Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision – Tom Wright (SPCK)

If you were the Bishop of Durham and a world renown scholar on Paul and someone published a book claiming your teaching on justification was so ‘disfigured’ that it becomes ‘difficult to recognize as biblically faithful’, you would probably write a book in response too.  The accusation comes in John Piper’s book, ‘The Future of Justification: A response to N.T. Wright’(IVP, 2008), which outlines why he believes Wright’s approach to central Gospel themes is so dangerous.

If Wright’s response sounds like an academic hair splitting book, you would be partly right, but the themes discussed, and their implications stir and stimulate the serious Bible student, and all who want to understand just what faith in Jesus actually means.

Piper, an American pastor and no stranger to controversy with his Christian hedonism in a five point Calvinism framework, believes justification is the moment or the event when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. At that moment the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us: a view commonly taught in evangelical churches. For Wright justification is a law court declaration that we are in a right standing with God and now part of the covenant people of God by virtue of our faith in the life and work of Jesus. But moral righteousness is not imputed (imparted) to us as such.

So how and why does Wright argue against what is a very commonly cherished view? Carefully worded opening chapters set Paul’s teaching on faith in Jesus in its proper context of God’s covenant with Abraham and his plan, through Abraham’s descendants, to bless all nations of the world. Though Israel fails to be the light to the nations, Jesus, the one anointed by God (the messiah and Gods faithful covenant partner), enables God’s plan for the restoration of all things to be fulfilled by his life death and resurrection and ascension. So our faith in Jesus, is faith in the messiah and Lord of all who brings us into God’s covenant people, on track with God’s purpose to put the world to rights.

With the debate set in this wider panorama, Wright explains that the imputation language doesn’t make sense of how the word ‘righteousness’ is used in Paul (who never uses the word imputation), nor does it make sense of passages such as Romans 2:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Romans 14:10-12  where Paul says we are judged according to the works which accompany our faith, on the Last Day. Crucially he explains how his view makes sense of Paul’s teaching on the work of the Spirit, producing the moral character and necessary activity in keeping with being children of God.

Wright is a joy to read; he uses clear analogies, interacts with the reader, has ‘Paul like’ anticipation of counter claims, and provides timely reminders of where we are in the argument. His gracious exasperation with Piper and others is clear, as he exposes their theological prejudice in reading scripture. The exegesis section (last three fifths) serves to reiterate the earlier themes as Wright outlines how Paul’s letters only make sense against the narrative he has already outlined. It’s a written communication masterclass which makes a compelling case.

This review can only give a taste of a complex debate – you probably need both books to make your own mind up, though this one does stand alone. I would have liked a clearer blow by blow explanation of differences in places, and still wonder how he would answer some of Piper’s accusations.

In deciding whether we are ‘for Wright, or for Piper’, and not undervaluing the importance of the debate, it is easy to forget the wonder of the theme they explore, and that there are so many, currently lost, who would be delighted to be justified, however it is defined.