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

by
Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday



Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More on N. T. Wright and John Piper Concerning Justification

Today I want to focus briefly upon the final two portions of the juxtaposition of Piper's and Wright's statements. I focus upon their respective statements concerning How This Happens and Future Justification.

How This Happens

Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are "in Christ," so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the "works of the Law" (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).

Future Justification

Piper: Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.

Wright: Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.

Summary statements, even provided effectively by others such as by Trevin Wax, give expression to the most salient features of ideas or beliefs. This is especially true when those whose views are being summarized have an opportunity to adjust, correct, expand or otherwise rectify summary statements concerning their beliefs about matters as crucial and vital as those that John Piper and N. T. Wright were asked to address by Trevin Wax.

It may be a surprise to some of my readers, who seem to misunderstand some of my beliefs, that I find my own expressions concerning these matters resonating with the summary expressions that John Piper approved rather than the summary expressions N. T. Wright approved. By this I mean that in order to make the above summaries my own I would not need to offer any correctives but only perhaps a brief expansion to the two summaries of John Piper's beliefs, but to the two summaries of N. T. Wright's beliefs I would need to offer correctives or at least significant qualifications or clarifications. My agreements with the summaries of N. T. Wright's views are heterogeneous and variegated, calling for qualifications, adjustments, and corrections. My agreements with the summaries of John Piper's views are quite homogeneous, not that I wouldn't add a statement here or there to supplement what is said.

Within the two brief summary statements cited above I find at least two significant points of departure between N. T. Wright and John Piper. First, under How This Happens John Piper understands the essence of justification to be soteriological--how one is set right with God. N. T. Wright understands the essence of justification to be ecclesiological--who is set right with God. As they endeavor to define justification, the two focus upon very different questions. Piper sees justification as concerned with how a sinner is set right with God; Wright sees justification as concerned with who is set right with God. Recognition of this fact that the two men view justification as oriented around two significantly different questions seems largely lost in the exchange between the two, featured in their respective books--Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision and in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Not only does it seem to be lost in the exchange between the two men but also among most who follow the debate.

Under How This Happens the summary of John Piper's beliefs entail the following statement: "By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us."

Compare and contrast this statement with the summary of Wright's beliefs. Yet, as we consider the summary of Wright's beliefs, it is important to take note that the summary entails pulling in two diverse directions.

First, Wright's view of justification entails soteriological aspects: "God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are 'in Christ,' so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him." This is a soteriological summary. For Wright, justification is soteriological in that "God justifies . . . all those who are 'in Christ'" and this means that "the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him." This statement, though expressed differently from the summary statement that captures Piper's belief, agrees that justification is soteriological and that what belongs to Christ Jesus God declares to belong to all who are in him.

However, for Wright, justification is essentially ecclesiological, and this aspect has come to loom large in, even dominate, his expressions concerning justification, with the consequence that it draws much attention even accusation. "Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the "works of the Law" (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart)." The issue I am pointing out concerning Wright's view finds reinforcement under Future Justification with the summary statement: "Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God."

There is some biblical warrant for Wright's belief that our formulations concerning justification ought to account for who is justified, for, after all, the apostle Paul does speak to the question of who will be justified when he says, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Romans 2:13).

Given Paul's statement, when we formulate our doctrinal statements concerning justification, surely we need to account for the fact that the New Testament speaks to the question concerning "who will be justified before God." This is especially so because the New Testament itself actually speaks this way. Consequently, I would include within my own summary statement concerning justification a statement that reflects this biblically warranted concern.

Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that Romans 2:13 and passages like it (e.g., Matt 25:31-46) warrant reorientating the focus of the definition of justification to focus upon who is justified rather than how one is justified. How one is set right with God is the essence of what justification entails. Who is set right with God surely is essential to the gospel and as such biblical assertions concerning who is justified inseparably link justification in Christ before God and sanctification in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, our doctrinal formulations ought to represent these biblical facts as accurately as possible. In my estimation, this is getting to the heart of N. T. Wright's concerns, though I am convinced that my expressions state more carefully his concerns than he himself has expressed his concerns. The way I express it above and elsewhere (e.g., throughout this blog), I avoid the problems that adhere to Wright's formulations as, for example, I point out below.

I find a second point of departure between Piper and Wright. Given the above crucial distinction between the views of the two ministers of the gospel, Piper's defining justification exclusively in terms of soteriology and Wright's definition of justification spanning both soteriology and ecclesiology but with the latter being the essential feature, it should not be surprising that under How This Happens Piper's and Wright's expressions concerning the basis of justification are quite different. Piper's view is summarized: "Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification." It is not as though Wright does not believe this. Surely his writings indicate that he does believe it. Nevertheless, given his empasis upon defining justification essentially in terms of ecclesiology rather than in terms of soteriology, Wright's view is summarized: "Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant . . . and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the "works of the Law" (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart)." Again, under Future Justification Wright's view is well summarized as "Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God."

I offer my own critical assessment of Wright's formulation here. Elsewhere I address the issue of the basis of justification such as
here but especially here, where I pose the question, "Is Our Faith the Basis of Our Justification before God?" I point out the common evangelical mistake of identifying our faith as the basis of justification before God. I even point out that John Piper made such statements until my blog entry became the occasion for him to recognize the error and to correct it. My blog entry includes the following update.

In response to this blog entry interaction with his expressions concerning justification, John Piper has adjusted the way he expresses the relationship between faith and justification in the on-line document "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism." No longer does the document speak of the first act of faith as the basis of our justification.

Thus, as far as Trevin Wax's summary statement goes concerning John Piper's understanding of justification in the Day of Judgment it comports with my own. The statement reads,

Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works.

Justification before God, whether spoken of in terms of the already or the not yet is based solely on the substitutionary work of Christ Jesus, not upon our faith in Christ Jesus. Belief is instrumental but not the basis or ground of our right standing before God now or in the Last Day. I am persuaded that formulation of John Piper's view has this correct in contrast to N. T. Wright's formulation, which in my estimation is confusing at best when he approves the summary statement: "Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God."

13 comments:

Timotheos said...

Ardel,
Thank you so much for posting this. This is a very helpful piece, that I have emailed to friends, and will continue to do so, when I receive questions regarding Piper and Wright.

Peace!

Tim

A. B. Caneday said...

Thanks, Tim. I hope that it will be helpful for many, because I find that few who read Wright and Piper actually recognize these fine points of distinction, points that are vital and crucial.

In my estimation, Wright is wanting to make a very important point by recasting justification as ecclesiological. However, he confounds matters the way that he expresses his ideas and thoughts.

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

Isn't Piper (and most of Evangelicalism) applying Galations 1:6-9 much to broadly? And in the process misdefining the gospel itself?

Do they not see the gospel as "Come to Jesus by faith without any pretense of moral effort, because if you proudly mix your moral effort with faith you cannot be justified."

Isn't Paul in Galatians saying that in core form, the gospel is that all nations have been blessed in faithful Abraham through his descendant, the resurrected King Jesus, who justifies all people who zealously obey him?

Are not the systematic categories of the Reformation, while containing much truth, also, rife with silt and chaff which is obscuring biblical truth in significant ways?

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

Does N.T. Wright, while correctly seeing that the Galatian heresy required Gentiles to submit to Hebrew tradition, see justification as analogous to having an illegal alien declared a citizen in immigration court? Thus making the forgiveness imputed through Christ's sacrifice seem less profound?

A. B. Caneday said...

Bruce,

You asked, Do they not see the gospel as "Come to Jesus by faith without any pretense of moral effort, because if you proudly mix your moral effort with faith you cannot be justified."

Isn't Paul in Galatians saying that in core form, the gospel is that all nations have been blessed in faithful Abraham through his descendant, the resurrected King Jesus, who justifies all people who zealously obey him?


I wonder if you have mixed distinguishable categories with your two questions. I wonder if the first question is not more focused upon the call of the gospel and the latter question focused more upon an aspect of the gospel itself.

As for the former question, it seems to express something much akin to the concern of evangelicals in general. The second question gets at a key element that N. T. Wright endeavors to accent.

Your question about an illegal alien in immigration court is intriguing. I don't know that I have encountered this imagery in Wright's work. He might like it, but this would be to take a modern category and read it back onto the New Testament.

Andrew Cowan said...

PART 1

Dr. Caneday,

Thanks for writing this post. I could not agree more with the following statement:

"Recognition of this fact that the two men view justification as oriented around two significantly different questions seems largely lost in the exchange between the two, featured in their respective books--Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision and in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Not only does it seem to be lost in the exchange between the two men but also among most who follow the debate."

All in all, it sounds like your reading of the debate and your conclusions have run along very similar lines to my own.

I do wonder if it is entirely helpful, however, to describe Wright's view of justification as soteriological, with ecclesiology coming in (and even dominating) rather than describing his view of justification as ecclesiological with soteriological implications. I say this because although his statement of "How This Happens" begins with soteriological reflections, it does not seem that the soteriology makes into his actual definition of justification itself. Wright certainly does affirm that what belongs to Christ belongs to those who are in Christ, but his rendering of justification seems to be more narrow in scope than the declaration that what belongs to Christ Jesus also belongs to them. I think that you are here synthesizing things that Wright says but which he actually holds apart. As you emphasize repeatedly, Wright thinks that justification is the specific declaration of the believer's covenant membership. Within this framework, Wright understands Jesus' resurrection to be God's vindication of Jesus as the true Messiah, and he understands believers to be sharing in that vindication in the sense that if the Messiah has been vindicated, then God has already (by that vindication) publicly declared that those who trust in him are those who possess membership in his covenant family and will vindicated themselves be on the last day. Thus, I don't think that his beautiful (but incomplete) theology of union with Christ is as entirely wrapped up in justification as your synthesis here suggests. I think that he would say that this is an implication and function of possessing covenant membership, and so these things cannot be divorced, but I think that you have loaded a little more into his expression of the function of Christ's resurrection in justification than his writings actually express.

Andrew Cowan said...

PART 2 (Sorry, there might be one paragraph of overlap, I can't remember where I left off)

I think that confusion comes in because Wright has been charged with not linking justification to soteriology, and he has attempted to respond to these charges. I think that his response, however, when read carefully, expresses that justification has to do with soteriology because it is the declaration of one's covenant membership, and the covenant was given to deal with sin in the first place (through the death of the faithful-Israelite Messiah). He thus connects justification to soteriology, but I don' think that the connection is direct enough to declare his view of justification soteriological in itself.

Thus, also, I don't think that it is quite correct to say that Wright would agree with Piper's statement that "Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification." In Wright's view, in justification, faith is not playing the function of uniting us to Christ. Instead, because Wright believes that justification addresses the question "Who are the members of God's covenant family?," faith functions as the evidence that one is in that family, the "badge of membership." Wright believes that the Spirit brings one into God's people through the "call," and that faith is the first symptom of this conversion, and thus the evidence that one is a member of God's people.

That is also why Wright is so comfortable with the word "basis" for the function of faith in present justification and works in final justification. Given that he thinks justification is the verdict in a trial asking "Who are the people of God?," he thinks that faith is the evidence called in to demonstrate who are the people of God in the present, and works will be the evidence called in to demonstrate who are the people of God in the final judgment. Thus, he thinks that present justification is "based" on faith in the sense that the verdict that one is truly a member of God's people is declared on the "basis" of that evidence, and the same may be said of the final verdict and works in Wright's construal. Works function as the evidence that one truly participated in God's covenant during life, and thus serve as the "basis" for the verdict that one is a true covenant member at the final judgment.

Of course, whether or not Wright is correct is another issue, and I think that I am broadly in line with your evaluation here. Nevertheless, I think that your statement of Wright's views could use a little fine-tuning along the lines that I have detailed above.

I hope that you and your family are doing well. My wife and I enjoyed visiting with you briefly at SBL.

A. B. Caneday said...

Andrew,

Initially, I am inclined to think that your fine-tuning adjustments of my comments are on target. I shall give your nuances concerning Wright's view more careful thought and endeavor to represent his views as accurately as possible.

In particular, I do think that you properly tweak my statements when you write, I do wonder if it is entirely helpful, however, to describe Wright's view of justification as soteriological, with ecclesiology coming in (and even dominating) rather than describing his view of justification as ecclesiological with soteriological implications. This is a more helpful way of saying what I was endeavoring to say.

tdenfuny said...

Hello,

I have started reading your book and have finished the first chapter. I have a simple question. How does the view of the Lutherans fit into your overview of the different views that are described?

If I understand right, Lutherans do believe that one can fall and loose ones salvation, but that one also has complete assurance.

I didn't know where to post general questions about the book that don't fit under one of the posts, so I hope here is ok.

Best wishes
Thomas

A. B. Caneday said...

Thomas,

You pose a great question. The traditional Lutheran view fits within the range of views we present in the book but not precisely on the spot of any of the views we portray in the first chapter.

Keep in mind, however, that we do not claim that there are only those precise four/five views that we present. Rather, we acknowledge that there are views that blend elements of two or perhaps even more of the views that we present.

The four/five views that we isolate should be understood as nodal points along a spectrum of views. We isolated these views because of their prominence in the general evangelical realm.

Thus, the range of views that we have presented accounts for the tradition Lutheran view, even though we do not isolate the view as a distinct view as we do others. Perhaps we should have. Perhaps we would if we were ever to put out a second edition.

I think that you have quite accurately represented the traditional Luther view.

For the record, Tom Schreiner and I do share Martin Luther's view that assurance of salvation is integral to faith in Christ. John Calvin and Martin Luther shared this belief.

Oh, and the comments of the latest blog entry is a good place to post general questions.

Thanks for your question.

daniel said...

At the risk of wading in way over my head and saying something that will reveal my ignorance, I would like to make the following observation.

While Ardel says "for Wright, justification is essentially ecclesiological", Wright, in his book on justificaiton, makes the point that justification is comprised of "covenantal", "ecclesiological" eschatological and Christological elements.

Consequently, I don't understand how Ardel can say what he does.

A. B. Caneday said...

Daniel,

You state While Ardel says "for Wright, justification is essentially ecclesiological", Wright, in his book on justificaiton, makes the point that justification is comprised of "covenantal", "ecclesiological" eschatological and Christological elements.

Consequently, I don't understand how Ardel can say what he does.


The reason that I can say "for Wright, justification is essentially ecclesiological" is that it does not mean that the other elements--covenantal, eschatological, Christological----are excluded. I'm aware that Wright views justification as including all these other elements too. However, upon following Wright's works throughout the years, from his Oxford dissertation through to his Justification, what has emerged to the foreground of Wright's formulation of justification, as I read and understand, is the ecclesiological element. This is the essential feature among the others, but it is not the whole.

I think that upon reviewing both my blog entry and my exchange with Andrew in the comments above that you will see that I account for more than the ecclesiological feature.

Thanks for stopping by to read my blog.

Andres said...

Regarding a missional perspective some are misunderstanding the controversy. The Abrahamic Covenant is also central in John Piper’s theology and he believes the Gospel was initially given to Abraham. This is not the point of discussion but the what is at the center. What are the good news? The “in You” means “in Jesus” through justification by faith alone (asI clearly see in Paul in Romans 4:21-15, or is the “all nations” the good news giving to Gentiles what was already the Jews? Wright seems to believe the later.

Andres Duncan-LInch | Oct 28, 2009 |