N. T. Wright and Justification

N. T. Wright and Justification November 6, 2010

So, finally, the long awaited commentary on Justification by Tom Wright.  First, I want to say how much I agree with Wright’s central methodological thesis which is: “God has always more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word. … But if the light comes, there is no tradition so strong, venerable or previously fruitful that it should not be prepared to learn from it.” (p. 249)  I have been making that argument for years now in various articles and books and I have been rebuked by evangelical traditionalists as allegedly opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box of heresies and apostasies.  Well, my accusers won’t change their minds just because Wright is on my side, but I’m glad to have him there.

So what is all the fuss about?  As I read Justification I kept an eye open for THE central point of controversy between Wright and his critics (especially but not only John Piper).  It seems to come down to this (although there are admittedly several facets to the “new perspective on Paul” that do not all boil down to this): According to Wright, Paul did not teach an imputation of God’s or Christ’s righteousness to the repenting and believing sinner.  Wright especially rejects any notion that Paul taught an imputation of Christ’s “active obedience” (fulfillment of the Torah) to said persons.  He affirms, however, an imputation of righteousness by which he means acquittal as in a court of law.  For him “justification” means forgiveness and membership in God’s people.  He goes to great lengths to deny that he is suggesting any Pelagian or semi-Pelagian merit involved in justification.  It is solely by God’s grace through faith.  But the “faith” is first and foremost “the faithfulness of Jesus–the perfect covenant partner” and secondarily the believing person’s embrace of Jesus as the Messiah of God resulting in membership in God’s people.

I think Wright’s main point about justification is stated in nutshell form on page 206.  The passage is too lengthy to quote here.  In brief, Wright says that when God justifies a person he creates for that person a new status of belonging to the Messiah.  He does not, Wright argues, infuse virtue into the person (a la Catholic theology) or impute God’s own (or Jesus’ own) righteousness to him or her.  Rather, “What the judge has done is to pass judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the lawcourt verdict ‘in the right’.” (p. 206)

Now, of course, I cannot boil the entire book’s argument down to this.  But it seems to me much, if not most, of the book’s argument is aimed at supporting this thesis.  And this is that to which Wright’s critics most strenuously object because they inherit and hold dearly to a Reformed tradition that says God imputes to repentant and believing sinners both the “active and passive obedience” of Christ such that, in God’s sight, the justified person is regarded by God as having fulfilled Torah.

Another interesting point of disagreement has to do with monergism and synergism.  On pages 192-193 Wright scoffs at those who, in knee-jerk fashion, “shout ‘synergism’!” whenever someone (like Wright) talks about people making free choices with regard to their own salvation.  I will leave it to others to decide whether Wright’s soteriology is more consistent with Arminianism or monergism, but I detect at least echoes of Arminian theology in the long paragraph ending page 192 and beginning page 193.  (Please note!  I am not “claiming” Wright for the “Arminian side.”  I have no idea where he would place himself in this dispute and perhaps he would simply appeal to paradox rather than affirm either synergism or monergism.  But his statements about human free choices enabled by grace sound more Arminian than Calvinist to me!)

At this point I am reserving final judgment about Wright’s thesis.  I want to give it more study and thought.  However, I am whole heartedly in agreement with him that serious biblical study trumps tradition.  In such matters tradition gets a vote but never a veto.  And I find it difficult to consider this a matter of orthodoxy or heresy.  Wright affirms imputed righteousness on account of faith–Christ’s faithfulness and our grasp of that through believing in his death and resurrection.  The only difference that I can see between his doctrine of justification and the traditional Reformed doctrine is his denial of imputation of Christ’s active obedience.  For him justification is nevertheless a divine declaration about a repentant and believing sinner’s status.  It is not infusion of moral virtue.  Could it be that, in the overall scheme of evangelical theology (including both Reformed and Wesleyan perspectives on soteriology) this is a tempest in a teapot?  Wesley also denied imputation of Christ’s active obedience.  But, then, Wright’s critics probably consider Wesley less than fully Protestant.

"Yes, helpful. I, too, suspect that SOME of those who wrote the declaration has ulterior ..."

Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
"Please. stop it. Nothing I said here or anywhere would imply that I think God ..."

Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
"Having masculine qualities is not the same as being "male." I take you are either ..."

Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
"I am not opposed to laws against fireworks because fireworks can cause fires--and often do. ..."

Is It Time for American Christians ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hans Deventer

    Well, both Wesley and Wright are of course Anglicans, which to many on the Calvinist side, is pretty my by definition “not fully protestant”. Which in fact might be a good reason why they are right, for truth isn’t often found in the extremes.

    Always loved Wesley here, from his sermon Justification by Faith

    “4. Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgement of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man, to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture. “

    • I’m concerned by the common claim that Wesley denied imputation. I’ve written up an argument that he did indeed affirm the Reformed view of imputation here: http://www.mattoreilly.net/2010/11/did-wesley-deny-imputation.html

      • Matt,

        thanks for the thoughts. I read your blog post on the issue and thought you articulated the case well. Thanks for the thoughtful research.

        I do think the two points made in response (Dr. Olson’s and Hans’s below) are helpful though. To boot, (as you have obviously read) Wesley points out that this (imputed righteousness) is the same view he taught for 28 years prior (“The Lord Our Righteousness”II.6), which would have included the time frame when he wrote the “Justification by Faith,” sermon (even we selected the earliest and latest dates possible listed on your blog). thus it would seem we have to reconstruct a Wesley who saw no contradiction in the sermons.

    • A case can be made that Wesley later changed his view on the matter of imputed righteousness. In “The Lord Our Righteousness” (written 20 years after “Justification by Faith”), Wesley writes:

      Look through all the world, and all the men therein are either believers or unbelievers. The first thing, then, which admits of no dispute among reasonable men is this: To all believers the righteousness of Christ is imputed; to unbelievers it is not.

      But when is it imputed? When they believe. In that very hour the righteousness of Christ is theirs. It is imputed to every one that believes, as soon as he believes: Faith and the righteousness of Christ are inseparable. For if he believes according to Scripture, he believes in the righteousness of Christ. There is no true faith, that is, justifying faith, which hath not the righteousness of Christ for its object.

      • Yes, this is true. However, I agree with Wesley scholar Kenneth Collins (The Theology of John Wesley) that Wesley did not believe imputed righteousness applies to or covers sanctification. That is, Wesley was careful to deny that imputation of Christ’s active obedience means how one lives does not matter to his or her ultimate salvation.

  • Steve Roe

    Roger, I am fairly new to your site, but have already the theological stimulation. One question of clarification regarding the above article. Could you please flesh out what Bishop Wright means by imputation of Christ’s active obedience?

    Thanks so much!

    Steve Roe
    Sequim, WA

    • That Christ fulfilled Torah by the way he lived and that his perfect obedience to Torah is imputed by God to repenting and believing sinners.

  • While Wesley did indeed deny imputation in his sermon on “Justification by Faith”, which is usually not dated later than 1746, he does affirm the imputation of both the active and passive obedience of Christ in his later 1765 sermon: “The Lord our Righteousness.” I find it interesting that Wesley is commonly said to have denied imputation. The evidence would seem to suggest that this denial was a part of his earlier thought but that he changed his mind sometime in the 20 or so years between the writing of these two sermons to affirm the classic Reformed articulation of justification on the basis of imputed righteousness, which he understood as the active and passive obedience of Christ. Is there other evidence to suggest that Wesley went back to his earlier position after 1765?

    • Thanks for that information. I will look into it. If true, I think it would come as a great shock to many Calvinists who claim that Wesley was a semi-Pelagian.

      • Hans Deventer

        It seems to me what Wesley wrote in The Lord Our Righteousness isn’t really different from what he wrote in Justification by Faith. From the former:

        19. In the meantime what we are afraid of is this: — lest any should use the phrase, “The righteousness of Christ,” or, “The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me,” as a cover for his unrighteousness. We have known this done a thousand times. A man has been reproved, suppose for drunkenness: “O”, said he, “I pretend to no righteousness of my own; Christ is my righteousness.” Another has been told, that “the extortioner, the unjust, shall not inherit the kingdom of God:” He replies, with all assurance, “I am unjust in myself, but I have a spotless righteousness in Christ.” And thus, though a man be as far from the practice as from the tempers of a Christian; though he neither has the mind which was in Christ, nor in any respect walks as he walked; yet he has armour of proof against all conviction, in what he calls the “righteousness of Christ.”

        20. It is the seeing so many deplorable instances of this kind, which makes us sparing in the use of these expressions. And I cannot but call upon all of you who use them frequently, and beseech you in the name of God, our Saviour, whose you are, and whom you serve, earnestly to guard all that hear you against this accursed abuse of them. O warn them (it may be they will hear your voice) against “continuing in sin that grace may abound!” Warn them against making “Christ the minister of sin;” against making void that solemn decree of God, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” by a vain imagination of being holy in Christ! O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing! Cry aloud, (is there not a cause?) that for this very end the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, that “the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us;” and that we may “live soberly, religiously, and godly, in this present world.”

        When I read this, it seems our Calvinist brethern still have enough reason to be very concerned about Wesley.

        • Yes, I hope they continue to be concerned about Wesley. He was a prophet among evangelicals. What bothers me, though, is when they imply (as some do) that he was not really evangelical.

        • I suspect Wesley was not so worried about imputation itself (which he clearly affirms) as he was about ABUSES of imputation, that is as an excuse for continuing in sin.

        • Hans,

          I agree, when I read “The Lord Our Righteousness” I also find Wesley’s views on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as different than what you would find in say most Baptist churches. Wesley equates the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as simply the forgivness of sins rather than the accounting of Christ’s righteousness as ours:

          “5. But in what sense is this righteousness imputed to believers? In this: all believers are forgiven and accepted, not for the sake of anything in them, or of anything that ever was, that is, or ever can be done by them, but wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for them.”

          God be with you,

  • Jeff Kimble

    Agreed. Wright’s rejection of imputation certainly appears to be the lightning rod issue among his critics. What troubles me is that imputation seems to be an entailment of Reformed soteriology catapulted to the level of “essential doctrine.” Somehow if you disagree with imputation, then you hold to a substandard view of justification. Yikes! Without endorsing all that Wright holds regarding justification, in my view, imputation hardly rises to the status of a theological litmus test on our soteriological orthodoxy. I, for one, am unwilling to relegate dissenters like Wesley to the back of the evangelical bus.

    • Yes, but Wright does affirm imputation of righteousness. What he denies is imputation of God’s or Christ’s righteousness. The righteousness he affirms as imputed is simply God’s declaration of a sinner’s status as righteous in the metaphorical law court of heaven.

      • And this is the issue. What exactly is the righteousness that is imputed? For Wright it is only a status and nothing more. For the Reformed tradition it is a status but it is a status based on Christ’s real moral righteousness. For Piper, the imputing of Christ’s real moral righteousness is important because it answers the age-old charge that justification is a legal fiction. See ch. 4 of his The Future of Justification which is titled “The Law-Court Dynamics of Justification and Real Moral Righteousness.”

        I do get confused, however, when Wright talks about imputing a status. Maybe I’m just too Reformed, but it just sounds odd to talk about imputing a status.

        • It doesn’t sound strange to me. It happens every day in law courts everywhere. The judge declares a person innocent and therefore having the status imputed of being righteous (in-the-right over against the accusers). Whether the person really is innocent and in-the-right is another question. That may be doubtful. But once the judge has spoken (often on the basis of a jury’s decision) the status is definite regardless of what the actual case may be. I don’t see how Piper’s (and the traditional Reformed) view of imputation solves the problem of imputation as a legal fiction any better than Wright’s does. (Personally, I think both do it well because when God declares something to be the case it must be so.) The only way definitely to get around the accusation (in the eyes of those who consider imputation a legal fiction) is to say (as Wesley sometimes tried to say) that imputation always also includes implantation of a new “heart”–something the early Pietists emphasized.

  • Thanks very much, Dr. Olson, for this clear summary of Wright’s position.

    Dare I suggest a quote from Wright?

    “And when we bring the doctrine of “imputed righteousness” to Paul, we find that he achieves what that doctrine wants to achieve, but by a radically different route. In fact he achieves more. To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah.”

    Justificatin, p. 234

  • Thanks for your sanity of such issues. It is so easy to fragment and try to decide who is in and who is out. Having read your books, I have no doubt you are willing to rule something out of bounds if it is. But I have not found you itching to do so. It is not easy to keep consensus evangelicalism alive. Your project is worthwhile. While much of my trajectory has been Calvinistical, I have never been able to identify with the party spirit of the reformed movement as I know it. My background is the pietism of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I know what I saw and experienced there as genuine Christianity. There are a lot of people who want me to see this at best as an aberrant version of the faith. Just have never been able to go there in my heart.

  • I suppose that I agree with the concept that justification is merely the forgiveness of sins, if that’s what Wright is claiming. And I suppose that the forgiveness of sins along with the deposit of Holy Spirit makes us righteous.

  • Chuck Conti

    I think Wright tip toes throughout the book around the fact that he is advocating a position that has been put forward by Wesleyan-Holiness theologians in the past, though as usual, it comes marketed as something “new.” I really like Wright, but I get tired of the way his stuff is marketed as if it was new revelation.

    I think Dr. Olson is correct that the big issue in the argument comes down to the reformed doctrine of imputation, which was something that Wesley was attacked over in his day. Nowhere will you find mention in Wright’s book that he is following folks of a more Arminian bent like Richard Watson- “It is never said that we suffered in Christ, but that he suffered for us; so also it is never taught that we obeyed in Christ, but that, through His entire obedience to a course of subjection and suffering, ending in His death, our disobedience is forgiven.” (Institutes 2:215-217)

    I thought that a key quote from Wright, along with the one provided by Paul Adams above, was this one- “Paul has a different way, a far more biblical way, of arriving at the desired conclusion. It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection…… All that the supposed doctrine of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ’ has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric, on these terms and within this covenantal framework.” (page 232-234)

    • Perhaps great minds just think alike! I doubt that Wright is aware that his new perspective closely parallels (at some points, at least) Methodist and other Arminian soteriologies. As a historical theologian I find very little in contemporary theology that is really new. For the most part contemporary theologians reinvent the wheel–dressing it up in contemporary idiom. The one emphasis of Wright’s that I find relatively new is about Israel’s role in Paul’s thinking. Wright is not repeating dispensationalism or supercessionism. I’m still trying to figure that out.

  • Roger –

    Though I also shared this on the previous article, can I also suggest Andrew Perriman’s newest release through Wipf & Stock – The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. It is only about 150 pages, but quite academic.

    Whereas the new Pauline perspective is a challenge to much of western, reformed understandings of certain theological terminology in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Perriman takes the challenge even further, looking to firmly situate the book in its historical-narrative context. I look forward to sharing some thoughts……and questions for Perriman…….in a post next week.

  • Nathan

    Does the “reformed” view of imputation (the keeping of Torah righteousness from Christ) not work for Wright simply because the “NP” obliterates the reformed argument that Jews were keeping Torah in order to be saved?

    Another way to ask it, if Jews weren’t keeping Torah so “they could go to heaven”, then why do we need Torah righteousness imputed to us?

    Is this what Wright is working under?

    Or is my understanding of the NP on this point incorrect?

    • Except that, as I understand the NP, God has always expected people to keep the Torah but has always provided an alternative because he knows we cannot. Torah righteousness is imputed to us (according to Wright) IN THE SENSE THAT God declares us righteous AS IF we kept Torah perfectly because of Christ’s faithfulness. This is where things get fuzzy for me–as far as the difference between Wright and traditional Reformed theology of imputation goes. Does it really make any difference whether we say (theologically) that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us or that God imputes righteousness to us by declaring us forgiven (as if we had kept the Torah perfectly)? The one difference I can see it making is the perceived danger of antinomianism resulting from believing and preaching that at conversion Christ’s righteousness (as his active obedience) is imputed to us. SOME people interpret that as meaning that all future as well as past sins are forgiven in that moment. Wesley (for one) denied this. I wonder what Wright believes about it? Does anyone know? I know plenty of Baptists (even non-Calvinist ones!) who believe that the moment a person repents and believes all of his or her future sins are forgiven (as well as past sins). But that would seem to obviate the need for repentance after conversion. PERHAPS Wright is arguing this point–that his view is different from the traditional Reformed one in that (for him) God declares the repenting and believing sinner righteous but does not impute Christ’s active obedience to that person because that MIGHT mean he or she does not need sanctification. Is this related to the Lordship Salvation controversy? I’m just musing and wondering out loud here.

      • When I first heard about the NP and thought about its implications, my mind went to the Lordship Salvation debate. Is it the same issue but (the latter) in more mainstream evangelical/dispensational terms?

  • Nathan

    Thanks, Dr. Olson.

    While not having really drilled down on this particular issue before, I can say that as one who also comes from an Anglican “stance” in theological sensibility, that many of the prayers in the prayer book signal this idea of asking God to keep us and “bring us” to eternal life–which may strike some as strange since these are prayers of the Church and not of the unbeliever.

    I’ve never heard the idea of “loss of salvation” taught explicitly (in the classic sense of the controversy), since there is so much “covenantal” and “corporate” language around the idea of saving faith in our practices…but it seems to imply that there is the possibility of post-conversion sin inhibiting our relating to God in some kind of meaningful and possibly eternal way. Although, I’m sure that many of us Anglicans would cringe at the idea of Lordship Salvation (a la MacArthur)….

    Does this sound right? I too am just wondering out loud.

  • davey

    Wright does think that, in effect, all future sins are forgiven as far as security of salvation is concerned, though he thinks there are penalties awaiting Christians when their lives are considered in toto at the last judgement. He thinks that when Christians sin, they are expected to acknowledge their fault and try to do better, but there is only the one ‘repentance’ at conversion that means salvation is assured.

    The major contrast for Wright (which he says he finds in Paul) of ‘justification by faith’ is not ‘condemnation’ but ‘justification by being a Jew’. So, when one is trying to understand Wright on justification, the major issue is what Wright thinks (that Paul
    thinks) about Jews and Torah. From that, Wright derives his solution to other issues like imputation, so one cannot understand how Wright is thinking about imputation without appreciating what Wright thinks about the Jew/Christian issue.

  • Timothy

    I think two things are affecting NTW’s account of justification and both have some relevance to the issue of imputation. First, I think he sees justification as a statement by God about the believer who is saved rather than a statement that saves. So in Speech Acts terms, he denies that it is through justification, through our declaration of our innocence, that we are saved. In justification God is making public our innocence and is therefore as much about telling the people of God that this person is saved and therefore to be accepted as it is about welcoming the believer into His presence. Secondly, I think that he is very sensitive to the possibility that imputation of Christ’s righteousness actually distances Christ from us. If Christ’s righteousness is handed over to us and this is sufficient to justify us, we no longer need Christ as we have what we needed from him. Calvin safeguards against this particular mistake by linking imputation of Christ’s righteousness to union with Christ, prioritising the latter both in importance and in logic. What I mean by the latter is that it is by being in union with with Christ that we can have justification, not the other way round. But this makes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness more of a metaphor that must not be pressed too far than a fundamental doctrine. And it is a metaphor that is quite hard to evidence in scripture. So even if the doctrine has some value, it has drawbacks too.

  • Alan Cassady

    This has been and enlightening discussion and sent me back to Wesley. In His essay on the Doctrine of Original Sin 1751. Wesley seems to say, as Hans above, that Christ’s righteousness is imputed but not in the way many people think. Wesley says in effect that the effects or consequences of Christ’s obedience (righteousness) are imputed to us. See the 4th part of that essay in specific.
    Dr Olson, thank you for beginning this blog – it has been a tremendous help to me!