Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision

Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision
By: N.T. Wright
256 p.
SPCK Publishing (February 2009)

The Reformed church has received the work of N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham (UK) and New Testament scholar, with appreciation and with concern. On the one hand, Wright has defended both the essential historicity of the Gospel narratives and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. On the other hand, Wright is a leading proponent of the "New Perspective on Paul." Notwithstanding his self-identification with the Reformed tradition (Justification, 205), [1] Wright has criticized the Protestant Reformers' doctrine of justification by faith alone as being unfaithful to the New Testament in foundational respects. Concerned readers have observed, however, that Wright's own formulations of justification counter the New Testament. They do so by assigning the works of the Christian a place in the basis or ground upon which the Christian is justified.

In 2007, John Piper published an extensive survey and analysis of Wright's writings on justification. [2] In line with other concerned readers, Piper concluded that Wright's doctrine of justification had departed from the doctrine of justification taught in the New Testament. That Wright is conscious of responding to Piper's criticisms in Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is evident from the very first sentence of the book's preface: "When I heard about John Piper's book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, I was torn between two reflections" (vii).
It would be unfair, however, to characterize Justification merely as a reply to Piper's work. If one is looking for the same kind of careful, sifting analysis that Piper gave to Wright's published writings, one will be disappointed. In the course of Justification, Wright addresses other critics, sometimes named but more often unnamed. Furthermore, Wright conceives Justification as a synthetic theological and exegetical statement of his understanding of the Pauline doctrine of justification. Wright states that he is not intending to say anything in Justification substantially different from what he has elsewhere said in print (xi).

In this review we will pose three central questions to Wright's current understanding of the doctrine of justification. Historically, what does Wright have to say about the way in which the Protestant Reformers explained the apostle Paul's teaching on justification? Exegetically, what does Wright understand the New Testament to say about what justification is and how the believer is justified? Theologically, how does Wright understand justification to relate to the work of Christ and to the good works required of every Christian? As we take up these questions, we will also weigh a more basic question: does Justification reflect any modification of Wright's earlier published statements on justification? [3] Is there any indication that Wright has altered his position in view of the criticisms of Piper and others?

Wright on the Old and New Perspectives

Wright's responses to his Reformational critics, over the years, have modified his terminology while maintaining his basic positions. One area where rhetorical modification in Justification is evident concerns the way in which Wright speaks of both the New and Old (that is, Reformational) Perspectives on Paul. In earlier writings, Wright expresses a fundamental sympathy with the writings of such New Perspective proponents as E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn. Even Wright's disagreements with Sanders exist within a framework of fundamental agreement. [4] When Wright has discussed the Old Perspective, it has most often been to compare it unfavorably with the New Perspective.
In Justification, Wright sometimes claims to transcend the Old and New Perspectives. He suggests that neither the Old nor the New Perspective has been adequate to explain Paul's conclusion at Gal 3:29 (20). In explaining Phil 3:6, Wright appeals to a position that he describes as "beyond-both-perspectives" (123; cf. 110).

Therefore, Wright can depict the Old and New Perspectives as complementary but as yet unintegrated descriptions of Pauline teaching. Genesis 3-11, for example, is said to contain two problems to which the Abrahamic covenant is said to be the solution. Wright asserts that these two problems ("human sin and the consequent fracturing of human community") are captured by the Old and the New Perspectives, respectively (112; cf. 97-98). Paul's letter to the Ephesians teaches both "saving grace" and "the proleptic unity of all humankind in Christ as the sign of God's coming reign over the whole world" (27). Ephesians offers, Wright claims, the two-fold solution to the two-fold problem of Gen 3-11. Had the Reformers taken to heart the concerns of "Jew-plus-Gentile unity" in Ephesians, he continues, "'the new perspective' might have begun then and there" (28). Commenting on Rom 3:28, Wright concludes, "let's go beyond the new perspective / old perspective divide: both are necessary parts of what Paul is actually saying" (186). As he says at the conclusion of his exegetical discussion of Galatians, "[we] have shown the deep coherence [within its Pauline context] of a theology of justification which includes all that the 'old perspective' was really trying to say within a larger framework which, while owing quite a bit to aspects of the 'new perspective,' goes considerably beyond it" (118).

Has Wright, then, warmed to the Old Perspective? To answer this question, one must recognize that there are in Justification at least three distinct strands of statements concerning how Wright perceives himself in relation to the Old Perspective. One strand we may label "against Luther, with Calvin." Wright claims "if it had been the Reformed view of Paul and the law, rather than the Lutheran one, that had dominated through the two hundred years since the Enlightenment, ... the 'new perspective' [would] not have been necessary (or not in the same form)..." (53). He further commends the Reformed tradition for recognizing that Israel under the Old Testament was given "Torah as the way of life" for a people "whom [God] had already entered into covenant, and whom he had now rescued from slavery" (ibid.). This claim, Wright asserts, was the point that E. P. Sanders was trying to make when he argued that first century Judaism was not legalistic (53-54).

It is mistaken, however, to claim an affinity between E. P. Sanders's "covenantal nomism" and Calvin's understanding of the law as the way that God intended redeemed Israel to live. Sanders argues that first century Judaism was not a legalistic but a gracious religion. Whereas Calvin believes that the religion of the Old Testament was a thoroughly gracious religion, he follows the New Testament in understanding and depicting first century Judaism as having departed in important respects from that religion. First century Judaism was an essentially legalistic religion. To equate Sanders's "covenantal nomism" of first century Judaism with Calvin's understanding of the law under the Old Testament is to compare apples with oranges.

A second strand of Wright's perception of the Old Perspective we may label "with Luther and Calvin." Wright claims in the conclusion of Justification that "nothing that the Reformation traditions at their best were anxious to stress has been lost" in his proposals (219). Apparently, Wright believes that his views preserve all that is essential to Reformational theology.

The limits of Wright's expressions of appreciation for the Reformation surface when we consider a third strand of Wright's statements. This strand we may label "against Luther and Calvin." Wright targets the Reformers and their heirs in particular for what are said to be a-historical or unhistorical readings of Paul. In this respect, they share the tendency of the "Western tradition" to produce "de-Judaized and decovenantalized readings of Paul" (172, cf. 212). The doctrine of "imputed righteousness," for instance, is said to be "a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the mediaeval terms which were themselves part of the problem" (187). With respect to the biblical term "righteousness," conservative critics of the new perspective "have not in fact reckoned with the fully biblical and Jewish context of what they are discussing" (177). Wright favorably cites McGrath's assessment that "the 'doctrine of justification' has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins" (60). This means, Wright infers, that "ever since the time of Augustine, the discussions about what has been called 'justification' have borne a tangled, but ultimately only tangential, relation to what Paul was talking about" (60, emphasis original). Inattention to "Paul's own Jewish framework of thought" has prompted both Lutheran and Calvinist readers of Paul to misread Rom 10:4 (216), and the whole of Romans 4 (191).

In summary, Wright's posture towards the Reformers is not one-dimensional. He is capable of expressing both limited appreciation for and severe criticism of Luther and Calvin. How do these strands of statements come together for Wright? Wright claims to be preserving the essence of Reformational teaching on justification. He believes that he has purged that essence of Reformational categories and terminology that he deems liabilities. Once the teaching of the Reformers is adapted in this manner, Wright urges, the Old and New Perspectives may be synthesized to produce a full and coherent reading of the apostle Paul. The question is whether Wright proves this claim in Justification. We will now test that claim by turning to examine Wright's exposition of Pauline justification.

Wright and Justification: The Background

When one compares Wright's exposition of Pauline justification in Justification with his earlier writings, one finds that Wright's understanding of Pauline justification has undergone no substantial modification. At important junctures, however, Wright has developed or amplified his position both theologically and exegetically. These amplifications confirm the very sort of concerns that Piper and others have raised against Wright's statements on justification.
The structure of Wright's presentation of the doctrine of justification is substantially the same as the one he presented in his 1997 What Saint Paul Really Said. Justification in Paul has a three-fold background. First, justification has its background in the lawcourt. The language of justification ("righteousness") is the language of vindication. Specifically, a person's "righteousness" in justification is "the status someone has when the court has found in their favor." The term denotes "acquittal" or "vindication." It does not denote "demonstrated ... moral behavior" that has "earned [him] the verdict" (69). Justification concerns "status" not "character" (70).

Second, justification has its background in God's covenant with Abraham. The purpose of this covenant, which Paul has "rethought ... in the light of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah," is "to rid the world of sin and establish his new creation" (75). In this light, Wright claims, the concerns of both Old and New Perspectives ("sin and the fracturing of human society") are seen to be legitimate (78).

Third, justification has its background in eschatology. For Paul, "what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come ... the new world had been inaugurated ... God's promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! ... Jesus had been vindicated - and so all those who belonged to Jesus were vindicated as well" (80). Because justification is eschatological, we must speak both of a present (already) and a future (not yet) verdict in justification (81).

Lying behind this three-fold background is "Christology," the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God, and Lord (81-82). Justification is "in Christ" in the sense that the Messiah is the one "in whom God's people are summed up, so that what is true of him is true of them" (82; cf. 64, 81, 53). Jesus is the "faithful Israelite, through whom the single [covenantal] plan can proceed after all" (83). His death and resurrection were for his people. 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" (84). Jesus' resurrection was his "vindication" or "justification." The resurrected Jesus has poured out his Spirit so that his people might "become in reality what they already are by God's declaration" (85). On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will pronounce over his people the verdict of final justification. This verdict corresponds "to the one issued in the present on the basis of faith," but is itself issued "in accordance with one's works" (86).

Wright is concerned to give the work of the Spirit within the Christian a place in justification. Wright urges that the doctrine of justification is "Trinitarian in shape" - believers' "faith in Jesus Christ includes a trust in the Spirit" (85, emphasis original). One of the shortcomings of the Reformational formulations of justification, Wright alleges, is that it has failed to give due emphasis to this work of the Holy Spirit (211-12, 208-9, cf. 85-86).

Wright's statements raise several questions. What precisely is the "righteousness" of justification? How does it relate to the work of Jesus Christ? How does it relate to one's justification in the present? How precisely does Wright understand the works wrought by the Spirit in the Christian to relate to one's justification in the future? We may answer these questions by giving more focused attention to how Wright understands the verdict of justification itself.

Wright and Justification: The Verdict in the Present

For Wright, justification must be understood as both present and future. He does not want to understand justification as two separate verdicts. Rather, for Wright, the present verdict is the future verdict declared in advance (x). Therefore "the present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it" (223). Let us look first at present justification, then, future justification.

Consistently with his earlier writings, Wright insists that the Reformational doctrine of imputed righteousness is not true to Paul. In present justification, the believer, in union with Christ, is granted a status of vindication or acquittal. The believer is not given the imputed merits of Jesus Christ. The "righteousness of God" in justification, rather, is God's faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham (45-52). The "righteousness of God" is not the imputed righteousness of Christ. If it were, then the righteousness of justification is a "moral righteousness" pertaining to Jesus's character, the bestowal of Jesus' achievements and merits. To make such a claim, Wright argues, fundamentally violates the forensic character of justification and mistakes the place of righteousness in justification.

The righteousness of justification consists simply of a status - as Jesus was vindicated, so the believer also shares in that status of vindication (71, 189). This is, Wright says, "justification by incorporation" (206). Here we may underscore a difference between Calvin's understanding of justification and Wright's understanding of justification. Calvin argues that the believer, in union with Christ, is justified solely on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness. Wright, however, claims that while the believer is justified in union with Christ, he is not justified on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness. Notwithstanding, Wright claims that his view is saying what the doctrine of imputed righteousness is saying: "The status the Christian possesses is possessed because of that belongingness, that incorporation. This is the great Pauline truth to which the sub-Pauline idea of 'the imputation of Christ's righteousness' is truly pointing" (119). "All that the supposed doctrine of the 'imputed righteousness of Christ' has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric [i.e. possessed status], on these terms, and within this covenantal framework" (205-6).
Has Wright disproved the doctrine of imputed righteousness exegetically? Wright addresses three texts to which the Reformers and their heirs have appealed in order to support the doctrine of imputed righteousness: 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 3:6-9, and 1 Cor 1:30. Wright paraphrases 2 Cor 5:21 ("For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God") in this way: "The one who knew no sin, God made sin for us... that in the Messiah, we might embody God's faithfulness, God's covenant faithfulness, God's action in reconciling the world to himself" (140). What are some of the principal arguments that Wright advances in support of this reading? First, Wright argues that this reading is consistent with a two-fold pattern that Paul has established and follows throughout 2 Cor 5:15-21: Paul makes a statement concerning Jesus' death, and then proceeds to describe the ministry that results from it (138). This pattern is reflected, Wright argues, within verse 21. Second, the phrase "righteousness of God" should be understood to refer to God's own covenant faithfulness (140-141). Third, the verb "became" would prove infused not imputed righteousness (141-42). Fourth, Wright claims that by reading verse 21b in reference to apostolic ministry makes better sense of the opening lines of chapter six: "Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain" (142-43).

In reply, we should observe that Wright is correct to observe Paul's two-fold concern with the redemptive work of Christ and the apostolic ministry in 2 Cor 5:15-21. It is mistaken, however, to render the second half of verse 21, "that we might embody God's covenant faithfulness." Verse 21 answers a crucial set of questions raised in the passage: "How can ministers summon human beings to be reconciled to God" (see 5:20)? "How is it that God chooses not to count people's trespasses against them" (see 5:19)? Verse 21a declares that God chooses not to impute his people's sins against them because he has imputed them to Christ. Verse 21b declares that God can reconcile sinners to himself because, in union with Christ, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to them for their justification. Such an understanding of verse 21 makes the appeal of the next verse entirely understandable: because our God is a God who justifies sinners in this way, Paul declares, we therefore make our appeal to you to not to receive his grace in vain (6:1). Does the verb "become" require a doctrine of infused righteousness? It does not. We become "righteous" in precisely the same way that Christ who "knew no sin" became sin - by imputation.

Concerning Phil 3:9 ("and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith"), Wright argues that Paul has status in mind. The "righteousness from God" is "the status which is given by God," just as the "righteousness ... based on the law" was "the covenant status which he had had as a Jew, marked out by Torah and hence witnessed to by the keeping of that Torah" (127-28).

Wright, then, understands Paul to be saying in Phil 3:6-9 that the "righteousness from the law" and the "righteousness from God" are statuses only. It is true that concerns of status are in view in verse 5 ("circumcised on the eighth day," etc.). In verse 6a, however, Paul speaks of personal activity ("as to zeal, a persecutor of the church") and links that activity with what he describes as his blameless law righteousness ("as to righteousness, under the law blameless"). If Paul's concern in describing his law righteousness is with status only, then why does Paul associate personal activity with that law righteousness without making explicit that status, not activity, is his concern?

In response to this question, Wright claims that Paul understands this activity to function as a marker or badge of his status of law righteousness. Paul's Jewish works or activity "function[ed] as a sign in the present that he was part of the people who would be vindicated in the future" (125). Likewise, the present sign of Paul's Christian "righteousness" is the believer's faith in the "faithful Messiah." This sign of faith is an indication that the verdict of the last day has been brought into the present for the believer in Christ (128). One must, therefore, take care to distinguish the badge, whether Torah obedience or faith, from the status that it signifies (122).

The difficulty with this explanation is that elsewhere Paul speaks of activity as constituent of "law righteousness." In Romans, Paul writes, "for Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them" (Rom 10:5). The law offers life, Paul says to the Galatians, to those who obey its commandments (Gal 3:12), but "if a law had been given that could given life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law" (Gal 3:21). We expect Paul to define "law righteousness" in Philippians as he has earlier done in Romans and Galatians: as consisting of his own personal activity.

Once we understand that, for Paul, individual activity is constituent of "the righteousness which is of the law," then we can understand why he speaks of it as "my own" (3:9). Paul has in mind his entire track record with respect to the demands of the law. It is this righteousness that he categorically rejects in view of "the righteousness from God that depends on faith." The "righteousness from God" is not something that Paul has achieved. It is something that God has accomplished and given to Paul. This righteousness is not something that Paul has earned. He has received this righteousness through faith, which is also a gift of God (Phil 1:29).

Concerning 1 Cor 1:30 ("Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption"), Wright claims that the "righteousness" that is ours in Christ is "the status of all believers" in Christ (133), the sharing in the status of Jesus' vindication (134). It is not an imputed righteousness because then we would have to speak of "'imputed wisdom,' 'imputed sanctification,' and 'imputed redemption'" (134). Imputed righteousness, Wright claims, proves too much. In response it should be pointed out that the reason that the Reformers spoke of an imputed righteousness, but not an imputed wisdom, etc. is that other Scriptures clearly teach imputed righteousness, but they do not teach an imputed wisdom, etc. That 2 Cor 5:21 and Phil 3:6-9 teach that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer for justification means that understanding "righteousness" in verse 30 as "the imputed righteousness of Christ" is plausible. Since Paul here speaks of Christ having become "righteousness" to the believer united to him in such a way as to remove any and all ground for boasting in his abilities or accomplishments (1:29, 31 with 1:26-28), we should understand the "righteousness" of 1 Cor 1:30 to be the imputed righteousness of Christ. Again, Wright has failed to disprove that Paul teaches the doctrine of imputed righteousness.

What of Wright's claims that "the status the Christian possesses is possessed because of that belongingness, that incorporation. This is the great Pauline truth to which the sub-Pauline idea of 'the imputation of Christ's righteousness' is truly pointing" (119); and "all that the supposed doctrine of the 'imputed righteousness of Christ' has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric [i.e. possessed status], on these terms, and within this covenantal framework" (205-6)? Do Wright's formulations retain all that is essential in the Reformers' teaching on justification? Can we retain the essence of their concerns while jettisoning the idea of the imputation of Christ's righteousness? To answer this question, we must turn to consider Wright's understanding of what he calls future justification.

Wright and Justification: The Verdict in the Future

For Wright, justification is a status conferred upon an individual who is united to Christ and thereby shares in Christ's vindication. This means that the individual is acquitted. His sins are forgiven. The mark or badge of his justification in the present is his faith.
For Wright, present justification is God having brought into the present the verdict of the last day. The verdict of the last day, Wright argues, relates to the good works performed by the justified Christian. The question is "how"?

The Reformation affirmed that a person is justified solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. The faith that justifies is a faith that necessarily bears the fruit of new obedience. That fruit, however, in no way justifies the sinner. That fruit simply evidences that the individual is a justified person. At the Day of Judgment, the good works of the Christian will publicly attest him to be a person who was justified solely on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness. Those good works will in no way nor at any time justify him.

Wright, however, claims that the righteousness of Jesus Christ is not imputed to the believer for justification. "It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus 'obeyed the law' and so obtained 'righteousness' which could be reckoned to those who believe in him. To think that way is to concede, after all, that 'legalism' was true after all - with Jesus as the ultimate legalist. At this point, Reformed theology lost its nerve. It should have continued the critique all the way through: 'legalism' itself was never the point, not for us, not for Israel, not for Jesus" (205, emphasis original; cf. 134).

Given the absence of the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ in Wright's understanding of Paul, we must ask of Wright what role the believer's "works" play in the believer's justification? Do these works at all contribute to the basis upon which God declares the sinner "righteous"? Readers of Wright, including Piper, have expressed concern that a number of Wright's previous formulations claim that the good works of the believer are justifying. In other words, the good works of the believer do not merely evidence the believer's justification. His good works, rather, are themselves justifying. They are part of the basis upon which the believer is justified at the last day.

Wright's statements in Justification on the place of the believer's good works in justification do little to assuage readers that his critics' concerns are unfounded. In the face of criticism, Wright defends his past statements that future justification will be on the basis of works (230n.11). In his discussion of Rom 2:1-16, Wright attempts both to respond to his critics and to state his understanding of the place of works in the final judgment.

Wright hears certain unnamed critics denying "the notion of an actual judgment according to works, where all, including Christians who have been 'justified by faith,' must present themselves, render account, and be assessed" (161). He acknowledges that "this [position] is a way of maintaining... that the only justification the Christian will ever have is because of the merits of the Messiah, clung to by faith, rather than any work, achievement, good deeds, performance of the law, or anything else, even if done entirely out of gratitude and in the power of the spirit" (ibid.). He acknowledges their fear that "this [is] - however much one says that one believes in grace - a way of taking back, with the Pelagian left hand, what one had just given with the Augustinian right" (162).

Nevertheless, Wright understands this position to counter New Testament "texts about final judgment according to works" (162-63, citing Rom 12:1, Rom 14:18, 2 Cor 5:9, Eph 5:10, Phil 2:12b-13, Col 1:10, 1 Thess 4:1, 2 Thess 1:11). Do these passages in any way import "merit" into Paul's description of the justification of the sinner? They do not, says Wright. Since the Holy Spirit enables us to produce good works, we therefore may not speak of Christians "earn[ing] the final verdict," or say that "their 'works' must be complete and perfect."" (167). Neither may we say that "God does part of it and we do part of it" (ibid.). Paul does not work with the "logic of merit." He works with the "logic of love ... the rich, theological logic of the work of the Holy Spirit" (163).

Wright consequently replies to his unnamed critics: "As long as theologians, hearing this kind of proposal, shout 'synergism' and rush back to the spurious either/or which grows out of a doctrine that has attempted to construct the entire soteriological jigsaw on the basis of a mediaeval view of 'justice', and with some of the crucial bits (the spirit, eschatology, not to mention Abraham and the covenant) still in the box, or on the floor, or in the fire, we shall never get anywhere..." (167).

Wright's discussion of good works and final justification merits two observations. First, some of Wright's critics may indeed deny a final judgment according to works. His Reformed critics do not. They deny a final judgment on the basis of works, but they do not deny a final judgment according to works. In other words, the believer's conduct is not the basis upon which he will sustain God's final judgment. Instead, his conduct will publicly show the Christian to be who he already is: a person justified solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, received through faith. If Wright understands the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone to necessitate much less to permit a denial of final judgment according to works, then he has been misinformed. Reformed readers' do not object to Wright's insistence that there shall be a final judgment of the believer at the Day of Judgment. They have objected to what he claims are the place or role of the believer's works in final justification.

This raises a second observation. Just as Wright is concerned to excise merit from reflection on the work of Christ for justification, so also he wishes to excise merit from reflection on the work of the believer for justification. The believer's works for justification are not meritorious, Wright argues, because they are performed in the power of the Holy Spirit. If works are defined in this way, Wright reasons, then critics' concerns that we are "'adding our own merit' to 'the finished work of Jesus Christ'" may be put to rest (165). Provided that such works are entirely non-meritorious, they are acceptable as the basis of final justification.
From the standpoint of the Protestant Reformation and of the apostle Paul, Wright's comments on merit are beside the point with respect to the believer's justification. The New Testament does not forbid "meritorious" and command "non-meritorious" works as the basis of justification. The New Testament categorically rejects all activity of the sinner from the basis of justification (Rom 4:4-5, Eph 2:8-10, 2 Tim 1:9, Tit 3:5). This is because Christ's work alone justifies the sinner. Any work of ours, whether performed in the flesh or in the power of the Spirit, is excluded from the basis of justification. By restricting the basis of future justification to non-meritorious, Spirit-enabled works, Wright has not satisfied the concerns expressed by his Reformational readers. If anything, he has only confirmed those concerns.

Wright's articulation of present and future justification in Justification amplifies but does not modify his earlier statements and formulations. For Wright, justification is both a forensic and a transformational grace. The merits or righteousness of Christ are not imputed to the believer. The believer is united to Jesus Christ in his death and his resurrection and shares in the status of Jesus' vindication. The believer's sins are therefore forgiven. Indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, he has a new relationship with sin and righteousness, and is inwardly and progressively transformed. The verdict pronounced at the last day will be grounded upon the transformational work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. For that reason the basis of the verdict of future justification cannot be identified with the basis of the verdict of present justification. This fact raises the question how the two verdicts, in Wright's understanding, can be the same verdict. If the basis of future justification is one's works, and these works do not yet exist at the moment of present justification, then how can present justification and future justification be the same verdict? Furthermore, on what basis can one have assurance in the present that he will be justified in the future?

Wright, then, breaks with the Reformation by saying that the work of Christ for the believer combines with the Spirit-wrought works of the believer to justify the sinner. The Reformation, following Paul, argues that the sole basis of the believer's justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone. The believer's works, even if they are said to be non-meritorious, have no place in the basis of the believer's justification.

Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is the most comprehensive and current statement of N. T. Wright on justification to date. Justification is largely a restatement of Wright's views, with some amplification and rhetorical refinement. It is not a detailed textual and theological interaction with his Reformational readers' concerns and objections. To the degree that Justification summarizes and synthesizes nearly three decades of Wright's publications on justification, the book is useful to the student of Wright's work. To the degree that Justification has failed to engage criticisms of Wright's formulations on justification in such a way as to advance the discussion, the work is a missed opportunity. What is clear from Justification is that the fundamental concern of Wright's Reformational readers remains unallayed and firmly in place: Wright's views on justification have parted company with the teaching of the apostle Paul. [5]

[1] See also, "The New Perspective on Paul" ed. Bruce L. McCormack, Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 248.
[2] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, Ill.:Crossway, 2007).
[3] On which, see especially N.T. Wright, "Justification: Its Biblical Basis and Contemporary Relevance" in ed. Gavin Reid, The Great Acquittal: Justification By Faith and Current Christian Thought (London: Collins, 1980), p.13-37; What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); "The Letter to the Romans," pp.393-770 in ed. L.E. Keck, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abington Press, 2002); Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress 2005); and "The New Perspectives on Paul."
[4] See, for example, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 18-20.
[5] I wish to extend my thanks to the Rev. James T. O'Brien and Mr. Anthony Pyles for their invaluable editorial assistance.

Guy Waters is the Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

Guy Waters, "Review: Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision", Reformation 21 (June 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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