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Book Review

Understanding justification

Tom Wright is, in the nicest possible way, a stirrer. His honest, biblical way of looking at the Christian basics has upset a lot of people, especially some hard-line Calvinists—like John Piper who, not liking Wright’s line on justification, wrote a book to challenge it: The Future Of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.

So Tom wrote a response to that response, and this is it: Justification: God’s Plan And Paul’s Vision by N.T. Wright (SPCK, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-281-06960-0). He does a very convincing job.

The book comes in two parts. Part 1 sets the scene, paints the background to Paul and his teaching and sets out Wright’s basic convictions about the nature of justification. It looks at how we should approach Scripture as we attempt to understand its message. Part 2 is an exegesis of the key biblical passages—from Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians and Romans—that undergird his position.

If you come from a ‘classical’ evangelical background you will probably never have realised that there can be any approach to ‘justification’ other than the one you were taught. This book is for people like you. Give it a chance to tweak your perceptions: you’ll be the richer for it.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

Quotations from Part 1

The problem is not that he [John Piper], like many others, is disagreeing with me. The problem is that he hasn’t really listened to what I’m saying.  (258]

God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world. We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the gospels as equally important to the epistles, this mistake might never have happened. But it has, and we must deal with it.  (316)

When Paul quotes scripture, he regularly intends to refer, not simply to the actual words quoted, but to the whole passage.  (477)

It is central to Paul, but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centred upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah.  (511)

If ‘imputed righteousness’ is so utterly central, so nerve-janglingly vital, so standing-and-falling-church important as John Piper makes out, isn’t it strange that Paul never actually came straight out and said it?  (682)

When you hear yourself saying, ‘What Paul was really trying to say was …’ and then coming up with a sentence which only tangentially corresponds to what Paul actually wrote, it is time to think again.  (771)

Many first-century Jews thought of the period they were living in as the continuation of a great scriptural narrative, and of the moment they themselves were in as late on within the ‘continuing exile’ of Daniel 9.  (914)

God’s ‘righteousness’ is his unswerving commitment to be faithful to that covenant – including the promise (Rom 4.13) that Abraham would inherit the world. Here we have it: God’s single plan, through Abraham and his family, to bless the whole world. That is what I have meant by the word ‘covenant’ when I have used it as a shorthand in writing about Paul.  (1028)

If initial membership is by grace, but final judgment is according to works – and the New Testament, at first glance, including the Pauline corpus, does seem quite clear at this point…  (1188)

…the word ‘justification’…  As the church, within its own life and proclamation, uses a scriptural word or concept but denotes by that word or concept something more than, or even different from, what is meant by the word or concept in its scriptural origin, three effects are almost inevitable. First, it will then misread scripture at that point, imagining that when the Bible uses that word it is talking about the thing which the church normally talks about when it uses that word. And that may well not be the case. Second, such a reading will miss completely the thing that scripture was talking about at that point; it will fail to pay attention to the word of God. Third, it will imagine itself to have biblical warrant for its own ideas, when all it actually has are ‘biblical’ echoes of its own voice.  (1269)

‘Righteousness’, within the lawcourt setting – and this is something that no good Lutheran or Reformed theologian ought ever to object to – denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour.  (1439)

Careful exegesis of ‘God’s righteousness’, both in the Old Testament and in second-Temple Judaism, indicates that, among the range of possible meanings, ‘faithfulness to the covenant’ is high on the list.  (1611)

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated – and so all those who belonged to Jesus were vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.  (1644)

The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was the ‘through-Israel’ bit: Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the ‘obedience’ which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed. Israel, in short, had been faithless to God’s commission. That is the point of the much-misunderstood, and actually in consequence much-ignored, but all-important, Romans 3.1–8. What is needed, following Romans 2.17–29 and 3.3, is a faithful Israelite, through whom the single plan can proceed after all. What Paul declares in 3.21–22 is that God has unveiled his own faithfulness to the single plan – through the faithfulness, which he will later refer to as ‘obedience’, of the Messiah.  (1705)

Quotations from Part 2

…the manifold hermeneutical dangers so evident in Luther’s wonderful and deeply flawed commentary on Galatians…  (1799)

[Re Gal 2]  …‘to spy out the freedom which we have in the Messiah, Jesus’. Freedom! There is that great word, beloved of reformers of every sort: but what did it mean for Paul? Clearly, here and throughout the letter, not least ‘the freedom for Gentile Christians to stay as Gentile Christians, and not to have to become Jews in order to belong to the people of God’.  (1823)

[Re Gal 3:10-14]  When you ask people, ‘Why did the Messiah become a curse for us?’ the normal answer is something like, ‘So that we might be freed from sin and share fellowship with God to all eternity.’ Paul’s is radically different: ‘So that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, and so that we (presumably Jews who believe in Jesus) might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’.  (2015)

What appear to Western eyes as two separate issues – salvation from sin on the one hand, a united people of God on the other – seem to have appeared to Paul as part and parcel of the same thing.  (2066)

Perhaps this is part of the point in the ‘no “male and female”’ of Gal. 3.28: circumcision itself not only divides Jew from Greek, it also puts a wall between male and female, with only the male proudly bearing the covenant sign.  (2148)

God is now creating a worldwide family where ethnic origin, social class and gender are irrelevant, and where each member receives the affirmation ‘you are my beloved children’, because that is what God says to his son, the Messiah, and because ‘as many as were baptized into the Messiah have clothed themselves with the Messiah’.  (2182)

[Re 2 Cor 5:21]  ...a statement of the death of Jesus followed by a statement of the apostolic ministry: 1. The one who knew no sin, God made sin for us;  2. so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – in other words, that, in the Messiah, we might embody God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself.  (2685)

The little word genōmetha in 2 Cor 5.21b – ‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’ – does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers.  (2718)

Paul’s ecclesiology. For him, the church is constituted, and lives its life in public, in such a way as to confront the rulers of the world with the news that there is ‘another king, this Jesus’ (Acts 17.7).  (2871)

The best argument for taking dikaiosynē theou in 1.17, 3.21 and 10.3 as ‘God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, to the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world’, is the massive sense it makes of passage after passage, the way in which bits of Romans often omitted from discussion, or even explicitly left on one side as being irrelevant to the main drift of the discourse, suddenly come back into focus with a bang.  (2936)

When we read Romans as a whole we can see quite clearly that the description in 2.26–29 of those who ‘keep the commandments of the law’ even though they are uncircumcised (2.26), who actually ‘fulfil the law’) (2.27), are Christian Gentiles, even though Paul has not yet developed that category.  (3153)

‘Imputed righteousness’ is a Reformation answer to a mediaeval question, in the mediaeval terms which were themselves part of the problem.  (3564)

The Torah, the Mosaic law, was never given or intended as a means whereby either an individual or the nation as a whole might, through obedience, earn liberation from slavery, redemption, rescue, salvation, ‘righteousness’ or whatever else. The gift always preceded the obligation. That is how Israel’s covenant theology worked. It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus ‘obeyed the law’ and so obtained ‘righteousness’ which could be reckoned to those who believe in him.  (3905)

It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection. That is what Romans 6 is all about.  (3913)

When we bring the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ to Paul, we find that he achieves what that doctrine wants to achieve, but by a radically different route. In fact, he achieves more. To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah. (3927)

The implicit charge that the Pauline theology I have articulated might lead people to put their trust in ‘anyone or anything other than the crucified and resurrected Savior’ (Carson, in the blurb on Piper’s book) is seriously misleading. Paul invites his hearers to trust both in Jesus Christ and in the father whose love triumphed in the death of his son – and in the holy spirit who makes that victory operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return (5.5; 8.28). The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical. It is also insufficiently Trinitarian.  (4031)

If you fail rightly to understand God’s-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, neither will you understand the place of Romans 9–11 within the letter and within Paul’s thought as a whole.  (4042)

covenant theology, the belief that the creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation.  (4217)

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