Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision

  • N.T. Wright
  • May 15, 2009
  • Series: Volume 12 - 2009
book-wright-justification

N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. London: SPCK; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009. $25.00. Pap. xii +244 pp.  ISBN 978-0-281-06090-0

One of the stranger debates in recent New Testament scholarship has been over the so-called new perspective on Paul. Few can accurately describe just exactly what is being debated, yet people both for and against it speak passionately, as if the very gospel of Jesus Christ were at stake. In fact there is a broad spectrum of “new perspective” supporters and opponents who frequently disagree with others in their own “camp.” But most recently, the debate has coalesced around the writings of Tom Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, and John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Wright’s most recent work is thus a welcome, clarifying addition to the conversation.

In fact, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision is by far Wright’s clearest and most extensive explanation to date of his convictions about this central Christian doctrine, and should allay many of the concerns of all but the most intransigent of his detractors. Sadly, Piper may turn out to fall into this latter category, but we can hope for the better.

Throughout his prolific writing career, Wright has increasingly centered his attention on the breadth of the gospel message being much more than how an individual attains salvation, defined as life in heaven after death. Instead, Wright wants to keep reminding us that God’s plan for his creation extends to the re-creation of the entire cosmos, climaxing in new heavens and new earth. Fixate on the Reformers’ (understandable) preoccupation with how an individual becomes right with God (crucial in its day against medieval Catholicism) and one may miss the bigger picture, in which the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham through the children of Israel as progenitor of the Messiah looms even larger. Begin with this bigger picture and justification by grace through faith rather than works of the Law follows necessarily, but it will be understood in the larger, less anthropocentric but fully theocentric context of God’s Lordship in Christ over the whole universe.

More clearly and in more detail than in any of his previous works, Wright demonstrates repeatedly that he wishes to maintain all the most central doctrines of the Reformation, including the Reformers’ (and especially Calvin’s) reading of Paul’s major affirmations. Indeed, only one doctrine, and that one not uniformly held by all Calvinists (though passionately promoted by Piper), appears to Wright not actually to be found in Scripture. This is the particular form of imputed righteousness that insists that Jesus had to live a sinless life (in addition to dying a representative, substitutionary, atoning death for the sins of humanity, which Wright warmly affirms) so that the “active” obedience of his life and not just the “passive” obedience of his death could replace our sinful status in Gods eyes.

Otherwise, Wright clearly takes his side with Luther and Calvin that justification is the law-court metaphor that declares believers not guilty before God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, vindicated by his bodily resurrection. But, as in his previous works, Wright understands dikaiosunē for Paul, usually translated as “righteousness,” as God’s “covenant faithfulness” to what Wright repeatedly calls God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.” Beginning in Genesis 12, God promised to bless Abram and his offspring and then to bless the entire world through them, a promise climactically fulfilled in Abram’s most illustrious descendant, Jesus, the Messiah, making all of Jesus’ followers, Jew and Gentile alike, the true seed of Abraham (Galatians 3; Romans 4). Thus to read Romans (or Galatians or Philippians) and not see the theme of the uniting of Jew and Gentile in the gospel, at least as crucially as in a book like Ephesians where it is inescapable, is to miss the historical-Scriptural context in which Paul’s major writings were rooted.

In other words, while all human attempts to save themselves through good works are doomed to fail, Paul’s focus is typically much sharper than that general point. Rather Paul highlights the all-too-frequent first-century Jewish preoccupation with those specific works of the Torah that most set them off from the Gentile peoples around them, not least circumcision, the dietary laws, temple cult, Sabbath, living in the holy land, and the like. Ironically, those who fail to observe this focus can get so caught up in rejecting the positive roles for Torah (as fulfilled in Christ) that Paul does acknowledge, or be so concerned about good works more generally becoming inappropriately the basis on which humans try to earn God’s favor, that they wind up creating a separate assize for Christians beyond Judgment Day. Thus they imagine eternal rewards creating degrees of status in heaven, based on an even more explicit theology of merit than the one they so rigorously deny applies to “mere” (!) salvation.

Put another way, those who find sixteenth-century formulations of theology the best ever produced in Christian history and not to be tampered with in any fashion, even on the basis of Scripture itself, will struggle with Paul’s repeated references to the Christians being judged according to their works. While Gal 5:6; Phil 2:12-13; Eph 2:10; and numerous other texts all clearly speak of the role transformed living must play for the truly justified person, too many Protestants recoil at the thought that Paul’s texts on judgment according to works (esp. Rom 2:6-11, 13-16, 25-29; 1 Cor 3:10-15; and 2 Cor 5:10) might mean exactly what they say when read in straightforward fashion. Of course, no one is justified by works, in the sense of God’s legal declaration of right standing with him. But the Spirit (note, e.g., his crucial role in Romans 8 and Galatians 5) proceeds to indwell the justified person, enabling one to obey God’s righteous standards, not perfectly or anything close to it, but in a way that one could never have done before. The justified are thus marked out as living to some degree in morally virtuous ways that demonstrate the reality of their experience with Christ. To this degree they can be said, in the final analysis, to be judged favorably on the basis of their works.

En route, Wright again frequently re-defends the new perspective’s rendering of pistis Christou and similar expressions as the faith(fulness) of Christ rather than as our faith in Christ. Conceptually, this fits the unfolding covenant with Abraham superbly. Where Israel failed to live up to its obligation, the faithful Jewish Messiah succeeded. And in most texts where this expression appears in Paul, the need for believers to have faith in the Messiah appears elsewhere close by in the context anyway, so that it is not a case of either-or but both-and. Grammatically, however, several studies have shown that pistis plus the genitive (and similar constructions) for Paul very consistently reflect objective rather than subjective genitives. But nothing of the main points Wright wants so strongly to preserve depend on the outcome of this particular translational debate.

The first half of Justification clarifies all these and related points. The second then turns to Wright’s readings, of the key texts in Paul that most directly impinge on these debates, including Romans 1-11 and the entirety of Galatians, which are given mini-commentaries of their own. In briefer compass, Wright discusses the key segments of Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians that are usually brought into this conversation. Of particular interest is his observation that Ephesians, which he suspects is Pauline, unambiguously juxtaposes the Reformers’ emphases in 2:1-10 (salvation by grace through faith producing good works based on Christ’s atonement for us as we are united with him) and the new perspective’s emphases in 2:11-22 (Jews and Gentiles united on equal terms in the Messiah as the culmination of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel). Once again, in ways much clearer and more frequent than in his earlier works, Wright affirms the strengths of both old and new perspectives rather than pitting one against the other. But he remains very insistent that we not read Paul’s doctrine of justification (or any other aspect of his theology) as just about preparing believers for heaven (a “me”-centered focus) but about the initial stage of God’s much bigger plans for the redemption and renewal of the universe. Paradoxically, for all of Piper’s stated desire to center on God’s glory, his preoccupation with individuals’ salvation at the expense of the larger social, ecological, and eschatological dimensions of Paul’s doctrine leaves him with a much more human-centered gospel than Wright’s.

There continue to be individual texts where one may quibble with Wright’s readings. But it is hard to imagine how he could have more perspicuously and passionately communicated his exegesis and its resulting theology, and demonstrated that it is thoroughly true both to Paul and to the heart of the Reformation’s central burdens. His light-hearted, semi-popular, and somewhat polemical style will no doubt annoy his detractors because over and again, in a variety of ways, he basically insists that they just don’t “get it.” But if those detractors don’t at least qualify or moderate some of their criticism of Wright after reading this volume, they will demonstrate the accuracy of his assessment of them! But let’s let Tom put it in his own words: “Nothing that the Reformation traditions at their best were anxious to stress has been lost. But they are held in place, and I suggest even enhanced, by a cosmic vision, a high ecclesiology generated by Paul’s high Christology and resulting in a high missiology of the renewal of all things, and all framed by the highest doctrine of all, Paul’s vision of the God who made promises and has been faithful to them, the God whose purposes are unsearchable but yet revealed in Jesus Christ and operative through the holy spirit, the God of power and glory but above all of love” (p. 219).

Here, then, is a must read indeed for anyone who cares about what the gospel really is, about how to understand justification in Paul, or about how to glorify God for his amazing plan for the cosmos from creation to consummation.

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
May 2009

Comments(1)

Comments:

Michael Thomson

Thank you for this fine review of N.T. Wright's contribution.