N.T. Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. With a New Introduction. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to buy the book.
This book is a 2016 reprint of N.T. Wright’s 2009 book on justification. It has a new introduction by the author. Wright’s book was a response to Reformed pastor John Piper’s 2007 book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wright’s views on the Christian doctrine of justification have been controversial among Christians. Some Christians have even accused Wright of perverting or undermining the Gospel, or of teaching another Gospel (a la Galatians 1:8).
For a number of evangelical Protestant Christians, justification is God’s forgiveness of people’s sins and imputation of the righteousness of Christ onto Christian believers. The criterion for being justified is faith: accepting God’s free offer of forgiveness and imputed righteousness. According to this view, people can never earn a right standing before God by doing good works, for all have sinned and no one can be righteous enough for a perfect and holy God. Justification needs to be God’s free act of unmerited grace. When a person is justified, God no longer sees that person’s sin, even though he or she is still a sinner. Rather, God sees Christ’s righteous life covering the person who is justified. That imputed righteousness will serve the Christian well at the last judgment, when God will accept the Christian into heaven because the Christian’s sins are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Many evangelicals believe that this view of justification was taught by the apostle Paul in the New Testament.
What is Wright’s view on justification, and how does it compare and contrast with the view held by many evangelicals? Wright shies away from seeing justification as God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness onto the believer, even though he thinks that there is some grain of truth to this idea. For Wright, justification is about God judicially declaring and reckoning the believer as “in the right” and forgiving the believer’s sin. But Wright thinks that justification also concerns God placing the believer in the Christian community of believing Jews and Gentiles. This community is Abraham’s seed, possessing God’s mission for Abraham and his seed to bless God’s creation. It does that in this life by serving the world, preaching the Gospel, and being a light to people about who God is. But it will also do so after Christ returns and renews the cosmos, as Christians will play an integral part in this cosmic renewal. For Wright, this picture corresponds with the Old Testament picture of God’s cosmic renewal accompanying God’s restoration and exaltation of Israel. For Wright, Christians are the firstfruits of God’s new creation, which will one day encompass the entire cosmos.
Wright also contends that, according to Paul, God will eschatologically judge all people, including Christians, according to their works. Christians’ good works, in short, will be a part of their final justification before God. Wright’s view here has troubled a number of evangelicals, who maintain that people are saved at the last judgment solely by receiving God’s free grace through faith, not by doing good works. To his credit, Wright is sensitive to the pastoral implications of what he is saying: Christians will be afraid that their works are not good enough to get them into heaven. Wright addresses this concern in a variety of ways. Wright denies that final justification requires believers to be perfect, but he maintains instead that it requires them to be patiently doing and pursuing the will of God, a la Romans 2:7. Wright also argues that Paul’s teaching is that the Spirit, in cooperation with the believer, will produce fruits of virtue and holiness in the believer’s life. Moreover, Wright holds that the Christian’s performance of good works should not be an apprehensive attempt to appease an unsmiling judge, but rather should flow from a desire to please a gracious God.
In reading this book by Wright, I was perplexed about why Wright’s view on justification is controversial among Christians, especially Christians of the Reformed variety. Granted, Wright does not regard justification as God imputing Christ’s righteousness onto believers, which is important to Reformed Christians. But Wright still associates justification with God’s forgiveness of sin and regarding of believers as judicially righteous. Is that not what is important? In addition, while some Reformed Christians have criticized Wright’s view on the importance of works in final justification, how is Wright’s view different from what I have read and heard a number of Reformed Christians say: that people are not saved by their good works, but they are not saved without them?
This book was not exactly a light read for me. The prose was not difficult, but I had to pay close attention to what I was reading to see where Wright would go with his argument, and how his argument would hold together. In the end, Wright’s view on justification came together rather coherently, even though some of my questions remained unanswered. For one, I wondered how exactly Israel’s return from exile fit into Wright’s scenario. Wright repeatedly highlighted the biblical and post-biblical Jewish theme of Israel’s return from exile as important in understanding Paul’s teaching on justification. But I was unable to determine from this book how Wright was conceptualizing Israel’s return from exile within his view on justification. Does Wright interpret that return literally, as the Jewish people returning to the land of Palestine and receiving political sovereignty over their land? Some believe that such a picture is consistent with Romans 11. Does Wright believe that the church fulfills Israel’s return from exile in a spiritual sense, or that Israel’s return from exile in the Old Testament stands for God’s larger renewal of the cosmos?
Second, I was somewhat unclear about Wright’s view on the role and significance of Israel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Did God want Israel in the Old Testament to be a light to the nations, or was Israel’s role in God’s plan to produce Jesus Christ, who would fulfill that mission to be a light to the nations? Wright acknowledges Scriptural passages about Old Testament Israel being a light to the nations: in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, for example, God talks about the nations marveling at God’s wise laws for Israel and God’s presence within Israel. At the same time, Wright seems to contend that Paul is saying that the Torah separated Israel from the nations and was a dead end in terms of Israel’s mission on account of Israel’s sins, which is why Christ came. For Wright, was God setting Israel up to fail at the mission that God gave her? Wright appears rather critical of a Christian view that God gave people a law they could not keep to show them that they needed a savior, or that Christ is God’s Plan B in response to human sin. But how is Wright’s view different from those views that he criticizes?
Of course, critiquing Wright is a difficult task. Because Wright is a prolific writer, he may have addressed such questions elsewhere. Still, in my opinion, he should have briefly addressed these issues in Justification, since that would have tied up some loose ends.
This book did provide me with a way to account for various aspects of Paul’s writings. For example, I have long wondered about Abraham’s faith in Romans 4, and if or how that related to Christ. For Wright, it does: Abraham trusted that God (by giving Abraham a son) would create from him a community that would bless the world, and Christ’s creation of the church is part of God’s fulfillment of this divine promise to Abraham.
In reading this book, I wondered if Wright’s views could be found explicitly in Paul’s writings. How faithful is Wright’s interpretation of Paul to what Paul actually wrote? In some cases, Wright seemed to be reading his own ideas into Paul’s writings. Wright argued, for example, that Romans 10 relates to how the Jews separated themselves from the Gentiles, but, as far as I can see, such an idea is not explicit in Romans 10. Overall, though, I think that there is something to Wright’s model. Paul in Romans 2:17-24 does appear to presume that Israel had a mission to be a light to the nations and failed at that mission, a theme that Wright emphasizes. Paul in Romans 3:1-7 regards Israel’s failure as a problem. Romans 8 does present a picture of cosmic renewal in which God’s people will participate.
I am somewhat unclear about how Wright holds together his belief that final justification relates to works with his view that believers already possess God’s final verdict of “righteous” (though Wright thoughtfully interacts with the issue of assurance of salvation and critiques how some Christians have understood this). Still, Wright does well to note that such a tension appears to exist in Philippians 3:12-16, and that Paul talks about judgment according to works, even for Christians.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.