The New Perspective on Paul: A Raw Reflection (Part 4)

We wrapped up the previous post with a question: “What role do works play in our future justification?” We’ll get to that question below, but first, let’s throw the whole Piper/Wright debate on the table. In a nutshell: Piper thinks Wright has seriously revamped the gospel, and Wright thinks that Piper is reading too much systematic theology back into the text. I’ve been a little discouraged by the whole exchange, since both Piper and Wright have hugely impacted my life as a preacher, teacher, scholar, and Christian. I value them both for somewhat different reasons, and I’m a bit saddened to see two gems miss each other like ships passing in the night. But lets back up a bit. How does N.T. Wright fit into the New Perspective? Basically, Wright’s views about Paul’s view of the law and first-century Judaism were already crystallized right around the time that E.P. Sanders published his tome in 1977, and a few years before Dunn christened “the New Perspective” with his essay in 1983. However, Wright has just as many disagreements with Dunn and Sanders as he does agreements, which means he can hardly be the poster-child for the New Perspective. So you can love N.T. Wright, and not be New Perspective, which is pretty much where I fit in. There’s tons of things I love about Wright’s view of the New Testament. But I’m not “New Perspective” (whatever that means, anyway).

So what is it that’s roped Wright into the whole NPP movement? Here’s the gist:

First, Wright agrees with Dunn about the meaning of “works of the law” (e.g. Rom 3:20, 28); namely, that they refer to Jewish boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.). Second, Wright believes that first-century Judaism was not legalistic (though many old perspective proponents, including myself, would agree with that). Third, Wright tends to see Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians along the lines of Jew/Gentile relations, and not strictly how a sinner finds forgiveness before a holy God. The two streams of thought, of course, are not at odds; it’s usually a matter of emphasis.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot in common between Dunn or Sanders and Wright. The first two, in fact, are quite Arminian, while Wright is much more Calvinistic—despite what you may hear from his critics.

Now that we’ve got a running start, what is it about Wright that’s ruffled Piper’s feathers? There are actually 8 different issues, but for the sake of space and your precious time, let’s deal with 2 big ones.

First, Piper believes that Wright’s understanding of final justification is a serious aberration from the gospel. Again, Wright thinks that our final justification will be on the basis of the total life lived by the power of the Spirit, and Piper thinks this is tantamount to justification by works. But remember, Wright never says that our initial justification (the thing that happened at conversion) was on the basis of any ounce of good behavior. We were “ungodly” when we were justified in the past—Wright agrees with this, and so does Paul (Rom 4:4-5). But Wright says that God will judge all people according to works in the future (Paul agrees with this as well; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12), and this means that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future (not past) justification.

But Piper is not at all comfortable with works playing such an important role in our future salvation. Piper, however, does “believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (Future of Justification, 110).

Did you get that? Piper says that works are the evidence of genuine faith and will be necessary for our future salvation; Wright says that Spirit-generated works are necessary for our future justification.

Basis vs. evidence; salvation vs. justification. That’s the gist of one of the most blistering points of contention between Piper and Wright. And interestingly, at an ETS conference a few years ago, I heard Wright say that he was unaware that he’s been using the phrase “future justification on basis of works” and explained that he in no way was saying that Spirit generated works replace the work of Christ as the foundation for our past, present, or future salvation. Wright simply uses “on the basis of” as a short-hand for “according to,” which is what Paul himself uses (Greek: kata). What Wright means and what his critics thought he means were two different things.

I'm pretty sure that if they got together at a pub and worked this out in the context of good beer and brotherly Christian dialogue, I wonder if they’d really be that far apart. I mean, all Wright is pushing for is what John MacArthur trumpeted back in the 80’s with his whole Lordship salvation gig (that obedience matters for the final day), and no Evangelical would accuse MacArthur of denying the gospel.

Oh, wait a minute. They did. Um…this is awkward. Ok, let’s move on.

Second, Piper goes after Wright for denying the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In sum, Piper believes that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law was credited or “imputed” to our account, so that when God looks at us he sees the perfect, sinless, obedient life of Christ in us. Wright thinks this is fine theologically, but doesn’t see it clearly taught in Scripture. For Wright, “the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him,’ but the righteousness of Christ is not the sinless obedience of Jesus that he merited before God on earth, but that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection” (Wright, I Forget, p. 000).  And what is true of Christ is true of us by virtue of our union with him; as such, we received the righteousness of Christ (see Piper, The Future, 121-23).

Let this be clear, then. Wright believes that we have an “alien” righteousness; that our righteous status before God is not our own; that it has been given to us by God through Christ by virtue of his resurrection. I emphasize this because I’ve heard people accuse Wright of saying that our works constitute our righteousness and this is what vindicates us before God. But man, that’s a pretty butchered view of what Wright is saying, and if he did say that, I’ll tie the noose. But he hasn’t. In his own words, God’s justification is God’s “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 law-court verdict, ‘in the right’” (Wright, Justification, 206).

Okay, I have yet to stick my neck out on where I stand on these issues, so I’ll close by giving my own two cents.

First, future justification on the basis of works. This is a huge issue and to understand it we’d need to comb through some pretty tough passages. But in short, I think that Paul does believe that there will be a future justification and it will be “according to works” (Gal 5:4-6; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12). The phrase “according to” is desperately vague, however. Will works be the “evidence” of genuine faith (Piper and MacArthur) or the “basis” of the verdict (Wright)? I’m going to mildly side with Piper on this one, though as we’ve seen, I don’t think Piper and Wright are actually saying different things. The unilateral work of Christ, whose death and resurrection was a free gift toward the ungodly (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11) must form the foundation for our past, present, and future verdict—hence the word “basis” (see too Rom 8:31-34 in the context of future justification). Everything we do flows from that unconditional gift. So I’m totally fine with the word “evidence;” I’m even okay with the word “condition” to speak of the role of works on judgment day, since according to Paul our works are created and sustained by the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit. So when we receive a positive verdict on judgment day—our future justification—it will be God pronouncing “well done good and faithful Spirit, who took a pile of dung and squeezed a beautiful gem out of it.” This ain’t works-righteousness, friends. It’s God being well-pleased with his own work in our lives.

Second, imputed righteousness. I’m going to side with Wright on this one. As much as Piper’s view makes some theological sense, I just don’t see it in the text. Piper sees it everywhere—in Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:6-9. But it just isn’t there. Paul never explicitly says that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law and credited this obedience to our account. And plus, this seems to assume a covenant of works (you theologians know what I’m talking about) that I don’t see in Scripture either.

In any case, what matters most for me is that the righteousness that vindicates us before God is not our own. It comes from Christ, who is inherently righteous (he didn’t need to earn it through obedience the law), and is given to us freely by virtue of his death and resurrection—this seems to be exactly what Paul says in Romans 4:25 and 5:18-19.

There’s much more I can say, but let me just remind us that the whole debate about the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a New Perspective thing. Neither Sanders nor Dunn made it a big deal, and Wright sort of mentioned it in passing in 1997, which whet the swords of his critics.

Ya’ll sick of this New Perspective series yet? Hang in there. We’ve got one more post, where I’ll lay out my main contention with the New Perspective on Paul.