Introduction: In this post I will be attempting to summarize the positions of the Traditional Reformed scholars understanding of the doctrine of Justification by Faith (typified by John Piper) and (in contrast) N.T. Wrights development of this doctrine.
The Traditional Reformed doctrine simply teaches that humans, born depraved and guilty of Adam’s sin (imputed guilt), are unrighteous in the eyes of God. No amount of self-righteousness (works of the law, trying to be good enough) can make someone “right” in the eyes of God (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. “There is none righteous, no not one”).
But by the gift of faith (a gift given by God to his Elect) we are declared “justified” in the eyes of God. But how can God declare a guilty person to be “justified”? Wouldn’t that make God a bad Judge? Yes. So what is the answer? In enters Christ. Christ died on the cross for our sins (“he who knew no sin became sin for us”) and so our sins must have been imputed on to Christ (substitutionary Atonement). Since Christ was righteous (“knew no sin”) then while he took our sins upon himself, we in turn take his righteousness of us (“so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”).
So Justification is at the heart of the doctrine of Salvation and at the heart of Justification is the doctrine of Imputation. It can be diagrammed like this:
There are two things to keep in mind before we look at what Wright has to say on this subject:
First it is important to note that Luther developed this doctrine as a response to the works based religion of 16th century Catholicism. Key text are Galatians 2:16 (“a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”) and Romans 3:22 (“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”).
Second thing to notice is that Imputation is crucial to this whole Traditional Reform understanding of Justification by faith, as John Calvin says, “[Justification] consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (Institutes III.xi.3). (This brings up a third point, the confusion between the terms “Christ’s righteousness” and “God’s righteousness” thinking of 2 Corinthians 5:21. But that is going deeper then I intend.)
So now you can understand why the Reformers find this statement of Wright’s so offensive:
“God’s righteousness belongs to Him. It isn’t something that, in the Law Court motif, could be imputed, imparted, bequeathed, bestowed, or otherwise tossed around the courtroom” (What Saint Paul Really Said? – more on this in the next post.)
Contrary to the traditional view outlined above, we are neither Justified by OUR faith (in the context of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22) nor are we IMPUTED Christ’s (or God’s) own righteousness. We are justified, but this is not a reference to a MORAL standing before God, justification is simply a status we incur when we enter Christ (the doctrine of “In Him”). But If we are not justified by OUR faith then how are we justified? The answer, again, is Christ. We are justified by Christ’s obedience to God the Father on the cross. We are not justified by our obedience or works, but we are justified by Christ’s obedience and works! (Philippians 2:8)
What this means is that 16th century events formed a doctrine out of the scriptures which is not there. Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of Justification (however helpful it may have been at the time) is simply not what Paul was saying. Paul is not saying (in Galatians 2:16 or Romans 3:22) that we are Justified by our faith and not our works, what he is saying is that we are not justified by our works but by Christ’s works.
Key text are the same for Wright as they are for the Traditional Reformed scholars, Galatians 2:16 (“a man is not justified by observing the law, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”) and Romans 3:22 (“this righteousness from God comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe”) but you’ll notice that I underlined a translation difference between here and how this text is traditionally translated. We are not justified by our faith, but by His Faithfulness. It is not by our BELIEF but by His OBEDIENCE.
And that is all N.T. Wright is trying to say about the doctrine of Justification (particularly in the context of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22). We are justified by what Christ did, not by what we do.
What About God’s Righteous Judgment?
But the question remains the same as for the Traditional Reform scholars: how can God be a righteous Judge if he declared people “justified” even though they are “guilty”? Wright believes that Traditional Reformed scholars at this point begin to confuse “Justification” with “Salvation”. If Salvation were a car, Reformed theology mistakenly assumes that “Justification” is also the car when in fact “Justification” is only the steering wheel. In other words, they have confused a “piece” of the car for the car itself. Justification is only one part of the salvation process it is not the whole thing. (See, for example, the video I posted here.)
So to the question, “how can God be righteous in declaring sinners “justified” even though they are “guilty”’, instead of reaching inside of the doctrine of Justification and creating something called “Imputation” (as Luther, Calvin and Piper do), Wright would rather reach for a category which Paul himself uses, the doctrine of “In Christ”. (2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that IN HIM we might become the righteousness of God”. I should note here that I’ve added to where Wright would not. Tom Wright does not see this verse as applying to you and me, but rather specifically to the Apostle. I think he is right, but I do not see sufficient cause to limit this passage only to the Apostle.)
Other ways in which God can be righteous in declaring the “guilty” as being “justified” are through the doctrine of sanctification (we are being made more holy every day until we die), the doctrine of the Holy Spirit who is conforming us into the image of Christ (since we are “IN HIM”) and not least the principle of Already but Not Yet. (Romans 2:13 “for it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous”. Notice the future tense “will be” is not based on faith but one works (“who obey the law”). God declares us righteous in the present in anticipation of a future declaration based on our works in the here and now.)
Given the biblical doctrine of “In Christ”, “Sanctification”, the “Holy Spirit” and the principle of “Already but Not Yet” we simply have no need to create a doctrine of Imputation or Impartation the way the Reformers imagined it. As Wright says, there are other ways to get there. Imputation is not a biblical category and is superseded by the doctrine of “In Christ” and Impartation is not a biblical category and is superseded by the doctrine of “Sanctification”.
Not only are the doctrines of Imputation and Impartation not necessary, they are actually incorrect for understanding Justification and the key text in play (Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22).
If we want to understand what Paul is saying we need to kick these categories to the curb, get rid of the old misunderstanding of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:22 which has long been imbedded in the Reformed Tradition (ironically) and turn to the scriptures and what Saint Paul Really Said. The Reformers did many good things and many bad things. Let us be thankful for the good they did and correct their mistakes. And in this discussion they simply got it wrong.
In the next post we’ll look at the question: What Is At Stake?