Some Thoughts on “Justification” by NT Wright


This past week I finished NT  Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. In the book, Wright is responding to a recent book by John Piper entitled The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.  I have not read Piper’s book so I can only comment on Wright’s side of the conversation. But as for Wright’s book, I found it a compelling and interesting read (although for those who have little experience with detailed exegesis, the first half of the book is a much easier read). 

It is clear to anyone who reads Justification that Wright does not feel like his arguments are being heard. He compares the entire debate to a person who explains the mechanics of planetary rotation, revolution and gravity to a friend only to be taken to a hillside where your friends triumphantly exclaims “See, I told you the sun moves round the earth!” 

So what is the issue at stake? What is “justification” according to Piper and Wright? The following is a quote from an interview in which Piper states the gist of justification, as he sees it:

“In the New Testament, justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side. At that moment you are declared and constituted just, even though you’re ungodly. Romans 4:4 talks about the justification of the ungodly, and Romans 3: 28 says that “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”” (Piper, October 19, 2007.

This “imputed righteousness” is the central issue. For Piper, justification happens when the righteousness that rightly belongs to Christ (because of his sinless life) is “imputed” (counted, ascribed, given) to us because we place our faith in Christ, not in ourselves. This is a central Lutheran/Calvinist doctrine, and it is not hard to understand why defenses are up when it is perceived as being threatened. After all, if we are not counted as “just” through Christ, then aren’t we still in our sin? Is NT Wright espousing some “works righteousness” that puts trust in something other than the cross of Christ?

By no means. Anyone who reads Wright’s book will see the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for his view of justification. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I will attempt to explain Wright’s view of justification in a few short paragraphs. In Wright’s view, Piper and theologians like him since the Reformation have taken a central truth within the Gospel of Christ and made it into the entire Gospel. The gospel cannot be boiled down to individual “reconciliation;” God is up to much more, and to see justification as individual reconciliation, and simply equate that with Gospel is reductionistic. For Wright, justification must be understood within three conceptual frameworks: covenant, lawcourt, and eschatology.

In terms of covenant, we must understand that what God was doing in Jesus Christ, was no less than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham in Genesis 15. Jesus Christ is the climax of God’s single plan through Israel for the sake of the world. Therefore, the references to Abraham and Abraham’s seed in Romans and Galatians are not merely “examples” of the type of person who has “saving faith” but are references to God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham. It is the faithfulness to the covenant which is central to understanding justification, as we will see presently.

The second context is that of lawcourt. Wright argues that in a courtroom setting, the judge, when making a ruling, is not, in effect, saying that the defendant has the internal characteristics of “justice” or “righteousness” as if, in winning the case” the judge declares them “good.” No, in a courtroom, the ruling of the judge is that the defendant or prosecution is “in the right” or “in the wrong.” Justification, for Wright, is God’s declaring people the status of “in the right” which can be equated with “covenant membership.” Justification is God saying to us, “yes, you are part of the family of Abraham, despite your unfaithfulness to the covenant… and yes, that includes Gentiles as well as Jews.” This provisional declaration of the status of “covenant membership” is marked out by one’s faith in Jesus Christ, not works of the Torah, so that the way we can tell who will be counted “in” at the end, is no longer Torah but faith (note: this is still justification by faith alone, by grace alone… Wright never touches these “Solas”).

This brings us to eschatology; where is it all heading in the end? Wright shows that, in Paul’s theology, this single plan through the covenant for the sake of the world will one day be completely accomplished. In the meantime, the resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that the victory has been inaugurated in a special way, and that those who are “in Christ” (through faith) participate with Christ in his life, death and resurrection until the final victory of God (now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God). In this sense, it is not an internal quality of “just-ness” that is imputed to the believer, but rather, it is Christ’s own death and resurrection that is imputed. God sees us “in Christ” and no longer sees us in our previous sinful state, but as vindicated “in Christ.” 

As you can see, you get the same result as Piper: imputed righteousness, the importance of faith, the centrality of the cross and resurrection. The difference, as far as I can tell, is one of emphasis. For Wright, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is cosmic before it is anthropological, meaning it is “for the world” before it is “for me.” However, it is most definitely personal as well (the Gospel… is the power of God for salvation for those who believe (Rom 1:16)).

While the result is the same, Wright arrives there without succumbing to two glaring ironies of the traditional Reformed position (of which his Anglican heritage is also a part). First, the Reformed doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” states that the Bible, not tradition, is the final authority for faith and practice. However, in the typical reformed and Lutheran exegesis of Paul, more emphasis is place on the tradition than the actual text, particularly in regard to favoring Romans and Galatians over other letters such as Ephesians, Collosians, and Phillipians. These last three letters are often considered suspect by liberal biblical scholars who consider them deutero-Pauline, at best (written by disciples of Paul and attributed to Paul). The irony being that the conservative Lutheran and Reformed scholars, in the effort to resist liberalism, have also strayed away from emphasizing these letters. The second irony is that the traditional Reformed scholars, who so often espouse a single-covenant biblical framework over against dispensationalists, have minimized the Abrahamic covenant in their reading of Paul. In doing so, they have seen justification as something that God does in Christ apart from Christ’s own role as the Messiah of Israel. One ends with a Jesus that has no real ties to Judaism, except that he came to show “another way.” Wright, on the other hand, paints Jesus the Messiah as the faithful Israelite, through whom God is faithful to his covenant with Israel for the sake of the world. 

It will be interesting to see where these debates on Paul will go. Is there a third way between “New” and “Old” perspectives on Paul? Is there a way to be faithful to Luther and Calvin, without favoring them over Paul? How can we better understand the New Testament within its original Jewish context while also doing justice to its ability to speak to our own lives as a “living and active” Word? How can we better understand the contexts in which the central doctrines of the Protestant church today were developed? Does that sort of thing really matter? These questions are in my mind after reading this book. For that, I am thankful to Wright and Piper for letting me listen in on their conversation.