Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision
- Author: N. T. Wright
- Publisher: Publisher (2009)
- Language: English
- Pages: 284
- ISBN-10: 0830838635
- ISBN-13: 9780830838639
- Format: PDF*
- Price: $15.51
✿ Best Academic Book, Theologos Award, 2009
Few issues are more central to the Christian faith than the nature, scope and means of salvation. Many have thought it to be largely a transaction that gets one to heaven. In this riveting book, N. T. Wright explains that God’s salvation is radically more than this.
At the heart of much vigorous debate on this topic is the term the apostle Paul uses in several of his letters to describe what happens to those in Christ—justification. Paul uses this dramatic image from the law court to declare that Christians are acquitted of the cosmic accusations against them. But justification goes beyond this in Paul’s writings to offer a vision of God’s future for the whole world as well as for his people.
Here in one place Wright now offers a comprehensive account and defense of his perspective on this crucial doctrine. He provides a sweeping overview of the central points in the debate before launching into a thorough explanation of the key texts in Paul’s writings. While fully cognizant of tradition and controversy, the final authority for his conclusions is the letters of Paul themselves. Along the way Wright responds to critics, such as John Piper, who have challenged what has come to be called the New Perspective. For Wright, what Paul means by justification is nothing less than God’s unswerving commitment to the covenant promise he made to bless the whole world through Abraham and his family.
This lively and irenic book is an important contribution for those in the middle of and on various sides of the debate. Here is a chance for readers to interact with Wright’s views directly on the issues at stake and form their own conclusions.
Few issues are more central to the Christian faith than the nature, scope and means of salvation. Many have thought it to be largely a transaction that gets one to heaven. In this riveting book, N. T. Wright explains that God’s salvation is radically more than this. At the heart of much vigorous debate on this topic is the term the apostle Paul uses in several of his letters to describe what happens to those in Christ–justification. Paul uses this dramatic image from the law court to declare that Christians are acquitted of the cosmic accusations against them. But justification goes beyond this in Paul’s writings to offer a vision of God’s future for the whole world as well as for his people. Here in one place Wright now offers a comprehensive account and defense of his perspective on this crucial doctrine. He provides a sweeping overview of the central points in the debate before launching into a thorough explanation of the key texts in Paul’s writings. While fully cognizant of tradition and controversy, the final authority for his conclusions is the letters of Paul themselves. Along the way Wright responds to critics, such as John Piper, who have challenged what has come to be called the New Perspective. For Wright, what Paul means by justification is nothing less than God’s unswerving commitment to the covenant promise he made to bless the whole world through Abraham and his family. This irenic response is an important contribution for those on both sides of the debate–and those still in between–to consider. Whether you’re a fan of Wright’s work or have read his critics and would like to know the other side of the story, here is a chance to interact with Wright’s views on the issues at stake and form your own conclusions.
“For some time now, I have watched in puzzlement as some critics, imagining themselves as defenders of Paul’s gospel, have derided Tom Wright as a dangerous betrayer of the Christian faith. In fact, Paul’s gospel of God’s reconciling, world-transforming grace has no more ardent and eloquent exponent in our time than Tom Wright. If his detractors read this book carefully, they will find themselves engaged in close exegesis of Paul’s letters, and they will be challenged to join Wright in grappling with the deepest logic of Paul’s message. Beyond slogans and caricatures of ‘Lutheran readings’ and ‘the New Perspective,’ the task we all face is to interpret these difficult, theologically generative letters afresh for our time. Wright’s sweeping, incisive sketch of Paul’s thought, set forward in this book, will help us all in that task.” —-Richard B. Hays, Duke University
“Tom Wright has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots–the neo-Reformed–by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study.”
“This sprightly and gracious yet robust work is Tom Wright’s carefully argued and scripturally based response to those who think that he has deeply misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification. Although it is intended especially for those familiar with the debate between the various scholarly perspectives on Paul, it is in fact a straightforward and reasonably succinct exposition of Tom’s interpretation that incorporates a defense of his approach to Paul in general and his exegesis of specific passages in Galatians and Romans in particular. This is definitely one of the most exciting and significant books that I have read this year. Like all of the author’s work, I found it hard to set down once I had started to read it. Strongly commended!” (I. Howard Marshall, University of Aberdeen )
Most helpful reviews
Consider the bigger picture
Since reading Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective, I have been waiting for Wright to expound on the doctrine of justification. This book fills the bill, and it goes far beyond what I expected.
I disagree with those reviewers who say that Wright’s use of historical context violates the “sola scriptura” model of the Reformers. In fact, the Reformers were making their own assumptions about the historical context of Paul’s writings; they assumed either that Paul’s issues were identical to their own (Renaissance/Enlightenment) issues or that the epistles could be treated as ahistorical expositions of universal truths (in spite of the fact that Paul contextualized each of his letters by addressing them to particular churches and even to specific people in those churches). The bottom line is that the much-vaunted “sola scriptura” of the Reformers was far from “sola”! Wright’s practice of exploring Paul’s teaching within a specific historical context is right on. (By the way, many Christians in the Reformed tradition, and I include myself in that number, have been guilty of treating the Reformation as God’s last word on theology. But if the Reformers could claim that Augustine and Anselm and Aquinas weren’t the last word, who are we to say that the Reformers were? They have no special claim to truth that wasn’t possessed by their predecessors, without whom the Reformers would have had little to say about theology.) Wright is not claiming that he has the last word. As more is learned about first-century Judaism, he will no doubt adjust his current thinking. That approach is more biblical, and certainly more humble, than that of those who think they already have the last word.
But as much as I appreciate Wright’s desire to locate his exegesis within a historical understanding of Paul’s context, there’s something about this book I appreciate even more. The following passages from pages 23 and 24 will show what I mean:
“Salvation is hugely important…. Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living…. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly, many people–many devout Christians!–have preached that way and lived that way. This problem is not peculiar to the churches of the Reformation. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church, and infects and affects Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative, high and low church alike. But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.
“God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world. And the closing verses of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth.”
Then on page 94: “Paul’s view of God’s purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight…. Paul’s understanding of God’s accomplishment in the Messiah is that this single purpose, this plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, this reason-God-called-Abraham … finally came to fruition with Jesus Christ.”
Wright masterfully develops the above themes in this book. As he has done in many of his other books, Wright has opened my eyes to the big picture of God’s purpose and activity. His call to a God-centered reading of Scripture rather than a self-centered reading is long overdue in Christian scholarship.
I highly recommend this book. It is a masterpiece. Your mind and heart will be stretched; and as in physical exercise, stretching can cause discomfort and even some pain. But the effort is worth it. You will never be the same again.
It’s not about you.
By Bryon M. Mondok
Leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has taken C.S. Lewis’s seat at the table. As Lewis changed the way people looked at Christianity, read their Bibles and thought about God in the twentieth century, Wright will do the same in the twenty-first. Like Lewis, Wright has a talent for making difficult biblical concepts accessible to the average person.
He is a primary scholar in the New Perspective on Paul. Wright sheds light on aspects of Paul and his theology that have left to gather dust in the dark corners of church tradition.
Wright’s rise to popularity makes him a lightning rod for controversy. He intends to educate, but theological sacred cows are kicked over in the process. Incoming criticism rains down on him from several theological strong-holds. Some he deflects and some he absorbs. His most public fire-fight revolves around his treatment of the Doctrine of Justification.
Opponents say that Wright’s New Perspective is out of balance; that examining Paul in a historical Jewish context is a mistake. Wright’s answer: “…we end up reading [Paul] as though was really a 17th-century theologian born out of due time…” Wright posits in his book Paul: In Fresh Perspective that most of what we accept about Paul is based on scholarship that has been delivered to the world since the Reformation. But Paul pre-dates the Reformation.
Author Scot McKnight attempts to sum up the New Perspective in three bullet points:
1. Judaism was not a works-earns-salvation religion.
2. Paul was therefore not opposing a works-earns-salvation religion.
3. Therefore, the Reformation’s way of framing the entire message of the New Testament as humans seeking to earn their own redemption rests on shaky historical grounds.
“Right or wrong,” writes McKnight, “the New Perspective is the most Protestant move made in the 20th Century — and by that I only mean that it seeks to get back to the Bible and challenge our beliefs in light of what we find in that Bible.”
John Piper leads the assault. In his 2007 book The Future of Justification, Piper attempts to punch holes in Wright’s position.
Wright’s new book, Justification, is a response to his critics. Wright gives a thorough explanation of justification doctrinally and exegetically from Paul’s epistles. Piper, in his book, explains justification against the backdrop of Reformed Tradition appealing mostly to Luther and Calvin rather than re-examining the Bible in its historical context.
Piper’s position on the doctrine of justification is that the righteousness of Christ and His perfect obedience is imputed to the believer once faith is placed in Christ. That is, Christ’s perfect obedience, morality and virtue becomes the believer’s perfect obedience, morality, and virtue. Piper makes the point that Wright believes God merely declares us righteous based on the work of Christ and includes us in His family.
Wright does not hide the fact that this is what he believes: That Jesus defeated evil and sin and took our place on the cross. God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead and in our identification with that (the resurrection) we, too, are vindicated. This is what Justification does. Wright says that we are given status as righteous, but that – and here’s where the Calvinist’s cages get rattled – obedience, morality and virtue are worked out in the believer’s life through the Holy Spirit.
But this looks like a works based way of pleasing God the Calvinist traditionalist will say. It looks like “works of the law” are what please God and we all know that this can’t be true because only faith pleases God.
Piper disputes Wright’s take on the doctrine of Justification. Piper is convinced that Paul teaches the necessity to know what Justification IS, not just what it DOES. If one doesn’t know what it IS, then one’s understanding of what Christ accomplished on the cross will be misunderstood. In fact, Piper fears that what the church believes about Justification may be distorted for years to come due to Wright’s ever expanding influence.
“Discovering that God is gracious,” writes Wright, “rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes us. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly, many people–many devout Christians!–have preached that way and lived that way. This problem is not peculiar to the churches of the Reformation.”
Wright presents justification less in terms of personal conversion and more in terms of “who is in the people of God.”
Piper, seems to think covenantal readings belittle Paul. To this, Wright says, “Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justification, glorification — all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ”.
Justification is embedded in the covenant — “the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized.”
Wright uses the imagery of a divine court of law as the controlling environment for justification and he sees God as judge finding in favor –giving righteous status– of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
The emphasis of Wright’s writing is that Christianity runs deep within a person and effects every part of a person’s life; it changes the way a person sees the world (as God’s New Creation) and his or her own participation in the world (building for God’s Kingdom here on earth).
“It isn’t that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless, to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy – and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people.”
Wright’s hope is that this robust dialogue between himself and his critics “will send the next generation of thoughtful Christians back to Scripture itself, not to this or that tradition.”
NT Wright Attempts to Justify Himself…Results Mixed
A high church Reformed Anglican bishop, NT Wright, has just written a book called Justification, which (as you can guess) is a summary of his thought on this much-debated issue within the Western Christian world.
His impetus for the book is a book published in 2007 by Dr. John Piper called The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright which probes the underpinnings of Wright’s understanding of Paul and if this is a helpful or harmful understanding.
What is N.T. Wright’s essential point, contra-the traditional Reformed/evangelical point of view? Because it is spread throughout the book, I will say essentially this: that the purpose of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was not merely about individual salvation (restoring “my relationship with God” and “getting to heaven”) nor was it about fulfilling the Torah for us (the “active obedience” of Christ which is “imputed” to us, but that it was about fulfilling the promises made from way before the law was established and then transgressed. It was about fulfilling the promises made to Abraham to restore and bless the whole world and reconcile all the children of God in an eschatological way. This, therefore, makes the scope of the Jesus story much larger than a restoration of Israel from under the law, but more broadly the fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham to restore the whole world into the covenant. Therefore, justification is the declaration that one has been become a member of the covenant family, not an act of God which brings you into the covenant family (the traditional understanding).For Wright, the traditional view has formed by asking and answering questions in Medieval ways, not Pauline ways.
The book is in two parts: the first is “theologizing” and providing a background the objections against Wright; the second is exegesis from Galatians and Romans. Regardless of what you think of his conclusions, the writing is intelligent and clear (even if mildly scattered, making it sometimes difficult to get the core points).
Another way of putting this:
N.T. Wright: Justification is eschatological (it looks toward the future reconcilation of the Chilren of God) and ecclesiological (through Christ, it defines who is in the covenant community and who is not)
Reformed View: justification is primarily soteriological (about my salvation) and only secondarily eschatological and ecclesiological
This is primarily the reasons I have given this book three stars: it is genius, but Wright creates misleading distinctions between the Reformed view (which seeks to mine the richness of a narrow view of justification) and his view (which views the richness of a macro level view of justification). In trying to create room for his view (as if it didn’t already exist), and in reacting to some of the more extreme criticism which has painted him as a heretic, he turns up the rhetoric to make it seem like it’s his way or the near-heresy highway. An untrained reader may come into this debate (which is long-standing) and be misled that they have to accept or reject his views to the exclusion of all others. This is not necessary, and Wright does a disservice to the task of theology by (purposely or not) making these exclusive distinctions.
It is a good book for those interested in NT Wright’s thought and vision or who are interested in the debate. But if you want a good overview of the doctrine of justification, or an introduction, this is not it. Try instead The Justification Reader (Classic Christian Readers)
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