Ever since Luther and the Reformation in the 16th century, it has been generally assumed that Paul’s letters were a polemic against legalistic Judaism. In 1977, however, E. P. Sanders wrote a book entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and the traditional Lutheran perspective was formidably challenged.
Rather than characterizing first-century Judaism as legalistic, Sanders argued that the essence of ancient Judaism was ‘covenantal nomism.’ He defines covenantal nomism as “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 proposes three evidences for this conclusion: 1) God established the covenant by his grace in election; 2) the Jews needed to only have the intention of obedience, not actual obedience; and 3) God provided the means of atonement when they failed to obey.
Kostenberger addresses Sanders’ claims in light of the early Jewish literature, and emphasizes that 1) such a stress on the requirement of human merit in ‘remaining’ in the covenant “still makes human effort the determining factor.” 2) Sanders dismissed important texts in the Jewish literature that weighed against his view. Lastly, 3) “a detailed examination of Second Temple Jewish literature demonstrates that many Jews viewed legalistic works-righteousness as the means of atonement for sin.” This critique exposes some of the problems in Sanders’ ‘New Perspective.’ Other scholars such as a J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright have taken up Sanders where he was weak, corrected him where he was wrong, and added elements where he was lacking, presenting modified versions of the New Perspective that may not be susceptible to Kostenberger’s critique. Nevertheless, there is no harm in seeking to clarify one’s understanding of Paul’s context and opponents at the time of his writing. The New Perspective has rightly encouraged all readers of the Bible to be cautious in hastily caricaturing Judaism, and correctly shown that not all or most Jews were legalistic in regards to salvation, though many were. However, Paul opposed a mixed bag – e.g. Jewish exclusivists, Jewish legalists, etc. – and it is misleading to simply summarize the opposition into one general group. Moreover, Paul’s letters were not essentially an argument against his opposition; rather, they were primarily composed for the purpose of edifying affirmations – e.g. theological clarity, exhortative gratitude, communal instruction, etc. One should not fall into the unfortunate error of defining the Pauline perspective by what he opposed rather than what he adamantly affirmed.
For example, if one were inquire as to what Paul’s basic gospel message was, it would be absolutely imperative to begin with his affirmations rather than his negations. The gospel consists in Jesus, the person of promise (Rom 1:2), the Son of God (Rom 1:4) and Son of Man (Rom 1:3), coming in the likeness of man (Phil 2:7), being crucified for the sins of His Father’s children (Rom 5:6; 1 Cor 15:3; Phil 2:8), being buried then resurrected from the dead (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:4), and thus given all authority (Phil 2:9-11).
It is one thing to attempt and explain the multifaceted history and progression of the New Perspective on Paul to a Bible student, and perhaps a different thing (not entirely) to attempt and explain the discussion to an unbeliever. For one, it may be in the best interest of the unbeliever that the discussion be avoided altogether; yet, if he persists (for some reason or another), it would be wise for the believer to speak briefly and simply, taking every opportunity to proceed to the gospel. One might claim that the discussion centers on establishing the Jewish context out of which the apostle Paul wrote his letters in order to more properly determine the nature of salvation, redemptive history, and one’s current place in it. From this concise description, it should be a seamless transfer to the gospel, as the New Perspective is intricately tied up in the existential implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 75.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament(Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009), 383.
 See m. Avot 3:16 in the Mishnah, m. Qiddushin 1:10 and m. Avot 4:22 in the Tannaim; C. L. Quarles, “The Soteriology of Rabbi Akiba and E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism,” NTS 42 (1996): 185-95.
 Kostenberger, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 385. Also see C. L. Quarles, “The New Perspective and Means of Atonement in Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period,” CTR 2 (2005): 39-56.