NT Wright and Justification as Re-Worked Election

The issue for NT Wright in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God is how Paul reworked and revised the Jewish doctrine of election, and to do so in a way that preserves God’s covenant with Israel and expands enough to include how Paul expands the people of God on the basis of faith in Christ. So, at the end of his long chapter, a chapter that focus on justification by faith, NT Wright summarizes and sums up what he thinks is going on in Paul’s mind when it comes to justification.

So, folks, begin here with what Wright means by justification (from pp. 1028-1030). First his definition:

1. There is the powerful work of the spirit through the gospel, which ‘calls’ people to faith. It is on this basis alone that people are declared to be ‘in the right’, the correlate of which is that they are, again on that basis alone, full members of the family, the people of Abraham, the people of the Messiah. This is justification by grace through faith in the present.

Now to the impact of justification: a new ecclesial community that expands Israel to include Gentiles.

Because of the Messiah’s death and resurrection, the ancient people of God has been transformed and its doors thrown wide open to people of all sorts and conditions, and the gospel message of Jesus’ scripture-fulfilling death and resurrection does its work of summoning people to the ‘obedience of faith’. The two events which Paul sees as tightly joined together, baptism ‘into the Messiah’ on the one hand and the emergence of faith on the other (calling God ‘Abba’; believing that he raised Jesus from the dead; confessing Jesus as lord), are the necessary and sufficient evidence that the spirit has been at work through the gospel, that this person has died and risen with the Messiah, that this person has the Messiah’s death and resurrection ‘reckoned’ or ‘imputed’ to them (Romans 6.11) and that this person has passed beyond the sphere where ‘sin reigns in death’ (Romans 5.21) and so is quit of any obligation to ‘sin’ as a power or a sphere. In terms of the argument of Galatians 2, 3 and 4, such a person is every bit as much a full member of the family, every bit as qualified to share table-fellowship with every other member, as the most senior apostle. (Paul has some wry words about seniority among apostles, but that is another story.) In terms of the argument of Romans 3 and 4, such a person is a full and proper part of the family which the one God promised to Abraham in the first place, though of course nobody had seen it like this until after the coming of the Messiah. In the case of such a person, the entail of sin which had run from Adam through the whole human race, bringing with it the threat of wrath and ultimate death, has been turned away.

Here is the story of justification:

The logic of justification by grace through faith thus comes full circle: from (a) the faithful death and resurrection of the Messiah, as the rescuing act in which the one God fulfilled his ancient promises by sheer grace, through (b) the declaration that those who (through gospel and spirit) come to believe are the Messiah-people, the faith- people, the forgiven people, the Abraham-people and back again (c) to the Messiah himself as the one ‘through whom are all things’. That is the initial, present, dramatically new divine gift in the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

It moves forward now to the promise of future justification through the quickening of the Spirit:

2. There is the unbreakable promise that, by the same spirit, all the people thus described will in the end be raised from the dead to share the ‘inheritance’ of the Messiah, the worldwide inheritance promised to Abraham. ‘The one who began a good work in you will thoroughly complete it by the day of the Messiah Jesus.’ It is the spirit who will raise these people from the dead, the spirit who indwells all those who belong to the Messiah (Romans 8.9).

This Spirit is a transforming Spirit (and here NTW disagrees most with the classic “you must be perfect” theology so therefore he can’t be talking about Christian realities, a view so prevalent among many Protestants):

So, among the advance signs that this will happen, we note that the same spirit enables these people to put to death the deeds of the body, to walk ‘not according to the flesh but according to the spirit’. This is how Paul has finally explained the otherwise unusual description of the people in Romans 2.7 who ‘patiently do what is good, and so pursue the quest for glory and honour and immortality’, and who will be given ‘the life of the age to come’, zōē aiōnios. These are the people who ‘do what is good’ and so receive ‘glory, honour and peace’ (2.10); they are the people who ‘do the law’ and so ‘will be declared to be in the right’.

He turns now to face the Protestant reflex on “works”:

As we saw earlier, the anxious protestant principle of never allowing anyone to ‘do’ anything which appears to contribute to any sort of justification has pushed exegetes into declaring that these solemn statements are either strange irrelevancies or, at most, the setting up of categories which Paul will then declare to be empty. But the close correlation of these statements in 2.7–10 with the similar ones in 2.25–29 (coupled with the fact that Romans 1.18—2.16 is a rather different sort of passage from what that older exegesis had imagined) means that we should read them as referring in advance to Messiah- believing people, Jews and Gentiles alike (2.10). They are then more fully described in the ‘new covenant’ language of 2.25–29 (where the focus is on Messiah-believing Gentiles, but the point is the same), and more fully again in chapters 5—8 and especially 8.4–17. There is after all no reason, except exegetical tradition, why the rhetorical flow of Paul’s argument in Romans should follow the chronological flow of an ordo salutis, though the assumption that this is the case has been so firmly planted in the exegetical and theological traditions that it may be hard to uproot it.

3. Between (1) the beginning of the work of the spirit and (2) its triumphant conclusion, Paul envisages a spirit-led life which does not in any way contribute to initial justification, or to the consequent assurance of final justification which that initial justification brings, but transforms the life of the person who has already come to faith. This transformation enables such a person to ‘live by the spirit and not fulfil the desires of the flesh’ (Galatians 5.16); or, in the language of Romans 8, to have the ‘mind of the spirit’, the phronēma tou pneumatos, rather than the ‘mind of the flesh’, the phronēma tēs sarkos. Such people will then ‘put to death the deeds of the body’; from a study of Paul’s own congregations we may conclude that he knew as well as we do that this does not happen automatically or easily. It is too shallow to call this ‘ethics’, since it goes way beyond either a deontological framework (discovering the ‘rules’ and trying to keep them) or a utilitarian/consequentialist framework (figuring out and implementing the greatest happiness of the greatest number) which the word ‘ethics’ regularly refers to. It obviously works quite differently from existentialism, which reduces ethics to ‘authenticity’; and to emotivism, which reduces ethics tos personal predilection or prejudice. It is better to speak, at this point, of the transformation of character which is such a regular Pauline theme:

We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, 4patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope. 5Hope, in its turn, does not make us ashamed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the holy spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5).

1So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. 2What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable and complete (12:1-2).

But NTW is sometimes criticized for his view of justification by faith, in particular, initial justification. So, on p. 1031-2 he defines what he means:

… What then does this initial justification mean? It means that, ahead of any transformation of character other than the bare, initial pistis which by definition looks helplessly away from itself and gratefully towards the saving work of the Messiah, this person is welcomed into the sin-forgiven family, with the badge of membership being that confession of faith and nothing else. The inaugurated-eschatological assurance which this welcome provides is thus both forensic (the verdict of not guilty’ in the present will be repeated in the future) and covenantal (full membership in Abraham’s family is granted at once and will be reaffirmed in the resurrection). The two dimensions join up in practical ecclesiology: the mutual welcome which Paul urges in Romans 14 and 15 is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.

Once we take into account the overall covenantal framework, then, we see why initial justification is so important. It is not just because of the need for ‘assurance’, in the terms of classic protestant theology, though that remains important. It is because of the need to be clear that all such believers belong to Abraham’s single family. Paul never forgot the battles in Antioch and Galatia.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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