The Future of Justification


Our first assessment of the year was a book review. I reviewed The Future of Justification by John Piper.

This was a hard assessment, and although it caused me much stress it was a rewarding issue to engage with. I blogged about it here.

Since getting my mark back I’m feeling brave – so here is my review.

John Piper’s book ‘The Future of Justification’ is a response to N.T. Wright’s interpretation of justification in the Pauline letters. This book review will give an assessment of Piper’s argument by reviewing his presentation and rejoinder of the major points, and will conclude with an overall critique of the highlights and weaknesses of the book.

Piper starts his introduction by explaining the importance of the issues he is about to address, saying ‘How we live and what we teach will make a difference in whether people obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus’. He states his reason concisely and quickly moves on to introduce to his readers N.T. Wright and the ‘top-to-bottom rethinking of Paul’s theology’ he is about to respond to. He then introduces the eight points he will aim to address over the course of the book. They are: (1) that the gospel is not about how to get saved (2) justification is not how you become a Christian (3) justification is not the gospel (4) we are not justified by believing in justification (5) the imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all (6) future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived (7) first century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism and (8) God’s righteousness is this same as the covenant faithfulness.

Before delving into his arguments, in chapter one, Piper offers a caution regarding biblical theological methods and categories. He makes clear his advocation of reading biblical text in light of the redemptive history, but warns ‘about the possible distorting effect of the categories of biblical theology, especially when using non-biblical sources prima facie to define first century ideas and culture. Piper also uses this chapter to call attention to Wright’s excitement at finding ‘”new” and “fresh” interpretations on Paul’. He quotes Wright as saying we ‘need a new generation of teachers […] who will give themselves totally to the delighted study of the text and allow themselves to be taken wherever it leads, to think of new thought arising out of the text and to dare to try them out in word and deed’.(pg 37) Piper disputes this by concluding that reading the Bible and confirming things that people have known for centuries is equally as good as discovering something new in the text and offering his opinion that ‘we need a new generation of preachers who are not only open to new light that God may shed upon his word, but are also suspicious of their love of novelty and are eager to test all their interpretations of the Bible by wisdom of the centuries’.

In the following 3 chapters Piper launches into a sustained and detailed discussion of the key definitions involved in the New Perspective debate. He starts by challenging Wright’s understanding of justification as ‘a declaring one as a covenant member’. Cleverly using Romans 3:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16, Piper substitutes the word justification for Wright’s definition of ‘declaring one as a covenant member’ to substantiate his view that this definition ‘does not work’. Piper next discusses that ‘indispensable in Wright’s explanation is that fact that the law-court scene in view is the final justification’ and that God’s righteousness can be defined as keeping the covenant, judging impartiality and proper dealing with sin. Supporting his argument with Romans 1:18, 21, 23, 2:23-34, 3:10 and 3:23 Piper demonstrates that this is a definition of what God’s righteousness does, not what is it, and that a greater definition is required.

Piper then challenges the law-court scene that Wright uses to ‘illumine the dynamics of justification’. The problem he shows of ‘Wright’s way of setting up the law-court imagery is that it does not seem to come to terms with the fact that the judge is omniscient’. This leads Piper into a brief discussion of the imputation of righteousness, which he will expound in a future chapter. Chapter four ends with a succinct summary of the arguments up to that point and then launches into his main points of disagreement.

In chapter five, Piper takes on the first of the points he laid out in the introduction: that the gospel is not about how you get saved. Wright is quoted ‘I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by “the gospel”. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But “the gospel” is not an account of how people get saved’. Piper presents two main rebuttals to this claim. The first compelling argument is that without a message of justification, the Lordship of Jesus is not good news; rather it ‘is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner […] guilty of treason and liable to execution’. The second argument is a presentation of the definition of the gospel from Paul himself. Piper says 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 is ‘the closest Paul comes to a definition of his gospel’. He expounds these verses and shows that Paul explicitly says that ‘we are saved through the gospel […] and that the gospel is a message that Christ died “for our sins”’. Piper arguments are present in a way that seems to easily controvert Wright’s position.

The next issue that Piper considers, in chapter six, is that justification is not how you become a Christian. He cites Wright as saying justification ‘was not so much about “getting in”, or indeed about “staying in”, as about “how you could tell who was in”’. Piper points out that Wright goes to great length to distinguish justification from the call that happens immediately prior to justification. Piper can’t explain ‘Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian’. This is one of Piper’s most effective arguments as he simply states the illogical nature of Wright’s position thus far.

In chapter seven, Piper opposes Wright’s claim that future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived and delves into the place of our works in justification. Wright says ‘The Spirit is the path by which Paul traces the route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future’. Piper sees that Wright relies heavily on Romans 2:13 to support this argument, and so spends a significant amount of time on a detailed exegesis of Romans 2. He concludes, persuasively, that in this verse ‘Paul makes a statement that in this context functions as a principle […] rather than a declaration about how that doing relates to justification’. Piper then focuses briefly on how he sees works relating to justification. He states that he believes ‘in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as public evidence […] of faith […] for all who will be finally saved’. This element of the argument from Piper is uncharacteristically brief and lacking in detailed explanation, although he does return to this point in the conclusion of the book.

In chapter eight, Piper engages with the view that Wright presents regarding the imputation of righteousness. While an initial presentation seems to reflect agreement on imputation, Piper demonstrates where the differences begin to appear with the following quote from Wright:

There is indeed a status which is reckoned to all God’s people [this would be the meaning of imputation in Wright’s system], all those in Christ; and this status is that of dikaiosune, ‘righteousness’, ‘covenant membership’; and this covenant membership, in order to be covenant membership, must be a covenant membership in which the members have died and been raised, because until that has happened they would be in their sins.

Piper helpful acknowledges points of agreement, but also points out that there are areas in which Wright is ambiguous in his communication of his definition of the imputation of righteousness. Piper illustrates his ‘desire to see Wright’s construction of Pauline theology as saying the same thing as the Reformed tradition’ but concludes that it does not. He says ‘Wright’s position on the meaning and the basis of justification are not “substantially” the same as what has been affirmed in the Reformation tradition by “imputed righteousness” on the basis of “faith alone”.

One of the major elements of the debated New Perspective is that first century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism. Piper covers this in chapters nine and ten. Wright believes in the first century ‘the Jew keeps the laws out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace – not, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in. Being “in” in the first place was God’s gift’. Piper’s attention to this detailed on the debate is thorough. His main argument finds him entering discussion on the meaning of legalism. Piper represents Wright as believing the only form of legalism is Pelagianism. His footnotes in this chapter provide some of the most informative sections of his discussion, outlining the soft and hard legalism. This division is paramount to the rest of his argument. Piper brings up two arguments that are particularly convincing in this chapter. One is that Wright’s view of first century Judaism ‘seems to fly in the face of what Jesus says about how the Pharisees in general experienced and shared mercy’. The second is that while Wright argues the problem with Judaism was not pride in works, but pride in ethnicity, these both share ‘the same root as legalism, namely, self-righteousness’.

In chapter eleven, Piper deals with Wright’s treatment of the righteousness of God as his covenant faithfulness, and the effect of this understanding on the idea of imputed righteousness. Piper says that Wright regards this concept as ‘at best a category mistake’. He reminds the reader of his conclusion in chapter three that covenant faithfulness is what God’s righteousness does not what it is and then re-poses the key question in this issue:

When the judge finds in our favour, does he count us as having the required God-glorifying moral righteousness – an unwavering allegiance in heart and mind and behaviour? And does this counting as righteousness happen because we meet this requirement […] or because God’s righteousness s counted as ours in Christ?

Piper argument for the imputed righteousness of God is powerfully compelling, as he draws the readers’ attention to ‘biblical language of imputation’ in Romans 4:3-8, 5:18-19, Philippians 3:9, 1 Corinthians 1:30 and perhaps most strikingly 2 Corinthians 5:21. Piper’s exegesis of the last text is thorough, persuasive and brings him to the end of his response to N.T. Wright.

Possibly the most marked element of Piper’s response is the display of respect in his attitude towards his adversary. As he introduces his readers to Wright he does so by describing him as ‘a remarkable blend of weighty academic scholarship, ecclesiastical leadership, ecumenical involvement, prophetic social engagement, popular Christian advocacy, musical talent and family commitment’. Piper plainly states when accusations against Wright are unfair and expresses hope that their ‘common ground in Scripture will enable some progress in understanding and agreement’. His commitment to portraying Wright’s view fairly and accurately is demonstrated in the notably number of quotations from several of Wright’s works. Also of interest is his mention of significant changes to the book after personal correspondence with Wright.

The Future of Justification is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussions of the New Perspective of Paul. Piper presents his arguments clearly, but with a necessary amount of detail. He spends a significant amount of time in the first four chapters expounded terms that prove to be imperative to his disputation. While this book is unlikely to end the debate on New Perspective, Piper’s work is though provoking and expresses the importance of a correct understanding of justification for the Christian faith. He ends his book with a plea ‘for our allegiance to a robust, historical vision of Christ whose obedience is counted as ours through faith alone’.

This book is a clear and systematic presentation and discussion of the important issues stemming from N.T. Wright’s views on justification. Piper is elegant and convincing in his response to Wright and committed to a biblical understanding of this issue and defense of doctrinal truth for the sake of Christ.

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