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

Monday, November 05, 2007

Comments on The Future of Justification. Installment #1

Because I am pinched to exploit time for pressing projects, I will not attempt to offer a whole book review of The Future of Justification at present. I will offer brief comments by using installments. These installments may span many days, if not a few weeks, given the press for time this month.


The first thing that strikes me about the book is how painstaking John Piper is to be kind and to be a Christian gentleman toward the man, N. T. Wright. John makes it evident to readers that he is aware of the gravity of the project he has picked up. First quoting James Denney and then adding his own comments, he says, "'No man can give the impression that he is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.' We will give an account to the all-knowing, all-ruling Lord of the universe in a very few years--or days. And when we do, what will matter is that we have not peddled God's word but 'as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ' (2 Cor. 2:17)" (p. 13).

Piper continues to express the seriousness and gravity concerning the subject of the book, "Therefore, the subject matter of the book--justification by faith apart from works of the law--is serious. There is as much riding on this truth as could ride on any truth in the Bible. 'If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose' (Gal. 2:21)" (p. 14).

How does John Piper view N. T. Wright? He explains, "My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel--and of the doctrine of justification in particular--is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God" (p. 15).

Throughout the "Introduction," a reader may receive the impression that John is loath to get on with his project as he repeatedly commends his theological sparring partner. Piper states, "I love the gospel and justification that I have seen in my study and preaching over the last forty years. N. T. Wright loves the gospel and justification he has seen in that same time. My temptation is to defend a view because it has been believed for centuries. His temptation is to defend a view because it fits so well into his new way of seeing the world. We are agreed, however, that neither conformity to an old tradition nor conformity to a new system is the final arbiter of truth. Scripture is. And we both take courage from the fact that Scripture has the power to force its own color through our human lens" (p. 17).

On page 18, John Piper begins to identify the issues that he intends to take on in his published "Response to N. T. Wright" (the subtitle of the book). He outlines a series of questions.

The gospel is not about how to get saved?
Here, Piper agrees with what Wright identifies to be the gospel--"the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one and true and only Lord of the world." He objects, however, against Wright's efforts to sharpen the focus of the gospel message with certain denials:
"'The gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved."

"My purpose has been that 'the gospel' is not, for Paul, a message about 'how one gets saved.'"

"The gospel is not . . . a set of techniques for making people Christians."

"'The gospel' is not an account of how people get saved. It is . . . the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ."
John responds by saying, "These are striking denials in view of 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 'Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you . . . by which you are being saved.' But be careful! Perhaps this only means that salvation results from believing the gospel, not that the gospel message tells how to be saved. Perhaps. But one wonders how the death and resurrection of Jesus could be heard as good news if one had spent his life committing treason against the risen King. It seems as though one would have to be told how the death and resurrection of Christ actually saves sinners, if sinners are to hear them as good news and not as a death sentence" (p. 18). Is Wright wrong? Has Wright overstated the facts? Piper's comments are tantalizing, but readers will have to jump ahead to chapter 5 (pp. 81-91), to read his responses to Wright.

Justification is not how you become a Christian? Here, Piper quotes Wright, "Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian" and again, "'Justification' in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people" (p. 19). Then John quotes a rather telling statement from Wright: "[Justification] 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" (p. 19). This is a "telling statement" for at least two reasons.

First, it indicates, if properly read, that Wright does not utterly deny that justification is "about 'getting in'." Could it be that Wright actually agrees with Piper that justification is "about 'getting in'" but that he adds some extras to his definition of justification, extras, about which, John Piper may properly disagree are contents of justification? Second, the statement is telling in that it may point to a concern that I have expressed in various places about N. T. Wright's formulations, namely, that he seems often to employ hyperbole, overstating his case to make a point. In this case, does not Wright signal that he is engaged in some form of hyperbole when he uses the expression "not so much about"? If I read him correctly, Wright is not denying that justification entails "getting in." Instead, he thinks that there is another dimension to justification, namely, "who is in." If correct, then has Wright overblown this aspect of justification? Has he overstated it? Yet, does not justification have this aspect within it, if we read Romans 2:13 correctly? Paul's concern in Romans 2:13 is not about how one is justified but who will be justified; it is not "the hearers" but "the doers."

Second, as I have made the case elsewhere, unfortunately, when we overstate a theological case, people may take the overstatement more seriously than intended and assume that the "not so much about" statement is a denial and a replacement of one affirmation with another affirmation. Has John Piper overblown Wright's "not so much about" statement? We will see when we read chapter 6 of The Future of Justification.

Justification is not the gospel? This is the third question Piper raises concerning Wright's affirmations. On page 19, Piper quotes Wright,

"I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by 'the gospel.'"

"If we come to Paul with these questions in mind--the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God--it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection--'the gospel' . . . is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit upon their hearts."
Again, is it possible that Wright has overstated his case to make a point? We await Piper's chapter 6 to see how he responds to Wright.

We are not justified by believing in justification?
This is Piper's fourth stated concern with Wright's view of things. Wright's actual words are, "We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself--in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead." Piper concedes, "This sounds right. Of course, we are not saved by doctrine. We are saved by Christ. But it is misleading, because it leaves the meaning of "believing in the gospel" undefined. Believing in the gospel for what? Prosperity? Healing? A new job?" One is tempted, at this point, to scratch the head and wonder at John's criticism, but
Piper's responses await reading of chapter 5.

The imputation of God's own righteousness makes no sense at all?
This is the now famous statement by Wright when he says, "If we use the language of the law-court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant" (p. 21). Wright goes on to say that righteousness is not like "a substance or a gas" that can be passed across the courtroom. The issue at stake, here, is that Wright is concerned with the notion of the accumulation of righteousness by Christ Jesus by perfectly doing the moral law and accumulating merits that will be shared with his people. Wright says, "As with some other theological problems, I regard this as saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong way, and the trouble when you do that is that things on both sides of the equation, and the passages which are invoked to support them, become distorted" (p. 21). This awaits John's response in chapter 8 of The Future of Justification.

Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? Elsewhere, I have already commented on this element of Wright's formulation of things biblical. Piper quotes Wright: "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" (p. 22). John adds the emphasis. The quote derives from Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 148. John adds two similar quotations to this one: "Paul has . . . spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God's people on the basis of their whole life" (John adds the emphasis); and "Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life" (again, John adds the emphasis). Concerning what Wright intends with these statements, John understands Wright to mean "future 'justification by works'," given a quote from Wright in which he says, "[Justification] occurs in the future . . . 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, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raise him from the dead" (p. 22). John Piper cautions readers, "it may be that Wright means nothing more here than what I might mean when I say that our good works are the necessary evidence of faith in Christ at the last day. Perhaps. But it is not so simple" (p. 22). John addresses this in chapter 7 of his book.

First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteousness and boastful legalism? Piper signals that he takes issue with Wright's claim and his use of first-century Jewish literature to ground his claim that first-century Jews kept "the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace," and that this is the backdrop for proper exegesis of Paul's letters, such as, to the Romans and to the Galatians. Chapters 9 and 10 of The Future of Justification discuss Piper's concerns about these claims.

God's righteousness is the same as his covenant faithfulness? Chapter 3 is where John Piper shows his reasons for objecting to Wright's claim that "the righteousness of God" is generally to be understood as God's "covenant faithfulness." Again, Wright affirms that with which Piper agrees, namely, that "the righteousness of God" includes God's "impartiality, his proper dealing with sin and his helping of the helpless." However, Wright affirms too much for Piper's liking by saying that "the righteousness of God" chiefly entails "his faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham." Chapter 11 is where John discusses Wright's interesting and unusual exposition of 2 Corinthians 5:21.

Now we come to the explanation of the book's title, The Future of Justification. For the above expressed questions of concern, John Piper is "not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright's portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity" (p. 24). As for Piper, he is convinced that "The future of justification will be better served . . . with older guides rather than the new ones. When it comes to the deeper issues of how justification really works both in Scripture and in the human soul, I don't think N. T. Wright is as illuminating as Martin Luther or John Owen or Leon Morris" (p. 25).

The introduction, then, is a map of the book, of where John will take his argument and where he will take up his objections to N. T. Wright. I will offer further interaction with Piper's book as time permits.


Dan Chen said...

Dr. Caneday,

Thanks for this. I am looking forward to the future installments.



graham old said...

I'm pleased to see you looking at this book, Ardel. I remember you mentioning on the Piper list, a few years back, that you weren't as reactionary to the NPP as many. In fact, I recall you mentioned you came to similar conclusions on some issues quite some time ago.

Personally, I'm surprised by the reaction of Piper to Wright. I'm not sure that he sees how similar they actually are on some things. (You own TRSBU) demonstrates some of this.

However, I wonder if Piper is actually being honest in his rare and much appreciated politeness towards his 'opponenet'. If he really believes what he says about Wright's views, then why does he not see him as under the Galatian curse?

A. B. Caneday said...


It has been a long time since I last heard from you. It's good to hear from you again.

You remember correctly. I did come to some similar conclusions to which N. T. Wright has come. I have some decided differences with him, also. Some coincide with issues that John Piper raises, but my own explanation of those concerns usually take a different tack.

In several matters, the differences between N. T. Wright and John Piper entail different nomenclature. For example, Wright's rejection of "imputation" is more about nomenclature than about substance, for Wright's theology includes God's reckoning to believers that which belongs to Christ. What Wright is talking about is essentially "imputation."

Yes, I have been surprised by John's responses to Wright, also. Yet, his theology has shifted significantly throughout the last ten years toward covenant theology.

I believe that John is being honest in his politeness toward Wright. Thus far, in my reading of The Future of Justification, John has made it explicitly clear that he regards N. T. Wright to be a Christian brother. He expresses no particular concern with regard to Wright's theological position concerning the man, N. T. Wright. He does not regard Wright to be as the apostle Paul regarded Hymenaeus an Philetus. John is very concerned, however, over the future of justification, if others embrace N. T. Wright's theology. He is alerting and alarming his readers concerning the dangers that lie ahead, as he sees the matter, if others follow in Wright's pioneering work concerning justification.

graham old said...

Hi Ardel,

The issue of nomenclature is an important one - and Piper hardly seems to be aware of it. In fact, when I first heard that he was writing a book in response to Wright, I told someone that I - as a sympathetic critic - was embarrassed for him.

When I read Counted Righteous in Christ, I couldn't believe that Piper couldn't see what you point out: they are saying something similar, with different terminology.

I wonder how much of the reaction is because Piper felt the need to distance himself from the likes of Wright (and even Fuller) because of how he was being criticized by some in more reformed evangelica circles? The funny thing is, I've had to defend Piper from some of the same criticisms that he levels at Wright.

A. B. Caneday said...


I have been reading N. T. Wright for as long as he has been publishing books. I have observed, as carefully as I have been able to do so, how Wright's nomenclature departs from traditional systematic theologically derived nomenclature while his concepts are generally in agreement with those held by Christians traditionally. Wright attempts, however well, to employ biblically derived nomenclature. (My own nomenclature often does the same.) If we do not hear him closely or read him closely, we will probably misunderstand him rather easily.

I do think that John Piper and N. T. Wright are closer that John's response to Wright suggests. For some reason there seems to be a kind of impasse between the two. I have my theories about why that may be, but I will not voice my thoughts, lest I be wrong and not right.

Raffi Shahinian said...

It's interesting that you and I appear to be at the same point in our lives right now, reading Piper because we're interested in Wright. I look forward to your comments on the book, as I have a few posts on my own blog about the subject as well. Would love to hear your comments.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian