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A Justification Debate Primer

Until recently, the debate over the New Perspective on Paul was of interest mostly to seminary professors, students, and the occasional pastor who stumbled across the issue while studying commentaries on Galatians and Romans. Many of us chalked it up as a heady theological discussion that would probably never interest, much less affect, our congregations in a significant way.

In 2007, however, John Piper published a book entitled The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, in which he defended traditional Reformed doctrine (as he understands it), calling Wright’s “portrayal of the gospel…so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful.”1 Piper’s book was a theologically dense book which was at times difficult to understand, especially to those not versed in the subject matter. In addition, Piper’s definitions of terms are often idiosyncratic (such as his insistence that God’s righteousness connotes a commitment to his own glory) and in some cases are missing altogether (you will not find a good definition of the imputation of God’s righteousness, which is perhaps the central concern of the book). Because of the immense popularity of Piper, however, especially among college students and young adults, the debate was suddenly thrust into the limelight.

This year (2009), N.T. Wright published his response to Piper’s book, simply called Justification, in which he attempts to defend his own understanding of Paul’s writings, and justification in particular, against the criticisms of Piper. Wright is an engaging and thoughtful writer; however, his book at times carries a very defensive tone. For example, much of the first chapter is a discussion of how he has been misunderstood by nearly everybody who has criticized his views. He takes the creative liberty of describing himself as a sort of modern day Galileo, attempting to explain to medieval individuals why the sun does not revolve around the earth.

As I read the books it occurred to me that a simple summary of the major issues involved, and the positions of each on these issues, might be helpful to people like me who are struggling to understand exactly what is going on. In other words, I am writing this short paper largely to help myself wrap my mind around some complex and yet critical issues being discussed by important theologians.

In a nutshell, then, here are the key issues:

1. What was the nature of first century Judaism?

Critical to Wright’s position is his understanding of first century Judaism. Based on documents from the period, in particular some of those found at Qumran, Wright and others have argued that Judaism in the first century was not primarily occupied with the question of how to obtain the righteousness needed to qualify for eternal life. In other words, the Law was seldom or never viewed as a way of earning eternal life, but instead it was seen as a “way of life for a people already redeemed.”2 Keeping the Law, in other words, was a response to the fact that they had already been included as members of God’s people through Abraham. Those who faithfully kept the Law were assured that God would affirm at the final judgment what He had already declared in the present, that they were truly a part of God’s people.

The first century Jew was primarily concerned not with eternal life, but with the final fulfillment of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, to make his name great and to bless the world through his descendants, the nation of Israel (Genesis 12, 15). Rather than discussing how to get to heaven after death, they were very concerned with the final eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Keeping the Law was a badge of membership, assuring that one would participate in the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises. It was not a system of merit by which one could earn heaven.

This becomes central for the New Perspective understanding of Paul: Were there “Judaizers” in Paul’s day who were arguing that eternal life could be found through the Law instead of through faith in Jesus Christ? If not, then the arguments of Paul, particularly in Romans and Galatians, deal less with how to gain eternal life through Jesus and more with how a Gentile can be declared a covenant member apart from keeping the Torah. We will return to this concept below.

Piper argues in his book that we ought to be skeptical of importing concepts from extra-biblical literature and imposing them upon Scripture. We might misunderstand the extra-biblical literature, or it might only reflect one of many possible first-century viewpoints, or we might simply misapply the concepts to the biblical text.3

2. Who are the “agitators” that Paul addresses in Romans and Galatians particularly?

Wright’s understanding of first-century Judaism leads him to believe that Paul’s opponents are not those who are insisting that moral virtue or works of the Law are necessary for eternal life. Instead, the agitators are holding up certain works of the Torah as “badges,” marking off who was a member of God’s covenant family and who was not. In other words, Gentiles could only be included in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham if they would keep the particulars of the Jewish Law.

The issue of table fellowship is central for Wright in understanding Galatians. Peter’s error (Galatians 2) was not an insistence that works were necessary for salvation, but instead a capitulation to the “certain men from James,” who believed that keeping kosher was a necessary badge of covenant membership. Wright states, “Paul is clear as to the implication of Peter’s withdrawal. Peter is saying, in effect, to the ex-pagan Christians, ‘If you want to part of the real family of God, you are going to have to become Jewish.’”4

This concept is critical in Wright’s understanding of the term “justification” in Paul.

Piper and other Reformed theologians have argued that Wright is misunderstanding the very nature of humanity. Even if many Jews did not have a works-based understanding of salvation, some certainly did. Paul could be addressing a subset of Jews, and not simply Judaism as a whole. In addition, legalism can also refer to those who might not believe that the Law literally saves, but simply that it creates spiritually superior men and women, that somehow the Law earns a degree of favor before God that makes the Law-keeper a better Christian. For this reason, Reformed theology would argue that Wright is mistaken in his understanding of Paul’s opponents.

3. What is the meaning of “justification” in Paul and how does it relate to salvation as a whole?

The term “justification” is defined by Wright as a declaration that a person is in the right. He states, “Righteousness,” within the lawcourt setting – and this is something that no good Lutheran or Reformed theologian ought ever to object to – denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor.” He makes it clear that being declared righteous is different from being made righteous. To Wright, justification is God’s declaration that we have been acquitted from the charges of sin and the consequences that follow.

This acquittal is all understood in terms of the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15 and the covenant to Israel given in Deuteronomy 30. God had promised that through Abraham and his seed all of the nations would be blessed. His ultimate purpose was to create a community of redeemed individuals who were no longer enslaved by sin. Israel was the chosen nation through whom this community would be created.

God gave the Israelites the Law as a badge to demonstrate that they were covenant members, that they were the prototype of God’s redeemed community. Unfortunately, the people consistently failed to keep the Law. Not only that, but the Law divided Jew from Gentile so that salvation was not available to the majority of the human race. As a result, God’s “righteousness,” defined by Wright as His own covenant faithfulness, is in jeopardy. God cannot keep His covenant to the people because of a failure by the people, and this jeopardizes God’s reputation as a promise-keeper!

Therefore, in order for the promises to Abraham to be fulfilled, God had to provide a perfectly faithful Israelite to be the mediator of the covenant. Of course that Israelite is Jesus Himself. Christ’s obedience is defined by Wright as His death and resurrection, which did away with the problem of sin. For those who believe in Jesus’ work, then, the Holy Spirit becomes the new “badge” of covenant membership rather than the Law. Through the Spirit Christians are empowered to uphold our end of the covenant, ensuring that it will now be fulfilled. The works of the Spirit serve as evidence that God’s acquittal (justification) of us in Christ will be validated on the last day, when we are judged.

Justification for Wright is then the initial declaration that we are members of God’s covenant people. This initial declaration will be followed (for a true believer) by a final declaration which verifies the first one. The present, or first, justification is a result of belief in the death and resurrection of Christ. The final justification is based on our works, empowered by the Spirit. Using 2 Corinthians 5:10, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Revelation 20 and other passages, Wright argues that believers will be judged based upon works. Those who have the works of the Spirit will verify the initial judgment given by God on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Wright describes justification using three terms: lawcourt (God declares us acquitted), covenant (through Jesus we are members of His covenant plan to save the world), and eschatology (God’s final plan has been inaugurated by Jesus’ work and through the indwelling Spirit).

This understanding, of course, differs in one very significant respect from traditional Reformed theology. Piper is concerned particularly that Wright denies the imputation of Christ’s “active obedience.” Reformed theologians have traditionally distinguished between Christ’s “passive” obedience on the cross and His “active” obedience by fulfilling the Law. Christ’s passive obedience dealt with our sin, but His active obedience was necessary in order to grant us the positive righteousness needed to receive eternal life. Piper argues primarily on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ’s active obedience is imputed, or reckoned, to those who believe in Jesus. Therefore, we are not judged on the basis of our works, but on the basis of Christ’s works which have been granted to us. Justification is not the declaration simply that we are in the right and are covenant members. God’s righteousness is not simply his faithfulness to His covenant, either. Instead, Piper argues that God’s righteousness is a quality of God that He passes to the believer, which changes the believer’s fundamental character before God. For Piper, this righteousness is defined as “God’s commitment to God’s own glory.” By passing that righteousness to the believer, the believer can be considered righteous before God because He actually is righteous.

Works are therefore “necessary,” according to Piper, because they will follow in the life of a true believer, but we are not judged on the basis of those works. He is deeply concerned that Wright is adding works to the process of salvation.

4. Summary

As the debate over justification grows, there are a few key questions that need to be discussed in further detail:

  • Is “covenant faithfulness” an appropriate way to understand the concept of God’s righteousness? What about “God’s commitment to God’s own glory”? Or is there another definition that works better? Traditionally the concept of righteousness has been understood in a moral sense as conformity to God’s standards of character and action. In this respect neither Piper nor Wright is endorsing what many would view as a traditional understanding of the concept.
  • On what basis are believers judged? Is there one judgment on the basis of works for believers and unbelievers alike? What is the outcome of the judgment for believers (i.e. does it affect eternal life or only eternal rewards)? Piper and Wright both assert that there is only one final judgment, but they differ on the basis upon which men and women will be judged. An exploration of the possibility of separate judgments for believers and unbelievers might positively contribute to the discussion.
  • Are Romans and Galatians addressed primarily to the issue of covenant membership or are they addressed primarily to the issue of how one receives eternal life? The answer to this is critical as the foundation of the Protestant Reformation rested upon understanding these books in the latter sense.
  • What was the nature of first-century Judaism and is it appropriate to make sweeping claims about Paul’s theology based upon a limited number of ancient texts? It is safe to say that “first-century Judaism” was not monolithic any more than “21st-century evangelicalism.”

This short article is not intended to provide comprehensive answers, but simply to be an introduction to the subject for those just entering the debate. We would do well to study carefully, knowing that our interpretations of God’s Word affect the spiritual lives of those to whom we minister.

1 John Piper. The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 15.

2 N.T. Wright. Justification. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 72.

3 Piper, 34-36.

4 Wright, 114.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification

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