Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk of the early sixteenth century, lived a miserable existence under the influence of scholastic theology. However, while Luther was lecturing on Paul’s letters at the University of Wittenberg, he became captivated by the letters to the Romans and Galatians and the concept of the “righteousness of God” portrayed there. Luther eventually concluded that an individual’s “active righteousness” was utterly incapable of saving him from eternal punishment.
Instead, salvation came through “passive righteousness,” a righteousness provided by God that was imputed to the sinner through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther argued that the law was never intended to be a means of salvation. The role of the law was to terrify the sinner so that he despaired of his own self-righteousness and trusted the atoning death of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Luther closely associated the dependence on good works for salvation in medieval Catholicism with an assumed works-righteousness in the Judaism of Paul’s day. He read references in Romans and Galatians as if he and Paul contended with opponents who affirmed essentially the same view of the relationship of the law to salvation. His way on interpreting Paul is the standard Protestant viewpoint.
I, like the rest of orthodox Protestantism, believe that Paul is resisting legalism within the text. I think Luther is reading the text in the right light. Paul implies that if righteousness is based on one’s works, then it is not a gift but owed to that person as something obtained by self-effort. Such an interpretation is not an additive gained at the Reformation in response to false, Catholic dogma. It is grounded in the text itself. The “works of the law” on which some Jews depended for their salvation included efforts to keep all the prescriptions of the law and not just those that distinguished Jews from Gentiles.
There is a current debate in Pauline studies concerning the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul. Through the scholarship of interpreters such as E.P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright, it is argued that Paul is not reacting against Jewish legalism that sought to gain their righteousness by obeying the Law. Paul is responding to covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression. Paul’s issue in Galatia and Rome is Jewish believers restricting Gentile access to the covenant using the works of the Law. But, these works are not the “works” that sinners use to justify themselves before God (the standard viewpoint). The Jews were erecting boundary markers (or works) by focusing on commandments like circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath, to separate Jews from Gentiles. Thomas Schreiner summarizes the New Perspective position saying that “The root sin was the exclusion of the Gentiles from the covenant, the erection of covenantal barriers by the Jews. Israel had fallen into a nationalistic view of the Law and were using their ‘works of the Law’ or covenant barriers to exclude their Gentile brothers from the covenant.” Within this theological paradigm, justification by faith is not the legal declaration that a sinner is righteous because their sins have been imputed to Christ and his righteousness is “counted” or “reckoned” to them. Justification is the eschatological declaration that one belongs to the covenant, one belongs to the people of God. The issue is ecclesiology; the issue is not soteriology.
The “New Perspective” must not only accommodate background information that led the apostle to write his letters but must also justify or ground their viewpoint within the actual words of the text. Each pericope must be accounted for if their (and the standard position) position is to be valid. It is not my goal to offer any sort of large-scale discussion relating to the New Perspective on Paul. But, in my reading of Romans 4, I think the NP misses the point by seeing the “apart from works” as covenantal barriers. After giving an elaborate summation of the truths of justification by grace through faith in Romans 3:21-31 by pointing out that righteousness comes not through the Law but through Jesus’ work that is to be received by faith (3:21-26) and excluding boasting because the Law has been upheld in Christ (3:27-31), the apostle Paul goes on to ground his statements within the experience of two heroes of the faith found in the Old Testament in Romans chapter 4. Like believers experiencing the life of the Spirit because of the death of Jesus, Abraham and David were justified by faith not by works (4:1-8). Paul explains how Abraham’s faith was accredited to him as righteousness (4:18-22) and his experience of imputed righteous also applies to the Church (4:23-25).
The interpreters who detect a reference to boundary markers separating Jews from Gentiles in the term for works have not appreciated the testimony of David sufficiently within the text (vv. 6-8; Psa. 32). Paul cites David’s testimony to corroborate that God reckons righteousness “apart from works.” Abraham is blessed because God has not “counted” his personal sins against him (another’s righteousness was “counted” or “credited” to him) just as David is blessed to not have his sins reckoned to him. It is not as if his sins did not exist. The deserved judicial sentenced was not doled out upon his head. The original context has nothing to do with boundary markers. The sins of David are moral failures as evidenced by verses 4-5 in the psalm. Paul was thinking of David’s own infractions here in accordance with the context of the psalm. David’s testimony can illumine the text for current readers in three ways: (1) the fact that God is the one who reckons righteousness is implicit in Paul’s use of the passive verb, (2) righteousness is defined here in terms of forgiveness of sins, and (3) the word for blessing testifies to the gracious character of justification. The context of Psalm 36 has to be ignored for the word for works to mean “covenant boundary markers.”