Wright’s New Perspective Approach to Romans 9:14-25

NT Wright

N. T. Wright believes that both Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminianism approaches misses the flow of Paul’s case in Romans 9 because they import Augustine-Pelagic controversy into the text. Wright’s New Perspective1 approaches Romans 9:14-252 as a demonstration of covenant faithfulness of God and the identity of the “member of his people”3.

Romans 9:14-25, according to Wright, displays God faithfully accomplishing His purposes “even within that human rebellion and arrogance to bring about an even more glorious work of rescue, revealing his power, and gaining a worldwide reputation for performing extraordinary acts of judgment and mercy.”(Wright 2004: 14-5). Wright argued,

It is this ongoing purpose, despite the fact of Israel’s rebellion, that causes God to declare to Moses that he will proceed with his plan for the Exodus even though the people have made the golden calf, amounting to a declaration of independence from the true God. That is the setting for the passage in Exodus 33 which Paul quotes in verse 15. It then appears (verse 17) that God is doing with Israel itself what he did with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt who withstood God’s purposes to bring Israel out of slavery.(ibid)

“[Romans 9] does not necessarily relate to salvation.” wrote Thomas R. Schreiner, “Rather, Paul is describing the historical destiny of nations.”(Schreiner 1993: 26). Agreeing with Schreiner, Wright maintained that Paul’s case “[i]n standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church”(Wright 1997: 119)4.

Paul invoking “the image of potter” in verses 20-21, was not designed to show a the final election5, contended Wright, but “was designed to speak very specifically about God’s purpose in choosing and calling Israel, and about what would happen if Israel, like a lump of clay, failed to respond to the gentle moulding of his hands.”(ibid 13) He added, “ ‘vessel of mercy’ doesn’t mean so much a vessel which receives mercy, but a vessel through which God brings mercy to others.”(ibid 16)

If Wright is right, then why would Paul’s anticipated “Why does God still find fault?” For who can resist his will?”(in verse 19b ESV) as a protest of his response toward an earlier objection, viz., “is God unjust”(verse 14)? I think Craig Keener’s observation, namely God’s purpose for forming vessels for glory is “conformity with his Son’s image (8:29) […] but endures those that are objects of his wrath for the sake of the others (9:22–23)”(Keener 2009: loc.4047), as more correct than Wright’s because from Keener’s reasoning, verse 19 objection logically follows.

Echoing Keener and contrary to Wright, David Brown argued that election, viz., God’s “right to choose whom He will [and in Rom. 9:17, He] punishes whom He will”(Brown 1997: n.p) is final. Brown contended,

If God chooses and rejects, pardons and punishes, whom He pleases, why are those blamed who, if rejected by Him, cannot help sinning and perishing? This objection shows quite as conclusively as the former the real nature of the doctrine objected to—that it is Election and Non-election to eternal salvation prior to any difference of personal character; this is the only doctrine that could suggest the objection here stated, and to this doctrine the objection is plausible.(ibid )

Representing one of Reformed commentators’ critic of Wright’s view of God’s election, Sam Storms believed that the objections in verses 14 and 19 would not have “been raised and dealt with by Paul at such great length had the issue in view been the historical or earthly status of individuals […]”. He wrote “[t]he objection, Paul’s vehement denial of unrighteousness in God, and his lengthy (vv. 14-23) explanation are intelligible only if eternal salvation and condemnation are at stake.”(Storms 2007: 126)

I am open for comments, positive critics and edification from my brothers and sisters holding New Perspective view because my reformed bias might have clouded my judgement of Wright’s approach.

What Say You: How right is Wright? Did Wright get Paul’s case in Romans 9 correct?

[1] There are many New Perspectives, but I focused solely on N. T. Wright’s
[2] Specifically Romans 9-11
[3] Which Paul  “now sees the torch being passed from a group consisting only of Jews (a selection from within Abraham’s physical family) to a group consisting of Jews and Gentiles together.”(ibid 15)
[4] Schreiner and Wright are correct in viewing Romans 9-11 as dealing with Israel as a nation but I think it’s both soteriological and ecclesiological.
[5]  Wright noted that in “the Old Testament, Israel goes into exile in order to be reshaped by God; where, in other words, the potter remoulds the clay.”(ibid 15)


Brown, D. (1997) Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Ro 9:17-19). Ed. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Keener, Craig S. (2009) Romans. A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books – Eugene, Oregon. Amazon Kindle Edition.

Schreiner, Thomas R. (1993) “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 36.1: 25-40.

Storms, Sam (2007) Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election, revised ed. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Wright, N. T. (1997)What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

_________ (2004). Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. Both volumes include glossaries. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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.


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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 ntwrightpage.com 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.

________________ (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

________________ (2009) Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Intervarsity Press.Downers Grove, Illinois.