Friday, August 7, 2009

Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision - N. T. Wright

Jump into a conversation on justification and God’s righteousness

Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 279

Many years ago, a Charismatic friend of mine said that he would never read a book by someone who was not baptized in the Holy Spirit. It was a sincere conviction, one I have thought of, when I realize how much enrichment I might have missed had I adopted his stance.

This is the first book I have read by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, Church of England (or Anglican church). Unless you have a keen interest in literature, you may not know that he has become well known in the Christian literary world for his many books and articles. If you are evangelical, and have wondered if anything good can be found in the Anglican church, you need to read N. T. Wright.

I thoroughly enjoyed the depth of scholarship and the masterly exposition of Scripture found in this book. I have heard evangelicals lament the seeming indifference today to doctrinal precision, but I found it here, even though some might disagree with Wright’s conclusions.

This book is part of a conversation between the author and John Piper, the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. It’s a rebuttal to Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. With the publication of these two books, the debated has gone beyond academic circles to the public arena.

Not having read Piper’s book, my knowledge of his views on this subject comes from Wright’s book. Wright is irenic and charitable toward his opponent (if I can call him that), and I don’t get the impression that Piper’s views are misrepresented. This is a civil debate, and as it says in Proverbs 18:17 (ESV), “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I find Wright’s views convincing, but this book may elicit another response from Piper and shed even more light on the whole subject, which would serve us all well.

As I followed Wright’s exposition and logic, I realized how inadequate my own study has been and the teaching that I have received. One might be tempted to think that only scholars can accurately interpret the Bible. But Wright comes to my aid on that point, noting, “The many-sidedness of Scripture, the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s mercy in answering the preacher’s prayers regularly enable genuine understanding, real insight into the love and mercy and purposes of God, to leap across the barriers put up by our faulty and partial understandings.” He goes on to acknowledge that, “We all live within the incomplete hermeneutical spiral, and should relish the challenges this presents rather than bemoan the limitations it places upon us.” This spirit of humility is found throughout the book.

One key difference between the two men is their understanding of what is meant by God’s righteousness. Piper sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which Wright counters as implying that “God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself.” In Wright’s view, “ ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture … when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people.”

This is where Wright’s analysis gets expansive and, in my view, thrilling. The way he tells it, God has always had a single plan to save the world through Israel. He “always intended to call into being a single family for Abraham.” Israel’s unfaithfulness created an obstacle to the fulfillment of this promise. But the apostle Paul tells us that through the faithfulness of the Messiah, God’s plan of providing a family for Abraham is realized. In other words, “the believing-in-the-Messiah people” are “the new reality to which ethnic Israel pointed forward but to which, outside the Messiah, they could not attain.”

Wright’s all-encompassing view of justification brings new relevance to passages like Romans 9-11 and others that deal with the law and Israel. Don’t think for a moment that this is replacement theology, the view that the church replaces Israel. On the contrary, in the second part of the book Wright examines every New Testament passage that deals with justification. He succeeds admirable in weaving the many verses into a coherent narrative of the “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” realized through the faithfulness of the Messiah. If evangelicals sometimes don’t know what to do with Israel, they will find help here. God’s plan remains unchanged. Jews and Gentiles make up that single family promised to Abraham.

One interesting difference between the two men involves the commonly taught idea of imputation, where, as in Piper’s view, Christ’s perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours. With Wright, God declares righteous those who are in Christ, but the result is a change in status rather than a transfer of substance.

Regardless of where a person might stand on these issues, this debate is worth following. This book is essential reading on the subject.
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