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 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!


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.

In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: an evangelical anti-war view

22 03 2007

‘In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: An Evangelical Anti-War View’  – And it is about time too. We’ve hand the name of conservative evangelicalism dragged through the mud by preachers of hate and violence. We’ve almost sacrificed every shred of credibility we have. All because we conformed to the political norm, we capitulated to an ideology, rather than seeking to remain faithful to Scripture.

Searching for Truth

16 03 2007

In this world of competing stories, of human identity, of success and failure, of love and loss, of  meaning and meaningless – what might it mean to live according to the truths of scripture, to be faithful, to love truly, to glimpse God and understand ourselves in his light, power and glory?  

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the cares of this world, life and death, justice and injustice, success and failure – but then I am reminded that God’s justice is complete, that the Father sees into the hearts of men and women, that the mercy of God works in the unseen depths of the soul as much as in the actions of humanity. 

It is easy to lose your way in the midst of competing stories, judging one to be true and another false on the basis of how things seem to be on outward perception and according to worldly standards – the rich seem to be washed righteous by their money, the beautiful by their good looks, the intelligent by their understanding, and the charming by their smooth words. 

So, how does a follower of Christ discern between the outward appearance and the soul, the will and the work?  

A humble obedience, to the community of salvation, to the testimony of the Holy Spirit within and to the Word of God is necessary for discerning the truth in a world of claim and counter claim. If you want to understand the world, if you seek wisdom, then cultivate your spiritual life. For it is only when your heart beats in time with the heart of the Father, when you follow in the footsteps of the Son, and live trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit that you will understand the world in all its created glory, all its rebellion, all its anticipation of redemption.  

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 15:26-27

Those Days and These Days

11 03 2007

I still have those days:

when the it feels as if Church has abandoned me,

when the World seems to close in around me,

when my vision of the Kingdom of Heaven fails,

and when the call of God grows faint.  

I still have those days:

when I’m not sure what I’m doing,

or why I’m doing it.

when I don’t know if I can do it,

or if I’m worthy of such a calling.

when I search for an excuse to say,

“Lord call another, God send another”   

I still have those days… and then I have these days:

when the Christians gives me reason to hope,

when Creation seems to be singing God’s love,

when the Spirit directs my thoughts and actions,

when Jesus’ ‘follow me’ rings loudly in my mind.    

I have these days:

when the next step is all that matters, 

and obedience is all that counts.  

when in my weakness I know God’s strength,

and when Christ’s grace is sufficient.

when I believe with total conviction,

without time to doubt the call.   

Ministerial Vocation

16 01 2007

Christian Hope

God is not finished with inherited churches yet. He is still calling, equipping, and sending but it may be time for the young to teach the old. A radical review of candidating, training, and deployment is necessary if the United Reformed Church/ Methodist Church is to position itself to ride the wave of God’s Spirit.

Current processes developed in a settled era of church history, they are modelled on the three-fold ministry of the Pastoral Epistles with moderators/chairs, ministers/presbyters, and church related community workers/ deacons.

Roles and Candidating

These models met the needs of an established church, however, they fail to meet the needs of a church within a changing paradigm- ok some will argue that the earlier five/four-fold ministry found in Ephesians (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers) is reflected within the breadth of our current lay and ordained posts. However, this seems to be incidental rather than by design.

It is perhaps worth considering these roles in the light of the Everett Roger’s diffusion theory, which creates five categories of people from innovators to laggards. It seems that our candidating process militates against ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ whose character traits are most likely to correspond with apostles, prophets, or evangelists. It is likely that these individuals are likely to be seen as dangerous risk takers, or aggressive reformers and therefore a challenge to the established way of doing things.


I have known early adopters to drop out of the candidating process before reaching the training process, this may occur when a candidate no longer feels confident in the training being offered. In these situations, the candidate tends to take issue with the model of training offered; education for intellectual theoretical pastors/teachers, rather than training for vocational practical prophets/evangelists.

I think we should note the high input into initial college based teaching and low investment in ongoing church based training. In a rapidly changing culture, indeed paradigm, high input lower ongoing training means many ministers are unequipped for ministry in our post-modern world. Related research carried out by Christian Schwartz suggests formal theological training has a negative impact upon church growth, what is it about our theological colleges has this effect?


In terms of deployment there are less problems, although more could be done to place innovative apostles/ prophets/ evangelists in churches/circuits in which will best release their potential. Ideally, the ministers would be involved in conversations with churches seeking to negotiate a shared appointment. However, there are many ministers, who may consider themselves innovators or early adopters, apostles or prophets who are not capable of filling these roles. It is therefore necessary to have a process of mutual discernment, open to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience exercised prayerfully in the power of the Holy Spirit.

All in All

In the midst of these thoughts, criticisms, and ideas about candidating, training, and deployment one truth can get lost: God remains faithful and for that we should all remain thankful.

In Christ,

To the United Reformed Church

17 10 2006

I think we are at a stage nationally where we will have to close church buildings, move congregations and focus resources. I know to some that sounds callous but we are getting to the point where our current model of ministry won’t work- we simply don’t have the money or ministers and to carry on as we are will be impossible within the next ten years. It is no good to have a mentality of maintenance for decline; it is time we took the bull by the horns cut the ministers, projects, or church buildings that are a dead weight around our necks and resourced innovative new initiatives, church plants, and flagship congregations.

It is time we sought visionary leaders rather than the church management- our ministers are not called to serve churches they are called to serve God and ordination recognises this call. It is this fact that makes ministry a vocation rather than a job! It is time we learnt to release and support ministers for mission rather than insisting they do ministry- ‘the way it has always been done’. We should recognise that missiology drives ecclesiology not the other way around i.e. the church is the motor for mission not the destination of mission.

I am a believer in ecumenism, but not ecumenical partnership driven by falling numbers and closing congregations. It has to be a mission orientated ecumenism; it is my belief that this is far more about organic, grass roots projects than organisational union. The most successful ecumenical initiatives have not been formed institutionally, but they have developed through cooperation for mission. In every case, they involve people giving up the desire to insist people come to our church and start thinking about our church (Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals) going to them.

The west, in the twenty-first century, has to be one of the most challenging times in which to be in Christian ministry. I know it has been said before that the church is in decline and young man there is no guarantee that you will be in ministry in twenty years time etc. etc. It is my belief that this is now true unless ministers are released to mission led ministry and unless ministers have the ability to meet the demands of mission led ministry then they may not be in ministry in twenty years time. I know there will be those who accuse me of negativity, of despair, of pedalling self-fulfilling prophecies but believe me that is not my intention. I am just convinced that the church will live on and the fact that God is still calling people in the ministry of the URC is proof that the church will live on but whether it will be called the United Reformed Church or have the same structures of the URC is in doubt.

I want to finish this with a final plea to ministers and to churches please be mission minded, serve without expecting reward, love those who seem unlovely, and seek the Kingdom above all.