Friday, June 08, 2007

Piper, Wright, and Justification Part 1

I love both of John Piper's and N.T. Wright's writings and I also believe both of these guys are precious gifts to the church. Beyond this, I know Piper's upcoming book will do justice to Wright's view of justification even though they will probably and ultimately disagree because of their different views on "imputation of Christ's active righteousness".

I believe Piper's biggest problem with Wright's view of justification is his belief that works will some how "merit", "earn", or "be credited for" our final justification. In some sense, Piper is right to note this, for Wright clearly states that Christian good works will some how be "credited" for our final justification. Wright states

"What we are not encouraged to do is to draw up a checklist of things done and not done, to weigh them against one another and thereby to arrive at the final verdict. This suggests that Paul is being careful not to endorse the merit-measuring schemes that, despite not being at the covenantal heart of Judaism, nevertheless played some role in discussions of final judgment" [1]

"What is our hope and joy and crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus Christ at his royal appearing? Is it not you? For you are our glory and our joy.’ (1 Thess. 3.19f.; cp. Phil. 2.16f.) I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a swift rebuke of ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling’. The fact that Paul does not feel obliged at every point to say this shows, I think, that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done – though sometimes, to be sure, he adds a rider, which proves my point, that it is not his own energy but that which God gives and inspires within him (1 Cor. 15.10; Col. 1.29). But he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him." [2]

Add to this, Wright's open denial of Christ crediting his perfect obedience to Christians (imputation) and it seems we got a problem. Wright states:

What I do object to is calling this truth by a name which, within the world of thought where it is common coin, is bound to be heard to say that Jesus has himself earned something called ‘righteousness’, and that he then reckons this to be true of his people (as in the phrase ‘the merits of Christ’ [3]

In Piper's theological system, he also believes in the necessity of Christian good works at the final judgment, but he can describe these good works as "evidences" or "fruits" of truth faith and not something that "earns" justification because in his system, Christ's has already perfectly obeyed the law and thus "earned" and is the "basis" of the Christians' justification. Piper commenting on Romans 2:6-10:

(I)n general, there are two possible answers to this question. One says that eternal life would be based on perfect obedience if anybody had it. But nobody does, and so the only way to eternal life is by faith in Christ. The other way says that God never promised eternal life on the basis of good deeds, but always makes good deeds the evidence of faith that unites us to God in Christ, who is the basis of eternal life.

The other answer would say, it means that God does indeed give eternal life to those who persevere in obedience not because this obedience is perfect or because it is the basis or the merit of eternal life, but because saving faith always changes our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit so that true believers persevere in doing good. In other words, a changed life of obedience to God's truth (verse 8) is not the basis of eternal life, but the evidence of authentic faith which unites us to Christ who is the basis of eternal life. [4]

So within Piper's theological system, Wright will always be a "semi-Pelagian", no matter how many times he states that Christians are saved by grace. But it's important to note that in order for Piper to make Wright fit into his theological system, he needs to first prove that God requires perfect obedience from all men for salvation, which I believe is a very hard thing to do [5].

[1] Wright's Romans commentary pg 440

[2] Wright's essay “New Perspective on Paul"

[3] Wright's essay "Paul in Different Perspective"

[4] John Piper's sermon, "The Final Divide: Eternal Life or Eternal Wrath, Part 2"

[5] See "A Defense of the “Active Obedience” of Jesus Christ In The Justification of Sinners: A Biblical Refutation of Norman Shepherd on the Perceptive Obedience of the Savior" by Brian Schwertley


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back blogging Dan.

I must admit that I am still trying to wrap my head around all these theological issues that are popping up. Consider me surprised when I finally saw the difference between what Roman Catholicism teaches contrasted with Protestantism. Seems to me that the difference between truth and error (and heresy) is not all that different when given a cursory glance. Combine that with the generally low discernment in most mainstream churches, knowing the Truth is so vitally important.

Always appreciate your thoughts posted on your blog. My regards to you and your wife.



Stephen Leung said...

Dan, while it will be interesting to see Piper's critique of Wright (and whether he limits his survey of Wright's statements to older books or some of his newer (and apparently more refined) books, might it be possible that you are reading into Wright what he is not saying? My sense (and I may be wrong) is that you are highlighting (actually bolding) a portion of Wright's statement which is descriptive of Paul's 1st century milieu and not declarative of Wright's own view, and you are reading every use of credit in Wright's statements to mean that of forensic justification of sinners as opposed to faithful vindication of saints. In other words, I think the usage is similar to "justified" in the epistle of James. Also, it is akin to Jesus saying that some are "good and faithful" servants - when he is not meaning "good and faithful" with respect to earning forgiveness or salvation. Maybe you already realize the semantic range of these words, and I'm just not seeing what you are pointing at as the real antithesis between what Wright says versus what Piper explains in your quotations.

Dan Chen said...


Thanks for your comments. I don't think I am reading into what Wright is saying and I do believe these quotes are expressing Wright's views on works and final justification, but you can check both my sources and I would be happy to make any corrections.

I would also note that in all of my reading of Wright, he never ever states that our good works "merits" or "earns" (these words are very slippery) final justification, but he does say that a " merit-measuring schemes" does play "some role in discussions of final judgment" and "will count to his credit on the last day." as seen through my quotes (please check them if you think I am misrepresenting Wright). Therefore I believe that Wright thinks that works will have some role in our final judgment, and thus his famous saying that the final judgment will be based of the total life.

I think the real antithesis stems from the idea of imputation of Christ's active obedience and thus the requirement of a perfect obedience that earns justification. Again, it's important to note that both Piper and Wright believe that goods works are necessary and have some kind of relationship with the final judgment. But Piper can label these works as "evidence" because Christ has already fulfilled the law for us and earned our justification. And because Wright doesn't believe 1) the requirement of perfect obedience to the Law that earns justification and 2) Christ's active obedience being imputed to believers, Piper will always see Wright's view of "final justification based on the total life" as "Semi-Pelagian".



Stephen Leung said...

Hi Dan,

The full quote you provide is: "this suggests that Paul is being careful not to endorse the merit-measuring schemes that, despite not being at the covenantal heart of Judaism, nevertheless played some role in discussions of final judgment." It seems to me this means merit-measuring schemes played a role in Judaism's discussions of final judgement (beyond the pale of covenantal Judaism). This is what Paul is careful not to endorse. Hence, I don't think Wright is saying here that Paul is endorsing it (nor that he, Wright is endorsing it). It seems he is describing the discussion among varied voices of Judaism (which was not monolithic at that time - Pharisees, Saducess, Essenes, etc.).

I agree that Wright runs away from assertions of the "active obedience" of Christ being imputed to us. But, I don't think that, by itself, this means Wright sees us contributing to our justification (forensically). He is arguing against Luther's idea of the "great exchange." Hypothetically, Wright could still be thinking in terms of propitiation and expiation only. What do you think? For me, I don't know that denying "active obedience" automatically qualifies Wright as semi-pelagian. Nor, do I see from your quotes that Piper's excellent explanation of the role of our works as "evidence" means that he is arguing specifically for the "active obedience" of Christ. (In fact, it seems to me to be compatible with what Wright is saying) In other words, works as evidence and Christ's active obedience seem to me to be apples and oranges. Again, maybe I'm just missing it.

Dan Chen said...


I wish I could call you. I feel like I am not communicating very well. Anyways, I'll take one more shot.

Wright's quote is:

"What we are not encouraged to do is to draw up a checklist of things done and not done, to weigh them against one another and thereby to arrive at the final verdict. This suggests that Paul is being careful not to endorse the merit-measuring schemes that, despite not being at the covenantal heart of Judaism, nevertheless played some role in discussion of final judgment" [1]

To paraphrase, Wright is saying "we shouldn't think of the final judgment as a checklist of good things versus bad things, which results in a verdict based on the weighing of these deeds. This merit-measuring scheme is something Paul (and Wright) is careful not to endorse and neither is it the heart of Judaism, but NEVERTHELESS works played some role in discussions of final judgment.

I take this to mean that both Paul and Judaism agree that works play a role ( a "covenant nomism" role) during the final judgment but not a "merit-measuring scheme" one. Are you familiar with the New Paul Perceptive stuff?

Because of the above quotes and others like "final judgment is based on the entirely of one's life", I do think Wright believe that our works or life will be a determining factor during the final judgment. I personally do not have a big problem with Wright's view of final justification. I believe he rightly thinks salvation is entirely gracious because these works are given by the Holy Spirit. But this will probably not satisfy Piper, because he believes that final justification most be earned by someone, and if there is no imputation of Christ that earns final justification then Christian are left with their own sanctified works to earn it. That's why I think imputation and thus the presuppositional system of salvation (God demanding perfect obedience in order to earn salvation) are the great divides between Piper and Wright. I hope that is clear, if not I would suggest reading:

For Wright's view :

For Piper's view:

Thanks again for your thoughts,


Stephen Leung said...

Hey Dan, thanks. What you filled in helps. I guess I wasn't getting what you were getting at in the first quote, and was afraid you were saying Wright advocates a checklist. (BTW, I think I understand now, while I still don't think the quote establishes what Wright thinks in and of itself. But, I just might be dense and need to find the entire context of the statement.) Anyway, I know what you are not saying now.

As for the Piper quotes, I guess I just failed to derive his "presuppositional system of salvation." Thanks for explaining that this is how Piper would answer your last question. (I'm not familiar enough with all his writings to know that this is why he will conclude Wright's idea of final judgment to be semi-pelagian.)