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The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright Paperback – November 1, 2007
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"John Piper's challenging yet courteous book takes issue with Tom Wright regarding Paul's teaching on justification. This serious critique deserves to be read by all who want to understand more fully God's righteousness in Christ and his justifying the ungodly."
—Peter T. O'Brien, Former Vice-Principal and Senior Research Fellow and Emeritus Faculty Member, Moore Theological College, Australia
"The so-called 'New Perspective on Paul' has stirred up enormous controversy. The issues are not secondary, and, pastor that he is, John Piper will not allow believers to put their trust in anyone or anything other than the crucified and resurrected Savior."
—D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition
"In this captivating book John Piper defends the truth that justification is the heart of the gospel. Wright's views are presented with scrupulous fairness. I found this book to be not only doctrinally faithful but also spiritually strengthening."
—Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
"I am very grateful to John Piper, pastor-scholar par excellence, for helping me understand better the doctrines of justification and imputation. Tom Wright's interpretation of key biblical passages on the topic has some major problems, and Piper exposes many of them with great wisdom and skill."
—Andreas J. Köstenberger, Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Founder, Biblical Foundations
"Piper's look at justification does this with a superb tone and a careful presentation of his case. Piper has put us in a position to hear both sides of the debate and understand what is at stake. Be prepared to be sharpened by a careful dialogue about what justification is."
—Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, The Hendricks Center, Dallas Theological Seminary
"John Piper addresses a matter of crucial importance for the church, with a clear-headed command of the issues involved. By writing this book he has done us all, including N. T. Wright, a great favor."
—Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary
About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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He wrote in the “Acknowledgements” section of this 2007 book, “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip on this great gospel.” (Pg. 10) In the Introduction, he explains, “The seriousness of our calling comes from the magnitude of what is at stake… eternal life hangs in the balance… This is why Paul was so provoked at the false teaching in Galatia. It was another gospel and would bring eternal ruin to those who embraced it… Therefore, the subject matter of this book---justification by faith apart from works of the law---is serious… I hope that the mere existence of this book will raise the stake sin the minds of many and promote serious study and faithful preaching of the gospel.” (Pg. 14-15)
He continues, “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 it becomes difficult to recognize it 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.” (Pg. 15)
Later, he adds, “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… it will being great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity… if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expression, and to the fact that… his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary readings of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘a-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity.” (Pg. 24)
He observes, “N.T. Wright is explicitly energized by finding ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ interpretations of Paul. But one does not find in Wright an appreciation and celebration of the insights of older interpretation that glows with similar exuberance.” (Pg. 37) Later, he adds, “[Wright] sees himself methodologically in the same role as Martin Luther---rediscovering what the New Testament originally meant over against fifteen centuries of misguided tradition… One of the differences between Wright and the Reformers is that the latter labored to link their thinking to the writings of the church fathers… In his recurrent reminders that he is a Protestant-like, Scripture-only man, Wright does not communicate the kind of respect for history and careful treatment of it that wins our confidence.” (Pg. 61)
He quotes Wright several times to the effect that ‘the gospel is not a message about how people get saved,’ then comments “My concern is that, in expressing it the way he does, he confuses people because unless those great gospel announcements do in fact include news about personal salvation, they are NOT good news. That Jesus died, rose, and reigns as King of the universe may be terrible news in view of my treason, unless that announcement includes some news about how and why I personally will not be destroyed by the risen Christ.” (Pg. 46)
He observes, “Wright wants to maintain that when Paul announces the gospel, the teaching on justification does not spring to Paul’s lips or pen… I would still want to insist from Paul’s own words that his announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news … precisely because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification… it can only be heard as good news if we give the guilty rebel the PROMISE that believing this will save him and then give him some REASON to hope that the risen King will not execute him for his treason.” (Pg. 90) Later, he adds, “The kind of gospel preaching that will flow from Wright’s spring … 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.” (Pg. 101)
He explains, “I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works…. Is to treat the necessity of obedience … strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis for our justification.” (Pg. 110) He continues, “even through Wright describes our works at the last judgment as ‘signs’ and ‘evidences’ ‘according to which’… we are justified, nevertheless, he does not use that language to preserve the truth of ‘imputed righteousness’ in the more traditional sense.” (Pg. 127) He goes on, “Wright again leaves us with the impression that human transformation and Spirit-wrought acts of obedience are included in the term ‘faith’ when he speaks of present justification being by faith alone.” (Pg. 131)
He argues, “Following E.P. Sanders… Wright agrees that first-century Pharisaism was a grace-based religion that has been much misunderstood and falsely maligned… One of the problems with this is that you do not have to articulate full-blown Pelagianism to be guilty of self-righteousness in relating to God. We need to let Paul and Jesus help us go deeper in our understanding of the Pharisees… There are kinds of self-righteousness and subtle forms of legalism that do not take the form of full-blown Pelagianism.” (Pg. 151-152)
He asserts, “Let us make no mistake: Our works of love are NECESSARY…. the necessity of our obedience is of such a nature that it always highlights and confirms this truth: The fact that God completely for us as an omnipotent Father is secured and guaranteed solely by the all-sufficient obedience and suffering of Christ… Our obedience does not ADD to the perfection and beauty and all-sufficiency of Christ’s obedience in securing the reality that God is for us; it DISPLAYS that perfection and beauty and all-sufficiency. Our works of love are as necessary as God’s purpose to glorify himself… they are necessary because God is RIGHTEOUS.” (Pg. 186-187)
This book will be of keen interest to those seeking such critiques, or wanting further exposition of Piper’s own position. (Those wanting to read Wright’s response to this book should read Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision.)
I saw that some previous reviewers thought Piper's book 'boring'. At least one was annoyed by the frequent interjections of Koine Greek to illustrate Scriptural points. I found the book so interesting I hated to put it down,and being a student, albeit self taught and struggling, of Koine, I really appreciated the inclusion of the real thing, not transliterated. For me it is a terrific read and I highly recommend it, but read Wright first to really follow the argument.
Amongst the many soteriological themes to consider and defend, the question is: Just how important is the doctrine of justification? Is it a minor quibble, or is it a major doctrine that needs to be contended for? It seems significant to author John Piper, who devotes an entire book to the subject matter. The Future of Justification is most specifically a response to and a critique of scholar N.T. Wright's take on justification. Wright's view of justification, in Piper's eyes, is a flawed and perhaps a heretical take on the issue. Because of the scope of Wright's influence in the evangelical world, Piper takes the necessary step to openly challenge Wright's interpretation of justification for the sake of biblical truth in modern Christendom. Justification is a topic that is worthy of faithful exposition and clarification, which is why Piper sets out to write about this important salvific truth. In The Future of Justification, Piper documents the errors in N.T. Wright's view on justification and proposes an orthodox solution that is both timeless and true to the intent of the New Testament writers and what has been defined by the Reformers.
The book follows a fairly simple structure of identifying the topic of discussion (justification), the problems raised by an alternative view of justification (N.T. Wright), the true interpretation of the topic (by John Piper), and the implications on Christian living. It begins with Piper commenting on Wright's so-called illuminating discovery concerning the nature of justification, and makes the important point that not all such discoveries are enlightening and true. In fact, this particular one is problematic and detrimental to the Christian faith. The author describes the core meaning of Wright's interpretation of justification by describing Wright's proposal that the righteousness Paul spoke of in the book of Romans really stands for "covenant faithfulness," and not imputed righteousness as the evangelical world understands it. Piper describes in chapters 2 and 3 how Wright comes to this conclusion by subordinating the law-court analogy as merely a tool to affirm that a believer is in God's covenant family, and not the means by which someone is declared righteous and fully qualified to have eternal life. Piper also quotes Wright's understanding of what the gospel message is: that it is not about an individualized faith of saving one's soul from sin and hell, but rather about the coming of God's kingdom and a submission to the Lordship of Christ. Wright's reasoning, as Piper explores in Ch 9, is that Paul wrote his epistles with an understanding that Christian soteriology is really an extension of the salvific message apparent in Second Temple Judaism: that the Jews did not teach salvation by works or adherence to the Law, but rather that they believed in God's grace through faith but acted in error when they tried to impose ethnocentric ideas (ex. Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) on the Gentiles as a means of salvation rather than faith in Christ as sufficient for salvation. The book ends with an appropriate discussion by Piper on the truth of imputed righteousness and why it is important to hold to this doctrine in contrast to the one proposed by N.T. Wright. As a book critique on another scholar's theology, Piper does a respectable job in writing out his response and upholding the orthodox belief about justification and defending the gospel as a whole.
Although the book is a firm opposition to the theories proposed in the recent years by N.T. Wright (and perhaps others who have held to similar theories of the New Perspective on Paul), it is never condemning or slanderous, as Piper takes moments to defend unjust criticisms against N.T. Wright's theology. A good example of this is in page 44, when Piper defends Wright from critics who accuse Wright of missing or minimizing the forensic dimension of justification. This gives some measure of academic integrity to the intent of the book, because the author does not set out unfairly or unjustly slander and attack the opposing camp (though their theology may be wrong), but to represent them as truthfully as possible so that their views, and Piper's, can be more accurately assessed and taken into consideration, especially as it regards this important, soteriological topic.
One of the strengths of this book is how vividly Piper quotes Wright's material and interacts with his views through sound exegesis of selected texts. Because the book revolves around the idea of solving the meaning of "righteousness," it is Piper's task to state what Wright's understanding of the Greek term is ("covenant faithfulness") and what that means. Piper's extensive use of the Greek language and defining its meaning also proves to be helpful in the author making his case for the orthodox interpretation of this issue. Piper's proposed definition of righteousness as "God's unwavering commitment to the honor of His glory" establishes a foundation for what righteousness is, in contrast to how it merely acts as Wright believes. Piper is also reasonably thorough in his analysis of Wright and his theology, linking Wright's justification theory to Wright's understanding of the religion of Second Temple Judaism, which informs his understanding of the idea of a future justification of the saints based on their remaining in the covenant through faith and works. This proves to be a tremendously strong case for Piper's conclusion that Wright's view of justification is unbiblical, and even dangerously close to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification discussed in Chapter 11. No matter how much Wright thinks his idea to be enlightening, innovation, or truthful, the fact is that it has no basis either in the Bible, amongst the early church fathers, or in the teachings of the Reformation, in which Piper hints that Wright's view of justification is nearly identical to the process of sanctification and is essentially makes salvation a works-based system.
Though this book gives a good overview of the issue at hand and gives a clear-cut presentation of Wright's understanding of justification, there are a couple of themes that could have been touched on. Chapters 2 and 5 discuss Wright's understanding of the gospel as the narrative of Christ and the need to submit to Him as Lord, but they do not really give an explanation of what Wright thinks about the issue of Jesus as "Savior," and what that means. How would this relate to his understand of salvation through grace by faith alone? How would this relate, in any way, to his theology of justification? Another issue that could have used further elaboration was Wright's theory about how one stays within the covenant family after his inclusion into it by repentant faith. In other words, how much faith, works, or fruit does the believer need to bear in order to testify of the security of his inclusion in the covenant family? Is there any assurance of final salvation? How does this relate to other soteriological themes such as perseverance of the saints, apostasy, or salvation by works? These are some questions that Piper could have included (if such things were in his immediate knowledge) in the book so as to give us a better picture of whether or not N.T. Wright is a false teacher or not (if that was the intent of Piper to begin with), but it is a commendable thing that Piper extends the invitation for N.T. Wright to respond to difficult questions he has concerning Wright's integrity as a scholar.
In conclusion, The Future of Justification is a noteworthy book that sets out to accomplish its goals and is a sound commentary on the nature of biblical justification. It takes an unorthodox idea, such as the one set forth by Wright, and demonstrates how it is unbiblical and why such theories need to be refuted. Piper does not see this issue as a secondary one, but a primary one since it deals with soteriology and the foundation of Christian theology that traces its roots back to the Reformation. I thoroughly recommend this book as a good introduction into topics such as the New Perspective on Paul and the importance of what justification by faith entails. The foundations of the Christian faith must always be contended for and preserved, which is why even defenses like these against professing Christian scholars are absolutely necessary so as to inform the evangelical public who need to exercise discernment.