. . . . In cases where NPP proponents disagree among themselves, I have tried to reflect the position of N. T. Wright in the following summary because he is . . . finding widest positive acceptance among today's evangelicals.

  1. First-century Judaism was not a salvation-by-works religion.
  2. First-century Judaism was not especially marked by hypocrisy, petty legalism, self-serving, self-deceiving casuistry, arrogance, and a lack of confidence in God.
  3. God has chosen Israel and given them the law which He enables them to keep.
  4. Until the death and resurrection of Christ, by virtue of God’s election, any physical descendant of Abraham is a member of the covenant people and thereby justified.
  5. Those who maintain the covenantal nomism[11] relationship by obedience are the ones who will be saved.
  6. First-century Judaism had a correct balance between faith, grace, and works and was not just a religion of externals.
  7. Covenantal nomism provides a means of atonement if a person does break the Mosaic law.
  8. Paul retained his covenantal nomism after his Damascus Road experience.
  9. From that point on, his mission was to dispense with circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions of the Mosaic law as boundaries that limited who could be a member of the covenant people.
  10. Human beings do not have a sin nature because of the original sin of Adam.
  11. Paul did not have an introspective conscience, i.e., no guilt because of his sinfulness
  12. Guilt was not expressed in Paul’s writings, but was introduced by Augustine and Luther.
  13. Justification by faith and imputed righteousness was read into Paul by Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Calvin because of their contemporary situations.
  14. Paul was a Shammaite[12] who retained covenantal nomism into his theology but added the Lordship of Christ to the system.
  15. Faith is not the means of justification or of joining the covenant community; it is rather a badge of covenant membership. One joins the covenant community through water baptism.
  16. Justification is a process that is completed only at the final judgment; therefore, no one has eternal security.
  17. Final justification is based on works of obedience to the Mosaic law so that any justification a person enjoys at present is only preliminary and can be reversed.

At the conclusion of his lecture, Dr. Thomas added these words which summarize our purpose for publishing this paper:

A word of caution is in order regarding those who have been somewhat swayed by the New Perspective, those who say they see some value in it, but who have not bought into the system as a whole.

Anyone who has embraced even a small aspect of the New Perspective has endorsed the starting point of Sanders' covenantal nomism, which defines the nature of first-century Judaism. That person cannot free himself from the system's degenerative hermeneutical approach, because without Sanders' covenantal nomism, the New Perspective does not exist.

A person cannot embrace traditional grammatical-historical principles and take even a first step toward the New Perspective. The two approaches to Pauline literature are completely incompatible.

May God grant that you "be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light" (Colossians 1:9-12).

[1]From The Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
[5]Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, 1 Peter 1:16.
[6]The Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
[7]Wright, N. .T. What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 158.
[8] The article by Busenitz contains a very good overview of the New Perspective, including numerous links to articles critiquing this modern false teaching.
[10]"The Hermeneutics of the New Perspective on Paul," February 15, 2005.
[11]"Covenantal nomism" is NPP terminology for the works of a member of the "covenant community," works done in obedience to the law of God.
[12]A follower of Shammai, one of the leading conservative rabbis of Paul's generation.