Wednesday, July 21, 2004

N.T. Wright on Justification and Imputation Part VI 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V
The Three Tenses of Justification
Wright speaks of the importance of grasping the ‘tenses’ of justification.136 Once we have grasped these and related them to our earlier discussion on righteousness language we will be nearer to the stage when we can properly appreciate the nature of Wright’s proposal on the subject of imputation.137 Future In order to understand justification it is probably best to begin with the future. The apostle Paul believed that the day would come when God would judge the whole world and right all wrongs. Whilst some would be found guilty, others would be ‘justified’ or ‘vindicated’. This ‘justification’, although it carries ‘overtones of the lawcourt’, also relates to the covenant; when God justifies people on this last day He declares them to be members of His true humanity — His covenant people. The Event of Future Justification The final verdict would take the form of an event — resurrection. Within the belief system of Israel, the metaphor of resurrection functioned as a means of ‘denoting the return from exile and connoting the renewal of the covenant and of all creation.’138 Even when used with the more literal sense of the raising of physical bodies, the language of resurrection never escapes from these other spheres of meaning.139 For Wright, forgiveness, return from exile, renewal of creation and the revelation of δικαιοσυνη θεου are merely different ways of talking about essentially the same phenomena.140 Thus, our earlier discussion of δικαιοσυνη θεου is integrated into Wright’s understanding of justification. The apocalyptic revelation of the δικαιοσυνη θεου would take place when God restored the fortunes of His oppressed people in exile, righting all wrongs, marking them out as His own and vindicating them in the process. This final ‘showdown’ was understood through the lens of the law-court, as the law-court was seen to be the setting in which sin and evil was usually dealt with.141 This great Assize would finally separate between the righteous and the wicked, between God’s faithful people and evildoers. God’s people would be declared to be forgiven and to truly be members of God’s covenant people and the wicked would be judged and punished. The Lord and His PrayerWithin our society we are prone to think of forgiveness of sins in individualistic terms. Wright contends that this is not the manner in which the subject is viewed within the NT. For the NT writers and their Jewish contemporaries, forgiveness of sins was not understood primarily in terms of personal piety (the sense of forgiveness), nor in terms of ‘abstract theology’ (the fact of forgiveness), but was another way of speaking of about the return from exile.142 For the first-century Jew the private blessing of forgiveness could never be detached from the forgiveness of the nation as a whole. Individuals certainly did have the knowledge and experience of forgiveness, but it was never a privatized blessing. The individual did not consider his state before God apart from his membership within the larger group.143 Consequently, as long as Israel remained under pagan rule and the Temple and its worship were not properly restored, ‘forgiveness of sins’ was still awaited in the future.144 ‘If Israel’s god was to deliver his people from exile, it could only be because he had somehow dealt with the problem which had caused her to go there in the first place, namely her sin.’145 The return of Israel from exile would therefore mean forgiveness of sins, and vice versa.146 Return from exile apart from forgiveness of sins was an impossibility; forgiveness of sins without return from exile would be uncertain and doubtful. Return from exile would be the only sure sign of forgiveness. The justification of individuals was to be understood within the broader justification of the people as a whole. Justification was to take the concrete form of deliverance and liberation.147 Justification and Covenant Membership It would be in this eschatological justification that the identity of the true new covenant people of God — the family promised to Abraham — would be made publicly known. God’s declaration of the forgiveness of His people’s sins by delivering them from exile would serve to reveal who God’s people really were. The declaration of the forgiveness of the sins of individual men, women and children would involve their being declared to be members of this people. If we avoid looking at the declaration of the forgiveness of sins in an individualistic manner we will be better able to see the inseparable connection between justification and covenant membership. Wright believes that the question of the identity of the true children of Abraham cannot be separated from the question of the forgiveness of individuals’ sins. God’s aim in calling Abraham was always that of dealing with the whole sin problem in the world. The family promised to Abraham was to be the family in and through whom God’s purposes for fallen humanity would finally be fulfilled and the sin of Adam undone. Biblically, therefore, it is impossible to drive any sort of a wedge between covenant membership and forgiveness of sins. ‘God’s declaration of forgiveness and his declaration of covenant membership are not ultimately two different things.’148 Only if we move away from the broad canvas that Scripture provides us with and start to think of forgiveness in individualistic categories will we lose sight of the fact. The forgiveness of the sins of individuals finds it place within the larger picture of God’s setting the fallen world to rights; it is always as part of God’s broader work of creating a world-wide covenant family that His forgiving of the sins of individuals is to be understood. To support his position, Wright draws attention to the manner in which Paul’s treatments of justification have the question of the identity of the covenant family at their very heart. In Romans 3:21-31, Paul makes clear that he sees the whole issue of covenant membership as one that is inseparable from the question of justification.149 Verse 29, far from being a ‘strange shift’ in Paul’s argument, makes perfect sense when we realize that justification has to do with the identity of the covenant people of God and not merely with the declaration that individual sinners are forgiven. Wright observes: ‘God’s declaring that sinners are now in a right relation to himself and God’s declaring that believing Jews and believing Gentiles belong in the same family are inextricably bound up with one another.’150 Wright believes that Romans 4, with its treatment of Abraham, merely serves to reinforce his point: integral to the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification is the question of membership in the covenant family promised to Abraham. Wright presents Galatians 2:11-21 as further evidence for his position.151 In this passage the point of justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’, but rather the question of table-fellowship. In the book of Galatians, justification is principally concerned with the manner in which we define the true people of God — the true seed of Abraham — rather than the mechanism whereby an individual becomes a Christian. The fact that the underlying question of Galatians 3 and 4 is the identity of the true children of Abraham is adduced by Wright as further proof of the position that justification is a matter of covenant membership.152 Wright does not highlight the covenantal nature of justification in order to marginalize the issue of the forgiveness of sins. He writes:—
I freely grant that some of those who have highlighted the importance of the Jew-plus-Gentile point in Paul have used it as a way of saying that Paul is therefore not after all interested in God’s dealing with sins and putting sinners in a right relationship to himself. But just because people draw false inferences one way, that is no reason why we should draw them the other way.153
Wright believes that, once we have understood the role that Paul believed that the covenant played in God’s plans for the world, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles that so occupies Paul in his epistles ‘can never be an incidental side-issue.’154 Future Judgment according to Works The future judgment that Paul envisages is a judgment according to works ‘on the basis of the total life.’155 These works are not works done in order to ‘earn’ this final salvation; they are works that serve to ‘evidence’ the true people of God.156 It will be those who perform the Law and not those who merely possess the Law who will be justified by the final Assize.157 Whilst the apostle Paul does not employ some ‘merit-measuring’ scheme in his discussion of the final judgment, as many of his Jewish contemporaries do, he still retains the position that it is our works that will be in view at the final judgment.158 Paul is ‘clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day.’159 The reward that he would receive on that day would not be some ‘arbitrary gift’, but would be ‘a glory and honour within God’s new world which corresponds to the kind of work that has been done.’160 Past The Faith of Jesus ChristThe apostle Paul taught the revelation of God’s ‘world-righting covenant faithfulness’161 (δικαιοσυνη θεου) — the event that the Jews awaited at the end of history — had taken place in the middle of history through ‘the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah’.162 Jesus is the Messiah in whom Israel’s identity and destiny is summed up163 and He has ‘completed the role marked out for Israel … for the benefit of all, Jew and Gentile alike.’164 What the Torah could not achieve, Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection. In Christ’s death the sins of Adam and Israel and their entail were decisively dealt with, for it is only as sin is dealt with that God can be in covenant with human beings.165 The proof that God has truly dealt with sin in the death of Christ166 and renewed the covenant is seen in the resurrection.
The resurrection unveils to the surprised world, Israel included, that this was after all the age-old saving plan of the creator God. In particular it declares, as in a lawcourt, that God has vindicated Jesus. Jesus is shown to be in the right. His life and death were the true faithfulness for which God had created Israel in the first place. Thus, if faithful Jesus is demonstrated to be Messiah by the resurrection, the resurrection also declares in principle that all those who belong to Jesus, all those who respond in faith to God’s faithfulness revealed in him, are themselves part of the true covenant family promised to Abraham. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus can at this level be seen as the declaration of justification.167
The resurrection of Jesus was the bringing forward into the present of the general resurrection that the Jews (and Christians) still awaited in the future. According to Wright, the resurrection of Christ was not some ‘isolated freak occurrence’, but was ‘in embryo, “the resurrection of the dead”, of all the dead.’168 The resurrection both demonstrated that Jesus was truly the Messiah and that the long-awaited ‘age to come’ had already dawned in Him.169 Present Present justification is a verdict issued on the basis of ‘the representative death and resurrection of Jesus’ in the past and correctly anticipates the future verdict that will occur at the final judgment on the basis of the whole life lived.170 Whilst this verdict is issued on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, it is the believer’s own faith that ‘precipitates God’s announcement of the verdict in the present time.’171 Of course, the believer’s own faith is always based upon Christ’s own death and resurrection. Present justification possesses the same three characteristics that are possessed by future and past justification, namely it is an event, viewed through the lens of the law-court, which marks people out as covenant members.172 The Event of Baptism Wright maintains that—
The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11).173
Wright does not conceive of Baptism as simply ‘an outward expression of a believer’s faith’ (or a mere ‘act of obedience’) as it is understood to be by many evangelicals174 For Wright Baptism is ‘the sacrament of God’s free grace;’ Baptism is essentially God’s work, not ours.175 It is in Baptism that we become part of the people of God.176 When Paul speaks about our being ‘in’ Christ—
This is not simply a spiritual state resulting from, or consisting in, a certain type of inner experience. For Paul, it is a matter of belonging to a particular community, the new royal family, the Messiah’s people; and this family is entered through baptism.177
Romans and the People of GodBaptism is the washing of the new birth and is ‘intimately connected’ with the gift of Holy Spirit.178 Wright does not understand Baptism to be a ‘miscellaneous cleansing rite’ or a ‘generalized sign of initiation’.179 He contends that we should understand the meaning of Baptism in terms of the ‘new exodus’ motif: Baptism is the Red Sea for the Christian, through which we leave the old realm of slavery and enter into the new realm of freedom.180 It is within Baptism that we die to the ‘old man’ with Christ and are raised to new life.181 In Baptism ‘the whole person leaves the Adam-world for good, leaves it by death, a final one-way journey.’182 The old solidarity with Adam is replaced with a new solidarity with Christ; that which is true of Christ becomes true of us.183 In particular, this means that the justification of Christ in His death and resurrection become ours.184 It is by Baptism in the present that we are included within Christ’s justification in the past. The justification of Baptism anticipates the vindication of the last day.185 The Law-Court The freedom from the realm of sin that results from Baptism ‘comes through God’s judicial decision,’ a decision ‘embodied’ in the rite of Baptism itself.186 Here we see the presence of the law-court metaphor. In the present justification is
…God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous’.187
It is not incorrect to say that God’s decision makes us ‘righteous’, since within the law-court metaphor ‘righteous’ refers to status rather than character.188 The Covenant Justification ‘constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham … the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal.’189 Here we see the covenantal nature of justification once more: in justification we are declared to be members of the forgiven family of God. As justification establishes the Church as the ‘renewed Israel’, ‘qualitatively distinct from Jew and Greek alike’ the question of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the Church becomes very important.190 This issue, Wright maintains, is central in the Pauline epistles. I will be exploring this issue in far greater depth in the next post. Colossians and PhilemonAt this point it may be helpful to quickly identify two important characteristics of the Church in Wright’s theology. Firstly, the Church as the family of God is ‘outward and visible’ and not merely an ‘invisible family known to God alone.’191 Consequently, one becomes a member of the people of God in an ‘outward and visible’ manner, i.e. by Baptism. The outward and visible Church is the ‘sphere in which the Messiah saves’ us; to be expelled from this sphere is to be placed back in the sphere over which Satan himself has ‘unfettered power.’192 The ‘outward and visible’ character of the Church helps to account for the stress that the apostle Paul placed upon ‘outward and visible’ table-fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in such passages as Galatians 2. Secondly, the fact that the Church is not a voluntaristic community follows from the fact that the Church is an outward and visible community. As Oliver O’Donovan (a long-term friend of Wright) has observed, a voluntary community ‘usually connotes an association into which people contract optionally, i.e. not only without anyone forcing them to, but without any pressing need driving them to.’193 The significance attached by Wright to the outward and visible Church as the ‘sphere’ of Christ’s salvation makes clear that he resists such a notion. Furthermore, as Baptism is not so much our act as God’s judicial decision and deliverance of us from bondage in the old Adamic realm to freedom ‘in Christ’, it is God’s decision and not ours that lies at the foundation of the ‘outward and visible’ Church’s existence. Wright’s high ecclesiology stands opposed to the ‘gathered church’ ecclesiology espoused by many evangelicals.194 Baptism has an objective force, even for those who reject it and are ‘in danger of losing all.’195 Baptism plays a similar role ‘within the establishment of the Christian covenant people’ to that which ‘circumcision played within the Jewish family.’196 The comparison that Wright draws between Baptism and circumcision is, I believe, at least part of the rationale for his commitment to the practices of paedobaptism and child communion.197 I have devoted some attention to Wright’s view of Baptism (and will be returning to it again at a later point), believing that it serves to concretize his position on justification in a manner that will help us to better appreciate the nature of his proposal. In particular, it may help us to relieve some of the tension that we have previously observed in Wright’s thought on the question of whether justification is about entry or not. In some sense or other every subject for Baptism already belongs within the community of faith (whether by personal faith in the case of a catechumen or, in the case of an infant, by being the child of believing parents). The community of faith is formed, in Wright’s theology, by the ‘call’ of the gospel —God’s sovereign summons which ‘evokes the obedience of faith.’198 The gospel call serves to reverse the judgment of exile experienced by Israel and to constitute Gentiles as the people of God.199 Nevertheless, in Baptism those who have been called enter into the Church in a deeper sense. This ‘deeper sense’ is probably best understood in terms of eschatology. In Baptism the vindication of the last day is brought forward in time and the baptized individual has in some sense passed through final judgment in a manner in which the catechumen has yet to. The catechumen will yet be vindicated (whether in Baptism or in the final judgment itself), but the baptized individual has already tasted of this future reality. It is through Baptism that we enter into the eschatological life of the Church. Believers and their children who are yet to be baptized are certainly part of the Church, but they are not yet participants in the ‘age to come’ in the manner that the baptized and communing members of the Church are. Within my next post I will move on to study Wright’s understanding of the relationship between faith and the works of the Law. Hopefully it will serve to further illuminate Wright’s understanding of present justification. Endnotes

136 ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

137 The structure of the following treatment closely follows those of ‘The Shape of Justification’ and ‘Justification’ in New Dictionary of Theology, pp.359-361. (return)

138 The New Testament and the People of God, p.332 (return)

139 Ibid. (return)

140 Ibid. p.320f. On the relationship between return from exile and forgiveness of sins, see Ibid. pp.272ff.; Jesus and the Victory of God, pp.268ff. (return)

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

142 Jesus and the Victory of God, p.268; Tom Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (London: Triangle, 1996) pp.51f. (return)

143 The New Testament and the People of God, p.278 (return)

144 Jesus and the Victory of God, p.271 (return)

145 The New Testament and the People of God, p.272 (return)

146 Jesus and the Victory of God, p.269 (return)

147 Consequently, we should not be surprised when we find the word ‘justified’ used almost synonymously with such words as ‘freed’ (e.g. Romans 6:7). (return)

148 New Perspectives on Paul, p.9. See also, The Letter to the Romans, p.465 (return)

149 What St Paul Really Said, pp.128-129 (return)

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

151 Ibid.; What St Paul Really Said, pp.120-121 (return)

152 ‘Justification’, p.359 (return)

153 New Perspectives on Paul, p.13. See also The Letter to the Romans, pp.481-482. (return)

154 The Letter to the Romans, p.482 (return)

155 ‘Justification’, p.360 (return)

156 New Perspectives on Paul, p.9 (return)

157 The Letter to the Romans, p.440; What St Paul Really Said, pp.126-127. At this stage we should be careful not to jump to any conclusions regarding what Wright means by ‘performing the Law’ in this context; that will be explained in its own place. (return)

158 The Letter to the Romans, p.440 (return)

159 New Perspectives on Paul, p.9 (return)

160 Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters — 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus (London: SPCK, 2003), p.129 (return)

161 The Letter to the Romans, p.470 (return)

162 For a brief explanation of Wright’s reading of πιστις Ιεσου Χριστου see The Letter to the Romans, p.470. For a larger discussion of the issues involved in this debate, see Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). (return)

163 ‘Adam, Israel and the Messiah’ in The Climax of the Covenant, pp.18-40; ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

164 The Letter to the Romans, p.470 (return)

165 ‘Justification’, p.359 (return)

166 We will be touching on Wright’s doctrine of the atonement at a later point in this treatment of his position. (return)

167 The Letter to the Romans, p.504 (return)

168 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p.243 (return)

169 The Letter to the Romans, p.419 (return)

170 ‘Justification’, p.359f. (return)

171 The Letter to the Romans, p.474 (return)

172 ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

173 Ibid. (return)

174 The Letter to the Romans, p.533 (return)

175 ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

176 Wright disagrees with those who treat the Pauline references to Baptism as ‘simply a metaphor whose reference is the ‘spiritual’ event of becoming a Christian.’ [N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986) p.106f.] Wright conceives of no sharp separation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit Baptism’ in the Pauline corpus [e.g. Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), pp.161-162]. (return)

177 Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, p.41 (return)

178 Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, p.160f.; Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.161 (return)

179 The Letter to the Romans, p.534 (return)

180 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp.9, 122-123; The Letter to the Romans, pp.534-535; ‘Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans’, p.183; ‘New Exodus, New Inheritance’, pp.28-29; The New Testament and the People of God, p.447 (return)

181 The Climax of the Covenant, pp.195-196; Colossians and Philemon, pp.105-108 (return)

182 The Letter to the Romans, p.539. Indeed, Baptism strips off all of the old family solidarities [Colossians and Philemon, p.106] (return)

183 The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.251; New Perspectives on Paul, p.14; The Letter to the Romans, p.541. In ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ Wright argues that ‘to make faith the means of union with Christ is to allow it to usurp the role which Paul gives to baptism.’ (return)

184 ‘March 2004 Wrightsaid Q&A’ (return)

185 Wright also seems to believe that the Lord’s Supper is also in some sense an anticipation of final judgment in the present [Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp.150-151]. For a more rigorous treatment of the Lord’s Supper as an anticipation of final judgment and vindication see Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (London: Epworth Press, 1978) pp.80ff. (return)

186 The Letter to the Romans, p.540 (return)

187 ‘The Shape of Justification’ (return)

188 Ibid. (return)

189 Ibid. (return)

190 ‘Justification’, p.360 (return)

191 Colossians and Philemon, p.107 (return)

192 Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p.57 (return)

193 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.223 (return)

194 See, for example, The New Testament and the People of God, p.448 (return)

195 Colossians and Philemon, p.107 (return)

196 The Letter to the Romans, p.495 (return)

197 The Meal Jesus Gave Us, pp.80-81 (return)

198 The Letter to the Romans, p.642 (return)

199 Ibid. p.643 (return)

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