The New Perspective on Paul The Contribution of E. P. Sanders (Part Two)

I took the trouble in a previous article to consider briefly several forerunners of the new perspective on Paul, since they pioneered emphases in New Testament and Pauline studies that form the background to the work of E. P. Sanders and other advocates of the new view. Though Sanders is undoubtedly the leading figure in the formation of a new perspective on Paul, he has acknowledged his indebtedness to the pioneering work of others. In that respect, Sanders’ own argument against the older view of Judaism, together with its implications for an interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, builds upon what might be regarded as a significantly new tradition of Pauline studies.

The “pattern” of religion in Palestinian Judaism: “Covenantal Nomism”

Sanders, who is a professor of religion at Duke University, published a book in 1977, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, that is now generally regarded as a classic presentation of the new perspective.1 Despite its title, the primary focus of this highly influential study is the “pattern” of religion, to use Sanders’ term, that characterized Palestinian Judaism (often termed “Second Temple Judaism”). Following the lead of Montefiore and Moore, Sanders’ aim in this volume was to describe Palestinian Judaism in its own terms rather than in terms of the interests of the Christian faith. Unlike Montefiore and Moore, however, Sanders writes as a Christian theologian who is interested in the implications of a new understanding of Palestinian Judaism for a proper interpretation of the apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

Sanders’ stated purpose in his classic study was to compare the pattern of religion evident in Paul’s writings with the pattern of religion in Jewish literature during the period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. By a “pattern of religion” Sanders means the way a religion understands the way a person “gets in” and “stays in” the community of God’s people.2 Traditional accounts of the differences between religions, particularly the differences between Judaism and Christianity, have focussed upon the distinctive essence or core belief of these religions. In doing so, Judaism has often been simplistically described as a “legalistic” religion, one that emphasizes obedience to the law as the basis for inclusion among God’s people, and Christianity has been described as a “gracious” religion, one that emphasizes God’s free initiative in calling his people into communion with himself. Similarly, descriptive accounts of different religions that focus upon their distinctive “motifs” or “themes” often distort them by taking one religion’s ideas as normative and applying them to the other. The best way, according to Sanders, to get an accurate picture of Judaism or Christianity is to compare their account of the way people enter into and remain within the community of faith.

The first part of Sanders’ study involves a comprehensive study of Jewish literature during the two centuries before and after the coming of Christ. Based upon this study, Sanders concludes that Judaism exhibits a pattern of religion best described as “covenantal nomism.” Sanders defines the meaning of this language as follows:

The “pattern” or “structure” of covenantal nomism is this:

(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or reestablishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.3

Contrary to the typical Protestant assumption that Palestinian Judaism was legalistic, Sanders appeals to evidence in Jewish writings to support the view that it was a religion of grace in its understanding of how God entered into covenant with Israel. In the literature of Judaism, the theme of God’s gracious election is consistently sounded. God graciously elects Israel to be his people, and mercifully provides a means of atonement and opportunity for repentance in order to deal with their sins. So far as Israel’s “getting in” the covenant is concerned, this was not by human achievement but by God’s gracious initiative. Obedience to the law, however, was required as a means of maintaining or “staying in” the covenant. The people of Israel were obliged to obey the law in order to maintain the covenant relationship and secure their inheritance at the final judgment. In this sense, getting in the covenant is by grace, staying in the covenant is by works with a view to the final judgment at the end of the age.

On the basis of his argument for understanding Palestinian Judaism as a form of covenantal nomism, Sanders endorses the basic claim of Montefiore and Foot that traditional Christian thought has badly misrepresented Judaism as a graceless religion. An independent and unbiased account of Palestinian Judaism clearly shows that it was a pattern of religion that emphasized the initiative of God’s grace and mercy in establishing his covenant with his people. Judaism’s emphasis upon obedience to the law was not aimed to compromise the priority of God’s grace in the covenant relationship, but to require obedience from those with whom God graciously covenanted as a means of staying in the covenant and being vindicated at the final judgment.

The Apostle Paul: From “solution to plight”

One of the obvious problems that surfaces, as a result of Sanders’ argument for a new view of Judaism, is what to do with the apostle Paul and his polemics against Judaism. If Judaism was not a legalistic religion, but one that emphasized God’s grace and election so far as “getting in” the covenant is concerned, then what are we to make of Paul’s vigorous arguments against claims to find favor with God on the basis of works or human achievement? Is Paul combating a kind of “straw man” in his letters (especially in Romans and Galatians), when he combats a righteousness that is by the works of the law? Sanders, both in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism and in a sequel, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People,4 answers this question by suggesting that Paul’s view of the human plight was a kind of byproduct of his view of salvation. Paul started with Christ as the “solution” to the human predicament, and then worked backward to explain the “plight” to which his saving work corresponds. Though Paul has traditionally been interpreted to teach that the problem of human sinfulness, which is made known and aggravated through the law’s demand for perfect obedience, calls for a solution in Christ’s person and work, we should recognize that his description of the problem of sin derives from his convictions about Christ. Paul, in effect, starts from the basic conviction that Christ is the only Savior of Jews and Gentiles. On the basis of this conviction, he then develops a doctrine of the law and human sinfulness that corresponds to it.



Sanders claims, therefore, that the apostle Paul rejected the law as a means of salvation for two principal reasons: first, this conflicts with his conviction that salvation only comes through faith in the cross of Christ; and second, the requirement of obedience to the law as a means of salvation would exclude the Gentiles. According to Sanders, Paul did not oppose the law because he found himself unable to keep its demands. Paul was not a prototype of the sinner (compare Luther) who, burdened by his inability to do what the law required, could only find comfort in Christ’s righteousness. Passages like Philippians 3:69 do not offer a critique of the law as a means of salvation, but of the law as an alternative to faith in Christ. The apostle Paul actually expresses in this passage a considerable confidence regarding a righteousness that is according to law. What he opposes, however, is clinging to a righteousness (however real) that is an alternative to faith in Christ. Paul’s opposition to the law expresses his prior conviction that faith in Christ is the only way to salvation and inclusion among the people of God. Any insistence upon the law as a means of salvation would undermine the exclusive claim of salvation through faith in Christ, and prevent Gentiles from being included among the true people of God.

Thus, the great problem with Judaism, so far as the apostle Paul was concerned, was not that it was legalistic. Paul did not contest, according to Sanders, Palestinian Judaism’s insistence upon zeal for the law. Nor did he object to Judaism on the basis of a conviction that no amount of effort to obey the law could ever make a person acceptable to God. His real (and only) objection to Judaism was that it denied the new reality of God’s saving work through Christ. In words that have often been quoted, Sanders concludes: “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.”5

The doctrine of justification

Though Sanders does not give a great deal of attention to the doctrine of justification in his studies of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, it is evident that his position has implications for how this doctrine is to be understood.

Unlike the older Protestant formulation, Sanders does not believe justification addresses the problem of how a sinner (whether Jew or Gentile) can find acceptance with God. Consistent with his view of how Paul moves from solution to plight, Sanders takes Paul’s doctrine of justification to be addressed to the question of who belongs to the covenant community. Justification is not so much an individual question (how can I, a sinner, find a righteous God?), as it is an ecclesiological question (who are numbered among the people of God?). Paul’s main argument with Judaism was not that it taught a doctrine of justification by works. After all, Judaism was a form of covenantal nomism that also emphasized God’s gracious initiative in salvation, while requiring obedience to the law as a means of maintaining the covenant relationship. In these respects, Paul’s pattern of religion does not differ significantly from Judaism. The problem with Judaism, as we have noted, is that it fails to recognize the new way of entrance into the number of God’s covenant people, a way open to Jews and Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Sanders’ positive statement of the doctrine of justification, accordingly, focuses upon the way in which Jews and Gentiles alike are incorporated into the people of God. Paul developed his doctrine of justification in order to support his conviction that all who believe in Christ are members of the new covenant community. Paul’s problem with Judaism was not that it confused grace and works, or taught that we become members of the covenant community by human achievement. The problem with Judaism was that it misunderstood God’s righteousness, as though it referred to the way members of the covenant community maintain their status rather than to the way God places one within the covenant community. In a complicated but revealing statement of his position, Sanders declares:

To be righteous in Jewish literature means to obey the Torah and to repent of transgression, but in Paul it means to be saved by Christ. Most succinctly, righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect; in Paul it is a transfer term. In Judaism, that is, commitment to the covenant puts one “in”, while obedience (righteousness) subsequently keeps one in. In Paul’s usage, “be made righteous” (“be justified”) is a term indicating getting in, not staying in the body of the saved. Thus when Paul says one cannot be righteous by works of law, he means that one cannot, by works of law, “transfer to the body of the saved.”

When Judaism said that one is righteous who obeys the law, the meaning is that one thereby stays in the covenant. The debate about righteousness by faith or by works of law thus turns out to result from different usage of the “righteous” word group.6

This view of the difference between Judaism’s understanding of God’s righteousness and Paul’s provides a fairly comprehensive statement of Sanders’ view of justification. Sanders interprets Paul’s doctrine of justification to be his way of explaining how God embraces Gentiles and Jews as members of his new covenant community. Justification refers to one’s status as a member of the community, and that status is obtained by Jews and Gentiles alike through faith in Christ. Because membership in the new covenant community is through faith in Christ, it cannot be based upon the law or obedience to the law. If membership in the body of Christ is open to Gentiles as well as Jews, through faith in the crucified and risen Christ, then it may not be restricted to those to whom the law was previously given (the Jews) or to those who come “under the law” as the Judaizers were insisting. The righteousness of God, furthermore, is God’s active fulfillment of his covenant promise to embrace Gentiles together with Jews in the number of his people.

What is remarkable about Sanders’ view of Paul’s doctrine of justification is that it looks and sounds rather similar to the traditional Protestant view. Sanders acknowledges that justification is by grace through faith in Christ. He also acknowledges that it is a judicial act, which declares Jews and Gentiles alike to be in the status of belonging to the covenant people of God. As he puts it, it is an act of “transfer” in which God reveals his righteousness, or his covenant faithfulness, by fulfilling the promise of incorporating Gentiles as well as Jews into the covenant community. However, it should also be noted that his understanding of Paul’s doctrine has several features that substantially differ from the view of the Protestant Reformation. According to Sanders, justification is not central to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. What is central is the claim that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike.

Justification is a subordinate teaching of the apostle Paul, which explains why, if faith in Christ is the one way of salvation for all, the righteousness of the law may not be regarded as a requirement for entrance into the covenant community. Paul does not base his argument for the doctrine of justification upon the conviction that the law can only condemn and aggravate the problem of human sinfulness. Justification is not a doctrine formed against the background of legalism, or the teaching that obedience to the law is the way to find favor with God. No such legalism was present in the Palestinian Judaism of Paul’s day, nor was it something from which Paul claims to be delivered with his Christian conversion. The doctrine of justification, simply put, is Paul’s conclusion from his basic conviction that the way of salvation is through faith in Christ. Within the framework of this kind of interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification, Sanders takes quite a different view of the righteousness of God that is the basis for the justification of Jews and Gentiles. This righteousness is God’s covenant faithfulness in Christ, fulfilling his promise to include Gentiles among his people. Missing from Sanders’ interpretation of Paul’s teaching is an emphasis upon the righteousness of God as his free gift to his people. In the traditional Protestant view, the righteousness of God, which is revealed in Christ’s perfect obedience to the law and substitutionary enduring of the curse of the law, is said to be granted and imputed to those who believe in Christ (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 23). On the older view, Christ’s righteousness, namely, his perfect obedience and sacrifice upon the cross for the sins of his people, is freely given by God to all who receive Christ by faith alone, trusting in his saving work on their behalf. By fulfilling the law and suffering its curse, Christ obtains righteousness and eternal life as a free gift for his people. Salvation, therefore, is all about how sinners, who are unable to keep God’s law perfectly so as to find favor with him, find salvation through the righteousness of Christ. Or, to state it a little differently, the older view regards Paul’s doctrine of justification to be the answer to the basic problem of (Jewish and Gentile) sinners, namely, their liability to God’s judgment and wrath on account of their failure to obey his law.


We shall see in forthcoming articles that many of the features of Sanders’ interpretation of Palestinian Judaism and of Paul’s understanding of the gospel are common to advocates of the new perspective on Paul.7 Though the new perspective is complicated and represented in a widely divergent and complex body of literature, some of the main themes emerge rather distinctly in Sanders’ work. These themes include the following:

1. The traditional Protestant view of (Palestinian) Judaism seriously distorts its true character. Judaism, at the time of the writing of the New Testament and of Paul’s letters, did not teach that a person is saved through works or human achievement. Rather, Judaism taught that God saved his people Israel on the basis of his gracious election and mercy.

2. The traditional Protestant claim that the teaching of Roman Catholicism was a new version of the old error of Pharisaism (which teaches salvation through works) is, therefore, incorrect.

3. Palestinian Judaism exhibited a pattern of religion that is best termed “covenantal nomism” (E. P. Sanders). In this pattern of religion, one becomes a member of God’s covenant community by grace, and one remains a member by works performed in obedience to the law. “Getting in” the covenant is by grace; “staying in” (and being vindicated at the last judgment) is by works.

4. The apostle Paul’s argument with Judaism (and therefore the Judaizers) was not aimed at its legalism. Nor was Paul’s argument with Judaism based upon the assumption that the law can only condemn Jews and Gentiles alike as sinners. The starting point for Paul’s quarrel with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. Since salvation comes to all (for Jews and Gentiles) who believe in the crucified Christ, the great problem of Judaism is its exclusivism, not its legalism. The problem with Judaism was not so much its insistence upon the necessity of obedience to the law, but its insistence that Gentiles must become (through obedience to the law) Jews in order to be saved.

5. The apostle Paul developed his doctrine of the human plight (of sin) from his doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ. Because faith in Christ is the only basis for salvation, obedience to the (Jewish) law may not be imposed upon anyone as the basis for inclusion among God’s people.

6. Paul’s doctrine of justification is not the principal focus or emphasis in his writings. Justification by grace through faith in Christ was Paul’s explanation of how God is fulfilling his promise to embrace Gentiles as well as Jews among his people. God’s righteousness, which is the basis for the believer’s justification, is his gracious act of including Gentiles among the number of his people. Justification is about who belongs to God’s covenant people, not how a sinner can find favor with God through the perfect obedience and substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

7. Justification, though it has to do with our standing before God or being numbered among his covenant people, does not require that God graciously grant and impute the perfect righteousness of Christ to believers.


1. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977).

2. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 17.

3. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 422.

4. London: SCM, 1985.

5. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 552. Cf. Sanders’ comment on p. 497: “It is the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul’s soteriology which dethrone the law, not a misunderstanding of it or a view predetermined by his background.”

6. Paul and Palestinian Judaism,, p. 544.

7. I am well aware that some readers of The Outlook (in the case of this article, perhaps most!) will find it difficult to grasp what the new perspective on Paul is saying. I offer the following points of summary, therefore, in the hope that it might at least clarify what are some of the differences between the new perspective and more traditional Protestant views.

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.