Reading Piper and Wright on Justification

Someone asked me why I wasn’t interested in going into biblical studies when I told them I was looking for a grad school program in philosophy of religion. Before I could think seriously about the question I blurted out, “Because studying the Bible is hard!” That was appropriately was met with laughter. But even after I thought about it a little more, I could not find anything else better to say.

This was reinforced in me as I read through John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright (Crossway, 2007) and NT Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP, 2009) successively. The two books dive deep into a doctrine that has divided Christendom for the last 500 years, and both continue this great (and troubling) tradition of theological dispute in sharply polemical ways. The matter is over the so-called “new perspective on Paul” that has emerged within the last 40 years as a scholarly force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to unpack that term in so short a blog post, so a truncated version will have to do. The idea mainly has to do with a revised understanding of first century Second Temple Judaism. In short, the religion Paul practiced when he was named ‘Saul’ was not a religion of legalism built on the foundation of works-righteousness; rather, it was like today’s Calvinism that posits an electing God, who, out of gracious favor, chose a people to be set apart for himself, to enjoy his favor, and to display his character to the surrounding nations. Law-keeping, then, is considered to be a means of maintaining good standing in this love-covenant, not a means of earning it.

What might be called the “old perspective” is that of Luther and the Reformers who found themselves embroiled in a conflict with the Roman Catholic Church’s merit-based salvation theology. The main question for young Luther was how to get himself saved. Standing before a holy God as a hopeless sinner left him terrified for his soul because he thought it impossible for someone to achieve an acceptable level of merit to gain God’s favor. But all that was put to rest when, after a study of Romans, he found that there was a “righteousness from God” available to all who called upon him in faith. It was a comforting fact for Luther that the “righteous live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17)

And so Luther went on to exposit the gospel from Romans and Galatians proving to his followers that Paul’s gospel liberated the soul from the crushing demands of work-righteousness egregiously reinforced by the Catholic Church and the pope. He found a certain kind of solidarity with the apostle who, in his day, took on those “Judiazers” in Galatia who were trying to lead believers away from the gospel of grace by adding certain “works of the law” to the way of salvation. In Luther’s eyes, the Jews of the first century were like the Catholics of the sixteenth, and nothing short of a doctrinal reformation would purify the church from all unrighteousness.

Ironically enough, NT Wright has a lot of common with Luther. They both share a deep reverence for the Scriptures and their authority to determine both faith and practice. They both see a grand vision in Paul that contains a life-changing message for the world and the church. And they both believe that no tradition no matter how sacred is free from scrutiny.

NT Wright takes great issue with Luther’s theology and has jettisoned his “old” perspective for one that, in his words, is “fresh.” As a first rate historian, Wright is keenly aware of how context effects how we think, and believes that Luther’s problems with the Catholic Church were unfairly imposed onto Second Temple Judaism. Israel in the time of Jesus and Paul was in a state of anguish over the covenant asking “how will God stay true to his promises?” They were not asking, “How can I be saved?” Their concern with the covenant was motivated by their interpretation of their own Scriptures and their current political situation under the Roman Empire. Israel had been exiled after a long period of idolatry, and her return from exile, starting with Ezra and Nehemiah, never seemed complete as Haggai and Malachi attested. Daniel 9:4-19 looms large in the mind of Israel where an ongoing image of a law court is awaiting the verdict on Israel’s legal status.

The problem, of course, is that Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant and the curses of Deuteronomy 27-30 are still being played out and the original promise given Abraham to be a great nation and a blessing to all people seems to be undermined. But this will not do. God is righteous, and for Wright this means God is faithful to his covenants. He is right to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness and he is right to bring Israel back for her role in the “plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” that he originally gave through the calling of Abraham.

For Paul, who lived and breathed in this context, the Messiah Jesus was the key that unlocked the whole mystery. Wright takes us on an exegetical tour through Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, Philippians, and finally Romans to show how this was accomplished. Jesus, who represented “faithful Israel” to the Mosaic covenant, was the obedient suffering servant (Isaiah 53) who reestablishes the covenant between God and Israel (Isaiah 54), and most importantly brings blessing to all of creation including an invitation to thirsty Gentiles to come be part of the people of God (Isaiah 55). This explains why Paul is so passionate in his joy over the “mystery made known” in Christ (Eph 3:3) and his condemnation of those who seek to be “justified by observing the Law” (Gal 2:15). If law-keeping was a way to find “justification” then there would be no justification, because Gentiles were never meant to be a part of such blessing, and Jews were originally unfaithful to the covenant.

Justification then means that one has been declared to be in the right as a forensic judgment that both exonerates and vindicates the one on trial. The righteousness we receive through Christ, because of his death and resurrection, is nothing more than a judgment of right standing—we have been made, and are being made, faithful to the covenant. This is accomplished by believing that Jesus is Lord, which for Wright, is the true historical meaning of the Gospel. In the way Roman soldiers would announce “good news” to a territory that Caesar was Lord, so Paul announced the “good news” that Jesus was Lord.

John Piper does not like this. There is a confusion here that threatens the word “good” in the “good news” of the gospel. Piper writes, “Why should a guilty sinner who has committed treason against Jesus consider it good news when he hears the announcement that this Jesus has been raised from the dead with absolute sovereign rights over human beings?” Thus, the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” is not enough for it to be “good news.” In fact, it is very likely to be received as bad news! It is the task of John Piper to lay out in greater detail why exactly the gospel is good news and why Wright’s reading of Paul does not do justice to the heart of the gospel: Justification by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of his righteousness alone.

Piper seems to be largely in agreement with Wright that the Messiah Jesus has restored believers to a righteous status with God, but in an entirely different way. For Piper, “the righteousness of God” does not mean “covenant faithfulness” but his “unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory” (66). The important difference here is that what the righteousness of God does (covenant faithfulness) is not the same of what it is (God’s faithfulness to display his glory). To be righteous is to be concerned about God’s glory, and this goes for humans as well as for God.

Moreover, Piper does not think it is sufficient to define justification by saying that God simply declares us to be in the right (and that’s it). That would only make us morally neutral before God. We are in need of a real moral righteousness that will make us unswervingly committed to the name and glory of God–in God’s sight. This is because no is righteous (Rom 3:10) and we have all fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23).

Piper is also worried about Wright conflating justification with sanctification. This common error is what lead the Roman Catholic Church down the road of its merit-based works-righteousness in the first place. Wright has an undue emphasis on the “future justification”—the day when we actually have to stand before God and audibly hear his verdict, and how our “works of faithfulness” will count on the day of Judgment (according to Romans 2:13). Nothing less than a return to a robust doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s moral righteousness to the believer is needed to salvage Wright’s view from collapsing into Roman Catholicism.

While reading these books I was tormented by the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17: “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” A lot of ink has already been spilled about these two books, and I am not sure I have much to contribute, but a few things are worth noting.

Piper’s argument has the simpler explanation of the data. It makes more intuitive sense of certain verses and passages in Romans, and especially 2 Corinthians 5:21. However, I am not sure his book is the best representation of the traditional view (the “old” perspective). I have gained far more insight to the traditional view along with better interaction with the new perspective in Doug Moo’s NIV Application Commentary on Romans than Piper’s book. Nonetheless, Piper, proudly resting on centuries of scholarship gone before him, has Occam’s Razor on his side.

By way of reply to the benefits of having such a simple explanation, Wright has a point in bringing up the example of geocentrism from the history of astronomy. Yes, it appears that the sun moves around the earth, and all these complicated theories about physics and gravity only muddle the matter. Just get up early and look at the horizon and you should be convinced that we are the ones standing still. Occam’s razor has to make sense of the data first before it can judge which one is simpler and ought to be preferred.

In my estimation, the new perspective makes better sense of Second Temple Judaism than the traditional view. The idea that the Jews looked at themselves the same way medieval Roman Catholics did at least in terms of works-righteousness seems highly implausible. Looking at Paul’s writing as answers to questions about how Christianity makes sense of the covenants to Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles, one will see that more pieces of the jig saw puzzle are used (Wright’s analogy) than the traditional Protestant approach of bifurcating grace against works.

There has been a lot said about NT Wright believing works are necessary for salvation. He seems to say that works are not needed to be justified in Christ, but that they do count on the last day. Wright’s critics are right to be confused by this. However, Piper is equally emphatic that works are necessary for salvation. To his credit, he makes clear that works are not the basis of our justification, but are the result of it. Nonetheless, he does remark that God will actually “render to each one according to his works” on the last day (110). But for Piper he sees a distinction between “according to” and “on the basis of” which makes it sound like there is a big difference between the two. Accordance, for Piper, sounds like “agreement with” or something that is confirming the right standing already given in Christ. Our works confirm our justification. But in all honesty, I cannot seriously see how this is all that much different from what Wright believes (see 191-92), except to say that Wright believes the works are wrought in us by the Spirit! It is difficult to see how Piper’s distinction creates a large gap between him and Wright on this issue.

Piper also has a strange aversion to all things “novel.” He is very much an ideological conservative—not merely a theological conservative—in that he finds anything “new” or “fresh” to be automatically suspicious. Time and time again he chides Wright (and modern scholarship) from deviating from (or at seems even questioning) the “historic view” established by “1500 years” of Christian thought. Of course, Piper puts Scripture higher than tradition, but it seems that the individual interpreting Scripture with reforming the tradition in view is not something that can be called good.

This leads to one of the strangest ironies in that Piper’s definition of “the righteousness of God” is truly novel. Nowhere have I read that it ought to be defined as “God’s unswerving commitment to display and uphold his glory” and that if God failed to do this he would not be acting rightly. This is truly a philosophic argument that owes as much to ethical egoism as it does to biblical citations that show God concerned for the honor of his name. It is better here to follow Doug Moo and others, who, noting it could be two (but not separate) things: an attribute of God (like what Piper defines) or an action of God or what is called “God’s saving activity.”

Though I am sympathetic to Wright on many points, and find many things unclear in Piper’s book, I am humbled by the immensity and complexity that goes along with interpreting Scripture. Many of the arguments put forward by the authors depend upon their own translation of the relevant passages. When points of theology are being debated at this level, there is not much a layperson or student can do but wait for a consensus to emerge. Still there is much to learn from this debate and I am confident, if the condemnation and cursing of the traditionalists and Wright’s defenders is turned down, both perspectives will merge into one giving us a more accurate and faithful reading of Paul. Both Piper and Wright have done the church a service in articulating their views and much can be gained from careful study of both books.


6 thoughts on “Reading Piper and Wright on Justification

  1. Well said, Adam. Very helpful summaries of Wright and Piper. Moreover, I agree with your conclusion: both have provided the Church a service in carefully defining the crux of our core belief, to wit: being made right before God.

    Thanks for this outstanding post!

  2. And indeed, I think they have helped each other with with these books and each others’ responses. Caused each other to be more careful and precise. It is so humbling to sit and watch these titans go at it…

  3. So I’ve been thinking about this post for quite some time, and studying some of the relevant issues. While I am (as you say above) far from being able to meaningfully contribute to the discussion, one interesting thing appeared to me around their definitions of “The Righteousness of God”.

    Wright defines God’s righteousness in terms of His faithfulness to His covenant. Piper defines it in terms of God’s faithfulness to displaying His Glory.

    Ironically, these views are not as at odds as they would first appear. God is faithful in displaying His Glory BY His faithfulness to His covenant! (among other things!)

    I can take some time to compile some verses if you’d like, but Ezekiel 36 and 37 come to mind immediately, as does Ephesians 2:5-7, 3:9-11.

    Of course I am probably a little biased in this, though I do have deep-seated (and pre-Piper affiliation) aversion to any thought of our faithfulness having anything to do with our justification.

    Thanks for putting this post together, it has been very helpful to me.

    • Thanks Matt. Both books were good to read. I really agreed with both at points and disagreed at others. The main thing for me is that I still find the issues in the First Century to be different from that of the 16th… but still relating to the “main thing” accomplished through Christ. Christ is what bring us into the kingdom of God and nothing else.

      There is a book by Thomas Schreiner and AB Caneday called The Race Set Before Us that really spells out the doctrine of justification really well. I thought it incorporated the best of Wright into what is traditionally understood as justification. It balances the tension between the “already’ and “not yet” very well.

      I am also looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s new book about the righteousness of Christ. I think he tries to take a hybrid view that sounds interesting. I was listening to Piper’s T4G sermon and I am still not convinced that the word “gospel” has the definite meaning that Piper uses; that Jesus preached the same message as Paul that the Reformers discovered. For example, Luke 9:6 and Luke 20:1 say that the gospel was being preached, but the text doesn’t say anything about justification. This does not mean that justification was absent from the message, but the level of specificity needed to get to Reformed theology just isn’t there. In the text that Piper uses for his message, I think the context has to do with not exalting oneself and instead, being humble in the presence of God. That presence, however, has arrived in the person of Christ and his kingdom–his presence–is made accessible to us. That is what I think the text is all about and nothing more. Jesus is Lord, he is here, and we are to be humble in his presence. Yes, I think a theory of atonement is something we can discern from the whole of Scripture and use to help explain the gospel systematically… but it isn’t always apparent in the parts of Scripture where it says the gospel is being biblically preached.

      At any rate, I am looking forward to the ETS conference coming up where Schreiner and Wright will dialogue more. Glad you liked the post!


      • Ooh…thanks for reminding me of Schreiner’s “The Race” book. I have it on my shelf but have not read it. With going to ETS this year, along with Schreiner now taking Piper’s place debating Wright, I suppose that I should blow off the dust!

        Will you be going to ETS, Adam?

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