The long drawn out debate over what Paul really meant when he speaks of, “justification by faith”, has been at many points confusing for me and many other readers. The main proponents of this debate have been John Piper and N.T. Wright. Two pastors and scholars from different theological backgrounds and churches have authored books on the subject, mainly in response to the work of the other. For me personally I don’t get it. It doesn’t seem especially concerning for me when both seem to claim Christ crucified and the subsequent resurrection as the basis on which we stand firm. When taking their statements together on what the Gospel means, it almost seems that they are in agreement that we are justified by God’s grace apart from anything we can accomplish on our own.
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.
Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.
(An excerpt taken from Christianity Today. Read the full article here.)
Paul in fresh perspective was well researched and there is an immense load of exegesis on the part of Wright, and rightly so, for this fresh perspective is meant to be a clarifying of key themes and passages in scripture that compile what is commonly called the, “new perspective”, on Paul. N.T. Wright takes the text of scripture places that many have not gone before and I commend him for doing so. Even the Bereans of Paul’s day searched the scripture tenaciously to see if Paul was preaching something contrary to the gospel they had recorded for them. Saying that, I don’t think an invested interest in this debate is worth the amount of time it will take to sift through the pages and pages of text written on the subject.
I myself stake my flag gladly in the Reformed camp and do so without any hesitation that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Some who have studied, mainly from the Reformed tradition, have claimed that Wright’s handling of the topic is, at best, an attempt to rehash a theology which would include our works as a part of our justification. Wright has not even come close to declaring that we add anything to our being saved of Christ. Wright declares rather, that justification is more about ecclesiology than it is soteriology and that’s where the criticism mainly takes it’s shape. Many have claimed that Wright, like many Catholics, join our works and Christ’ resurrection as holding together our justification when in fact Wright simply takes a new perspective on the issues that Paul has raised.
Wright argues from the premise that Paul has to straddle at least three worlds in which we are to understand his statements regarding our justification. We are to understand his statements in the understanding of Judaism, the Greek or Hellenistic culture, and the Roman context. We cannot take his statement without seeing them through this triangular lens which Paul would have seen his world through. Wright’s handling of the worldview in which Paul wrote from is very well written and theologically sound. He does well to make his point clear, even if the language he employs can be very confusing to those outside the realm of academia.
A helpful article regarding what Wright really said has been published by Justin Taylor over at The Gospel Coalition. I advise you, if you have a vested interest in the subject, to check out the article for yourself.
Wright’s understanding of the function of Spirit-inspired works in final justification is identical to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification. Just as Spirit-produced faith is the initial sign that God has made one a member of his covenant people, so in final justification, Spirit-produced good works serve as the sign that one was truly a member of God’s covenant people from the point of one’s conversion on. When Wright has said that good works are the “basis” of the believer’s final justification, he has meant that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one truly is a covenant member. They are the “basis” for final justification the same way that a paternity test may serve as the “basis” for the verdict in a paternity lawsuit. A paternity test does not make one a father; it demonstrates that one was a child’s father all along. So also, Spirit-inspired works do not make one a covenant member in Wright’s view; they demonstrate that one has been a covenant member all along. The assertion that Wright understands Spirit-inspired works to be the believer’s “righteousness” in final justification misconstrues both his understanding of the meaning of “righteousness” language and his understanding of the question under consideration in the divine courtroom.
[Two parenthetical comments:
(1) In his writings, Wright has sometimes muddled this issue by his responses to critics. Wright has two arguments for why his position does not promote any kind of works-righteousness, as his critics claim. The first is his understanding of the trial and “righteousness” language as detailed above, and the second is his assertion that the works considered in final justification are Spirit-inspired. This second argument does not satisfy many of Wright’s critics, and sometimes that is the primary response Wright makes to such charges. When Wright focuses on this argument rather than the first, his critics often become confused and don’t realize how the broader framework of his understanding of the trial and “righteousness” language make the works-righteousness interpretation of his writings impossible.
(2) A second point where confusion has arisen is through the claim that Wright understands justification to be primarily “ecclesiological” rather than “soteriological.” Although Wright once expressed this contrast himself (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119), he has more recently decried this depiction of Paul’s meaning as a false dichotomy, suggesting that here we have a “both/and” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 132-133). Nevertheless, careful attention needs to be paid to how he describes the relationship between justification and soteriology. He relates justification to soteriology in two distinct ways: (1) he insists that declaring one a covenant member is to declare that one is indeed saved because the blessings of covenant membership include forgiveness of sins, etc. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 121-122); (2) he wants to broaden our understanding of the term “soteriology” to include deliverance from the plight of Genesis 11, in which humanity was fractured into different nations, in addition to deliverance from the plight of Genesis 3, in which humanity fell subject to death through sin (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 133-136). In Wright’s view, justification directly “saves” humanity from this plight by creating one cross-national covenant people of God, and is thus a directly “soteriological” act because it directly reverses the plight of Genesis 11. Thus, when Wright claims that his view of justification is both ecclesiological and soteriological, he does not mean that his view of justification is soteriological in the precise sense that some of his critics mean.]
The full article can be read at Justin’s Blog: Between Two Worlds.
Apart from all the criticism that Wright draws he has certainly done his homework with this fresh perspective of Paul. He draws readers in methodically, always building upon his previous points. The text is put together well and, though confusing, can be helpful for those seeking to get a hold of this whole debate. I don’t recommend this book for the whole church, but mainly for those in a pastoral or educational position. It’s a good start to understanding the long debated perspectives on what Paul really said in his letters.
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