Doctrine of Salvation (Part 10)

March 16, 2014     Time: 00:36:42

We’ve been talking about the doctrine of justification, and I argued last time that the Protestant Reformers were correct in understanding Romans 4 and other passages dealing with justification as being essentially forensic in nature. That is to say, God declares us just on the basis of Christ’s work and our faith in him. The opposite of justification is condemnation and through our faith in Christ we have escaped a state of condemnation and are now declared to be justified before God.

We contrasted that with the Catholic view of justification which sees justification as a righteousness that is imparted by God to me whereby I become actually just. My character is transformed. This justification is something I grow in and increase in as life goes on and as I do meritorious works. We saw that the Catholic view is quite different from the Reformers’ view which sees justification as a judicial act of God rather than some sort of a moral transformation that God works in your life.

Today we want to consider another alternative to the traditional Reformation view of justification, and this is a contemporary alternative – very new in fact – that is known as the New Perspective on Paul. The claim of the adherents of the New Perspective is that the traditional Reformers have seriously misunderstood Paul and that when we correctly interpret Paul we see that in fact he’s not really all that different from what the Judaism of his day was saying.

One of the key figures in this so-called New Perspective on Paul is the biblical scholar E. P. Sanders. One of Sanders’ pivotal works is called Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977. Now, you may ask, “What is the force of that word ‘Palestinian?’” Well, Palestine was the name of the Roman province that is occupied by Israel. So Palestinian Judaism was the Judaism of the people who lived in that region that we today call Israel. This is in contrast to Jews that were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. There were Jews living in Egypt. There were Jews in Rome, Jews in Greece, in Syria. These Jews were part of the Diaspora, or the Dispersion, as it’s called. And what Sanders is writing about is Judaism as it existed in the Jewish homeland, not in the Dispersion or the Diaspora. Often, that Judaism is called Hellenistic Judaism because it was in Greek speaking culture and environment and absorbed some of the Greek culture. But what Sanders is talking about is Judaism in Palestine – the Judaism out of which the early church was birthed.

Sanders writes this with regard to Paul; he says,

On the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism – grace and works – Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism. . . . Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn, salvation.[1]

So the view here is very subtle.[2] The idea is that one gets into the covenant with God by God’s freely bestowed grace. You are not a member of the covenant – the saving covenant of God – in virtue of your works. It is by God’s grace. But one remains in the covenant by doing the required works. Now these good works don’t earn salvation but they are the instrumental means by which one stays in the covenant. So this is a very subtle view. The claim is that these good works, while not earning salvation, are nevertheless necessary as the instrumental means by which a person remains in the covenant to which God has invited him by means of his grace.

So Sanders distinguishes between getting in and staying in. You get into the covenant by God’s grace. That is how you get into the saving covenant with God – you get in by God’s grace. But the way you stay in is by doing the good works that are required to stay in that covenant. Those works don’t earn your salvation but nevertheless they are the means by which you stay in this saving relationship with God.

Many have been persuaded that Paul’s view is really no different than that of Palestinian Judaism. You are saved by grace but then you stay in by means of doing these good works.

But a very penetrating critique of Sanders’ view has been written by the New Testament scholar Robert Gundry. He writes an essay called “The Inferiority of the New Perspective on Paul.” He doesn’t mince words – “The Inferiority of the New Perspective on Paul” in his book The Old Is Better, published in 2005. Gundry agrees with Sanders that the evidence of Palestinian Judaism shows that Jews had a strong emphasis on obedience to the law as the way of staying in the covenant. So Palestinian Judaism was preoccupied with legal matters – how you apply the law to various situations, what does the law really require of you; extensive wrangling over the requirements of the law because this is the means by which one stays in the covenant with God. But Gundry denies that Paul has a similar emphasis. He writes,

Though obedience is integral and important to Paul’s theology, alongside Palestinian Jewish absorption in legal questions his comments on obedience look proportionately slight. Furthermore, they usually take the form of exhortations, not of legal interpretation, extension, and application.[3]

So what Gundry is saying here is that obedience is important to Paul. This is an integral part of Paul’s theology – that having come to faith in Christ you now live a life of good works worthy of Christ. But he says it is very different from Palestinian Judaism. Paul isn’t concerned with legal interpretations of the Jewish law, about how to extend the Jewish law to situations that are not obviously covered by the law, wrangling over how the law is to be applied in this or that circumstance. Think of Paul’s letters. You don’t find anything like that in the New Testament epistles. Indeed, as Gundry says, Paul’s comments on obedience usually just take the form of exhortations like “Put away all wrath, malice, slander, envy, and foul talk from your mouths,”[4] “Have this mind among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,”[5] “put to death the works of the flesh but walk in the Spirit.”[6] It is these exhortations to holy living that Paul gives – very different from the sort of legal debates that characterized Palestinian Judaism.[7] Think of the book of Galatians, for example. In Galatians Paul does not think of legal works as the means of staying in the covenant. The whole emphasis throughout Galatians is that both getting in and staying in is a matter of faith in Christ. It is faith from beginning to end. Faith in Christ is the means by which we get into relationship with God, and it is faith in Christ that is the means of staying in relationship with Christ, not works of the law.

Gundry recognizes that Paul does require, of course, that faith be attended by good works. If you have genuine saving faith then you will do good works. But he distinguishes Paul’s view from Judaism’s view in that these good works are not the means of staying in but rather they are evidence of genuine faith. That’s the difference. Paul also emphasizes the importance of good works but not as the means of staying in the covenant. Rather, they are evidence that your faith is truly genuine. This is what Gundry writes,

At the same time Paul demands good works, and Sanders appeals to this demand [in order to justify his interpretation]. But Paul’s un-Jewish extension of faith and grace to staying in makes good works evidential of having received grace through faith, not instrumental in keeping grace through works. . . . For him, then, getting in and staying in are covered by the seamless robe of faith as opposed to works with the result that works come in as evidential rather than instrumental.[8]

Do you get what Gundry is saying? He’s saying that for Paul good works are necessary but they are necessary as evidence of the genuineness of your faith. They are not necessary as the instruments by which you stay in the covenant. They are not the instrumental means by which you stay in the covenant; rather, they are evidential in showing that you really are in a saving relationship with God through faith. So Paul’s emphasis is very different from the Judaism of his day. For Paul, it is faith from beginning to end that enables you both to get into the covenant and to stay in the covenant, and good works serve an evidential purpose.

Gundry recognizes that Paul does say that in the end people will be judged according to their works. Sanders uses these sorts of statements to argue that on the question of staying in the covenant, Paul holds fast to the Jewish mode of thinking according to which avoiding evil works and doing good works are the condition of staying in even though they don’t earn salvation. So Sanders says these works don’t merit salvation. That is not their purpose. But nevertheless they are the means of staying in the covenant, and Sanders says Paul believes in that since Paul says people will be judged according to their works. But as Gundry points out, “The evidence Sanders cites from Palestinian Jewish literature shows overwhelmingly that good works are a condition as well as a sign of staying in.”[9] That is to say, for Jews – for the Judaism of Paul’s day – the evidence shows overwhelmingly, Gundry says, that good works are not merely the sign that one is in the covenant; they are the condition, they are how you stay in the covenant. So he says Sanders has correctly interpreted Palestinian Jewish literature in that respect.[10]

Gundry goes on to say, “It appears, however, that for Paul good works are only (but not unimportantly!) a sign of staying in as well as of getting in.”[11] So for Paul the good works are not the condition of salvation, Gundry would say, rather they are the sign that one is a bona fide member of the covenant. He interprets 2 Corinthians 13:5 in this light.[12] 2 Corinthians 13:5 is Paul’s command to the church to test yourselves to see whether you are holding to your faith. Examine yourselves. Gundry says this points to the evidential role of good works. You examine yourself to see if your life befits a relationship with Christ. Test yourself to see if your faith is genuine. This is pointing to your evidence of your good works, not as the means or condition of salvation.

So, it seems to me that the key difference between Sanders and Gundry is that Sanders interprets these good works for Paul as being a condition of salvation whereas Gundry sees them as evidence of salvation. For Sanders, good works (according to Paul) are a condition of salvation, but on Gundry’s interpretation of Paul good works are merely evidence of salvation.

How shall we understand this distinction between “condition” and “evidence” that is drawn here? It occurs to me that here a bit of logic can actually be helpful, I think, in making sense of both Sanders’ view and Gundry’s insight. In logic, if you have an if-then statement like “P implies Q” then P is a sufficient condition of Q. That is to say, the truth of P is a sufficient condition for the truth of Q. If P implies Q then if P is true, Q is also true. That is what it means to say P implies Q. The truth of P is a sufficient condition for the truth of Q. The truth of Q is a necessary condition of the truth of P. In order for P to be true, Q must be true. Why is that? Because P implies Q. P is never true without Q’s also being true, because P implies Q. So, in order for P to be true, Q has to also be true. Otherwise, you could have P be true on its own and Q not be true. So in order for P to be true, Q must be true, which means that Q is a necessary condition of P. Or the truth of Q is a necessary condition of the truth of P. So in an if-then statement, P implies Q, P is a sufficient condition for the truth of Q, the truth of Q is a necessary condition for the truth of P.

Perhaps you can already see where I am going with this. Consider the statement:

If one has genuine saving faith, one will do good works.

This has the logical form of P implies Q. It is a conditional statement. If one has genuine saving faith, one will do good works.

Now, what that means is that genuine saving faith is a sufficient condition for doing good works. If you have genuine saving faith then you’ll perform the good works. So a sufficient condition of doing good works is having genuine saving faith.[13] But notice then that in a logical sense, doing good works is a necessary condition of genuine saving faith. You don’t have genuine saving faith without doing good works. So in a logical sense good works are a necessary condition of salvation, not because they contribute to salvation or because they are the means by which one stays in the covenant; rather, they are a necessary condition simply in the purely logical sense that genuine saving faith doesn’t exist without these good works.

I think this can help us to put together Sanders’ and Gundry’s view. If this is correct – and I think this statement is true, Paul would agree with this statement – then in a logical sense Sanders is right that good works are a necessary condition of salvation. Good works in a logical sense are a necessary condition of salvation. Nevertheless, Gundry is also correct in saying that although good works are a necessary condition of salvation they are not instrumental in bringing about salvation. They are not the means by which salvation is achieved. Rather, good works are the necessary byproduct or concomitant of saving faith. So even though they are a necessary condition of saving faith in a logical sense, nevertheless Gundry is right in saying they are not the instrumental cause of salvation.

Gundry says, and I’ll conclude with this quotation from his essay, “The question is not whether Paul taught the necessity of good works but whether such necessary works are evidential of salvation or contributory to salvation.” Do you hear the distinction there? The question is not whether Paul taught the necessity of good works. They are a necessary condition of salvation! That’s not the issue. Rather, he says, the question is “whether such necessary works are evidential of salvation or contributory to salvation.” Are they merely the sign of genuine saving faith or are they the means by which one stays in the covenant or finds salvation? Gundry goes on to say,

If Paul taught them as necessary evidence of salvation but not as a necessary contribution to it, then his teaching on works does not create an inconsistency with his teaching on justification by faith apart from meritorious works.[14]

So it seems to me that once we make the fine distinctions that we can logically, I think we can embrace the insight of Sanders that for Paul logically good works are a necessary condition of salvation, but then we see with Gundry Paul’s consistent doctrine of justification by faith apart from works in the sense that the good works are neither meritorious nor are they the instrumental means which contribute to salvation. Rather, they serve as necessary evidence of the genuine saving faith of the regenerate believer.


Question: Given this position, what does it say about rewards in heaven for those that have done meritorious works?

Answer: Gundry doesn’t address that question but obviously the Scripture does teach that there will be rewards in heaven to Christians.[15] I would see these not as meritorious of salvation or contributing to salvation; that is simply through faith. But it would be an expression of God’s generosity to those who have served him well. It is his saying “well done good and faithful servant.” The Scripture does say that there will be rewards in heaven given for that kind of service. It is an expression of God’s generosity and kindness to us.

Followup: One other thought – it doesn’t go the other way where you can have Q and not have P. For example, you can do good works and not be saved.

Answer: Right.

Followup: But it is a condition of salvation.

Answer: Right, that is a good point. Notice that it would be logically fallacious to say that “if P then Q, therefore if Q then P.” That is a logical fallacy. You can’t say that because P implies Q that Q implies P. So what you rightly point out is you can do good works but that doesn’t mean you have salvation. Those are a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition of salvation. Good point.

Question: That sort of rolls right into my question: what is the definition of good works? Is good works just doing good things and not doing bad things morally? Or does it have to do with actions that sort of point people to Christ in some way? Are works neutral? Can works be neutral?

Answer: Think of what Paul talks about in his letters in terms of his exhortations to holy and righteous living that reflects what it is like to be a Christian – the fruit of the Spirit versus the works of the flesh. Think of the latter chapters of Ephesians and Colossians where he talks about what to put away and what to put on. There are all sorts of virtues that one is to clothe oneself with like patience, brotherly love, kindness, being forbearing with others, and so forth. And put off things like anger, rancor, divisiveness, lust, and avarice. Those are the negative works. And the good works tend to primarily be these virtuous qualities that would be evidence in service. They don’t exist in abstraction, they work themselves out, I think. But it is not just doing evangelism, or doing things directly for Christ. I think it is showing the kind of character that someone will have who walks in the fullness of the Holy Spirit on a day-by-day basis.

Question: I had a comment first. You were mentioning in passing that Galatians really primarily talks and debates this idea that salvation is continued by works and a particular verse that sticks out in that is Galatians 3:3 when Paul says, “You foolish Galatians. Did you who began in the Spirit, are you perfected in the flesh?” So Paul seems to be making a pretty clear distinctive that these people who are already saved but now are starting to incorporate works into the essential of keeping the faith. He is kind of clearly debating that. I have a question that is kind of paired with this though because Paul seems to make several statements. I was trying to find them, I couldn’t find them in time; maybe you will know where they are. But it seems that he says a few things that cause people to kind of get a little confused at times about himself not being one hundred percent sure that he has attained salvation. He kind of checks himself. I think there is some in 1 Corinthians and in Romans. I am not sure. You might have an idea of what verse I’m talking about.

Answer: I know the passages you mean where he says things like this: “Brethren, I do not consider that I myself have attained this, but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the mark of the upward call in God and Christ Jesus.”[16] So he does have a tentativeness that I find very prudent. I think that one should not be presumptuous and say, “I’m gonna make it to the end. I am going to be faithful.” That was Peter’s mistake when he said, “Lord, I will never deny you. Though they all fall away, I’ll never fall away.” And Jesus said, “Before the night is out, Peter, you will deny me three times.”[17] So Paul, I think you are quite right in saying, says “that though I have assurance of my salvation, I don’t rest on my laurels. I don’t assume that I already made it. I keep pressing on toward that call.” I think the importance of finishing well is something that as we grow older impresses itself upon us all the more – not to fall near the finish line the way, say, Solomon did who began so well but then didn’t finish well. The importance of finishing well, I think, is what you are underlining for us. Now, insofar as perhaps the question beneath the surface that you are asking might be, “Well, can we lose our salvation?” We will take that up in a subsequent lesson. We will get to that question.

Question: Could you comment on (in connection with your discussion) Philippians 3:15? In fact, it is just before that in verse 13 where Paul says, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet.”

Answer: Yes, this is the passage I was thinking of.

Followup: In verse 15 he says, “Let us therefore as many as are perfect have this attitude.” Let me add to that, Paul says in Romans 7 that he struggles, he can’t do the things he wants to do. Right? And then in 2 Corinthians 12 he says he struggles with pride, and he’s been given a thorn in the flesh to control his pride. Maybe you can discuss those points and fit those in?

Answer: When he talks about, in verse 15 of Philippians 3, “Let those of us who are” – and you translated it “perfect” – my translation says, “Let those of us who are mature be thus minded.” I think that that is the sense here. Not moral perfection which only Christ has. He doesn’t think that any of the Philippians are perfect. But those who are mature believers in Christ, they are like the fruit that is now ripened and is delicious. Those who are mature believers should be minded in the way Paul describes, not that we have to be perfect.

The other passages you cited – I think Romans 7 – I think it is a mistake to interpret that in some sort of autobiographical way about Paul. I think what he is expressing there is the state of the natural man who is struggling with the desires of the flesh and are at war with the spirit. And he sees this finally being relieved in Christ in Romans 8:1 – “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” He’s delivered us and there is no condemnation now to those in Christ Jesus.

The thorn in the flesh, I take it, was a physical malady that Paul possessed. He asked God to take it from him three times and the Lord said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you.” And Paul then boasts, he said I would prefer to boast in my weakness because then the power of Christ will be all the more evident in me. I don’t think this is indicative that the apostle Paul had a particular problem with pride. On the contrary, he says this is given me to prevent me from being too elated with all the revelations and things God has given me. So I would not interpret that as that Paul was a prideful person, but that he humbly accepts that God’s strength and grace would be more manifest in his body by not healing him from this physical malady that was a burden to Paul and apparently a burden to those who he was with. So he boasts in his weakness. So I see that this is really something that is quite a credit to Paul’s character that he would have this kind of attitude toward physical disability. And that can be a real encouragement to folks who are struggling with physical disability today.

Question: I tend to find a comfort in Philippians 2:12-13 where he says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Well, that is pretty scary there. But then he backs it up by saying, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So it is the Holy Spirit working in us to get us to do these works.[18] So it is him doing everything anyway.

Answer: Yes. And in the same connection, Ephesians 2:8-10 where he talks about “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So as you work out your own salvation, God is at work in you to reform your character, to perfect you, bring you to maturity, and do these good works that are the necessary concomitants of genuine saving faith.

Well, I think then you can see that the Reformers’ view (which I take to be the correct interpretation of Paul’s teaching) is quite in contrast both to the Catholic view as well as to the New Perspective on Paul. For Paul, I think, justification is a judicial act whereby God declares us righteous, pardons us of sin, puts us into a right relationship with him, on the basis of Christ’s atoning work.

Next time we will continue to explore more deeply the doctrine of justification.[19]



[1] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977), p. 543.

[2] 5:07

[3] Robert H. Gundry, The Old Is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), p. 200.

[4] cf. Colossians 3:8

[5] cf. Philippians 2:5

[6] cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:16-18

[7] 10:13

[8] Gundry, The Old is Better, p. 203.

[9] Ibid., p. 221.

[10] 14:59

[11] Gundry, The Old is Better, p. 221.

[12] Dr. Craig misstates the book – the correct reference is 2 Corinthians. Gundry states, “Paul expresses his thought unambiguously in 2 Cor 13:5: ‘Test yourselves whether you are in the faith. . . .’” (Ibid., p. 221.)

[13] 20:04

[14] Ibid., p. 224.

[15] 25:02

[16] cf. Philippians 3:13-14

[17] 30:04

[18] 35:07

[19] Total Running Time: 36:42 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)