NT Wright is a brilliant NT Scholar and a leading teacher on the New Perspective on Paul. A very simplistic summary of one of the tenets of NPP is that there was no issue in scripture around whether law keeping was the means of attaining salvation. Judaism according to Wright already had grace built in so it could not be a religion of works. Thus the issue in Galatians and Romans on justification is not over whether someone can be saved by doing good works but whether someone must be Jewish rather than Gentile.
NT Wright writes: “In Romans 10.3 Paul, writing about his fellow Jews, declares that they are ignorant of the righteousness of God, and are seeking to establish ‘their own righteousness’. The wider context, not least 9.30–33, deals with the respective positions of Jews and Gentiles within God’s purposes – and with a lot more besides, of course, but not least that. Supposing, I thought, Paul meant ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness’, not in the sense of amoral status based on the performance of Torah and the consequent accumulation of a treasury of merit, but an ethnic status based on the possession of Torah as the sign of automatic covenant membership? I saw at once that this would make excellent sense of Romans 9 and 10, and would enable the positive statements about the Law throughout Romans to be given full weight while making it clear that this kind of use of Torah, as an ethnic talisman, was an abuse. I sat up in bed that night reading through Galatians and saw that at point after point this way of looking at Paul would make much better sense of Galatians, too, than either the standard post-Luther readings or the attempted Reformed ones.” http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/new-perspectives-on-paul/
Wright: “virtually whenever Paul talks about justification he does so in the context of a critique of Judaism and of the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ.”
I do not disagree with Wright that the Gospel brings together Jew and Gentile. It does.
Eph 2:11-14 “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility”
It is a significant change from the focus on the chosen people – Jews – to the chosen of all races, nations and people groups. But it should not replace the more significant focus that all Jews and Gentiles fall short of the glory of God and stand in need of salvation apart from works and through the imputed righteousness of God obtained by grace alone through faith alone. Wright seeks to move to the background this main point and foreground the ethnic issue to paraphrase J.I. Packer. I do not believe scripture does this.
I was reading Acts 15 this week and found a passage that relates to this discussion. A debate erupts in the early church as to whether a man must be circumcised to be saved.
Acts 15:1 “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them”
So it appears that Wright is correct – the question is not “must I adhere to the law to be saved but must I become ethnically a Jew to be saved.” And indeed that is what is first brought up. But the debate does not stay there. As the Pharisees continue to make their case they begin to insist that not only must they be circumcised to be saved (Ethnic) but that it is necessary that believers keep the law of Moses (Ethical, Moral, Performance) to be saved.
Acts 15:5: “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Peter then address the group and moves the debate beyond the ethnic issue (though that remains) to the larger issue of how anyone obtains salvation.
“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
When Peter says they are putting the Gentiles under “a yoke…that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” he is not talking about an ethnic issue. Peter is not saying being Jewish is the problem for him – he is saying adhering to the moral requirements of the law of Moses is the problem for him and all Jews and now Gentiles. This is the larger issue the ethnic one reveals.
His solution to the failure of all people Jew and Gentile to be able to keep the law of Moses?
God “cleansed their hearts by faith.” And “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
So the debate begins with the discussion of whether Gentiles must become ethnically Jews but ends on the more significant point how can both Jews and Gentiles who fail to keep the law of Moses be saved. Answer: Grace alone through Faith alone. This is the paramount issue.