The Future Of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright Paperback – Nov 1 2007
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for 33 years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God, Don't Waste Your Life, This Momentary Marriage, Bloodlines, and Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
Top Customer Reviews
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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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.
Amongst the many soteriological themes to consider and defend, the question is: Just how important is the doctrine of justification? Is it a minor quibble, or is it a major doctrine that needs to be contended for? It seems significant to author John Piper, who devotes an entire book to the subject matter. The Future of Justification is most specifically a response to and a critique of scholar N.T. Wright's take on justification. Wright's view of justification, in Piper's eyes, is a flawed and perhaps a heretical take on the issue. Because of the scope of Wright's influence in the evangelical world, Piper takes the necessary step to openly challenge Wright's interpretation of justification for the sake of biblical truth in modern Christendom. Justification is a topic that is worthy of faithful exposition and clarification, which is why Piper sets out to write about this important salvific truth. In The Future of Justification, Piper documents the errors in N.T. Wright's view on justification and proposes an orthodox solution that is both timeless and true to the intent of the New Testament writers and what has been defined by the Reformers.
The book follows a fairly simple structure of identifying the topic of discussion (justification), the problems raised by an alternative view of justification (N.T. Wright), the true interpretation of the topic (by John Piper), and the implications on Christian living. It begins with Piper commenting on Wright's so-called illuminating discovery concerning the nature of justification, and makes the important point that not all such discoveries are enlightening and true. In fact, this particular one is problematic and detrimental to the Christian faith. The author describes the core meaning of Wright's interpretation of justification by describing Wright's proposal that the righteousness Paul spoke of in the book of Romans really stands for "covenant faithfulness," and not imputed righteousness as the evangelical world understands it. Piper describes in chapters 2 and 3 how Wright comes to this conclusion by subordinating the law-court analogy as merely a tool to affirm that a believer is in God's covenant family, and not the means by which someone is declared righteous and fully qualified to have eternal life. Piper also quotes Wright's understanding of what the gospel message is: that it is not about an individualized faith of saving one's soul from sin and hell, but rather about the coming of God's kingdom and a submission to the Lordship of Christ. Wright's reasoning, as Piper explores in Ch 9, is that Paul wrote his epistles with an understanding that Christian soteriology is really an extension of the salvific message apparent in Second Temple Judaism: that the Jews did not teach salvation by works or adherence to the Law, but rather that they believed in God's grace through faith but acted in error when they tried to impose ethnocentric ideas (ex. Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) on the Gentiles as a means of salvation rather than faith in Christ as sufficient for salvation. The book ends with an appropriate discussion by Piper on the truth of imputed righteousness and why it is important to hold to this doctrine in contrast to the one proposed by N.T. Wright. As a book critique on another scholar's theology, Piper does a respectable job in writing out his response and upholding the orthodox belief about justification and defending the gospel as a whole.
Although the book is a firm opposition to the theories proposed in the recent years by N.T. Wright (and perhaps others who have held to similar theories of the New Perspective on Paul), it is never condemning or slanderous, as Piper takes moments to defend unjust criticisms against N.T. Wright's theology. A good example of this is in page 44, when Piper defends Wright from critics who accuse Wright of missing or minimizing the forensic dimension of justification. This gives some measure of academic integrity to the intent of the book, because the author does not set out unfairly or unjustly slander and attack the opposing camp (though their theology may be wrong), but to represent them as truthfully as possible so that their views, and Piper's, can be more accurately assessed and taken into consideration, especially as it regards this important, soteriological topic.
One of the strengths of this book is how vividly Piper quotes Wright's material and interacts with his views through sound exegesis of selected texts. Because the book revolves around the idea of solving the meaning of "righteousness," it is Piper's task to state what Wright's understanding of the Greek term is ("covenant faithfulness") and what that means. Piper's extensive use of the Greek language and defining its meaning also proves to be helpful in the author making his case for the orthodox interpretation of this issue. Piper's proposed definition of righteousness as "God's unwavering commitment to the honor of His glory" establishes a foundation for what righteousness is, in contrast to how it merely acts as Wright believes. Piper is also reasonably thorough in his analysis of Wright and his theology, linking Wright's justification theory to Wright's understanding of the religion of Second Temple Judaism, which informs his understanding of the idea of a future justification of the saints based on their remaining in the covenant through faith and works. This proves to be a tremendously strong case for Piper's conclusion that Wright's view of justification is unbiblical, and even dangerously close to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification discussed in Chapter 11. No matter how much Wright thinks his idea to be enlightening, innovation, or truthful, the fact is that it has no basis either in the Bible, amongst the early church fathers, or in the teachings of the Reformation, in which Piper hints that Wright's view of justification is nearly identical to the process of sanctification and is essentially makes salvation a works-based system.
Though this book gives a good overview of the issue at hand and gives a clear-cut presentation of Wright's understanding of justification, there are a couple of themes that could have been touched on. Chapters 2 and 5 discuss Wright's understanding of the gospel as the narrative of Christ and the need to submit to Him as Lord, but they do not really give an explanation of what Wright thinks about the issue of Jesus as "Savior," and what that means. How would this relate to his understand of salvation through grace by faith alone? How would this relate, in any way, to his theology of justification? Another issue that could have used further elaboration was Wright's theory about how one stays within the covenant family after his inclusion into it by repentant faith. In other words, how much faith, works, or fruit does the believer need to bear in order to testify of the security of his inclusion in the covenant family? Is there any assurance of final salvation? How does this relate to other soteriological themes such as perseverance of the saints, apostasy, or salvation by works? These are some questions that Piper could have included (if such things were in his immediate knowledge) in the book so as to give us a better picture of whether or not N.T. Wright is a false teacher or not (if that was the intent of Piper to begin with), but it is a commendable thing that Piper extends the invitation for N.T. Wright to respond to difficult questions he has concerning Wright's integrity as a scholar.
In conclusion, The Future of Justification is a noteworthy book that sets out to accomplish its goals and is a sound commentary on the nature of biblical justification. It takes an unorthodox idea, such as the one set forth by Wright, and demonstrates how it is unbiblical and why such theories need to be refuted. Piper does not see this issue as a secondary one, but a primary one since it deals with soteriology and the foundation of Christian theology that traces its roots back to the Reformation. I thoroughly recommend this book as a good introduction into topics such as the New Perspective on Paul and the importance of what justification by faith entails. The foundations of the Christian faith must always be contended for and preserved, which is why even defenses like these against professing Christian scholars are absolutely necessary so as to inform the evangelical public who need to exercise discernment.
Some thoughts on NT Wright:
Trying to understand Wright on justification is a tortured task (as this book testifies). It was comforting to know that I wasn't alone in being totally confused. As Piper points out, Wright repudiates the classic definitions and is not entirely consistent even with his new definitions. On the whole, Wright is maddeningly vague about what he means. Much of Piper's book is painstaking exegesis of Wright's writings, which, come on, we shouldn't have to do with a masterful theologian as Wright.
If you are going to take on the huge theological project of redefining the classic Catholic-Protestant debate on justification (and announcing that everyone's heretofore got it wrong), you have to be exquisitely clear and systematic. Perhaps we'll see a fuller discussion with his upcoming book on Paul (the 4th in his Christian Origins series). In the end, after much parsing and analysis on Piper's part, it seems that Wright's view on the ground of our standing with God is much closer to the Roman Catholic view (a grace-infused life of good works) rather than the classic Protestant view (Christ's imputed works alone).
Some thoughts on Piper on Wright:
I think Piper made several excellent points: (1) Pharisaism, at its heart, was legalistic and self-justifying moralism. I really don't get how Wright could absolve rabbinic Judaism from this charge. Wright contends the only crime of the Pharisees was an overly restrictive view of covenant membership (ethnocentrism), but as Piper points out, the heart of that restrictive view was indeed self-justifying moralism. Was there not an arrogance behind the clean-law restrictions? And especially in light of Jesus and Paul's dispute with Pharisaism, I just don't get how Wright could transform the Pharisees into a heroic group. My guess is that the scholar fell in love with his subject and lost objectivity.
(2) God's righteousness is not merely God's covenant faithfulness (his actions), but his character. I think Piper overkills this point but it's a good point. Wright, for his part, believes that this means God's righteousness is like a vapor that moves across the courtroom to the defendant, which doesn't say so much about the Protestant view but Wright's really poor understanding of the Protestant view on justification.
Some thoughts on Piper:
(1) The book was way too long. Piper mentions how he doubled the length at one point - bad advice! I kinda wish a good editor had carved out a shorter, punchier version, without the laborious clarifications and scholarly asides (though I liked the footnotes!).
(2) I wish Piper could have interacted a bit more with Wright's view of covenant. Wright thinks covenant membership is the same thing as being justified by God. But not all Israel is Israel. Not everyone who is 'in the covenant' is known by God. There is the old Reformed distinction of the 'invisible church' and the 'visible church,' which I guess is not a concept well-known to Baptists?
(3) The was a very different book from Piper's usually stuff. I like it. I sometimes forget Piper has a Ph.D. in theology. I hope he publishes more scholarly stuff in the future.
Piper corresponded with Wright to get Wright's input. He pointed out where Wright has done a great service to the Church in several areas, but Piper also pointed where Wright's theology or at least his ambiguity about the doctrine of justification may lead several churches astray.
I'm not a theologian or even a pastor, but I was able to follow most of the arguments and realized the importance of the issues that Piper addressed. I haven't read more than a few short works of Wright and I was able to glean some good stuff from this book. My favorite part of the book was where Piper showed how Wright defined righteousness and then described how Piper defined righteousness. I found Piper's definition far more complete. The book was written well, but it was not an easy read. I need to go back and reread some of the sections so I can more fully understand his arguments.