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

John "Piper "
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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 Paul's writings and has offered a ""fresh perspective"" on Paul's 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.""

Wright's 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 Wright's 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
50 of 55 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.
26 of 32 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.
8 of 9 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."
59 of 80 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!
225 of 311 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wright is Right April 26 2008
By D. Garlington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John Piper's new book, as its subtitle indicates, is a rejoinder to N. T. Wright's take on justification in the letters of Paul. The volume consists of eleven chapters and six appendices, all endeavouring to lay bare what Piper considers to be the shortcomings of Wright's understanding of justification and related matters. In his Acknowledgements (11), Piper informs us of his intentions and expectations in a quotation from Solomon Stoddard: "The general tendency of this book is to show that our claim to pardon and sin and acceptance with God is not founded on any thing wrought in us, or acted by us, but only on the righteousness of Christ." By thus framing the issue, Piper's book functions as a broadside against any and all attempts, especially those of Wright, to introduce things "wrought in us" or "acted by us" into the Pauline preaching of justification by faith, thereby detracting from "the righteousness of Christ only." A certain amount of hype has attended the advent of this publication, particularly the "warning" that any other than Piper's outlook on Paul is playing fast-and-loose with the apostle's teaching. According to Piper's web page, "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" ([...] / Store/Books / 728_The_Future_of_Justification). In the Conclusion (184), Piper clarifies that the book's title is intended to draw attention to where the doctrine of justification may be going, as well to "the critical importance of God's future act of judgment when our justification will be confirmed."

On the upside, Piper rightly maintains that justification for Paul entails more than a declaration that one is a member of the covenant (à la Wright). Instead, quoting Simon Gathercole: "God's act of justification is not one of recognition but is, rather, closer to creation. It is God's determination of our new identity rather than a recognition of it" (42). Even with the various qualifications allotted to Wright, Piper effectively scores some points regarding justification as the experience of salvation by arguing successfully throughout the book that it is a false distinction to bifurcate "justification" and "salvation." In this particular regard, Piper's discussion makes for helpful and even stimulating reading. Also, Piper does score a point as regards Wright's exegesis of 2 Cor 5:21. Here the traditional reading makes more sense: in Christ God's righteousness has become ours. A parallel text is Phil 3:9

However, the upside of the book is easily outweighed by its downside. In a nutshell, this volume is mainly a defense of traditional doctrines, with a minimum of persuasive exegesis and a heavy reliance on confessionalism. It is understandable that Piper has a pastoral concern. But is Wright's theology of justification so dire that it warrants being dubbed a "double tragedy" by Piper? I think not. It is Wright who has "delivered the goods" when it comes to penetrating exegesis and, dare one say, fresh insight into the letters of Paul. It is also understandable that Piper would want to allay the "confusion" he senses on the part of his parishioners. However, I must say that such "laypersons" would have to be theologically literate indeed to tackle this volume, not least its microscopic footnotes. Otherwise, the confusion is liable to remain!

As much as anything, this book is flawed by its near phobia of anything that smacks of newness and freshness, which, for Piper, must be suspect by definition. This is why we are exhorted to be suspicious of "our love of novelty" and eager to test biblical interpretations by "the wisdom of the centuries" (38). Agreed, but surely "the wisdom of the centuries" includes our own century. Wright is precisely correct: we are "to think new thoughts arising of the text and to dare to try them out in word and deed" (quoted on 37). Piper would do well to recall Matt 13:52: "And he said to them, `Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old'." I would say the appropriate response to matters "new" and "fresh" is not skepticism but the Beroean spirit of searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11).
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