Thinking about Justification

One of the books I’m reading now is John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. I’ve enjoyed Tom Wright’s teaching since reading his New Testament and the People of God about 15 years ago. Piper interacts with Wright from the point of view of traditional Reformed theology.

I’m working on a fuller response, but wanted to jot down some of my initial thoughts. First, one of the big differences between Wright and Piper is in their approach to the nature of sin. Piper’s approach is the traditional approach, sin is something I do as a sinner. I break the law, I am immoral, I offend and dishonor God, so I am a sinner. I call this active sin – the sin the originates in my action (or non-action, as the case may be).

Wright’s emphasis, at least in the passages Piper deals with, is on what I call passive sin, the sin from which I suffer. This is illustrated in Wright’s commentary on Romans 3:9 (p. 457 in the Interpreter’s Bible):

“In Paul’s usage, ‘sin’ refers not just to individual human acts of ‘sin,’ of missing the mark (the basic meaning of the word) as regards the divine intention for full human flourishing and fulfillment. ‘Sin’ takes on a malevolent life of its own, exercising power over persons and communities. It is almost as though by ‘sin’ Paul is referring to what in some other parts of the Bible is means by ‘Satan.’”

Sin is something that is not merely in me, but it is a malevolent force or power over against me, seeking my destruction.

While Wright clearly recognizes the reality of personal sin ( “‘sin’ refers not just to individual human acts of ‘sin,’ of missing the mark (the basic meaning of the word)”), when it comes to talking about justification, the weight seems to fall on the side of deliverance from passive sin, the sun from which we suffer.

I’m nojt familiar with Piper’s work beyond this book,  but I think it’d be fair to say he recognizes the reality of passive sin. But justification proper focuses on active sin, my own sin that I have done. This difference in focus regarding the nature of sin, causes Piper and Wright to share a common metaphor for justification – the law court – but end up in different places.

If the law court we have in mind is primarily a criminal court, a place where I am on trial for what I have done, then acquittal by a completely good, holy, and omniscient judge (God) won’t happen. The facts are simply against it. What happens instead, is that, guilty though I am, another takes my guilt upon himself, suffering my penalty, so that I can go free. This is Piper’s – and traditional evangelicalism’s – view.

If, on the other hand, we have in mind a civil law court, where charges are being brought against me or I am being attacked by another – in this case neither the holy God nor God’s law, but sin, satan, the world, etc. – then justification looks very different. In this case the primary issue is not my guilt, but the fact that I have seriously scary enemies coming after me. I need deliverance. I need someone stronger to come alongside me and vindicate me. This is the picture Wright has in mind.

What can we make of these approaches? I’ll share my evaluation in the next post.

This entry was posted in John Piper, Justification, N.T. Wright, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Thinking about Justification

  1. JAy. says:

    In terms of “justification”, I think that I have to agree with Piper. I think that the “civil court” interpretation that Wright offers is a valid theological point, but I do not see it as “justification”.

    The phrase I was taught is “justification” means “just as if” I never sinned. Valid as Wright’s depiction of humans’ need of protection from external forces of sin may be, that is not why I need justification. That is why I need strength from the Holy Spirit.

    God Bless,

  2. I’m late coming here–was on vacation–but here goes…

    It seems to me that we need some sort of view of sin that takes seriously both of these emphases. As I’ve been reading Benedict XVI’s “What it Means to Be a Christian,” in his first sermon, he has a section in which he more or less labels these two emphases Western and Eastern. The biblical witness is chock full of references, themes, and metaphors that bring in sin as my personal moral failure, societal moral failure, external force/s acting upon us, and some intersection of these. Perhaps a helpful metaphor for sin is substance addiction because there is a combination of personal participation in sin that brings the problem upon oneself and a truth about sin taking on/having a life of its own such that one can be said to be “in its clutches” and the like.

    This is an important question because it relates to our view of the atonement. To argue backwards, since the NT presents a range of meanings and images for the atonement (see Joel Green and Mark Baker’s “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” or the Circuit Rider magazine issue on what we preach and teach on the atonement that Green guest edited from a few years ago), our understanding of sin and justification must possess at least an equal range of meanings and images. This means that we may not be pressed into a forced false choice here between Piper and Wright. However, we would want to evaluate the bibilical validity and theological integrity of any view of sin, justification, atonement, etc. and make our judgments based on that.

  3. Richard H says:

    I agree, Guy. The difficulty seems to be when we identify a single metaphor or image as what sin (or atonement) is really all about. Piper says he appreciates Wright’s work on the broader aspects of salvation, but finds fault with him for missing the core, personal justification and forgiveness in the face of personal sin and guilt.

    I have another post in mind where I’ll say somethings along those lines, including suggesting a way in which Piper hasn’t moved beyond the Judaizers.

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