Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (6) Did Paul oppose “Legalism or “Boasting” in Human Strength?

The last question we consider regarding Paul’s view of the law is whether he articulated his doctrine of justification over against a legalistic teaching of salvation upon the basis of works performed in obedience to the law. Though the new perspective argues that this was not a significant problem in Paul’s day, there is evidence in Paul’s writings that his opponents were putting their confidence before God in their works of obedience to the law. There is also evidence that the “boasting” of some of Paul’s Jewish-Christian opponents was not simply a boasting in national privilege and distinction, but also a boasting in their achievements in obeying the requirements of the law of God.1 Once again our procedure in addressing this question will be to consider briefly several key passages that pertain to this subject.

Romans 3:27–4:8

At the outset of this section of Paul’s argument in the opening chapters of Romans, the apostle refers to a kind of “boasting” that is wholly excluded by the “law of faith” (v. 27). The reason such boasting is excluded is then set forth, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:27–28). The implication of this explanation is that some of Paul’s opponents were tempted to boast of their works performed in obedience to the law. Such boasting in one’s works militates against the truth of the gospel that Paul previously summarized in Romans 3:21–26.

If we are justified by God’s grace “as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” then it would be contrary to God’s grace in Christ to appeal to any works of the law in respect to our justification. The boasting, then, to which Paul refers in these verses appears to refer to a kind of legalistic emphasis upon works of the law as a means of justification.

However, immediately after these verses, Paul raises the question, “or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (v. 29). This question, which Paul poses in conjunction with his exclusion of boasting, leads some writers of the new perspective to argue that the problem Paul identifies in this passage is not legalism but Jewish exclusivism. E. P. Sanders, for example, notes that there is no evidence that Paul opposes legalism in this passage. According to Sanders, Paul simply observes in this passage that no one is justified by works and therefore there is no ground for boasting. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham or any other member of the Jewish covenant community was boasting of their righteousness before God.2

Dunn, as might be expected, takes a little different approach. The problem Paul is opposing, according to Dunn, is “privileged status as attested and maintained by the law.”3 The boast that Paul condemns, in this approach, is not primarily in the performance of works of the law, which are regarded as the basis for finding acceptance or favor with God. Rather, the boast that Paul condemns is born out of a kind of Jewish exclusivism, which regards God’s covenant favor and grace as a peculiar privilege reserved to those who are Jews and not Gentiles.

Though there may be an element of truth in Dunn’s interpretation, neither his approach nor Sanders’ adequately explains Paul’s argument in this passage. When Paul sweepingly rejects all works of the law as the basis for our justification, it is hardly likely that he is addressing a merely imaginary or hypothetical opposition. He is hardly “shadow boxing,” when he strongly speaks of how boasting is “shut out” by the law of faith (3:27). The rhetorical question, “what becomes of our boasting?”, is not merely rhetorical.

Furthermore, when he suggests that Abraham, whose faith was reckoned to him for righteousness, has nothing to “boast about before God” (4:2), he makes a broad and inclusive point about all human boasting about works before God. For this to be true, it is not necessary to assume that Abraham was himself guilty of such boasting. It only needs to be the case that, if works were the basis for our justification, then we would have an occasion for boasting.



However, as the apostle vigorously argues in Romans 4:4–8, the principle operative in justification is that of grace and not of works. When God justifies the ungodly, he counts as righteous those who have not worked and therefore have no basis in themselves for a claim upon God’s grace. The kind of boasting that most properly fits in this context, therefore, is not a boasting in racial privilege or Jewish distinctives, but in any performance/work that might be regarded as the ground for our justification. In other words, the argument of Romans 3:27–4:8 constitutes a frontal attack upon any form of legalism. Why would the apostle present an argument that overreaches its target? It seems more probable that he aims the arrow of his argument at a real target.

It should also be observed that there is something rather unlikely in the explanation of Dunn. As he himself acknowledges, the boast of some in their “privileged status” included their claim to have received the law and to maintain themselves by it before God. It is hard to see how this differs in any significant way from the Reformation’s claim that Paul opposed legalism, when he formulated his doctrine of justification. After all, boasting in the privilege of covenant status, which is confirmed and maintained by means of the law, is hardly distinguishable from a boasting in works before God. To share this boast, one would have to become a Jew, and to become a Jew, one would have to attest and maintain this status by works.4

Romans 9:30–10:8

Romans 9:30–10:8 is an especially important passage for the question whether Paul opposed a form of legalism in his articulation of the doctrine of justification. The critical question that Paul answers in this passage is why many of his Jewish kinsmen stumbled at the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the opening sections of Romans 9, the apostle argues that the unbelief of the Jews does not represent a failure of God’s Word. Throughout the course of redemptive history, God’s “purpose of election” distinguished between those who are “children of the promise” and those who are not (9:8, 11). Far from representing a failure of God’s Word, the unbelief of many of Paul’s fellow Jews was the occasion for the realization of God’s purpose to bring salvation to the Gentiles. In this way, God’s promise through Hosea is being fulfilled, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (9:25).

After providing this initial answer to the question regarding Israel’s unbelief, Paul in Romans 9:30-10:8 goes on to develop more specifically the occasion for Israel’s resistance to the gospel. Why, he asks, did Israel “who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness … not succeed in reaching that law” (9:31)?

The answer is that Israel “did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:32). By pursuing righteousness on the basis of works, Israel “stumbled over the stumbling stone” and thereby fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 28:16. The fault Paul finds with this pursuit is not simply that Israel sought righteousness on the basis of works. Seeking to be obedient to the law of God is not Israel’s offence. The fault, according to the contrast Paul draws in these verses at the close of chapter 9, is that this pursuit was not “by faith.”

The likeliest explanation, therefore, of Paul’s words at the close of Romans 9 is that he is exposing the bad faith attempt on the part of many within Israel to obtain a righteousness that is based upon works or deeds performed in obedience to the law rather than upon faith in Jesus Christ. It is noteworthy that the “works” in question, as was true of Paul’s use of this language in Romans 4, refer to any human act or achievement that might be regarded as meriting or earning a wage. In other words, Paul seems to oppose in these verses more than a Jewish nationalism that insisted upon obedience to boundary marker requirements of the law. Nothing in the immediate context suggests that he speaks only of such things as circumcision or dietary requirements.

As if the point were not clear enough at the end of Romans 9, the apostle goes on at the outset of chapter 10 to reiterate his explanation of the principal reason Israel stumbled through unbelief. “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:3–4).

In these verses, the apostle explicitly characterizes the unbelief of Israel as symptomatic of a kind of self-righteousness. Rather than submitting to the righteousness of God, which is granted to all who believe in Christ, Israel sought to establish her own righteousness. The language Paul uses in these verses is similar, as we shall see below, to the language of Philippians 3:9. It clearly suggests a strongly negative judgment upon Israel’s attempt to obtain righteousness by some other means than through faith in Christ.

Furthermore, it can hardly be maintained that the only problem Paul diagnoses is that Israel had failed to make the transition to the new circumstance in redemptive history. Though there is a considerable debate regarding Paul’s use of the language of Christ as the “end” of the law, the primary reason Paul identifies for Israel’s failure to believe in Christ was her pursuit of a righteousness of her own.

Undoubtedly, Israel’s unbelief represented, as proponents of the new perspective argue5, a pride in her covenant privilege over against the Gentiles and a failure to see that the law finds its fulfillment or goal in Christ. But if the question is pressed regarding the reason for this unbelief, pride and failure, then it can scarcely be denied that the apostle ascribes it to Israel’s boast in her own righteous observance of the law.

An important part of Paul’s argument in this passage is his citation of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Since Paul also cites this passage in Galatians 3:12 in a negative way to argue that life and blessing cannot come by way of obedience to the commandments of God, it is most likely that he cites it here for the same purpose. Though obedience to the commandments brings life and blessing in fellowship with God, such obedience lies beyond the reach of anyone, including the zealous Israelite who seeks to establish thereby his own righteousness before God. Thus, Paul appeals to Leviticus 18:5, in the context of his argument in this passage, to prove the futility of any attempt to pursue righteousness by the law rather than by faith. The citation of Leviticus 18:5 confirms that Paul is opposing a use of the law as a means of justification by works.

Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in this passage raises an interesting question regarding the meaning of this text in its original Old Testament context. In that context, Leviticus 18:5 seems clearly to be used positively to commend obedience to God’s commandments as the way of blessing within the covenant community. However, when Paul cites this text, he seems to concede the way it was used by his opponents as a commendation of securing righteousness before God through obedience to the commandments. Paul’s appeal to this text seems to approve the “legalistic” interpretation of it by unbelieving Israel.

Perhaps the best answer to this question is one suggested by Moisés Silva.6 According to Silva, it is likely that Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in this passage is “colored” by the interpretation of his opponents. Since his opponents were likely using this text to support their pursuit of justification by obedience to the commandments of God, Paul cites this text, in the limited setting of the issue of justification, to prove that the law cannot serve as the source of our righteousness before God.

Silva maintains that, in other contexts, Paul could speak of the law in the most positive terms. In Romans 10:5, however, he turns the tables on his opponents use of this text by arguing that the law cannot be “life-generating,” though it might in other contexts be life-preserving. Because Paul focuses exclusively upon the law in respect to justification, he can argue that the law cannot play the role his opponents ascribe to it. The law, when viewed narrowly (by itself, as consisting merely of God’s commandments), only reminds us that the way to obtain life and favor with God is through faith in Christ rather than through obedience to the law. The law by itself enunciates a principle—“do this and live”—that compels the conclusion that justification cannot come by the law but only by faith in Christ.7

Philippians 3:2–11

The last passage we will consider in connection with the question of legalism is Philippians 3:2–11. This passage is particularly interesting, since it has received quite a different interpretation among authors of the new perspective than that commonly found in the Reformation tradition.

E. P. Sanders, for instance, argues that this passage should not be read in overly personal terms. The apostle Paul is basically arguing that, now that salvation comes through faith in Christ, there is no room left for the law as the way of righteousness. According to Sanders, Paul is not arguing in this passage against those who boast self-righteously of their “own” righteousness before God. When the apostle says, for example, that his life under the law was a “gain” (v. 7), he speaks positively of the law and its usefulness prior to the coming of Christ.8

For his part, Dunn treats this passage in the same context as many others in Paul’s writings. The righteousness that Paul rejects is a Jewish covenantal exclusiveness, which excludes Gentiles from participating in the blessings of the covenant. Paul is not opposing a kind a legalism in this passage, but a Jewish claim to covenant privilege and blessing that excludes the Gentiles.9

One of the more remarkable features of the handling of this passage by writers of the new perspective is the way Paul’s representation of his life under Judaism is interpreted. When Paul declares in this passage that he was “as to righteousness, under the law blameless,” he positively affirms his own accomplishments by the standard of the law of God. Paul did not articulate his doctrine of justification on the basis of any conviction that he was an incompetent sinner, who was incapable of doing what the law requires and thereby commend himself to God. To the contrary, the apostle expresses a considerable confidence in his own righteousness when measured by the standard of the law. The problem with the law, accordingly, is not that no one can do what it requires and thereby be justified. Here, as in so many other places in Paul’s polemics regarding justification, the apostle either wants to maintain that the law has been supplanted by the coming of Christ or serves as a barrier to the inclusion of the Gentiles. The problem with those who boasted of their own righteousness was not that they were failing to abide by the requirements of the law. Indeed, Paul regards himself as a paramount example of someone whose righteousness by the standard of the law was “blameless” and exemplary. The problem lies elsewhere. There are several difficulties with this reading of Philippians 3:2–11, however. In the first place, it is difficult to defend the idea that Paul in this passage actually means to assert his own “blamelessness” by the standard of the law. To be sure, when compared to the boast of his opponents, Paul does not hesitate to compare himself favorably with them. As much as anyone, Paul asserts, he has the right to place his confidence in the flesh. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” he notes, “I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” By the standard of blamelessness used by those whom heopposes, Paul compares rather fa-vorably. But does this mean Paul believed his own righteousness was sufficient to comment him to God’s favor? If we are to take his self-testimony in other passages seriously, this hardly seems likely.10

Furthermore, the kinds of credentials the apostle adduces in this passage to prove his “blamelessness” by the standard of the law are inconsistent with the interpretation of this passage by Sanders and Dunn. If the problem were primarily the failure of his opponents to see that salvation is now only through Christ or the insistence that the Jews have privileges from which the Gentiles are exempt, why does Paul speak of his achievements in such broad terms? The law-righteousness that Paul describes in this passage exceed or go beyond what Dunn and others refer to as the “boundary marker” requirements of the law. They concern a broad range of acts of obedience born of a zeal to serve and obey God.

By describing his righteousness in these broad terms, Paul refutes the boast of those who were undoubtedly making similar claims for their own accomplishments by the standard of the law. Moreover, if Sanders were correct that the problem with Paul’s opponents is that they are not up-to-date so far as the new circumstance in redemptive history is concerned, it is odd that the apostle doesn’t simply assert the same. Why doesn’t the argument of Philippians 3 simply state that the problem with those who do not receive Christ by faith is that they are living in the past?

The actual argument of this passage, however, proceeds rather differently. Paul not only assumes that his opponents are guilty of a misplaced confidence in their own flesh. They are also, on that account, unwilling to receive that righteousness that is from God by faith. The language Paul uses throughout this passage is strongly personal and even existential. He speaks of those whose confidence is in their own flesh and righteousness (v. 4). He also speaks quite emphatically in the first person, not only when he compares his own righteousness with theirs but also when he speaks of the righteousness that is from God. In the strongest possible terms, he states, “I count everything loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (vv. 7–9).

For these reasons, it is difficult to deny that Paul opposes in this passage a kind of boasting in the flesh that is characteristic of all legalism. Rather than relying by faith upon the righteousness that is from God, those who place their confidence in the flesh look to their own achievements as the basis for their commendation before God. Just as in the case of the boasting Paul mentions in Romans 3:27–28 and Romans 4:1–5, this boasting or confidence reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge God alone as the source of our justification in Christ. Such confidence fails to give the praise and honor to God to whom it properly belongs.11


  1. It should be noted that the presence of legalism in the teaching of Paul’s opponents does not require that they relied exclusively upon their own works to find favor with God. It only requires that they insisted upon works performed in obedience to God as a (partial) means of self-justification. Paul’s opponents were no doubt familiar with the themes of God’s grace and election of Israel. As we have earlier argued, they were not full-fledged “Pelagians” (to speak anachronistically). The question is, however: did they insist upon works performed in obedience to the law as an indispensable ground for the believer’s justification before God? And did they believe that they were capable of performing what the law required? Legalism includes both elements: the insistence upon obedience to the law as a means of justification, and the corollary conviction that such obedience is possible for sinners.
  2. E. P. Sanders, Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 33–35.
  3. Dunn, “Yet Once More—‘The Works of the Law’,” Journal of the Study of the New Testament 46 (1992): 113.
  4. Cf. Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Based upon his study of the motif of “boasting” in Second Temple Judaism and the argument of Romans 1-5, Gathercole concludes that the boast was not only made in relation to others (Gentiles) but also in relation to God before whom the faithful Jew expected to be vindicated/justified for his adherence to the law.
  5. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), pp. 581–595.
  6. “Is the Law Against the Promises? The Significance of Galatians 3:21 for Covenant Continuity,” in William S. Barker and W. R. Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 163–67.
  7. Silva, “Is the Law Against the Promises?,” p. 165: “On the basis of Paul’s positive statements about the law, I wish to argue that the apostle did indeed regard the law as leading to life—but not as life generating!—and that therefore he would have affirmed the truth expressed in Leviticus 18:5. On the other hand, he vigorously denied that the law could be the source of righteousness and life; indeed, he denied not merely that the law could be such but also the view that God had given it (edoth–, 3:21) with such a purpose (otherwise, it would be opposed to the promise).”
  8. Sanders, Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People, pp. 44–45.
  9. Dunn, Romans 9–16, p. 588.
  10. See the references cited earlier in fn 4.
  11. Cf. 1 Cor. 1:29, 31; 4:7; 2 Cor. 5:12; Gal. 6:4, 13.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.