NT Wright's View of Justification

 

This is an abridged excerpt from  Michael's book "No Condemnation: A Theology of Assurance of Salvation", the second edition of his book, "A Theology of Encouragement", to which the chapters on NT Wright were added. Michael's perspective is interesting in the light of NT Wright's new book on Paul being released on 2nd March 2018.

 

According to the New Testament the basis of assurance is faith in the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ, a faith which (in Christ) is reckoned to us for righteousness.  Having believed the gospel, our salvation is sealed to us by the Holy Spirit who is himself a foretaste of final glory.  Our lives are powerfully transformed and our salvation is confirmed in a subsidiary manner by the life of obedience to the love-commands of Jesus.   Here my concern is with the solid rock on which it all stands: justification only by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

   The traditional doctrine (from a Protestant viewpoint) is much debated nowadays, as it always has been.   The charismatic movement – with its concern for the subjective – has generally not had much room for a clear doctrine of justification, although there are exceptions and there seems to be a new hunger for clear objective theology with which to test and evaluate our experiences and our preaching. 

Among the various writers within the 'new perspective' on the apostle Paul, one of the strongest downgrading of justification by faith comes in the teaching of Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham in Britain, whose work like that of a few others arises out of the strand of thought commenced by Stendahl's 1961 paper 'Paul and the Introspective Conscience' and Sander's Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  For Wright justification is mainly a matter of 'covenant membership' and has nothing to do with righteousness being 'imputed' to the believer, in Christ.  Wright is one of a number of 'post-evangelicals' who, while paying a few compliments to Luther, effectively remove the New Testament doctrine of justification from evangelicalism as largely false and without interest to modern people ('Most of my folk ... are not bothered about the doctrine of justification at all').  Since I regard the doctrine of justification as the source of joy and power I must inevitably be interested in a writer who says it is not much more than a statement that you do not have to be a Jew to enjoy salvation.

 It would take volumes to do justice to all that Nicholas Thomas Wright has written.  His work in connection with 'the question of the historical Jesus' and his belief in the resurrection of Christ is of great interest to Bible-believing Christians. I am concerned here with his view of justification.  I choose to interact largely with his comments on Galatians in Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians and in his Justification.  In such a work, designed for ordinary people, one might hope that the message will be exceptionally clear, and that we shall see with great clarity what Wright's view of the Christian faith is.

It is sometimes quite difficult to follow precisely how Wright gets the interpretations from Scripture!  This itself is troubling.  Wright himself maintains that such a capable theologian as John Piper has not understood him.  Though Wright says first century Christianity 'was never intended for either a religious or intellectual elite’, yet highly qualified theologians with doctoral degrees find Wright difficult.   In discussing Roman Catholicism, Dr Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel said that the great characteristic of the evangelical is that he or she is clear in stating the gospel. The gospel is not tailor-made for the wise and the learned, and our theology must be suspect if it cannot be put before ordinary people.                     

 It also has to be said that the proponents of 'the new perspective' do not hold any unified interpretation of Paul – except at the point of denying the Protestant doctrine of justification as it was maintained.  At points 'the new perspective falls apart!' – says Wright.     

What then is Wright's teaching?  It is this.  The 'works of the law' in Romans and Galatians have nothing to do with general good living ('moral good deeds').  Rather they are certain aspects of the Mosaic law (circumcision, holy days, food laws, especially) which kept God's people divided and hindered the 'healing of creation' which has been God's purpose ever since the days of Abraham.  A division between Jews and gentiles made some sense before the time of Jesus, but it makes no sense now.  We have died to the law (circumcision, holy days, food laws) and now can be 'declared to be God's covenant-people' (justification is really nothing more than this) by our faith in the faithfulness of Jesus the fulfiller of Israel's history. 

This sounds somewhat different from the usual run of Christian preaching.  Wright says that some might say of his view of justification and the Reformation view "It sounds pretty much the same to me" but he insists his teaching is different from the Reformation view of the matter.  It is indeed!  It turns out to be in one respect a movement back to the enemy of Luther, Cardinal Eck, the Catholic prelate, who taught that the 'works of the law' are only circumcision, holy days, food laws, and the like!15  Indeed this is what most expositors have to say if they wish to avoid Paul's teaching of justification by faith without any kind of salvation-obtaining obedience to any part of the Mosaic law.  To make 'works of the law' refer to a few ceremonies and rituals is the way to make such a move away from a justification-by-faith-only doctrine. 

   Wright's basic thesis is that justification is a matter of covenant membership; its essence is that we do not have to keep Jewish food laws or be circumcised or keep Jewish holy days to have status as the people of God.  Our identity and covenant-membership-status is given to us entirely through our union with Christ and his faithfulness to the purposes of God in and through the story of Israel.  In this teaching, there is minimal mention of justification as traditionally understood; he gives it gives faint allegiance occasionally but only as 'the right answers to the wrong questions' and he makes no clear mention of individual new birth, and there is no doctrine of assurance at all.  Indeed we are not encouraged to be bothered about personal salvation.  If I may be allowed to put it as simply as I can, the gospel according to Tom Wright is:  Don't worry about individual salvation.  Join the universal church, the covenant-community, by faith in Jesus, and you are part of God's one-and-only people, God's Israel. But you don't have to be a Jew.

   But I believe the New Testament goes much further than this and has a doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ.  Justification (as I see it) leads to covenant-membership (which itself is not such a major theme in the New Testament outside Hebrews) but justification is not itself covenant-membership.  In replacing the Protestant doctrine of justification with a more communal covenant-emphasis Wright has lost a needed New Testament emphasis in connection with the salvation of the individual.

 At bottom all true evangelicals — old-style evangelicals as opposed to those who come from evangelicalism sociologically but have abandoned some of its distinctives — have a fairly agreed doctrine of justification.  Justification is a change in a person's relation or standing before God  It is the judicial act of God by which those who put faith in Christ are declared righteous in his God's sight, and free from guilt and punishment.  Justification takes place not by good works but through grace alone, received by faith alone, on one basis only, the basis of what Christ's sin-bearing did upon the cross.  It is accompanied by new birth and demonstrated by practical newness of life. 

   Wright disapproves of this teaching, and wants to radically reshape it.  Certainly our doctrine of justification has many ramifications.  No doubt justification is not the whole of salvation.  It is only one aspect of the initial stages of salvation.  No doubt much more could be said about working out salvation and the final 'vindication' in the day of judgement, about the social side-effects of justification, about its place in the renewal of the cosmos, and much more besides.  More could be said – but not less!