Sunday, June 05, 2011

Justification: Has Wright Got It Right?

In this book JustificationN.T Wright challenges the historic evangelical (especially reformed) view that justification is mainly to do with the imputing of righteousness – that is that Christ’s righteousness is treated ours. Wright does believe that we have been given a right standing in Christ but he sees justification as more to do with being declared righteous. Wright sees justification as more corporate – we are declared righteous because we are ‘in Christ’ - part of God’s people both Jew and Gentile – rather than purely an individual right standing before God. His is the more holistic ‘bigger picture’ view.

The Future of Justification
Piper’s View of Justification
Wright wrote this book in response The Future of Justification – a critique by John Piper of Wright's previous writings. In that book Piper championed the tradition view of justification criticising Wright’s view as departing from this. Piper emphasises elements that Wright leaves out such as the idea of human rebellion that he sees as an offence against God’s glory that deserves condemnation.

Many may find Piper’s outline very familiar and almost synonymous with how the gospel was presented to them. He talks of the law bringing condemnation - everyone falls short of the Law and so needs a substitute - no-one can earn their righteousness. The Pharisees are just one example of this universal inclination to over-the-top law keeping as a way to receive eternal life.

It only by grace through faith that Christ takes our punishment and we receive his moral righteousness imputed to us so that God’s wrath is taken away, our sins are forgiven and perfection is provided for us.

Wright’s View of Justification
God’s original intended purpose, Wright says, was to rescue the whole world from sin and death. By the world he means the whole of creation with mankind in the centre. In other words, we are put right to put the world to rights.

He sees the law as a school teacher. The plan was for Israel was to embody the law and so be a light to the nations but they failed. Interestingly, rather than seeing the law as a way to earn salvation Wright says the Jews in Jesus day saw their works as a badge of their covenant identity. Justification by works refers to their attempt to keep the law out of love and obedience to God as a sign of their Judaism. Their main concern wasn’t what they must do to get to heaven but longing for the Messiah to come to vindicate their nation.

Wright describes true justification as God declaring righteous those ‘in Christ’ declaring them to be in the covenant because Jesus has allowed his rescue plan to continue to the whole world.

So How Does Wright Get to These Conclusions?
He sees the first century context as the key rather than the teaching of the reformers. He looks at the grand sweep of scripture and draws his understanding from that rather than from isolated verses with predetermined meanings.

Another key is that he takes Ephesians as his starting point and interpret other epistles such as Romans in their light. Wright also emphasises the importance of the continuity with the Abrahamic covenant and the nation of Isreal as we can see in passages in Paul’s letters that are often marginalised by reformed evangelical interpreters.

He carefully examines the cultural context of first century Judism. He looks carefully at the original Greek words and even criticises the NIV translation at points. The second half of the book goes through Galatians and Romans in some depth as well as putting them in the context of books such as Ephesians. He also does a fascinating exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 in response to Piper’s point that this shows imputation to be central to justification. Interestingly he argues that this verse refers to the apostles embodying the message of reconcilation.

So Has Wright Got It Right?
It appears to me that actually Piper has quite a lot in common with Wright. Their view of the gospel and of the future is really very similar and some of the points appear to be more points of emphasis. Wright does talk of individual salvation and forgiveness of sins. Despite what Piper says, I would say that he is clear on this. It’s just his emphasis is much wider than the individual. Also Piper is keener than Wright on talking about God’s wrath and condemnation.

Some may accuse Wright’s view as veering away from evangelicalism. Nevertheless the debate between Piper and Wright is done in a very gentlemanly fashion without any name calling. Piper refuses to condemn Wright as preaching a false gospel. The only hint of this as in one endorsement quote on the back of Piper’s book that said ‘Piper will not allow believer’s to put their trust in anyone other than the crucified and resurrected Saviour’ - perhaps implying that Wright would.

We do need to be careful about new interpretations. We should not overturn centuries of understanding lightly. There are interesting parallels with the ideas of getting back to a first century understanding that has come out of the house church movement. But there have also been red-herrings such as pre-millennialism and Zionism that have arisen comparatively recently.

One problem I have with Wright’s ideas is that he sees God’s righteousness as purely his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. Whereas Piper sees God’s righteousness as his faithfulness to uphold his glory in all that he does. Piper may win this battle but I’m not convinced that he wins the war.

Though it is not without problems Wright’s controversial work appears to me to be very Biblical. I have much sympathy for his overall view on Justification. If you are serious about understanding this subject then I would recommend you getting your head around Wright’s book. If you’ve read Piper’s book then you must certainly read Wright’s or your understanding will be severely lacking.

Related post: N.T. Wright and the Gospel


Anonymous said...

Great blog Dave. Have u read wright's book "what st Paul really said"? it's a great expose of what righteousness us. From my previous contact with piper's work I think he has a very narrow view of God's glory. What do u think? Blessings. Ben n

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary Dave. The point about the meaning of righteousness isn't an opinion about how best to describe it, but what the word meant to those that wrote it, that is where Wright is coming from - and puts the word in the context of Adam, Abraham, the Jews, Jesus and the resurrection! It certainly doesn't mean virtuous, Ian White

David Derbyshire said...

Thanks for your comments. This is the first book by Wright that I have read. Thanks for the pointers I must look more carefully at what Wright and Piper mean by God's righteousness.