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The Future of Justification – A Review by Douglas Kuiper

Author ,
Category Book Reviews
Date January 13, 2009

The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright
By John Piper
Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007
239 pp, paperback
ISBN: 978 1 58134 964 1

To the numerous books that respond to N. T. Wright’s heretical ideas, John Piper, well known pastor at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, adds this.

The title, and especially the word ‘future’ in it, has a two-fold significance. First, it indicates that the book deals with the future of the doctrine of justification “” in other words, with recent developments regarding that doctrine, which will affect the way the church understands it henceforth. Second, the title indicates that the book deals particularly with Wright’s view of justification. Wright considers God’s legal declaration of justification to be exclusively future, something that God will pronounce in the final judgement. The primary purpose of the book is to assess that view of Wright.

Piper writes this book to defend the historic, Reformed, and biblical doctrine of justification as that act of God whereby he imputes to sinners his own righteousness, manifested in Jesus Christ, on the basis of Christ’s obedience, wholly apart from any work on the part of the sinner.

As he indicates in an introductory chapter entitled ‘On Controversy,’ he writes not primarily as a theologian, but as a pastor.

The reason I take up controversy with N. T. Wright and not, say, J. D. G. Dunn or E. P. Sanders . . . is that none of my parishioners has ever brought me a thick copy of a book by Dunn or Sanders, wondering what I thought about them. (p. 27).

Piper goes on to indicate his real motive in writing this work, namely, to build up the church by promoting her true unity, which is based on truth alone.

Born in 1948, Nicholas Thomas Wright is Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. His teachings regarding the ‘New Perspectives on Paul’ are by now well known and have occasioned much stir in all branches of Protestantism.

That Piper has made himself well acquainted with Wright’s teachings is evident from his copious citations from eight of Wright’s books and nine other essays and lectures by Wright and interviews of Wright.

Some of the more important statements Wright makes, to which Piper responds, are the following (the page references refer to quotations in Piper’s book):

‘The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is . . . the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ (page 18 and elsewhere).

‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people (p. 19).

The doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’ (p. 19).

If we use the language of the law-court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed around the courtroom (p. 21 and elsewhere).

Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life (p. 22).

Over the course of the book’s eleven chapters, Piper responds to these notions.

Chapter 1 consists of a caution regarding the pitfalls of biblical theology: The claim to interpret a biblical author in terms of the first century is generally met with the assumption that this will be illuminating. Some today seem to overlook that this might result in bringing ideas to the text in a way that misleads rather than clarifies. But common sense tells us that the first-century ideas can be used (inadvertently) to distort and silence what the New Testament writers intended to say (p. 34).

After giving his reasons why one might easily fall into this pitfall, Piper points out that Wright falls into this pitfall, by finding ‘new’ interpretations of Paul, at the same time asserting that for the last 1500 years the Christian church has not understood Paul.

In chapter 2, Piper deals with Wright’s idea that justification is God’s declaration that one is in God’s covenant family. By an exegetical investigation into the meaning of the word dikaiooo, Piper shows Wright to be wrong on this point.

Chapter 3 demonstrates that the word ‘justification’ denotes much more than merely the final judgement. In this connection, Piper deals with two matters: Wright’s notion that the doctrine of imputation that the church has taught for one and a half millennia is mistaken, and Wright’s idea of God’s righteousness. Again, by exegetical investigation into the concept of God’s righteousness in Scripture, and focusing particularly on that concept as found in the Epistle to the Romans, Piper shows that God’s righteousness is not merely God’s covenant faithfulness, as Wright says it is. The train of thought is continued in chapter 4, in which Piper argues that because the divine judge is omniscient, knowing the guilt of every sinner, he cannot pronounce anyone righteous unless he sees in him a true righteousness “” which true righteousness cannot be his own.

To Wright’s idea that the gospel is the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and that Paul did not consider the doctrine of justification to be part of the gospel, Piper responds in chapters 5 and 6. From the Scriptures, particularly Acts 13, Piper exposes the falsity of Wright’s claim. Piper also points out that to sinners, especially unforgiving and impenitent sinners, the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord is not gospel, but terrifying news! The only good news for sinners (some sinners, of course) is that their sins are forgiven “”w hich is simply to say that they are justified before God in Jesus Christ. Justification is in itself a saving act, in which God makes the sinner right (legally) before him.

To the basis of justification, Piper turns in chapter 7, entitled ‘The Place of Our Works in Justification.’ He demonstrates that Wright considers our works to be the basis of justification in the last day. By exegetically explaining various passages in Romans 2, Piper disputes this theory. Contradicting Wright’s notion that Reformed pastors and scholars do not pay enough attention to the relationship between justification and works, Piper quotes pertinent references from the Augsburg Confession, the First Helvetic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (the citations from which Wright ought himself know), and the Westminster Confession. These citations show that the church has grappled with the relationship between justification and works, finding that relationship not in that works are the basis of our justification, but in that works are the necessary evidence of a true faith by which one is justified.

But perhaps Wright is merely careless in using the word ‘basis’ to describe the relationship of works to justification. After all, he interchangeably uses the term ‘according to works.’ This question Piper investigates in chapter 8, concluding that in fact Wright differs with the Reformed tradition on this point, and that Wright does in fact consider the works of the sinner to be at least a part of the basis of God’s justification of the sinner in the final judgment.Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the question whether the works of the law to which Paul refers in Galatians 2 and 3 refer to the keeping of God’s whole law by all his people, or only to the keeping of certain aspects of the ceremonial law by the Jews.

Comprehensively set forth in chapter 9, Wright’s view is that Paul opposed justification by works because the Jews mistakenly considered their obedience to the outward law, rather than their faith, to be the true indication of being God’s covenant people. In chapter 10, by an exegesis of parts of Romans 3, Piper refutes Wright’s idea.

In chapter 11 Piper ties the various threads together. He points out again that Wright’s idea of God’s righteousness is not Paul’s; asserts that, at best, preaching Wright’s idea of justification will confuse the church; and then, from Romans 4 and 5, Philippians 3:9, 1 Corinthians 1:30, and 2 Corinthians 5:21, sets forth the biblical foundation of the doctrine of imputation.

In his conclusion, Piper asserts that the Reformation’s understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is right and relevant.

To the main body of the book are added six appendices. The first sets forth ‘Thoughts on Romans 9:30-10:4’; the second is entitled ‘Thoughts on Law and Faith in Galatians 3’; the third, ‘Thoughts on Galatians 5:6 and the Relationship Between Faith and Love’; fourth, ‘Using the Law Lawfully: Thoughts on I Timothy 1:5-11’; the title of the fifth is the question, ‘Does The Doctrine of the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness Imply That the Cross is Insufficient For Our Right Standing With God?’; and the 6th contains ‘Twelve Theses on What It Means to Fulfill the Law.’ About these appendices, Piper says,

they were not written in response to the work of N. T. Wright. Most of them were written before I had read Wright’s work. They do not interact with his work. The reason for their presence here is to give some windows into my wider understanding of justification and related exegetical issues (p. 189).

Without question, Piper’s analysis of the error of Wright’s view of justification is dead on. And Piper is to be commended for his explicit exegetical response to Wright’s views. Piper puts to good use that which is the only authority for faith and life, the inspired Scriptures.

In assessing Wright’s views, Piper consciously strives to understand Wright and be fair to him. He desires to undertake controversy in a right way, as he indicates in an opening chapter. He is careful to investigate whether Wright is merely careless in his terminology, or in fact wrong, as noted in chapter 8 above.

If anything, his carefulness leads him to be too soft in his treatment of Wright. In his treatment of Wright’s teachings, he is not too soft. But he is more charitable than he needs to be in his view of Wright personally: never did I notice him call Wright a heretic, of which term Wright is worthy, for Wright’s teaching regarding justification differs from the teachings of the confessions of the Christian church, which teachings are derived from the Scriptures. And Piper is more cautious than he needs to be in his assessment of the effect of Wright’s teaching:

But in my judgment, what he [Wright] has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God (p. 15).

Again:

Following N. T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church (p. 165).

But what will it do at worst? And what will it inevitably do, being heretical? It will damage and tear apart the church of Jesus Christ; it will cause to be manifest those who are not truly of the church. Piper would not have been out of line to call Wright to repentance for his false teachings, and remind him that any ‘future justification’ for which Wright may be hoping is not given to teachers who deny the gospel. Wright, after all, is not merely one who has a wrong understanding of the gospel; he is one who has himself studied the Scriptures, throws out the church’s historic and confessional understanding of the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone, and teaches his wrong understanding over against the truth.

In addition to the central importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the need to defend it, this book reminded me of three things.

The first is the relationship between the theology of the Federal Vision and that of the New Perspectives on Paul. Wright is allied specifically with the latter group; but as I read the book, I could see how the teachings of the Federal Vision depend on the ideas developed by men such as N. T. Wright.

The second is the methodology of heretics. One tactic is to insist on distinctions in areas in which the church has not before, and at the same time to ignore crucial distinctions that the church has made. Wright does the former in his treatment of the phrase ‘the works of the law,’ as well as in his view of justification in relation to divine calling (page 95). He does the latter in dealing with the relationship of works to justification “” whether justification is on the basis of, or according to, our works (p. 118).

The third is that Reformed pastors do well to know in some detail what their own people are reading and hearing. I commend Piper for his pastoral reason for writing this book. That same pastoral heart should lead Reformed pastors to read at least one solid response1 to the views of Wright, and be ready to warn their flock against him and men of his ilk.


Note:
1. We, of course, would recommend the Trust’s titles by Professor Cornelis Venema of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Indiana:

Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul
by Cornelis P Venema
122 pages, paperback
£5.50, $6.00
ISBN 978 0 85151 927 2

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul
by Cornelis P Venema
352 pages, clothbound
£16.00, $28.00
ISBN 978 0 85151 939 5

Taken with permission from the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Vol. 42 (November 2008), Number 1.

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