If you’re unfamiliar with the “New Perspective” on Paul, it’s an interpretation of the Apostle’s letters that claims he was not (so much) saying that people could only be made right with God through faith (in Jesus). Instead Paul was, the New Perspective says, (merely) proclaiming that Gentile followers of Jesus did not have to be circumcised or engage in the other Jewish “boundary markers.”
The New Perspective would also say that God-fearing Jews of Paul’s day already had accurate understandings of God’s rescuing grace, so Paul must have been rebuking some other bogey than that human beings can/must contribute to their own salvations. The NP has great doubts about Martin Luther’s Great Exchange (Christ’s righteousness for our sinfulness), and it has great doubts that Paul ever taught such a thing. It would have us believe that Luther and Paul were trying to slay different dragons.
Not too long ago, Stephen Westerholm, a Biblical scholar in Canada, wrote this helpful book reiterating the Gospel, the message that by grace through faith, we can be saved to good works, not by them.
Some selected quotes:
“To claim that the Paul of Galatians was exercised over the terms by which Gentiles can belong to the people of God while overlooking his (still more fundamental) concern with the dilemma facing all human beings responsible before God is to suffer from a peculiarly modern myopia.”
“Unrighteous people can be found righteous only by extraordinary means, and God has provided that means in the gospel. In Paul’s terms, the gospel introduces a righteousness ‘apart from the law’ (3:21), by which he means not merely that Gentiles can experience this righteousness without being circumcised, but that Jewish and Gentile sinners alike can be found righteous even though they have not met the law’s requirement for righteous behavior (cf. 2:17–27; 3:9–18). That is why the act by which God declares them righteous is called a ‘gift,’ an expression of divine ‘grace’ (3:24).”
“We are indebted to [New Perspective godfather] Sanders for the reminder that Judaism saw the importance of divine grace, but Sanders himself gives us reason to doubt that it assigned the same importance to grace as the apostle.”
“John Barclay has pointed out that ancient notions of gift giving consistently took into account the worthiness of the recipient(s). Gifts were still gifts, to be sure; they were not earned. But neither were they to be given indiscriminately; giving a gift to those who would not appreciate it, or who would squander it, was wasted effort. Along these lines we may understand the rabbinic insistence on the merits of Israel, or of Israel’s forefathers, as a factor when God chose them for his covenant people: on nations that betrayed no interest in submitting to God’s will, the gift would have been wasted. Israel’s willingness to obey made them worthy recipients of what was nonetheless a divine gift, out of all proportion to their merits. Against such (readily understandable) notions, Paul’s striking insistence on the utter unworthiness of the recipients of God’s grace stands out all the starker.”
“But it is no caricature of Judaism to say, with Sanders, that it lacked a doctrine of the ‘essential sinfulness’ of humankind; no Jew would regard that claim as an insult. For Paul, on the other hand, it is precisely the ‘essential sinfulness’ of humankind that requires a salvation based on grace alone, apart from human ‘works.’ Judaism was not ignorant of divine grace, but that is no reason to deny that Paul could have understood justification in terms of an exclusive reliance on grace in a way that was foreign to the thinking of contemporary Jews.”
“‘Acquitted’ and ‘righteous’ are not synonyms, even in a legal setting. Never in the Old Testament are acquitted wicked persons called ‘righteous,’ nor is ‘righteousness’ used of their ‘status'”
“No Galatian would have heard ‘justified’ and thought ‘entitled to sit at the family table’; nor would Paul (who elsewhere uses dikaio– terms in their ordinary sense) have used this word here if that was what he wanted to say. To the simple answer we need add only that nothing in the context in Galatians 2 compels us to add fresh categories to the lexical definition of ‘justify.'”
“Twice Paul alludes to the claim of Psalm 143:2 that no one can be found righteous in God’s eyes, only to say that such unrighteous people are ‘justified’ (found righteous) when they believe (Rom 3:20–22; Gal 2:16). But the paradox of the gospel does not end even there: not only does God declare the guilty righteous, but he himself is ‘righteous’ when he does so (Rom 3:25–26). How does that work? Divine righteousness here depends, Paul explains, on the expiation of sins that God provided through the sacrificial death of Christ. ‘God put forward [Christ] as an expiation,13 by means of Christ’s blood—an expiation of benefit to those with faith. In this way God demonstrated that he was indeed righteous even when he overlooked [or ‘forgave’] past sins’ (3:25).”
“As we have seen, ‘righteousness’ does not mean ‘covenant faithfulness’; but keeping one’s promises, covenantal or otherwise, is one example of righteousness.”
“(Gal 2:21). The goal under immediate discussion is ‘righteousness,’ not table fellowship; and the rejected path to that goal is ‘the law,’ not simply its boundary-marking elements.”
“I hasten to add that one of the consequences—’on the ground,’ so to speak—of Paul’s formula is, indeed, that Gentile believers ought not to submit to the regime of the law, with its boundary-marking provisions. But Paul reaches that goal by saying that those who get circumcised are submitting to a law that cannot lead sinners to righteousness in God’s sight.”
“Paul distinguishes faith, not from more difficult works that humans might be required to do, but from human ‘works’ of any kind (4:4–8; 9:32; Gal 3:11–12).”
“The Galatians to whom Paul wrote had also come to faith, but teachers had lately visited them and insisted that, as Gentiles, they needed to be circumcised and live like Jews if they wanted to belong to the people of God. That way madness lies, replied Paul: Why would anyone submit to the laws of a covenant that enslaves and curses all its subjects? As he made this argument, Paul returned to the picture of justification: sinners needing justification (and such are all human beings, Gentiles and Jews alike) must understand that ‘a person cannot be justified (or ‘declared righteous’) by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Gal 2:16). That, after all, is what we find in Scripture: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ (3:6).'”
“For people who have proved constitutionally unable and unwilling to do what they ought (and such are all human beings [3:10–18]), the law can only serve to bring about recognition of sin; it cannot serve as a path to righteousness: ‘by works of the law no flesh will be justified; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin’ (3:20). The verse is no attack on Jewish ‘legalism’—as though those who set out to do what they ought must be ‘legalists.’ Its denial that the law’s requirements can serve as the path to righteousness is based rather on a more radical perception of human sinfulness than that held by most Jews. As a result, Paul sees the only righteousness available to sinful human beings to be that given as a gift of God’s grace, ‘apart from works’ (3:24; 4:2, 6; 5:17)—distinguishing grace from works in a way other Jews felt no need to do.”
Just a sampling, there. I heartily recommend the book to anyone curious about whether Paul truly meant that only by the grace of Jesus through faith in Jesus can a human being have peace with God and eternal life.
It is well worth the read.