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I Understand
Volume 1.2 / Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme

Book Review

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Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme

Book Author: Stephen Westerholm
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013. viii + 104 pp.
Reviewed by Mark Kernan

Stephen Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered is an accessible 100-page[1] overview of the complex and controversial debate surrounding Paul’s use of the term “justification.” The author faithfully presents the primary assertions of “New Perspective” scholars (one per chapter) and graciously provides credible rebuttals to their reconstructions while refraining from pointless ad homonym attacks.

Chapter one engages Krister Stendhal’s assertion that “modern theologians”—like Augustine and Luther—have distorted Paul by lifting him out of his first-century context by linking his teaching on justification to their need for introspective assurances of God’s grace. Stendahl contends Paul’s central concern was, “How am I, Paul, to understand the place of in the plan of God of my mission to the Gentiles, and how am I to defend the rights of the gentiles to participate in [his] promises” (p.2).

While Westerholm acknowledges that Stendhal’s proposition “contains a grain of truth” (p.3), he demonstrates the so-called modern question “How am I to find a gracious God?” was, indeed, an ancient question by surveying Paul’s epistles. He contends that Stendahl is the one who modernized Paul, because Paul’s own words demonstrate that a personal response to the gospel is the only thing that distinguishes those bound for salvation and those doomed to wrath. In the end Westerholm declares, “to be found righteous was the goal, and two paths to its attainment came into question,: that based on his own compliance with the law, and that received as a gift from God through faith in Christ, he opted for the later” (p.22).

In chapter two Westerholm addresses E.P. Sanders’s contention that that modern understandings of justification are incorrect because Judaism didn’t teach a works-based path to salvation. Rather, Judaism celebrated God’s election of Israel as his covenant people and emphasized this election as an act of divine grace (p. 25). If this proposition is true––as Sanders and other “New Perspective” reconstructionists reason—“legalism can hardly have been ‘what Paul found wrong in Judaism;” his teaching on justification must have a different target” (p.26).

Westerholm’s close reading of Sander’s work is manifest in his evaluation of Sander’s claims. “We are indebted to 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” (p.31). This distinction is anchored in two observations. First, Westerholm also points out that even according to Sanders, some rabbinic texts teach “God ‘chose Israel because of some merit found either in the patriarchs or in the exodus generation or on the condition of future obedience’” (p.31). Second, is also Sanders own admission noting, “[the] concept of original or even universal sin is missing from most forms of Judaism” (p.33). This admission, by Sanders, demonstrates marked discontinuity between the rabbinic and Pauline understandings of sin because Paul understood all humans to be enemies of God, slaves of sin whose minds are hostile toward God, and individuals who are utterly incapable of pleasing him (p.32).

Chapter three addresses Heikki Räisänen’s contention that Paul’s teaching on sin is either in- coherent or that there is a difference between what he spontaneously thought and his dogmatic convictions (p.42). This belief flows from the fact that Paul indicates unregenerate humans “both can, and cannot, do what is good” (35.6). Westerholm engages this apparent incongruency on two fronts, one theological surveying the works of Augustine, Calvin, and Luther and the other exeget- ical examining Paul’s epistles. Regarding the later he demonstrates Paul’s consistent teaching that the fundamental nature of sin is the failure to honor God and that all other sins listed simply serve as examples of those things to which “God gave [people] up” because they did not “give him thanks” or “see fit to recognize him as God” (p.48). This concept is further clarified by Paul in Romans 14:23, “What ever is not based on faith is sin” (p.49). Through his interaction with both textual and theological resources Westerholm demonstrates that Paul’s understanding of sin is truly coherent, in that the underlying attitude—faith—of the individual determines the moral value of any activity that, considered apart from the attitude, might appear virtuous and praiseworthy (p.49).

Chapter four engages N.T. Wright’s proposition that justification is the judicial declaration that believers are members of God’s covenant community, which means that biblical references to an in- dividual’s “righteousness” are indications of their membership among the people of God not divine declarations of their moral quality (p.57). This definition flows from Wright’s redemptive—histor- ical—paradigm that asserts God’s covenant with Abraham assigned the task of undoing Adam’s sin to the Jewish nation (p.53).

Westerholm responds with a simple question “Does Wrights understanding of righteousness corresponds with Paul’s” (p.59)? To answer this question he surveys the relevant scriptures that shed light on the “essential vocabulary” from which Paul built his doctrine of justification (p.59). His findings indicate:

1. The terms righteous/righteousness indicate an individual’s blamelessness or uprightness (p.59).

2. Righteous behavior refers to what is deemed morally appropriate (p. 60).

 3. “The righteous” are those who do what they ought to do (i.e., righteousness) (p.61).

In light of these findings Westerholm concludes, “Paul certainly had striking things to say about ‘righteousness’ but he used the language of ‘righteousness’ as [other Biblical authors] used it, ‘to refer to what one ought to do’” (p.65). Furthermore, he notes that the apostle applied this righteousness

terminology to the moral behavior of all human beings, regardless of their covenantal status (p.66). Therefore, Westerholm contends that Paul never intended to indicate or bestow covenant membership with the term righteous.

In chapter five, Westerholm interacts with James Dunn’s contention that first-century Jews and Paul’s opponents in Galatia were not legalists, in that they believed justification was earned through good works (p.76). Rather, the central issue was “the works of the law” as “boundary markers” that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Therefore, Paul’s concern is that Gentiles should not be circum- cised, since the true “boundary marker” that distinguishes the people of God is faith in Jesus Christ (p.76).

Westerholm provides an excellent exegetical response to Dunn’s hypothesis noting that Paul was not attacking Jewish (“legalistic”) distortions of the law, because the law—by its very nature and according to its divine intention—cannot lead to righteousness (p.79). Paul’s point in Galatians is that the law itself, as given by God, cannot be set aside by or combined with God’s promise to

Abraham as a condition of divine blessing. First, the law curses those who transgress its commands. Second,it the law designed to serve as a guardian between the time of Sinai and the coming of Christ. Therefore, believers are not redeemed from legalistic distortions of the law but from the law itself, its yoke, and its curse (p.79-80).

Justification Reconsidered is a faithful overview of the arguments surrounding the “New Perspec- tive.” While Westerholm has written a more extensive treatment of this topic, this book is ideally suited to provide the busy pastor or college student with a concise introduction to the primary tenants of “New Perspective” theology.

The greatest strength of this book is its concise rebuttal of the “New Perspective” itself. Time after time this reviewer was encouraged to find clear answers to hard questions that were grounded in good reading and solid exegesis. Stendhal’s claim that modern scholars misrepresent Paul’s primary concerns (p.2-6) is addressed by surveying Paul’s soteriological message throughout his epistles, noting his consistent message of impending doom (p.5.8). Sander’s proposal that Jews didn’t pursue works based righteousness but rather lived in light of divine grace (p.25) is demonstrated to be faulty on the basis of Sanders own admissions (p.29-33). Even N.T. Write’s proposal that justification is left wanting after Westerholm’s careful exegesis (p.65-69; 74). Westerholm’s consistent thoughtful exegesis is an exemplary model for engaging difficult topics like this because it demonstrates the process of allowing scripture to interpret scripture—even in the face of “well-reasoned” and re- searched scholarly proposals.

In my opinion this book has two significant weaknesses. First is the author’s cumbersome writ- ing style. I often found myself re-reading a sentence or paragraph multiple times to understand the author’s point. One example can be found on page 65, “Paul certainly had striking things to say about ‘righteousness,’ but he used the language of ‘righteousness’ as others used it, to refer to what one ought do—and (as in the Old Testament) even to things that are what they ought to be; cove- nant status was not the issue.” In my opinion this first weakness moderately undermines the books ability to serve the audience it is so qualified to reach. The second issue is the author’s treatment of “Justification theory” (chapter 6) in merely six pages. His argument was difficult to follow and the chapter seemed like it was hastily added to the end of the book. I wish he had provided a more thorough treatment of this topic or a chapter specifically devoted to imputation.

I appreciate the dedication and personal sacrifice [2] it takes to engage such an immense topic in the confines of a 100-page book. Furthermore, I appreciate Westerholm’s honest engagement and thoroughly Biblical treatment of this contentious topic. I recommend this book to anyone wrestling through the propositions of “New Perspective” proponents. 


[1] Books on this topic are normally 300+ pages. (Cf. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009); N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013) 279 pages; N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God/ Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol.1 (1st North American edition.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 535 pages; D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) 619 pages; D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004) 560 pages.)

[2] Page 87, n1, the reader should, “[appreciate those] who, for the benefit of others, and at the cost of a significant segment of their own academic lives, have reviewed an idiosyncratic, 1200-page book.” 

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