Piper Explains the Classic View of Justification Versus N. T. Wright's View

Piper Explains the Classic View of Justification Versus N. T. Wright's View November 6, 2007

Copyright Tony S. Reinke, 2007
Today I will take you further into Piper’s argument where he explains the long-held position, which Wright denies, that God cannot simply ‘forgive’ the guilty, but instead an exchange between guilt and righteousness must take place:

An omniscient and just judge never “finds in favor” of a guilty defendant. He always vindicates the claim that is true. If the defendant is guilty, the omniscient, just judge finds in favor of the plaintiff. The judge may show mercy. He has it in his power to bestow clemency, and to forgive, and not to condemn the guilty. But not condemning the guilty would never have been called “justification” or “finding in favor” or “bestowing the status of righteous.”

Nevertheless, justification and finding in favor and bestowing a status of righteous are indeed what happen in the law-court of God when guilty sinners who believe in Jesus are on trial. God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). He declares them to be righteous, that is, to be not guilty of the charge. And the charge is: “None is righteous” (Romans 3:10). So, if the discrepancy between being found “guilty as charged” and being given the status of righteous cannot be based on clemency alone, what is it based on? (p. 76)

. . . for virtually the entire history of the church, the answer has been, with various nuances, that God either imputes or imparts divine righteousness to the defendant because of his relationship with Christ.

John PiperThis was the central division between the Reformers and Roman Catholicism. One of the reasons for this is that the law-court that Wright has described seems to demand it, if the judge is omniscient and just—which he is. Exercising clemency toward, or forgiving, a guilty defendant does not provide a basis for justification. Commuting the sentence of the guilty person merely because of clemency or forgiveness is not what justification is. And an omniscient, just judge does not say that a defendant has moral righteousness when he is guilty of having no moral righteousness (Romans 3:10)—unless there is a way that an alien moral righteousness can be counted as his.” (p. 77)

. . . the omniscient Judge does not merely show clemency or forgiveness and assign us a status of “righteous”; he finds in our favor precisely because he counts us as having the moral righteousness that we in fact do not have in ourselves. When the charge against us is read (“You do not have moral righteousness”) and the verdict of the Judge is rendered (“I declare that you are not guilty as charged but do indeed have moral righteousness”), the righteousness in view in this declaration is real moral righteousness.

I will argue later that this is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the guilty through faith alone. The declaration of justification in the law-court of God is not merely forgiveness; it is not merely the status of acquitted; it is counting the defendant as morally righteous though in himself he is not.” (p. 78)

That, my dear reader, is the Gospel. What better explanation of it have you ever read?

Book photo courtesy of Tony S. Reinke, The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. Used by permission.

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  • Tyler Allred

    It’s my understanding from reading and listening to N.T. Wright that he fully accepts that something had to be imputed/ imparted to us but that the imputation language would be better applied to the life of Christ as found in Romans 6. The actual courtroom language of justification/ righteousness has, according to Wright, a much narrower but no less important role but that it is not the best language to use when talking about “how one gets saved”… It seems like the argument is more around semantics… I think Wright makes a compelling case for how Paul uses the justification language but it also doesn’t seems like he then throws out the doctrine of justification that the church has upheld since Augustine battled with pelagianism… He seems to be arguing more that the fact that we used the term “justification” to describe our doctrine of “how one gets saved” has made us lose the meaning Paul gives to those words… I’m interested on your thoughts with this. Is it more a battle over semantics or is there true and serious discrepancies with the theology?