Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and New Perspective on Paul. Part 1

For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19)

Definition: Justification may be defined as that legal act of God by which he declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Related Post: Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and New Perspective on Paul. Part 2

Second Thoughts on New Perspective on Paul. Part 1
Second Thoughts on New Perspective on Paul. Part 2

I. Righting What is Wrong in Wright’s Teaching of Justification

Someone emailed to KrisisPraxis a question:
“Do you have a view of N.T. Wright’s view? My own take is that it is also not correct to limit our view of Paul’s writings to only through the eyes of Luther or Reformation theology – why should we be filtered or limited or “Lutherised” in our view of the Gospel and only understand Paul the way Luther and the reformers understood Paul? As much as I respect these great spiritual giants, they need not and should not have the last say.  We should be allowed and encouraged to go back and find new jewels from Paul’s own words and discover new truths that can give us even more answers for today’s questions.

First, let me stress that I do not critique the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) because I slavishly follow the Reformers. In actuality, my understanding of Paul is based on careful exegesis of Scripture /1/ which takes into account the shifting positions of N.T. Wright and James Dunn in the course of the debate on NPP. I shall presently focus on the Wright’s controversial view of justification.

N.T. Wright Redefinition of Justification by Faith
Wright stresses that initial justification (in contrast to final justification) is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology. He writes,

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…In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.  [Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Lion Publishing, 1997), p. 119]

He adds:  “What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear.  It is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family’” [Ibid., p.122]

“When Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith being ‘reckoned as righteousness’ (4:5), he means that faith in Jesus Christ … is the true badge of covenant membership …  the badge of the sin forgiven family. The emphasis of the chapter is therefore that covenant membership is defined not by circumcision (4:9-12), nor by race, but by faith.” [Ibid., p.129]

For Wright, to be justified is to be incorporated into Christ’s messianic community which is the first-fruits of God’s project of new creation. Justification effectively functions as a form of covenant boundary marker indicating who belongs to this community.

He repeats his rejection of imputation in his later writings,

It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus ‘obeyed the law’ and so obtained ‘righteousness’ which could be reckoned to those who believe in him. …It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection. To think that way is to concede, after all, that “legalism” was true after all – with Jesus as the ultimate legalist. [N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (SPCK 2009), p. 205]

The contrast between Wright and the Reformation doctrine of justification is evident. The Reformers and their evangelical descendants understand that the apostle Paul in Romans 4-5 teaches how the sinner gains an acquittal in God’s court of judgment because of the imputed [‘reckoned’] righteousness of Christ received through faith. However, Wright judges forensic justification to be an abstract doctrine as it “gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship.” (What St. Paul Really Said, p.110)

Wright rejects imputation as a transfer of Christ’s righteousness to believers, and redefines it as incorporation into the body of Christ, “If Paul uses 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 either to the plaintiff or the defendant.” [What Did St. Paul Really Say, p. 98]

Wright adds, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly…on the basis of the entire life. [What St. Paul Really Says, p. 129] He elaborates, “The whole point about “justification by faith” is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3:26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future [emphasis added] (Romans 2:1-16). [Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2009), p. 57]

Wright’s critics naturally understand him to be teaching that faith + good works = justification, in contrast to Reformed theology which teaches that faith = justification + good works. One cannot miss the uncanny similarity between the teaching of Wright and Rome.

More importantly, Wright must be judged to have been unnecessarily restrictive when he insists that justification “was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatologically definition (both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.” [What St. Paul Really Says, p. 119] Simon Gathercole disagrees, “Justification, then, is not merely a reckoning as being in covenant membership. It is something bigger—God’s creative act whereby, through divine determination, the believer has done everything that God requires.” /2/

John Piper counters Wright forcefully,

This divine act of justification determines or constitutes an essential aspect of the new relationship with God. Without it there would be no saving covenant membership. Therefore, justification is not a declaration that one has become a covenant member by virtue of God’s prior call. Rather, together with the call, justification is an essentially saving act. Wright seems to have things backward: first covenant membership, then justification. In fact, justification is part of the ground, not the declaration, of saving covenant membership.”/3/

Later, Wright clarifies what final justification on “on the basis of works” means:

“And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the “call” of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead”/4/

That is to say, initial justification is also eschatological as it anticipates the end-time verdict with the assurance of final acquittal before God. To be fair, N.T. Wright describes justification as a “speech-act” that transforms the believer:

‘Justification’ is the declaration of the one God, on the basis of the death of Jesus: this really is my adopted child, a member of Abraham’s covenant family, whose sins are forgiven. And that declaration, in the present, anticipates exactly the final verdict which can also be described as ‘adoption’ (all this language, of course, reflects Israel’s ‘adoption’ as ‘God’s son’ at the exodus): ‘we who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life within us are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body’ (Romans 8.23)./5/

But Wright continues to reject imputed righteousness while insisting that justification “actually denotes the inner transformation which is effected by this indwelling [by the Messiah-spirit].”

Such clarifications are welcomed; but notice how in Wright’s case, justification slides from an act of declaration to a process of life-long transformation? Wright conflates or confuses justification with sanctification. Wright upholds a “participationist soteriology” which sees faith working out as habituation of the will through covenant keeping and resulting in conformity to Christ. Put more neutrally, Wright seeks to unite forensic category of justification with participationist category of covenant keeping. In contrast, the Reformers maintain justification and sanctification are distinguished but inseparable. While classic Reformed theology sees justification to be based on faith alone, it also insists that works are a necessary attestation; Wright reverses this, seeing final justification as based on good works, to which faith was a pledge and anticipation. Justification through faith places us on a path that is marked by good works which serve as the basis for our final justification.

Naturally, Wright’s critics challenge his teaching that initial justification is on the basis of faith in anticipation of the final justification of believers based “on the basis of their deeds” or “on the basis of the whole life lived” as this undermines the assurance of salvation. It should be noted however, that Wright acknowledged after his debate with Thomas Schreiner on the topic of justification at the Evangelical Theological Society in 2010 that the use of the phrase “on the basis of their deeds” is inappropriate. He then suggests that believers will be judged “in accordance with their deeds.” One wonders if these evident shifts in Wright’s understanding of Paul show that he is hedging and somewhat confusing. Wright’s criteria remains ambiguous, but a charitable reading in response to his later qualifications would accept that he does not teach that human works is the ultimate criteria for gaining right relationship with God.

Ambiguities and Controversy in Wright’s Teaching
Wright is one of the most engaging and controversial theologians writing today. His exceptional rhetorical skills and effective deployment of vivid illustrations, hyperbole and witty polemics naturally mesmerize and captivate his readers. However, it can also confuse them. For example, Wright asserts in his studies on the gospels that Jesus journey to Jerusalem fulfills God’s promise of the “return of the exile” and concludes that Jesus “saw his journey to Jerusalem as the symbol and embodiment of YHWH’s return to Zion.”/6/ His emphasis on this-worldly nature of eschatological language which leaves little room for futuristic fulfilment (Parousia) sits uneasily with the language of ‘inaugurated eschatology’ found in his writings on Paul. He also causes uneasiness as his teaching on the covenantal dimensions of justification tends to overshadow the Pauline teaching on God’s justification of the individual.

The nagging question which Wright leaves unanswered is whether believers may confidently rest assured of his salvation if the final justification is based on (or in accordance to) works. On this issue, evangelicals insist their view of good deeds as evidence or fruit of justification gives a more coherent reading of Scripture. More fundamentally, it is God’s justification-imputed righteousness rather than a whole life of deeds that provides sufficient ground for assurance of salvation.

It appears that Wright is reductionist in his presentation of the evangelical teaching of forensic justification by restricting it in the procrustean bed of a legal metaphor, even though evangelicals have always stressed that the reality of God’s saving work transcends analogies drawn from the law court. Wright is also reductionist in ignoring the evangelical insistence that justification must be regarded as inseparable from union with Christ and sanctification if it is to be properly understood (see especially the writings of Richard Gaffin). After all, imputed righteousness just means God acquits us and reckons (regards, imputes) us as righteousness and acceptable to him because the righteousness of Christ is now ‘ours’ in our union with Christ. In Calvin’s words,

Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.”/7/

It should be stressed that we are not making any accusations here about Wright’s orthodoxy or evangelical credentials. Indeed, evangelicals owe much to Wright for his outstanding work on the historical Jesus (though there are some issues with his ‘realized eschatology’). He has published the best biblical defence of the resurrection of Christ in recent times. Wright forcefully defends the unity and coherence of Paul’s thought against critics who assert that Paul letters are ad hoc and inconsistent polemics. He has rightly chided evangelicals for their tendency towards individualism and inward piety. Finally, he rightly foregrounds the social-historical context of Paul’s Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds to deepen our understanding of Paul mission, to add depth to our understanding of Paul’s faith and to demonstrate how Paul’s teachings effectively address social issues like ethnic relations.

Evangelical scholars should avoid the extremes of either vilifying Wright or according him with uncritical adulation. Evangelicals should freely acknowledge that they have learned much from Wright. However, they should exercise the liberty to critique Wright when he challenges such a fundamental doctrine as justification and imputation of righteousness. It may be hard to match such an outstanding scholar like Wright who displays impressive knowledge and surpassing rhetoric; nevertheless evangelicals owe him a historically-grounded, exegetically-controlled, and theologically-informed response.


Related Post: Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and New Perspective on Paul. Part 2

1. For an example of how close exegesis refutes the N.T. Wright’s interpretation of imputation and the Righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in 2 Cor. 5:21 and Rom. 5:12-21, see John Fesko, “Wright on Imputation,” Reformed Theological Review (2007), pp. 2-22. I strongly recommend John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007) for a book-length critique of N.T. Wright.
2. Simon Gathercole, “The Doctrine of Justification in Paul and Beyond: Some Proposals,’ in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Baker, 2006), p. 240.
3. John Piper, The Future of Justification, p. 43.
4. N.T. Wright, “New Perspective on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 260. Reprinted in N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Fortress, 2013), p. 287.
5. See N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), pp. 957-959.
6. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), p. 639.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics 20–21, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster, 1960), 3.11.10.
8. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP Academic, 2001), p. 29.
9. John Piper, The Future of Justification. p. 15. Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (SPCK, 2009) is supposed to be written as an answer to Piper, although he qualifies his response no so much as a direct response but as an outflanking exercise. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the blurb by Scot McKnight that Wright “has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots – the neo-Reformed – by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context”, Wright in not way addressed Piper’s careful exegesis. Instead he roamed far afield. In effect, his flanking exercise ends up as an evasion. [Always take the publisher’s blurbs with a grain of salt!]

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