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.