Friday, July 24, 2015

N.T. Wright and Pauline Justification

Editor's Note: The following paper was prepared by Greenville Seminary student Joshua Hinson for the class "Christ and Salvation."

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By Joshua Hinson


The saying is attributed to Martin Luther that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. Certainly the Protestant church has stood with Luther on the issue for nearly 500 years. The doctrine of justification is found prominently in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Luther wrestled with Paul in Romans and Galatians to understand justification, and John Calvin wrote commentaries on all of Paul’s epistles. Calvin and the Reformed followed Luther in defining justification, a definition succinctly stated by the Westminster divines: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Answer 33).

The official doctrine of justification in the Roman Catholic Church was not codified until the Council of Trent, which met in three separate periods from 1545-1563. The canons of the Council of Trent condemned the views of the Protestants, and its decrees set forth its doctrine of justification. Instead of an imputed righteousness, justification for Rome is the imparting of an infused righteousness which begins at baptism and is increased throughout the lives of those who continue in Rome’s sacramental system.


In the 20th century, certain scholars began to question whether Paul had been misunderstood by both sides. Men such as W.D. Davies, Krister Stendahl, and E.P. Sanders provided a new perspective on the Apostle Paul, reconstructing his writings on the basis of Paul’s background. The conclusion of these scholars was that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace — not of works-righteousness, which is apparent in Paul’s letters. In 1948, W.D. Davies published Paul in Rabbinic Judaism, claiming that Paul’s conversion had everything to do with recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah but nothing to do with moving from a religion of works-righteousness to a religion of grace. Stendahl postulated that the Western church had been radically introspective. Augustine was the source of the perversion of Paul in the Western Church, which led to an overemphasis on the individual’s standing with God, and thus the problem of Luther’s conscience. Sanders contributed to the study of Jewish religion as it existed from 200 B.C. - 200 A.D. and published his findings in Paul in Palestinian Judaism in 1977.  For the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) advocates, the question then of Romans is not (as Sinclair Ferguson so helpfully notes) how do I get rid of my guilty conscience, but how is God righteous? These works set the stage for later contributors such as James Dunn and N.T. Wright.

Although these works build upon one another and it is more proper to refer to the New Perspectives, the new studies on Paul in the Second Temple context set forth the following: Essentially, the Christian Gospel was the same as Paul’s Judaism. Paul’s conversion (or calling) is a shift from identity with Judaism to identity with Jesus the Messiah. Paul was not going from a religion of works to a religion of grace. What Paul found wrong with Judaism was not that it sought to establish its own righteousness through works, but it failed to recognize the new identification of the people of God — Jew plus Gentile — in Jesus the Messiah. The boundary markers, which Dunn (who coined the term New Perspective on Paul) says were circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary laws, have been redrawn. The new badge of covenant membership is faith in Jesus Christ. Luther saw in Paul what he faced in his own day. He was Paul, and the Catholic Church was the Judaizers. NPP proponents would say that Paul was misunderstood because his context was misunderstood. Ferguson describes the view this way:

This means that the apostle Paul was not converted from a strong pursuit of works righteousness in which by God’s grace he was brought to a deep conviction of sin and looked to find Jesus Christ as his savior. Rather, what it means is, Paul always believed in salvation by grace, his only problem was, he didn't see the significance of Jesus the Messiah and what that did with the boundary markers of which the Jews were so proud.[i]


Norman Tom “N.T.” Wright might properly be called the great popularizer of the NPP. He is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and widely published at both the academic and popular levels. In fact, part of the difficulty with getting a grasp on Wright is the inability to keep up with the speed of his pen. He has now written more than anyone else in history on the Apostle Paul, according to a 2014 Christianity Today article.[ii] As a conservative scholar (although not an inerrantist) and apologist, Wright has defended the reliability of the New Testament, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and historic Trinitarian Orthodoxy. He also sees himself in the Calvinistic tradition, which makes him attractive to Reformed Christians. Though not opposed to the term “New Perspective on Paul,” Wright writes in what he calls a “fresh perspective” saying “there are probably almost as many ‘New Perspective positions as there are writers espousing it – and that I disagree with most of them.”[iii] Though he believes that both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation “got it wrong” on the issue of justification — that Paul does not mean by justification either an imputed or imparted righteousness, he sees himself as carrying on the Reformation principle of sola scriptura:

First, as to aim and method. When I began research on Paul, thirty years ago this autumn, my aim was to understand Paul in general and Romans in particular better than I had done before, as part of my heartfelt and lifelong commitment to scripture, and to the sola scriptura principle, believing that the better the church understands and lives by scripture the better its worship, preaching and common life will be. I was conscious of thereby standing methodologically in the tradition of the reformers, for whom exegesis was the lifeblood of the church, and who believed that scripture should stand over against all human traditions. I have not changed this aim and this method, nor do I intend to. Indeed, the present controversy, from my own point of view, often appears to me in terms of a battle for the Reformers aims and methods – going back to scripture over against all human tradition – against some of their theological positions (and, equally, those of their opponents, since I believe that often both sides were operating with mistaken understandings of Paul). I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many of the others would tell us to read scripture afresh, with all the tools available to us – which is after all what they did – and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and I believe I am honouring them thereby.[iv]     

So what is Wright’s contribution to the New Perspective? To understand Wright, it is helpful to consider his theology in general, and then to state particulars (story vs. logic). Like those who have gone before him, he understands Second Temple Judaism to be fundamentally a religion of grace, and Israel as central in the story of how God will restore the world from exile and bring both Jew and Gentile back into the presence of God. The problem of exile began with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden. The answer to exile is “For God so loved the world that he gave Abraham.”[v] Israel is the solution to the problem, although this is a task that Israel itself cannot do. Israel has had the misfortune of its own exile, and though in the Promised Land, remains in exile under Roman oppression when, in the fullness of time, God sends forth his Son (Gal. 4:4). In Jesus, a new exodus takes place. The problem of exile, and the question of how God will be faithful to Israel, is answered in Jesus Christ. What God does for Jesus by raising him from the dead, and vindicating him, he will also do for Israel. The people of God are redefined from those who wear the badges of Judaism to those who recognize Jesus as Lord and participate in the new exodus by being united to Christ in his death and resurrection through their own baptism.[vi]

Particularly, Wright gives five points which, according to him, are crucial in understanding Paul: Gospel, righteousness of God, eschatological judgment according to works, ordo salutis, and justification.[vii]


Wright defines the Gospel as follows: “The gospel is not ‘you can be saved, and heres how; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’” It is the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore a royal summons to allegiance and obedience. When this message is proclaimed, the Spirit works, and people confess that Jesus is Lord (I Cor. 12:3). This is the obedience of faith.

Righteousness of God

The term δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ  (dikaiousune theou “righteousness of God”), according to Wright, has a threefold background: covenant, law court, and eschatology. The righteousness of God demonstrates God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel, how he would fulfill his promises to his people. It is also the forensic pronouncement from the judge declaring whether a plaintiff or defendant is vindicated in the court of law. It is of importance to note here that although Wright concedes the forensic use of the term he denies the Protestant doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ to the believer in justification.

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom….To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works.[viii]

The people of God do have a status of righteousness, but as Wright understands it, it is not that the merits of Christ are imputed to them, but that they have the same verdict as Jesus; by faith in him they have entered the story and are vindicated in his vindication, the sign of which is his rising from the dead.
The third part of Paul’s usage of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is eschatological. This is to say, in the sense of Romans 1:17, the faithfulness of God has been revealed in Jesus. This is how he will keep his covenant faithfulness.

Eschatological Judgment According to Works

Wright has expressed his disappointment with the way (according to him) Reformed authors have avoided the theme in Paul that eschatological judgment will be “according to works.” He references Romans 2:13; 14:10-12; I Corinthians 3:10-15; and 2 Corinthians 5:10 as important texts. There is then, in Wright, a two-fold understanding of justification: justification in the present according to faith, and final justification which is according to works. The former concerns covenant membership; the latter, covenant obedience.

Ordo Salutis

In keeping with his claim to hold to Scripture above any tradition, even the most venerable, Wright takes issue with what he believes to be the traditional Protestant ordo salutis, the  attempt to chronologically order the application of redemption. He says that Protestants have equated justification with conversion while Romans 8:29-30 places justification after conversion, or calling.[ix]


What then is Pauline justification, according to Wright, if it is not conversion itself or the establishing of a salvific relationship between God and the individual? Present justification is “God’s declaration that certain persons are members of the covenant people, that their sins have been dealt with.”[x] Present justification is by faith alone, and not by works of the law (Rom. 3:24, 27; Gal. 2:16). The works of the law are those “works” which made the Jewish/Gentile distinction, namely circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary laws. These were the badges of Jewish identity through which the people of Israel sought to be justified — not as a meritorious standing, but as boundary markers for the people of God. Thus, the problem with Paul’s kinsman according to the flesh who sought to “establish their own righteousness” (Rom. 10:3) was not that they thought their law-keeping could earn them a right standing with God, but that they failed to be reconstituted in Jesus the Messiah as the people of God through the new badge of identity for both Jew and Gentile — faith in Jesus Christ which enters the new exodus via baptism. Justification then, in the present, is not a soteriological concern, it is ecclesiological. It’s not about how one gets in, but the declaration that one is in — in the covenant community.
Future justification, on the other hand, is the final verdict. Upon what is this based? The “doing” of Torah, for it is not the hearers of the law who will be justified but the doers of the law (Rom. 2:13). The term “covenantal nomism” is appropriate here. Paul’s understanding of doing the law according to Romans 8:1-4 and 10:5-11 is Spirit empowered obedience. “Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance.”[xi]


There is much to appreciate in N.T. Wright. His scholarly work to uphold the New Testament as historically reliable literature is certainly helpful to the church. Those in Reformed circles can appreciate his approach to the Scriptures in a covenantal framework and his emphasis on the redemptive historical story of Israel finding its terminus in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Sinclair Ferguson says, “New Perspective on Paul writers say many good things that have little or nothing to do with justification. Truth is truth wherever we find it.”[xii]    
Guy Waters, in Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, notes that Wright’s emphasis on story gives him “a predisposition against conceiving of the relationship of God and man in vertical terms. Rather, Wright is inclined to understand that relationship in essentially horizontal categories.”[xiii] Sin is redefined in this way as well. “In biblical thought, sin and evil are seen as terms of injustice — that is, of a fracturing of the social and human fabric.”[xiv] This way of redefining sin fits into the New Perspective’s claim that the Reformers misunderstood Paul on justification. NPP proponents claim that Luther read Paul anachronistically in Romans and Galatians. They understood the Jews to be “Proto-Pelagians, trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in order to be good enough for God and to earn ‘works-righteousness.’”[xv] They read the New Testament through the lens of the current issues of their day, and thus have misread Paul. Instead, the Second Temple climate was not a religion of works-righteousness. The Jews weren’t so much concerned with how they would be right with God as with how God would fulfill his promises to them. However, Wright by his own admission says there is continuing debate regarding the Jewish context.
When we examine the Pauline corpus, and also the New Testament as a whole, we find that there are soteriological questions which would contradict Wright’s thesis concerning justification. Paul expresses his concern for righteousness for both himself and others as a standing before God. In Philippians 3:3-11 Paul likens his previous life as a Pharisee as his “confidence in the flesh.” Wright would have the reader understand Paul as having a true reason to boast under the doing of Torah, but Paul sees it as his former “confidence” for righteousness that is “in the flesh,” which is used negatively throughout the New Testament (Jn. 6:63; Rom. 8:8). His confidence for righteousness is no longer his own that comes from the law (μὴ ἔχων ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου) but that which comes from God through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9). To say that present justification is merely the declaration that one is part of the people of God doesn’t go far enough in this case, and neither does it in the case of the rich young ruler or Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector.
Paul is also concerned for his “kinsman according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3) who have sought to establish their own righteousness (Rom. 10:3). His desire for them is that they be “saved,” which in earlier parts of Romans is salvation from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). It is also worth noting that God’s revealing of his righteousness in Romans may also refer to the revelation of his wrath, not merely his covenant faithfulness (Rom. 1:17-18). “Righteousness may also be exercised in condemnation, not only salvation.”[xvi] Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot be reduced to mere theodicy.[xvii] God’s faithfulness to Israel is questioned and answered in the letter, but it is the declaration of salvation from the wrath of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification, then, cannot be lumped in with ecclesiology. Ferguson remarks that “in no lexicon does dikaioo find a communal context.”[xviii] In this we also find that Wright’s definition of the gospel is incomplete — that “The gospel is not ‘you can be saved, and heres how; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord. Its not a way of salvation open to all but the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead.” The Gospel is indeed the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from the dead, but the apostle also defines that which is of first importance is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3). 
Although Wright concedes the forensic use of dikaiousune, the declaration from God that the believer in Jesus is righteous, he fails to provide the grounds on which this righteousness is based. Somehow, though loosely acknowledged, this declaration is connected to Christ’s vindication in his resurrection. God will be faithful to Israel — and now non-Israelites who believe in Jesus as well — in the same way that he was faithful to Jesus. He denies, though, any imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. The Reformed doctrine of justification holds that, not only is sin pardoned, but Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer through faith alone. Justification then, as Wright would fear many evangelicals believe, does not come about because of faith in the doctrine of justification. Neither is faith the grounds, but the instrument through which one receives the righteousness of Christ. Protestants, since the Reformation, have understood this to be Paul’s — and the Bible’s — doctrine of justification.
The righteousness in which Paul anchors his hope in Philippians 3, contrary to his own righteousness gained in the flesh, is a righteousness that comes from God through faith in Christ. Paul also speaks of this righteousness that comes from God in Romans 3 and 4. It is “unto those who believe” (3:22), as a gift of God’s grace (v. 24) which is grounded on the propitious death of Jesus (v. 25). What Paul means in Romans 3 concerning Jews and Gentiles isn’t how they are reconciled to one another (although this is nonetheless important), but how they are both reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Paul uses Abraham and David to give both positive and negative Old Testament illustrations concerning imputation (4:3, 7). He clearly contrasts the righteousness which is by faith with that which is by works (4:4-5).
This idea of imputation isn’t as minor in Paul as Wright would have his readers believe. In Romans 5, Paul tells the story in the tale of the two Adams. Just as in Adam all are at enmity (or to use Wright’s language “exile”) so in Christ are all in him reconciled. Again, the nature of the reconciliation is vertical, bringing justification (5:16) but through the obedience of Christ (5:19). The contrast is between death and eternal life (5:21), and reconciliation means that we enemies have been saved from the wrath of God, being justified by the blood of Christ (5:9). Waters comments, “Wright has little to say in his ‘Romans’ commentary about this important verse.”[xix] One more very important passage to consider is 2 Corinthians 5:21. Wright’s interpretation is a stretch at best. He believes that “us” refers to the apostles who were made to be God’s instruments of reconciliation. Again, the reconciliation Paul refers to is vertical in nature, and the grounds for the sinner’s reconciliation is in Christ who was made to be sin for us “that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the great exchange of the Gospel, that Christ is punished in the place of sinners, having their sins imputed to him, that they might receive his righteousness. If one adopts Wright’s scheme, it is difficult to make sense of Paul’s declaration that God justifies the ungodly in Romans 4:5, because according to Wright justification is the declaration of those who are already in. Paul certainly can’t refer to final justification in such a two-tiered system that is based on covenant faithfulness.
So what about future justification? Reformed theologians confess an open acknowledgment and acquittal of believers at the final day.[xx] But on what is this based? Paul declares in Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s verdict is final and secure for those who are in Christ.  Justification is a link in the unbreakable chain of redemption from foreknowledge to glorification (Rom. 8:29-30). The usual proof text used to indicate a future justification by works is Rom. 2:11-16. This text refers to those who would seek to be justified by the works of the law, while Paul one chapter later declares the utter impossibility of anyone being justified by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20). Some of the Reformed hold that this passage, along with 2 Cor. 5:10, is a judgment reserved for only unbelievers. However, this is not the opinion of all. Anthony Burgess says, “But there are some learned and Orthodox Writers, that do admit of a first and second Justification, but not in the popish sense, they utterly abhor that, yet they affirm a first and second Justification.”[xxi] Those to whom Burgess refers are men such as Thomas Manton and Thomas Goodwin. Their doctrine of “double-justification” is not a meritorious judgment according to the believer’s own righteousness, but that all without exception will be judged according to their works. For the Christian who has trusted in Christ alone for salvation, his good works will vindicate his profession (James 2:14-26), and being accepted in Christ, God will therefore accept and reward his works, though (in the Words of Westminster Confession Chapter 9) they be accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.[xxii]
It seems that (at least in part) Wright’s perspective is a reaction against a forenso-centric evangelicalism, where the Gospel is equated with justification. Even in some Reformed circles, sanctification is merely said to be “getting used to one’s justification.” The new covenant promise of righteousness is two-fold; both the pardon of sins (Jer. 31:34) and the inward writing of the law on the renewed hearts of God’s people, causing them to walk in his statutes (Jer. 31:33; Ez. 36:26-27). This is why Calvin’s duplex gratia is so helpful. God provides his people with a forensic righteousness imputed to them in justification and an ontological righteousness by infusing grace into them in sanctification.[xxiii] Their works, then, are not meritorious, but produced by God’s Spirit and accomplished through a heart that has been purified by faith. It is God who is at work in the believer to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil 2:13). Their works are accepted and rewarded for the sake of Christ, in whom they receive righteousness and sanctification (I Cor. 1).
N.T. Wright’s reconstruction of justification has significant negative consequences for Protestantism. The view depends heavily on the background of Paul’s letters, instead of (to use Wright’s own words) what St. Paul really said. It redefines the “works of the law” in Paul’s writings from that which man was doing for acceptance with God to mere boundary markers of those who are “in.” Most significantly, Wright’s view transfers justification from soteriology to ecclesiology, making the primary concern horizontal and not vertical.

[i] Sinclair Ferguson, The New Perspective on Paul. Fergusons lecture is extremely helpful to understanding the position and history of NPP.

[ii] Jason Byassee, Surprised by N.T. Wright. Christianity Today. April 8, 2014.

[iii] N.T. Wright, New Perspectives on Paul. 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 2528 August 2003.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Byassee, Surprised by N.T. Wright.

[vi] Wright, New Perspectives.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 98.

[ix] Wright, New Perspectives.

[x] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives On Paul: a Review and Response (Phillipsburgs, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 132.

[xi] Ibid., 133.

[xii] Ferguson, New Perspective on Paul.

[xiii] Waters, 121.

[xiv] Ibid., 125.

[xv] Ibid., 129.

[xvi] Ferguson, New Perspectives.

[xvii] Ibid. Ferguson calls E.P. Sanders view of Romans a theodicy.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Waters, 134.

[xx] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection? A. At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God, to all eternity.

[xxi] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 789.

[xxii] Ibid., 797.

[xxiii] Westminster Larger Catechism Q.7.7 Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ;in sanctification his Spirit infuses grace, and enables to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued:the one does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.