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The Shape of Justification


This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright.

Wright submits the following response to Paul Barnett with the caveat that he is not entirely happy being part of what could appear a monochrome “new perspective,” since it’s a complex phenomenon. What follows was written during the 2001 Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and printed in part as the April 2001 column of Bible Review. Though he writes with Barnett’s criticism in mind, Wright addresses the most serious allegations made by a variety of authors.

Just before Christmas, a friend told me that an Australian Bishop—Paul Barnett, himself a New Testament scholar—had placed an article on his website, entitled ‘Why Wright is Wrong’. (He has since toned this down to ‘Tom Wright and the New Perspective’.) The question at stake is: what did Paul mean by ‘justification’? This topic has again become a storm centre, though perhaps not equally in all teacups.

In a minute I shall go through Barnett’s piece and show where I find it mistaken, both in what it says about me and in what it says about Paul. What I want to do first is to show how Paul’s statements about justification fit together and make sense, and how they relate to the questions of personal faith, salvation and pastoral practice which Bishop Barnett rightly raises.

1. It’s best to begin at the end, with Paul’s view of the future.

(a) The one true God will finally judge the whole world; on that day, some will be found guilty and others will be upheld (Rom. 2.1-16). God’s vindication of these latter on the last day is his act of final ‘justification’ (Rom. 2.13). The word carries overtones of the lawcourt.

(b) But not only the lawcourt. Justification is part of Paul’s picture of the family God promised (i.e. covenanted) to Abraham. When God, as judge, finds in favor of people on the last day, they are declared to be part of this family (Rom. 4; cf. Gal. 3). This is why lawcourt imagery is appropriate: the covenant was there, from Genesis onwards, so that through it God could deal with sin and death, could (in other words) put his creation to rights.

(c) This double declaration will take the form of an event. All God’s people will receive resurrection bodies, to share the promised inheritance, the renewed creation (Rom. 8). This event, which from one point of view is their ‘justification’, is therefore from another their ‘salvation’: their rescue from the corruption of death, which for Paul is the result of sin. The final resurrection is the ultimate rescue which God promised from the beginning (Rom. 4).

2. Moving back from the future to the past, God’s action in Jesus forms Paul’s template for this final justification.

(a) Jesus has been faithful, obedient to God’s saving purposes right up to death (Rom. 5.12-21; Phil. 2.6-9); God has now declared decisively that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, in whom Israel’s destiny has been summed up (Rom. 1.3f.).

(b) Jesus’ resurrection was, for Paul, the evidence that God really had dealt with sin on the cross (1 Cor. 15.12-19). In the death of Jesus God accomplished what had been promised to Abraham, and ‘what the law could not do’ (Rom. 8.3): for those who belong to the Messiah, there is ‘no condemnation’ (Rom. 8.1, 8.31-9).

(c) The event in which all this actually happened was, of course, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

3. Justification in the present is based on God’s past accomplishment in Christ, and anticipates the future verdict. This present justification has exactly the same pattern.

(a) God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3.21-31; 4.13-25; 10.9-13). The lawcourt language indicates what is meant. ‘Justification’ itself is not God’s act of changing the heart or character of the person; that is what Paul means by the ‘call’, which comes through the word and the Spirit. ‘Justification’ has a specific, and narrower, reference: it is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous’. (We may note that, since ‘righteous’ here, within the lawcourt metaphor, refers to ‘status’, not ‘character’, we correctly say that God’s declaration makes the person ‘righteous’, i.e. in good standing.)

(b) This present declaration constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham (Gal. 2.14 – 3.29; Rom. 3.27 – 4.17), the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jer. 31.31-34). Membership in this family cannot be played off against forgiveness of sins: the two belong together.

(c) The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11). Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a ‘work’ which one ‘performs’ to earn God’s favour. It is, for Paul, the sacrament of God’s free grace. Paul can speak of those who have believed and been baptised as already ‘saved’, albeit ‘in hope’ (Rom. 8.24).

Among the remaining questions, three matters stand out at the moment.

The ‘faith’ in question is faith in ‘the God who raised Jesus from the dead’. It comes about through the announcement of God’s word, the gospel, which works powerfully in the hearts of hearers, ‘calling’ them to believe, or indeed (as Paul often puts it) to ‘obey’ the gospel (Rom. 1.16f.; 1 Thess. 1.3f., 2.13; 2 Thess. 1.8). This faith looks backwards to what God has done in Christ, by means of his own obedient faithfulness to God’s purpose (Rom. 5.19; Phil. 2.6), relying on that rather than on anything that is true of oneself. For Paul, this meant refusing to regard the badges of Jewish law-observance (‘the works of the law’) as the decisive factor (Phil. 3.2-11). And it looks forward to the final day: because this faith is the first sign of new God-given life, it is the appropriate anticipation of the final verdict, which is guaranteed by the same Spirit who inspired faith (2 Cor. 1.22; Phil. 1.6).

By ‘the gospel’ Paul does not mean ‘justification by faith’ itself. He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message, to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has even heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith itself is a second-order doctrine: to believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Rom. 5.1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table-fellowship without distinction with all other believers (Gal. 2.11-21). But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith (this, I think, is what Newman thought Protestants believed), but by believing in Jesus.

‘Justification’ is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham. That is how the word works in Paul’s writings. It doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital.

The three tenses of justification have often been confused, causing some of the great problems of understanding Paul. If we keep them simultaneously clearly distinguished and appropriately interrelated, clarity, and perhaps even agreement, might follow. If justification is about belonging to the single family, it would be good if that family could try to agree about what it means.

To that end, let me now offer my comments on Barnett’s original article. I am aware that in doing so I am putting my head in a noose. Every few months some friend, or even some stranger, tells me that people in Sydney, and some in America, are declaring me an outcast, a distorter of the true gospel, or whatever. Considering how little I have published on the subjects they are talking about, this is remarkable.

Bishop Paul first gives a review of the rise of the ‘new perspective’ on Paul in the work of Ed Sanders. His brief summary needs nuancing here and there, but it’s not far off track. What is interesting, though, is that even in his brief summary he shows that the ‘new perspective’ has this in common with traditional Reformed readings of Paul (from Calvin to Cranfield): it sees the Jewish Law as a good thing now fulfilled, rather than (as in much Lutheran thought) a bad thing now abolished. This should be borne in mind, not least because I came to my own view, already outlined in 1976 before Sanders’ book was published, from being dissatisfied with Cranfield’s Reformed position but knowing that, out of sheer loyalty to the God-given text, particularly of Romans, I couldn’t go back to a Lutheran reading. (Please note, my bottom line has always been, and remains, not a theory, not a tradition, not pressure from self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, but the text of scripture.) When Sanders’ book was published I found further reasons for the position I had already moved towards, even though there are problems with his overall account of Judaism, and though I found, and still find, his reading of Paul very unconvincing.

This already shows that, though obviously I have some things in common with Sanders, and some with J.D.G. Dunn, I am by no means an uncritical ‘new perspective’ person. Frankly, many of the criticisms of Sanders at least, if applied to me, are not just wide of the mark but on a different playing field altogether. With that, I come to Barnett’s specific points.

First, method. Barnett says that I first tease out what a word, or a worldview, ‘would have meant’ at the time. Well, yes. That is what all historians, all lexicographers, all serious readers of texts from cultures other than their own, are bound to do. If we just started with a set of documents in a language and culture other than our own, and refused to take into account what other writers in that language and culture meant by the words, we would be in the position I would be in if I picked up a book in Japanese, of which I know not a word. Nor are my reconstructions speculative and unprovable. I spent two hundred pages in The New Testament and the People of God establishing my positions inch by inch, and what I have said about Paul builds on all that. It is false to say that I suggest that Paul would have seen the hopes of Israel in ‘political’ terms; in our world, that word carries the overtones of ‘and therefore not religious’; whereas my point is that, as is easily provable from almost any second-Temple Jewish writing, the ‘religious’, the ‘political’, and for that matter the ‘personal’ and the ‘communal’, are cheerfully mixed up together in ways that baffle post-enlightenment readers (and so much evangelicalism is, alas, still in complete thrall to the enlightenment), but were obvious to people in that day. When it comes to the word dikaiosune and its cognates, it isn’t a matter of ‘what Wright thinks the word would have meant then’, but what serious historical lexicography tells us.

Of course, Paul has the right to use words in his own way. I insist on this in my writings, for instance when I argue step by step that Paul retains the shape of his Jewish theology but fills it with new content. I have often struggled to make this sort of point clear against people who force him into a lexical straitjacket — and against those who think, a la Marcion, that he abandoned everything Jewish and invented a new message from scratch. But unless Paul’s usage had a fair amount of continuity with what people of that day would have expected the words to mean — these were letters, after all, and he wouldn’t be there to explain it if when he said ‘righteousness’ he meant ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ — he would be incomprehensible. We can never, in other words, begin with the author’s use of a word; we must begin with the wider world he lived in, the world we meet in our lexicons, concordances, and other studies of how words were used in that world, and must then be alive to the possibility of a writer building in particular nuances and emphases of his or her own.

Let me risk labouring this point by adding the following. What I am doing, often enough, is exactly parallel, in terms of method, to what Martin Luther did when he took the gospel word metanoeiteand insisted that it didn’t mean ‘do penance’, as the Vulgate indicated, but ‘repent’ in a much more personal and heartfelt way. The only way to make that sort of point is to show that that’s what the word would have meant at the time. That’s the kind of serious biblical scholarship the Protestant Reformation was built on, and I for one am proud to carry on that tradition — if need be, against those who have turned the Reformation itself into a tradition to be set up over scripture itself.

Moving to the particular point about ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’, Barnett in fact hits his own wicket when he says they are synonyms. That’s the sort of trouble you get into if you insist on not seeing what words mean lexically. They do not mean the same thing, and actually the passage Barnett quotes from Romans 10 shows Paul making a careful distinction between them, as he does throughout his writings. ‘Righteousness’ in Paul is partly a courtroom status and partly a covenantal status, the former being a metaphor to help understand the significance of the latter. ‘Salvation’ in Paul means, of course, rescue from sin and death. Of course the two go hand in hand, but they are not synonyms, and nobody is helped by suggesting they are.

Is justification then a ‘process’, as Barnett says I say—with the result that he suggests my view ends up destroying ‘assurance’? Absolutely not! What seems to have happened here—and, to be blunt, in more than one North American attempted rebuttal of my work—is that criticisms regularly made by Protestant evangelicals against either Catholics or Liberals have been wheeled out as though they somehow ‘must’ be applicable to me as well. This is bizarre. My short sketch of justification above should put the matter straight.

The central point that Barnett makes has to do with the relationship between ‘the gospel’ and ‘justification’. I have just finished writing a popular commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and it was interesting to do so, this last month, with Barnett’s questions in my head. Let me make it clear that I do not, in any way, drive a wedge between ‘the gospel’ and ‘justification’. They belong intimately together, like fish and chips or Lindwall and Miller (I am trying, you see, to contextualise myself in the world of my readers). But they are not the same thing. ‘The gospel’, for Paul, is the proclamation that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, or Athens, or Corinth, or wherever, we know what he announced, because he tells us: The Messiah died for our sins and rose again (1 Cor. 15.3-8; cf. 1 Thess. 4.14, where he is summarizing the same thing). Again and again in the Thessalonian correspondence Paul declares that this word, this gospel, worked with power in his hearers’ hearts, with the result that they came to faith: just as, in Rom. 1.16, the gospel (which Paul has summarized in 1.3-5) is God’s power to effect salvation. This moment is what he describes frequently as God’s ‘call’. Paul’s own ‘ordo salutis’ goes like this: God loved, chose, called and glorified (2 Thess. 2.13-14), or, in the fuller terms of Romans, God foreknew, foreordained, called, justified and glorified. This sequence is very interesting. The ‘call’, for Paul, is what happens when the gospel is preached: God’s word in that gospel works powerfully upon hearts and minds, and people find that they believe it — the crucified Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah, the world’s Lord! But—and this is my central point here, an exegetical point with large theological implications—Paul does not call this event ‘justification’. ‘Justification’ is the declaration which God at once makes, that all who share this faith belong to Christ, to his sin-forgiven family, the one family of believing Jews and believing Gentiles together, and are assured of final glorification.

I do not, then, ‘interpose’ extraneous elements between the effectual call and God’s declaration ‘righteous’. I never have, never would, never (please God) will. I merely insist on Paul’s scheme rather than our traditional evangelical ones, because I believe in the primacy of scripture rather than that of tradition. In Paul’s terms, ‘call’ and ‘justification’ are not the same thing. If centuries of theological tradition have used the word ‘justification’ to mean something else, that is another matter; but if that tradition leads us to misread Paul (as, in my view, it manifestly has), then we must deal with the problem at the root, and not be scared off from doing so by those who squeal that this doesn’t sound like what they heard in Sunday school. Barnett of course doesn’t do that, but he certainly misstates my point when he says that, according to me, ‘justification’ is ‘a badge of membership’. It isn’t, and I never said it was. Faith is the badge of membership, and, as soon as there is this faith, God declares ‘justified’. For Paul, faith is the result of the Spirit’s work through the preaching of the gospel (read 1 Cor. 12.3 with 1 Thess. 1.4-5 and 2.13); this is not driving a wedge between gospel and justification, but explaining how the gospel works to produce the faith because of which God declares ‘righteous’.

And the classic Pauline way in which God makes this declaration, stating publicly and visibly that this person is indeed within the family, is through baptism—which obviously, in the situation of primary evangelism, follows at a chronological interval, whether of five minutes or five years or whatever, but which simply says in dramatic action what God has in fact said the moment someone has believed. Nothing is ‘interposed’; no ‘wedge’ is driven between the gospel and justification. You might as well say that because I declare that the starter-motor of the car is not the same thing as the petrol engine I am driving a wedge between the one and the other. The two are designed to work in close correlation; but if the mechanic doesn’t know the difference between them he won’t be able to fix your car.

And the car needs fixing. Even though I am not an uncritical exponent of the ‘new perspective’, I cannot understand how a scholar like Barnett can criticise it, as he does at the end of his piece, as though it were a form of Pelagianism (‘surely I am good enough’, etc.). Sanders’s whole point was that that was not what Judaism was saying: you may disagree with his analysis, but his point was that the law and works were not appealing to the Jews as the basis of their salvation. If the New Perspective is pastorally naïve (Sanders was of course trying to be historical, not pastoral; those who opposed Martin Luther said he was being pastorally naïve, but he opposed them on the grounds of what Paul really said and meant) it is not for those reasons.

There are other major issues we haven’t touched on, and I am grateful to Bishop Barnett that he has raised things in such a focussed way. We haven’t, for instance, discussed the meaning ofdikaiosune theou, ‘God’s righteousness’, nor the vexed question of imputation. But I hope I have said enough at least to hit the ball firmly back across the net. If we are to keep the rally going, I hope it will be centrally focussed on the exegetical details, since as I have said more than once it is the text of scripture itself, rather than later traditions about what it is supposed to mean, that matters to me. By all means let’s look at the theological, evangelistic and pastoral questions, but let’s be clear where our authority lies.

I have spent most of my professional career in debate with scholars a million miles outside the evangelical tradition—people like Sanders, Vermes, Crossan, Borg, and semi-scholars like A.N. Wilson. I hope my fellow evangelicals realise what is involved in this, and how many people have expressed their gratitude to me for showing them a way to retain and celebrate Christian orthodoxy with intellectual integrity. It feels odd now to be debating the other way round, so to speak, but if it’s necessary I shall do it. And I hope and pray that those from within the household of faith who want to take issue with me on this or other topics will do me the courtesy, which I promise I shall do to them, of discussing criticisms with me first, so that we can clear up misunderstandings, before going public. I think that, too, is biblical.

Written by
N. T. Wright

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was formerly a Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews. He also studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford.Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God.

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Written by N. T. Wright