One of the major elements of the new perspectives on Paul is the changing view of justification. In a broad sense, one could say that justification involves not a moment of personal salvation, but rather a moment of incorporation into a broad community, known as the people of God, kingdom of God, or the body of Christ. One of the things that Jesus did was to make it possible for you to become part of that community, and it is that community that will eventually be glorified.
The individual aspect of salvation is not eliminated, but is certainly pushed more into the background. There is less room here for the individual who has “prayed the prayer” and then never done another thing that appears related to being Christian. James might call on that person to show his or her faith by works.
Lately, I have been trying to read passages in Paul with this option in mind just to see how it fits. I am not fully convinced of the change, but I am becoming more so. Today I was again reading Romans 4:13 (it’s part of this coming Sunday’s lectionary passages), and it hit me again:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (NRSV)
Now if “law” generally refers to the Torah–and I think that’s not a bad suggestion for Romans and Galatians at least–then there’s something obvious going on here. The Torah came after Abraham. God inaugurated this whole thing without any such written body of law. Grace was the only option. Grace had to act before there was even any knowledge that things could be other than what they already were. Revelation comes to Abraham as a grace, and grace comes to him by revelation.
This reminds me of an issue I have with some Christian apologetics that attempts to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Christ, by means of tying a series of prophecies together that he fulfilled. Enough prophecies apparently should bring certainty. But how many prophecies did Abraham need? Did Moses have to fulfill a string of prophecies to prove he was anointed by God? No, each person comes through an act of God at the time. The prophecies are much more a case of tying Jesus back into the tradition stream–the community if you will–than it is a case of proving that he fits some specification.
God can come and act without getting ducks in a row. “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” Romans 5:6 (NRSV).