N. T. Wright on Justification

In my first post on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) I summarized the problem that NPP folks see with the traditional view of justification: the Jews of Paul’s day weren’t legalists, so his doctrine of justification could not have been a response to the idea of works righteousness. I am happy to oblige my many commenters (well, Leah) and try to summarize what they do with justification as a result. A caveat, though: like most schools of thought, the NPP isn’t a cookie-cutter kind of thing. They all agree that the traditional view of justification isn’t right, but they don’t all agree on what Paul did mean. N. T. Wright is the main guy within the evangelical fold who has taken up the NPP view, so from here on out I’ll be talking about his view of justification.

First, the traditional view of justification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has a good short statement of the historical Protestant view:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Rom 3:23-25, 5:17-19, and Gal 2:16 are some of the basic texts for this doctrine. The best illustration of it is a courtroom scene. Man is the defendant, God is the judge. God’s law states that the wages of sin is death, and man has most definitely sinned. Sin is an infinite offense because it is an offense against God’s infinite holiness; God will not just wipe it out and pretend it didn’t happen. The only way for man to escape the death sentence is for a substitute to take his place. That is the central aspect of Christ’s work on the cross: he stands in the place of man, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath against sin. So now sin is taken away, pardoned, but man is left, at best, in a neutral state– lacking the perfect record of obedience God requires to stand in his presence. So not only does Christ take on our sin– it is imputed to him– but he gives us his righteousness, his record of having perfectly fulfilled and kept God’s law. His righteousness is imputed to us, and on that basis, God the Father can declare us “not guilty;” he can justify us.

Justification, then, is a legal declaration that we are not only not guilty, but are counted righteous because of the righteousness of Christ that’s been given to us. This is what Martin Luther called the “Great Exchange”: our sin for Christ’s righteousness. The classic biblical text is 2 Cor 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might become in him the righteousness of God.”

Enter N. T. Wright. Wright does not believe that justification is how we get into God’s kingdom, but is a declaration that we are already in the kingdom. For Wright, justification is God’s declaration that we are “in the covenant,” a declaration that is made now in anticipation of a final verdict that will be offered at the last judgment, on the basis of the whole life lived. It’s not an effectual action on God’s part, but merely a declarative one: it’s a declaration that the person in question is included in God’s covenant people.

There are some other aspects of the traditional view of salvation that Wright has to change for this to work. Among these is that he rejects the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. I’ll take this up in the next post, and then begin to summarize the response of those of us who still hold the traditional view. Let me close, though, with this: at first glance this seems like a very small distinction. It is not. It has enormous implications, and I agree with Piper and many others that ultimately the gospel really is at stake. So if you’ve stuck with me this far, hang in there and we’ll keep working through these ideas in the light of Scripture.

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Comments

  1. leahcurtright says:

    Good place to stop. My brain hurts a little.

  2. yes, mine too. but i am on the edge of my seat hoping i might finally understand the NPP beyond the fact that “it’s bad”. i’ve got that much!

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