Having Our Cake And Eating It By Andrew Wilson

Having Our Cake And Eating It By Andrew Wilson January 9, 2010

Andrew Wilson concludes his guest series today, asking if there really is such a difference between Piper and Wright after all:

So Wright and Piper agree about most things. They agree that God is the centre of everything, that he has a passion for his glory, that he has a big plan to bless the world, and that this is ultimately accomplished – and God’s righteousness ultimately displayed – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They agree that the covenant matters, personal salvation matters, the church matters and eschatology matters. And they agree that Paul was passionate about all of them. But the two key things they disagree about, at least in this dialogue, are these. (1) What does ‘the righteousness of God’ mean? (2) What is reckoned to the believer: the death and resurrection of Jesus (Wright), or the death, resurrection and righteousness of Jesus (Piper)? That’s what this final post in the mini-series is about.

You could fill libraries with what’s been written about ‘the righteousness of God’ in Paul. Piper sees it as ultimately grounded in God’s commitment to uphold his glory; Wright sees it as amounting to God’s commitment to keep his promises in line with the covenant to Abraham (or, more typically, ‘covenant faithfulness’). Clearly, there’s no way you can resolve this one in a blog post.

But it’s worth throwing a few questions out there, just to stir the pot. Was God righteous before Abraham? Wright obviously knows the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis 12, but he sometimes talks as if it does. But what if God’s righteousness is more fundamental than the covenant with Abraham, even though it expresses itself through the covenant for almost the entire biblical story? What if God’s covenant is grounded in his righteousness, rather than the other way round? What if Wright’s case study passage, Daniel 9, links righteousness to God’s name as well as to his covenant – which would be primary? And what difference would that make to our reading of Paul, and justification in particular? (The answer may be: apart from Romans 9, not much. I might get lynched for this, but I think Wright’s view of justification could easily fit with Piper’s view of God’s righteousness, and vice versa.)

Imputation is more controversial. Again and again, Wright tells us that imputed righteousness is a confusion of categories, importing medieval merit-mongering into Paul. But Wright also affirms that the Messiah’s task was to offer God the obedience that Israel should have but didn’t (p. 83), that union with him means that what is true of him is true of us (p. 82), and that God creates the status of ‘righteous’ for all who belong to the Messiah (p. 180). In other words, the Messiah has obeyed God perfectly on our behalf, we are summed up in him, and so we receive a righteous status from God. Which is almost exactly what Piper means by imputed righteousness.

Now, if Tom Wright was to read that paragraph, he would scold me (very kindly and winsomely, no doubt) for misrepresenting what he means by ‘obedience’. For Wright, the obedience of Jesus is nothing more than his obedience to death and resurrection, and it is these things, and these things only (and certainly not his ‘righteousness’ or ‘obedience to the law’), that are reckoned to believers. But there is an irony here. In his outstanding Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright argued that the Reformers had a good answer to the question, ‘Why did Jesus die?’, but not to ‘Why did Jesus live?’ Now, however, the tables have turned, and Reformed writers are insisting that Jesus’ faithful obedience covers his entire life, while Wright argues that it is simply about his death. To switch books for a moment, a brief read through John’s gospel would surely suggest that Jesus’ obedience was not merely a question of lawkeeping, nor merely a question of dying, but of faithfully doing the Father’s will in everything, from incarnation to resurrection.

So here’s the question: if Jesus the Messiah has perfectly obeyed the Father’s will, and lived in perfect righteousness, and if what is true of him is true of us because we are united with him … don’t we receive his righteousness? Don’t we have his obedience, faithfulness and righteousness, as well as his death and resurrection, reckoned / credited / imputed to us on the basis of faith? And if we do, doesn’t that make more sense of 2 Corinthians 5:21 than Wright’s idiosyncratic take on it? Can’t we see Romans 4 as being about Jews and Gentiles together in God’s family, and 2 Corinthians 5 as being about new covenant ministry, without having to deny the foundation for both: the righteousness of Christ being imputed to sinners like us?

I have now used more rhetorical questions than anyone should use in a row, ever. But I hope you get my point. Tom Wright is brilliant, creative, insightful, empassioned, and (to my mind) undoubtedly right about God’s-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world. But I don’t think any of this is incompatible with the imputation of righteousness that Piper, rightly, sees as part of Paul’s gospel. I think we can have our cake, and eat it.


If you want to find out how Andrew has his cake and eats it, how the big picture fits with imputed righteousness, and so on, check out his book GodStories.

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