Post Series


N. T. Wright comes into this conversation as a New Testament theologian, rather than a systematic or historical one. He comes at our question as one who began wrestling in the early and mid 70’s with understanding Paul in general and Romans in particular differently than he had before. As he puts it, “If I read Paul in the then-standard Lutheran way, Galatians made plenty of sense, but I had to fudge the positive statements about the law in Romans. If I read Paul in the Reformed way Romans made a lot of sense, but I had to fudge the negative statements about the law in Galatians. For me then and now, if I had to choose between Luther and Calvin, I would always take Calvin.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 245.)) One night it hit him: “Supposing, I thought, Paul meant ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness’ not in the sense of a moral status based on the performance of Torah and the consequent accumulation of a treasury of merit but in the sense of an ethnic status based on possession of Torah as the sign of automatic covenant membership?” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 245.)) In other words, Wright began to believe that the traditional ways of reading Paul that have stemmed from the work of Luther and Reformers have been misguided. In fact, he says as much when he writes that the popular view, stemming from the historical debates between Pelagius and Augustine and Erasmus and Luther “distorts [justification by faith] at various points.” ((Wright, Saint Paul, 113.))

He insists that the normal Christian, especially Protestant, readings of Paul are seriously flawed, “because they attributed to first-century Judaism theological views which belonged rather to medieval Catholic.” ((Wright, Saint Paul, 113.)) He enthusiastically agrees with McGrath who has insisted, “The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins…” ((Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification(Vol 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 2.)) According to Wright, then, the way in which Protestants have answered our question is distorted and deeply flawed because of reading history backwards into the text. He goes so far as to say that what the Church has meant by justification is “independent of, and goes beyond, what we find in Paul;” what we’ve come to read from Paul is more a “habituation within a tradition and nothing to actual awareness of what Paul was talking about.” ((Wright, Justification, 80-81, 83.)) These are indeed strong claims.

In response to the work sparked by E.P. Sanders through his examination of first-century Palestinian Judaism and continued by others, Wright believes it is time to question all traditions in the light of Scripture, old and new, and move on from both in order to develop “different ways of reading Paul which will do more justice to him historically, exegetically, theologically and (it is hoped) pastorally and evangelistically.” ((Wright,Justification, 29.)) While Wright’s historical analysis is helpful for peeling back some of the layers that have formed over Scripture over time, his reading of Scripture in light of the original historical context neglects Tradition itself. Unfortunately, in his attempt to get at what Paul really said about becoming right with God by “simply” returning to Scripture, he forgets to read Scripture along with Tradition, resulting in a misunderstanding of Luther and Calvin, and a turn back toward Aquinas.

Justification Defined

It must be made clear that Wright defines justification differently than Luther and Calvin—or even Aquinas for that matter. While they have used justification and salvation interchangeably, believing that salvation is itself justification, Wright asserts that “this is clearly untrue of Scripture itself.” ((Wright,Justification, 11.)) In fact, those who insist “that justification means ‘imputation’ of ‘righteousness’—the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ—to the sinner, clothing him or her with the status from the first moment of faith to the final arrival in heaven” are not following the way of Paul. ((Wright, Justification, 11. In his book, The Future of Justification, 9, John Piper, a contemporary pastor-theologian, joins with Luther and Calvin in asserting that the gospel of Christ includes “the news that there is a righteousness—a perfect obedience of Jesus Christ—that is offered freely to all through faith alone…that righteousness is imputed to the believer once and for all. Together with the sin-forgiving blood of Jesus, this is our hope. From the moment we believe until the last day of eternity God is 100 percent for us on this basis alone—the sin-bearing punishment of Christ, and righteousness-providing obedience of Christ.”)) Furthermore, unlike his Reformation counterparts Luther and Calvin, Wright does not believe justification is at the center of Paul’s theology, though it is also not a secondary inessential matter, either. ((Wright, Saint Paul, 114. In Justification, 87-88, Wright likens the traditional Protestant emphasis on justification to a car: in the past people have been convinced of the vital importance of a steering wheel for driving a car and referred to the entire car as “the steering wheel, so that people who had never seen a car would be deceived into thinking that he was talking about the steering wheel cunningly equipped with seats and a motor, but still really just a wheel.” Likewise, they have mistook justification (the steering wheel) for Paul’s entire thoughts on answering how one becomes right with God (the car).

As he argues, “the dikaios (righteousness) root, though it is indeed related closely to the whole theme of human salvation by God’s mercy and grace through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, does not denote that entire sequence of thought…but rather denoted one specific aspect of or moment within that sequence of thought.” [emphasis original])) If justification neither forms the center of Paul’s theology nor pivots around the imputed righteousness of Christ, what is it? How does Wright himself define justification in answer to our question? As a preliminary answer, consider fig. 5:

In his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright summarizes his understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification as follows: 1) the covenant declaration, issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods are shown to be wrong; 2) functions like the verdict in the law court: in acquitting someone it gives him or her the status of ‘righteous;’ 3) this declaration is ultimately made at the end of history. ((Wright, Saint Paul, 131.)) Wright consistently maintains that, “‘justification by faith’ is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future daywhen God judges the world.” ((Wright, Surprised by Hope, 140.)) His understanding of our answer to becoming right with God is both present and future. Both aspects center upon the idea of verdict: a persons guilty verdict is declared by faith now with the status “righteous,” in anticipation of the ultimate verdict at the end of history on the last day when the true people of God will be shown based on their works. Status is the issue for Wright, not state or character.

Curiously, Wright believes that Augustine and his followers believed that justification was about transforming the nature and character of a person. ((Wright, Justification, 91.)) While Augustine did believe in a fundamental change in a person’s nature, which was later characteristic of the medieval via modernaunderstanding of justification, ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 59.)) Luther made a decisive break by shifting the question in salvation from an ontological one, in which justifying righteousness changed and inherited a person, ((Wübbenhorst, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Justification,” 100.)) to one of standing and status. ((Trueman, “Simile peculator et justus,” 82.)) Likewise, Calvin joined Luther in understanding justification forensically, believing that we were reckoned to be righteous on Christ’s account, rather than actually becoming righteous. ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 254.)) He incorrectly asserts they believe a righteousness is “implanted” in a person, “which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable the patient to do things previously impossible.” ((Wright, Justification, 91. [emphasis original])) Instead, he argues that Paul’s own language “does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status.” ((Wright, Justification, 91. [emphasis original])) On this point Wright actually agrees with Luther and Calvin. This status is declared at the beginning with the first “phase” of what appears to be Wright’s two-phase justification scheme: vindication.

According to fig, 5, Wright seems to hold to a two-phased justification. Wrights Ordo Saludisbegins with a “time when a human being is outside of the community of God’s people, stuck in idolatry and consequent sin, through to the time when this same erstwhile sinner is fully and finally saved.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 255.)) For Wright, there is a “moment” when a person believes the summons of the gospel, and that is “calling,” though he is not exactly clear what this means. Wright believes neither “justification” nor “conversion” describe the moment at which the old person is gone and the new has come. Instead, calling is the central event. ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 255-256.)) Before this movement, God’s foreknowledge and grace marks out the believer ahead of time through the gospel. ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 256.)) After the moment the believer is called, this is where Wright departs from tradition.

Traditionally, a person has been said to be “justified” after a person is called and grasps Christ in faith. This person is “converted” from sinner to saved and said to be “justified.” Not so says Wright: “Paul uses ‘justify’ to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who has not before believed the gospel is gripped by the word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as the risen Lord.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 256.)) According to his justification scheme there appears to be a double justification of sorts, perhaps along the lines of Martin Bucer. ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 252. “Bucer develops a doctrine of double justification: after a ‘primary justification,’ in which the sins of humans are forgiven and righteousness imputed to them, there follows a ‘secondary justification,’ in which humanity is made righteous…While Bucer is concerned to maintain a forensic concept of primary justification, he stresses the need for this to be manifested as good works in the secondary justification. Although the primary justification of humans takes place on the basis of faith alone, their secondary justification takes place on the basis of their works.”

Although there are differences between the two, mainly Wright denies any forensic imputation of righteousness at the outset, they are similar in that there is a two-fold justification: one based on faith at the beginning and one based on works at the end. Though this examination will not further explore this theological connection, it would be interesting to conduct further research for a connection between Bucer and Wright.)) It seems that a person doesn’t becomes right with God at once, as in the traditional Protestant sense, but in two phases: in vindication through faith and in justification by works.

Role of Faith; Role of Merit

It must be said that Wright does not specifically label his two “phases” of justification as neatly as this examination does. He does not exactly present the first phase as vindication and the second as justification. He does proclaim, however, this “righteous status” declaration occurs twice: “It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 260. (emphasis original) ))As will become clear, there are two events that make a person right with God: the present, where one is vindicated by faith and declared not guilty, having their sins forgiven by God; and the future where one is justified by an entire merit-producing life that shows someone is part of God’s covenantal community, that someone is in. ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 260-261.)) It appears that Wright is trying to transcend both the Catholic and Protestant polarities by bringing them together under one unified program, rather than ascribing only to one theological tradition.

First, according to Wright after a person is called and Christ is grasped by faith, God declares them in the right and their sins are forgiven; they are vindicated. Vindication is law court language that denotes God’s declaration about a person. ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 258.)) In this first case, that persons sins have been forgiven through the death of Jesus. ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 258.)) When a person first believes in Christ through faith they are given the status of righteous. According to Wright, “‘Righteousness’ within the lawcourt setting denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor…‘justification’ will always then mean ‘acquittal,’ the granting of the status of ‘righteous’ to those who had been on trial.((Wright, Justification, 90. [emphasis mine])) This first phase is indicated, in Wright’s words, “not so much in words…but an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipates that final resurrection. In other words, baptism.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 260.)) As he has said before, this present declaration anticipates the final ultimate one when a person will be declared a covenant member. This second phase is what he seems to call justification.

After having been vindicated of their sins, a person lives their life by faith through Jesus Christ unto the end, where this person is declared “a member of the true covenant family.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 258.)) What this examination terms justification comes at the end of a life lived by faith that produces works, revealing they really are this member, rather than at the beginning as is the case with Luther and Calvin. Wright relocates justification from how a person becomes a Christian—and to some extent how one becomes right with God—to how we know that someone is part of God’s covenantal community. This perspective follows along his research and commitment to reading Paul in the context of first-century Judaism. “Justification in the first century was not about how someone establishes a relationship with God…it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology, as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” ((Wright, Saint Paul, 119. (emphasis mine) ))

For Wright, then, justification is ecclesiological, rather than soteriological like Luther and Calvin. While forgiveness of sins is important to Wright’s scheme—hence his first phase encapsulated in vindication—he seems to place the weight of importance at the end, at a final, secondaryjustification, which is dependent upon works. “The verdict issued in the future [is] on the basis of the entire life led.” ((Wright, Surprised by Hope, 140.)) This lived life is in response to the initial faith that led to the first justification, the forgiveness of sins through vindication. It appears, then, that Wright believes we are justified by both faith and works. He himself insists Paul did not view a clash between the present faith and future judgment according to works, for the two need and depend upon one another. ((Wright, Surprised by Hope, 140.)) How this dynamic is actually expressed, however, is not entirely clear.

What is basically clear is that Wright affirms both faith and works. First, in a recent book on virtuous Christian living, he affirms “that we are not justified by our works, but only by faith…[salvation/eternal life] remains precisely a gift. It is never something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his.” ((Wright, Believe, 57, 60.)) He also makes “faith in Christ” the requirement for being part of the covenantal family of God; “Faith is the badge of covenant membership.” ((Wright, Saint Paul, 122, 125.)) Furthermore, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly.” ((Wright, Saint Paul, 129. (emphasis mine) )) Elsewhere, however, he suggests that “this picture of future judgment according to works is the basis of Paul’s theology of justification by faith.” ((Wright, Surprised by Hope, 139.)) As he makes incredibly plain, “Paul, in company with mainstream Second Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led—in accordance, in other words, with works.” ((Wright, “New Perspective,” 253. (emphasis mine) )) In the end, Wright appears to argue that the first phase of justification (vindication) occurs by faith, while the second phase of justification (justification) will be by works. Faith and works form the answer to how Wright understands how one becomes right with God. Because Wright believes a person is ultimately justified based upon how the have lived their life, based upon their works, he is trending more Catholic with his answer, which in the end contradicts the basic shape of the Lutheran and Calvinist answer.