Ask Steve: N.T. Wright and Justification











Question: Steve, what is the biblical doctrine of justification? Some guy I know at work is reading N.T Wright and he is saying that justification is not really about the Gospel. Is that true?  

Answer: The doctrine of justification is a soteriological concept that has much to do with the gospel. It is a non-negotiable part of the gospel. In fact, it is a major part of the gospel. With a distorted understanding of justification, a person is in big danger of following in on another gospel, which cannot save a sinner. This is why it is important to have a truthful understanding of this important doctrine.

Justification can be simply defined as the act of making a person right with and just before God. Justification is God’s declaring those who receive Christ by faith to be blameless. Believers are declared righteous not because of their own merits, for no man is inherently righteous in God’s eyes (Rom 3:10). Rather, believers are seen by God as righteous because of an alien righteousness that is credited or imputed to their account (2 Cor 5:21). This is the righteousness of Christ, His perfect life that is credited to believers so that they may be counted as innocent and righteous in God’s eyes. This righteousness is a legal status granted to the believer, and does not speak of personal works before God. This principle is seen in passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 3:21-26.

This justification is a one-time event that happens when we repent and put our faith in Jesus Christ. It is not a lifelong process where we demonstrate our righteousness in order to find justification at the end of life. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that are counted to us by our faith in Him. His sacrifice covers our sins and allows God to see us as perfect, innocent, and unblemished, as if we had lived the perfect, law-abiding life of God the Son. This meets God’s standard of perfection, and on account of this, we are declared just in God’s sight at the moment of our conversion.

Justification is essentially what the gospel is about – that we are guilty sinners unable to justify ourselves by our works. Christ satisfies the law on our behalf so that He can satisfy God’s justice and appease His holy wrath against sin (propitiation). By faith in Him, we can be declared innocent and have Christ’s righteousness as means to find eternal favor before the Father. Justification becomes the assurance of our salvation during the sanctification process.

Although this is the way that Bible consistently presents justification, there are many even within the evangelical camp who oppose the true doctrine of justification. They propose a theory of justification that is unbiblical and more closely resembles that of the Roman Catholics and other false monotheistic religions. A good example is N.T. Wright’s view of justification, as you have mentioned.

Wright does not believe that justification is a one-time event that happens upon the conversion of the sinner, but rather a process than finds its verdict at the end of a believer’s life. This may seem like a replica of Roman Catholic soteriology, but Wright is adamant to note a few important differences in his view. Wright’s view of justification is based on how he understands such doctrines as Christ’s atonement and the religious atmosphere of 2ndTempleJudaism. Wright’s interpretation of justification is based on his interpretation of the ‘righteousness’ which Paul spoke of in the book of Romans. Wright claims that this righteousness does not mean imputed righteousness, but really stands for “covenant faithfulness.” Wright comes to this conclusion by subordinating the law-court analogy as merely a tool to affirm that a believer is in God’s covenant family, and not the means by which someone is declared righteous and fully qualified to have eternal life.

By this illustration, it becomes obvious that Wright does not believe in penal substitution, which is the doctrine that is appropriately linked with imputed righteousness and forensic justification. In fact, Wright does not see imputed righteousness as a valid concept in both the OT and the NT, but rather the idea that once someone comes to faith, he is included in the “covenant family of God,” which is what it means to be forgiven of sin and be declared righteous. Wright does not see the religion of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as a works-righteousness system that replaced biblical Judaism.

Wright understands Second Temple Judaism to be much like Christianity – a grace based religion where people are saved when they come to faith in Yahweh and their works only testify to the reality of their inclusion in God’s covenant family. Their obedience to the Torah both testifies to and is the grounds in which believers stay within the covenant community of God. Wright claims that the thing that Paul was criticizing was not Judaism’s works-righteousness, but their imposition of Jewish cultural markers (ex. circumcision, Sabbath observances, apparel) onto the Gentiles, and their failure to recognize Christ as the new object of faith. This theory of Paul’s teaching as it relates to salvation and the era of theSecondTempleis called the New Perspective on Paul. This theory by Wright is not true, substantiated, or biblical. It is based on a historical-critical interpretation of Scripture, which is essentially theory based and not taking Scripture for what it says in its plain sense (grammatical-historical). 

This is important to document because it gives us the rationale behind Wright’s understanding of justification. Since the Jews believed that justification happened at the end of one’s life after a lifetime of covenant law obedience, Wright takes this cue and applies it to Christianity as well to keep the sense of continuity between the OT and NT method of salvation. According to Wright’s theology, a Christian is not justified at the time of his faith in Christ, but enters into the process when he becomes a believer. He finds full justification at the end of his life after having successfully persevered in faith and bearing the fruits that are supposed to be evident in every believer’s life.

As we can see from Wright’s view of justification, this is not a picture of what the gospel is. It is a distortion of the gospel and leans dangerously close to a works-righteousness type of religion pretty similar to Catholic and Islamic soteriology. The Catholic view of the justification (and sanctification) process is that the believer keeps the law and does works as merit to find acquittal upon death. N.T. Wright also views justification and sanctification as the same process, whereas the believer keeps the law because he has been included in God’s covenant family, yet there is a possibility that he can lose his salvation or be declared guilty if he has not performed yet enough.

Whatever the case is, both Catholicism and New Perspectivism justification with sanctification, thus making the gospel into a message not about Christ’s righteousness that covers a sinner, but his own that maintains or works for his salvation, whether the believer was ever included in a covenant community or not. This is the danger of ridding of the doctrines of Christ’s righteousness, forensic justification, and penal substitution from the gospel message. When that happens, the gospel is no longer good news. It is no longer different from the false hopes offered by other religions that stress the importance of human achievement in the salvific process.

We must stand up for the truth of what Scripture teaches and affirm that justification is really about the gospel. Without a proper view of justification, the gospel is utterly destroyed. In essence, there is no gospel, and possibly no salvation. 


Recommended Resource: The Future of Justification by John Piper