The Future of Justification by John Piper

Book review
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper

N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”

Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.

Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:

  • The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
  • Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
  • Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
  • We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
  • The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
  • Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
  • First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
  • God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)

Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.

As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).

Before engaging

But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).

Where Wright is right

Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).

Where Wright is wrong

The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!

Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).

Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.

Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:

“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.

Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).

Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).

I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.

‘Paralyzing perplexity’

The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.

“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).

Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).

And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.

“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).

Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).

A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.

“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).

Conclusion

It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.

Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.

IMG_9259.ed.jpg

Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Boards: paperback
Pages: 239
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN
: 9781581349641, 1581349645

33 thoughts on “The Future of Justification by John Piper

  1. Efforts like this make me wonder if our gracious Lord is about to really do a mighty work of reformation and revival in His churches in the west. Even though books like the Great Exchange and this one make me wonder if pastors are about to rediscover the Gospel? This review has me looking forward to receiving my copy in the mail…many thanks!

    James L

  2. I too have yet to receive my copy but this quote from Piper gives me cause for concern:

    “My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9…”

    How does a gospel that is conditioned in some way upon the works of the sinner (see works of love above) not come under this condemnation? If Wright denies justification by faith alone (which he seems to do proudly) and in his denial of imputation has called it “a cold piece of business,” how in the world can we not call this a false gospel that he teaches and preaches? We need strong and bold voices on this issue and I certainly hope charity has not muzzled Piper’s voice. If Wright can deny these essentials and still be considered “in the faith,” then why the necessity of the book in the first place? Why so much energy spent on an “intra-mural” debate?

    I certainly hope this book is strong in its opposition to Wright and what he teaches as many are following after him. I look forward to reading it and hope for a strong repudiation on its pages.

    Horatius Bonar was clear,

    “Rejection of ‘imputed righteousness’ because the words do not actually occur in Scripture, is foolish and weak. Such terms as Christianity, the Trinity, the Eucharist, Plenary Inspiration, are not to be found in the Bible; yet, inasmuch as the thing, or object, or truth which these words truly and accurately cover is there, the term is received as substantially accurate, and made use of without scruple. Such an objection savors more of little-minded caviling than of the truth-seeking simplicity of faith.

    Refusal to accept the divine ‘theory’ or doctrine of representation in and by another, indicates in many cases mere indifference to the blessing to be received; in others, resentment of the way in which that doctrine utterly sets aside all excellency or merit on our part. Men will win the kingdom for themselves; they will deserve eternal life; they will not take forgiveness or righteousness freely from another’s hands; or be indebted to a Substitute for what they are persuaded they can earn by their personal doings. Because the plan of representation or substitution is distasteful and humbling, they call it absurd and unjust. They refuse a heavenly inheritance on such terms…

  3. I don’t know N.T. Wright’s theology as I haven’t read any of his books yet but it would be abhorrent if Wright is actually against justification. Catholics are not necessarily against justification. They just have a different form of justification called “effective justification” which is related to infused grace. Catholics practice a cooperation in maintaining a right relationship with God. Protestants fear that this process of cooperation MAY lead to “works righteousness” but not necessarily. This has attracted some attention from protestants and even evangelicals.

    As protestants, we believe in an “imputed righteousness” and a “forensic justification” which emphasizes that righteouness comes solely from Christ, not from human works. This should never be compromised. However, the Catholic form of infused grace and effective justification should not be automatically discredited. There is something good to learn from this.

  4. Great review as usual, Tony.

    Can’t wait for my copy to show up.

    Until then, I’ll peruse the pdf version.

  5. One needn’t deny justification to be a heretic; one need only confuse the issue, rather like the one who whispered to Eve: “Hath God REALLY said?…” Indeed, I suspect that confusion is a lot more effective in deceiving many people than is outright contradiction.

  6. Tony, thanks for the book review. The ambiguity/lack of clarity element of Wright’s presentations are certainly one of the strengths in his method of argument.

    As Piper points to the need for clarity on these issues, Wright’s position will become more and more difficult for him to advance in the church.

    A while back, in anticipation of Piper’s book, I began to write what I called a “Crash Course” on the New Perspective. This was a shotgun series of blog posts on as many relevant aspects of NPP as I could squeeze in. It has become a 30,000+ word series that is now only about half done.

    Those posts are here:

    http://biblicalthought.com/blog/category/new-perspective-on-paul/

    I ended up spending a considerable effort in breaking down what N.T. Wright was really saying. Clarity is key. Many times after reading a paragraph or two from Wright, I have been left with the question: “what exactly then are you saying?”

    My conclusion is that N.T. Wright indeed is a heretic. I believe that he is intentionally causing confusion in essential areas of Christian theology (justification), and reworking a solution to the confusion that he has created himself. The solution that he offers is not trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross for salvation, and His righteousness to the justified’s account, as is understood in Reformed Theology. Instead, his solution is designed to point people away from that, to something else other than what is revealed in Scripture.

    The gospel, the righteousness of God (dikaiousune), final judgment, ordo salutis, justification, imputation; these are among the subjects that Wright says we have interpreted wrong, and he redefines them within the NPP grid and presents an alternative theology, a grand narrative in which individual passages are to understood.

    The danger is that Wright does in fact teach another gospel. According to Scripture, let him or anyone who teaches another gospel be anathema.

    May God use the large platform of Desiring God ministries to draw attention to the issues at hand, and create a desire for clarity in His people. May God be glorified in our defense of the faith, and may He send the blowing wind of the Holy Spirit for a might revival, the next Reformation!

  7. In the past year or so, I have spent much of my time delving into the New Perspective on Paul and trying to understand what makes guys like Sanders, Dunn, and Wright tick. Even though each of these men has their own respective opinions, the common factor seems to be that they all agree that Paul has not been read correctly for a very long time, and that the common state of overall Judaism in the time of Christ was what Sanders called “covenantal nomism”. Beyond these two commonalities, the three men greatly diverge in their opinions from here out.It is very clear from reading the little bit of Sanders that I have read that Sanders is clearly in a more liberal camp than Dunn or Wright. To classify Sanders as “heretical” might not be going too far. However, to my friend Stephen Macasil’s comment on N.T. Wright, I feel a bit inclined to respond. Stephen, as one who has written so much on the NPP, you should know better than anyone else that Wright is NOT a heretic. To call one who claims Christ as a heretic is a serious thing. Wright has very clearly claimed that he believes that Christ is the only way to heaven and that all men everywhere are inclined to “obey the gospel”. Although Wright may have some different views on imputed righteousness, that does not make him a heretic. It may make some of his teachings “heretical”, but it does not mean he is castaway. Piper has very solidly come down against those who would try to say that Wright is a heretic (which you should know). Wright deserves a fair reading, and he deserves to be treated graciously. Wright does not distort the gospel, and his writings are extremely clear. Good scholarship does not “call names” when there is disagreement. Let us follow the example of Piper and graciously interact with those that we disagree with (even when they are probably wrong).

  8. Steve, thanks for injecting some gracious understanding into this comment thread. I was very surprised to hear Wright deemed a heretic. This is a very serious accusation, and one with which I strongly disagree. Piper, as you mentioned, clearly does not consider Wright a heretic.

    I first read Wright over four years ago. Since then I have been trying to get a handle on his perspective of first century Judaism, justification, imputation, etc. Wright was the first guy I read who does theology historically/biblically rather than systematically. This of course was difficult to sort out at first, but I have made great strides in recent months understanding his most controversial views.

    Right now, I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what Wright actually teaches. Quotations from his works are often asserted outside of their context. Wright has been singled out as if he were the only theologian of any importance to take these positions which is simply not true. The difference between Wright and those others is that Wright is a pastor with a penchant for writing popular works.

    Wright’s views are highly nuanced and one needs to understand his interpretive grid before understanding his theological distinctives.

    This is the best general introduction to Wright I have read thus far.

    Concerning justification, this article helped me. Also, George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament as well as Ardel Caneday’s posts on justification (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) have helped me immensely in understanding the essentially eschatological nature of justification – something that under-girds Wright formulation and is not discussed often enough. I was also helped by my direct interaction with Caneday on his blog specifically concerning the Piper/Wright debate.

    Concerning imputation, Wright denies its semantics, but affirms its substance via “union with Christ.” He affirms that we do have Christ’s righteousness, but it is via union with Him rather than via imputation.

    At the end of the day I think much (but clearly not all) of this debate revolves around semantics. Wright is given to hyperbole and I think this has caused him much grief as people have taken some of his statements and said he is on a slippery slope. I believe that Wright uses hyperbole for rhetorical effect – to get certain people’s attention and think about theological issues from a different angle. I have been helped immensely by Wright (and Piper!), but alas this sword has a double edge.

  9. Wow Steve there is actually some one out there I can agree with! N.T. Wright is a great scholar and deserves respect even though he may differentiate from traditional scholarship. I find it disturbing that so many are disturbed by new scholarship. I guess this proves the point that people truly are scared of change. Let us never think we have reached some plateau in academics and relationship, if we figured it all out then what motive do we have to continue to live. I hope all will read N.T. Wright with a sympathetically critical ear, while at the same time being open to change. I thank God for John Piper and N.T. Wright, they both have equally contributed positively in my life thus far.

    Blessings!

  10. Steve,
    Thank you for your criticism of my comments on Wright. I am fully appreciative of your warnings toward me in love. I was initially reluctant to make public statements about N.T. Wright as a heretic. On pages 2,3,4,27,28 of Harold O.J. Brown’s “Heresies,” Brown sketches the definition of heresy and heretics in quite succinct terminology. He notes that heresy refers to something that undercuts the very basis for Christian existence. It is my conviction that N.T. Wright promotes a theology that is attempting to accomplish that very thing – to undercut the very basis of Christian existence. As a Reformed Theologian and Apologist, I carefully disclose “which” form of Christianity it is that Wright’s theology is aimed at destroying. I am declaring boldly that it is Protestantism flowing from the Reformation, constructed from reformed exegesis, not in conflict with the orthodox creeds of the church. I am not defending Mormonism or Roman Catholicism. I am pleading with the church to heed strong warnings that Wright is dangerous.

    In direct and gentle response to your comment above, please understand that I have examined N.T. Wright’s Christology and have grown tremendously disturbed by numerous redefinitions of our Lord as revealed in Scripture and celebrated in the creeds. This can be understood by reading “The Challenge of Jesus” by Wright, especially chapter 5, in particular pgs. 111-125 on the vocation and self-understanding of Jesus. After a long line of arguments leading to Wright’s understanding of Jesus and God (I will argue elsewhere that from an ontological basis Wright’s Christology is thoroughly destructive), Wright admits that he still recites the historic Christian creeds ex animo, which means “from the heart,” but says “I now mean something very different by them.” (pg.124).

    Steve, please look closely at the issues surrounding Wright’s New and Fresh perspectives. To say that he claims Christ and teaches the necessity of obeying the gospel really means nothing if he has redefined Jesus and completely reconstructed the gospel to mean something in diametric opposition to what you and I (and Piper) may mean. Ask yourself what the gospel is, and then, find out what Wright says it is. Ask yourself who Jesus is, and then, read what Wright says He is. If you experience what I experienced, then you will see that there is more than a mere intramural theological disagreement. A good way to understand the magnitude of Wright’s errors is while reading his definitions, ask yourself if you would be satisfied in answering the questions of either your children or the lost while evangelizing, the way that he does. Would you entrust your loved ones salvation to his Jesus and his gospel? It’s only when you get to the “meat of the matter” of Wright’s theology that heresy and the malicious attempt to convince the mind of his heresy with great energy, is discovered.

    Wright is logical, but logic does not determine truth or falsehood, only the validity of the form of an argument. An argument can be logical and false at the same time. Example: “All who are married in the LDS Temple will become gods. My wife and I were married in the LDS Temple. Therefore, we will become gods.” That is an irrefutably logical argument. But it is based on a false premise, making it logical and false. This is what Wright does. He begins with false premises and equivocates terms like saved, called, Jesus, gospel etc. Examine how he defines these terms and then take another look. I would be interested to see your findings.

    Stephen@biblicalthought.com is my email address where you can send papers etc.

    Brother, you may still disagree with my report, I understand. I put no wedge between fellow believers and I that disagree with me on the basis that they think I’m wrong about Wright unless they are promoting his teaching. Sinners that are under the wrath of God and deserving of eternal conscience torment in hell for their own sin and the sin of Adam as federal head, are only saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, as their substitute in bearing the wrath of God for them in their place, earning for them eternal life. When someone says that the gospel has NOTHING to do with this, but rather is part of some sort of subversive political movement underlying the culture of Paul’s day where the declaration that Jesus is Lord fits in like a piece of a very large puzzle, I sound the warning that believing it leads to death. If a man teaches people theology that leads to death, that man is justly named a heretic. According to Scripture, not me, if anyone preaches another gospel, other than what was once and for all delivered to the saints, he receives much more than being called a name by some 33 year old dude that lives around the corner from Disneyland.

    David Baruch, I don’t think that new scholarship is the issue. At Faith Defenders, we are doing tremendous research into the application of the elements of salvation and the variety of relationships to one another through union with Christ that many are considering “new scholarship.” But if we announced that our research has led us to the conclusion that the final judgment is according to works and that Jesus was nothing more than a young Jewish prophet telling a story of YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, the agent that God himself acted through to accomplish this, I would hope that you branded us as heretics and warned the church of the danger of our ministry.

    Respectfully,

    Stephen Macasil

    Jude 3

  11. Stephen I apologize for my use of words. I was rattling thoughts off the top of my head and did not use choice words (I wasn’t taking this blog as serious as some apparently are..wow, and I do not mean that sarcastically), maybe I restate myself through the words of N.T. Wright himself like so: “The understanding that battles over the Bible sometimes echo, and sometimes do not, the sixteenth-century debates about the authority of scripture in relation to “tradition” and “reason”. this is confusing, because many Christians in mainline denominations, not least many clergy, learned the theology they know in terms of those debates, and fell under strong pressure to take up positions accordingly. This then becomes a matter of party loyalty.” What I was trying to say is, academia is caught in cycle of vertical transference. Imposing there thoughts on the text. Few have taken a step back from this looking at the text and its use, rather then what the text is trying to say to me (these people fall into the postmodern movement and the enlightenment). They all seem to want to find a system or grid to impose on scripture so they can feel secure about God. All I am simply saying is an openness to change allows for new discoveries in scripture. Not saying that we should put these discoveries in boxes so that 300 years from now men will say that this is truth. This is what has happened in scholarship today and there needs to be a different approach or history will repeat itself. I am not imposing a New way or a return to Old, that would simply put scripture in a box again. Furthermore, and like I said in my previous posting, people hate change, why? Because, man wishes to be in control rather then trust a sovereign authoritative God who controls all. In past scholarship we have imposed a false assurance in the authority of scripture, rather then trusting in God to be the authority over scripture, giving scripture authority to give him authority (this takes a careful hermeneutic to do so, that is different from what has been typically taught thus far.)I hope I have expressed myself more clearly.

  12. I am glad to see that there are blogs of this sort where respectful and reasoned dialog takes place. With that said, as one who has read nearly everything that N.T. Wright has ever written and as one who has taken classes from him and one who knows him personally, I do not believe that Piper is understanding completely what Wright has been arguing. The most telling part of the book came in the appendices when Piper wrote the following paragraph:

    “In my interaction with Wright by e-mail, he questioned me about my own understanding of the bigger picture and some texts in particular. Most of my responses to that interaction were built into the book as it grew to twice the size it was before that interaction. But it seemed to me that even though I could not afford to write another whole book of constructive exegesis on justification, I could perhaps offer some exegetical glimpses into what such a book might look like.”

    This is where I feel the book fails. It never quite gets to a satisfactory level of Biblical Theology and a discussion of sweeping paradigms that encapsulate the Biblical story from Creation to New Creation. There is not enough discussion what sort of grid Pauline theology is to be understood by. Without adequate reference to larger themes like Salvation History the book feels a little tit-for-tat and not so much a dialog. This is one place where reviewers will take Piper to task because Wright’s understanding of justification can only be properly made sense of in light of the full fell swoop of scripture.

    Comments like the following, however, need to strongly be reconsidered:

    “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring will probably have global scope to it but will not deal personally with the human heart of sin with clear declarations of how Christ dealt with sin and how the fearful heart can find rest in the gospel of grace—the active grace that, while not exhausted by God’s act of justification, does include it.” (101)

    This statement is downright unfair and beneath John Piper. If this is why he wrote his book then I daresay he is not the match of Bishop Wright, scholarly or pastorally.

  13. To Stephen Macasil, Steve, Alan, and David, I love this dialog; I think it really brings us to some great issues even underlying our own tendencies to cling to works righteousness as we defend so valiantly (and I mean valiantly) the gospel of grace, once and for all delivered to the saints. Why do I put that way? Because I think the issue of placing Wright under the Curse of Galatians 1:28 places all of us under this same curse (Hyperbole for those of you who are taking me too seriously).

    I will stand next to you and defend all of the things each of you defend as the gospel, especially Mr. Macasil. But there are many people in evangelicalism today who deny much more “vital” doctrinal premises that actually are contrary to the traditions of the church, i.e. original sin and therefore imputed righteousness and more greviously Particular Redemption, such as many in the SBC, the Methodist Church, etc… I could easily quote the words of John Owen here and say that a denial of limited atonement is a denial of the gospel, and it is, in a very real sense.

    Some of these opinions greatly remind me of the Shepherds conference a few years ago where Dr. MacArthur says something to the effect of: No one will go to heaven without a correct sotieriology (paraphrase). Once again, I agree with the thought behind his statement: grace + works does not equal salvation. Yet, do any of us ever really achieve this ideal? NO! We always, throughout the process of our sanctification prop up works and idols to contribute to our righteousness then through the help of Holy Spirit and the Word cast them down and learn to live Gospel Centered lives.

    Unfortunately, one of these works, that I, and I contend, many of you, prop up is that you must believe (let us not forget that belief is a work, an act of our wills, that is conferred upon us by the work of Christ)in the reformed way to truly be a believer. Would any of us say that all Arminians are apart from Christ? Hopefully not. What we would say, is that the Arminian that is a believer is a believer inconsistently with the doctrines of a true heretic, Jacobus Arminius. ALL CHRISTIANS AT SOME POINT INCONSISTENTLY PRESUPPOSE THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE. Dr. Ligon Duncan was very helpful to me in this when he told me, “Thankfully, God gives us all a blessed inconsistency.” (Ha, this was actually in reference to Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “Why Any Self Respecting Calvinist is Pre-Millenial”). Calvin wisely stated that even the most carefull and meticulous theologian is right only 80% of the time. If all of us took every thing that we believed to its logical conclusion, we would all be under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9.

    I firmly and dogmatically believe that to deny limited atonement is to deny the gospel, yet I would never tell Dr. Russell Moore (a man I love) that he is not a believer for denying this most precious truth. I think he is in serious error; yet fortunately he as well as the rest of us, does not take his errors to their logical conclusion. Any dispensationalist who does not believe in the “Covenant of Works” cannot logically believe in original sin and therefore cannot logically believe in “The Righteous Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness”. Yet, most of us, myself included, hold MacArthur dearly in our hearts and affections for his labor for the kingdom.

    What does this mean in the context of Bishop Wright? While I do think he has been severely mistreated, by people unfortunately in my own denomination (PCA), and while people have failed to see that he is using Anglican language instead of Prebyterian language each with their own paragigms before jumping to conclusions about what he is saying, I do also agree with all of you that he is in error. I do think that exegetically he is in error with the usage of Justification, I do think he has misinterpreted Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, and I do think that his “Grace” may end up not being “Grace” afterall. But his error is the same (maybe not in intensity) as ours. Grace no matter how glorious it may seem, and no matter how free it may seem, when followed up by a “because I or We” or whatever, ceases to be Grace. He is in error because even though the first century Judaism may have spoke of the gracious delight in the law it was followed up with a “because we”–it was not Grace at all. Luther and Calvin weren’t comparing the Catholic church with the “Evil Jews” who spoke of Justification by works. The Catholic Church was semi-pelagian, not pelagian; so were these jews. We must be careful not to let our error be the same as the semi-pelagian.

    We are debtors to mercy and grace alone, not our own righteous “Calvinistic Beliefs”. This is what he meant when he quoted Bishop Hooker with the statement, “We are not justified by believing in Justification by faith”. We believe because Christ died for us and purchased for us belief, it was then conferred upon us in due time as His elect. We recieve assurance of election when we notice within ourselves the faithfullness of Christ to bring us to faith (and yes, therefore Justification) and repentance. This is the exact language of the Synod of Dordt on the matter (See section 1 of the cannons).

    We are all in error, and graciously, we are all inconsistently in error. Bishop Wright, denies nothing that the bulk of evangelicalism does not also deny. Are you prepared to say that none of them are believers? We praise Richard Baxter, despite his looney atonement views, we praise and sing the hymns of the Wesley brothers, and don’t forget that we don’t exactly agree with the beloved Luther with his views on Justification. Do we need to eventually draw a line in the sand? Absolutely, but let us not think that the kingdom is so small that God does not place on the cross some of our bad doctrines as well. Wright, when we peel away the major language differences, does still make some errors, but if one were to read his other works such as, “Evil and the Justice of God”, he still, as inconsistently and ambiguously as it may seem, holds to justification by faith. Now, before I lay bare and open to the criticism of someone telling me I don’t care about doctrine, do say that if he really in his mind and preaching denied completely and intentionally salvation by Grace alone through faith alone, he is under the curse, but I really have never seen him say anything of the sort.

    With love and righteousness inferred upon me by the most precious and gracious redeemer of our souls,

    Jonathan Henson

  14. Thankyou for whetting my appetite for this book. It’s now sitting in my “on-deck circle”. I’m an admirer of N.T. Wright and thankful for his ministry. I doubt that reading this book will change that, however, this is a book that needed to be written. I hope the irenic, humble tone struck by Piper will be the norm as this debate goes forward.

    This is an excellent site. Grace and peace.

  15. My questions lie with some of our exegesis in determining just how God reconciles us through Christ. 2 Cor 5.21 is not loaded with legal language stressing the objective work of Christ, but is highly ontological stressing the subjective work of Christ, first upon himself as one who was made sin, and second upon us as new creatures. An imputation framework seems very foreign to the text, though it may be present in other texts. I find it odd that in all the responses to my point on the blog, only one person was willing to acknowledge the significance of verbal difference. Most sought to harmonize Paul’s word choice. This is, perhaps, due to a theological motivation to retain a double imputation reading.

    As I see it, there are three main issues that need to be better addressed when interpreting this text:

    1. What are we to make of the verbal difference between Christ being “made” sin and our “becoming” the righteousness of God? If Paul had a double imputation framework in mind, it seems that he would have made this crystal clear by using the same two verbs to connote the same legal action—imputation of sin to Christ and imputation of God’s righteousness to us—but he did not.
    2. What is the function of iva (so that) connecting the two propositions? Most double-imputationists assume that it introduces a result clause; however, it is also possible that it is functioning to introduce a purpose clause. He who knew no sin became sin with the purpose of our becoming the righteousness of God. This is different from reading it as Jesus was imputed sin so that we could be imputed righteousness. The idea of a great exchange seems foreign. Rather, what Paul seems to emphasize is that Jesus was made sin for the purpose of making us actual, righteous people perhaps, as Scott Hafemann has put it, “to make us new covenant keepers of the law, enabled by the Spirit.”
    3. What does the “righteousness of God” mean? This is, of course, what has been hotly debated. Piper makes some keen observations about Wright’s conception of the righteousness of God (keeps covenant promises, judges impartially, deals with sin, advocates for the helpless). Piper points out that Wright’s definition is restricted to action, what God does as righteousness. Instead, he avers that we should be first concerned with what righteousness is, not what it does. In classical Piperian form, he doxologically points us to the fact that God is righteous because he is committed to his own glory. However, this division between what righteousness is and what it does is, perhaps, too Greek in interpretation. After all, isn’t God’s commitment to his own glory foundationally a promise that he keeps? Righteousness is the action of God’s covenant commitment to his own glory among Father, Son and Spirit.

  16. Gosh Steven…You sound just like Morrey. I asked Morrey 5 years ago at a wedding if he ever read NT Wright; he said he didnt really know much about him. Then i mentioned his associations with the NPP and he said in the classic Morrey tone: “Ah, yes. He is a heritic!”
    Sure Wright is to be admonished for being muddy, but despite Wrights views on justification (Which, in my opinion, are not all together off and are explained with clarity and brilliance for the most part), the church is simply missing out on one of the many great christian writers of our time. His work in NTPG, JVG and RSG are brilliant. Wright promotes one of the most keen and insightful biblical worldviews and critiques of culture available today; it is sad that many people dismiss him–if you have not read him with a heart to learn about God and His world, i encourage you to give Wright a chance.

  17. mr, what does any of this have to do with sounding like Morey? He received, in addition to his earned degrees at Westminster, personal training and discipleship from Francis Schaeffer, Van Til, Gordon Clark, Walter Martin, Murray, Olford, and more. Since he is now discipling me, I should not only sound like him, but the aformentioned as well.

    You will notice, if you read any of my NPP works, that I have never denied that Wright is brilliant. He is. He is also fascinating to listen to (I have listened to almost everything available almost twice)! That isn’t the issue. The issue has to do with whether he’s right or not in critical areas of his theology. This is because he is promoting a “new-found” perpsective that requires the abandoning of the old, waving off the old as being in error. As a Reformer, I pay close attention to things like this, and perhaps take things a bit more serious than others. I realize that I may be the one who is dead wrong. My only objective standard to measure this vulnerable relativity of my sinful mind is Scripture. I am hesitant to release my exegetical evaluation of Wright because of the dear love I have for John Piper. I was shocked when I read the Future of Justification. I was, perhaps unrealistically, expecting him to sniff out the danger a bit better than he did. I think Piper is wrong about Wright, but viewing Piper as a brother I must be sure that when I release the book, the references to Piper are done within the bonds of Christian peace, as viewed by contemporary Evangelicalism. Otherwise, I’ll just get slammed by the politically-correct crowd and my arguments will go unheard. O, the wiles of Satan!

  18. I know this tread is not dealing specifically with the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but you did bring it up as did Piper. Within his courteous treatment of Wright, Piper used these words and others to describe Wright’s treatment of the gospel and justification – “disfigured,” “distorted,” and “blurred.” Just how disfigured, distorted and blurred does teaching on the gospel and justification have to become before Galatians 1:8-9 applies? I would like to know where Piper and others would draw the line.

    Happy New Year!
    http://www.reformedcow.com

  19. In light of the above confusion there is only one suggestion that needs be put forth, which is before you take the time to read Piper’s “critique” of Wight, you ought to read what Wright himself has written and in the context in which he wrote it. Wright does not disavow justification, but carefully defines it to quote Wright: “Justification is therefore God’s declaration that certain people are within the covenant.”; “Justification is not only God’s declaration on the last day that certain people are in the right: it is also his declaration that in the present that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the person who believes the Gospel is in the right.” and ” Justification is not how God makes someone a Christian: it is his righteous declaration that someone is already a Christian.” Granted reading Wright takes time and concentration, but regardless of Piper’s intentions to read Piper before you read Wright is not just incoherent, it is immoral.

  20. Stephen Macasil – Trust me you are indeed dead wrong! That you claim to have read all Wright has written twice is an incredible statement. Reading his “NT and the People of God” volumes alone would require require a good deal of time, plus all the articles he has written and continues to write. Moreover, if you had actually read Wright, you would (1) not be talking about such theological light-weights, in comparison to Wright, as Francis Schaeffer, Van Til,Gordon Clark, Walter Martin, Murray and Olford, since not a single one of them has interacted with the material with which Wright has interacted as a NT scholar and (2) you would not be reading Piper as if that were a sufficient substitute for actually taking the time to read Wright, since Piper himself has not actually bothered to read everything Wright has written. My suggestion to you my friend, is to go read Wright and read him twice (as you have said you have), and when you are done take some time to think about what you have read before you decide to say anything, let alone write a book!

  21. Hi Robert!

    I certainly hope that you’ve read Wright better that you’ve read me. I wasn’t comparing the “theological lightweights” you’ve mentioned with Wright. Go back and read it so that you can experience for yourself how easy it is to overlook certain nuances and contexts.

    Here’s an example:

    You said: “That you claim to have read all Wright has written twice is an incredible statement.” And “My suggestion to you my friend, is to go read Wright and read him twice (as you have said you have)…”

    I agree, it’s an incredible statement. I am almost finished with Evil and the Justice of God (only for the first time), but here’s the point. *I never made the claim to have read him twice – you’ve read that into what I’ve written.

    What I wrote is: “He is also fascinating to listen to (I have listened to almost everything available almost twice)!”

    See, something so obvious and plain snuck right in under your nose, yet the accusations made against me remain.

    Please apologize, Robert.

  22. OK, Stephen, if Robert hasn’t (won’t) apologised, I will for him:

    “Hi Steve, I apologise for reading more more into what you read than what you have heard.”

    Justified? desserts.

  23. Steven,

    Thanks for the response…

    My comment about you sounding like Morrey is in relation to the fact that one could be so cheeky and daring in their opinion of another brother–in this case, NT Wright–without knowing them as a brother. In other words, you are condemning someone you know so little about, and i think that you would agree that you are in the minority if you label NTW anathema (i.e. Piper, and other respectable evangelical endorsements). I know where you are coming from with your concerns for God’s people, but I do think that you are wrong for condemning Wright; this is a wager that I would recommend you walk away from.
    My comments about Wright’s “brilliance” was not to say “He’s a really smart guy,” but rather that he shapes and contextualizes the Jesus stories and Paul’s theology (and the entire NT) into its most reasonable form by the soundest hermeneutic (i.e. Critical realism, a narrative substructure, proper exegesis, etc).
    Anyhoo, when will your book be coming out? It sounds like you are well studied in this area, and i would enjoy reading your book.

    Thanks…

  24. Back in the Fall I spent a fair amount of time reading up on this, including skimming Piper’s book in PDF format. Both these men are goldly men who have helped me greatly.

    I don’t have the time resources to really discuss any meat, but you write: “So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!”

    I grew up Reformed and currently am Lutheran. One of the reasons I eventually moved away from Calvinism is the incongruity of statements like the one quoted.

    God is sovereign. How can Wright’s book be dangerous? If it’s in error then it can only be God preventing those He does not wish to see from seeing. There can be no danger of any sort.

  25. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Passages abound on the importance of sound doctrine, of contending for the faith. Passages abound on God’s absolute sovereignty, too. God uses means in salvation and we are called to contend for those means. There is no contradiction here.

  26. I am just going to chime in briefly. One of the best parts of N.T. Wright’s scholarship is that it advocates a return to understanding the Jewishness of the gospel. All of us are inclined to read things that aren’t there into everything we read, including scripture. Often a different perspective exposes our bias in the way we have interpreted things. I am of the opinion that the NPP is a much needed addition to the conversation about the gospel because, in a very real way, it helps us engage the gospel from an entirely different perspective than we have been taught to by our western methodology — something none of the biblical writers were disposed to. I have been studying first century Judaism and the difference between eastern and western thought for years now and what Wright teaches is, in my opinion, much more in line with how the Jews would have interacted with the good news. I do believe we have elevated the first part of the book of Romans and a few chapters in Galatians over everything else the bible teaches about ‘salvation’, including everything Jesus has to say on the subject. It’s not that those sections aren’t inspired or important, just that its vital that our understanding of them fits with what the prophets, Jesus, and the rest of the NT writers have to say about the subject. But in the end the gospel is that Jesus is fully God, died and resurrected, was given authority by the Father over all things (including sin and death), and sits at the right hand of the Father — no one comes to the Father except through Him and He invites us into an eternal life sustained by the Spirit of God within us. I think we can all agree on that.

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