Justification by faith? : NT Wright / thebibleproject

I listened to one of the podcast’s from theBibleProject of a discussion between Tim Makie and NT Wright (https://thebibleproject.com/podcast/what-does-word-gospel-mean/), and I was enjoying the discussion and listening along when all of a sudden NT Wright said something that set off alarm bells a little.

From 47:53

Tim, Question “it seems to me that the 1 Corinthians passage has become almost over dominant in Western Protestant and if you were to put them both on a scale 1 Corinthians 15 has outweighed Romans 1 in terms of the gospel’.

NT Wright “when I was working on Romans, and that I had grown up in a tradition that says Romans 1:16-17 was the Gospel, namely justification by faith, now of course, 1:16-17 doesn’t actually say justification by faith, but it talks about the revelation of the righteousness of God and according to some theories of justification what Paul means by the righteousness of God is the righteous status which God gives or grants to all that believe, now I think that’s completely wrong. “

alarm bells rang at this point a little.

“but i remember when I was first studying Romans intensively in the Greek, being struck by the fact that in 1:15-16, Paul says I’m not ashamed of the gospel because in it the rightness of God is revealed, and realising that that sentence means the revelation of the righteousness of God is not itself the gospel but what is revealed in the Gospel, so what is the Gospel, answer so Paul said it up front in Romans 1:3-4 so then I started reading commentaries and articles on Romans 3 and 4, and i discovered a very interesting thing that particular in the German tradition which is dominant in 19th and early 20th century, people did not want to find the Gospel in Romans 1:3-4 because they wanted the Gospel to be justification by faith within a Lutheran framework, whereas what you’ve got in Romans 1:3-4 is very explicit Messianic language, seed of David, etc and so people would bring out all the big guns and say oh paul is quoting an early Christian formula. just in order to say hello to the people in Rome. to say yeah I know this formula as well. but actually it’s not an essential part of his theology.

the podcast continues and also mentions the the wrong readings of Galatians 1:4 etc…

I’d never listened or read any NT Wright before, but found this article (https://www.gotquestions.org/New-Perspective-Paul.html) which suggests some issues such as this.

According to N.T. Wright, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was in fact, a member of his people.” The problem with this tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” is that it distorts the biblical teaching on justification by faith and instead teaches that Paul’s doctrine of justification was only concerned with the Gentiles’ standing in the covenant community and not at all about a guilty sinner being declared just before a holy and righteous God. Simply put, we cannot disregard or redefine justification and still be considered Christian or biblical. In his writings, N.T. Wright often argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel (2 Corinthians 5:21).

is anyone familiar with NT Wright? Is he suggesting that justification by faith is wrong (the whole point of the Reformation starting with Luther)? I’ve really enjoyed theBibleProject and they’re about to do a ‘how to read the Gospels’ video, which will be very interesting; but if they say that ‘justification is not by faith’ then I’ll be a little perturbed at their view to say the least. :thinking:


@matthew.western I do not think N. T. Wright would deny salvation by faith :slight_smile: But I do think he would lean more towards the Christus Victor theory of the atonement than the reformation view of penal substitution. At least that is my current opinion based on what I’ve heard / read. The Bible Project, like any Church or parachurch organization, will lean towards certain ideas theologically, but all I have seen is within orthodoxy. Hope that helps :slight_smile:

  • Ransom theory - Jesus died as a ransom to either the devil or to God
  • Christus Victor - Jesus died to defeat the powers of evil - sin, death and the devil - setting us free to live in His Kingdom
  • Satisfaction theory - Christ died to satisfy God’s justice
  • Penal substitution - Christ was punished in our place - He took our punishment upon the cross - He did not just pay a debt of justice but literally suffered in our place

One can clearly see an affirmation of the penal substitutionary atonement throughout the theology of N.T. Wright. Though Wright does not affirm this doctrine within the standard Reformed categories, the concept of Jesus the Righteous One dying in the place of the sinner and thus taking upon Himself the wrath of God is clearly espoused. Even though some of us may disagree with Wright’s “fresh” perspective on Paul or his view of Jesus’ messianic consciousness, this does not mean we should not affirm Wright where he should be affirmed. Personally, since I began writing this essay, I have a deeper appreciation for the penal substitutionary view of the atonement because of the way Wright espouses it within the historical events of the first century.


thanks Sean, that’s brilliant, especially the 4 categories. Just at a cursory glance I’d agree easily with all three of the last points, and can easily think of some verses that talk about Christ dying as a ‘ransom for many’ which I’ll go and have a look at.

I’ll go and do some more reading to understand more - thankyou for the overview especially the 4 points… yes I understand that any parachurch organization would lean a little towards some areas - and theBibleProject does a great job of acknowledging there are different views. for example in origins, theBibleProject seems to talk about God creating a ‘cosmic temple’ which as i’m learning more seems to be John Walton from Biologos. there are many views, but just when you hear someone talk about the core of the Gospel you listen quite closely.

again, thanks, I’ve got some reading to do… :slight_smile:


To understand Wright you have to understand a 2nd temple Pharisee’s world view (think Saul). It is a shock to most Western evangelical Christians that people in the first century were not concerned with being saved like we are today. Here is an excerpt from one of his books. Again think Saul.

The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’.

Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 184). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

1 Like

thanks for the post, really appreciate it. :slight_smile:

so to clarify, are we talking about people under the Judaistic system (Old Covenant)?

I’ve read that excerpt about 4 or 5 times and I’m struggling to even get what he is saying to be honest. Is what he is saying with his 4 points

  1. God will judge everybody and some will be declared righteous (‘reckoned in the right’). (question; who is Phinehas?)
  2. what? I don’t understand
  3. he refers to ‘particular things’ in point 2 that mark out disloyal and loyal Israelites (ie, ones that are from a right heart attitude of faith participating in the Old Covenent? as opposed to ones that are just doing the outward motions ; but that ‘in their hearts they are far from Him’? (thinking of Jesus in Matthew 15:8/Mark 7:6 who quotes Isaiah 29:13)
  4. so based on point 3, you can have assurance of eternal life? or you can have assurance that God will judge rightly?

A couple of passages I can think of written by John regarding assurance are ( 1 John 5:11–13: and even Paul writes of assurance in (Romans 10:9), and of course John 3:16 plus a few others.


My apologies I should have given some explanation.

When you say under the Old covenant you mean the written law (Torah) what we today call the Pentateuch . This is a reformers view, 16th century (This is not a slap at the reformers just my understanding of the position). It might be wise to note that you can not assume that everyone believed like a Pharisee (see the summary NT Wright quote in my previous post) but Saul did for sure and it is this POV that NT Wright does such a wonderful job of explaining and putting in context what was/is the undergirding of this “new” way that Paul developed after his encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
Another note on the Torah, Pharisees believed in an oral Torah, the second Torah and you see it in the NT as the tradition(s). This Oral Torah was given to Moses at the same time as the written law and had the same weight and authority as the written law and was transmitted to the leadership of the Hebrews and was eventually put into a written text (Mishna) by the long succession of what would later be call Rabbis. The key to this is that everyone in this long line of authority had an active role in the eschton God’s divine plan to rescue this broken world. This will help you understand point 2 “What”, who was in the elect chosen (not in a Calvinist sense)? how did you stay in this group and prove your loyalty to Yahweh?
For an answer to who was Phinehas and why be was in this elite group of “choosen” you will need to read the to read Number 25 but here is crux:

10 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, turned away my anger from among the ⌊Israelites⌋ when he was jealous with my jealousy in their midst, and I did not destroy the ⌊Israelites⌋ with my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I am giving to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it will be for him and his ⌊offspring⌋ after him a covenant of an eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the ⌊Israelites⌋.’ ”
(Nu 25:10–13 LEB)

It was this type of loyalty that Saul was perusing in his desire to hasten the eschaton as an active character in this narrative (history as task). It was as if he was saying, “If I can just get everyone to live the Torah and it’s side kick the oral Torah then the end will come and Yahweh will rescue the creation and all the true son’s of Abraham will take their place in the kingdom.”

As to your point 4 I don’t think that a 2nd temple Pharisee would understand what you where referring to by that I mean eternal life was not an objective of the Pharisees, participation in the eschaton was.

I hope this has not thrown a wrench in your thought process. If your are interested in a better treatment of the topic you cannot beat NT Wright’s magnum opus, Paul and the faithfulness of God. The bibliography and footnotes alone is worth the price of the book.


Lots of scholarly-sounding rhetoric here, and I must say that I struggle to understand most of it. But I would like to ask a question on the topic of “Justification by faith?” If being made right with GOD is not by faith alone in Christ alone, then what was the purpose of His death on the Cross?


I couldn’t agree more, salvation is by faith.

Ah ok that’s great thanks for the detailed explanation. I’ll have a think about it.

I’m not a theologian so needed a bit of a translation, so thank you. . :slight_smile:

That’s a great link to Phineas; and this is exactly what Saul (before his Damascus Rd experience with Jesus and change of name to Paul) was doing. He was very strongly upholding the Torah and wanted to stamp out and destroy Christianity. Gives more of a perspective as to just how confronting Jesus would have been to Ananias and Caiaphus the high priests during that period as they were directly in this ‘line of authority’.

Agree with Sharon totally - and I suppose this was my original concern ; was NT Wright still holding to justification by faith… so thanks to both you and Sean… I enjoyed the podcast - well worth a listen…

Just a note on Saul. I don’t think his goal was to destroy Christianity (there is a good argument that Saul wouldn’t have understood the term) but his goal was to bring into line all those who were Jewish by birth to live the Torah as “task” to hasten the eschton the day of Yahweh’s long promised recuse.

I like to point out that in this verse:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees—hypocrites!—because you travel around the sea and the dry land to make one convert, …(Mt 23:15)

Granted Jesus finishes this verse a bitter rebuke but in my mind this is the objective of Saul, “get on board and get in line and together we will bring in the new age.”

Here is another example of zeal as a bookend to Saul:

27 But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. 28 I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. 29 Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

The Revised Standard Version. (1971). (2 Mac 7:27–29). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Here is the other bookend 250 year later Rabbi Akiba on his way to execution for teaching the Torah in defiance of the Roman edict against it.

J. They say that only a few days passed before they arrested and imprisoned R. Aqiba. They arrested and imprisoned Pappos b. Judah nearby. He said to him, “Pappos, who brought you here?”
K. He said to him, “Happy are you, Aqiba, because you were arrested on account of teachings of Torah. Woe is Pappos, who was arrested on account of nonsense.”
L. The hour at which they brought R. Aqiba out to be put to death was the time for reciting the Shema. They were combing his flesh with iron combs while he was accepting upon himself [in the recitation of the Shema] the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.
M. His disciples said to him, “Our master, to such an extent?”
N. He said to them, “For my whole life I have been troubled about this verse, ‘With all your soul’ [meaning] even though he takes your soul. I wondered when I shall have the privilege of carrying out this commandment. Now that it has come to hand, should I not carry it out?”
O. He held on to the word, “One,” until his soul expired [as he said the word] “one.” An echo came forth and said, “Happy are you, Rabbi Aqiba, that your soul expired with the word ‘one.’ ”

Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 419). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

1 Like

ah ok that makes sense.

In Saul’s day from his perspective as a Pharisee; people were leaving Judaism and following Christ; and he was exhorting them to return to Judaism (or be punished).

I went and watched theBibleProject video again in the Luke-Acts miniseries ( the Acts Ch. 8-12 video) and it has a really interesting video sequence of the Israelites following false gods (in the Old Testament), and then bowing down to an ‘idol’ of Christ. Saul certainly was very zealous. :slight_smile:

1 Like

Hey @Jimmy_Sellers,

I really like your reference to Matthew 23:15, and think does a great job explaining the sort of mission Saul was frequently on before his conversion.

One point that I’m trying to follow along – and I hope this is not too tangential – I was curious of the importance of this statement (emphasis mine for the sake of highlighting):

In contrast to this, Jesus called out Paul (then Saul) as personally persecuting Him (Acts 9:4), and Paul later recalls his adamant desire to destroy the Christian church movement:

Galatians 1:13 NASB
[13] For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it;

I can appreciate that maybe Saul had a perspective as that of Phinehas who exacted capital punishment (Num. 25:8). However, the difference is that the people then were disobeying God by worshipping other gods and taking Midianite women. Saul was disobeying God by persecuting the Son of God Himself, and His church. I believe Saul treated people quite wrongly and cruelly, and approved of the murder of innocent Christians (Acts 8:1). This is after Jesus had set a standard of peaceful living.


Thanks for the comments but I stand by my original statement that Saul did not have as a goal the destruction of the church. As a 2nd temple Pharisee Saul’s persecutions of the church was a means to an end not his objective or goal. His goal was to hasten the eschton, God’s great rescues of his creation something that Paul works into the new theology of Christianity.

Now as Paul he had to reevaluate his old covenant theology and his role as a Pharisee after his encounter with the resurrected Messiah and as you pointed out in the Gal 1:13 verse he regretted his role in the terrible act of zeal but if Galatians was Paul’s first book and I believe that most scholars agree with this then what he wrote is at least 3 years and more likely 14 years after Damascus road plenty of time to reflect on his misguided zeal.

A note on Phinehas. The significance of Phinehas was not that he killed the Israelite and the Midian woman but that he was rewarded with “it will be for him and his ⌊offspring⌋ after him a covenant of an eternal priesthood”. Let’s not forget that Moses had just given the orders to kill (from Yahweh) the participant of the Baal Peor backsliding,

So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill his men who are joined together with Baal Peor.” (Nu 25:5)

The point being as far as we know none of these ‘leaders’ were given this blessing of eternal ‘priesthood’, if you will he (Phinehas and offspring) was in for eterntiy. If you think about it, it sounds a lot like the modern day debate about assurance, how do you know that you know your are in? For Saul it was a birthright but it was undergirded by a strict adherence to living out the narrative by way of Torah both the written and oral (think assurance).

As always interested in your comments.


Though I can appreciate a possible intention by Saul to not destroy the God’s church, his actions were doing so, as indicated by Jesus. We’ll have to stand on separate sides on this. :slight_smile:

Thanks for following up!


Not to beat a dad horse or in any way be disrespectful and I certainly am not prepared to disagree with Jesus, but I am attending a Jewish history lecture series that is offer at a local university, not college level but it is 13.5 hours over 9 weeks. I said all that to setup what about to say. Because of this lecture series I have been doing extra reading. One of the things that I have often wondered was why didn’t Saul go after the pagan cults? Why just the Christian cults?

In my read I found this and thought that it might persuade you to my way of thinking.

On the pagans from Moses to the 1st century and beyond there is nothing in the Pentateuch that prohibits Pagans from worshipping idols. For me this was a bit of a mind blowing moment. From my reading. Note Isiah 45 is the lone exception:

As David Novak states, “For although idolatry is frequently ridiculed in Scripture as nonsense, it is nonsense for only the people of Israel who are to know better because of the covenant. Gentiles, therefore, cannot be faulted for their own idolatry as long as they do not infect the people of Israel with it” (Novak, p. 37). Gentiles “cannot be morally faulted for unfaithfulness to a covenant in which they themselves are not participants” (Novak, p. 38).

Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. >2, p. 1009). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.

So big whoop. The Rabbis didn’t care if the pagans went to hell as long as they didn’t take any Israelite with them. So, the second thing that gave me pause was why did the Rabbis not go after the Essene. Their position was that the Temple was unclean and that the “RighteousTeacher” had been killed by the “wicked priest”. In Judaism there is no higher symbol to attack and would surely bring the wrath of the Rabbis down on them. Another interesting little discussed fact is that in the Babylonian Talmud that first and second century sages had a major disagreement concerning the necessity of circumcising converts.

Yet, there is no evidence of Jewish persecutions of those who followed the practices of Qumran, just as the rabbis who would have accepted uncircumcised converts were accorded no approbation

Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. >2, p. 1011). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.

I wanted to include this to make my point that Saul (pre-Damarcus Rd ) was not aware of a Christian church he was whipping Jews back into the fold. Post Damacus Rd it was crystal clear he was persecuting the church. Here is another excerpt from my reading pay attention to Paul before Damascus and after.

With regard to these Jewish attempts to suppress early Christianity, Jack T. Sanders writes:

The Temple leadership … sought periodically to destroy Christianity.… In and near Jerusalem … Paul first carried out and later received synagogue punishment directed against Christian missionaries. I have been able to unearth no good direct cause of this hostility towards the Jewish Christians other than the fact that some renegades among them, like Paul, admitted gentiles … without requiring those gentiles to become proselytes to Judaism [by being circumcised]. There is also the possibility of a continuing criticism of the Temple cultus on the part of self-righteous Christians resident in Jerusalem.… For the period between the wars … our evidence shifts to Galilee, where we find Jewish Christians being excluded from synagogues and declared heretics.… [D]eveloping Rabbinic Judaism finds them guilty of the heresy of making Jesus equal to God and causing enmity and strife between God and his people.

Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 2, pp. 1010–1011). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.


Hey @Jimmy_Sellers,

Thanks for the follow ups! Sounds like you’re in a pretty intensive class, which is great for us to glean from your synthesis of the material. :slight_smile:

Not sure I’m quite to your side, but I definitely follow with the Hebrew/Israelite attitude to pagans. The relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans is a good picture how they lived nice and segregated lives. Though they would not invade or police the pagan’s worship, they also saw them all as detestable and did not even want to be in their houses or to eat with them otherwise the Jew himself/herself would be made unclean. As far as the converts go, there is knowledge of the “God-fearing” Gentiles that would not be rejected outright by the Jewish community. Though there were still boundaries, and parts of the Temple courts was one of them. The Jews from the province of Asia had caused Paul trouble on this issue and started a nasty rumor that nearly got him killed (Acts 21:27-36).

Blasphemy, heresy, and defamation of what belong to God was a serious offense that Jews would demand capital punishment for. Sounds like you agree with me on this. :smiley: Especially if we consider your keen point: Jesus being equal to God (i.e. Jn 8:57-59).

Looking forward to more insights and cool things you gather from your studies!

1 Like