Justification - Wright and Piper

Piper begins with Wright’s definition of justification.

“Wright is recognized for his unusual definition of justification as the declaration that a person is in the covenant family.” We saw this in our study of Wright’s exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Piper then expands on this “unusual” definition, quoting from Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective: “The point is that the word ‘justification’ does not itself denote the process whereby, or the event in which, a person is brought by grace from unbelief, idolatry and sin into faith, true worship and renewal of life. Paul, clearly, uses a different word for that, the word ‘call’. The word ‘justification’, despite centuries of Christian misuse, is used by Paul to denote that which happens immediately after the ‘call’: ‘those God called, he also justified’ (Romans 8:30). In other words, those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people….”

But that’s not the historic teaching, says Piper.

“The historic teaching is that justification is ‘by faith,’ not the process of coming to faith. Wright does not express an understanding of the historic view – namely, that immediately upon the call of God and the awakening of faith God does something essential to a person’s right standing with God – that is, essential to their acceptance and their membership in the family. He counts them as perfectly fulfilling all his requirements (= righteousness) because by their call-awakened faith they are united to Christ who is their righteousness. This counting as righteous – this justification – is not the event by which a person moves from unbelief to faith. It is the divine act without which a person cannot be a member of God’s family. But Wright seems to want to limit the meaning of justification to a declaration that a covenant membership has already come into being because of something else, namely, God’s call. The act of justification has no part in determining or constituting that new relationship with God.” (My emphasis added.)

And it doesn’t fit with what Paul says….

It has seemed to most interpreters of Paul that something decisive and once for all happens at justification. Justification is not a mere declaration that something has happened or will happen. For example, in Romans 5:1, Paul says, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In other words, something decisive happened that resulted in peace with God.”

Piper then interprets Romans 3:28 in light of 4:6: One is justified by faith apart from works of the law; God credits righteousness apart from works. “To justify” is therefore parallel with “to credit righteousness.”

Piper’s conclusion: “This reckoning righteous (justification) is not synonymous with declaring that one has already become a covenant member. It is larger and deeper. It makes covenant membership possible.”

Imputation and the “righteousness of God”

Quoting from Wright’s "What Saint Paul Really Said," Piper sets forth Wright’s “deeply controversial implication concerning the historic doctrine of imputation”:

“If we use the language of the law-court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas that can be passed across the courtroom…. If and when God acts to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness.’ … But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense at all.”

Piper credits Wright for owning up to the radical nature of his position. According to Wright, “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.” Piper concludes that Wright sees himself as a modern-day Luther!

But what is the “righteousness of God”?

According to Piper, “Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God does not go to the heart of the matter, but stays at the level of what divine righteousness does rather than what it is. He defines God’s righteousness by saying that it keeps covenant, judges impartially, deals properly with sin, and advocates for the helpless. None of those is what righteousness is, but they are some of the things righteousness does.”

“Behind each of those actions is the assumption that there is something in God’s righteousness that explains why he acts as he does. What is that? That is the question, so far as I can see, that Wright does not ask.”

But what is the “righteousness of God”?

Piper’s own definition of the “righteousness of God” comes in a simplified form and a more complex one.

The simple definition: “God’s righteousness consists in his unswerving commitment to do what is right.” But that leaves the term “right” undefined, so we need more.

As God defines “right in terms of himself (there is no other standard to consult), “what is right, most ultimately, is what upholds the value and honor of God – what esteems and honors God’s glory.”

“This means that the essence of the righteousness of God is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name. And human righteousness is the same; the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God.”

“There is something far deeper in God than covenant faithfulness. God was not unrighteous before there was a covenant. He was righteous before there was any covenant to keep.”

So can this righteousness be imputed?

Piper: “[I]t seems to me that when Wright sets up God’s law-court scene in such a way that the righteousness of the Judge and the righteousness of the defendant cannot be the same, he has done something artificial. When he says that the righteousness of the Judge is his ‘trying the case impartially’ and the righteousness of the defendant is his ‘being declared in the right,’ his framework fails to get at the meaning of righteousness behind these different expressions.”

“There is a very different way to look at things. For both the defendant and the judge, righteousness is an ‘unwavering allegiance to treasure and uphold the glory of God.’ This is what makes God and humans ‘righteous.’ Therefore, it may turn out that in this law-court that it is indeed conceivable for the Judge’s righteousness to be shared by the defendant. It may be that when the defendant lacks moral righteousness, the Judge, who is also Creator and Redeemer, may find a way to make his righteousness count for the defendant, since it is exactly the righteousness he needs – namely, an unwavering and flawless and acted-out allegiance to the glory of the Judge.”

“[T]his is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the guilty through faith alone. The declaration of justification in the law-court of God is not merely forgiveness; it is not merely the status of acquitted; it is counting the defendant as morally righteous though in himself he is not.”

So what?

(1) According to Piper, the lordship of Jesus is not good news at all when it comes to Wright’s doctrine of justification. Quoting Wright from his What Saint Paul Really Said: “ I must stress again that the doctrine of justification is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.”

Says Piper: “”Wright wants to keep the gospel from being a message for “how to get saved,” and he wants to keep the gospel distinct from the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is puzzling and seems to amount to keeping the gospel separate from the very things that will make the lordship of Jesus good news for sinners.”

So what?

Piper continues: “Why should a guilty sinner who has committed treason against Jesus consider it is good news when he hears the announcement that this Jesus has been raised from the dead with absolute sovereign rights over all human beings? … If the gospel has no answer for this sinner, the mere facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus are not good news. But if the gospel has an answer it would have to be a message about how the rebel against God can be saved – indeed, how he can be right with God and become part of the covenant people.”

So what?

“The closest Paul comes to a definition of this gospel seems to be 1 Corinthians 15:1-3: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

“Here Paul explicitly says two things: we are saved through the gospel, … and the gospel is the message that Christ dies ‘for our sins.’ It is precisely the personal ‘for our sins’ that makes the heralding of the historic facts good news. And Paul is eager to make explicit that this ‘for our sins’ is good news because by it we are ‘saved.’ This is at the heart of what makes the gospel gospel, and not just an effect of the gospel.”

So what?

(2) According to Piper, the place of works in Wright’s doctrine of justification is going to be a problem: “My ultimate reason for writing this book is to avert the double tragedy that will come where the obedience of Christ, imputed to us through faith alone, is denied or obscured. Inevitably, in the wake of that denial, our own works – the fruit of the Holy Spirit – begin to take on a function that contradicts the very reason these good works exist. They exist to display the beauty and worth of Christ whose sacrifice and obedience (counted as ours through faith alone) are the only and all-sufficient security of the fact that God is completely for us. That’s the first tragedy: in our desire to elevate the importance of the beautiful works of love, we begin to nullify the very beauty of Christ and his work that they were designed to display.”  

So what?

“The other tragedy that I pray we can avert is the undermining of the very thing that makes the works of love possible. What makes radical, risk-taking, sacrificial, Christ-exalting works of love possible is the fact that Christ’s perfect obedience (counted as our righteousness) and Christ’s perfect sacrifice (counted as our punishment) secured completely the glorious reality that God is for us as an omnipotent Father who works all things together for our everlasting joy in him. If we begin to deny or minimize the importance of the obedience of Christ, imputed to us through faith alone, our own works will begin to assume the role that should have been Christ’s.”

Wright: “What is so contentious about it, then?”

(1) “In part, to begin with, the question is about the nature and scope of salvation. Many Christians in the Western world, for many centuries now, have seen ‘salvation’ as meaning ‘going to heaven when you die.’ I and others have argued that that is inadequate. In the Bible, salvation is not God’s rescue of people from the world but the rescue of the world itself. The whole creation is to be delivered from its slavery to decay…. Many in the Reformed tradition represented by John Piper would agree with this point. But I do not think they have yet allowed it to affect the way they think about the questions that follow.”

Wright: “What is so contentious about it, then?”

(2) “Second, the question is about the means of salvation, how it is accomplished. Here John Piper, and the tradition he represents, have said that salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated though faith alone. Absolutely. I agree a hundred percent…. But there is something missing – or rather, someone missing. Where is the Holy Spirit? … Part of my plea in this book is for the Spirit’s work to be taken seriously in relation both to Christian faith itself and to the way in which that faith is ‘active through love’ (Galatians 5:6). And the way in which that Spirit-driven active faith, at work through love and all that flows from it, explains how God’s final rescue of his people from death itself has been accomplished (Romans 8:1-11).”

Wright: “What is so contentious about it, then?”

(3) “Third, the question is about the meaning of justification, what the term and  its cognates actually refer to…. Justification is the act of God by which people are ‘declared to be in the right’ before him: so say the great Reformation theologians, John Piper included. Yes, indeed. Of course. But what does that declaration involve? How does it come about? Piper insists that justification means the ‘imputation’ of the ‘righteousness’ – the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ – to the sinner, clothing him or her with that status from the first moment of faith to the final arrival in heaven…. I understand the force of that proposal, and the sense of assurance which it gives. What’s more, I agree that this sense of assurance is indeed offered by the doctrine of justification as Paul expounds it. But, as I argue in this book, Paul’s way of doing it is not Piper’s. Paul’s doctrine of justification is the place where four themes meet, which Piper, and others like him, have managed to ignore or sideline.”

Paul’s 4 themes which Piper ignores or sidelines.

“First, Paul’s doctrine about justification is about the Messiah of Israel. You cannot understand what Paul says about Jesus, and about the significance of his death for our justification and salvation, unless you see Jesus as the one in whom ‘all the promises of God find their Yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). For many writers, of whom Piper is not untypical, the long story of Israel seems to function merely as a backdrop … rather than as itself the story of God’s saving purposes.”

“Second, 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 purposes 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.”

Paul’s 4 themes which Piper ignores or sidelines.

“Third, Paul’s doctrine of justification is focused on the divine law court. God, as judge, ‘finds in favor of,’ and hence acquits from their sin, those who believe in Jesus Christ…. For John Piper and others who share his perspective, the law court imagery is read differently, with attention shifting rather to the supposed moral achievement of Jesus in gaining, through his perfect obedience, a righteousness which can then be passed across to the faithful people.”

“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. [Paul] 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.”

The heart of the debate for Wright

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth  is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation. I have read dozens of books and articles in the last few weeks on the topic of justification. Again and again the writers, from a variety of backgrounds, have assumed, taken it for granted, that the central question of all is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ “

“Salvation is hugely important…. But we are not the center of the universe. We are circling around him.”

“God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.”

The heart of the debate for Wright

“What is at stake in the present debate is not simply the fine-tuning of theories about what happens in justification. That quickly turns, as one reviewer of Piper’s book noted somewhat tartly, into a kind of evangelical arm-wrestling…. But the real point is, I believe, that the salvation of human beings, though of course extremely important for those human beings, is part of a larger purpose. God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world. We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

Some specific responses from Wright

(1) Piper’s definition of the “righteousness of God”: “First, there is a huge mass of scholarly literature on the meaning of God’s righteousness, and Piper simply ignores it. I am not aware of any other scholar … who thinks that [it] actually means ‘God’s concern for God’s own glory.’”

“Of course, when God acts in faithfulness to his own promises, this results in his name, his honor and his reputation being magnified or glorified. Nobody would deny that. But nowhere is it clear that “God’s righteousness” actually denotes that glorification. Piper’s attempt to show that there must be a ‘righteousness’ behind God’s covenant faithfulness is simply unconvincing.”

“God’s way of putting the world right is precisely through his covenant with Israel…. God’s single plan to put the world to rights is his plan to do so through Israel.”

Some specific responses from Wright

(2) The imputation of God’s righteousness: “It is not at all clear how Piper’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘God’s righteousness’ works out within the scheme of imputation that lies at the heart of his own reading. If ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘God’s concern for God’s own glory,’ what does it mean to suggest that this is imputed to the believer? It could only mean ‘the believer’s concern for God’s own glory.’ But concern for someone else’s glory is not the same as concern for one’s own. Here we meet … the confusion that arises inevitably when we try to think of the judge transferring, by imputation or any other way, his own attributes to the defendant.”

 Some specific responses from Wright

“[T]here is a sense in which what Piper claims about ‘God’s righteousness’ could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love – God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else.”

Some specific responses from Wright

(3) The definition of “justification”: “Most of the difficulties of the ongoing debate have arisen from the fact that the word … has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination.”

“But part of the point of Paul's own language … is that [‘to justify’] … does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ‘justification,’ not the character.” It is in this sense that ‘justification’ ‘makes’ someone ‘righteous’ ….” [“Righteousness” within the lawcourt setting, Wright argued earlier,   denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor. It does not denote the moral character they are then assumed to have.]

Wright’s conclusion

Everything starts with his covenant theology: “the belief that the Creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation.”

Within this covenant theology, “the God-given means for putting the whole world right,” is the metaphor of the law court “through which Paul can express and develop the biblical understanding that God, the Creator, must ‘judge’ the world in the sense of putting it right at the last – and that God has brought this judgment into the middle of history, precisely in the covenant-fulfilling  work of Jesus Christ, dealing with sin through his death, launching the new world in his resurrection, and sending his Spirit to enable human beings, through repentance and faith, to become little walking and breathing advance parts of that eventual new creation.”

Wright’s conclusion

Justification: present and final

“[T]his law court verdict, implementing God’s covenant plan, and all based on Jesus Christ himself, is announced both in the present, with the verdict based on faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already in dwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.”

Justification - Wright and Piper

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