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.