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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