Book Interaction on Justification
John Piper and N.T. Wright both write their books to address the long going issue of justification, which means the act of God forgiving people of their sins and declaring them righteous through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright , was written in response to Wright concerning justification, and he emphasizes and gives evidence that it is faith apart from works that brings about justification. On the other hand, Wright writes his own book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision , in response to Piper’s. In which, Wright presents his thoughts and implications on what he thinks Paul’s meaning of justification is in light of the New Perspective on Paul. This new perspective claims that 2nd Temple Jews were not legalistic in regards to the law, but rather as God’s people they kept the law to remain in the convent and not to enter into it. Both writers make do well to argue their views, but seem to unnecessarily draw out their arguments. Understandably, the debate on justification is very important and that both Piper and Wright want to state their arguments with as little confusion as possible; however, each of them could have stated their points more concisely to assist the average person’s understanding. Although lengthy, Piper and Wright do their best to convey their views of justification.
Considering the Apostle Paul lived around two thousand years ago, there are definitely some barriers that we have to try to break down to try to understand exactly what he wrote down. However, these barriers are not able to stop us from understanding Paul the best that we can. Piper and Wright do their best to understand explain Paul and his Epistles, but even still after years of debate, there is still debating. In this essay, I will attempt to fairly and accurately summarize each of these scholars’ beliefs, critique their arguments, and personally reflect on the issue of justification.
In The Future Justification, Piper mentions in his introduction eight different things that he plans to address in the book regarding Wright’s beliefs. Piper is optimistic that these eight points will show where Wright’s views of justification fails to hold firm in light of biblical doctrine. Piper starts off by addressing systematic theology and biblical theology and how it can distort our biblical interpretation of Paul, and that we should stray from reading the scripture through strict “lenses”. Wright, on the other hand, does not account for distorted interpretation based on biblical theology. Piper then goes on to talk about his views on the relationship between covenant and law court imagery, which he and Wright both use to illustrate their arguments. Piper believes that justification is brought about by the gospel, which in turn makes one a member of the covenant. He states that Wright believes that the gospel is what makes one a member of the covenant, but that it is the membership that leads to justification. Piper argues that Wright’s definition of justification fails to align with the verses of Romans 3:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16. Piper believes that justification happens in the present, unlike Wright. He also believes that God’s righteousness is imputed into the Christian when they impute their sins into Christ, therefore being justified. Wright clearly disagrees with this claim from his statement, “The righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense.” Piper claims that justification is more than just a “not guilty” verdict and forgiveness, as does Wright, but he holds to Romans 4:4-6 that it implies imputed righteousness. Piper then goes back to explain how the gospel leads to salvation. In Acts 13:38-48, Piper points out that Paul clearly says that the preaching of the gospel would lead to salvation. Wright refutes this by claiming that Paul’s definition of “the gospel” does not incorporate justification by faith. Both Piper and Wright agree that good works come from being justified, however; unlike Wright, Piper does not believe that works have any meaning on the basis of justification. Piper now shifts to talk about Paul and 2nd Temple Judaism. In Wright’s mind, 2nd Temple Jews followed the law to be set apart as God’s chosen people, not in an attempt to earn salvation. When Paul in his Epistles challenges the “works of the law” in Galatians 2, Wright doesn’t think he is challenging legalism, but that the people are promoting the wrong “mark” of God’s chosen people. However, Piper believes that Wright failed to see that some parts of Judaism were actually legalistic. He also believes that the document 4QMMT shows this legalism, and ironically Wright uses this text to support his views. Even Jesus seemed to condemn this legalism too, as Piper points out in the Gospel of Matthew. Lastly, Piper points out that Wright’s belief of justification as covenant faithfulness is flat and is not well support by scripture. In response, Piper offers his beliefs that “God counts us as having his righteousness in Christ because we are united to Christ by faith alone.”
Wright writes his book, Justification, in defense to Piper’s criticisms and to promote his own understanding on Paul’s Epistles in regards to the issue of justification. There are many parts of the debate that Piper and Wright would agree on, but there also are many parts in which they would disagree. The same law-court imagery for discussing the issue of justification is found in Wright’s book as it is in Piper’s. Wright would agree with Piper that justification is more than a “not guilty” verdict, but he would argue that justification is more of the status of being a member of the covenant. On the topic of righteousness, Wright would disagree with Piper on many parts. Wright would argue that justification doesn’t make one righteous, but allows one to become righteous. He finds Piper’s view of imputed righteousness to be ridiculous. Wright offers his view saying that “it is ‘the righteousness from God’; it is not God’s own ‘righteousness’, but rather the status which is given by God”. On the topic of the gospel, Wright’ view is far different than Piper’s. Wright believes that the gospel is not how people are saved, but he believes that people are called by grace and are justified then. Piper, on the other hand, is fully convinced that the gospel brings about salvation. On the topic of the “works of the law”, Wright’s understanding in light of the New Perspective on Paul is very different than Piper’s. He believed that keeping the law allowed Jews to remain in the covenant and was not a way to into in the covenant. However, both of them do agree that the life we live does matter, and that it would be unbiblical to say that life after being justified does not matter. To best summarize Wright on justification, you could say that justification is based on who is in God’s covenant, and faith in Jesus Christ alone, not works, brings one into that covenant. Upon Jesus’s resurrection, those who have been declared justified by God will be vindicated by Christ. This view is very different from Piper’s, who believes that if we place our faith in Christ, our sin is imputed into him, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed into us. Thus, the basis of justification is in Christ alone, and our faith is the means of attaining justification.
Piper and Wright clearly have well-formed beliefs on the subject of justification considering their lengthy books on it. Piper’s book seemed easier to understand in comparison to Wright’s book, because Piper’s argument seemed better structured than Wright’s. Wright’s book was more defensive in tone than Piper’s, but he still does well in arguing for his position.
The strength of each of their arguments is fairly difficult to assess. For example, Wright does well to understand Paul in light on the New Perspective; however, in doing so, he is reading Paul through a strict biblical doctrinal lens, which makes him blind to other possible interpretations and implications. Both, Piper and Wright, do their best to be faithful to scripture, and Wright even argues that he does more so than Piper. Wright believes this because he thinks Piper bases his argument on traditions and without reading Paul in light of the New Perspective. It might not be possible to agree on who is more faithful to scripture, but at least both of them use it and read it as they think is right. One weakness that might occur in Wright’s argument is the heavy reliance on the New Perspective. Although this new perspective might be true, it seems to drive Wright away from hundreds of years of carefully thought out beliefs on Paul’s writings. This could be a good thing, or bad if Wright simply disregards all previous thought on Paul and only will view him with the New Perspective in mind. Wright’s argument on justification is pretty strong, but only if you hold to the New Perspective. Piper also does will in arguing his case for justification, but his weakness is that he might hold on to tradition too tightly to see Paul in a new way. The only really poorly supported point that stuck out was on imputed righteousness from Piper. Wright argued well against Piper in this case by using Philippians 3:9 to explain that the righteous we receive comes from God and but is not God’s. Piper and Wright both have good explanations of Galatians 2, which talks about the “works of the law”. However, it is hard to talk about which explanation is better because it relies on what perspective you take on it. Wright seemed to have a slight advantage on Piper considering the fact that he was the one to get the last word in regarding the two books. With that in mind, Piper’s arguments for how we are justified still seem to hold up pretty well when considering his use of scripture. For that reason, one might conclude that Piper’s argument for justification is the most persuasive.
Considering I have grown up in a Southern Baptist church, I tend to lean more towards Piper and that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through grace, and not by works. I believe Romans 3:28 and Ephesians 2:8-9 are really clear examples that faith alone justifies us. I found Piper’s arguments to be most convincing, maybe because it was most similar to what I have grown up believing. However, I find Wright’s argument on righteousness to be fairly convincing. I think I would have to agree that the righteousness we receive is not God’s, but from God. I understand that the issue of justification is very important, but I somewhat fail to see the implications it has on the believers life. I know Wright thinks works has some sort of idea that works has a process in justification; however, I do not believe that works should be a part justification but rather a product that comes from being justified.
From this assignment, I learned that there more views and beliefs on the topic of justification that I realized. I foolishly thought that all Christians thought the same way as Baptist on important doctrine such as justification, and it turns out that I was wrong. I also have gained a new perspective on the amount of scholarship that has gone into this debate, and previously, I did not even know that this debate existed. I would not exactly recommend these books to your average Christian, although I think they should know about this debate. These books are fairly difficult to engage with and need to be closely read in order to understand them. However, they do provide good understanding into two different views of justification, and they both argue their cases well.