Before doing anything more with John Piper’s critique of N.T. Wright’s teaching on the doctrine of justification, I’m going to have a close look at what Wright himself has written. If I were a scholar, I would study everything that he had written on the subject. But I’m not, so I’m going to focus on the relevant chapter (7) in his book What Saint Paul Really Said. What follows is my summary of Wright’s argument.
What is justification?
For many people, justification by faith is the heart of Paul’s gospel. And by justification by faith they mean that people are constantly trying to save themselves by their own moral efforts, but in fact need to appropriate by faith God’s unmerited grace.
Although this understanding is not entirely mistaken, it does not do justice to Paul’s teaching. In fact, discussions of justification – at least since Augustine – got off on the wrong foot and have stayed there ever since. Alister McGrath concurs, saying that justification has assumed a place in systematic theology quite independent of its Pauline origins. It has been formulated in order to describe how a person enters into a relationship with God through Christ, and has been used to ward off various forms of the Pelagian heresy.
But Paul does not use the idea of justification to describe how persons come into a saving relationship with God: his gospel is an announcement of of the message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection, through which God works by his Spirit on their hearts, and they come to believe the message, join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life.
What then does Paul mean when he uses the language of ‘justification’? First, it is covenant language, referring to God’s faithfulness to his promises. Second, it is law-court language, linking with the concept of covenant to describe how God’s puts the world to rights, deals with evil and restores justice and order to the cosmos. Third, it has an eschatological dimension, and is part of the Pauline worldview in which the creator of the world has acted in Christ for the rescue of the entire cosmos and is now bringing all things into subjection to this same Christ.
Justification in Paul’s Jewish Context
Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee, was not particularly interested in eternal salvation, whether achieved through works or not. He wanted God to redeem Israel in the form of political liberation and restoration of the Temple. There would, of course, be a final judgment, in which God would punish evil-doers (Gentiles and renegade Jews) and vindicate true Israelites.
In this way, ‘justification’ would be eschatological: a final and public vindication. But the true Jew could know this vindication in the here and now. This justification has nothing to do with a proto-Pelagian pulling up by one’s moral bootstraps, and everything to do with knowing in advance that one is a member of the true Israel. Justification, accordingly, is not how you get into the community of God, but how you can tell who belongs to that community.
‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people…In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.
Within the law-court setting of the Jewish concept of justification, ‘righteousness’ is not a moral quality a person brings with them to the court, but a legal status that they take away with them from it. And the ‘righteousness’ of the person who has won the case is not to be confused with the ‘righteousness’ of judge.
Justification in Paul’s Christian Theology
The problem addressed in Galatians is not, as many have thought, how a person becomes a Christian, or enters into a relationship with God. It is not about whether ‘good works’ have any place in salvation. It is, rather whether Gentile converts should be circumcised or not. Are followers of Jesus to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way? May those who are uncircumcised have table fellowship with those who are circumcised? Who is a member of the people of God?
The context is covenantal. Paul goes back to Abraham (Gal 3) not to ask the question, How was Abraham saved? but to ask, Who belongs to Abraham’s family? Paul’s argument is that all who are in Christ are in Abraham’s family.
The polemic against the Torah in Galatians is not a polemic against works-righteousness (as many have thought) but against the Torah as a badge of membership, a national charter of the Jewish race. It is not, of course, that the Torah was to be despised, but that in Christ and by his Spirit God is extending his salvation to all, irrespective of race.
In this context, what Paul means by justification is clear. It is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family’. Racial distinctions and privileges have been blown away by the cross.
Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final new creation.
The Corinthian Correspondence
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul declares that ‘It is by God’s doing that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.’
The point that Paul is making is that all we have that is worth having comes from God in Christ. There is only limited support here (and none elsewhere in the NT) for the post-Reformation doctrine of ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ’.
In Phil 3:2-11 Paul declares that he was prepared to abandon all his privileges in order to gain Christ. He is speaking in this chapter, not of some failed scheme of salvation by works, but of the badges of covenant membership. He is saying, in effect, that just as Jesus Christ gave up his privileges (Phil 2:5-11), so
I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ.
This is the language of membership. When Paul repudiates a righteousness ‘of my own’, based on Torah, he is speaking of his status as a Jew (a zealous Pharisee, no less), not of any pretended moral righteousness.
The covenant status that Paul now enjoys is the gift of God: it is ‘a righteousness from God’; it is the gift of covenant membership, received by faith.
When Paul says ‘the gospel’ he does not mean ‘justification by faith”; he means the announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord. Rom 1:3f summarises the content of the gospel; Rom 1:16f summarises the effect of the gospel.
This gospel – this announcement of the lordship of Jesus Christ – reveals God’s righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, his dealing with the sin of the world through the fulfilment of his covenant in Christ. He has done all this righteously (impartially). He has dealt with sin, and rescued the helpless, thereby fulfilling his promises.
So far as justification is concerned, it is striking that the first mention in Romans is of justification by works, Rom 2:13. This should be understood as referring to the final justification. Who will be vindicated on the last day? They are those on whose hearts God will have written his law, his Torah.
The question now becomes, Who will these people be? In Rom 2:17-24 Paul declares that it cannot be the ethnic Jews. But, he says in Rom 2:25-29, there are those in whom the covenant promises are being fulfilled – both ethnic Jews and others – who will be regarded by God as his covenant people; who will be justified.
Rom 3:1-9 poses the question: How can God remain true to his covenant if his covenant people have played him false? They had been entrusted with the oracles of God, in order that the whole world might receive the message through them. But the fact that the messenger has proved faithless does not mean that the sender has been unfaithful. What is needed is a faithful messenger, a true Israelite, who will complete the covenant task and deal with the sin of the world. This sin is shared by Jews and Gentiles alike. Rom 3:21-31 shows that
God has revealed his righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, through the faithfulness of the true Jew, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
In ths way, what Paul, as a Jew, expected God to do for Israel at the last day, has now been accomplished for Jesus in the present day. Israel’s hope has been realised in and through Jesus, who has been raised from the dead after dying at the hands of pagans.
Rom 3:21-31 is often read either as is if simply expounded a law-court shceme of justification, or as if it were all about the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God. Either way, the obviously covenantal material is usually overlooked. No: it is all about covenant, and the way in which the covenant is fulfilled in the remedy for sin that is found in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
The ‘boasting’ of Rom 3:27 is not boasting about moral rectitude; it is boasting about racial identity, which Paul declares provides no assurance of covenant membership.
‘Justification’ in this context means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are decalred to be members of the true covenant family, the privileges of which include forgiveness of sins. They are declared in the present to be what they will be seen to be in the future on the basis of the entire life lived – the true people of God. God, in making this declaration, is himself in the right, in that he has upheld the covenant, dealt with sin, and supported the helpless. The gospel – the message about Jesus – thus reveals the covenant faithfulness of God.
Romans 4 is an exposition of the covenant that has now been unveiled in the gospel. When Paul says that Abraham’s faith was ‘reckoned as righteousness’, he means that faith (not race, or circumcision) is the true badge of covenant membership.
The thrust of Romans 5-8 is that all who believe this gospel are the true people of God: their sins are forgiven. They are assured of their future salvation (which includes resurrection as one aspect of the renewal of all things).
Romans 9:30-10:21 provides a further example of this understanding of justification. God has always intended Israel to be the means of the salvation of the world. This is narrowed down to the Messiah, through whose death all, Jew and Gentile alike, would find salvation. Thus, while Gentiles are discovering their covenant membership, Israel has been clinging on to her supposed covenant membership as identified by works of the law. But now that the purpose of the covenant has been fulfilled, what remains is mission, Rom 10:9ff.
So the letter to the Romans goes on its way: not as a detached statement of how people get saved, how they enter a relationship with God as individuals, but as an exposition of the covenant purposes of the creator God. The letter emphasises above all the mission and unity of the church, as the things most necessary for the Romans to grasp if they are to be the base for the further westward expansion of Paul’s mission.
Tom Wright’s account of Paul’s doctrine of justification concludes as follows:-
- Covenant – justification is a covenant declaration, issued on the last day, which vindicates the true people of God and insists that those who have worshiped false gods are in the wrong.
- Law court – justification is like an acquital in a court of law: it confers on a person the status ‘righteous’.
- Eschatology – the verdict will ultimately be declared at the end of history. However, God has already acted decisively through Jesus’ death and resurrection, so the verdict can be issued already, in anticipation.
Therefore, all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already identified as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven. They are identified by their faith in the ‘gospel’ message that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead. They are ‘justified apart from works of the law’; i.e. apart from those badges of Jewishness such as sabbath, food laws and circumcision.
Let it be noted again that justification by faith is not what Paul meant by ‘the gospel’, although it is implied by the gospel:-
Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterised solely bu faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other.
Summarising What St Paul Really Said, 118-133.