Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by N. T. Wright

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Church
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Chapter 1: What does Wright see as the two key puzzle pieces to reading Paul that are often overlooked?

            The apostle Paul uses Old Testament scripture quite often throughout his epistles.  Usually, those quotes are merely a phrase or two from the entirety of the chapter.  So, upon reading the text in Paul’s writings, we tend to lose the significance of the quotes original context.  As such, we tend to have a very simple reading of Paul’s message, which misses the fullness of his entire meaning.  As such, according to Wright, it is necessary to understand that Paul’s use of an Old Testament phrase is meant to bring to mind the entirety of its setting.

In our culture, we tend to do the same thing.  For instance, I might say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  If you are at all familiar with Psalm 23, perhaps having memorized it, you can’t help but remember the entirety of that psalm.  Or, within our own contemporary context, if I stated, “I have a dream,” one cannot help but conjure images of Martin Luther King’s famous speech in Washington.  The human mind has a natural tendency to finish thoughts and connect the pieces… even when they are shorthanded or omitted.  As such, we must understand Paul’s use of shorthand when quoting from the Old Testament.

Secondly, Paul views the history of Israel and the world as one continuous narrative, from the beginning until now.  Paul’s use of the patriarchs throughout his works underlines the importance of this view.  He is not simply stating something about that history; he is making an assertion about God’s people now.  And, the connection between the patriarchs and the contemporary setting has to do with the promises of God that had been given to people like Abraham.

The implications for this view go even further.  A narrative history that is interconnected leads one to believe that God had one plan from the very beginning.  Wright believes, “God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (35).  Wright believes that viewing Paul’s work in this way allows us to keep the pieces of the puzzle connected together.

Chapter 2: What is the primary mistake that Wright believes has been made in the history of reading Paul?

            N. T. Wright believes that the primary mistake that theologians have made in the history of reading Paul is that they have not allowed the text to speak for itself.  Readers often bring their own questions to the text for which they are seeking answers.  As such, they may do eisegesis instead of exegesis of the text.  In other words, the reader’s own bias is read into the text, twisting it to answer questions it was never designed to address.

As such, there tends to be an appeal to tradition, which will often answer questions that the text itself does not treat.  And, thus, many theologians will read the text from a tradition rather than allowing the text to speak on its own terms.  The result is that Paul, and others, become mouthpieces for subjects and conclusions that they were not concerned about.

This, of course, does not mean that we cannot draw conclusions from a text to answer questions not explicit in the text.  However, we must realize that is the method we are employing.  And, as with any tradition, it should not have the last say.  Instead, scripture must evaluate scripture.

Basically, this means that the words employed in the writings must be understood in their full context.  The historical and literary contexts must be studied and evaluated.  The best available data should be employed to aid the understanding of the texts.  This allows us to place the text in its original context, rather than reading our context into the writings.  Such an interpretive lens keeps us from performing eisegesis.  And, more importantly, we are empowered to understand the text on its own terms… which was its inspired context to begin with!

As such, we must comprehend the entirety of the epistle.  Additionally, we must allow all of Paul’s epistles to speak as a “symphony” rather than monotonous works.  Understanding the complexity and the integrated nature of these epistles guides us in understanding the entirety of Paul’s arguments, rather than select passages that are proof-texted.  The result will not simply be a confirming of our own pre-suppositions, but a fresh engagement of God’s Word in our lives.

Chapter 3: What are the five points at which Wright thinks Piper is wrong?

            First, Wright believes that Piper has ignored the large amounts of scholarly literature concerning the meaning of “God’s righteousness.”  Although he does commend Piper for not talking about justification in terms of being in relationship with God, Wright wants to ensure that people understand that righteousness deals with the status of a relationship, not the forging of one.

Second, Wright asserts that “it is not at all clear how Piper’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘God’s righteousness’ works out within the scheme of imputation that lies at the heart of his own reading” (66).  However, thinking of a judge imputing righteousness is confusing.  The judge, who is righteous before the court, simply speaks a word of acquittal.  However, the judge’s righteousness is not imputed to the defendant.  Nor, it would seem, is the defendant necessarily “morally right in action.”  Rather, the defendant has simply been cleared of charges.  Glory to God’s name is simply a by-product, not particularly the goal that is being advanced.

Third, Piper’s “attempts to distance ‘God’s righteousness’ from the notion of covenant faithfulness… fail to convince” (67).  Paul’s letters are consistently referring back to the covenants made in Genesis 15 and Deuteronomy 30.  Understanding that context allows us to better understand what Paul is driving at.  Israel’s unfaithfulness is not pertaining to a belief set.  Rather, it pertains to Israel’s failing to uphold their end of the covenant.

Fourth, “Piper’s attempt to downplay the importance of the lawcourt metaphor within the whole discussion is deeply unconvincing” (68).  Righteousness is dealing with one’s standing before a court.  The judge’s righteousness does not become the defendant’s righteousness.  Rather, “[the judge] creates the status the vindicated defendant now possesses, by an act of declaration, a ‘speech-act’ in our contemporary jargon” (69).  It does not deal with, as Piper suggests, “an unwavering allegiance to treasure and uphold the glory of God” (69).  Both God and the defendant may not be motivated by this factor.  God being glorified, it would seem, is a natural by-product of God’s righteousness.

Lastly, “there is a sense in which what Piper claims about ‘God’s righteousness’ could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction” (70).  Piper believes that it is “God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself” (70).  Obviously, this is problematic.  Is God a narcissist?  Rather, it would seem, God’s concern has always been the welfare of others.  “God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world” (70-71).  Rather, Wright believes, God’s righteousness means that He is faithful to His covenant.

Chapter 4: What is “covenant” and why is it a “splendid” way to understand Paul’s soteriology?

            According to N. T. Wright, “Paul’s view of God’s purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight” (94).  It is the covenant, specifically, found in Genesis 15, that provides the backdrop for Paul’s understanding of righteousness and justification.

These two terms are used in lawcourt settings.  Israel is on trial for failure to uphold their end of the covenant.  Having violated the terms of the covenant, Israel is deemed unrighteous.  And, as such, they have not fulfilled their God-given purpose, to be a blessing to many nations.  The Israelite people saw their history as a linear one, starting at the creation.  The covenant, therefore, is not simply a promise to Abraham but to all of his children, including them.  So, covenant continues to hold weight within the Jewish community during Paul’s time.  In fact, the time was filled with many people awaiting a messiah to fulfill God’s covenantal purposes in Israel.

As the Christian community, we believe this was fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  That in him all the promises of God were “yes.”  God’s covenant faithfulness means that He remains righteous before the court due to upholding his part of the covenant.  This further implies that God has the power to vindicate Israel, again not saying that their actions were just or right.  Rather, they are acquitted before the court and are “righteous” in their standing.  Covenant provides the setting for the lawcourt language employed by Paul.

In addition, the covenant is the lens through which Israel viewed their history.  Covenant is the concept that links all of the stories as a cohesive unit that would eventually draw to some conclusion, they hoped.  The entire story of Israel deals with whether or not Israel maintained fidelity to the covenant.  And, when they did not maintain faithfulness, it became the story of God’s covenant faithfulness, salvation, and redemption.  This draws to its ultimate conclusion in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.  God’s covenant faithfulness is confirmed, while true Israel is now empowered to live by the terms of the covenant.

Chapter 5: What does Galatians have to say about justification?

            Typically, due to the proponents of the Reformation, these passages have been understood as decrying the pursuit of righteousness through works.  Luther adamantly pushed this agenda, which is hardly questioned now.  Although there is warrant for such thoughts, this does not line up with Paul’s theological vision found in Galatians.

Galatians reports that “agitators” from Jerusalem were trying to pressure the Gentiles to become circumcised so that they might be in the “true family” of God.  Peter, who had traditionally dined with the Gentiles, felt persuaded to separate himself when men from James (Jerusalem) came to visit.  Paul confronted Cephas about this decision.

The Law, as Paul points out, is not the basis for entering into the family of God.  The Law actually placed a barrier between the Gentiles and Jews, whom God had always desired to be one family, according to the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.  The Law only brought the recognition of sin.  However, it is by faith that the children of God are “justified.”  It is a legal term that connotes a status in court.  It might be understood in the context of an adoption for us today.  We are given the status of children through the faith.

The Law did not accomplish this, rather it was the true Israelite, Jesus the Messiah, that accomplished the completion of the covenant with Abraham.  Jesus become the covenant curse for us, thereby providing a way through the curse.  No longer are there divisions within the family of God, but we are equally a part of that family through the Messiah.  Justification says that we have been declared as a member of that inner circle.

Finally, justification, in light of what we have just discussed, does have implications for sin.  “Justification by faith, as in Galatians 3, is part of the much larger thought-unit of the rescue of God’s people and the whole world from the ‘Egypt’ of slavery, not only to sin and death but to the dark powers that stand behind them” (136).

Chapter 6: What does it mean to say that Paul’s ecclesiology is the advance sign of soteriology?

            Wright explains that justification is “in the present, anticipating the verdict of the future” (147).  There will be a final judgment, but there is a present reality that points to that verdict.  That future verdict has been “brought into the present” by integrating us into the community of faith.  After all, it is not the works of righteousness that save us or bring us into the community.  Rather, the works of Torah “function[ed] as a sign in the present that [Paul] was a part of the people who would be vindicated in the future, on the last day, when God would act in his long-promised judgment and mercy” (147).  However, Paul immediately throws this notion out of the window, because resurrection has initiated the eschatological reign of God.

As such, works of righteousness “will not earn their performer their membership within God’s true, eschatological, covenant people; they will demonstrate that membership” (141).  But, it happens, Paul argues, not through “works of Torah” but “through Messiah-faith” (147).  With this is mind, Paul is not advancing ecclesiology apart from soteriology.  Soteriology is the focus, but ecclesiology is the sign of justification in the life of those who demonstrate faith in the Messiah.  For by faith, we are in Christ.  We become one Body, which is not fragmented.

Again, it is about the fulfillment of the covenant given to Abraham.  The covenant portrayed a community, a family.  It envisioned a people without division in accordance with the life-giving purposes of God, which countered the destruction of sin seen in Genesis 3-11.  If this is so, the Church is the first-fruits of that reality.  And, in addition, they are the sign to the world of God’s redemptive work.  As such, they are a living reality pointing to a future hope and expectation, inviting the world to become a part of this new soteriological reality and community.  This is all accomplished through the Messiah!

“The answer is that the church, thus united through the grace of God in the death of Jesus, is the sign to the principalities and powers that their time is up” (173).  This should cause us to reconsider the role of the church in our world!  It definitely is more than a social club.  Perhaps the Church might really be a necessity, able to supersede the individualism that plagues our world.

Chapter 7: What is the role of Abraham in Romans?

            Typically, Abraham’s role in Romans has been minimized to an illustration.  That is to say, Abraham is the model of faith that Paul uses to show what kind of faith we are to exhibit in our own lives.  While there may certainly be some truth in that, N. T. Wright believes that Abraham plays a much more significant role in the text than simply an example of faith.

To understand Paul’s use of Abraham, we must understand the context of Romans.  Namely, these passages are about the covenant fulfillment.  God, by grace, promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation.  It would be through his family that the world would be blessed.  The question Paul wants to address is: “Who is the true family of Abraham?”

Of course, the Jews believed that they alone were the true descendants of Abraham.  After all, they did have the sign of circumcision and the covenant.  Paul wants to question this premise, however.  True, they did have circumcision and the covenant.  But, was it merely for their sake, or was the family only consisting of the biological seed of Abraham?  No, Paul asserts.  Abraham received the covenant while he was uncircumcised.  Circumcision was only a sign of the covenant.  Therefore, the family of Abraham is not limited only to those who have received circumcision as a sign of the covenant.  Furthermore, the covenant only showed that the Jews too were unable to complete God’s redemptive purposes in the world.

“Abraham is the father of us all, the law-people and the non-law people, Jews and Gentiles alike, the dead who need to be brought back to life and the non-existent who need to come to life for the first time” (222).  It is all about God’s single plan of redemption through Israel for the world.  So, Abraham functions as the figurehead for this family, as well as, the forefather of faith.  “The whole passage is about the forgiveness of sins, because the whole passage is about something larger, namely God’s covenant purpose to put the world right through his chosen people, Abraham’s family” (224).

Abraham, and thus the Jews, could not boast in their own meritorious works by the law.  The covenant had been given in total grace.  It was God’s prevenient grace working in the lives of Abraham and his family which would extend salvific grace through the Messiah to the world.  In other words, God’s purposes have always been about the redemption of all creation.  That is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who tears down the dividing wall so that there is no longer Jew nor Greek.  There is the single family of faith proclaimed righteous before God and called to extend that same grace and mercy back into the world.

Chapter 8: How does Wright summarize Paul’s theology of justification?

            First, justification alone is the achievement of Jesus Christ.  He alone accomplishes this task through his life, death, and resurrection.  This is the accomplishment of the covenant which God had given to Abraham.  These promises are fulfilled through Jesus alone.  As a result, all of creation is brought into the covenant.  Everything is being put right.  It is through the metaphor of lawcourt that we see God’s justification being declared.

“God, the Creator, must ‘judge’ the world in the sense of putting it right at the last – and that God has brought this judgment into the middle of history, precisely in the covenant-fulfilling work of Jesus Christ, dealing with sin through his death, launching the new world in his resurrection, and sending his Spirit to enable human beings, through repentance and faith, to become little walking and breathing advance parts of that eventual new creation.  According to this judgment, the ‘verdict’ which is accomplished and publicly announced through the death and resurrection of Jesus, all those who are ‘in him’ are ‘reckoned’ to have died and been raised with him, so that from God’s point of view their sins are no longer accounted against them and they stand on resurrection ground, free at last to live as genuine human beings.  And the sign of this Spirit-given membership of the family of God’s renewed covenant is neither more nor less than faith – specifically, the faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.  This faith, by being equally open to all, Jew and Gentile alike, indicates in its reach as well as its content that here we are witnessing the beginning of that cosmic renewal, that coming together of heaven and earth, which declares to the principalities and powers that God’s rich wisdom has come to birth in Jesus Christ the Lord” (251).  This is such a powerful passage I doubtfully could summarize it in a better way.

Although we have been given this promise in the present, we also wait for its future and final implementation.  The Spirit is the assurance that our future and our present verdict will be the same.  We have been declared members of God’s household, we simply wait for the future consummation of that reality.


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