Wright is Wrong says Schreiner; Schreiner is Wrong says Me! (Part 2)

Derek Ouellette —  February 26, 2011

Thomas Schreiner

As I said in part 1, the word on the street was that Thomas Schreiner had got Tom Wright to change his mind during their debate on Justification (a greatly exaggerated word to be sure). At best Wright opted to use a different phrasology on a particular (and by comparision, a rather minor) point in order to clarify himself, but nothing of substance has changed.

When I came across Schreiner’s article, Wright is Wrong on Imputation, I had assumed that perhaps Schreiner got Wright to admit he was wrong on this central issue within the Justification debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. But not knowing that, I read Schreiner’s article expecting to read something convincing and devastating to Wright’s theology of the doctrine of Justification. This was not to be the case. It was in fact a rehashing of the same old (and unconvincing) points. I suppose the article was written to reaffirm “Imputation” among those who already hold to it, for surely it could not have been written to convince those who have been persuaded by Wright’s arguments!

Schreiner is Wrong on Imputation

In the article Schreiner summarizes Wright’s views and then launches on the offensive claiming “Wright’s interpretation is wrong and confusing on several levels”. I hear this all the time from Wright’s critics; that his interpretation is “confusing”. Well yeah, it would be to you because you disagree with him. But his view’s are not confusing to me because 1) I understand what he is saying and 2) I see it’s biblical foundation.

In any case, let’s look at Schreiner’s main points of contention one at a time:

1. Justification is a Legal Declaration

Schreiner writes:

Wright leads us astray when he says that justification is a legal declaration and hence it is not based on one’s moral character.

First Schreiner admits Wright’s point that justification is not based on our moral character quoting Romans 4:5 which says

To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

But Schreiner believes that because Wright separates “moral character” entirely from the court-room metaphor, he fails to see the “role that Christ’s righteousness plays in imputation.” He quotes Deuteronomy 25:1 to back up (what he believes to be) the fact that in the Old Testament law court a judge rendered a verdict based on a persons moral character, otherwise the judge would be unjust (since he would be acquitting a guilty person). But the passage in Deuteronomy does not say that a person is acquited because he is morally righteous, but because he has been found “innocent” by the judge. This is an important distinction to be made because to be found “innocent” in a particular trial and having a righteous character are not the same thing.

For example, if a person is on trial for murder and the judge has found that person “innocent” or “not guity” it does not mean that the person on trial is righteous in his moral character in every aspect of his life. It only means that when all of the evidence is brought in, the judge has weighed it and has declared the man justified on that basis of that evidence in that particular case. The man may be found innocent of murder which the trial was about, but that does not mean the man is not a liar or a thief; it does not mean that the man – in order to be declared innocent in the murder trial – is a perfect and righteous man. It only means that the evidence found that he did not murder. The judge does not judge based on the man’s moral character, but on whether or not he committed the crime. And this brings me to my first contention to what I believe is missing in Schreiner’s interpretation of Justification:

The evidence that the Righteous Judge is looking for in the divine law court is not that a person has a righteous moral character, but that the person has faith in Jesus the Messiah.

I find it astounding that Schreiner (Piper, Sproul and the others) would miss the key role that faith plays in the Justification debate. All are guilty, no one is righteous (“no, not one!” – Romans 3:10). God’s not looking for righteous people because there are no righteous people. God is looking for unrighteous people (the only kind of people there is) who have faith in Jesus the Messiah, as Schreiner pointed out:

To the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. – Romans 4:5

The evidence which the Righteous Judge is looking for is faith.

2. The Unrighteous Are Clothed, Not Imputed

Next Schreiner correctly points out the rub of the issue: how God can declare sinners to be righteous? Wouldn’t that make God an unjust Judge?:

So how can God be righteous in declaring the wicked to be righteous? The answer of Scripture is that the Father, because of His great love, sent His Son, who willingly and gladly gave Himself for sinners, so that the wrath that sinners deserved was poured out upon the Son (Rom 3:24-26).

For Schreiner, it is clear that a persons moral character plays a “vital role in Justification”. So far so good because now we have come – at least in part – to the purpose of the sacrifice of Christ. But we need to remember that we have rejected Schreiner’s previous premise. God’s not looking for a righteous person, he’s looking for an unrighteous person who’ll have faith in the righteous Messiah. Christ paid the price for humanity (beyond a scriptural doubt) and God the Righteous Judge is looking for the evidence of “faith” by which he can declare a person justified or guilty. We should remember then that the vital point in the passage of Romans 3:24-26 is the role which faith plays in Justification, as the text makes abundantly clear: “As to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”. God is just not by justifying the wicked or by justifying the righteous but by justifying those who have faith in the faithful Messiah.

The point Schreiner is drawing out is the substitutionary death of Jesus by quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21:

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

And again in Philippians 3:9:

[That I may gain Christ] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

Now let’s put these two verses in the context of Schreiner’s overall argument. Schreiner opens up his post by stating that Wright believes that the doctrine of

imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer [is] an artificial construct, an idea from systematic theology that does not truly come from the Bible.

The entire article has been written to prove that the doctrine of imputation of Christ’s righteousness does in fact truly come from the Bible. Now we have come to the end of the article and I am still asking, Schreiner, where is it? Schreiner has assumed that if God declares a person righteous who is wicked that he must impute Christ’s righteousness on to that person, but that is an assumption, an “artificial construct, an idea from systematic theology”, but where is it in the Bible?

Schreiner rests his case on the two passages just listed, 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:9. And this brings me to my second contention to what I believe is missing in Schreiner’s interpretation of Justification:

Those who are declared righteous are done so because they are found “in Christ” by faith. When a person has faith they “clothe” themselves with Christ or “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27; Romans 13:14; Colossians 3:3) so that when God sees them, he sees not them, but his righteous Son. It is not by “imputation” but by “participation”.

Again I find it absolutly astonishing that such revered biblical scholars as Schreiner, Sproul and Piper would cling so desperately to the theological construct of “imputation” rather then to reach for the precise biblical categories which Paul himself reaches for: the doctrine of “in Christ”.

In case you have any doubt, read 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:9 again. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes that God made him who knew no sin to be sin so that “in Him” he might become the righteousness of God. In case you missed in: “IN HIM“. It’s that little phrase which all of Wright’s critics just keep on ignoring as they continue to reach for the sub-biblical category of “imputation”. In other words, Paul only becomes the righteousness of God when he is in Christ, the Righteous One. When Paul is in Christ God does not see Paul, He sees Christ because Paul has put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).

I’m afraid Philippians 3:9 fairs no better for Schreiner, Sproul or Piper because that nagging little biblical category is found there too: Paul writes that he might gain Christ and “be found in him” not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

If Schreiner, Sproul, Piper and others in the Reformed tradition would begin to put the Scriptures first and reach for biblical categories rather then theological constructs of their tradition; if they would understand the vital role faith and participation share in the doctrine of Justification, they just may begin to get things right.

As Wright correctly points out:

For Paul, “justification” was something that happened “in the Messiah.” The status the Christian possesses is possessed because of that belongingness, that incorporation. This is the great Pauline truth to which the sub-Pauline idea of “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is truely pointing. – Justification p.142

[If you liked this article you’ll love N.T. Wright, R.C. Sproul and the Scarecrow]

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://takefiveanytime.blogspot.com/ Tom Eggebeen

    Nicely done.

    I have long been a fan of Wright’s believing that he’s taking us well beyond the anxiety of the Reformers to the confidence of Paul and the New Testament – confidence in the righteousness of God.

    Those who anoint themselves “defenders” of Reformed truth are more likely stuck in some kind of a holiness framework (something Calvin deeply rejected).

    It’s a less a theological matter and more one of “pulpit power” – imputation allows one to preach moralistically, hinging it on various threats of punishment or promises of reward. Holiness finally seques into Pelagianism – translated into contemporary evangelical preaching as the “five easy steps” to whatever it is one desires, devolving the pulpit into a therapist’s couch and churches into a “Dr. Phil” show.

    Wright is right because he’s actually biblical. Imagine that!

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    For my part the question of imputation is purely a biblical one. If it’s a theological concept built upon biblical categories, fine. I just don’t see it and so I reach for the biblical category of incorporation which accomplishes – more or less – the same thing as the sub-biblical category of imputation.

    Most of those who are adamant defendents of imputation are also those who are most vehemently opposed to Pelagianism, so I don’t necessarily see the connection you’ve made Tom.

  • Josh

    The debate on “Imputation” is simply being used to bolster the hobbling, “three-legged” TULIP perspective in Reformed circles. Wright’s exegetical/historical questioning is seen as a threat and causing them to have to find a way to retain their “Biblical position” rather than recant. The issue of imputation is part of a larger matter, namely – the character of God and the nature of the world He created (i.e. 1. is God a narcissistic, omni-controlling (evil?) despot as Augustine first posited or not? 2. is “salvation” solely determined by the whims of God’s “gracious imputations” or is it based upon our response to His unlimited/freely given grace available to all?).

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

      Thanks Josh, I had not made the connection (if there is one) between “imputation” and the Calvinistic distinctives. Perhaps if I follow your thinking I’d discover that it is this connection which explains why the neo-Reformed cling to imputation so desperately. Perhaps they see this doctrine as a “hedge” protecting the more sensitive Calvinistic distinctives.

      Yet I know many Wesleyan’s and Classical Arminians who are also in defense of imputation. But this could be explained by their a certain fear of letting go of a long and trusted doctrine, not realizing that it’s roots on are the Lutheran/Calvinistic traditions (narrowly speaking). After all, Wesley was much hesitant to accept it (from what I’m told).

  • suantak

    Thanks dude for this much needed critique.

    I am no longer perturbed by stupendous claims of Wright being proved to be wrong.

    I read the Wright is Wrong on Imputation article and for the love of God I can’t understand how someone with a PhD can reason like a mere high school matriculate.

    When you have the time, please do a series on the latest commentary by Colin G. Kruse. The hype is that Dunn and Wright have been fully dealt with here. Funny.