Saturday, July 10, 2004

N.T. Wright on Justification and Imputation Part V 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV
‘Justification’ is … the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham.94
Within such a definition, Wright believes that he can escape many of the dichotomies created in past definitions (e.g. between ‘forensic’ and ‘incorporative’).95 This definition brings together both the law-court and the covenant aspects that he has outlined in his treatment of righteousness language. Justification and the Gospel Wright believes that it is important that we do not confuse justification with the gospel. One is not saved by believing in justification by faith; one is saved by believing in Jesus.96
For Paul, ‘the gospel’ creates the church; ‘justification’ defines it. The gospel announcement carries its own power to save people, and to dethrone the idols to which they had been bound. ‘The gospel’ itself is neither a system of thought, nor a set of techniques for making people Christians; it is the personal announcement of the person of Jesus. That is why it creates the church, the people who believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. ‘Justification’ is then the doctrine which declares that whoever believes the gospel, and wherever and whenever they believe it, those people are truly members of his family, no matter where they came from, what colour their skin may be, whatever else might distinguish them from each other. The gospel itself creates the church; justification continually reminds the church that it is the people created by the gospel and the gospel alone, and that it must live on that basis.97
The gospel is not a ‘system of salvation’, nor is it even the declaration that ‘there now is a way of salvation open to all;’98 rather the gospel is encapsulated in the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, and its basic elements are delineated in such passages as Romans 1:3-4.99 In Paul’s understanding the gospel carries power; the gospel is not a ‘take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation’, but is a ‘royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance’ that is made effective by the working of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the appropriate response of faith. 100 The gospel is not so much about God’s power saving people as it is God’s power saving people.101 Wright certainly does not believe that the existence of a way of salvation open to all or the truth of justification by faith can be separated from the gospel, but he contends that the word ‘gospel’ as it is used by Paul carries a far more specific meaning than modern popular Christianity has tended to ascribe to it. For Wright it is imperative that we recognize the sense in which Paul employs his terminology. Modern misunderstandings of the word ‘gospel’ open themselves up to the danger of individualistic and ahistorical understandings of salvation.102 We can easily lose sight of the big picture of cosmic redemption when we see the gospel as essentially a message about how individuals can get to heaven when they die. Those who use the word ‘gospel’ in a manner that differs from that of Paul risk becoming locked into misreadings of the epistles.103 Many, reading about the false gospel faced by Paul in Galatians, instantly jump to the conclusion that Paul was dealing with a compromised ordo salutis and fail to properly grasp the nature of the error that was really being addressed. The danger is then that the error faced by Paul will fail to register on their radar screens as a false gospel. The problem at Galatia was not that of crass Pelagianism, but had to do with the character of the Church formed by Jesus Christ. Paul sought to argue that, if the Church was divided into Jew and Gentile parties, the gospel itself was compromised, not least because people were returning to the old world order established by the Torah and its dichotomies even though these had been done away with by the death of Christ.104 They were in principle denying the necessity of the work of Christ and compromising His authority by seeking to domesticate the gospel to the authority of the Torah. They were trying to import the old covenant order into the new covenant order. By claiming that evangelicals have generally misunderstood what Paul means when he speaks of the ‘gospel’, Wright should not be understood as rejecting what evangelicals usually mean by the word ‘gospel’. He writes:—
In the present case, I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote these things.105
Paul For Everyone: Galatians and ThessaloniansFor Wright, the doctrine of justification by faith is a ‘second-order’ doctrine and does not belong to the essential content of the gospel message, but it inseparably bound up with it.106 Justification is not adiaphorous; practical denials of justification by faith, such as those that took place in Antioch and Galatia, strike at the very heart of the gospel.107 Justification by faith is never an unimportant side-issue for Paul. However, we should be careful not to confuse what we usually mean by ‘justification by faith’ with what Paul meant by the doctrine. Justification and Salvation Wright is emphatic: justification ‘doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in.’108 When Paul speaks of how people ‘get in’, he uses the term ‘call’, not the term ‘justification’.109 It is important, therefore, that we do not confuse justification with salvation. ‘[J]ustification is not the means whereby it becomes possible to declare someone in the right. It is simply that declaration itself.’110 Salvation and justification are, of course, integrally related, but they should not be confused. When Paul deals with the question of how individuals enter into a personal relationship with God ‘it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen.’111 Wright contends that ‘popular Protestantism has often more or less elided the distinction between justification and regeneration.’112 What Wright seems to be ruling out is any definition of justification as: ‘to alter the condition so that man can be considered righteous.’113 Justification for Wright is not the means whereby God makes it possible to declare us forgiven; it is God’s declaration that we are forgiven. Although in some places Wright argues for a ‘constitutive’ sense of justification — vindication in the law-court ‘makes’ someone righteous114 — he clearly rules out the constitutive sense that many Reformed and evangelical theologians have argued for.115 One of the advantages of this position, in Wright’s estimation, is its preclusion of any position that would make faith a condition for grace or a ‘substitute’ for works (understood in the traditional sense of the word).116 Faith is not ‘a meritorious spiritual act’ but ‘the badge of covenant membership given by God in sheer grace.’117 Wright is adamant:—
Faith, even in this active sense [of ‘faithfulness’], is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in.118
By his definition of justification Wright believes that he can protect the priority of God’s grace in salvation. Were justification concerned with the mechanics of how it becomes possible for God to declare us forgiven, there would always be the danger of presenting faith as ‘the one thing which God requires as a condition of grace.’119 We will take up some these issues again when we move to a study of Wright’s doctrine of faith. It is crucially important that we grasp that Wright is not arguing that the essential content of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong. For the time being at least, we must consider this to be an open question.120 Wright is, however, questioning the assumed exegetical foundation of the Protestant doctrine of justification. When the apostle Paul deals with the doctrine of justification the question that is being addressed is not the question of the mechanics (whether those mechanics are described in terms of imputation, impartation or something else) whereby God may declare an individual to be righteous; rather, it is the question of how one defines the true people of God.121 The Complicated Nature of the Distinction The distinction between justification and salvation is more sharply defined in some places in Wright than it is in others. On occasions, justification and salvation may even refer to the same event.122 However, the important thing to observe is that the connotations of the words ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’ are different. ‘Salvation’ views the event from the perspective of ‘rescue from a terrible fate’; ‘justification’ views the event from the perspective of God’s declaration that a person or group of people is ‘righteous’. Although justification on such an occasion is ‘constitutive’ as the authoritative declaration of God as the judge of the cosmic law-court, it is not constitutive in the sense of ‘altering the condition’ of the person or group of people so that they ‘can be considered righteous.’ The only constitutive power that Wright is willing to attribute to justification is that which is proper to the declaration itself. The constitutive nature of justification spoken of by many Reformed and evangelical theologians is one that Wright rejects. Justification itself should never be confused with that which makes justification possible. I believe that there are suggestions in Wright’s works that the distinction between the idea of justification as ‘how people get into the family of God’ and justification as the ‘declaration that people are in the family of God’ fails to adequately capture exactly what he is trying to get at.123 This distinction has also served to confuse not a few of his readers. Wright occasionally makes statements that appear to reject the distinction, for example:—
The fact that this deeply personal notion [of reconciliation] is offered in explanation of, rather than in addition to, the mention of justification in the first half of v.9 [of Romans 5] indicates that the meaning and effect of justification is to bring humans into the forgiven, reconciled family of God [emphasis added].124
The fact that Wright can make a statement like this suggests to me that his denial that justification is about ‘how people get in’ needs to be carefully balanced out by other elements of his thought. I will be discussing in greater depth the apparent tension that exists in Wright’s theology on this issue at a later point in my treatment. At present, we should merely be alerted to its existence. Justification and Assurance Justification does not address the question of why God is just in justifying us, but addresses the question of the identity of God’s people. The doctrine of justification by faith teaches us that the true people of God are marked out in the present by faith alone.125 Consequently, what the doctrine of justification by faith does — among other things — is give us assurance in the present that we are forgiven sinners as we hold on to Christ. As Wright explains, any church that ‘does not grasp it and teach it is heading for trouble.’126 He writes:—
Because Catholics, like many Protestants, have traditionally used the language of justification to describe the much wider realities of regeneration and sanctification, they have usually simply ignored the reality of which the word actually speaks, namely, the assurance in the present that my sins are forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I have a sure and certain hope because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And where that assurance is lacking, other elements come in to usurp its place, and all the things in Roman theology to which true Protestantism rightly objects grow from this root. This, I suggest, is the way forward in the current debate: not by broadening the term ‘justification’ so that it refers to the whole range of doctrine from atonement to final redemption, but by using it with its precise and Pauline meaning. The tragedy of the situation is that there must have been countless Christians down the years in all churches who really did believe in Jesus Christ as their risen Lord, but who failed in this life to enjoy the assurance of salvation which was theirs for the taking, because they were never told that believers are declared ‘righteous’ in the present because of the death of God’s son. ‘Legal’ categories, which some want to do away with today, are not sterile or irrelevant—they are the key to Christian assurance.127
Justification vs. Individualism Wright brings forward the book of Galatians as evidence for the fact that Paul understands justification primarily as referring to the question of how the people of God are defined, rather than the question of how someone becomes a member of the people of God.128 Wright argues that by interpreting justification by faith as the ‘mechanism’129 by which someone becomes a Christian, both Protestants and Catholics have habitually misread Paul. By understanding justification in this manner the whole question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, which looms large in Paul’s thinking, is terribly obscured. However, if we understand ‘justification’ in terms of membership — the question of ‘who is in’ — Paul’s treatment of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is no longer relegated to the status of a digression. Some might believe that Wright’s distinctions are far too fine. Nonetheless, they do seem to have a marked effect upon exegesis. If you believe that justification is primarily concerned with the mechanism by which God alters a man’s condition so that he may be viewed as righteous, justification will always take its starting point with individuals abstracted from each other. Wright observes that this understanding has always been in danger of ‘sustaining some sort of individualism.’130 This doctrine of justification may explain the existence of a group of saved individuals, but it fails to account for the fact that these individuals are constituted as a single family. The fact that believers constitute a single family, however, seems to lie at the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification. If you hold that justification is involved with the question of who is ‘in’, rather than the question of how people come to be ‘in’, your starting point will be with the nature of the ‘family’ itself; the individual is never detached, but is always viewed as a member of the ‘family’. The difference may still seem slight, but it should be appreciated that, if justification is essentially about how people get ‘in’, the issue of union between Jews and Gentiles that Paul addresses in various places becomes at best an ‘implication’ of justification, rather than something that lies at the very heart of the doctrine. Justification and Ecumenism As Wright observes, in his approach justification isn’t so much ‘about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.’131 Wright believes that, if we have properly followed his approach, the doctrine of justification will be seen to be nothing other than ‘the great ecumenical doctrine.’132 The doctrine of justification is the doctrine that teaches that all those who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, irrespective of their cultural or racial differences. Wright argues that Protestants and Catholics have tended to turn the doctrine of justification ‘into its opposite,’ by ‘supposing that it described the system by which people attained salvation.’133 As a result the doctrine has served to sow the seeds of division, rather than as the impulse towards ecumenism. The Meal Jesus Gave UsWright strongly advocates shared Eucharistic fellowship between Catholics and Protestants. He argues that it will be in the context of such a practice of the gospel (i.e. overcoming divisions that exist between members of the family of those who believe in Jesus) that we will become better equipped to proclaim the gospel and grow towards a greater unity.134 Such Eucharistic fellowship should provide the context for the discussion of the differences that exist between different denominations and should not merely be ‘the goal at the end of a long process of unity negotiations.’135 We have established some of the bare bones of Wright’s doctrine of justification. Hopefully in coming posts we will be able to add some flesh to the skeletal outline that we have observed so far. Needless to say there will be a degree of repetition. Nevertheless, I trust that this repetition will serve the purpose of highlighting some of the relationships that exist within Wright’s understanding of justification. It is important that we have a clear sense of the broader anatomy of Wright’s understanding of the gospel, salvation and justification before we come to discuss the vexed question of imputation. I trust that these earlier posts will have provided us with the tools to unravel some of the knotty questions that await us at that stage. Endnotes

94 N.T. Wright, ‘The Shape of Justification’. See also New Perspectives on Paul, pp.12-13; ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ (return)

95 New Perspectives on Paul, p.12 (return)

96 What St Paul Really Said, p.159; ‘Justification’ in New Dictionary of Theology, p.361. (return)

97 What St Paul Really Said, p.151 (return)

98 New Perspectives on Paul, p.5 (return)

99 The Letter to the Romans, pp.415ff. (return)

100 New Perspectives on Paul, p.5 (return)

101 What St Paul Really Said, p.61 (return)

102 Ibid. p.60 (return)

103 Ibid. p.41 (return)

104 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.82 (return)

105 What St Paul Really Said, p.41 (return)

106 ‘The Shape of Justification’. In What St Paul Really Said, pp.114-115, Wright writes:—

In terms of the place of justification within Paul’s thought, I have already indicated that it cannot be put right at the centre, since that place is already taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship. But this does not mean that justification becomes a secondary, still less an inessential, matter. Let it not be assumed that I am agreeing with Wrede or Schweitzer. Rather, when we understand exactly what Paul did mean by ‘justification’, we will come to see that it is organically and integrally linked to what he meant by ‘the gospel’. It cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it.
See also The Letter to the Romans, pp.481-482 (return)

107 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, pp.4-6, 22 (return)

108 ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

109 What St Paul Really Said, p.119; The Letter to the Romans, p.481; ‘The Shape of Justification’; N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: SPCK, 2002) p.22f.; New Perspectives on Paul, pp.10ff. For Wright the ‘call’ is a summons to the sinner to reject idols and turn to serve God, to turn from sin and become a disciple of Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus. This call comes through the preached Word and the agency of the Spirit who is active through it; believing submission to Christ is the result. (return)

110 ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ (return)

111 What St Paul Really Said, p.116 (return)

112 ‘Justification’, p.360. See also New Perspectives on Paul, p.10 and ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’. (return)

113 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), p.510 (return)

114 New Perspectives on Paul, p.7 (return)

Redemption — Accomplished and Applied

115 See, for example, John Murray, Redemption — Accomplished and Applied (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), pp.122ff. Murray writes: ‘Justification is therefore a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight [p.124].’ It would not surprise me were Wright to have Berkhof or Murray in mind. Wright is clearly acquainted with Berkhof [The New Testament and the People of God, p.132, 486]. It is also quite likely that Wright has read Murray in the past (or at the very least encountered Murray’s particular view second-hand); Redemption — Accomplished and Applied is especially recommended as a follow-up book at the end of The Grace of God in the Gospel (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), of which Wright was one of the four authors. Both Murray and Berkhof are examples of Reformed authors who present justification as a constitutive act of God in a manner that Wright opposes. Later on I will return to some of these issues to determine whether Wright is fair in the manner that he represents the evangelical and Reformed positions. (return)

116 ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’; The Letter to the Romans, p.492; ‘Justification’, p.360 (return)

117 The Letter to the Romans, p.492 (return)

118 What St Paul Really Said, p.160 (return)

119 ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ (return)

120 What St Paul Really Said, p.117 (return)

121 Ibid. pp.120-121 (return)

122 The Letter to the Romans, p.519 (return)

123 Essentially the distinction that Wright is endeavouring to maintain, in my reading, is that which exists between justification and that which justification presupposes, i.e. the change in man’s condition that makes it possible for God to declare man ‘righteous’ and still be righteous Himself. Wright’s explanation for how God is righteous in justification will be examined at a later point. (return)

124 The Letter to the Romans, p.519 (return)

125 Wright grants that it is quite appropriate to speak of justification in the present by faith alone in The Letter to the Romans, p.482. (return)

126 What St Paul Really Said, p.159 (return)

127 ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ (return)

128 What St Paul Really Said, pp.120-121; New Perspectives on Paul, p.13 (return)

129 New Perspectives on Paul, p.13 (return)

130 What St Paul Really Said, pp.157-158 (return)

131 What St Paul Really Said, p.119. It is clear from a wider reading of Wright that he does not here intend to draw some sharp division between soteriology and ecclesiology and perceives such a division to be unhelpful [New Perspectives on Paul, p.1]. For Wright soteriology and ecclesiology interpenetrate each other. (return)

132 What St Paul Really Said, p.158 (return)

133 Ibid. p.159 (return)

134 Ibid. (return)

135 Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002), p.81 (return)

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