The Future of Justification:
A Response to N. T.
Wheaton, Crossway, 2007
Dr. John Piper’s new book, as its subtitle indicates, is a rejoinder to N. T. Wright’s take on justification in the letters of Paul. The volume consists of eleven chapters and six appendices, all endeavouring to lay bare what Piper considers to be the shortcomings of Wright’s understanding of justification and related matters. In his Acknowledgements (11), Piper informs us of his intentions and expectations in a quotation from Solomon Stoddard: “The general tendency of this book is to show that our claim to pardon and sin and acceptance with God is not founded on any thing wrought in us, or acted by us, but only on the righteousness of Christ.” By thus framing the issue, Piper’s book functions as a broadside against any and all attempts, especially those of Wright, to introduce things “wrought in us” or “acted by us” into the Pauline preaching of justification by faith, thereby detracting from “the righteousness of Christ only.” A certain amount of hype has attended the advent of this publication, particularly the “warning” that any other than Piper’s outlook on Paul is playing fast-and-loose with the apostle’s teaching. According to Piper’s web page, “Piper is sounding a crucial warning in this book, reminding all Christians to exercise great caution regarding ‘fresh’ interpretations of the Bible and to hold fast to the biblical view of justification” (http://www.desiringgod.org / Store/Books / 728_The_Future_of_Justification). In the Conclusion (184), Piper clarifies that the book’s title is intended to draw attention to where the doctrine of justification may be going, as well to “the critical importance of God’s future act of judgment when our justification will be confirmed.”
The Introduction to the book commences on a sombre note. That is to say, eternal life hangs in the balance: “How we live and what we teach will make a difference in whether people obey the gospel or meet Jesus in the fire of judgment…. This is why Paul was provoked at the false teaching in Galatia. It was another gospel and would bring eternal ruin to those who embraced it” (14). Now, Piper’s “conviction” is that Wright himself is not under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9 (cf. 24, n. 30), and yet the latter’s “portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful” (15). Piper further maintains that Wright has engaged in no less than a “top-to-bottom rethinking of Paul’s theology largely different from the way most people have their New Testament in the last fifteen hundred years.” Hence, “When someone engages in such a thorough reconstruction, critics must be extremely careful” (16-17). Wright’s reconstruction is “global” in proportions and as such has collided with more traditional outlooks on Paul’s theology, especially as regards justification: “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” (24). Consequently, Piper prefers the older guides to the new when it comes to the “deeper issues of how justification really works both in Scripture and in the human soul…” (25, cf. 37-38).
This manner of posing the argument makes for two rather noticeable inconsistencies. For one, if Wright’s portrayal of the gospel is what Piper claims, then how could the former not be under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, if his portrayal is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful? Is that not, more or less, what Paul thought of the “other gospel” of his opponents in Galatia? Of course, Wright is hardly under the curse, but these are strong terms and, as we will see immediately below, Piper does not carry them through uniformly. Second, it is none other than Wright who thoroughly concurs that “how we live,” as well as “what we teach,” has an effect on others. Ironically enough, it is Piper who downplays or at least refocuses the all-encompassing demands of the gospel as articulated by Paul’s phrase “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26) as it relates to final justification.
Piper’s initial sweeping criticisms are modified, if not mollified, as the book progresses. (a) Wright’s definition of justification may not be a devastating mistake, because it may simply conflate denotation and implication when it comes to the matter of covenant membership (44). (b) Wright does indeed use “justification” in more traditional ways (44). (c) Wright is quoted to the effect that in Jesus of Nazareth God had overcome evil and was creating a new world in which justice and peace would reign supreme (45), meaning in principle that Wright does see justification as a creative act. (d) For Wright, justification is both-and: the declaration of God the judge that one is in the right and one’s sins are forgiven and that one is a member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham (53). (e) Wright even sounds Protestant (119-20).
At the head of this volume, there is Piper’s disavowal of the now standard scholarly procedure of setting New Testament texts within their historical milieu. There are three problems, so says Piper, with such a method: misunderstanding the source, assuming agreement with a source when there is no agreement, and misapplying the meaning of a source. Consequently:
It will be salutary, therefore, for scholars and pastors and laypeople who do not spend much of their time reading first-century literature to have a modest skepticism when an overarching concept or worldview from the first century is used to give “new” or “fresh” interpretations to biblical texts that in their own context do not naturally give rise to these interpretations (36).
These objections to historical exegesis, I must say, are hardly compelling. Scholars of the stripe of Wright are not unaware of the complexity of historical research and the many occasions on which historians must withhold judgment just because of the uncertainties entailed. The caveats advanced by Piper are well known, and no scholar of repute would engage in the oversimplified procedure envisioned by him. That said, it is possible to trace trajectories of Jewish thought from Ben Sira to the Mishnah, and it is possible to have a reasonably certain grasp of the theology engaged by Paul and the other New Testament authors. At this point in time, it should not have to be said that the New Testament documents were not, in the first instance, addressed to us; thus a common sense recognition of this basic datum must inevitably result in a certain amount of reconstruction of the context of Paul. This is not to make the context more important than the text, nor is it to say that Paul is not to be understood on “his own terms.” Rather, it is just Paul’s life-situation that serves to illuminate what “his own terms” actually are. When it comes to such central vocabulary items as “law,” “covenant,” “righteousness,” and “justification,” there is sufficient intelligibility from the sources that the so-called New Perspective on Paul may fairly claim to have shed considerable light on the actual issues under debate in Paul’s day. Certainly, caution must always be exercised in the weighing of historical texts. But even with all the caveats in place, the cause of biblical exegesis is not served by turning back the clock. Once a Copernican revolution has occurred, it will not do to retreat into a pre-Copernican universe.
Piper, rightly in my view, maintains that justification for Paul entails more than a declaration that one is a member of the covenant (à la Wright). Instead, quoting Simon Gathercole: “God’s act of justification is not one of recognition but is, rather, closer to creation. It is God’s determination of our new identity rather than a recognition of it” (42). Even with the various qualifications allotted to Wright, Piper effectively scores some points regarding justification as the experience of salvation by arguing successfully throughout the book that it is a false distinction to bifurcate “justification” and “salvation.” In this particular regard, Piper’s discussion makes for helpful and even stimulating reading.
From another angle, however, Piper’s criticisms fall short of the mark. Restating a thesis from previous publications, that God’s righteousness is “his unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory,” Piper calls into question Wright’s conception of righteousness as God’s covenant faithfulness, on the basis of Romans 3:1-8, 25-26. The problem is that Piper has failed to appreciate the factors of eschatology and theodicy. In 3:1-8, the issue at stake is God’s fidelity in the face of Israel’s infidelity (theodicy), a proposition to be unpacked in detail in Romans 9-11. The passage thus confirms, not disproves, Wright’s definition. In 3:25-26, eschatology and theodicy combine. The sins committed under the old covenant were not dealt with finally and definitively because God had predetermined (proetheto) that Christ would be the “mercy seat” (hilastērion): Christ is the ultimate expression of his faithful promise to forgive sins. This is eschatology. The theodicy factor is evident when the participle of 3:26 is read as concessive: “even while justifying the one who has faith in Jesus.” Paul’s entire statement, then, is to this effect: because of his determination that Christ would be the “mercy seat” for sins, he has remained faithful to his long-term plan to forgive his people’s trespasses, and all this even while justifying Jew and Gentile alike by the same means—faith in Christ. In so doing, God has not forsaken his people Israel. Rather, as Romans 9-11 is at pains to argue, his (pre)determination to save them was always by means of the gospel of Paul’s proclamation.
“The Place of Our Works in Justification” (Chapter 7) is largely a discussion of Romans 2:13. Piper evokes the traditional category of the basis or ground of justification, in the present and at the end. As familiar as the approach is, methodologically it starts out on the wrong foot. The fact is that Paul hardly ever uses the language of “basis” or “ground.” Philippians 3:9, “the righteousness of God based on faith,” is the only clear instance, and even here the subject matter is not the “basis of justification,” according to the customary jargon. Rather, what characterizes Paul is prepositions of origin and sphere, mainly ek and en. Thus, contra Piper, “from works of the law” (ex ergōn nomou) (Romans 3:20, etc.) and “in the law” (en nomō) (e.g., Galatians 3:11; 5:4) designates the realm of the Torah, within which one might seek to be justified. By contrast, for Paul, one is justified “in Christ” (e.g., Galatians 2:17) and “from faith in Jesus Christ” (e.g., Romans 3:26; Galatians 2:16). (I have argued this in some detail in a forthcoming article in Journal of Biblical Literature, “Paul’s ‘Partisan ek’ and the Question of Justification in Galatians.”) Thus, to cast the issue in terms of the “basis” of future justification is to muddy the waters from the outset.
There are two other problems plaguing Piper’s treatment of Romans 2:13. One is the disregard of the Jewish backdrop to “the doers of the law.” Paul’s language is derived from Leviticus 18:5 and recurring refrain of Deuteronomy, “this do and live” (4:1, 10, 40; 5:29-33; 6:1-2, 18, 24; 7:12-13; cf. 29:9, 29; 30:2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 16, 20; 31:12-13; 33:46). Moreover, in 1 Maccabees 2:67, the exact phrase “the doers of the law” designates loyalist Jews who would be vindicated by divine justice over against Gentile oppressors. The same combination of words occurs notably in the Qumran Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab) 7:11; 8:1; 12:4. Paul thus lifts the working principle of “covenantal nomism” from the pages of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and transposes it into the eschatological context of faith’s obedience as directed toward Christ. For him, it is those who render faithful obedience, the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-24), to Christ who will be vindicated in the last judgment. Wright, then, is correct that Romans 8:3-4 is the explanation of 2:13.
The other exegetical difficulty is that of reducing Romans 2:13 to “public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (110). Quoting R. B. Gaffin, Piper is of the conviction that our works are not “(co-)instrumental…for appropriating divine approbation as they supplement faith” (116). But Romans 2:13 and kindred passages do not read well as simple evidence. Rather, “doing the law” is the precondition of eschatological vindication. Piper has abstracted 2:13 from 2:7: “to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” On the other side, “for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (2:8). Romans 2:7, 8 balance each other, and the courses of action depicted by them dictate the outcome of the judgment. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul likewise makes suffering with Christ (8:17) and confession of Christ (10:9-10) preconditions of future eschatological salvation. Reading Paul in this manner does not jeopardize grace, but rather informs us of how the covenant operates, with human response to God’s grace as the sine qua non of making the covenant “work.” It is true that Wright speaks of “evidence” (as quoted on 119-20), but the term is to be coordinated with his contention that obedience is produced in one’s life by the Spirit (119, 120). Piper accuses Wright of being unclear how being “in Christ” provides the foundation for final justification (121). However, the former’s quotations of the latter on 120 and 129 are as clear as can be. In point of fact, Wright is not at all ambiguous, as Piper alleges.
Not unexpectedly, Piper is concerned to press for the doctrine of imputation of Christ’s active obedience, measured against which Wright falls short. Since I have replied at length to Piper’s earlier and kindred work, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002, in my In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul: Essays and Reviews [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005], 107-97), I will simply cut to the chase here. (a) By Piper’s own admission, Wright’s remark on Galatians 2:19-20 places him in virtual agreement with the sum and substance of imputed righteousness (126). All the benefits of Christ’s work are to be had by Wright’s understanding of union with Christ without the mechanics of imputation. (b) Piper advances a succession of non sequiturs, if one “says no to imputed obedience,” as though without imputation there is no foundation for a future justification (128-29). Again, “in Christ” provides the foundation. (c) There is the matter of “faith alone,” which, Piper claims, is undermined by Wright’s correlation of the verdict of the last day with the entirety of one’s life (129). Once again, however, when Wright is allowed to speak for himself, as per the quote on 130-31, precisely the opposite turns out to be the case. Wright’s excellent comments on “the obedience of faith” maintain that faith and obedience are not antithetical, and these remarks are not at all ambiguous and unclear, in spite of what Piper claims. Besides offering no comment at all on the important verse Romans 1:5, in his zeal for “faith alone,” Piper has failed to distinguish between the Already and the Not Yet. Wright acknowledges that Already-justification is by faith alone, but Not Yet-justification entails faith’s obedience consisting in perseverance and covenant service. The brand of sola fide forwarded by Piper is simply not in the New Testament (as per, e.g., Romans 4:19-25; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:18-26). Ironically, to be sure, Piper commences his book with the quotation from Solomon Stoddard, but it was just Stoddard’s illustrious grandson, Jonathan Edwards, who espoused a clear-cut theology of future justification inclusive of the obedience of the Christian.
Chapter 10 engages Wright’s take on Paul in relation to Second Temple Judaism. Piper presses for a “legalistic” understanding of the Judaism of this period, arguing that legalism and ethnocentrism are virtually one and the same, inasmuch as both are rooted in self-righteousness. Regarding 4QMMT in particular, Piper simply asserts that Wright’s understanding of justification is not served by this text, without presenting any particular analysis of it. However, a truly responsible treatment of MMT, such as Martin Abegg, “4QMMT, Paul, and ‘Works of the Law,’” The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 203-16, demonstrates ably enough that Wright is more in tune with the intention of the document than Piper. And because of his “pre-Copernican” outlook on first-century Judaism, there is a strained and unconvincing attempt to read “legalism” and “self-righteousness” into the portrait of Pharisaism found in the gospels.
The final chapter takes up again the question of righteousness, which Piper here defines as God’s “commitment to do what is right” (164). Later (179) it is categorically denied that righteousness is “the covenant faithfulness of God.” One wonders how God’s “commitment to do what is right” can be abstracted so arbitrarily from the covenant relationship, but there it is. More serious is Piper’s out-of-context quotation of Wright (165-66):
This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel.
Piper is astonished that Wright would pen such a sentence, especially given the impact he fears that such a statement will have on preaching, which is why this book was written (167, 187-88).Yet all one has to do is read the page from which this quote is lifted. Wright is not denying "the merits and death of Jesus" for Paul's theology as such, but rather they are not the focus of Romans 8:1-11!
The chapter proceeds to defend imputation at further length and is essentially a distillation of Piper’s Counted Righteous in Christ. Piper does score a point as regards Wright’s take on 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here the traditional reading makes more sense: in Christ God’s righteousness has become ours. A parallel text is Philippians 3:9: “the righteousness from God.”
Piper’s Conclusion is at heart a plea not to let “works” “add to the perfection and beauty and all-sufficiency of Christ’s obedience…” (187). To do so would be a “double tragedy.” However, such alarmism is simply unnecessary and misjudges positions taken by Wright and others. Effectively, Piper gives the whole case away when he underscores the necessity of the fruit of the Spirit on the part of the believer (186-87). And his fear that such obedience might add to the work of Christ is, for the most part, not grounded in reality.
In sum, Piper’s response to Tom Wright is worth reading for those interested in the seemingly never ending debate over justification. On the couple of issues noted above, I should think that Piper has the better of the argument. But for the most part, he has failed to demonstrate that Wright is wrong. The claim that the latter’s paradigm for justification “leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (24) is simply too subjective to be a useful criterion. In a nutshell, this book is mostly a defense of traditional doctrines, with a minimum of persuasive exegesis and a heavy reliance on confessionalism.
As a pastor, it is understandable that Piper has a pastoral concern. But is Wright’s theology of justification so dire that it is apt to result in Piper’s “double tragedy?” I think not, especially given Piper’s concessions as indicated above. In my estimation, Wright is the one who has “delivered the goods” when it comes to penetrating exegesis and, dare one say, fresh insight into the letters of Paul. It is also understandable that Piper would want to allay the “confusion” he senses on the part of his church members. However, I must say that such “laypersons” would have to be theologically literate indeed to tackle this book, not least its microscopic footnotes. Otherwise, the confusion is liable to remain!
As much as anything, this book is flawed by its near phobia of anything that smacks of newness and freshness, which, for Piper, must be suspect by definition. This is why we are exhorted to be suspicious of “our love of novelty” and eager to test biblical interpretations by “the wisdom of the centuries” (38). Agreed, but surely “the wisdom of the centuries” includes our own century. Wright is precisely correct: we are “to think new thoughts arising of the text and to dare to try them out in word and deed” (quoted on 37, italics added). Dr. Piper would do well to remember Matthew 13:52: “And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old’.” I would say the appropriate response to matters “new” and “fresh” is not skepticism but the Beroean spirit of searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11).
*Dr. Don Garlington is a professor and author who lives in Ontario, Canada. He is a long time friend of ACT 3 and a frequent contributor to various academic journals and books. He is a scholar in the theology of Paul, having done his PhD under the famous James D. G. Dunn, and has frequently contributed written work to ACT 3. He is a contributor to a new book on this same subject that is available from the ACT 3 online store, titled: A Faith That is Never Alone, P. Andrew Sandlin, editor (2008).