This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Nick's Question about Justification Now and Not Yet--Part 1

Shortly after I began this blog, Nick posed a question. He inquired:
The relationship between justification by faith alone (especially how the death and resurrection of Christ is the sole objective ground of our standing with God) and a future final judgment according to works. I know the already-not yet is huge here, but how it actually works is obviously a major issue today, and most scholars seem to shy away from explaining how the two fit together for the biblical writers.
Now that I am beginning to emerge from under a pile of many tasks, I believe that it is timely for me to take up Nick's question. I begin by posting the following note duplicated on another of my blogs. I trust that it is self-explanatory.
In John Piper's interesting and full report on his five month writing sabbatical at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, he mentions two books that he wrote during the sabbatical. The second has stirred some discussion here and here.
The other book is a response to N. T. Wright on the doctrine of justification. I have no immediate plan to publish it until I get the feedback from critical readers. My motivation in writing it is that I think his understanding of Paul is wrong and his view of justification is harmful to the church and to the human soul. Few things are more precious than the truth of justification by faith alone because of Christ alone. As a shepherd of a flock of God’s blood-bought church, I feel responsible to lead the sheep to life-giving pastures. That is not what the sheep find in Wright’s view of Paul on justification. He is an eloquent and influential writer and is, I believe, misleading many people on the doctrine of justification. I will keep you posted on what becomes of this manuscript.
N. T. Wright has written much on the subject. Look for essays and sermons here. Regrettably, misunderstanding exists on both side of the conflict. I make no pretense that what I have to say, here, will settle the matter. In my estimation both sides need to correct and to qualify crucial aspects of how they formulate their comments on justification.

Here is N. T. Wright's glossary entry for "justification" in a popular commentary.
Justification: God's declaration, from his position as judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin. This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Romans 2:1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through the cross (Romans 3:21-4:25); the means of this present justification is simply faith. This means particularly, that Jews and Gentiles alike are full members of the family promised by God to Abraham (Galatians 3; Romans 4) (Mark for Everyone pg. 233).
It seems to me that N. T. Wright opens himself up to legitimate criticism when he says of justification that "This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life. . . ." This is problematic in one crucial regard. Wright uses an expression that will only offend the ears and eyes of anyone already suspicious of him. Furthermore, his expression confounds biblical language. His offending expression is on the basis of an entire life. To say that God's declaration of justificaiton will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life is quite problematic. Here is the reason that Wright's critics charge that he teaches justification on the basis of deeds, a kind of legalism.

Wright's critics have a point. His expression is confusing. Judgment will not be on the basis of deeds. Judgment will be in keeping with our deeds. The preposition Paul uses in Romans 2:6 is κατά, "according to" or "in keeping with." Paul's discussion in Romans 2:6-13 does not address the basis of judgment or of justification. His expression in 2:6 has the sense in accordance with. Perhaps Wright means nothing more than this. Yet, his phrasing seems to confound issues. Furthermore, Paul's expression in Romans 2:13, his use of the adjectival noun--οἱ ποιηταί--does not warrant Wright's translation, on the basis of. Paul's word selection is to characterize whom God will justify in the last day. See my commentary on the passage

Problematic as is Wright's statement that justification in the last day will be on the basis of an entire life, similar problems can be found in the formulations of Wright's critics. For example, in
Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5, Simon Gathercole makes the following statement,
In [Romans] 3:28, justification is simply expressed as taking place on the basis of faith, and in 3:30, under exactly the same conditions for Jew and gentile. In Romans 4, Paul locates justification at the beginning of Abraham's life with God: when Abraham is justified, it is on the basis of trust alone, while he is in a state of "ungodliness" (250; emphasis added).
How is it more palatable to say that our present justification is on the basis of faith or on the basis of trust alone than it is to say that justification in the last day will be on the basis of an entire life? It seems to me that Simon Gathercole's formulation (justification "on the basis of faith") is no less problematic than N. T. Wright's formulation (justification in the last day will be "on the basis of an entire life"). My point is simple: less than cautious formulations on both sides have been made. I am willing to be as generous to N. T. Wright as I am to Simon Gathercole, for in my estimation, both have formulated statements that do not comport with the evidence of Paul's Letter to the Romans.

Despite their less than acceptable doctrinal formulations, I would not regard either Wright or Gathercole heretical. I do, however, believe that both are in need of some correction. Justification before God is by faith but only on the basis of Christ's sacrificial and atoning death.
Update (8/8/06): JT has posted links to John Piper's first sermon upon his return from a five-month sabbatical. Piper is taking on N. T. Wright in his sermon. Is John Piper beginning to let out in dribs and drabs the substance of the manuscript of which he speaks here, which I cite above?

Update (8/8/06): You may read the
manuscript or listen to the audio of John Piper's sermon on August 6, "This Man Went Down to His House Justified," his first sermon upon returning from his five-month writing sabbatical at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England.

His sermon is based upon Luke 18:9-14. His message is a clear harbinger of what to expect in the pages of the book manuscript that takes on N. T. Wright. Is it not fairly obvious that John Piper regards the Pharisee in Jesus' parable to be the ancient equivalent of N. T. Wright today?
He may say, "Not I but the grace of God in me has worked this righteousness. I thank you God that I have a righteousness that is from you. Oh, how I thank you that I have a righteousness in me. His mistake was not in taking credit for his righteousness. His mistake was that once God had given it to him, he trusted in it as what would be the basis of his justification. He is not a legalist.
The excerpt above is from the heart of his sermon, taken from the audio version.

It is doubtful that Luke 18:9 bears the meaning that John Piper attempts to extract from it in the above quote. Luke 18:9 says that Jesus "told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt." The expression, "trusted in themselves that they were righteous," does not readily yield the meaning given it in the above quote. The text does not say that "they trusted in the righteousness that God had given them as the basis of their justification." The passage does not even use the familiar word πιστεύω to depict their "trust." Rather, the text reads πρός τινας τοὺς πεποιθότας ἐφʼ ἑαυτοῖς translated: "to some who were confident in themselves that they were righteous." Accordingly, Luke does not tell us that the fault of the Pharisees to whom Jesus addresses the parable is that they put their faith in a righteousness that God had worked in them. Rather, Luke tells us that their fault is two-fold: (1) their confidence is misplaced; their confidence is in themselves; and (2) they hold others in contempt. Confident of themselves, they judge themselves righteous while behaving unrighteously by condemning others. They submit to their own judgment of themselves and not to God's judgment, as the tax collector does.

What is rather odd in the quote above is that it argues that the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke the parable were not legalists. It paints a rather positive portrait of them. It insists that Luke's statement in 18:9 is not descriptive of a person who looks to one's own deeds as meritorious. In other words, the quote's descriptions of the Pharisees approaches N. T. Wright's own descriptions of the Pharisees and of first-century Jewish views of what is entailed in righteousness. Yet, as one listens to the sermon, does one not get the sense from this almost agreement that N. T. Wright's view of justification may agree with the Pharisee's view? Jesus speaks the parable of 18:9-14 to the Pharisees. Would one be wrong to infer the implication that present-day use of the parable would be properly directed to N. T. Wright or at least to anyone who takes his view?

Would it be fair to deduce that the sermon was shaped by the writing of a manuscript in response to N. T. Wright? Would I be wrong to infer that this is made evident from this excerpt near the close of the sermon?
Do you see why I would spend weeks of my sabbatical laboring to understand why so many teachers in the church today are replacing the righteousness that Christ has in himself with the righteousness that Christ creates in us as the basis for our justification? People who trust in the righteousness that God has worked in them for the basis of their acceptance and acquittal and justification do not go down to their house justified. People who really believe that the righteousness that God helps them do in this life is a sufficient basis for their justification, Jesus says, will not be justified. Bethlehem, this is serious. We are not justified by the righteousness that Christ works in us, but by the righteousness that Christ is for us.
I certainly agree with the theology of the sermon. I find it difficult, however, to see that the theology of the sermon derives from Luke 18:9-14. I would express it this way: it is the case of correct theology from a wrong text. For whatever it is worth, it seems to me that the sermon works hard at straining out the gnat (expressions of justification that do not seem to measure up) and swallowing the camel (a creative interpretation of the text to make the point desired). We have all been guilty of using Scripture this way at some point. Is not use of Scripture, that derives from shortsightedness or partially blinded vision when responding to others, a fault that we all need to avoid? Unless we do, we will use both Scripture and the pulpit or the lectern poorly.


Adam Omelianchuk said...

This is the clearest thing I have read on this issue. Thank for that. What do you think NT Wright means when he says "is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement?" How does that square with being declared righteous on the basis of an entire life?



A. B. Caneday said...


It seems to me that N. T. Wright's expression, if not his thinking, is muddled (to use a good Brit word) when he says, This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Romans 2:1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through the cross (Romans 3:21-4:25); the means of this present justification is simply faith.

It seems to me that Wright is needlesly saying things that are actually mutually contrary. It is so, because of what he says in this: This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life. To say this is to regard justification as grounded in something other than on the basis of Jesus' achievement. It is N. T. Wright's attempt to grapple with holding together the full biblical representation of justification as both now and not yet. You find, however, that I am quite patient with N. T. Wright. He has so much correct on the matter, that I cannot assign him to the exit door of the church. (The curious thing is that if one could integrate the best of John Piper's beliefs on justification and the best of N. T. Wright's beliefs on the same, one would have things about right. Both men need correction, but at different places.)

In my estimation, Wright's statement that justification--is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through the cross--is entirely right, biblical, and necessary to an integrated doctrine of justification. And when I say this, I am speaking of any properly preached sermon on justification. My concern is the assurance that believers ought now to have concerning the Last Day, however near or far it may be. If I read Wright correctly, then, I believe that he means that as believers, we do not need to await the Last Day to know God's verdict over us. God's verdict of the Last Day is already spoken over us through the gospel. The verdict: Not guilty! Why? Jesus Christ took the punishment for the crime of our unrighteousness. The Righteous One died on behalf of the unrighteous. This is the great news of the gospel. Right standing before God in the Last Day does not await the Last Day. Already, in these last days, we can know ourselves to be acquitted before God because God inflicted his wrath on his Son on our behalf. This is the core of the gospel, and I believe N. T. Wright has this correct.

If I am correct in how I understand N. T. Wright's statement, then, I fully concur with this statement. On this, see The Race Set Before Us, 161-162). I will be posting a segment from these pages next. These pages disclose Tom's and my beliefs concerning justification now and not yet, particularly in Paul.

t.rob said...

Man, I have so many things I would like to say about all this, but I'd better keep it to a dull roar. I've seen the Piper/Wright rumblings all over the net today. No doubt by tomorrow, it will be worse. I kinda wish the comments (Piper's) could have waited until the book actually came out so we wouldn't have this dramatic "he said" kind of build up without some kind of evidence to hold in our hands.

I also kinda feel sick to my stomach about what I foresee in all this. I love John Piper. I am who I am and where I am because of his ministry (by God's grace). In fact, it was through many of Piper's earlier works (esp. Future Grace) that I let go of Zane Hodgeism, and began to take the "warnings" and passages on "works" seriously (leading me to D. Fuller, then Schreiner and now Caneday).

But I'm also a huge N.T. Wright fan as a pastor and as a theologian/exegete/historian. He succeeds at bringing us nearer to Christ in all areas. In fact, ironically, I can trace such a love for Wright back to Piper (at least in my own experience.) For Wright does (though not perfectly) what Piper taught us to do: don't be afraid of the text, see the "Unity of the Bible", catch the context and flow of a given text, etc.

So I'm very very bummed about all this. I'm not saying it's not necessary, nor that issues of justification/imputation are unimportant. But I now foresee the same blind anti-Wright rhetoric on the horizon in the Reformed Baptist community that has been so vitriolic in the Presbyterian community these past few years.

I'm certain that's not Dr. Piper's intention at all. But his followers (myself included!) take him so seriously, and Wright's works are so in need of serious/careful study, that I fear this man of God will never get a fair hearing, especially here in the States.

Anyway, I'm sure Dr. Piper has every intention to communicate directly with Bishop Wright over these things so as to clearly and soundly lay out what their differences really are (not just hearsay). I would pray the good Bishop would be open to discussion as well. Hopefully this was done throughout the process of the book's writing as well.

I can't imagine these two theologian/pastors whom I love not having been fully charitable, truthful, and fair in the writing and release of this book. Surely they are both aware of the vast impact any public jousting will have on Christ's church!

O, Spirit, please guide us in love, truth, and unity!

todd robinson
silao, guanajuato, mexico

A. B. Caneday said...


Thanks for your personal account of the inner conflict this external conflict brings to you. You are not alone by any means. It is painful to watch wrangling over words when both sides are saying much the same thing from different ends of the matter, but both are in need of adjustments and corrections.

If the preachers involved were pastors of small or unknown congregations, little would be made of the matter. Such is not the case, however. Both men have large followings. And, it seems to me, that this is precisely one of the major problems. Personalities get in the way of real theological debate. Groupie mentality gets in the way.

Sides get drawn. Individuals become opponents. Beliefs get rigidified. Blind spots prevent each from recognizing and understanding the opponent's beliefs. Sabers get rattled. Tough talk gets spoken. The gaunlet is thrown down. The troops rally around the champion. War is on the horizon. The cause of the gospel gets injured by the very ones who, out of deep conviction and out of good intentions, view others within the church as enemies of the gospel.

It is getting ugly fast. This is truly disheartening. Cooler heads need to prevail.

John Piper needs to back off. His own beliefs on justification need some important adjustments, precisely where N. T. Wright might help him. N. T. Wright's beliefs on justification, likewise, need some important adjustments, precisely where John Piper's beliefs might help him. Saber rattling will benefit no one.

We all need to pray that the Lord who justifies will bring peace to his church through the gospel over which men with blind spots argue.

I could tell my own stories of pain and anguish over these same issues, but I will keep my own experiences out of the foray. They are not pertinent to the matter at hand. Furthermore, they would edify no one.

Nick said...

Actually the struggles of others can be quite edifying. Thanks for this post. I am looking forward to more to come. I just began reading Thomas Schreiner's Pauline Theology. Have you ever read it? What did you think? (in terms of the section on righteousness).

A. B. Caneday said...


I am in substantial agreement with Tom Schreiner's discussion of "righteousness" in his Paul, Apostle of God's Glory in Christ. By this, I mean that I am in essential theological agreement with him. I do, however, have some quibbles with him concerning his exegetical and biblical support for aspects of what he has to say. But this, of course, is true for virtually everyone. Apart from theological cloning, it is exceedingly rare that two individuals would agree on every aspect of a view, including every element of exegesis.

As for the pain and anguish that I have experienced over the issue of justification, permit me, if you will, to share one brief account.

Take a look at the review titled "A more fair and objective review, July 15, 2001" on the web page. As you will observe, this review has been revised from an earlier version. The earlier version reflected an almost complete failure to understand and grasp the argument of The Race Set Before Us. Why the second and revised review? Thankfully the one who wrote it read the book again. This is where my story actually begins.

Shortly after TRSBU was published (2001), I stumbled onto a discussion board on where there was a discussion of the book already engaged. After reading all the posts (few, if any, reflected any proper understanding of the book's argument), I inquired if the participants would like to discuss the book's contents and argument with me, one of the co-authors. Welcomed, I joined in. The assault began. I should have been wise and should not have joined, but I did. After all, the group consisted of "Reformed Calvinists." There was a lot of pain and anguish with harsh invectives launched repeatedly at me. The worst individual was a Reformed Baptist pastor from West Michigan.

One of the leading participants in the discussion was a gentleman from Canada. He failed badly to understand the book's reasoning and argument. He is the one who wrote the review on My patient interaction with him evidently prompted him to read the book again, something that I pled with him to do. Much to my surprise, after some months, the gentleman revised his review. I was grateful for his substantial change.

So, yes, our theological conflicts with others my be edifying for others to learn about. I trust that this short account is edifying. I regret, however, that I cannot report anything positive about the conflict with the Reformed Baptist pastor. I have no idea whether he has ameliorated his savage attack upon me. He was so mean-spirited that I cut off participation and reading of the discussion within a month after having joined the group.

A. B. Caneday said...

In my comment directly above, I refer to the previous version of the reader's review of The Race Set Before Us. I happened to stumble onto a copy of it today when I was looking for another old file. So, I decided to post the review for all to read. Take note of the radical differences between this review and the review that now holds the place that the one below formerly occupied. Here it is without any editing.

Undermines Justification by Faith Alone, July 14, 2001
Reviewer: A reader

This book, though the authors strongly won't admit it, undermines the traditional Protestant understanding of justification. Though the authors claim that they wrote this book for pastoral reasons, I believe that this book will do more of a disservice to true believers who are struggling to gain a better walk in their faith and to understand the Biblical view of God's grace. Also, I would not recommend this book to pastors, ministers, or teachers who are trying to get a better understanding of the whole controversy within Calvinistic evangelicalism about faith, assurance, sanctification, perseverance, and lordship. Though they do a good and fair job representing the major views and interpretations regarding perseverance in chapter 1, their own view of the whole issue returns Protestantism back to the pre-Reformation period in regards to the issue of faith and grace. In chapter 2, they set out to explain their interpretations of the warning passages and the "tension" between the "already" and "not yet" of salvation. However, even though they accuse other camps of interpreting the warning passages according to preconceived biases, they do the same by reading into the warning passages the "already" and "not yet" outline and telling readers that justification is both a past and a future event. Obviously, to say that justification in the future is dependent on our works smacks of works-salvation. In chapter 3, they argue that faith, believing, and hearing is synonymous with obedience, commitment, working, etc., and they use Romans 2:13 and James 2:14-26 to argue that faith is not merely "believing" but "obeying". The apostle Paul would strongly disagree with this idea of saving faith (Romans 3:28). The fact is that Paul preached a Gospel filled with grace and freeness that believers mistakenly assumed he taught an antinomian doctrine (cf. Romans 6:1; 1 Cor. 3:1-3; 5:1-5; 6:12-20; 11:29-31). In Romans 2 Paul is arguing that those who judge others for not obeying the Law will be judged by God impartially, and only those who keep the law perfectly will be justified at the end (which no sinner can do). James is discussing our justification before others by our works, not before God at the judgment throne. In chapter 4, the authors attempt to argue that their interpretations of the warning passages are more plausible because it keeps the present and future tenses of salvation intact. However, when the Biblical writers discussed salvation in various passages they didn't always mean eternal salvation. Also, justification is a done deal in the past, not something we have to frightfully hope that we may attain in the future by our good performance. Luther and Calvin would be appalled at this idea of justification. Some of the warnings were given to true believers for greater rewards in the Kingdom (1 Cor. 9:27) and to warn professing Christians that their justification is a sham if they fall away (Col. 1:23). Chapter 5 is a discussion of why certain people fall away. According to the authors, the professing Christians fall away permanently because God predestined them to fall away (like Judas) and never gave them the grace of perseverance. However, it is pastorally wise not to tell a struggling believer that their slothfulness is a sign that God has predestined them to fall away. We are to encourage struggling believers and help them run faithfully (not for salvation, but because they are already saved). Chapter 6 is a pretty good discussion, the only chapter I would say that is helpful in our struggles as a Christian, even though I strongly disagree with the conclusions of the authors (that we need to draw on God's grace to attain future justification). Chapter 7 is an unhelpful discussion, saying that we can gain assurance/certainty of salvation now, yet at the same time fear that we might go to hell in the future (sounds more like Arminianism than Calvinism to me). They try to squeeze together the assuring and warning passages together to come up with some sort of a tension to say that the warning passages help gain us greater assurance. In chapter 8, the authors argue that those who persevere to the end are the ones who truly received God's grace to persevere to the end. The problem is, how much good works or faithfulness do we must have to know that we are one of the elect? The authors argue that we must strain hard to the end to be saved eschatologically. However, it is interesting to note that the authors didn't mention names like Lot and Samson, Ananias and Sapphira, and those Corinthian believers who abused the Lord's table (1 Cor. 11:30). They were all saved, yet they didn't "strain hard" all the way to the end, in fact they weren't what you would call obedient Christians. Considering that many scholars in recent years have turned the evangelical doctrine of salvation by faith alone into works-salvation (E. P. Sanders, K. Stendahl, W. D. Davies, J. D. G. Dunn, D. Fuller, D. Garlington) it is more that we keep the doctrine of justification by faith alone more strongly guarded from "evangelical" distortions. In fact, I believe that scholars like Hodges, Ryrie, Dillow, and the rest have made significant contributions in the evangelical scene to keep the precious Gospel pure and Biblical. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that if our preaching of the Gospel doesn't get accused of antinomianism then there is something seriously wrong with it. I believe that there is something seriously wrong with saying that our works are required for salvation in the end.