Home > Ecclesiology, N.T. Wright, New Testament, soteriology > N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification – In Layman’s Terms!

N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification – In Layman’s Terms!

You know there’s something exciting going on in the Evangelical world when John Piper devotes an entire book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, to refuting N.T. Wright’s doctrine of Justification.  It’s even more exciting when N.T. Wright responds with his own book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.  But that excitement deflates like a week-old birthday balloon when you get bogged down just trying to understand what Wright is even saying.

Consider this recent interview with Wright.  The first commentor says, “I read the interview a couple of time and still don’t really understand what what he is trying to say.”  The third comment says, “I wish I had the time and energy to understand this debate…  I just don’t get what Wright is trying to say…”

I have read a lot of N.T. Wright’s works over the years.  As with many great theologians through history, his strength is also his weakness: he writes in a way to make you feel you have just read something greatly profound, but you’re not quite sure entirely what he meant.  This leaves his writings ambiguous enough that it is hard to pin him down about issues he’s almost addressing, but not quite.

So I’ve compiled a short list of the talking points of N.T. Wright’s doctrine of justification.  I’ve tried to cut out as much theological language as I can to help you get down to the real core of the issue instead of getting stuck before you even get started.

Here’s what Wright believes, in good theological fashion, stated in 5 points:

1. God doesn’t give you righteousness – When God justifies a Christian, he’s saying, “This guy’s okay.”  He’s not transferring Jesus’ righteousness into your moral bank account, a concept theologians call, “imputed righteousness”.  Righteousness is a status that can be granted, not a commodity that can be traded.

2. “Righteousness of God” always refers to God’s character – Since righteousness is not a commodity, it’s not something God can give away.  It basically means that God is always a good guy.  Wright calls it God’s “covenant faithfulness”.  But don’t get hung up on this idiosyncratic definition because what he means is similar to Bill Bright’s first spiritual law: God loves you [and all his creation] and has a wonderful plan for your life [and all his creation].

3. In the Bible, Justification talk always occurs in discussions about who can and can’t belong to your church – In discussions of “the plan of salvation”, the Bible uses different concepts than Justification.  Justification is a quick way of saying, “Look, if God said this dude’s okay, then you better treat him like a brother and not like an outcast.”

4. On the last day, we will be judged by the fruits of the Spirit in our lives – A number of biblical passages state that final judgment will be by “works” (e.g. Rom 2.16, 14.10; 2 Cor 5.10; Eph 6.8).  A Christian’s hope comes from being indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Without the Holy Spirit, the entire Christian life falls apart.

5. Don’t forget Abraham! – The gospel is not, “Adam brought us sin, but Jesus saves us from sin.”  God’s answer to sin started when he created a renewed people, beginning with Abraham, and followed by Moses, David, the prophets, etc.  We become part of that people the same way Abraham did: by faith.  Don’t jump from Genesis 3 straight to Matthew 27 when you try to understand God’s story.  Salvation is not just about personal forgiveness but about becoming part of God’s covenant people.

    We can sum up the main contentions in two statements:

    • Piper and Wright’s other critics want to protect the traditional Protestant view that salvation consists of personal forgiveness
    • Wright emphasizes that salvation is just as much (or moreso) becoming part of the church


    • For Piper, it is most important for people to understand that they can’t earn God’s favor
    • For Wright, it is most important for people to understand that they must be transformed by the Holy Spirit

    It seems that Wright would like to minimize the differences, arguing that he is saying basically what protestant theologians have always said, though shifting the language around a bit.  Piper wants to maximize the differences, which is what prompted his initial book.  Piper sees Wright as a threat to the traditional view.

    1. October 27, 2009 at 5:35 am

      Rev. RT Jones

      I have waited long for you to response to many of my previous comments, none is coming forth. Never mind.

      I never stop reading materials on Christianity.

      Have you read a book entitled ‘The Evolution of God’ by Robert Wright. It’s more enligtening then Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’.

      I have read ‘The History of God’ by Karen Armstrong – also enlightening.

      I do talks on Islam in my spare times, and Christianity from time to time of course comparatively.

      I do come across now locally services guide-books to be rendered by pastors in church following the changes of time.


    2. October 28, 2009 at 1:43 am

      Sorry Alhaj. I have been preoccupied with work. I thought about you the other day on my 2 hour commute.

      I am in the process of rethinking this blog. Perhaps I will move to my own domain. There are some things I am frustrated with in wordpress.

      I have not read The Evolution of God, and I have only skimmed The History of God.

      I think I have not responded because there are so many comments that it is somewhat overwhelming to try to address them all. I will try to get back to you, but I cannot promise when it will be. Perhaps I can do something later this week. Thank you for your interest.

      • October 28, 2009 at 10:55 pm

        Rev RT Jones

        Thanks for the response.

        I am busy myself catching up reading your President Obama book ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

        I hope the world is peaceful this time he’s around. I hate killing is done in the name of religion or other pretext (resulting in the genocide of innocent women and children) when it is much more easier for people today to come together to discuss.

        The most important salvation today it seemed is the salvation of all people living together in this world irrespective of religion or race that they can live peacefully with each other. Look at our children – we love them, so are every other parents.

        See you again.



    3. Evan
      February 21, 2016 at 6:36 am

      Dear R.T. Jones, I have traditionally really enjoyed Wright and was wanting to search briefly to get a sense of his sense of salvation so I could hold that in my mind as I weigh a certain bible passage. While I don’t know much about Piper, I’ve certainly heard of him and have heard certain things from him. I want to personally thank you for working so hard to understand and articulate to us (and me!) some of the two theologians basic points and attitudes toward each other. It was very helpful, EXTREMELY CONVENIENT, and amazingly refreshing to hear what sounds like such a generous / neutral take on both instead of acting like you have to take a side. I know that Tom Wright doesn’t want to be misunderstood and would rather say a lot not to be misunderstood than say too little and be taken the wrong way, so I look forward to reading that second book of his you mention. Blessings to you and what you do!

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