Category Archives: contending
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”
Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.
Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:
- The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
- Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
- Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
- We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
- The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
- Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
- First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
- God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)
Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.
As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).
But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).
Where Wright is right
Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).
Where Wright is wrong
The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!
Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).
Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.
Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:
“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.
Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).
Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).
I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.
The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.
“I am 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. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).
Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).
And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.
“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).
Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).
A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.
“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 is 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).
It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.
Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.
Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN: 9781581349641, 1581349645
Our friends over at 10:31 Sermon Jams are getting ready to launch a new and improved Website next week and with it comes the release of their 4th volume of sermon jams. And they keep getting better! Over the coming days at TSS we’ll be giving you some exclusive access to songs from the new volume.
This first one, War, comes from John Piper’s sermon on Romans 8:10-17 (his ministry will always be equated in my mind with thunder):
“I hear so many Christians murmuring about their imperfections and their failures and their addictions and their short-comings, And I see so little war! ‘Murmur, murmur, murmur… Why am I this way?’ MAKE WAR!”
Ed Welch: “There is a mean streak to authentic self-control. Self-control is not for the timid. When we want to grow in it, not only do we nurture an exuberance for Jesus Christ, we also demand of ourselves a hatred for sin. The only possible attitude toward out-of-control desire is a declaration of all-out war. There is something about war that sharpens the senses. You hear a twig snap or the rustling of leaves and you are in attack mode. Someone coughs and you are ready to pull the trigger. Even after days of little or no sleep, war keeps us vigilant.”
Now that all the Sovereign Grace Ministries messages are free, I’m slowly feasting message-by-message in a long and delicious buffet of audio. Today I finally arrived at Dave Harvey’s message from the SGM Leadership Conference this Spring (at the time, I was on the other side of the wall listening to Dever speak on his annual reading schedule).
Harvey, the author of the excellent book When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press: 2007), is also an expert church planter and apostolic leader within SGF. This Spring in his session “Watch Your Mission: To Be, or Not to Be, ‘Missional,’” he assessed the strengths and weakness of the missional movement. In part, he argues the MM muddies the Cross-centered focus of the Church and misunderstands the apostolic context of the Great Commission.
Here’s the heart of his outline:
1. What are the Strengths of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Have a Commendable Passion for Evangelism.
B. Missional Churches Have a Laudable Commitment to Engaging Culture.
C. Missional Churches Have a Profitable Impulse for Reexamining Church Tradition.
D. They Also Possess an Admirable Devotion to Social Impact.
2. What are the Weaknesses of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Tend to Be Mission-Centered Rather Than Gospel-Centered.
B. Missional Churches Tend to Have a Reductionistic Ecclesiology.
C. Missional Churches Tend to Confuse Culture Engagement with Cultural Immersion.
D. Missional Churches Tend to Downplay the Institutional and Organizational Nature of the Church.
E. Missional Churches Tend to Have an Insufficient Understanding of Apostolic Ministry.
Update: It should be noted SGM believes in a continuing apostolic gift: “present-day apostles plant and build local churches for the sanctification of the believer, the expansion of the mission, and the exaltation of God.” For more on why they use the term, what it means and does not mean, see the SGM booklet by Harvey titled Polity: Serving and Leading the Local Church (2004), pages 17-26, 49-50.
An interview from May 28 promoting his new book The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception (Thomas Nelson: 2007).
Related: Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Zondervan: 2005).
Related: R. Scott Smith, Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church (Crossway: 2005).
… The quote you are about to enjoy is extremely hot!
Propitiation? What’s that all about? … This blend was hand picked from the mountain peaks of the 2006 Desiring God National Conference: The Supremacy of Christ and the Church in a Postmodern World.
The following quotes from Ed Stetzer come from the third session of The Resurgence conference titled Breaking the Missional Code. He mentioned the first two passages and concepts to set the stage for the following:
1. Contending for the faith (Jude 3)
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
2. Contextualizing culture (1 Cor. 9:22-23)
“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
This is what he said about them together:
“If we are going to be biblical churches we’ve got to contend and contextualize at the same time and know that both deeply matter … Many churches contend, contend, contend but they never get to contextualization. And I caution for many of us – particularly predominate among those of us who are church planters – we want to contextualize, contextualize, contextualize and we forget to contend. We’ve got to contend and contextualize if biblical churches are to be birthed and grown in culture.”
Then an example of contextualizing with the DaVinci Code:
“Here is the question we asked 1,200 Americans: After reading or hearing about the DaVinci Code are you more or less likely to seek the truth by studying the Bible? Forty-four percent (44%) said they are more likely to seek the truth through studying the Bible. Do I want this false heretical expression? Of course I don’t. But do I recognize that God is already at work and what we need to do is acknowledge the positive – and yes, rebuke the negative – but at the same time see that God is already at work and join Him there by asking people to join in studying the Bible together to see what it says? Instead of picketing and protesting [the movie] many are seeing this as an opportunity to engage in missional ministry in context.”