So What?


{This is a follow up post to Part 1 and Part 2.}

My wife is very good at asking me a question I need to ask myself a bit more often: ‘So what?’ Why does it matter how justification works, as long as it does? Does it really matter if Wright has a different take on the imputation of God’s righteousness to Piper?

Piper is very clear that he thinks it matters very much. He argues that Christ is the basis of, and the instrument of, our justification. By faith we’re united with Christ so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). Wright, on the other hand, argues that justification is the announcement issued, on the basis of faith, of who is part of the covenant family of God. Justification isn’t a substance or a ‘thing’ that is passed on to those who have faith in Jesus – it isn’t something that ‘happens’ to someone who puts their faith in Jesus. Justification isn’t a description of how someone becomes a Christian, but rather a declaration that they are a member of God’s family. As the Messiah took upon himself the death that we deserved, Wright argues, God justifies all who are ‘in Christ’ and declares them to be members of his family.

‘Great’, I can hear my wife say, but isn’t that just a false dichotomy? Piper’s interested in how individuals come to be saved and Wright emphasises what happens when they do. Piper is concerned with a starfish and Wright with the ocean, but isn’t the truth that the gospel is both?

Here are a couple of pretty important reasons that Piper cites as to why he thinks that this is an issue that needs bottoming out:

Is the gospel an account of how people get saved or isn’t it?

“The gospel”, according to Wright, “refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.”1 So far so good, but it’s what Wright goes on to claim: “’The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is… the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus.”2

Needless to say, Piper takes issue with that on several levels, as we shall see.

Is justification addressing ‘how’ you become a Christian or isn’t it?

Justification wasn’t seen by Paul and his contemporaries, as about ‘getting in’ as much as it was about ‘staying in’. Yet haven’t we learnt to read plenty of scriptural passages that are about justification altering our relationship with God? What about Romans 5:1 (if you’re reading this on my website, just hover over the reference and it’ll pop up for you.) Doesn’t that verse alone seem to suggest that justification brings about a “fundamentally new and reconciled relationship with God”?3

Why I think this matters…

I think that what we think about the gospel and about justification will affect the way we live. What we think about the gospel will shape how we respond to the tough times, how we respond to the knocks to our faith, how we respond when we doubt God. It has immediate pastoral relevance when helping others to follow Jesus too. What we think about the gospel, and justification, will affect the way we share the gospel with others.

The primer I referenced in an earlier post puts it this way:

Which is more scandalous? The multitudes of Christians who think they need to earn their salvation by being good? Or the throng of Christians who think that holy living doesn’t matter as long as they have prayed the sinner’s prayer? Pastors’ answers will largely indicate how they feel about the justification debate…” 4

I have sympathy with the pastor who says of Wright’s, arguably more obscure, view on justification, “very few people in my congregation would understand it, and few would take real comfort in it.” On the other hand, he says, “whenever I nail a strong justification sermon and emphasize that nothing we do provides any grounding for our right standing with God, I’ll get e-mails thanking me for such a freeing message."5

This is the point, however, when I start to get a bit nervous. Just because someone is expressing an opinion that is difficult to follow and not immediately grasped, it doesn’t mean that his or her opinion is wrong.

I want to get as close as I can to understanding what Paul was saying to the early church when he spoke about justification. If Wright is closer to this than Piper, I don’t care whether it’s complicated or not, it deserves to be taught in every church. If the answer is more complicated than the one I have been brought up to believe, then so be it. If we choose to place an emphasis on something other than what Paul placed emphasis on, we better have a good reason.

If my cultural blinkers are keeping me focused on a gospel that risks me thinking that the world revolves around me as a person rather than around the cosmic plan of God then I want to do something to change that. Right now, that thing I’m going to do is think. I hope you’re thinking of doing the same thing.

  1. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  2. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  3. Piper, (2008: 19)  ↩

  4. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

  5. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

42 and all that

open quotes[Wright’s] portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognise as biblically faithful.close quotes

(John Piper1)

Ok, the quote to your right is a serious statement, so over the next couple of posts I’m going to start exploring the debate between Piper and Wright as I understand it…

At the start of his book, Wright gives an analogy of a friend who, through accident of education, is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. This friend points to what he sees with his eyes – the rising and setting of the sun – and holds that tradition, held over many hundreds of years, also stands in support of his claim. Despite long conversations late into the night, your friend remains unconvinced by all your attempts to persuade him otherwise. The point that Wright makes is that this is exactly how it appears to him – his attempts to outline a different way of viewing God’s plan for salvation have been flatly rejected as obscuring what, to many in the reformed tradition at least, is presented as ‘the most obvious meaning’ of scripture. With some frustration, Wright is seeking to outline his view that discussion of justification as ‘the evidence of our eyes’ belies the fact that the reformed view of ‘justification’, as many understand it, is deeply conditioned by a tradition that obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Here, Wright spells it out:

The theological equivalent of supposing that the earth goes round the sun is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation2

Wright, aware of his own potential to be in error, is seeking to engage in a discussion on whether the sun truly does revolve around the earth or if things might be a little different from what they seem. If the ‘story’ of justification is not that God revolves around me, the sinner, and that Paul was meaning something quite different, then this copernican revolution deserves our careful attention. Wright’s argument is that justification is, indeed, expressing a much larger story about the plan of God for his universe. “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”3 Salvation, whilst obviously hugely significant for every individual, is part of a much larger purpose:

We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around4

To be fair to Piper, I’m sure he would very much agree that we are not ‘the centre of the universe’. His very definition of God’s righteousness as “[God’s] unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does” lays this out fairly firmly. However, something in me riles against the tendency in reformed evangelical circles to explain the Christian life from the starting point of detached propositional truths. This isn’t the way Paul chose to unpack the Christian life. God didn’t give us the Bible as a systematic, theological primer, he gave us a book with lots of really good stories, letters, poems and histories – the ‘doctrine’ threaded through its pages is mostly pulled out to address specific pastoral needs. If we depart from framing our discussion in the context of God’s plan for the universe, then are we departing from the Bible’s choice of communication?

The historian in me is more attracted to Wright’s attempt to place Paul firmly within a historical context. I am also impressed by how hard he works to synthesise the old and new testaments. Here’s a confession: I admit to being attracted to this approach, before actually hearing his arguments, because it fits into my categories of thinking. So, when Wright says things like “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…”5 I‘m liking his style. At times, it does feel as if Piper’s arguments are a little detached from all that has gone before, as if the long story of Israel is merely a backdrop that can be pushed aside (once proof texts have been extracted, of course) rather than the whole book being about the story of God’s plan to save the world.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’ll come out, unashamedly, to state that as I start to explore what I think, my eggs are largely starting in Tom Wright’s basket. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to be ‘thinking out loud’ as I unpack this debate a bit further, in a (vain?) attempt to come to my own, considered, opinion. All being well, my next post will ask a question I haven’t properly addressed yet regarding Wright and Piper’s conflicting views on justification: ‘So what?’

  1. Piper, J. (2008), The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright, Nottingham: IVP, p. 15  ↩

  2. Wright, N., T. (2009), Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London: SPCK, p. 7  ↩

  3. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  4. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  5. Wright (2009), p. 21  ↩