‘Do you see?’, asked my friend as she pointed in the distance. We were standing on a hill over looking the ocean watching the sun as it started to rise. ‘The sun revolves around the earth.’~~~
‘No’, I replied. ‘As I explained last night, the earth revolves around the sun. It just looks that way from our viewpoint.’
This is a paraphrase of the story N. T. Wright uses to start his book, Justification. This book is a response to John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. The differences, as can be seen by the story, is a difference of perspective. Both authors claim to have the ‘biblical’ (and, therefore, correct) perspective. Both authors are writing from a pastoral perspective claiming that they are thinking and acting for what’s best for those they shepherd. And, to me, they are both right. There is no question that their hearts are in the right place. However, I feel that Wright does a better job than Piper (though, I must admit, I have not read Piper’s book. I feel I know his view point, however.). Piper is defending the Reformed view of justification. The irony, of course, is that Wright is Anglican, a product of the Reformation! More than once, Wright states that his roots are Calvinistic and that, choosing between Luther and Calvin, he would side with Calvin every time. This isn’t to state that Wright is a Calvinist. Quite the opposite, actually. He emphasizes and agrees with Calvin’s positive view of the Law as opposed to Luther’s negative view.
So, what’s the issue? The issue revolves are a couple of things: 1) Does God ‘impute’ God’s own righteousness (or Christ’s righteousness) to the believer? and 2) What about ‘good works’? Of course, there are much deeper things in the book (not like those aren’t deep already!), but those are the markers we can put down for this reflection.
I have to say that I am a huge fan of Bishop Wright (he’s the Bishop of Durham). He has shed so much light on the New Testament, especially from the historical perspective, of putting Scripture in it’s historical context. The questions of justification are no different. He states that the debate is in three parts. First, ‘The question [about justification] is about the nature and scope of salvation.’ Second, ‘the question is about the means of salvation, how it is accomplished.’ Third, ‘the question is about the meaning of justification, what the term and its cognates refer to’ (pages 10-11; emphasis Wright). He then goes on to state:
Paul’s doctrine of justification is the place where four themes meet....First, Paul’s doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel....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....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....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.On page 23, glancing back to his story about the sun, Wright summarizes his understanding of the Reformed view (and, by extension, his critique of the Western view):
The theological equivalent of supposing the sun goes around the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation....Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is! Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about [God], is at the heart of Christian living....But we are not the center of the universe....It may look, from our point of view, as though “me and my salvation” are the be-all and end-all of Christianity....But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.Wright, of course, traces this back to Augustine and his emphasis on the gnostic view of creation. To press the point further, he introduces a simile that illustrates the issue very well – a jigsaw puzzle. For Wright, the issue is that most people are trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with most of the pieces ‘still in the box’ or, worse, ‘swept off the table’ altogether (pg 33). He states, ‘For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions.’
He then goes on to explain that it is through a thoroughly biblical and historical study of the Old Testament which better prepares a person for interpreting Paul’s doctrine of justification.* ‘Most Jews of the [first-century] were not sitting around discussing how to go to heaven...They were hoping and longing for Israel’s God to act, to do what [God] promised, to turn history the right way up once again’ (55-56). And right there, my mind instantly went to the Gospel of Luke and the prayer of Simeon at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple:
Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel! (Luke 2.29-32, NLT)Likewise, Anna the prophet, who, being there at the same time, ‘talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem’ (v 38).
So, the grand story is that God promised that the world would be rescued through Abraham’s family. This promise is the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. A passage that Paul turns to again and again in his letters. And a point that Wright makes again and again. ‘[Many] first-century Jews thought of themselves as living in a continuing narrative stretching from earliest times, through ancient prophecies, and on toward a climatic moment of deliverance which might come at any moment....this continuing narrative was currently seen, on the basis of Daniel 9, as a long passage through a state of continuing “exile” ’ (pg 59-60). This ‘climatic moment of deliverance’ was specifically noted as ‘God’s righteousness’ or ‘righteous acts’ or ‘the righteousness of God’. This, Wright explains, is best to be understood as God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise to Abraham. That promise was what Paul had in his mind the whole time. That promise was ‘God’s single plan to put the world to rights...through Israel’ (pg 65). That’s what Genesis 15 is all about. The problem, of course, is that ‘God has promised to bless the world through Israel, and Israel has been faithless to that commission’ (pg 67). Israel needed to be rescued too. ‘God has made a plan to save the world; Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite’ (pg 68).
Throughout this discussion, Wright continues to point to the idea of ‘justification’. He ties ‘justification’ with the covenant. That is, justification is best understood by a ‘law-court’ and a law-court is a way of understanding covenant. In his mind, the two go hand-in-hand. The idea is that of being faithful to the covenant. If there is a breach of that covenant, then one most go to the judge and get it settled. The judge hears the case and declares a verdict of ‘not guilty’. That is, the defendant has been ‘justified’ by the court. This verdict has nothing to do with the virtue of the defendant. Nor does this verdict have anything to do with the virtue of the judge. And that is the whole debate. Well, part of it actually. In Piper’s mind (and in the minds of other Reformed thinkers and a lot of the Western world), the defendant is actually given the judge’s righteousness. Wright contests that this is not what the terms mean. Being justified is a status as one relates to the law-court. While the status is ‘received from the judge’ that status is ‘not the judge’s own status’. ‘ “[Righteousness]” and its cognates, in their biblical setting, are in this sense “relational” terms, indicating how things stand with particular people in relation to the court...This works completely, satisfyingly and thoroughly across the entire range of Pauline exegesis and theology’ (pg 69).
So, being ‘justified’ refers neither to the virtue of the person in question nor to the Judge but to the status, the relationship between the person and the Judge. That status is granted by ones faith in the Gospel – ‘Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said’ (1Corinthians 15.4) If one believes that, then one is in a status of justified before God.
But (and this is a sticky wicket) there comes into Paul’s writing and thinking the idea of someone being ‘justified’ by ‘good works’. In Romans 2, Paul wrote that God ‘will judge everyone according to what they have done’ (v 6). Piper et al have a major problem with this (according to Wright) and avoid this passage. According to Wright, they have misunderstood the place of the ‘law’ in the whole story. Moving to Galatians, Wright shows that the law was given to people already in a status of justified before the Judge. That is, the law was given to people already in a ‘right relationship’ with God. It is was not given as a means to get in a right relationship with God. It was given ‘as the way of life for a people already redeemed’. ‘All the “evidence” that the law required would fall under the rubric of “response to God’s saving Grace” ’ (pgs 72-73). To paraphrase James, ‘If you are a child of God, prove it by doing good works!’
All of this is used as a telescope for looking toward the ‘last day’. That is, because one believes that God has raised Jesus from the dead, one lives a life of self-giving, self-denying love, like Jesus lived. All of this is done with the anticipation that God will carry out God’s decision of ‘justified’ in the future. People who are ‘justified’ now live in anticipation of God carrying through that decision on the ‘last day’. See, for Wright (and I would say for Paul) justification is not a synonym for ‘salvation’ as Piper and many other Reformers contend. It is the beginning of a process that encompasses the whole life lived from that point forward. This is how one can make sense of Paul’s words of caution and encouragement. For example, when he told the Corinthians that ‘on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.’ (3.14-15). This bring in the whole idea of ‘now but not yet’ in the New Testament. People who are justified are people living with God’s ultimate future now. Remember, God’s single-plan-for-the-world-through-the-family-of-Abraham is restoration, redemption, New Creation. People who are justified are people living that ultimate future now. People who work for that future are doing so, not to earn ‘justification’ but to show that they have already been justified; that they are already living in a ‘right relationship’ with God.
This is way much more that I could talk about here. In all honesty, it would be a series of reflections. So, in the interim of that, I would just suggest getting a copy of Wright’s book. It is a very good and healthy read into a very deep and important subject.
In the Grace of the Three in One,
* An interesting note is that he views the differences between the ‘New’ perspective and the ‘Old’ perspective as ‘those who get their faith from the four Gospels, topped up with a few bits of Paul [New - JG], and those who base it on Paul, topped up with a few illustrations from the Gospels [Old - JG]’ (pg 28).