N.T. Wright’s Justification, Pt 2

As I wrote in my prior post, I am reading through NT Wright’s book Justification, which is a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright.  Piper is coming from the Reformed or Calvinist point of view.  It seems that Calvinists tend to be the most offended by Wright’s “New Perspective” ideas, although I’ve also read some criticisms from Lutherans.  From what I’ve seen, the Calvinist system – in my opinion, a rather tenuous house of cards – would crash and burn is Wright is right in that justification has implications beyond a forensic ruling that we are now perfected and therefore can go to Heaven when we die (assuming we Persevere, that is).

In the Introduction, Wright gives three issues that need to be addressed in discussing justification:

  1. The nature and scope of justification – Wright believes justification is not rescuing individuals from the world, but about rescuing the world itself.
  2. The means of salvation – While agreeing with what Piper would say, Wright argues that it doesn’t go far enough, in that it ignores the work of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The meaning of justification – Wright disagrees that justification is about the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to us; he believes the word is being improperly used and is being confused with salvation and other concepts.  It is not the fact of justification that Wright is disputing, it is that Piper’s version misses out on several aspects that Paul includes.

Wright sees Paul as addressing these 4 themes:

  1. The work of Jesus the Messiah (in the context of Israel)
  2. The Abrahamic Covenant – Piper diagrees with Wright’s understanding of Isreal still being in exile at the time of Jesus
  3. The divine lawcourt – Piper interprets this as a moral ruling, rather than the plain legal reading of the text.
  4. Eschatology – Piper only focuses on the present justification; Wright also sees Paul’s focus on the final act of justification, when the whole world is made right.

This outlines the issues – kind of – on which Piper and Wright disagree.

Moving into Chapter 2, Wright discusses, among other things, the meaning of God’s righteousness. Piper, taking a Reformed perspective as expected, says that God’s righteousness is God’s concern for His own glory.  Let me interject by saying that the Reformed obsession with God’s glory is one of their main problems, as it blinds them from the reality of God’s love. In Wright’s view, God’s righteousness is best seen as God’s faithfulness to His Covenant. Wright doesn’t deny that this results in God being glorified, but – and I agree with him – there is nothing in Scripture that would indicate that God’s Righteousness equals his glory. They are not interchangeable.

In discussing how we appropriate the righteousness of God, Wright points out that in a lawcourt scenario, the defendant never receives the Judge’s righteousness; it is a righteousness in relationship to the law and the court. Now, while I understand and would agree with this point, there is an issue that Wright doesn’t mention, and that is where Jesus takes our place; Jesus here is not the judge, he is our stand-in, and his righteousness is indeed transferred to us, the defendants.

That being said, I agree with Wright in that this is not God needing someone to punish in order to protect his glory (the Calvinist approach); he says it well (page 71): “It isn’t that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless, to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy – and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people.”

Throughout the book (I am half-way through) Wright emphasizes his big picture, that God’s one and only plan is to “put the world to rights” through Israel.

Next, I’ll get into the issue of the Covenant.

Reading N.T. Wright’s Justification

I am reading through N.T. Wright’s recent book, Justification, which is written as a response to John Piper’s criticism of Wright’s views as presented in other books. This comes at a very interesting time for me, as I have just finished writing my own book (with Ken Blue) which contains a chapter on justification. I have also just finished reading Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, which also addresses justification from both evangelical and Orthodox viewpoints.  I have not read Piper’s book, and probably won’t; I am neither a Calvinist nor a Piper fan.

Those of you who know me or have followed this blog for any length of time know that I often refer to NT Wright; he has influenced my thinking more than anyone with the exception of Martin Luther.  Now, anyone who has read Wright’s Justification will know that Luther is “old perspective” and Wright is “new perspective,” which means I am having to understand the differences and think a bit harder than I often like to.

So far, while I find myself agreeing with much – possibly most – of what Wright has to say, I am finding myself thinking that Wright must have misplaced a few of his exegetical marbles. I can find myself agreeing with him as he works through many arguments, only to have him suddenly take a shift to the left that leaves me thinking, “What??”

Wright’s viewpoint on the subject seems, in part, to be a reaction against a merely forensic, transactional, individualistic view of justification that seems to prevail in the West, in which justification is seen as a “ticket to Heaven.” He talks about viewing justification as giving us a new moral makeup, which is not a view I am familiar with. I have always understood justification to change our legal status, not change our moral reality.  However, I can see no justification (pun intended) for Wright going in the directions he is.

God’s Plan

In general, I tend to agree with Wright’s “big picture” that it was God’s plan to bless all of creation through Israel, and that this is an essential element of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Messiah, Jesus, fulfilled this purpose and has instituted the Church to both be blessed under the Covenant and to participate in Jesus’ mission to bless and ultimately redeem all of creation. I think this meta-narrative is in line with Paul’s writings in Galatians and Romans.

However, Wright, for whatever reason, does not want justification to be primarily about sin. He sees it rather as primarily about belonging to God’s family and, by the way, your sins are taken care of as well.

I will, over 2 or 3 subsequent posts, discuss some specific issues Wright raises as I attempt to work out my own thinking.