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.