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





church/kingdom and church/mission

29 05 2007

i was asked to answer some questions in a methodist fresh expressions research forum. specifically on the role of church/mission and church/kingdom as concepts within methodist fresh expressions. i thought i would repeat my answer here:

hmm… i’m not sure if i’m qualified to speak on methodist fresh expressions as i’m not a methodist myself coming from the reformed tradition. however, i have read wesley’s sermons and believe you might find wisdom in wesley’s seventh sermon entitled ‘the way to the kingdom’. it makes it clear that wesley saw two legs to the kingdom of God, the first being holiness/obedience and the second being happiness/peace in the heart. the way, wesley believed or even insisted, must be repentance and belief in the gospel – indeed he wrote, ‘He [God] would set up his kingdom among men, and reign in the hearts of His people’ and also ‘Wheresoever, therefore, the gospel of Christ is preached, this His “kingdom is nigh at hand”.’ – if this then doesn’t identify church and kingdom in the thought of the wesley brothers then i am not sure what will.

i believe one of the dangers of the fresh expressions movement, and perhaps a way not left open by wesley, is to make a false and potentially devestating separation between the church and the kingdom. it seems to me that fresh expressions rides on a wave that sees evangelicals (with a passion for evangelism proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus) and liberals (who embraced Adolf von Harnack’s emphasis upon the social message of the gospel) united in mission. equally those who might like to disrupt this holy harmony might use a radical, and unwarranted, separation between church and the kingdom as a lever to force apart evangelicals and liberals who are discovering common ground.

so to mission and the church, we agree that it is God’s mission, which the church is invited to participate in. this is in keeping with the methodist doctrine of prevenient grace but the goal is that God would reign (establish his kingdom) in the hearts of his people, the consequences of which are social holiness. without either of these, repentance or social holiness, the gospel of Jesus proclaimed by Wesley would be incomplete. i think, therefore, the church is both an agent of and result of mission in its most complete sense. the question ‘does “church do” mission or “mission do” church?’ then is answered,’yes, both, and’. but the challenge then is what shape our church should take if its task is to “make disciples” and disciples are to be both church and do mission. both of which are corporate and individual endeavours as the holy community the trinity reveals.

i suspect that we may have failed in our mandate to make disciples because we saw mission as something done by a select group within the church rather than the aim of the entire church. surely discipleship is best expressed not by cerebral creeds and formulas but by active engagement in theological mission. rather than thinking we must do mission to get people through the doors then we must do discipleship, surely we would do better to see mission as something we are calling people to whilst being engaged in ourselves? i am convinced that this is the meaning of the Christian life to meet with God and one another as we respond to God’s call to join His mission in the world.





Penal Substitution Debate Continues…

25 04 2007

It has now been three years since Steve Chalke, seemingly unintentionally, upset the evangelical community by suggesting that its core doctrine of penal substitution could be likened to ‘divine child abuse’.  Certainly some within the community have been quick to distance themselves from Steve, however others have been more sympathetic to Steve’s point of view.

Recently, three scholars connected with Oak Hill theological seminary, Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, have produced a book called Pierced For Our Transgressions with a website accompanying it to clarify the doctrine of penal substitution.

But just when you thought that was the last word on the subject along comes NT Wright to clarify his position. Justifying and defending a misunderstood Steve Chalke and criticising those both to the left and to the right of him.

In the mean time, this theological debate has resulted in Keswick Ministries and UCCF’s Word Alive event being pulled from Spring Harvest as the Keswick and the UCCF could not agree to Steve Chalke speaking from the Word Alive platform.

I would like to see an end to this damaging and distasteful debate soon. If as Wright and Spring Harvest claim Steve can sign up to the Evangelical Alliance’s new and revised Basis of Faith clarifying his position on penal substitution then we must all receive Steve back into the fold with much celebrations. However, if there is still uncertainty about Steve’s position then that must be clarified openly and immediately before anymore harm comes to the evangelical community.

Having read NT Wright’s position I find it worrying that he is not better informed as to Steve’s public and total rejection of penal substitution (not only in The Lost Message of Jesus but else where and on repeated occasions). Still, I find his defense of penal substitution  and demolition of Jeffrey John heartening.

On a personal note, whilst I have some sympathy with NT Wright’s ‘New Perspective’ it disturbs me that he should consider other scholars such as the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions and supporters of the book such as Don Carson, I Howard Marshall, and J I Packer to be in someway ‘sub-biblical’ in their views.  





More thoughts on atonement…

30 03 2007

It is the injustice of the cross and penal substitution rather than the justice of the cross that ends sacrifice…  If Jesus deserved to take our place, the suffering would have satisfied no justice but the suffering that is undeserved broke the curse that bound us to redemptive violence. It is a mystical truth, that the injustice of the cross satisfies the demand for justice once and for all but will you accept that truth or do you chose to live under the law and death?





The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)





some quick thoughts on models of atonement

30 11 2006

1. sacrificial (salvation is bought by blood) – the nature of God is presented here as one who demands blood sacrifice, but the OT states that God demands obedience rather than sacrifice.
2. judicial (salvation through punishment on our behalf) – often presented as a way of reconciling justice and holiness with the mercy and love of God, but unpopular in post-Christendom context as Christianity is moving away rather than towards the seat of power and judgement (but perhaps this can be reconciled).
3. merit (salvation Christ won favour of God) – to what extent does Christ have to win the favour of God for our salvation (marcion theology).

– vulnerable to questions concerning the definition of sin (wrong done to fellow people but ultimately to God) criticism of deontic models which make God seem petty.

4. exemplary (set an example for us) – fails to deal with sin as an ontological reality.

5. participatory – through participation in Christ’s death and resurrection we become alive to God in Christ Jesus. Our person is changed as we put off the old person and become a new person (the old person is morally culpable). I fear this either lends itself to a dualistic (Gnostic) understanding of human nature, or to a bizarre metaphysical proposal.

6. a hybrid of the participatory model that recognises salvation deals with the ontological and relational problem whilst our sin is dealt with as a deontological problem through Jesus suffering in our place.

– in this theory of atonement biblical language of ransom, suffering, and sacrifice remain valid and are supported by a true and Trinitarian understanding of God’s nature, whilst the emphasis remains upon the relational within the participatory model. And of course none of this denies the significance of Christ’s death as a witness and example of resistance against the domination system.