Book Review – Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm

Of making many books [on Paul] there is no end, and much study [of Pauline theology] wearies the body. – Ecclesiastes 12:12 Woznicki Paraphrase

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered – Rethinking a Pauline Theme, Eerdmans, 2013, 104pp.

Justification Reconsidered

I am currently thinking about two books on Paul, the first book is about 1700 pages long and the truth is most people probably will never read the whole thing (despite the fact that at one point it was in the top 1000 on Amazon). The second book doesn’t even hit the 100 page mark (it ends at 99 pages of text); its easily accessible and extremely cheap compared to the 1700 page book. Which one are you going to read? In case you were wondering which one I picked up, I picked up the 99 page book (if somebody wants to get me PFG for Christmas I would really appreciate that). The short book is Stephen Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered.

Justification Reconsidered  isn’t so much a book, but more so a collection of loosely related essays on the topic of Justification. Each essay takes its particular angle at the doctrine or the scholarship of the doctrine and argues for a more traditional account of justification contra the New Perspective.

Westerholm says that the aim of his book is to “both update and to make more widely accessible earlier work I have done.” If you aren’t familiar with his earlier work, basically he engages in a project of questioning revisionist claims about Paul. That doesn’t mean that he blindly sides with the more traditional perspective, but he doesn’t full on abandon that side either. That also doesn’t mean that he values what the New Perspective brings, but he doesn’t fall head over heels for it either. In other words Westerholm tries (difficult as it might be) to allow Paul to speak for himself….


Chapter 1 introduces the revisionist problem for those who aren’t acquainted with it. Here he interacts with Stendahl’s “Introspective Conscience of the West” and makes a biblical argument that Paul and his audience were actually concerned about their “guilt” and their standing before  God.  Their central question was “in the face of coming judgment can anyone find salvation? How can sinners find a gracious God? So the ancients were in fact concerned about their guilt and the wrath that was to come for their guilt, justification claims that it is possible to stand rightly before God. Of course this standing come from God himself who has provided righteousness through Christ.

Chapter 2 interacts with Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. He challenges Sander’s notion that Palestinian Judaism was fundamentally a religion of Grace, much like Christianity. Westerholm thinks that Sanders perspective is a bit skewed. Yes biblical Judaism is a religion of grace, but 2nd temple Judaism was not the same as biblical Judaism. Even more importantly though is that Paul’s understanding of grace is radically different from the understanding of grace present in 2nd temple Jewish texts.

Chapter 3 deals with theological anthropology. According to Westerholm, Paul had a pessimistic view of human moral capacity. This is quite the opposite of his opponent in this chapter, who believes that human beings both can and cannot do good. This chapter is an interesting exercise in historical hermeneutics; he examines Augustine’s, Luther’s, and Calvin’s views on the human capability of doing good. Westerholm sides with the Catholic tradition, that on one level particular deeds done by untransformed human beings are good, but on a deeper level these deeds are not truly good. That is without God, humans are incapable of true goodness.

Chapter 4 turns to the use of the words “justify” and “righteousness.” Here he argues against Wright’s definitions (pre PFG) of these words. By looking at the OT, Westerholm argues that “righteousness simply does not mean, and cannot mean membership in a covenant. Likewise it does not mean and by its very nature cannot mean, a status conveyed by the decision of a court.” (63)

In Chapter 5 Westerholm argues against the commonly held view among New Perspective scholars that “works of the law” refers to the “boundary markers” that distinguish Jews from Gentiles. He argues for a broader understanding of “works.”

The last Chapter is a refutation of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God. Campbell argues that “justification theory” portrays God as a severe enforcer of rigid contractual moral obligations.” Campbell argues that “justification theory” is not biblical, that Paul actually didn’t have a “justification theory” but rather that the “real Paul” was concerned with apocalyptic redemption. Westerholm tears Campbell’s thesis apart, pointing out its Marcionite tendencies as well as pointing out that Justification is just one of the ways that Paul talks about salvation.

Positive Aspects

  1. Its Readability – The book is well organized, and since each chapter is a self-contained unit, its easy to find exactly what you want to read about. I could see the chapters in this book sparking some college term papers…
  2. Its Balance – As I mentioned above, Westerholm isn’t bound to the Old Lutheran view but neither is he drawn to the New Perspective, I believe he finds an appropriate balance between tradition and newer scholarship. Rooted in the Great tradition of Augustine, Luther, and the other reformers Westerholm shows young scholars that history and tradition are nothing to be ashamed of, we don’t have to choose “tradition” or “scholarship.” As somebody who is interested in theological retrieval (from Church Fathers, Edwards, & Calvin) Westerholm serves as a great model.
  3. Its Function as an Introduction to Controversies – Westerholm engages with most of the major Paul Scholars and recent articles on Paul: Kister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Campbell. These are all authors of key secondary literature on Paul. They are the authors you must read if you are going to engage in Pauline scholarship. Here you get a good introduction to their thought, as well as a refutation of their positions.


I don’t have any major qualms with Westerholm’s positions throughout this book, but I do have several questions. Is Paul’s understanding of “works of the law” really closer to Luther’s “good works?” To say this seems to rip Paul’s thought out of its Jewish context and place it in early modern Europe… Are the Gentiles really concerned with  the question “how can anyone find salvation?” I will grant it to Westerholm that they were certainly concerned about God’s wrath, but is that really a question that plagued their mind? Are they as introspective as Luther? Is anybody really as introspective as Luther was? Yes there certainly was a concern about God’s wrath, but to what extent?

My last question is my hardest question…. On page viii Westerholm says that “justification is one way in which Paul depicts human salvation.” This begs the question, is it merely a way that Paul talks about salvation or is it really what is happening?

In discussions about Penal Substitutionary Atonement some have argued that PSA is merely one way to talk about what happens on the cross (among others like Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Moral Example), these same people have argued for a Kaleidoscopic model where non one model actually maps on to reality completely, but rather captures some essential truth about the atonement. Shall we understand justification in the same way? Is justification in Paul one of many models that don’t fully map on to the reality of our relationship with God or is it the real deal so to speak? That sort of question is beyond the scope of the book, and beyond the scope of this review as well, but I think it would be an interesting topic to address.


The book is short, its cheap, its readable, it’s a great introduction to the NPP, and more importantly it does a good job defending a traditional view against some important players in the revisionist camp. For this reason alone, its worth the read.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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