What I missed in the Justification Debate, Pt2
I remained confused for a few months. I found it hard to believe that such a titanic debate could simply come down to a misunderstanding of how Tom Wright used the word ‘basis’. There had to be more to it than that.
But what exactly that was escaped me, partly because so many red herrings kept popping up. For example, Wright’s view was always said to be primarily ‘corporate’ and Piper’s as ‘individual’ – but then both writers had clearly affirmed both, and Wright’s definition of justification spoke in very individual terms: ‘God’s declaration, from his position of judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin.’ Then I noticed another red herring: that people who weighed into the debate from both New and Old Perspectives frequently said that the other side was presenting it as a false dichotomy, and that we needed both Old and New (seen most bizarrely in the way that Wright and Stephen Westerholm both made this point to the other in their books on the topic, as if the other strongly disagreed with it; for his part, Wright pithily suggested that Genesis 3 needs the Old, and Genesis 11 needs the New.) Then there was the question of whether justification was about ‘how someone becomes a Christian’ or ‘how you know someone has become a Christian’. And so on. I began to despair of ever getting to the heart of why, despite apparent resolution on what seemed to be the central issue, they were still in disagreement.
Then I came across a paper Wright presented in 2008 at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, to commemorate Charlie Moule. He was addressing the question of how scholarship and discipleship interact – a great concern of Piper’s, as well! – and used the following example.
If it is getting about, for instance, that St Paul taught that there was no future judgment according to works, and if people in the church were beginning to get the idea that once one had been clothed in the righteousness of Christ it would make no difference whatever to one’s final state if one lived according to Christian morality or not, it might be necessary – this is of course a purely random example – for scholars to argue rather urgently that Paul really did envisage a future judgment according to works, the works wrought by the Holy Spirit but emphatically through the active and willing co-operation of the Christian (‘God is at work in you,’ wrote Paul, ‘to will and to work for his good pleasure’, Philippians 2.13), and for teachers and preachers in the churches to take this point and insist on it to the disciples who might otherwise be led into dangerous antinomianism.
It’s a long sentence, but it had an explosive effect on me. Suddenly – and I say this as someone who had already read about twenty books by each of them, yet still hadn’t seen it – the Wright/Piper justification debate took on a new level. I had been seeing the debate primarily in terms of Reformed concerns with Wright’s theology, and Wright’s responses. But in this quotation, I suddenly saw it in reverse, as if it was primarily about Wright’s concerns with Reformed theology. I knew there were Reformed writers who didn’t believe in a judgment according to works, but this had never been central to my understanding of the debate; it wasn’t what Piper had written his book about, so whenever Wright mentioned it (which he frequently did), I had assumed it must be to defend a view he’d reached for different reasons. But for Wright, the denial of a judgment according to works was a massive issue, both theologically, because it seemed effectively to remove the Spirit from the process altogether, and pastorally, because it led to ‘dangerous antinomianism’. So his understanding of justification – God’s declaration that someone is ‘in the right’, issued eschatologically in accordance with works, and now brought forward into the present for those who have faith in Jesus the Messiah – was an attempt to integrate future judgment and present justification, through the transforming work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. As such, it was both compelling to me, and (as it happens) almost identical to Tom Schreiner’s.
That really helped. So I can now, I think, see it from both sides. I can understand Piper’s concern that clear statements like 2 Cor 5:21 not be muddled, and that justification be clearly articulated as being on the basis of faith in Jesus, not works. But I can also understand Wright’s concern that to deny a future judgment according to works, and to leave people thinking that because they have Christ’s righteousness, the transforming work of the Spirit is irrelevant, is also to undermine the gospel. So, at a personal level, I’ve ended up with a rather odd sort of hybrid: I talk about justification in a way that sounds like Wright, imputation in a way that sounds like Piper, and righteousness in a way that (I hope) retains the strengths of both.
How very Hegelian of me.