The main contribution by scholars who promote the New Perspective on Paul is that the Apostle, contrary to Reformation and Evangelical doctrine, had little concern in his letters for good works as such, but was rather focusing on works of the Mosaic Torah, which were being promoted as a necessary concomitant to faith for the purpose of maintain one’s covenant status before God. In other words, the controversy was not over good deeds in a addition to faith, but instead over becoming essentially Jewish in addition to faith. That’s why such an emphasis is placed on circumcision, which was the defining feature of Jewish adherents and became an essentially short-handed way of describing one who identified as a Jew. So it goes that when one reads Pauline literature, one needs to remember that certain terms can generally be taken as synonyms for the Torah (the Law of Moses), such as “circumcision”, “works of the Law”, and even the word “works” in most cases.
Another crucial point to remember is that Palestinian Judaism of the first century didn’t really teach that good works earned salvation at all in the way that is often thought in the modern Christianized world. The Reformers transferred the abuses of the Catholic Church and the emphasis on merit back into Paul’s day, and saw in the Bible a fight between those who wanted to earn eternal life through good works and those who taught that faith alone led to eternal life, when in fact Judaism very much believed that their place within the covenant was on the basis of God’s electing grace, apart from anything they did on their own. The catch was that in order to maintain this covenant status, an individual was obligated to follow the precepts of the Mosaic Law, which was also unfortunately interpreted in an overly-rigid and legalistic manner, and therefore turned into an incredible burden for many of the common people. Some might argue that there really isn’t any distinction at all between obedience to earn a right covenant status and obedience to maintain a right covenant status, since both are based on working to earn the favor of God; but as subtle as the distinction may be, it is indeed there, and was carried over into Christianity by many of the early Jewish converts, who taught that obedience to the Torah was necessary in addition to faith in Messiah Jesus. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35) was called to address this matter, and the Galatian Christians were starting to fall back into this mindset at the time Paul wrote the canonical letter to them. The same issue is being addressed in Romans when Paul spends so much time writing about works, faith, and the place of Israel in relation to this new church being filled with Gentiles.
This is part of the rich and multifaceted background of the New Testament, which one needs to keep in mind when reading and studying its contents. For by understanding these facts, one can get a better grasp on the role of the Law within Paul’s thought and consequently the role of the Law for the Christian today. Jews felt a certain pride in their Torah and boasted in it as something which made them superior to the nations around them — something that made them better than “Gentile sinners” — and eventually found themselves interpreting its contents in a way that diminished the spirit of love and faith behind it, while at the same time increasing the emphasis on rules and literal commands, which further led to a spirit of exclusivity, leading Gentiles to consider Jews “haters of men”. It may well have been that the converts to Christianity weren’t quite as hard-nosed as the traditionalists from whom they separated; but to Paul, maintaining such ethnic exclusivity and requiring Gentile believers to essentially become Jewish was in direct contrast to the Gospel preached, not only by Christ, but to Abraham. The Torah was never intended to add or change one’s covenant status before God. A right relationship with him always came by trusting in him and living in love toward others. The Torah simply served as a guide to lead people toward that trust by not only showing them what to do, but also by showing them that they couldn’t do it. Remember, sin is anything that detracts from God’s intended best for humanity but isn’t counted where there is no law (Rom. 5:13). In other words, one can’t be held accountable for doing something he didn’t know was wrong. Sin is counted against the person, however, when that individual knows it is wrong, which turns that mere sin into transgression. Before the Law, humanity was aware of certain ways to behave and ultimately had no excuse for their wickedness (Rom. 1:18-32); but the Torah gave a fuller code, which at the same time also turned people’s sin into transgression since they were more aware of their breach of love and justice. This is what Paul meant when he said the Law was given to increase sin and make it utterly sinful (Rom. 7:13), for our innate moral sense renders us without excuse to begin with; but with the Law, we become even more convicted, which should, in turn, lead us to simply trust the mercies of God (Gal. 3:22). It never justified and never will.
Now under the New Covenant, however, we are no longer need that Law to lead us to faith, since the Spirit has been given, while its use as a moral code (which was always incomplete and limited from the beginning, due to the limited nature of humanity) is now reduced, since the Law of the Spirit serves as our code within the heart, thus breaking the bond and dependency we once had with and on the commandments written in stone (2 Cor. 3:3). For Paul, it is the Spirit of God that brings the most profound change, turning the Law into a relic of the past — a valuable relic, mind you, and one that provides wonderful insight, but no longer the schoolmaster it once was (Gal. 3:24).