N.T. Wright’s Justification, Pt. 5

This post continues my series as I think through NT Wright’s recent book, Justification. For those who are lazy or short on time, I’ve bullet-pointed my thoughts at the bottom of the post.

In Chapter 6 , entitled Interlude, Wright addresses Paul’s letters to the Pilippians, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  None of these are major books in dealing with justification, but he doesn’t want to ignore them, either.  It’s an interesting chapter, one which let’s Wright retell some of his main points.  I still am struggling, however, with really getting a handle on his definition of “justification.”  It seems that it could be said like this: Justification is not having your sins forgiven, it is belonging to the people of God (who, as it turns out, have and will have their sins forgiven).  The “old perspective” view is generally that justification provides forgiveness of our sins, so we can then be part of the people of God.  Most people probably won’t care about the distinction, but many folks – especially Calvinists like John Piper – do.  Justification is a specific response to John Piper’s criticisms; I would probably understand some of Wright’s statements better had I read Piper’s book, but I just can’t bring myself to devote time to reading Piper.  So, let’s continue on looking at various statements I flagged as I read this chapter.

First, on page 145 Wright states, “The keeping of the law was not a way of earning anything, of gaining a status before God; …  All that Torah-obedience does … is to express what is already given.”   Of course, some of this is obviously true; the majority of the laws reflected God’s holiness, and the Law set Israel apart from the rest of the world.  However, this doesn’t seem true for that part of the Law dealing with atonement.  On p.146 he summarizes, “The question is not,’What must I do to get to heaven?’ but How can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future?” This, however, is not any of purposes that Paul gives for the Law, that I recall, although Wright specifically claims (p. 147) that “This is what Paul the apostle referred to as ‘justification by works.'”

Wright admits (p. 149) that justification means “the establishment of a personal relationship,” but says, “But this is extremely misleading.”  Wright is reacting against the contemporary existentialist interpretation of “personal relationship with God” that suffers when someone has a moment of personal crisis.  This I agree with; however, I don’t know that this justifies (pun intended once again) Wright’s re-definition.

Dealing with Ephesians on page 170, Wright mentions that Eph. 2:8 is the only place where Paul mentions being saved by faith; in other places, he talks about being justified. Rather than make the assumption that the terms are therefore equivalent, he states that here Paul is talking about salvation, where elsewhere he is talking about justification, making the distinction, “justified in the present, saved in the future.”  But then, he states that Paul sees both justification and salvation as past, present and future.  So, where does this leave us?  “… justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin.”  Personally, I don’t think Paul is being that precise, but rather uses justification and salvation as different expressions to explain a rather large concept.

Then in verses 14 & 15, he sees what he believes is the point Paul is trying to make,

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.

pointing out that this is where James Dunn had his “major breakthrough” in discovering the new perspective.  The Law was the divide between Jew and Gentile, and now Law has been removed, so that the 2 can be one.  Rather than the Law being the enemy of grace, the Law is the enemy of the unified Church, which is crucial for the continuation of God’s plan for the healing of creation. On page 173 he states

…the church, thus united through the grace of God in the death of Jesus, is the sign to the principalities and powers that their time is up.

For NT Wright, the point of justification is that the church is now united without the Law, that ecclesiology is at the “very center of the gospel.”  For Wright, this also means that the church has a political role, suggesting that the evangelical church doesn’t want to consider this, although he points out that some of the kingdom theology of Luther and others touches on this point.


There are a number of things with which I think I agree with Wright (that is, if I am following him accurately).

  • Justification and salvation (regardless of their relationship to each other) have a broader scope than simply our individual “relationship to God” and “getting to Heaven when we die.”
  • God’s plan was to bless the world through Israel and that work was and is being completed through Jesus, and the Church now carries on as a part of that work.
  • Furthermore, God’s plan for salvation/justification was to redeem all of creation.
  • I believe – so far in my studies, anyway – in the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, which is quite in line with the Eastern Orthodox view.  This also means rejecting the penal substitution view, which is central to Calvinism (explaining at least some of Piper’s heartburn).
  • Salvation/justification cannot be understood as merely an individual issue; our individual relationship with God flows from his Covenant with Israel/the Church.

I also do not disagree with much of what he is saying about how justification impacts the church and the Jew-Gentile divide; I simply question whether that is indeed the central point.  Again, I see Wright as reacting to the contemporary evangelical existentialist model of Christianity, where the church is, if anything, optional, and our only focus is heaven, not Earth.  But, I have never had this view.

Finally, I agree with Wright’s closing comments in this chapter, where he says that both old and new perspectives “belong within a larger vision of Paul’s gospel and theology than much … had ever invisaged.”

Next, Wright tackles Romans.  This should be interesting.

NT Wright on Justification, Pt 3

Continuing my series on NT Wright’s latest book, Justification, I promised to address the issue of Covenant.   Wright chooses (starting at p. 71) Calvin over Luther, doing Luther a disservice, in my opinion.  The difference between the 2, as Wright paints it, is that Luther saw Moses “as the bad guy” (ridiculous, of course, as Moses was just the messenger) while Calvin pictured the Torah as “the way of life for a people already redeemed.”

While Wright is, I think, at least partially correct in seeing the Mosaic Law within the context of the prior Abrahamic Covenant, I think he is a big myopic to cast Israel as having been already “redeemed” at that point.  The Exodus is obviously metaphorical (I don’t mean to imply it didn’t happen) of a greater redemption, but I don’t think Israel’s escape from Egypt qualifies them as having been already redeemed.  In fact, I can see no justification (again, pun intended) for this claim, and Wright provides none.  One of the big critiques of this book is that Wright doesn’t support many of his claims, he just expects people to except them at face value.

The clear fact is – and Paul is clear on this – that there was no real redemption at that point. There was the covenant promise, which was and is being fulfilled in Christ.  I would agree with Wright that the Law was more or less a “covenant charter” – but not given to a “people already redeemed.”  They had been saved from one master, but were in no manner “redeemed” in the Pauline sense.

Wright also got a bit under my skin on page 112 with his comment about Luther’s “wonderful and deeply flawed commentary on Galatians.”  Wright disappoints over and over in this book with these off the cuff comments, casting mild insults upon any who don’t have his viewpoint.  I don’t think that Luther imagined that Paul was fighting off the Roman church – though he was perceptive enough to identify both Rome and the Anabaptists as having fallen into the same error as the Circumcizers, turning from grace to works of men.

Here, Wright starts to reveal his – in my opinion – greatest error:  He sees justification mainly in terms of breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile.  For Wright, the primary Pauline issue is community.  At this, I still have to shake my head in surprise; to me this is as far off as liberation theology.   Talking about Paul, Wright states (page 115):

He is talking about ethnic identity, and about the practices that go with that. And he is about to show that in the gospel this ethnic identity is dismantled, so that a new identity may be constructed …

So when Paul says that “we are not justified by works of the law” he is talking about being part of God’s one people.  He admits that “justified” is a lawcourt term, but he states (p 116) “But Paul is not talking about lawcourt, he is at a dinner table.”

I think Wright may have forgotten what the Letter to Galatians is all about.  Paul is not talking about dinner here, he is talking about circumcision!  This is not about fellowship, this is about giving in to demands of the Torah as opposed to the Gospel (remember the Gospel?).  So sin is not the problem here, it is fellowship.   He goes on (p 117) to say that Paul’s reference to “Gentile sinners” was a cultural reference, not referring to any real moral issues.  Thus, Luther’s “simul lustus et peccator” (simultaneously saint and sinner) is way off base.

Unless, of course, one is to simply read Galatians and take it on its face.

For Wright, righteousness “denotes the status enjoyed by God’s true family.”  Justification, then, “denotes the verdict of God himself as to who really is a member of his people.”

Wright doesn’t totally deny that the problem of the law is an issue, however he relegates this to a “subtheme.”  I will conclude with this section from page 123:

But the problem is not simply that the law condemns (though it does), shows up sin (though it does) or indeed encourages people into self-righteous “legalism” …  The problem is that the law gets in the way of the promise to Abraham, …by threatening to divide the promised single family into two.

Strange, indeed.