N.T. Wright, John Piper and Justification: A Retrospective

Most people even remotely involved with theology are aware of the controversies surrounding the new perspective on Paul (NPP), and specifically the doctrine of justification. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to read and comprehend all of the material being produced on the matter, though there are two extremely well-known Pastor-theologians who, in my opinion, brought the debates about justification into the mainstream of Christian news and conversation. These prolific scholars are John Piper and N.T. Wright. In 2007, Piper’s book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright was published. Piper wrote this book in response to a growing acceptance of the NPP and more specifically, to various academic lectures, books and articles produced by Wright on the topic of justification. It did not take long for Wright to respond with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision which was published in 2009.

In 2015, I became heavily involved with this debate. I read as much as I could on the subject, but it all started with these two books written by John Piper and N.T. Wright. Both were saying we were saved by grace through faith. But, Piper said our final justification was on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, while Wright insisted that language was not found in Paul. Who was right?

At the time, I was just an undergraduate theology student trying to find my way. I was also the Pastor of a small Baptist church. Leaving Calvinism was less than ideal, and I certainly didn’t want to leave traditional Protestant theology altogether. I desperately wanted Piper to be right. I wanted the Bible to teach double imputation and sola fide (as articulated by Luther). At the end of the day though, it became apparent to me that one side was using deductive reasoning, while the other was using inductive. One was presupposing a theological axiom, while the other was attempting to establish axioms from Scripture and the context in which the New Testament was produced, namely Second Temple Judaism. I discovered I was, indeed, on the wrong side.

Several takeaways from reading these books that I simply could not ignore:

-Piper’s definitions of tsedaqah elohim and dikaiosyne theou (the Hebrew and Greek terms which are usually translated as “The righteousness of God”) were idiosyncratic. No scholars defined these Hebrew and Greek terms as he did. He seemed to completely ignore the body of scholarly literature on the subject, as Wright pointed out.[1]

-Piper (and the broader Reformed tradition) did not deal well with Romans 2. It simply did not fit with his presuppositions, and that became obvious to me. Conversely, Wright’s exegesis of Romans 2 was consistent with the whole of the context and the rest of Paul’s commentary on the subject of final judgement. I did not see any way that Romans 2 could possibly fit with traditional Protestant theology.

-Piper actually warned his readers against considering Second Temple literature while interpreting Paul. This is not an exaggeration or caricature; Piper is explicit about this in chapter one of his book.[2] Meanwhile, Wright demonstrated a robust knowledge of Second Temple Judaism and showed how misunderstandings of the Jewish religion led to Protestants (particularly influenced by the Lutheran tradition as opposed to the Calvinistic tradition) systematically misunderstanding Paul for centuries after the Reformation.

-The language of imputed righteousness is not in the New Testament. The concept is a theological construct based on inferences made from Paul’s writings. To be clear, this does not prove or disprove the legitimacy of the doctrine. All Christians, to some degree, infer from and interpret Paul’s writings. This point became important to me though, because as a Baptist and someone who was a Calvinist for years, I was always taught that imputation was ‘the heart of the gospel.’ Can something be at the center of the Christian faith that is never explicitly taught in Scripture, and that certainly was not explicitly taught by Jesus? The resurrection, caring for the least of these, Christ’s death for our sins and the sovereignty of God? All plainly taught in the Bible. The concept of imputation? Not so much.

-And finally, the concept of imputation contradicted what became apparent to me: Jesus and Paul taught a final judgement according to works. Paul constantly referred to a day when everyone, Christians included, would stand before God and be judged according to what they had done. Romans 2:1-16 was the obvious passage: “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:6-8, 13) There were others, such as 2 Corinthians 5:10; Paul frequently taught that your works will have a direct impact on the judgement you receive from God (Rom. 8:13 and Galatians 5:19-21 are good examples). And this was just Paul. Jesus emphasized and depicted a final judgement according to works in great detail, not least of which are found in Matthew 25:31-46 and John 5:25-29: “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out-those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (Jn. 5:28-29) John Piper claimed, through a quote of Solomon Stoddard, that he wanted his book to show that Christians would finally be judged, not based on what they had done, but on the basis of the perfect life of Jesus Christ: “The general tendency of this book is to show that our claim to the pardon of sin and acceptance with God is not founded on anything wrought in us, or acted by us, but only on the righteousness of Christ.”[3] If Paul (or Jesus) taught imputation as articulated by Piper, then it would be reasonable to expect depictions of final judgement in Scripture to reflect this reality. I expected to see the final judgement in Scripture illustrated as Christians being judged based on the life Jesus lived. Conversely, I found final judgement to be as already discussed: according to what we had done.

Years later, these are just a few observations I wanted to share from my own reading of Piper and Wright. It would be impossible to even begin to answer every question people may have, or to delve into every area of the conversation in a single article. I do think both of these books are good starting points for anyone interested in debates about justification. I pray God will continue to bless our efforts to understand Scripture.

  1. N T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 64.
  2. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007), 33-36.
  3. Solomon Stoddard, The Safety of Appearing at the Day of Judgement, in the Righteousness of Christ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, oig. 1687): vii, quoted in Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, 11.

What Do We Know of Holy

 

A young woman preaches grace and truth and receives death threats from other Christians.

College students are hurt by their school and then wounded even more on social media by other Christians.

A preacher spends weeks agonizing over a sermon, praying it will bring glory to God and encourage the Kingdom only to be criticized, isolated, idealized, or treated as an office manager or building keeper by other Christians.

We wonder why we’re losing our children, why no one wants to talk to us about religion, and what we can do to make things better in this world. Maybe we need to take a long look in the mirror.

We are the holy people of God which means he should be influencing our actions, reactions, and words regardless of whether they are spoken or typed.

What does holy look like when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t interpret Scripture the way you do? It looks like laying down your stones and choosing grace instead. That may mean withdrawal but it never means cruelty.

What does holy look like when someone has been offended? Regardless of your opinion on the subject, holy looks like listening and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint and story.

What does holy look like for a church and her minister? It looks like an adequate salary for the vital role served. It means making sure they can afford quality health insurance for them and their family. It looks like good communication from and with the leadership. It means walking alongside them in their work for the Lord and not expecting them to carry the entire congregation. It means friendship, encouragement, and love.

In every relationship holiness looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s thinking Jesus and inviting him into every situation.

Church, it’s time we step up. We are God’s people. We know holy. Let’s start living it. The world is watching.

 

 

What You Have To Do

 

I received this note from a kid at school the other day. I especially like the second line. “I love God and Jesus so you have to love God and Jesus.” I can hear her attitude loud and clear and it cracks me up. This sweet, innocent child of God has some bad theology to sort out. But don’t we all?

I hope a kind soul gently breaks it to her someday that not everyone is going to love God and Jesus. I hope they go on to tell her that regardless of what others choose to believe about God (even choosing to live against God) doesn’t negate the way God expects her to respond to them. She still has to be kind to them. Still has to protect them, go the extra mile for them, feed them, visit them, walk alongside them, and help them. She still has to show them Jesus even if they refuse to see him because loving someone doesn’t mean accepting the choices they make, it means accepting the Christ and his wildly, radical call to love your neighbor.

I hope someone opens a Bible and shows her that Jesus died for us while we were still enemies so we have no excuse to exclude or mistreat ours. Maybe they’ll also show her the Gospels and she’ll realize that our Savior built a church on relationships not rules and regulations. Maybe she’ll strive to be a friend to others regardless of how or what they choose to believe. Maybe she’ll be so moved by the way Jesus loved, healed, and associated with sinners that she’ll eagerly welcome them and do the same. Maybe she’ll be so busy she won’t have time to protest, oppress, or ignore others made in the image of God.

I hope she chooses not to listen to some in the church when they say love is a nice idea but won’t work in the real world. Jesus certainly thought it would. I hope she sits with the outcasts and hears their story. She might find out they loved God and Jesus all along.

More than anything, I hope someone gently teaches this sweet kid that loving God and loving other is what we have to do and we have to do it in a way so genuine, others might even decide to love God and Jesus, too.

 

“I just want you to get me a Bible”

policiaHow many Bibles do you have? A quick survey through the bookcase in my office turned up more than 20. I can find almost any version I want on the Internet. And if I every need a new one, I can pick one up at dozens of stores here in town.

That’s not true for everyone. It’s not true for people who live in many other countries. My friend Tony Fernández, Herald of Truth representative in Cuba, tells this story:

Other drivers had signaled to me that there was a police checkpoint on one of the bridges. Sure enough, while I was still far away, one policeman began to wave me over. I quickly gathered up the documents that I would need to show him, but the officer said, “Please, put away your papers. I just want you to get me a Bible. That’s my life’s dream, but I’ve never been able to get one.”

Sadly, I didn’t have one with me, but I told him how to hear the radio program (Lea La Biblia / Read The Bible) and gave him our mailing address so that he could write in.

Every day I’m more impressed by the spiritual hunger of our people. I never imagined that stories like this would happen to me: an on-duty policeman asking me for a Bible. Incredible.

Yes, incredible indeed. In a Bible-rich country like ours, it’s especially hard to imagine a scene like that.

Just a few thoughts:

  • The fact that we have Bibles doesn’t mean that we read them. Don’t neglect what you have!
  • How do our life’s dreams compare with those of this man, who only dreamed of being able to have a Bible?
  • God is at work in many places around the world. Even as some societies seem to be moving away from Him, others move toward Him.
  • Pray for workers like Tony that choose to live in difficult situations because they see the good they can do.
  • Give when you can to organizations like Herald of Truth that provide Bibles to people in places where God’s Word isn’t easy to obtain.

What I Learned Rewriting The Bible

“This may be the first Bible a new believer owns.”

I sat stunned when I read these words just moments after I signed on to an incredibly refreshing Bible project called, The Voice Bible: Step Into the Story of Scripture. What had I done? Signed on to re-write the Bible? Well, kinda, sorta? What the what?

I know now what I couldn’t have known then; “re-writing” the Bible allowed me to read it better. Here’s how that happened.

In the Spring of 2001, my friend, Chris Seay, invited me to join a group of musicians, artists, poets, pastors, and story-tellers assembled to bring a fresh perspective to the Scriptures. On it’s face, re-writing the Bible seemed sacrilegious or impious or something. After all, the Bible is the Bible is the Bible, right? But upon further review, Chris’ grand vision was the same one perceived by faithful Christian men and women since the days of Guttenberg; that contemporary Christians and seekers would have a Bible which spoke their language. Chris sensed what many before felt, after a while, dusty, threadbare language needs repair for emerging generations. The drive behind The Voice Bible was just that simple; we weren’t re-writing the Bible, we were refreshing it.

The Word is Flat

If you’re like me, nearly every scripture you’ve memorized is tucked into your mind in the lofty but superannuated language of the King James Version. In fact, for some folks, the KJV isn’t merely a translation of the Bible, it’s the only Bible. One man told me, “If King James English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

The problem is, the KJV suffers the same malady as the NIV84, TNIV, NIV2011, RSV, ESV, and every other popular translation of the Bible: They are flat. That is, Genesis reads like Psalms reads like Matthew reads like Ephesians reads like Revelation. Because they are translated flat, we read them as flat!

In contemporary translations, each book of the Bible reads the same as the last one and the next one. And that’s a problem! It’s a problem because Psalms are prayers and songs which partly served as the hymnbook of the Jewish people. Daniel and Revelation are apolcalyptic. Paul’s epistles are, well, letters. The gospels were written for various purposes to different audiences and their authors were trying to accomplish different things.

When the entire Bible looks, feels, and sounds the same, we are prone to misread it. When my daughter reads Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, she knows it’s not the same thing as reading the Wall Street Journal or NY Times (and, yes, she sometimes reads those). Likewise, a Jonathan Franzen novel is different from an NT Wright commentary. Both types of literature convey truth, but we read them differently because we know we’re supposed to. However, we struggle to do so with the Bible because our translations are stingy with clues that might otherwise tip us off as to what we are reading.


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