Considering ‘Justification’ is Wright right?

5 04 2010

I thought that I would revisit the topic of atonement or more particularly faith and justification. I have for a little while been just that tiny bit edgy about justification as I have noted the war of words between pastor-theologians like John Piper and the scholar-bishop N.T. Wright. Coming from a Reformed position I have always understood ‘justification’ as that declaration of righteousness made on the basis of our faith in Christ’s righteousness. Upon the cross a great exchange takes place as He for us is made to be sin who knew no sin (1 Cor. 5:21) and His sinless record is imputed to us.

Quite frankly the New Perspective on Paul had just passed me by; during my undergraduate studies I knew well enough that I should avoid the quagmire of current evangelical debate and confusion on the subject. However, this didn’t stop me from taking an interest in such an important aspect of biblical theology, nor in the growing debates surrounding it. In recent years I’ve spent more time thinking of practical theology (which in my view is too estranged from biblical and doctrinal theology to truly sustain itself), missiology and ecclesiology than biblical studies.   

I have of course noted the recent spat between a number of mainly American evangelicals and N.T. Wright on the subject. John Piper a man I greatly admire wrote a very influential book the Future of Justification and Tom Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I have also read the thoughts of other influential commentators on this debate (such as Ben Witherington III)

In terms of what has already been argued I am not sure that I will add anything fresh, but as an observer I will say that the debate needs to be put into context. I have to say I sympathise with the intentions of both Wright and Piper but disagree with much secondary scholarship. I find that Wright calling people like the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions and D.A. Carson somehow ‘sub-biblical’, simply because they don’t agree with him, unwarranted. I also find the kind of Reformed evangelical tribalism that wants to denounce and reject Wright as ‘on his way to Rome’ ridiculous.

I have just read a paper by N.T. Wright entitled ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ and given the range of views on justification quite frankly I’m surprised by how tame he appears – no faith + works stuff, no eschatological delay regarding justification, quite the opposite. He states clearly:

‘The positive result of justification is that we live for God because Christ has died for us. Good works, as the Reformers never tired of saying, are done not to earn salvation but out of gratitude for it: not out of fear lest we should be lost after all but out of joy that we are saved after all.’

‘Justification’, Wright says, ‘is God’s righteous declaration in the present that the person who believes in the risen Lord Jesus Christ is a member of the covenant family, whose sins have been dealt with on the cross and who is therefore assured of eternal life’.

The real conflict in this debate seems much smaller than many commentators like to make it. I suspect the differences between N.T. Wright and the Reformers to be slight indeed. N.T. Wright seems to be stressing that justification is not a means of applying salvation but is God’s declaration that on the basis of the gift evident in faith both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ have already become Christians (and in becoming Christians have appropriated all the benefits of salvation past, present and future). Seen in this context faith does not enable us to receive an imputed righteousness that was Christ’s, but rather this faith unites us to the Covenant people (the Old Testament and New Testament Church) and in making us a part of this we are saved.

Wright believes that ‘justification’ in his scheme does not require drastic changes to our soteriology but raises our ecclesiology (the importance of outward practice of faith) and provides a solution to many pastoral crises which revolve around the existential doubt. It also undermines the growing cult of personal religion (which we fancy to be justifying faith). Wright makes it clear that the cutting point for this doctrine is not the outward practices of the faith that characterise say the Anglo-Catholics, but rather the knife is placed at the heart of those who believe that there can be many ways of salvation apart from the incarnation, cross and resurrection of the Lord of all.

I don’t know how this squares with all that Wright has said elsewhere but as someone from a Reformed Church (albeit one beset by liberalism) and as someone who respects both John Piper and N.T. Wright, I found this very helpful. It can be found at the http://www.ntwrightpage.com. I hope you enjoy it too.

For Piper Wright’s rejection of the personal imputation of righteousness by faith is a serious error that he fears creates a vacuum that may be filled with a return to an imparted righteousness and a process understanding of salvation. Wright, however, does not seem to have fallen into these errors (despite the fact that some of his “supporters” present him as defending this position). What I have to say in Piper’s favour is that Christ’s righteousness does appear to be imputed to us. We are told in 1 Cor. 1:30, for example, that being in Christ Jesus, ‘he has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ And to Wright’s credit he acknowledges that this appears to be what is taught in this passage. His main argument is that it is not explicitly taught in Romans… but I will leave you to make your own mind up about that!

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A Reflection for Good Friday

2 04 2010

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

–      John 18: 1-11

Jesus goes out to a quiet lonely place, not far from the city, a place of olive groves, a space in which to pray and reflect, but this place of solitude is invaded, not by friends (who fall asleep when Jesus calls for them to be vigilant) but by soldiers and enemies of his mission. In John’s Gospel we are told that secular and religious powers of Jesus’ day come together in this one act of lawless brutality. Not in the daylight but under the cover of darkness, Judas goes out from among the disciples and we are told ‘it was night’, then with lanterns and torches and weapons they come to arrest him, Jesus, the light of the world.

Like so many stories we hear of victims of injustice, Jesus is arrested and tried at night (in violation of the law), the testimony of his accusers is confused, and the trial presided over by a biased judge. Jesus knows what is about to come upon him, he is to drink the cup of suffering, yet he does not fight instead he steps forward and assures his captors that he is the man they seek. Notice how they respond seized by fear they step back and fall to the ground. These warriors, these men bearing arms, come to overpower this man of peace but cannot help but draw back as this man steps forward with an unexpected dignity, majesty and power.

Time and time again we come up against Jesus with our anger and violence, fuelled by our own (often self-inflicted) hurts, and often we are disarmed by these same words, ‘I am he’. Looking at him we are startled by the man we see, a man-God, who knows our troubles, who has experienced betrayal, who has suffered injustice, pain and loss. Confronted with Christ, the man, we step back, we fall down, and for a moment we are disarmed as we comprehend something of God in this man’s humanity.

For a moment it seems as though Jesus is victorious, these men of weapons act as though they are going to surrender to this man of peace. Then Peter steps forward, sword in hand, to take advantage of the situation, but Jesus rebukes him. What utter grace? Jesus who knows all that would happen to him, the false trial, the beating, the scourging, the mocking, the pain of the cross, thinks not of the violence done to him but of those perpetrating it against him. ‘Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’

Jesus understands that for these men to truly surrender and to find amnesty, their deeds of darkness must be accounted for, their debt must be cancelled, their sin-burden must be carried, and so he chooses, in that moment, the cross. With all its ugliness, cruelty and agony, Jesus chooses it. For the cross is the consequence of sin and at the cross the true nature of sin is revealed. In the cross we see sin’s brutality, that it would have us murder God, the Source of all beauty and truth and light.

Yet, just as the cross exposes sin for what it is, so through embracing the cross Jesus has borne the curse of sin to bring us peace. Upon the cross the deeds of darkness are accounted for, the price for sin is paid, and the burden of sin is carried. And so that is why we call this Good Friday: good!

 For surely he has borne our griefs
   and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
   smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
   and with his stripes we are healed

–      Isaiah 53:4-5