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.
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 here.
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): 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.
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.