Bishop Tom Wright has long been the darling of many evangelicals. He is praised particularly for his work on the resurrection. But there is another side to Wright which is coming increasingly to the fore. His ability to woo evangelicals has, according to some observers, made it easy for him to subtly change some key concepts we all hold dear. Many evangelicals have followed Wright away from orthodox doctrines that have defined evangelicalism for centuries. For example, it was in Wright's work that Steve Chalke and others found criticisms of penal substitutionary atonement as it is usually preached. Steve Chalke is not so winsome as Wright, so when he popularized the criticisms found in Wright and dismissed the ancient doctrine as "cosmic child abuse," there was a significant backlash that ultimately led to the publication, in my mind, of one of the most important Christian books of the last decade--Pierced For Our Transgressions (PFOT).
Wright was very unhappy about the book, Pierced For Our Transgressions. He wrote a scathing article at the same time that there was a major disagreement within UK evangelicalism about Spring Harvest discontinuing a partnership, partly, it seems, over their desire to continue having Steve Chalke on their leadership team and as a main speaker.
John Piper's, The Future of Justification, should be read by anyone who has either been influenced by Wright themselves or knows someone who has. I urge you to get a good understanding of the cross first, for this is a book on the subject of justification. It will be a great help to you in understanding Piper's current book if you already understand penal substitution. This is not an easy book to read in some ways, and if you love the work of N. T. Wright, it will be a painful book to read. But it is not very complex. Piper shines the light of gospel clarity into the opacity of much of Wright's work.
Piper is very clear in this book. He warns against Wright's teaching specifically and explicitly. But at all times he interacts with Wright with amazing graciousness.
A quote from The Future of Justification introduces the core issue and the main disagreement between Piper and Wright. Bishop Wright had every opportunity to comment on drafts of Piper's book, and Piper has every reason to say the following. On its own, you might be surprised, or think Piper is being unfair, but if you follow along with my interaction with his book, the reasons for the following quote will emerge. Piper is speaking about the concept of justification, and sets the scene of the cosmic law court. He begins by asking the most crucial question in his whole book:
"The question is: When the Judge finds in our favor, does he count us as having the required moral righteousness--not in ourselves, but because of the divine righteousness imputed to us in Christ?
My answer is yes . . . Wright's answer is no. To review, he thinks that the whole discussion of imputing divine righteousness to humans is muddle-headed. It is simply not operating with proper biblical-historical categories. For the last fifteen hundred years, the discussions of this issue in the church have been misguided. If we use the language of the law-court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom."
That infamous quote from N. T. Wright and his framing of thousands of years of debate about the imparting or imputing of Christ's righteousness as `muddle-headed' is breathtaking. Wright seems to see himself as a lone figure, reforming the whole church alone in a similar way to Martin Luther himself, and incidentally, arguing that Luther was as much in error as the Pope of his time, OR Wright, however bright a scholar he is, is very wrong. I believe Piper has shown how very wrong Wright is.
John Piper elegantly exposes the heart of the differences between his position and that of N. T. Wright's. For those without the time to read massive volumes written by the current Bishop of Durham, Piper has done a great service. His scrupulous attempts to be fair to Wright are most useful. I also love the way which, in responding to Wright's teaching, Piper adequately uses the opportunity which error presents us to clarify and restate truth. In explaining where Wright disagrees with classic reformed teaching, Piper restates that teaching in a helpful way and demonstrates the way in which Wright agrees with all, but one, aspect of this explanation.
"In historic Reformed exegesis, (1) a person is in union with Christ by faith alone. In this union, (2) the believer is identified with Christ in his (a) wrath-absorbing death, (b) his perfect obedience to the Father, and (c) his vindication-securing resurrection. All of these are reckoned--that is, imputed--to the believer in Christ. On this basis, (3) the "dead," "righteous," "raised" believer is accepted and assured of final vindication and eternal fellowship with God.
In Wright's exegesis, the middle element in step 2 is missing (2b), because he does not believe that the New Testament teaches that Christ's perfect obedience is imputed to us. Thus the pattern is: (1) A person is in union with Christ by faith alone (expressed in baptism). (2) The believer is identified with Christ in his wrath-absorbing death (there is no identification with or imputation of Christ's perfect obedience) and his vindication-securing resurrection. Both of these are reckoned--that is, imputed--to the believer in Christ. On this basis, (3) the "dead" and "raised" believer is accepted and assured of final vindication and eternal fellowship with God." (pp. 124-125)
What is striking about this explanation is precisely where this puts Tom Wright. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians have agreed that there is some sort of righteousness transfer that goes on. Where Catholics argue that this is an impartation, Protestants claim it is an imputation. That difference in wording, which led to the Reformation itself, almost sounds like a minor nuance when Wright comes along and sweeps the whole concept of an alien righteousness away! To Wright neither group is right and are both, as he puts it, "muddle-headed."
Thus, the most critical difference between N. T. Wright and Piper is that Wright does not believe that Christ's righteousness is in any way transferred to our account. This is a vital point. Without this concept of an alien righteousness either credited or transferred to us, ironically, both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic understandings of salvation unravel. Wright seems to believe that he and other modern theologians have discovered something that every theologian for millennia have missed. We should therefore be very careful before we accept such assertions. Men as epoch-shattering as Luther only come along very rarely. Is Wright such a man? Or is he deluded and quite plainly wrong?
Another key argument from Wright and others who advocate the New Perspectives on Paul is that we have misunderstood the Pharisees through the perspective of the Reformation. The first century Jews were never legalists, we are told. There are a number of problems with that position. The first is looking at Jesus' own perspective on the Pharisees, seen most prominently in Luke 18. The second is that while we should acknowledge that the original message of the OT was one of grace, even if the official documents of the first century do indeed point to grace, that does not mean that grace was what was practiced. John Piper explains this further:
"Legalism may also exist in practice, even if grace is trumpeted in theory. Religionists may easily proclaim the primacy of grace and actually live as if the determining factor was human effort. The history of the Christian church amply demonstrates that a theology of grace does not preclude legalism in practice. It would be surprising if Judaism did not suffer from the same problem. Legalism threatens even those who hold to a theology of grace since pride and self-boasting are deeply rooted in human nature. . . ." (p. 147)
The emphasis of people like Wright on our need to demonstrate that we have changed in order for God to finally justify us has an interesting effect. It is ironic indeed that in trying to claim Judaism was not legalistic, it is possible to argue that the new perspective has created a new form of `soft' legalism. In fact, if first century Judaism was not in any sense legalistic, this would be most remarkable. Surely they would have been the only religious group in the history of the world who escaped its ugly stain. Anyone within the evangelical movement with any knowledge of history should appreciate that. For all our talk about grace, we have all too often succumbed to the deceptive allure of legalism. This would most likely not be obvious in a review of our doctrinal statements and other written documents, but would be true nonetheless.
Piper responds to some of the notions of the New Perspectives group who claim that first century Jews had not drifted from the grace message of the Old Testament into legalism. He explains:
"In regard to the second objection to the general view that `the Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace,' it is important to see that, from Jesus' standpoint, relational exclusivism (ethnic or otherwise) is rooted in self-righteousness, which means that ethnocentrism and legalism have the same root. This connection between self-righteousness and exclusivism is one of the points of Jesus' parable that begins, `He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous [dikaioi], and treated others with contempt' (Luke 18:9). A deep root of `treating others with contempt' (whether the others are ethnically similar publicans or ethnically different Gentiles) is: `[They] trusted in themselves that they were righteous.' . . . In other words, the exclusivistic treatment of others is one manifestation of the self-righteousness that trusts in its own law-keeping. Legalism and ethnocentrism have the same root. They are not separate conditions of the soul. Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector also shows that the branches of this root of exclusivistic self-righteousness can, amazingly, make protests and prayers to the effect that all is of grace. Thus, the Pharisee prays, `God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector' (Luke 18:11).
Is this not a clear warning to us that finding grace-dependent statements in Second-Temple Judaism does not necessarily demonstrate that the hearts of those who made these statements were not, at root, self-righteous" (pp. 156-157)?
So what is the crux of the doctrine of justification, according to Piper?
"Our only hope for living the radical demands of the Christian life is that God is totally for us now and forever. Therefore, God has not ordained that living the Christian life should be the basis of our hope that God is for us. That basis is the death and righteousness of Christ, counted as ours through faith alone. On the cross Christ endured for us all the punishment required of us because of our sin. And in order that God, as our Father, might be completely for us and not against us forever, Christ has performed for us in his perfect obedience to God all that God required of us.
This punishment and this obedience are completed and past. They can never change. Our union with Christ and the enjoyment of these benefits is secure forever. Through faith alone, God establishes our union with Christ. This union will never fail, because in Christ, God is for us as an omnipotent Father who sustains our faith, and works all things together for our everlasting good. The one and only instrument through which God preserves our union with Christ is faith in Christ--the purely receiving act of the soul." (p. 184)
This book may stretch you, but to be stretched is sometimes a good idea!