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

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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.

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