Thomas Schreiner’s Critique of N.T. Wright’s View of Justification – Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and NPP. Part 7

NPP Reading No. 4
Excerpts taken from: Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why it Still Matters (Zondervan, 2015)

Problems with Wright’s View of Justification
[244] I see three false polarities in Wright’s thought. First, he wrongly says that justification is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology. Second, he often introduces a false polarity when referring to the mission of Israel by saying that Israel’s fundamental problem was its failure to bless the world whereas Paul focuses on Israel’s inherent sinfulness. Third, he insists that justification is a declaration of God’s righteousness but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

Ecclesiology or Soteriology?
[244] Let’s begin with the first point of discussion, which fits with the idea that justification is more about the church than the individual. Wright mistakenly claims that justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology instead of soteriology. Let’s hear it in his own words, “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.” And, “What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear. It is not ‘how you become a Christian,’ as much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’”

[245] Justification has to do with whether one is right before God, whether one is acquitted or condemned, whether one is pardoned or found guilty, and that is a soteriological matter.

Support for the Soteriological Character of Justification
In other words, if we use soteriology in this broader sense, justification does explain how one gets saved. The soteriological character of justification is supported by the frequent Pauline claim that we are righteous or justified by faith (Rom. 3:22, 26, 30; 5:1; 9:30; 10:6; Gal 2:16; 3:8, 11, 24; Phil 3:9; cf. Ro, 4:11, 13; 10:4, 10; Gal 5:5) or that faith is counted to one as righteousness (Rom 4:3, 5, 9, 22, 24; Gal 3:6).

[245-246] The soteriological nature of justification is supported if we look at the same matter from another perspective. Paul also often teaches that we are not justified by works or by works of law or via the law (Rom. 3:20, 21, 28; 4:6, 13; 9:31; 10:3-5; Gal 2:16, 21; 3:11, 21; 5:4; Phil 3:6, 9; cf. Titus 3:5). Once again, the point I am making here is not affected by the definition of works of law whether one takes it to refer to the whole law or to boundary markers. In either case, Paul explains how one is not right with God. We do not stand in the right before God by means of the law, by means of works, or by means of works of law. To say that we are not righteous by works or works of law fundamentally addresses the question of soteriology.

The soteriological thrust of justification is also borne out by the contexts in which justification appears, for justification language is regularly linked with other soteriological terms and expressions. Paul uses a variety of words to describe god’s saving work in Christ, for the richness of what God has accomplished in Christ cannot be exhausted by a single term or metaphor. Justification is not the same things as salvation or redemption or sanctification, but justification regularly appears in soteriological contexts and therefore focuses on how one is saved. For instance, in Rom 1:17 God’s saving righteousness is collated with the promise that the righteous one will live by faith, and the word “live” here refers to eschatological life – to soteriology. Similarly, in Rom 2:12-13 justification is contrasted with perishing and the final judgment, which shows that those who are justified will receive the verdict “not guilty” and escape from eschatological ruin.

Redemption in Pauline thinking is surely soteriological, for it features the truth that God has liberated believers from the slavery of sin. In Rom 3:24 justification is closely related to redemption, for we are “justified… through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Believers are right with God by means of the redeeming and liberating work of Christ. Romans 4:6-8 is particularly important, for justification is linked closely with the forgiveness of his sins.

[247] Salvation and righteousness do not mean the same thing, but they are closely related and they both have to do with soteriology in the broad sense. Paul says in Rom. 10:10, ‘For with the heart one believes resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth one confesses resulting in salvation. Again, salvation and righteousness should not be equated here, but the parallelism of the phrases shows they are in the same soteriological orbit. The focus in context is not on ecclesiology but soteriology.

Another important text is 1 Cor 1:30. Christ is out “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The specific contours and meaning of each word must be determined, but all these words are soteriological, focusing on the saving work of Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. Second Corinthians 3:9 points in the same direction, where “the ministry of condemnation” is contrasted with “the ministry of righteousness.” The two terms function as antonyms. The Mosaic covenant brings condemnation, but those who belong to Christ are declared to be in the right before God. In 2 Cor 5:21 those who enjoy the gift of “the righteousness of god” are those who are reconciled to God (5:18-20), whose trespasses have not been counted against them (5:19). Titus 3:5-7 confirms this reading. Human beings are not saved according to works done in righteousness. It is those who are justified who enjoy the hope of eternal life.

Wright’s False Dichotomy in Galatians
[247-248] Wright makes a similar mistake when it comes to his interpretation of Galatians. He says that “the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God…The problem he addresses is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not?” So, justification “has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?” Similarly, “The question at issues in the church at Antioch, to which Paul refers in Chapter 2, is not how people came to a relationship with God, but whom one is allowed to eat with.

Wright poses a false dichotomy here, failing to see the soteriological; import of the text. According to the OT, circumcision was mandatory to be in covenant with God (e.g., Gen 17:9-14; Lev 12:3). In the second Temple period the majority Jewish view, as John Nolland and Shaye Cohen rightly argue, is that circumcision was required to enter the people of God. Gentiles who were interested in Judaism but did not submit to circumcision were considered to be God-fearers. Not proselytes. The Jewish teachers who came to Galatia almost certainly argued that one must be circumcised to enter into the people of God. Wright says that there was no question about the Galatian Gentiles being Christians since they were baptized and believed in Jesus. But this confuses what Paul believed from what the Jewish false teachers thought. Paul was convinced that they were Christians, but the false teachers propounded another view, maintaining that circumcision was necessary for the Galatians to enter the people of God.

[248-249] Yes, the issue in Gal 2:11-21 is sociological and ecclesiological – whom Christians can eat with, but the sociological issue also related fundamentally to soteriology. Paul uses the same verb in rebuking Peter that he uses to describe the false brothers and false teachers who required circumcision for salvation. The verb is anankazo, which means “compel.” Both the false brothers in Jerusalem and the false teachers in Galatia were trying to compel Gentiles to get circumcised to obtain salvation (2:3-5; 6:12-13). Paul shocks Peter by saying that his refusal to eat with the Gentiles, whether intended or not, is having the same effect (2:11-14). By not having lunch with the Gentiles, Peter communicated to them inadvertently that they did not belong to the people of God. So, Wright accurately recognizes that there are ecclesiological dimensions to what happened at Antioch, but the ecclesiology is tied to and dependent on soteriology. Peter’s actions unintentionally sent the message to the Gentiles in Antioch that they were not saved through faith but had to keep the Mosaic law to be members of the people of God. That explains why Paul immediately plunges into a defence of justification by faith.

[248] Wright Misunderstands “Works of Law”
Like other New Perspective advocates, he sees a focus on the boundary markers that divide Jews from Gentiles…If Wright is incorrect on works of law, the idea that justification has to do primarily with covenant membership is ruled out. If works of law refer to all deeds commanded by the law, it follows that Paul teaches that right standing with God is not attained by what one does.

[Works of law refer to the entire law] seems confirmed by Gal 4:21 because Paul upbraids the Galatians for wanting to be under the law as a whole, not just boundary markers. In 3:10 “works of law” are defined as doing all the things commanded in the law, which shows that a general critique of the law is intended.

[249] The fundamental sin of the Jews was not the exclusion of the Gentiles from the people of God. The root sin was the failure to obey God and keep his law. When Paul draws his conclusion about the universality of sin in Rom 3:19-20, he argues that no one is justified by works of the law. The Jews are not charged with guilt in Romans 2 for excluding Gentiles from the people of God. Paul argues instead that they are guilty before God because they failed to do his will. Indeed, the sins he focuses on are moral infractions…They are condemned for being transgressors of the law, not for having bad attitude towards Gentiles.

[251] [On Romans 9:30-10:13] He does not breathe a word about boundary markers in this context. Nothing is said about circumcision, Sabbath, or food laws. He refers to works in general and argues that one is justified by faith instead of works. If Paul is concerned about boundary markers here, it seems odd that he does not mention them at all.
New Perspective on Paul: The Sin of Israel and the Rejection of Imputation
[253] He [Wright] says Romans 2 doesn’t teach “that all Jews are sinful. He [Paul] is demonstrating that the boast of Israel, to be the answer to the world’s problem, cannot be made good. If the mirror is cracked, it is cracked; for Israel’s commission to work, Israel would have to be perfect. It is not. It is pretty much like the other nations.” And, “Here we meet exactly the same problem which Paul was addressing in Galatians 3:10-14: not that ‘Israel is guilty and so cannot be saved,’ but ‘Israel is guilty and so cannot bring blessing to the nations, as Abraham’s family ought to be doing.’” I agree that the text subverts Israel’s claim to be the answer to the world’s problem. It is not clear, however, that the OT itself or Paul emphasizes that Israel was supposed to be the answer to the world’s problem.

Wright’s reading of the role of Israel puts us on the false path. Yes, the point of the narrative is that Israel as a mirror is cracked. But the problem with Israel, according to Paul, isn’t fundamentally instrumental, that they failed to bless the nations and that they failed to fulfil their commission. The complaint against Israel is primarily ontological. Something is inherently wrong with Israel. The people of the Lord are themselves radically evil. They need salvation that the Gentiles need, and hence stand under the wrath of God (Rom 1:18; 2:5).
God’s Plan for Israel
[254-255] Contrary to Wright, I think part of God’s plan in giving the law to Israel was to reveal to them and to the whole world that the law could not be kept. Wright says that such a reading is “bad theology” and “bad exegesis,” for it suggests that God had a plan A (salvation through the law) and then shifted to plan B (salvation through Christ). But Wright misstates the position he disagrees with. It was always God’s plan to show that salvation could not come through obedience to the law, and he designed history (particularly the history of Israel) to illustrate that truth. There is no notion here of plan A and a shift to plan B. God’s plan all along was to show through Israel’s history that the law could not bring salvation. Indeed, Wright’s reading could be accused of having a plan A and plan B as well. Plan A: God intended to bless the world through Israel. But plan A didn’t work, and so God accomplished his purposes through Jesus in plan B.

The story of Israel, then, is not only or even primarily that they didn’t bless the Gentiles. The narrative instead indicates that Israel is as captivated by sin as the Gentiles, and that they need salvation just as much as the Gentiles do. There is something profoundly wrong with Israel. They are rotten trees just like the Gentiles. Like the Gentiles they need to be rescued from sin and the wrath of God. Wright seems to acknowledge this truth to some extent, but he puts the emphasis on Israel’s failure to bless the nations.

To sum up, the revelation of Israel’s sinfulness was not primarily intended to show that it failed in its mission. We learn from Israel’s history that they needed the righteousness of another, and that their own righteousness would not do. That naturally brings us to Wright’s third false dichotomy.

Wright’s Rejection of Imputation
[255] Wright’s rejection of imputation is vigorous and strong. He writes:

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.

According to Wright, there is no sense in which God give us his own righteousness.

The Significant of Imputation
[257] Wright correctly says that believers must do good works to be justified, but such works are not the basis of our right standing with God since our righteousness is always partial and imperfect. Our right standing with God finally depends on Christ’s righteousness. That is why J. Gresham Machen found such comfort in imputation as he lay dying. It is curious that wright fails to see this since he agrees that God demands perfect obedience. If perfect obedience is required for justification, it seems to follow that we need God’s righteousness in Christ to be justified.

Wright’s Interpretation of Imputation Texts
[257] I think it is legitimate to read 1 Cor 1:30 as a righteousness from God that is ours through union with Christ. “But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Wright thinks this verse can’t possibly refer to imputation because we don’t speak of imputed wisdom, redemption, or sanctification…Wright reading seems to suggest that all the benefits described here must apply to us in exactly the same way, but that does not follow, for the words do not mean the same thing.

In any case, Paul seems to be arguing that we do not find in ourselves wisdom, redemption, sanctification, or righteousness. God’s saving work fundamentally stands outside us, and we enjoy what he has done for us as we are united to Christ by faith. Surprisingly, Wright thinks sanctification here refers to “a process.” Time and space are lacking, but I think Paul has in mind definitive sanctification here, what is sometimes called positional sanctification – the idea that we are holy before God based on What Christ has done for us. The evidence of the letter shows that the Corinthians has a long way to go in actual holiness, but they were already sanctified in Christ (1 Cor 1:2). If the sanctification of the Corinthians was theirs in Christ, it seems that righteousness could be understood along the same line. It would seem to fit the argument well if Paul were claiming that their righteousness is not their own. It is theirs by virtue of their incorporation into Christ.

[258] Against Wright, I think it is clear that 2 Cor 5:21 supports the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The verse says, “The one who knew no sin, he made to be sin for our sake, so that we should become the righteousness of God in him.” Notice again the emphasis on incorporation into Christ in the verse. We enjoy God’s righteousness by virtue of our union with Jesus, because we are in him.  Furthermore, the verse emphasizes Jesus’ sinlessness. Partial righteousness will not do. We need Jesus’ perfect righteousness to stand in the right before God. Believers are righteous because all of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished, both in his life and his death, belong to us.

Contrary to Wright, I don’t think that the first person pronouns in 2 Cor 5:21 restrict what is said here to Paul as an apostle. This is a complex subject, but I would suggest that Paul uses pronouns much more loosely and not in such a technical way. Sometimes in these verses Paul uses the first person plural pronoun to refer to himself, while other times it refers to the Corinthians. Nor does the word genometha (“we become”) in v. 21 rule our imputation, for the word does not necessarily designate the infusion of righteousness. The verb ginomai is flexible and doesn’t necessarily refer to a process or to the infusion of righteousness. Murray Harris argues that “ginomai may be given its most common meaning (‘becoming,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ.’” Here it signifies that one who was formerly not righteous is now counted as righteous in Christ. Harris concludes that “it is not inappropriate to perceive in this verse a double imputation: sin was reckoned to Christ’s account (v. 21a), so that righteousness is reckoned to our account (v. 21b)…. As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.
Legal Declaration Versus Moral Character
[259] Wright leads us astray when he says that because justification is a legal declaration, it is not based on one’s moral character. A couple of things need to be untangled here. In one sense, of course, justification is not based on our moral character, for God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5). If justification depended on our moral worth, no one would be justified. But Wright fails to state clearly the role that moral character plays in justification, and because he separates moral character from the law court, he fails to see the role that Christ’s righteousness play in imputation. When a judge in Israel declared a person to be innocent or guilty, he did so on the basis of the moral innocence or guilt of the defendant. The biblical text insists that judges render a verdict on the basis of the moral behaviour of the defendant. This is evident from Deut 25:1, “If there is a dispute between two people, and they come into court and the judges decide between them, they should acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty.” For Wright to say, then, that one’s moral behaviour has nothing to do with the judge’s declaration flies in the face of the biblical evidence. Indeed, the only basis for the legal declaration was one’s moral behaviour – whether one was innocent or guilty.

What does all of this have to do with imputation? The fundamental question is how God can declare sinners to be righteous. How can a verdict of “not-guilty” be pronounced on those who are in fact ungodly and sinners?

[259-260] God can declare sinners to be in the right because they are forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice. God vindicates his moral righteousness in the justification of sinners since Christ takes upon himself the punishment and wrath sinners deserve. It is clear, then, that moral character plays a vital role in justification, for god’s own holiness must be satisfied in the cross of Christ for forgiveness to be granted.

The Judge Who Gives His Own Righteousness
[260] The biblical text, then, specifically teaches that God, as the divine judge, both vindicates us and gives us his righteousness. When we are united to Christ by faith, all that Christ is belongs to us. Hence, we stand in the right before God because we are in Christ. Our righteousness, then, is not in ourselves. We exult because we enjoy the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Once again moral character enters the picture, contrary to Wright. We stand in the right before God because our sins have been forgiven and because we enjoy the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
God’s righteousness in Christ
[260-261] The imputation of righteousness is also supported by Rom 5:12-19. We don’t have time here to linger over the text, but its main point is clear. At least five times we are told in these verses that both death and condemnation are the portion of all people because of Adam’s one sin. Adam functions here as the representational head of all human beings. Similarly, those who belong to Jesus Christ are justified (5:16) and righteous (5:17) because of their union with him. Sometimes scholars say that those who defend imputation are importing an abstract and alien notion into the text. But the charge can be reversed, for when believers are united with Christ, they receive all of who Christ is, both in his life and in his death, both in his obedience and in his suffering, both in the precepts he obeyed and in the penalty he endured. Therefore, believers are not just forgiven; they also receive God’s righteousness in Christ. All of Christ is theirs, for they belong to him, and thus their righteousness is in him.

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