The more of N.T. Wright I read the more excited I become. To start, I find that his critique of Piper is spot on with specific regard to the following items:

1. Neglect of the covenant as the context for God’s saving the world. This point resonates with me particularly because this is what my friend and scholar John Oswalt has been saying for decades as recorded in his book Called to be Holy: A Biblical Perspective. Every bit of biblical theology must have some correspondence to the covenant, both in the Old and New Testaments and especially in Paul’s theology. To build a soteriology that attempts to operate outside of the framework of covenant will undoubtedly deviate from a scriptural understanding of salvation.

On this issue, NT Wright says this, “Paul’s doctrine of justification is therefore about what we may call the covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purpose for the world were to be realized. For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien.” (Wright, Justification: God’s Pan and Paul’s Vision. Kindle Edition).

2. Human Responsibility in Salvation. This issue has been the center of debate between Wesleyan-Arminians and those of the Reformed tradition for centuries. Wright handles the defense of human responsibility in salvation beautifully (and more concisely than I’ve ever seen). He says this, “Piper and others have then accused me of encouraging people to think of their own moral effort as contributing to their final justification, and hence of compromising the gospel itself. I insist that I am simply trying to do justice to what Paul actually says, and that when we factor in the Spirit to the whole picture, we see that the charge is groundless” (Ibid, emphasis added).

3. The Eschatological Framework for Pauline Soteriology. Once again, any attempt building a soteriology outside of the proper 1st century judaic eschatological framework (which itself flows from the meta historical narrative of salvation via covenant) will be utterly inadequate. The Kingdom is now and yet to come. Wright writes this, “Right through Paul’s writings, but once more especially in Romans, he envisages two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated. For John Piper and the school of thought he represents, present justification appears to take the full weight” (Ibid).

Hallelujah for N.T. Wright.


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

2 Comments

Chris Geyer · April 4, 2014 at 3:05 pm

On Wright’s view of justification, he defines justification primarily in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness and our covenant membership as members of his people or the church. In his writings, Wright is critical of those (like Piper) who identify justification with salvation, saying that the words ‘justify’ and ‘salvation’ mean different things. They do, but in Paul’s writings they both refer to a soteriological reality – that of being delivered from the eschatological wrath to come. But it seems to me that Wright does not give due attention to this, choosing rather to focus on a more ecclesiological understanding of justification – that of being included as covenant members in the church.

Piper has been critical of Wright on his teaching of ‘final justification,’ which Wright maintains is on the basis of works. So far as I can tell, Wright never addresses the question of how believers can have assurance that they will be finally justified on the last day. You can see why Piper would be critical of Wright in this area. It gets back to the fundamental question of the Protestant Reformation. Are we finally justified by faith alone, through the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us? Or, are our works, in some sense the basis of our ‘final justification,’ as Wright seemingly maintains?

    matthaiti · April 4, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Hey Chris! You wrote, “On Wright’s view of justification, he defines justification primarily in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness and our covenant membership as members of his people or the church.” I think this is too broad a stroke. I believe Wright intends to be more nuanced than this.

    I think, rather, that Wright’s view of the “righteousness of God” in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness. I think (and I could be wrong) that Wright defines justification of the believer primarily in terms of the forgiveness of sin in the context of the law-court. Moving on from here, he defines the justification of Christ as God vindicating Christ through the resurrection rather than the forgiveness of sins (as Jesus needs no forgiveness).

    NT writes this, Fourth, this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” as in one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3), is regularly understood in terms of the Messiah, precisely because he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves. This is most clearly expressed, to my mind, in two passages: Romans 8:3, where Paul declares that God “condemned sin in the flesh” (note, he does not say that God “condemned Jesus,” but that he “condemned sin in the flesh” of Jesus); and 2 Corinthians 5:21a, where he says that God “made him to be sin [for us] who knew no sin.” There are of course many other passages in which Paul draws upon, and draws out, the stunning, majestic, grace-filled, love-expressing, life-giving message and meaning of the Messiah’s cross.26 But these are basic and clear. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . . For God . . . has condemned sin in the flesh [of his son].”27 Sin was condemned there, in his flesh, so that it shall not now be condemned here, in us, in those who are “in him.” Notice how the sterile old antithesis between “representation” and “substitution” is completely overcome. The Messiah is able to be the substitute because he is the representative. Once we grasp the essentially Jewish categories of thought with which Paul is working, many problems in a de-Judaized systematic theology are transcended.” (Wright, N. T. (2009-09-25). Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (p. 105). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.)

    On this, Wright, says this, “When God raised Jesus from the dead, that event was the divine declaration that he really had been his Son all along…The surrection was the ‘vindication’ of Jesus, his ‘justification’ after the apparent condemnation of the court that sent him to his death.” (Ibid, 106). He goes on to say that the resurrection is certainly more than this (eschatologically speaking in terms of the “new age), but this is how we can understand the “justification” of Christ in the event of the resurrection.

    Where I agree with your interpretation of Wright is that he does view justification and salvation as being two dynamics that are or course inseparable both from one another and from the context of the covenant.

    Unfortunately, I’m not yet familiar with Piper’s critique of Wright on “final justification”. However, here’s what Wright says in response to the said critique:

    “Fourth, Paul’s doctrine of justification is bound up with eschatology, that is, his vision of God’s future for the whole world and for his people. Right through Paul’s writings, but once more especially in Romans, he envisages two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated. For John Piper and the school of thought he represents, present justification appears to take the full weight. Piper and others have then accused me of encouraging people to think of their own moral effort as contributing to their final justification, and hence of compromising the gospel itself. I insist that I am simply trying to do justice to what Paul actually says, and that when we factor in the Spirit to the whole picture we see that the charge is groundless….”

    and this:

    “justification is based solidly on the fact that this great rescue operation, this great renewal of all things, has already been launched in Jesus Christ, and is already being put into operation through the Spirit. This is Paul’s framework for what we have come to think of as “Christian ethics.” Let me put it like this: if we begin simply with “justification by faith,” as traditionally conceived within much Protestantism, we will have the obvious problem that “what we now do” appears to get in the way of the “faith from first to last” by which alone we are justified. But if we follow Paul and see justification by faith (as in Romans 3:21–4:25) within the larger framework of his biblical theology of God’s covenant with and through Abraham for the world, now fulfilled in Christ, we will discover that from within that larger, and utterly Pauline, framework there is a straight and easy path to understanding (what is sometimes referred to as) the place of “works” in the Christian life, without in any way, shape or form compromising the solidity of “justification by faith” itself.”

    Wright, N. T. (2009-09-25). Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (pp. 235-236). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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