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The Future Of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright [Paperback]

John Piper
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Book Description

Nov. 1 2007

N. T. Wright, a world-renowned New Testament scholar and bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has spent years studying the apostle Pauls writings and has offered a fresh perspective on Pauls theology. Among his conclusions are that the discussions of justification in much of the history of the church-certainly since Augustine-got off on the wrong foot, at least in terms of understanding Paul-and they have stayed there ever since.

Wrights confidence that the church has gotten it wrong for 1,500 years, given his enormous influence, has set off warning bells for Christian leaders such as John Piper, a pastor and New Testament scholar. If Wrights framework for interpreting the New Testament text and his understanding of justification find a home in the church, not only could the doctrine of justification be distorted for generations to come, but the New Testament writers original intent could be silenced. So Piper is sounding a crucial warning in this book, reminding all Christians to exercise great caution regarding fresh interpretations of the Bible and to hold fast to the biblical view of justification.


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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but Sometimes Inconsistent March 19 2010
By Stephen
Format:Paperback
This is a good book but inconsistent at times. Piper suggests on one hand that the very gospel itself is at stake (citing Paul's famous words in chapter one of Galatians), yet he shies away from calling the "new perspectives" heretical. In one moment it seems he is playing the role of a Martin Luther and in another moment he's full of compliments for the genius and scholarship of those with whom he disagrees. Piper is clearly striving to be gracious, but I would have preferred if he were more direct.

I will also admit that this book was not nearly as engaging as Venema's book on the same subject (titled "The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ"). Piper is an outstanding pastor, teacher and author, but I found his argumentation confusing at times. I am very grateful for what Piper has done, and I am glad that he has contributed something in response to this dangerous heresy that is creeping into the Church. Still, I would suggest that those who would like to read more on this subject should read Venema's work. I highly recommend it. It is an outstanding resource that not only deals effectively with Wright, but more than that it exalts the glorious sufficiency of the work of Christ. It was not only intellectually stimulating, it was a comfort and blessing to my heart.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  41 reviews
57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Basics Nov. 14 2011
By A. D. Handman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Granted I am writing this after a quick and sometimes headache inducing read of this book, but I will try to get to the heart of the issue as concisely as possible. Piper fears that theologian N.T. Wright is promoting a view of salvation that is both overly complicated and misrepresents God's ordained way of saving people from their sin. Wright defines "saved" as "being a member of God's true family", that is to say, a recipient of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15, a family with no necessary blood relation or ethnic borders but defined by faith in Christ. All other benefits flow out of this reality.

Piper appreciates that this view of salvation seems fashionable and different from the traditional view which focuses on Christ dying on the cross to pay for the sin of humanity. He also believes it can be complicated and risks misleading the amateur theologian.

While Piper's concern is plausible, we should not mistake the simple for the accurate. Wright answers most of Piper's concerns in his book Justification (in particular, the exegetical chapter on Galatians) and asserts that we must take the writings of Paul in their own context, not contexts that make things "easier to understand by ordinary folk" as Piper puts it. In any case, the following may help summarize the arguments that Piper fills out at greater length through the book.

Piper's view of justification:
1) A person responds to God's call to faith through baptism.
2) The person then has Christ's moral perfection imputed to them IN FULL.
3) On the BASIS of that fully imputed moral perfection, the person is declared justified.
4) Because of this, the person increases in Spirit-generated good works and ultimately shares Christ's resurrection. In other words, we all POSSESS moral perfection upon belief and baptism, but it manifests in our lives little by little.

Wright's view (to which Piper objects):
1) A person responds to God's call to faith through baptism, showing them to be a member of God's true family, the true descendants of Abraham.
2) The person is now LEGALLY absolved of all unrighteousness, and destined for future glorification.
3) The Spirit begins manifesting in the form of good works in the person's life, and ULTIMATELY shares Christ's resurrection and moral perfection.
4) The BASIS of justification is this entire COMPREHENSIVE process, steps one through three. In other words, moral perfection is not imputed all at once, nor do we possess it all at once, but it is developed over time through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Is Piper easier to understand? Yes. But he is also motivated to defend the interpretation of his tradition, and Wright does better in exegesis.

Piper's objection seems to be: How can a person be declared innocent by God without in fact having actual moral perfection "imputed" to them? Wouldn't God be creating a legal fiction?

Wright's response seems to be: It is no fiction. God makes his declaration based on what he sees as moral perfection being made complete IN THE FUTURE. We mortals can only make declarations based on what we see in the here and now. God can see what will be.
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The past of justification Feb. 13 2011
By ecclesial hypostasis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The 'New Perspective on Paul' (NPP), in its reception by the Reformed community, has taken over the past few decades the course that William James laid out for any new theory. First it 'is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it'. John Piper is still, however, fighting a pitched battle on the first stage, this book his attempt to trounce N.T. Wright, the most persuasive representative of the New Perspective. The NPP is essentially a paradigm for reading the Apostle as addressing primarily the concerns of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church rather than the issues of an individual believer before God. It emphasises ecclesiology over soteriology as the import of the doctrine of justification.

I am not a fan of dense exegetical warfare and subtle arguments about Greek verbs, so 'The Future of Justification' required a bit of concentration, as I think it will for most of its intended audience (whom I take to be the educated layperson troubled by the debate). Piper is a skilled Biblical exegete, and he does find some of the weaknesses of Wright's views. However, this detail tends to obscure the real structure of his thinking and his engagement with Wright. Depending on how you look at it, what is at stake here is either a minor variation within Reformed soteriology (not that they haven't split churches over less) or two radically different visions of the Christian faith. Wright often protests, and I believe him, that what he is talking about is only a re-thinking of the vocabulary and emphases of how we discuss the gospel. He desires more of a focus on the role of Christ as the messianic head of the new community, the proclamation of the good news of his resurrection heralding a new age for the world and its liberation from oppression by political and spiritual evil. This is in contrast with the tradition that focusses on how the individual wrestling with sin finds a gracious God and free forgiveness through faith. But Wright believes he is as Reformed as the next man.

I think Piper, however, perceives correctly that Wright's system poses a grave challenge to his own. Piper is driven by the theological vision of Jonathan Edwards - following Calvin - with an overwhelming emphasis on the glory of God and the idea that glorifying himself is God's overriding concern (and should be ours too). This transcendent mystical vision entails the necessity of radical human abasement and the abolition of any ground whatsoever that grace may be construed as operating in any way with our consent or co-operation. Wright, on the other hand, derives his vision more from a purely biblical perspective of the God who calls a people with a mission for the world and empowers them to achieve it. Thus he is far more positive about human possibility and the necessity for real sanctification as part of justification and not just as a response to it. The grave fear that this engenders in Piper and others is that this brings us close to Roman Catholic theology (which indeed it does, and Wright thinks it should).

I don't entirely agree with either Piper or Wright, though I am more sympathetic with Wright. I think that Piper constructs a vision of the Christian church that is precisely vulnerable to Wright's critique, in that for Piper it is a community that glories in its being the chosen people of God set apart from the world and driven by awareness of this 'grace' to works of righteousness. Wright is correct that this is precisely the attitude that Paul is arguing against in Romans and Galatians.

Overall, this is not a bad overview of the issue for those who admire Piper and are predisposed to read his books, though it would need to be balanced by a more sympathetic and full treatment of the NPP. The praise Piper has received for his 'charitable' and irenic stance, and his own self-congratulation for his attitude to controversy, are not entirely warranted, since he does proceed forthwith to paint Wright as almost irredeemably lacking in exegetical skill and insight.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Unsuccessful Attempt toTake on the NP Dec 1 2012
By Samuel Wilwerding - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I greatly respect John Piper, but whether you agree with him or not on this issue of justification, you have to admit that it might have been better if he had not written this book. First of all, as previous reviews have pointed out, "The Future of Justification" does not fully engage in the main issues of the debate. Secondly, N. T. Wright's response to this book, "Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision," was probably his most cogent and concise defense of his Pauline theology to date, which has convinced, on a massive scale, many non-NP people to begin to lean in that direction (myself included). Not only was Wright's response more convincing in general, it was so in a particular way that Piper's was not, i.e. on the basis of solid biblical theology. It's hard to say that Piper's book either contributed to the debate or that it didn't actually result in a gain for the "other side."
60 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book may stretch you, but to be stretched is sometimes a good idea! March 18 2010
By Adrian Warnock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wright and Piper disagreed on some theological issues, so they wrote books at each other. Jan. 10 2014
By Matt Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John Piper took issue with some of N.T. Wright’s views on justification. Because of this, Piper decided to write a whole book to point out the areas where he felt that Wright was misleading his audience. In this book, Piper raises 8 questions concerning Wright’s teaching. I will discuss all 8 questions by first stating Wrights view, then stating Piper’s view, then concluding with my response to that particular question.
Question #1: The Gospel Is Not about How to Get Saved?
N. T. WRIGHT
Regarding the relationship between the gospel message and justification, N. T. Wright aims to stress a separation between the two. He writes: “I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’…‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.” Wright makes this separation because of his belief that the preaching of the gospel message during the first century was not a message about justification, but rather a message about Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. In fact, along these lines, Wright says that, “If we come to Paul with these questions in mind – the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God – it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen…he has a clear train of thought, repeated at various points. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection…is announced to them…God works by his Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message.” It is clear from the previous quotations of Wright that he does not feel that the doctrine of justification is needed as part of the gospel.
JOHN PIPER
John Piper is confused by Wright’s claim that the gospel is not an account of how people get saved. His first argument against what Wright proposes is that it does not line up with Paul’s preaching of the gospel found in the book of Acts. Piper’s strongest use of the book of Acts to prove his point comes in the form of Acts 13:38-39. Here, Paul says, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39, ESV). Piper believes that having laid down a historical foundation in previous verses, these two verses show that Jesus’ death and resurrection make this history “good news.”
Furthermore, Piper disputes Wright’s claim that, “it is not justification that springs to [Paul’s] lips or pen,” when the question arises about how humans come into a saving relationship with God. Piper does not try to argue that Paul announced the truth of justification in every gospel message, but he does feel strongly that Paul’s announcements about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and lordship are good news because believing in this Christ brought about justification.
MY RESPONSE
With Question #1 in mind, I tend to side with Piper. It seems clear from Scripture that the separation Wright makes between the gospel message and the doctrine of justification is not evident in Paul’s preaching. Furthermore, Wright appears to be arguing his point in a way to better present his opinion that the individual’s experience should be minimized when looking at the gospel. Overall, I agree with the concerns that Piper has about Wright’s stance. Piper is concerned that Wright’s passion to get people to view the gospel as historical and global rather than as something for the individual may have an unwanted consequence. Piper fears that this approach will leave the gospel too vague for individual sinners to understand how to gain salvation. I agree with what Piper says when he writes that, “If the gospel has an answer, it would have to be a message about how the rebel against God can be saved – indeed, how he can be right with God and become part of the covenant people.”
Question #2: Justification Is Not How You Become a Christian?
N. T. WRIGHT
To Wright, justification is not the process by which someone becomes a Christian. He puts it like this: “Justification…is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community…‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God…it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’.”
In Wright’s view, the first step is God’s call on a person, which instantaneously awakens faith in the individual. “There is no lapse of time between God’s call and our justifying faith.” Because of this, Wright labels God’s act of justification as a “second-order doctrine.”
JOHN PIPER
Piper sharply disagrees with Wright concerning the role of justification in a person’s journey to becoming a Christian. About Wright’s belief that justification is a second-order doctrine, Piper writes that, “we may conclude that justification should not be called a ‘second-order doctrine,’ only giving assurance but not part of the event by which we enter God’s favor. Calling/faith/justification are parts of one event that brings us from God’s enmity to his acceptance.”
To debunk Wright’s theology further, Piper goes back to analyzing Wright’s desire to modify people’s view of the gospel from the emphasis being put on the individual to the emphasis being put on the historical and global elements of the gospel. About Wright’s modification of the gospel, Piper writes: “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring will probably have global scope to it but will not deal personally with the human heart of sin with clear declarations of how Christ dealt with sin and how the fearful heart can find rest in the gospel of grace – the active grace that, while not exhausted by God’s act of justification, does include it.”
MY RESPONSE
I am in an interesting dilemma because I found myself agreeing with Piper in regards to Question #1, yet find myself siding with Wright in regards to Question #2. I am sure my thoughts on this subject are early in their development since I am new to the “justification debate,” however I find it odd that I would not align with the same theologian on both questions. The reason that I align with Wright in this case is that I can see how God’s call would awaken a faith in us that would instantaneously lead to our justification. Once our faith is alive inside of us, the justification process happens as an immediate result. Romans 5:1 laid it out clearly when Paul wrote that we are justified by faith.
I find Piper’s argument that justification could not be a second-order doctrine because calling, faith, and justification, “are parts of one event that brings us from God’s enmity to his acceptance,” to be a weak argument in that Wright has already established that faith and justification happen instantaneously after the call of God. In this case, it appears that Piper is arguing for something very similar to what Wright has stated.
Question #3: Justification is Not the Gospel?
N. T. WRIGHT
To put it plainly, N. T. Wright says, “I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’…‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.” Wright makes this separation because he feels like something larger is happening with the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is a proclamation, and a royal proclamation at that. Instead of seeing the gospel as a system of how people get saved, Wright sees this royal proclamation resulting in people being saved. Furthermore, Wright describes the average understanding of ‘justification by faith’ as people, “trying to pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps. They try to save themselves by their own efforts; to make themselves good enough for God, or for heaven.” This, Wright says, will not work as one can only be saved by the grace of God (and only then by faith, not works). Finally, Wright points out that, “Justification for Paul cannot be understood apart from eschatology.”
JOHN PIPER
In John Piper’s writing, he almost seems to take offense to Wright’s claim that justification is not the gospel. Scripturally speaking, Piper points out that a significant problem with Wright’s claim is that, “Exegetically…the portrayal of Paul’s preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts seems to contradict what Wright says.” In a story found in Acts 13, Paul says, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39, ESV). Piper points out that, “Before telling them exactly what [Paul] is offering them as ‘good news,’ he tells them how God is bringing it about.” Piper goes on to say that justification language is clear in Paul’s teaching. Piper sees justification language occurring, “as the climactic expression of the gospel to both Jews and then Gentiles, offering them forgiveness of sins, a right standing with God, and, in that way, eternal life. Even though there are different contextualization challenges in making ‘justification’ understandable to Jews and Gentiles, what Acts makes plain is that the same ‘salvation’ that Paul offers to the Jews is offered to the Gentiles.”
MY RESPONSE
I am prone to agree with Wright, who said that when Paul wrote about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ, “he does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process. Instead, he speaks of proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, the work of the spirit, and the entry into the common life of the people of God” I believe that the reason that Paul writes about these things instead of putting the emphasis on justification is because becoming one with Jesus and joining the family of God comes first. After that, we are given justification as a sign that we are a part of God’s family. Romans 1:16 makes this clear: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16, ESV). Here we see that the gospel proclamation is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.
Eschatologically speaking, justification is made truly public during Final Judgment, when it acts as a legal status which we carry out of court with us. I agree with Wright that, “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.”
Question #4: We Are Not Justified by Believing in Justification?
N. T. WRIGHT
N. T. Wright has said that, “If we are thinking Paul’s thoughts after him, we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.” Piper points out that Wright is essentially saying that, “the message of justification is not the gospel, and not a message about how we get saved.” Additionally, he goes on to say that we can believe in justification by faith, in that through that belief we recognize that we are eternally part of God’s family. “We are now and forever part of the family to whose every member God says what he said to Jesus at his baptism: you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” In this sense, salvation comes to us as a family, and as a community of believers. Again, the emphasis is less on the individual, and more on the family that is created by those who have put their faith in Jesus.
JOHN PIPER
John Piper asserts that Wright’s statement that we are not saved by believing in justification (but rather by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection) contains “misleading ambiguity.” Piper believes that this ambiguity comes from the fact that our reason for believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection is left undefined. Taking it to the next step, Piper goes on to say that the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection does not become “good news” until the hearer of the gospel learns what Jesus is offering personally and freely – justification. Using Scripture to prove his point, Piper quotes Acts 13:39, in which Paul says that, “by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39, ESV). Piper says that freed can also be translated as justified, so that the verse would ultimately mean that everyone who believes is justified from everything which the law could not justify us from.
MY RESPONSE
I can see both sides of this argument. While it seems that, in a sense, both are saying the same thing, I can understand Piper’s desire to have a more in depth explanation from Wright. While I believe that both would agree that salvation starts with a belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, it makes sense that Wright could have clarified further his statement about Christians not being justified by believing in justification. The clarification of what Jesus’ death and resurrection led to (salvation for those who believe) is truly what makes the gospel good news. I agree with Piper’s summation of the argument over Question #4: “Of course, it is Jesus who saves, not the doctrine. And so our faith rests decisively on Jesus. But the doctrine tells us what sort of Jesus we are resting on and what we are resting on him for”
With that being said, I also agree with Wright’s assessment that justification is not conversion itself, but is more synonymous with vindication. It is not our transformation into a “just as if we had never sinned” state which makes us Christian. It is our initial belief in Christ – his death and resurrection – that leads to our right standing with God.
Question #5: The Imputation of God’s Own righteousness Makes No Sense At All?
N. T. WRIGHT
N. T. Wright does not believe that God’s own righteousness is put upon those who are justified. He writes that, “Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom…To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake.” Rather, Wright believes that, “God’s righteousness remains, so to speak, God’s own property.” Wright sees “the righteousness of God” as, “referring to a status of righteousness which humans have before God.” He uses Philippians 3:8-9 as one verse that illustrates his point: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV).
Furthermore, Wright likens receiving the righteousness of God with being vindicated. As members of a covenant relationship with Christ, Christians have died and been raised with Jesus, dead to their sins. Wright objects to saying that Jesus, “earned something called ‘righteousness,’ and that he then reckons this to be true of his people…On my reading of Paul the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus is that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection; and particularly, that this is what Paul means when he speaks of ‘God’s righteousness.’”
JOHN PIPER
Concerning the idea that the imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense, John Piper often accuses Wright of being overly ambiguous with his thoughts. In one passage, Piper writes: “It is unclear whether Wright is merging our imputed position in Christ as vindicated before God with an imparted newness of nature that lives by faith.” Piper also compares Wright’s exegesis of the text with the traditional Reformed exegesis. When outlining both, side by side, Piper revealed that Wright’s exegesis removes the imputation of Christ’s obedience as a result of one’s union with Christ. Piper then points out that the absence of a real perfect imputed obedience, “leaves the gift of the status of vindication without foundation…[which] results in a vacuum that our own Spirit-enabled, but imperfect, obedience seems to fill as part of the foundation or ground or basis alongside the atoning death of Jesus.”
MY RESPONSE
In regards to Question #5, I find myself siding with Wright, as he demonstrated through Scripture that “God’s righteousness” is a phrase that has, “always and everywhere else from the Psalms and Isaiah onwards, refers to God’s own righteousness as the creator and covenant God.”
I also agree with Wright that Paul likely used that phrase to denote, “the righteous status which God’s people have in virtue of justification.” The key thing that won me over to Wright’s side over Piper’s position is Wright’s use of Scripture to prove his point. I found Wright’s usage of biblical evidence to be more compelling than that of Piper’s. I was particularly swayed by the way that Wright used Philippians, 2 Corinthians, and multiple passages from Romans to prove what Paul really had in mind when addressing “God’s righteousness” in his letters.
Question #6: Future Justification is on the Basis of the Complete Life Lived?
N. T. WRIGHT
N. T. Wright believes that, “God the Judge will find in our favor on the basis of the works we have done – the life we have lived – and in the present he anticipates that verdict and declares it to be already true on the basis of our faith in Jesus.” Using Romans 8:3-4 as an explanation of Romans 2:13, Wright concludes that, “‘the doers of the law’ are those who ‘walk by the Spirit’ and thus fulfill the ‘righteous requirement of the law,’…This means that justification…will be based on the life of obedience that we live in the power of the Spirit.” Wright has also said that, “Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10-12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1-16.”
JOHN PIPER
Seeing the importance of Romans 2:13 to Wright’s view, John Piper breaks down Wright’s argument by saying that, “Paul does not say how being a ‘doer of the law’ functions in relation to being justified at the last day.” Furthermore, Paul does not use the phrase, “from works,” which can often be translated as “on the basis of works” (as opposed to “according to works”). Piper adds Romans 3:20 and Romans 3:28 to his list of biblical proofs for his position. Romans 3:20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). This is followed by Romans 3:28 which says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28, ESV). To encapsulate his thoughts, Piper writes: “Given the demands of the flow of the argument in Romans 2:6-16…I doubt that we can press this statement very far for the defense of justification by works. Paul makes a statement that in this context functions as a principle (doing, not hearing, will matter at the judgment), rather than a declaration about how that doing relates to justification – let alone whether the doing of Christ may supply what our doing lacks.”
MY RESPONSE
I have to disagree with Piper’s weak argument against Wright in this case, in which it often felt like he was actually stating Wright’s point. One point that comes to mind is the fact that Romans 2:12 indicates that those who have not heard the law of Moses will not be condemned based on the law. Piper seems to agree with Wright (and me) when he writes that, “having access to the moral law of Moses and hearing it is not an advantage at the final judgment. At the judgment, the question will not be: How much of the law did you hear? The question will be: Did you do it?” I am also swayed by the way that Paul makes this point even more clearly in Romans 2:14-15 when stating that some do by nature what the law requires. Furthermore, even Piper agrees with Wright’s statement that, “The attempt to shore up justification by faith by saying that the life we now live will be irrelevant at the final judgment is unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself.”
Question #7: First-century Judaism Had Nothing of the Alleged Self-Righteous and Boastful Legalism?
N. T. WRIGHT
In Wright’s mind, the term “works of the law” did not refer to law-keeping in general, “but to the acts of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary regulations.” In fact, Wright’s main complaint against the first-century Christians who excluded the Gentiles is that they were too ethnocentristic, not that they were too legalistic. Wright believes this view brings a unity between Paul and Paul’s Jewish background. “That is, Paul does not present his new Christian faith as one free from legalism and his old Jewish faith as one fraught with legalism. Both are rooted in grace.” Furthermore, Wright claims that his examination of the ancient Qumran text, 4QMMT, “reveal nothing of the self-righteous and boastful ‘legalism’ which used to be thought characteristic of Jews in Paul’s day.” His position is further developed when he writes that, “It might be the case that MMT’s doctrine of ‘justification by works’…corresponded to that held by a wider band within second-Temple Judaism, including the Pharisees but excluding Pauline Christians.” In summation, Wright’s main argument when it comes to Question #7 is that the grace-dependent people of Paul’s day believed, “not that their ‘works of the law’ made them members of the covenant, but rather that the works showed that they were members already by God’s grace.”
JOHN PIPER
John Piper disagrees with Wright’s interpretation of what the “works of the law” actually are. He is in the camp that treats the phrase “works of the law” as, “the deeds of law-keeping in general rather than as ethnic badges like circumcision, dietary laws, etc.” Piper also disagrees with Wright’s assessment that there was not legalism and self-righteousness amongst the first-century Jews. Rather than viewing the people, as Wright does, as dependent on God’s grace to do the works that were expected of them, Piper believes that putting forward any works as the basis of justification could actually dishonor what Christ did for us and what he achieved and provides for us.
MY RESPONSE
Concerning Question #7, I more strongly align with Wright. It is clear that what we know as “Christianity” is the natural progression of the Jewish religion. Along with Wright, I see, “a basic structural continuity between first-century Judaism and Christianity.” In order to reach this understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, I had to come to agreement with Wright that Second-Temple Judaism, “did not attempt to obtain or maintain the saving favor of God by law-keeping…but rather assumed divine favor because of unconditional election and kept the law in dependence on grace.”
In rebuttal to Wright, Piper too made a good argument, which I must acknowledge (and must agree with to a point). Piper mentioned that there are types of self-righteousness and subtle legalism that can sneak by us sometimes. To further illuminate his point, he quoted Matt Perman as saying that, “There is also soft legalism, which is the belief that your God-empowered obedience justifies you before God, or that you ‘become saved’ by faith but ‘remain saved’ by God-produced works (which includes the ideas that final justification is based on obedience).” I must admit that I believe this is a problem in my own life. Not that I want to believe this, or that I would preach about God-produced works leading to final justification, but I can see that my actions sometimes reveal that I believe this to a point. Because I know that I, myself, am guilty of falling into this trap, I must agree with Piper on this point.
Question #8: God’s Righteousness Is the Same as His Covenant Faithfulness?
N. T. WRIGHT
N. T. Wright believes that the term “righteousness of God” is a technical term meaning “the covenant-faithfulness of God.” He wrote that, “The gospel of Jesus Christ reveals a righteousness of God, that is to say…his faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham, his impartiality, his proper dealing with sin and his helping of the helpless.” As a biblical example, Wright cited 2 Corinthians 5:21 and said that, “The ‘righteousness of God’ in this verse is not a human status in virtue of which the one who has ‘become’ it stands ‘righteous’ before God…It is the covenant faithfulness of the one true God, now active through the paradoxical Christ-shaped ministry of Paul, reaching out with the offer of reconciliation to all who hear his bold preaching.” Wright would consider Paul a minister of the new covenant.
JOHN PIPER
John Piper would say that God’s righteousness is not the same as his covenant faithfulness. As a biblical proof, he cites Psalms 145:17, which says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” (Psalms 145:17, ESV). This shows that God was righteous before there was a covenant to keep, he is not simply righteous because he is keeping his covenant. Furthermore, using multiple Scripture passages to prove his point (Isaiah 48:9-11, Isaiah 43:25, Psalm 79:9, Ezekiel 36:20-33, and 2 Timothy 2:13), Piper shows that the motivation for God’s saving actions is often to act for the value of his own glory. Ultimately, Piper concludes that “the righteousness of God” is a parallel phrase with “for your name’s sake” (as seen in Psalm 143:11). He shows that Paul also made this connection by quoting a verse from Romans in which it appears that, “Paul sets up the deepest problem of humankind in terms of human unrighteousness and our failure to glorify God…All of this is described without any reference to a covenant.” He would also argue that “God’s righteousness is, “his commitment to do what is right…and his unswerving commitment to uphold the worth of his glory.”
MY RESPONSE
Piper said something really strange that I take issue with: “There are a hundred other things integrity prompts a person to do besides keep contracts. And there are a hundred other things God’s righteousness prompts him to do besides keep covenant.” He says this to try to show that Paul’s idea of “God’s righteousness” is not synonymous with “God’s covenant faithfulness,” but I believe that God always keeps his covenants. There is nothing that would prompt him to break a promise that he has made.
With that being said, Piper does do a good job at rejecting Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Wright argued that the verse in 2 Corinthians has traditionally been read as a detached statement of atonement theology, and that, “the traditional view treats the verse as ‘an extra added comment about something other than the subject of the previous paragraph.’” Piper disagrees, and proves his point by looking at the previous paragraph in Scripture. I am inclined to agree with Piper on this point because Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “places the death of Christ squarely underneath his apostolic ministry as its foundational, controlling impulse.” “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died” (2 Corinthians 5:14, ESV).
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