Works Of The Law: Sanders, Dunn And Wright

E. P. Sanders’ masterwork, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977)[1], challenged the “Lutheran” perspective of Paul and Palestine Judaism, which is the dominant among orthodox Protestantism since Reformation of 1517 . His case against Lutheran tradition that viewed Paul as contending against Jewish legalism, viz., salvation by merit and works of righteousness, saw the rise of various perspectives of Paul and the Law.

Paul And Law: E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright

Apostle Paul read and interpreted in his proper Jewish paradigm and not through the lens of Augustine and Martin Luther’s musingly contextual struggles opened new doors to a variety of new perspectives[2]. New Perspective, wrote D. A. Carson, “ is a bundle of interpretive approaches to Paul, some of which are mere differences in emphasis, and others of which compete rather antagonistically.”(Carson 2001: 1)

Paul’s understanding of the Law, mostly in Galatians 2:16, 19, 21; 3:2, 5, 10–13, 17–19, 21, 23–24; 4:4–5, 21; 5:3–4, 14, 18, 23; 6:2, 13 in contemporary discussion are indebted of scholarly works of Sanders, Dunn and Wright.  In order to understand their new perspective of Paul’s understanding of the law, one has to understand “covenantal nomism” to which all three subscribed in their apologia of the New Perspective .

Sanders, Dunn and Wright perceived Paul as not going against Jewish legalism, which contrary to Lutheran traditional understanding they argued, did not teach salvation by merit and works of righteousness, but salvation through entering God’s covenant by grace but remain in it by intentionally obedience to the law.

Sander explained that “[c]ovenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression”(Sanders 1977: 75).

Even though obedience of the law does not earn God’s grace, argues Sanders[3], it is the way a person maintains his or her position in the God’s covenant. (ibid 420). The Jewish concept of righteousness “implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect”[4](ibid 544).

Dunn concurs and recapped Sanders’ “covenantal nomism”.  He wrote,

“This covenant relationship was regulated by the law, not as a way of entering the covenant, or of gaining merit, but as the way of living within the covenant; and that included the provision of sacrifice and atonement for those who confessed their sins and thus repented”(Dunn 2007: 132)

Dunn maintained that Israel was given Torah, as “an integral part of the covenantal relationship, and that obedience was necessary if Israel’s covenant status was to be maintained.” (Dunn 2004: 111) It is no exaggeration, wrote Dunn, “to say that for typical Jew of the first century AD, particularly the Palestinian Jew, it would be virtually impossible to conceive of participation in God’s covenant, and so in God’s covenant righteousness, apart from these observances, these works of the law.”(Dunn 1999: 193 emp. original)

Endorsing Sanders’ notion of covenantal nomism, Wright contemplated that “God took the initiative, when he made a covenant with Judaism; God’s grace this precedes everything that people (specifically, Jews) do in response”(Wright 1997:19). He penned,

The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace—not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in. Being “in” in the first place was God’s gift. This scheme Sanders famously labelled as “covenantal nomism” (from the Greek nomos, law). Keeping the Jewish law was the human response to God’s covenantal initiative.(ibid)

“Works of the Law” And Covenantal Nomism

Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” paradigm[5] is the driving foundation of many contemporary new interpretations[6] of Pauline phrase; “works of the law” in Romans 3:20-28 and Galatians 2:11-21 and also how one ought to understand what Paul meant by calling Christ the end of the law in Romans 10:4 and Galatians 3:23-25.

For Sanders, the subject matter in Galatians 2-4 and Romans 3-4 “is not ‘how can the individual be righteous in God’s sight?, but rather, ‘on what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days?’” (Sanders 1991: 50)

“The ‘works of the law’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’”, contended Wright, as he read and interpret Paul into Sanders’ understanding of Judaism, “are the “living like a Jew” of Galatians 2:14, the separation from “Gentile sinners” of Galatians 2:15.” He continued,

They are not, in other words, the moral “good works” which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile: specifically, in the context of [Galatians 2:15-16 …] the “works of the law” which specify, however different Jewish groups might have put it at the time, that “Jews do not eat with Gentiles.”(Wright 2009: 116-117)

Dunn, like Wright, took a similar approach. He wrote,

The phrase “works of the law” in Gal. 2.16 is, in fact, a fairly restricted one: it refers precisely to these same identity markers described above, covenant works – those regulations prescribed by the law which any good Jew would simply take for granted to describe what a good Jew did. To be a good Jew, was to be a member of the covenant, was to observe circumcision, food laws and Sabbath.(Dunn 2008: 111)

“We may justifiably deduce, therefore [from the context of Gal 2:15-16]” concluded Dunn, “that by ‘works of the laws’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and food laws” (Dunn 1999: 191 emp. original)

R. B. Hays, as cited by D. Garlington, also interpreted “‘works of the law’ [as] refer[ring] primarily to practices commanded by the law (circumcision, dietary laws, sabbath observance) that distinctively mark Jewish ethnic identity; these symbolize comprehensive obedience to the law’s covenant obligations.”(D. Garlington 2005: 39 cite Hays 1993: 2185)

In Romans, “The works of Torah,” underlined Wright, are those practices which “mark Israel out from among the nations, cannot be the means of demarcating the true covenant people; they merely point up the fact of sin (3:20, looking back to 2:17-24 and on to 5:20 and 7:7-25).”(Wright 1995: n.p)

I doubt circumcision, as “works of the law” could merely be grouped together with food laws and Sabbath as a badges of Jewish ethnic covenant membership to which good Jew took for granted to describe what a good Jew did as Dunn explained. Stephen Westerholm pointed out that At Sinai, God entered into a covenant with Abraham’s seed. He went on to say,

By the laws of that covenant God’s people were to live. Those laws included circumcision. If males wanted to belong to God’s people, they must start by getting circumcised (Westerholm 2006: 208)

Unlike food laws and Sabbath that Jewish did to “stay in”, circumcision was done to “get in”. Thus, I believe circumcision as viewed by Christian’s missionaries in Galatia was not simply to mark Jewish ethnic identity but to show that Christians at Galatia have entered into God’s covenant.

Implications of Sanders, Dunn And Wright’s Understanding of Paul And Law

Call To Obedience: Slaves To Christ

Commenting on Romans 8:3-4, Wright perceived Paul to mean, “God has accomplished the goals for which the covenant was put in place, while dealing simultaneously with the fact that the covenant people themselves were part of the problem within creation”(Wright 2005: 31) He went further to declare that what the Torah could not do in the old creation, namely enabling God’s people to stay in the covenant, God, in new creation, did it through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Present-day Christians are called to obedience to Jesus’ lordship. Their obedience, which is “not a list of moral good works but faith”(Wright 2002: 420), consists of both confessing Jesus as Lord of their lives and in believing that God raised Jesus from the dead.

The bondservanthood call of Christ Jesus means “obedience to the law’s covenant obligations”, which is “actually the human faithfulness that answers God’s faithfulness”(ibid). Obedience to the law is not in order to get into the covenant people of God but to stay in. Getting into the covenant people of God was in the first place God’s gift given through Christ Jesus.

Obedience to the law is, thus, necessary if Christian’s are to maintain the covenant status of staying in as God’s elect. Wright expounded,

It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more nor less. Holiness is the appropriate human condition for those who, by grace alone, find themselves as believing members of the family of God. (Wright 1997: 160)

Room For Boasting: Salvation is of God And I

Thomas R. Schreiner provided an excellent argument to show how salvation in Sanders, Dunn and Wright approach, is partly due to believer’s obedience to the law. He argued,

For if obedience to the law is a necessary condition of salvation, then it follows logically that one cannot be saved unless one observes the law. But if one cannot be saved unless one keeps the law, then salvation is due, in part, to human attainment. But if salvation is partially due to human attainment, then one could justly say that his or her obedience to the law earned or merited, at least partially, salvation. (Schreiner 1985: 265)

If Schreiner argument is sound, then I believe Christians can boast[7] in their salvation since they have partly contributed their faithfulness.  Indeed it is by God’s grace alone Christian got “in” in God’s family, but contrary to Ephesians 2:8-9, it is by their works, which is their merits or faithfulness due to their obedience to the law, that they stay in.

From this, the role of justification is not so much soteriology how one get saved but ecclesiology, how to stay in God’s family. Criticizing imputed righteousness, Wright insinuates that our faithfulness, namely good work contribute in our salvation since our justification is partly depend on what we do with our life.

Michael F. Bird spotted that “[a]s opposed to popular views of faith as tantamount to assent, the [New Perspective] has generally emphasized the transformative character of the Christian life whereby the works that the believer does demonstrates the integrity of the faith that they profess”(Bird 2005: 68) and rightly took a middle position of not surrendering “sola of sola fide” and holding an outworking of holiness, righteousness obedience, and love as a transforming and renewing power of the gospel(ibid).

More To Be Done: A Conclusion

Though Wright would protest that his case has not been grasped if one concludes that our obedience of the law, which is our faithfulness, does indeed “compromise the gospel or justification, [by] smuggling in ‘work’ by a back door”(Wright 1997: 160), I do see how our faithfulness, which is necessary condition for our salvation, according the Sanders, Dunn and Wright, does not smuggle in our merits into the gospel.

Even though I do not completely agree with New Perspective on Paul and I do find its foundation wanting, I am continually edified and challenged by stimulative and provocative writings of Sanders, Dunn and mostly Wright’s. Their contribution toward Paul understanding of the law outside Augustinian-Lutheran approach is intriguing and awakes a desire to look beyond traditions in search for God’s truth.


[1] Krister Stendahl’s article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”(1963) sowed a seed of perceiving Paul in his own religious context and not through the eyes of Augustine-Luther context, which Sanders watered.

[2] Often misleadingly tagged as “New Perspective On Paul”. A tag that was first introduced in James D.G. Dunn’s lecture 1983 university lecture. One can argue that the quest for historical Jesus also contributed to quest for historical Paul to which Paul is read in his Jewish context.

[3] Even Deut. 6:25 may be argued imply that obedience to all God’s law is Jews’ righteousness.

[4] With eight points, Sanders summarized “covenantal nomism”: “(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”(Sanders 1977: 422)

[5] Wright believes that Sanders understanding of Judaism “dominates the landscape, and, until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him. I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard his basic point as established” (Wright 1997: 20)

[6] Example Craig A. Evans, F. Vouga, J. J. Collins

[7] According to Wright exposition of Rom. 3:27, the boasting that is excluded “is not the boasting of the successful moralist; it is the racial boast of the Jew […]”(Wright 1997: 129) though Rom. 2:17-24 may be argued to imply successfully moralist.


Carson, D. A. (2001) Justification and Variegated Nomism. Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism  eds., P. T. O’Brien and M. A. Seifrid. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Dunn, James D. (1999)  Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. Westminster/John Knox Press, U.S.; 1st American Ed edition.

__________________ (2004) Review: Donald A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, eds, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, Trinity Journal  25.1, 111-113

__________________ (2007) The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays. Ed. Jörg Frey. Mohr Siebeck Gmbh & Co. K.

___________________ (2008) The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Garlington, D. (2005) In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul: Essays and Reviews. Wipf & Stock Pub

Hays, R. B (1993) The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. eds. W. A. Meeks, et al.; New York: HarperCollins.

Sanders, E. P (1977) Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress.

_________________ (1991 Paul. Oxford University Press.

Schreiner Thomas R.(1993) Paul’s View Of The Law in Romans 10:4-5. Westminster Theological Journal. Vol. 55, 113-135

________________________ (1985) Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders. Westminster Theological Journal. Vol. 47:2, 246-278

Westerholm, Stephen (2006) Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question? Concordia Theological Quarterly. Vol. 70:3/4, 197-217

Wright, N. T. (1995) Romans And The Theology of Paul.  Originally published in Pauline Theology, Volume III, ed. David M. Hay & E. Elizabeth Johnson, 1995, 30–67. Minneapolis: Fortress. Site Last Accessed 17/10/2012

________________ (1997) What Saint Paul Really Said. Was Paul of Tarsus  the Real Founder of Christianity? William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids: Michigan

________________ (2002) Romans Commentary, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon.

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2 thoughts on “Works Of The Law: Sanders, Dunn And Wright

  1. Nicely done. The views expressed by Sanders et al., remind me more of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s non-Augustinian view of salvation rather then the view of the Western Church. Augustine’s soteriology, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to a Luther or Calvin. That in turn can lead either to an antinomian “I’m saved, now I can do whatever the hec I want” attitude on the one hand, and on the other hand to a “I have to show I have already been saved, but I’ve screwed up so many times, God must not have chosen me” approach. My own views would be closer to what in the West would be called “semi-Pelagianism,” or perhaps in a Protestant context, “Arminianism.”

  2. Jesus called it “abiding in Me,” and “abiding in the vine.” We call it it “staying in.” It is not attaining grace through works, rather MAINtaining the work of God’s grace in our own lives. We Presbyterians call the Sacraments, the reading and conscionable hearing of the Word, the singing of psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and other works of righteousness “means of grace.” Aren’t these “means of grace” also “maintenance,” or “abiding in Him?” We rely so much on theological terms, very narrowly and strictly defined, but these may be broader than we’re comfortable with.

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