Thursday, 21 February 2008

Tom Wright on Justification (N T Wright series, part 5)


Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?
N. T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.

 And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.

The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be  the means by which  the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.

So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed  in advance of  that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!

And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.

So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.

And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith  alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.

Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But  that  is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.

In the last installment, I said what I liked about this answer - that it avoids the trap of jumping from the present decline in the secular West to an overall picture of what was promised as the big picture of church history. The sky is not falling in - in fact, Jesus the Lord is today bringing light and life to nations that had been in utter spiritual darkness for thousands of years before his coming. The gospel is God's plan to restore creation, and that's going on now - as people believe and live in response to the gospel - as well as being something that will be perfected with the second coming.

What we shouldn't, if we believe that the orthodox Protestant faith is true, like about Wright's answer is not so much what's in it, but what's missing. Did you notice what was missing?

Where's The Moral Content?

The main problem here is the one that permeates Wright's restructuring of the gospel. Wright's doctrine of justification, as is reflected in the above answer, is like this:
  • The primary "justification" is at the last day
  • Any justification during history anticipates this final verdict
  • Justification is God's legal declaration about the identities of those who are already God's people
The question that Wright was asked was as to how justification fitted into the gospel. His answer, when put in a more condensed form, was that justification is about identifying God's people, or if we're talking about justification before the last day, the anticipation of the identification of God's people.

What's gone wrong here is that the ethical aspects of justification have been pushed out of sight. Justification is, to Wright, not primarily about the things that Protestants have always proclaimed that it is:
  • The offended majesty of a holy God
  • God's righteous determination to deal with sin
  • The self-giving of Jesus on the cross to make atonement for his peoples' sin
  • The just declaration of God that he sees no sin in the believer, but only the perfection of his Son, because of what Jesus did: a verdict made corporately regarding all God's people in the resurrection of Christ in history, and then again individually as each one of those people comes into saving union with Christ by faith. This verdict is already made and is publicly revealed on the last day, rather than that being the primary declaration.
In other words, justification has, for Wright, ceased to be about sin, God's righteous character, and atonement. It is just about identifying who's in and who's out - identification, not moral satisfaction.

Now, with Wright's it's always necessary to point out that he does not explicitly deny most of the above points (apart from the righteousness of Christ being gifted to the believer). For most of them, he happily affirms them, though sometimes ambiguously. He just wants to say that they're not part of the gospel. They may be closely related to the gospel, it may be right and proper to declare them as the gospel is declared, they may be implied by the gospel, and so on, but they're not the gospel itself. The gospel, for Wright, is about identity - Jesus is declared to be Messiah and Lord, and those who believe are declared to be the ones who will be part of God's people on the last day.

At first glance orthodox Protestants can take some parts of Wright and find them reassuring. In common with historic Protestantism, Wright teaches that justification is a legal declaration, not a process. It is God's court-room announcement about his people - not a process by which Christians use the sacraments to become more personally righteous. This agreement with Protestant teaching against Rome though only gives Wright's teaching a superficial resemblance to Protestant orthodoxy. Wright actually contradicts both Rome and Protestant orthodoxy by teaching that justification is primarily a declaration about identity (how to spot God's people), rather than being to do with moral righteousness acceptable to God. On this crucial point, we should actually prefer Rome.

Wright's doctrine will be a lot more acceptable to many churchmen of our age and to our age in general precisely because it refuses to confront sinners with the blazing holiness and wrath of a righteous God. Whilst not denying these things, it shunts them into the background where we find them a lot easier to deal with - not so threatening. It is no coincidence that Wright's vision of the Christian life correspondingly has little emphasis on personal holiness, and a lot more emphasis on other issues of dubious moral import. I'm thinking here particularly of Wright's ecumenicalism, socialist economics and anti-American polemic - all of which are views he is well entitled too, and even to defend as being Biblical - but according to Wright, are actually part of the implications of the gospel. That's the result of blunting the gospel's moral thrust, and is something that God-willing we'll examine another time. There's plenty more to say about Wright's actual doctrine of justification itself, and Wax's following questions will bring it out.


Anthony Smith said...

Hi David,

Still listening in with interest!

Can I make an observation? You seem to be critiquing Wright for going against what historic/orthodox Protestantism/evangelicalism has always believed/proclaimed, rather than pointing out explicitly how Wright is going against Scripture.

But historic Protestantism has always insisted that Scripture is the authority, not church tradition (be it Catholic, Protestant, evangelical or whatever).

Is this a fair observation? Can I invite you to comment - in your next installment, if you like?

God bless,


David Anderson said...

Hello Anthony,

Thanks for reading!

I'm aiming at readers who are already familiar with Protestant teaching and persuaded that it is Biblical and therefore true. The aim is to introduce such folk to Wright, rather than to give them a fresh demonstration of the Scriptural basis for Protestant thought.

God bless,