What Piper/Wright Is Saying?

Derek Ouellette —  April 13, 2010

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.

What Piper is Saying:

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:

Our sins are Imputed or Transferred to Christ while His Righteousness is Imputed or Transferred to us. We are declared righteous through the process of Imputation.

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.)

What is Wright Saying:

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?

***Stay Tuned***

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Kris Pagan

    Nice work Derek. “Propitiation” is the key word. Another thing I find is that these “reformers” are always using Romans 3:23, but what about v.24? ( Which is part of the same sentence ) … and are justified freely by HIS grace! God satisfied His wrath through Jesus, therefore I am now declared Justified. Now I am the Righteousness of God through Christ Jesus! The gospel isn’t just good news for the lost, it’s good news for me too! Keep up the good work!

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks for the encouraging thought Kris. You have nailed it head on.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..What Piper/Wright Is Saying? =-.

  • Tom

    As I understand Piper and Wright, you have nailed it, so to speak …

    I find Wright utterly on target with regard to Paul. If we’re to make any progress here, we have to admit that the Reformation provided an answer to a Medieval question, and in so doing, failed to grasp Paul’s gospel – that of a mighty loving God giving a profound gift to the world through Israel/Jesus. That the church missed Paul’s central point is probably rooted in the church’s ambiguous relationship to Judaism, and the “gentilization” of the church with all the attendant anxieties of the Roman/pagan world.

    Anyway, Paul’s message is simpler in it’s God-centeredness, and takes the Western Church off of its anxious petard. But in so doing, Paul also undoes the church’s long-established reach for power over the anxious believer (the sacramental part of the church) and the church’s moral intimidation (the Reformers and their descendants).

    When I read Wright, I exclaim, “How wonderful, how unique, to be so God-centered!”

  • http://catholicnick.blogspot.com/ Nick

    I think you have a wrong view of imputation:

    In my study on this topic of imputed righteousness, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular lexicon here is what it is defined as:

    QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”

    The lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

    The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:
    Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

    Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

    Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

    Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

    To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present…
    .-= Nick´s last blog ..Rebuttal of James White’s Analysis of My "Silver Bullet" article. =-.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette


    If I have the wrong view of imputation then I am in good company… your company.

    You misunderstand the post. When I explained imputation I explained how this post is understood by Calvin, Luther, Piper, Sproul and yada yada. What I explained about imputation is accurate.

    However, I would agree with your assessment (for the most part). When God “reckons” people to be righteous he is making a statement about their status, namely if they are “in Christ” (or “in Israel” or “in the Covenant” or whatever term you prefer) then they hold a “righteous” status (i.e. the judge declares them righteous).

    But I hold that this word “logizomai” (like all words) does not float about as though no context were required to know what it means. When a judge declares or “reckons” a person “justified” this does not mean that the person is actually “morally righteous”, it means that the Judge finds in his favor. There is a difference.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Why Does the Justification Debate Matter? =-.

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  • Ben Marston

    Weighing in as an Eastern Orthodox so you’ll know my bias! The Fathers before Augustine did not believe that we inherited Adam’s guilt- only his mortality and the penchant for ill-doing that flowed form it. So, the Western Tradition, in my view, of an imputed guilt, is false. Scripture says we have sinned (personally) and therefore fall short of the Glory of God. it does not say that Adam sinned and so we fall short of the glory of God.
    So, Imputed Guilt is false, in our view.
    Second, the word of Justification is spoken to believers who have been united to Christ through baptism. this is an ontological change- we have a new righteousness- not imputed, but imparted, and any ‘word’ of Justification comes after that. The Spirit of Christ is united to our spirit, and so “Christ within you” becomes the hope of glory. It is therefore, neither imputed sin (the misdeeds of Adam), nor imputed righteousness (the deeds of Christ) that are the efficient cause of our justification, but the impartation of Christ’s righteouesness to us, united to our spirits by His Spirit.
    The Spirit, then, witnesses with our spirits, that we are the sons of God; and if sons then heirs. It is not a doctrine that gives us assurance but the very Righteousness that is now Ours, witnessing to our hearts. It is not the embrace of a set of doctrinal propositions that gives us security, but the declaration of the Spirit to our hearts.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette


      Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate your perspective.

      I was with a friend and bible teacher when I first saw this comment and so I read it out loud thinking, ‘an Orthodox perspective, this should be good’. As I read my friend was practically jumping out of his seat while pointing to my computer exclaiming, “he’s right! He’s right! That’s what I’ve been trying to say all along!”

      “The Spirit” and “Union with Christ” – these two need to be discussed more when thinking through subjects such as “Justification”. Aside from a tweak here or there I think you are right on! And if “impartation” is discussed in the way that you have suggested, then I can accept that too.

      .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Noah’s Ark Discovered? =-.

  • Nate

    I understand your (Wright’s) argument concerning the objective/subjective use of the genitive in Gal. 2:16. However, what has been left unstated (as far as I can tell) is that καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν (Gal. 2:16) employs a preposition (eis) where Christ Jesus is the explicit object of the preposition. The governing verb is of course episeusamen (believe) and thus Christ is seen to be the explicit object of faith. Because this clause is positioned in the very same context of the two genitival uses of Christ Jesus, it only makes sense that this would necessitate an objective understanding of the genitive here.