I only just entered the “New Perspectives” debate that is raging around Paul, and noticed quickly that this particular debate had several different spokesmen. Finding a unified argument that you could say was THE “New Perspective” view was impossible. Different people were saying different things. The heavy hitters appeared to be James Dunn and N.T. Wright, and even they disagreed about several nuances in Paul’s theology. I decided to focus specifically on Wright and the stance that he was taking because it seemed that he was a figure constantly at the center of attention, and it was not the kind of attention that gave you warm fuzzies inside. After reading several of Wrights books, I found that I was having problems with many of the things that he was saying. Then I read John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. The book was extremely helpful for me because Piper addressed the very issues that I was wrestling with, and then some. Here are three of the things I’m wrestling with and how Piper responds in his book.
1. Wright redefines the gospel. Wright says that the gospel is not “an account of how people get saved,” but is the “proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, truly and only Lord of the world.” This definition of the gospel felt severely lacking to me. I find myself at the end of Wright’s explanation asking, “So what?” It seems that in several gospel accounts in Scripture (Acts 2:14-41; 13:13-52; 1 Cor. 15:1-3) there is more than just the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.” It is accompanied with statements like “repent,” “believe,” “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed,” and “everyone who believes is freed.” Piper goes on to state that the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” could actually be the worst news you have ever heard if you have spent your entire life in rebellion to the King. The gospel is more than just the good news that “Jesus is Lord,” it is ALSO the declaration of what the death and resurrection of Christ the Lord has purchased for those who believe.
2. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not taught in Scripture. Now as good reformed, post-Luther, reformation tainted Christian, Wright claims that my view of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is skewed. He actually says that it “makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness…That makes no sense at all.” What makes sense to Wright is that a “status” of “covenant membership” is given, without the actual imputation of moral righteousness. At this I simply disagree. I need more than a status before God, I need righteousness and I have nowhere other than Christ to go and obtain this. Piper says “God counts us as having this righteousness in Christ because we are united to Christ by faith alone.” Piper then appeals to Rom. 4:3-8; 5:18-19; Phil. 3:9; and 1 Cor. 5:30 to show and argue that Paul speaks of a righteousness that has been given to him, that is not his own, but that comes from God because of his position in Christ. The most detrimental to Wrights argument is 2 Cor. 5:21 where Paul states clearly that we “become the righteousness of God.” Wright has an answer for this, but appears to do try and make the text say what he desires by using his definition of the “righteousness of God.” He does the very thing he indicts others of doing in his book Justification, which is trying to force the text to say what we want it so say
3. The eschatological declaration of Justification is contingent upon the complete life lived. I found this to be the most troublesome and unclear thing that Wright says and that Piper addresses. In several places Wright claims that, “The Spirit is the path by which Paul traces the route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future.” “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly on the basis of the entire life.” At first glance this made me very uncomfortable with Wright. However, Wright is adamant that he is not trying to sneak in a works-righteousness through the back door. Like Piper, I’m confused at what Wright is trying to affirm. He is clear that North American Christianity is lax in seeing Jesus as Lord. This has led to an epidemic of people who claim Christianity but in no way submit their lives to Christ and are fooled into a false sense of security. However, if Wright merely means that where there is no fruit there is no root, then I would have no problem with what the says. Works are necessary for salvation because they are proof of a changed heart and life. Piper says that “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 not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification.” This has been the stance of the church for the last fifteen hundred years. Piper goes on to quote several confessions that affirm just that.
The book was great for me. I do not have time here to address other things such as Wrights defining of the “righteousness of God,” his assertion that Judaism was not a religion of self-made righteousness and legalism, or the blurring of the lines of justification and sanctification. Piper engages with all of these in his book. If you were looking to get orientated to the debate, Wright and Piper would be a great starting place, and this book would need to be a must read.