Thinking About Justification, part 2

Here are some thoughts as I prepare to compare John Piper and N.T. Wright on justification. They are in no particular order.

One of the cornerstones of the New Perspective on Paul is that legalism was not the defining characteristic of Second Temple Judaism or Pharisaism. Rather, the Judaism of that time was a religion of grace. Law was a gift of grace, keeping the law was grace empowered.

While I think the NPP was correct to re-emphasize the role of grace in pre-Christian Judaism, and to re-evaluate the Pharisees, Piper is correct in find an anti-legalistic polemic in Paul. In this context he is also correct in suggesting a variety of ways to be legalistic, some of which evade the NPP critique while also making better sense of the texts.

A second observation is that while traditional Reformation thought on justification is framed as a return to Paul and thus a stance against legalism, it is still predicated on a legalistic framework. While it is not possible for me to earn my salvation, or perform works worthy of salvation, salvation is still on the basis of works. These works simply aren’t mine, but Christ’s. The notion is: absolutely perfect obedience is required by the law. I don’t (can’t) do that, so I am guilty, condemned to hell. But Jesus can (and does) perform perfect obedience in my place. His obedience is then reckoned (imputed) to me by faith.

I think scripture clearly presents Jesus as the only non-sinner, the only one who perfectly obeys the Father. This perfect obedience, however, requires us to dispense with some parts of the law as merely ceremonial (like working on the Sabbath). The Jesus of the Gospels, while presented as one who is entirely righteous, is also presented as freely taking upon himself the authority to reinterpret the law and apply it as he sees fit. The easy way out is to say that since Jesus is God in the flesh he had the authority to do with the law whatever he wanted. His divine authority meant that his interpretations of the law were always authoritative. I can’t help but think that the way Jesus actually worked with the law is not conducive to legalistic thinking, either that of traditionally conceived “works righteousness” or of his perfect works earning salvation.

A third area, one that perhaps provokes the most thought for me, is the varying models of sin in Piper and Wright. Piper seems clearly right that the texts depicting the depth of human sin can most naturally be read as referring to human moral failure. Sin is something I do. I need forgiveness. In reading righteousness almost exclusively as “God’s Covenant Faithfulness,” Wright appears to be playing down this aspect of sin. In our era it is common to downplay personal sin and to see humans more as victims than as perpetrators. Here I am, suffering through the pains and troubles of life. I need salvation from all these evils and troubles. Even more, the poor and oppressed of the world need a savior, not because they are sinners, but because they are routinely sinned against.

Through twenty plus years of ministry, I’ve seen the reality of passive sin – the reality that we need deliverance from the sin we suffer from living in a broken world full of people out to get us. God desires our healing. When we talk about the salvation Jesus brings, we must see that salvation encompassing deliverance from passive sin. It is in dealing with passive sin that Wright’s account is strongest. His argument (much challenged) that Israel in Jesus’ day understood itself to be still in exile, and that “forgiveness of sins” meant – at least substantially – return from exile. While I think the evidence for his position is more implicit in the texts than explicit, it is not without support. One of the curious things I find is in the very first instance of righteousness being reckoned by faith.

When the bible tells us that God reckoned Abraham righteous because of his faith, what was the sin he had committed that called out for God’s justifying action? That’s the curious thing. Abraham’s problem being addressed by God doesn’t appear to be some evil or act of disobedience committed by Abraham. Rather, the situation is Abraham’s childlessness. Now you try going into a church and talking about Abraham and the “sin” of childlessness. The childless couples of the church will toss you out on your ear before you can even finish your argument. They’ve received so much advice and guilt over their years of trying to have children (or not trying) that they have high defensive walls built up. It’s much easier to lapse into theory: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. What Paul said in Romans was true not only in his own era, but also of Abraham, the father of the faithful. Though Genesis does not make much of Abraham’s evil – and shows no awareness of it on his own part – that is what was in view when God reckoned his faith as righteousness.

Sure. Maybe. I’m happier taking the text as it is, however. When we do that, we find God’s justifying act – at least in the instance of Abraham – to be an act of showing Abraham God’s covenant faithfulness by miraculously providing a son. There was no way Abraham could have worked or obeyed himself to the paternity. He and Sarah needed an act of grace, an overt act of God’s righteousness, if the covenant was going to continue beyond their generation.

So I reckon Wright to be correct in what he affirms: God’s righteousness does refer to God’s covenant faithfulness. But I also reckon Wright to be wrong if he claims this is all there is to God’s righteousness. As Piper so clearly argues, I am not merely sinned against, I am not merely a poor mortal against whom vast frightening forces of evil are arrayed. I am a sinner. I desperately need deliverance from those powers. But I also desperately need forgiveness for my sins. A merely therapeutic account of sin and justification simply isn’t faithful to the texts as we have them – or to the reality I experience.

But there’s another wrinkle here. Though I am a sinner, my knowledge of that fact is itself a gift of grace. Apart from God’s grace I’d probably know that I’m less than perfect, that other people find me offensive from time to time, that I am not always successful. But before I was a Christian, though I knew all these things, I did not wallow in a sense of guilt wondering who would save me, how I could possibly be forgiven. While I had been in church enough to be able to use the word sinner to describe myself in certain contexts, I didn’t really think it was all that bad. After all, I was a good kid. Not only was I good student, I was a Boy Scout. I obeyed my parents when I wanted to. I never got in trouble publicly. I was way better than most people I knew. Though Christian Smith’s term, Moral Therapeutic Deism, is of recent vintage, I think it would have described my pre-Christian point of view.

Tom Wright is clearly not a proponent of MTD. God’s righteousness is only covenant faithfulness, and this faithfulness excludes reference to making a covering for my sin, I fear that MTD is not too far away.

I’ll say more in a later post.

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

2 Responses to Thinking About Justification, part 2

  1. Kim says:

    Richard, I can’t hope to be as theologically articulate as you. However, here are some thoughts from my experience as a psychotherapist: I have been struck and humbled by patients who have come from chaotic homes, where the parents were living terribly immoral lives, and these patients have been able to step back and say, “I’m not going there with my life.” The ones who have been successful at “not going there” attribute it to somebody taking them to church, where they met the Savior, and He not only delivered them from the stain of sin, but from the life-track laid out for them. They may still have emotional issues (hence the psychotherapy) but their lives are vastly better than siblings without faith.

    Also, the more we know about genetic and environmental influences on behavior, the more we realize that it’s just tough to break out from a bad legacy. We truly need a Savior.

    If we excuse bad behavior, thinking “the poor things can’t help it,” we are not doing people a favor. God’s moral law is for our good, individually and collectively. However, while we can’t excuse it, understanding that those of us with a good legacy have an incredible leg up on those without it, helps us to have compassion on our fellow man.

    I really love my work at the state hospital. In order to do it, I have had to learn to not be shocked by anything people might do, though. Or at least to hide my shock. And, for my own sanity, it’s crucial that I also hold on to the faith that people can change. It might not happen that often, but they can.

  2. rheyduck says:

    Don’t sell yourself short, Kim. I think you’re doing just fine. Thanks for the insight.

    Yes, although people really are victims of the evil of others, it is a profound mistake (too often made) to reduce them to victims.

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