Justification: God's Plan
& Paul's Vision
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Academic
Many years ago, a Charismatic
friend of mine said that he would never read a book by someone who was
not baptized in the Holy Spirit. It was a sincere conviction, one I have
thought of, when I realize how much enrichment I might have missed had
I adopted his stance.
This is the first book I
have read by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, Church of England (or Anglican
church). Unless you have a keen interest in literature, you may not know
that he has become well known in the Christian literary world for his many
books and articles. If you are evangelical, and have wondered if anything
good can be found in the Anglican church, you need to read N. T. Wright.
I thoroughly enjoyed the
depth of scholarship and the masterly exposition of Scripture found in
this book. I have heard evangelicals lament the seeming indifference today
to doctrinal precision, but I found it here, even though some might disagree
with Wright's conclusions.
This book is part of a conversation
between the author and John Piper, the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church
in Minneapolis. It's a rebuttal to Piper's book, The Future of Justification:
A Response to N. T. Wright. With the publication of these two books,
the debated has gone beyond academic circles to the public arena.
Not having read Piper's
book, my knowledge of his views on this subject comes from Wright's book.
Wright is irenic and charitable toward his opponent (if I can call him
that), and I don't get the impression that Piper's views are misrepresented.
This is a civil debate, and as it says in Proverbs 18:17 (ESV), "The one
who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines
him." I find Wright's views convincing, but this book may elicit another
response from Piper and shed even more light on the whole subject, which
would serve us all well.
As I followed Wright's exposition
and logic, I realized how inadequate my own study has been and the teaching
that I have received. One might be tempted to think that only scholars
can accurately interpret the Bible. But Wright comes to my aid on that
point, noting, "The many-sidedness of Scripture, the grace and power of
the Holy Spirit, and God's mercy in answering the preacher's prayers regularly
enable genuine understanding, real insight into the love and mercy and
purposes of God, to leap across the barriers put up by our faulty and partial
understandings." He goes on to acknowledge that, "We all live within the
incomplete hermeneutical spiral, and should relish the challenges this
presents rather than bemoan the limitations it places upon us." This spirit
of humility is found throughout the book.
One key difference between
the two men is their understanding of what is meant by God's righteousness.
Piper sees it as God's concern for God's own glory, which Wright counters
as implying that "God's primary concern returns, as it were, to himself."
In Wright's view, " 'God's righteousness' is regularly invoked in Scripture
… when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant
This is where Wright's analysis
gets expansive and, in my view, thrilling. The way he tells it, God has
always had a single plan to save the world through Israel. He "always intended
to call into being a single family for Abraham." Israel's unfaithfulness
created an obstacle to the fulfillment of this promise. But the apostle
Paul tells us that through the faithfulness of the Messiah, God's plan
of providing a family for Abraham is realized. In other words, "the believing-in-the-Messiah
people" are "the new reality to which ethnic Israel pointed forward but
to which, outside the Messiah, they could not attain."
view of justification brings new relevance to passages like Romans 9-11
and others that deal with the law and Israel. Don't think for a moment
that this is replacement theology, the view that the church replaces Israel.
On the contrary, in the second part of the book Wright examines every New
Testament passage that deals with justification. He succeeds admirable
in weaving the many verses into a coherent narrative of the "single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world"
realized through the faithfulness of the Messiah. If evangelicals sometimes
don't know what to do with Israel, they will find help here. God's plan
remains unchanged. Jews and Gentiles make up that single family promised
One interesting difference
between the two men involves the commonly taught idea of imputation, where,
as in Piper's view, Christ's perfect righteousness and punishment are counted
as ours. With Wright, God declares righteous those who are in Christ, but
the result is a change in status rather than a transfer of substance.
Regardless of where a person
might stand on these issues, this debate is worth following. This book
is essential reading on the subject.
July 2, 2009