It is no secret that a few PCA pastors been scathingly critical of N. T. Wright, the “New Perspective,” and any miscreant who would appreciate those things in the PCA. To hear them tell it, there is absolutely no legitimate reason for this. People are only attracted to the New Perspective because they don’t understand the perfectly satisfactory traditional perspective.
If one wants to understand why the “traditional perspective” has, in certain cases, utterly botched exegesis, one need only look at one example of traditional preaching on Romans 4. Particularly this passage:
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
In a sermon that covers verse 14, a prominant NPP critic and PCA pastor says:
Paul goes on explain how one receives this inheritance. Verse 13: Not through the law, or probably preferably, not through law, but through the righteousness of faith. basically, Paul is claiming that we receive the promise of God by Faith, not obedience.
The pastor goes on like this hitting home how faith itself is not the obedience that constitutes our righteousness, and points out how many think that being good enough is what matters and that Paul is addressing this error to think we must first “purify ourselves enough” of our sins before we have the right to come to God. He goes on:
Paul makes his case in verse 14 arguing that there can only be one way to obtain the promise, not two. “If those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise nullified.” Paul is pointing out that the claim that we can justify ourselves by enough good behavior, actually makes God less loving, rather than more loving. I’ve already thrown that out and not answered it, so let me begin to answer that for you. Keep in mind, Paul is addressing people who think that by obeying the law they will gain righteousness. If you keep the law, you will be declared righteous. And they also think that the law provides righteousness, and that those who are pronounced righteous will, through that righteousness, receive the reward, the promise, the inheritance. So it’s quite obvious for them. You receive the promise by being declared righteous and you get declared righteous by obeying the law.
This is lovely theology. One can find it in Ephesians 2.8-10, 1 Timothy 3 and many other places (in the OT as well). But Paul in this text is not addressing the person who thinks he can be righteous by obeying (enough of) the law. That is not who the “adherent of the law” is. (In fact, the ESV stumbled, in my opinion, by adding the word “adherent” to the text. I think that an another word in another place would have been more helpful.)
Paul cannot, in this passage, be speaking of one trying to be righteous before God by obedience to the law because he goes on to say that those very people–“adherents of the law”–are the ones who will be saved along with those who are of the faith of Abraham (v. 16).
Does that sound remotely orthodox? That the great gospel promise is that both those who only believe and those who think we need to “purify ourselves enough” in order to be accepted by God are both the offspring of Abraham?
Of course, none of this is noticed by this NPP critic because v. 16 is reserved for another sermon
There are a lot of cues to lead this pastor to think that Paul must be saying what he wants and expects him to say: grace, wrath, law, faith, are all loci in our systematic theology (and I believe Paul’s too if we frame “law” as the generic obedience that all people owe God). But in following those cues he ends up with people trying to win God’s favor by their obedience who are declared to be Abraham’s offspring. This is the irony: by insisting on a “traditional” message, our NPP critic preaches a sermon that, if followed consistently, would lead readers “away from Geneva and to Rome” to utilize a popular substitute for critical analysis that is in vogue these days.
Paul is not referring to the legalist/moralist versus the one who trusts, but rather the Jew to the exclusion of the Gentile. He is showing that Abrahamic identitiy is for both the Jew and Gentile who trusts according to the Gospel message. Thus in verse 16 we find a restatement of verses 11 and 12:
11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all
There is a lot in the surrounding context to back up this interpretation, but I will leave that alone right now because it really doesn’t need any backing up. Paul is not talking about people trying to be justified by obedience but he is arguing that God’s salvation cannot be exclusive to the Jews. Thus, it is not “adherents” that is supposed to be assumed in this text, but rather:
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is those of the law [only] who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the one of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham [even if a Gentile], who is the father of us all.
Let us be clear, the preaching paraphrased above is only mistaken because the mistake goes deep into the tradition. Calvin’s own commentary on Romans makes exactly the same claim by making Paul mean two entirely different things in two successive references to those “of the law.” Of verse 14, Calvin writes,
He takes his argument from what is impossible or absurd, that the favor which Abraham obtained from God, was not promised to him through any legal agreement, or through any regard to works; for if this condition had been interposed — that God would favor those only with adoption who deserved, or who performed the law, no one could have dared to feel confident that it belonged to him: for who is there so conscious of so much perfection that he can feel assured that the inheritance is due to him through the righteousness of the law? Void then would faith be made; for an impossible condition would not only hold the minds of men in suspense and anxiety, but fill them also with fear and trembling: and thus the fulfillment of the promises would be rendered void; for they avail nothing but when received by faith. If our adversaries had ears to hear this one reason, the contest between us might easily be settled.
The Apostle assumes it as a thing indubitable, that the promises would by no means be effectual except they were received with full assurance of mind. But what would be the case if the salvation of men was based on the keeping of the law? consciences would have no certainty, but would be harassed with perpetual inquietude, and at length sink in despair; and the promise itself, the fulfillment of which depended on what is impossible, would also vanish away without producing any fruit. Away then with those who teach the common people to seek salvation for themselves by works, seeing that Paul declares expressly, that the promise is abolished if we depend on works. But it is especially necessary that this should be known, — that when there is a reliance on works, faith is reduced to nothing. And hence we also learn what faith is, and what sort of righteousness ought that of works to be, in which men may safely trust.
The Apostle teaches us, that faith perishes, except the soul rests on the goodness of God….
Though these words mean in another place those who, being absurd zealots of the law, bind themselves to its yoke, and boast of their confidence in it, yet here they mean simply the Jewish nation, to whom the law of the Lord had been delivered.
Another place? Another place in the same paragraph? Calvin is just wrong here.
So which is it? Do you want to say you handle that Word of God responsibly or do you want to say that you follow whatever Calvin says?
Right now, to read and hear what comes from the anti-NPP movement, one would think that those on the other side had no other purpose in life but to subvert the PCA. Well, if preaching accurately from the Bible is subversive to the PCA, then I think the denomination has bigger problems than those some are currently labeling as enemies of the faith. There are perfectly responsible and theologically orthodox reasons why pastors in the PCA believe it is only responsible to keep up with, consider, and even agree with things that currently go by the name “New Perspective on Paul.” Hiding from it means taking a vibrant tradition of Biblical scholarship and turning into a cult that prefers tradition to Scripture.
Do we want to preach the Bible accurately or not?