Notes on N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.
Chapter 7 – Romans
The biggest failure of traditional (“Old Perspective”) readings of Romans is the failure to include key portions of the letter in the argument. When read traditionally, the parts of Romans 2 that talk about the role of works, chapter 4 on Abraham, and especially chapter 9-11 are awkward appendages, perhaps seen as illustrative material at best.
Addressing Romans as a whole, Wright begins by clarifying that Romans 1:16-17 is a statement about the effect of the Gospel, not a sample of the content of the Gospel. The Gospel, for Wright, is about Jesus, about what God has done through him. The people who experience this work, broadly taken as “salvation,” are those who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
The most controversial part (for Reformationally minded theologians) of Wright’s account of justification comes in his exegesis of Romans. He refuses to ignore that pesky section in Romans 2 that speaks of the “doers of the law being justified.” Wright insists that justification has two moments – a present moment where our status as part of the people of God is entirely based on faith in the Messiah and a future moment where we will have to give account to God. The present verdict (“Justified!) anticipated the final verdict. Against the logic of Medieval Catholicism, carried over into Protestantism, this is not the logic of merit, of earning. Wright says “it is the logic of love.” (p. 188) The Spirit is the key player here. Wright says,
The pastoral theology which comes from reflecting on the work of the Spirit is the glorious paradox that the more the Spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through, to make free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-won habits of life, and to put to death the sinful, and often apparently not freely chosen, habits of death… [Paul’s form of synergism is] a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the Spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I am doing. (p. 189)
Paul’s discussion of the failures of the Jews in Romans 3 is not simply to point out that they, like the Gentiles are sinners. Rather, his aim is to show specifically that they have failed in their mission. Missing this is a form of de-Judaizing Paul, a common track in theology.
Even more than his willingness to include Romans 2 in his discussion of Paul’s doctrine of justification, Wright’s treatment of Romans 4 stands out. As I observed above, traditional views of Romans tend to see Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans for as a mere illustration. That approach marginalizes Paul’s use of Genesis 15 and the place of justification in that text. Abraham’s concern in that text is not that he is a sinner in need of salvation. His perceived problem is that God has promised to bless him by giving him a family – and here he is, getting to be an old guy, and he hasn’t had a single child. How can God possible solve this problem? Justification in Genesis 15 – and hence in Romans 4 – is about family. How is God going to get a family? Who can count as being part of this family? Do you have to be part of the blood line of Abraham to make it in? Paul, on Wright’s reading, emphatically emphasizes that family membership, counting as part of the people of God – i.e., receiving the status of “justified” – is by faith, not by physical inheritance. Through salvation coming to the Gentiles, through their faith in Christ, God’s promise to Abraham would finally be fulfilled.
Much of the confusion in current teaching on justification stems from a continued assumption that justification has to do with merit. While Medieval Catholicism spoke of the merit of the individual, traditional Reformation theology turned to the merit of Jesus. “We all know,” they seemed to say, “that salvation comes from being good enough. The problem is no one was good enough. So God sent Jesus, and Jesus was good enough. Through his obedience, i.e., his being good enough, he amassed enough merit for us. By faith in him, his merit is transferred to our account, enabling us to be accounted ‘righteous,’ i.e., ‘justified.’” Wright rejects, rightly, I believe, this whole train of thought. Legalism, or moralism, whatever, the form, is not God’s way.
Chapter 8 – Conclusion
A nice quote to end things: On the positive side – “Scripture forms a massive and powerful story whose climax is the coming into the world of the unique Son of the one true Creator God, and, above all, his death for sins and his bodily resurrection from the dead.” And on the negative side – “Any attempt to give an account of a doctrine which screens out the call of Israel, the gift of the Spirit and/or the redemption of all creation is doomed to be less than fully biblical.” (p. 250)