Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

 

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Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels

by Robert L. Thomas

Category: Biblical Studies

Kregel Publications, 2002

 

 

 

 

 

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Amongst the many soteriological themes to consider and defend, the question is: Just how important is the doctrine of justification? Is it a minor quibble, or is it a major doctrine that needs to be contended for? It seems significant to author John Piper, who devotes an entire book to the subject matter. The Future of Justification is most specifically a response to and a critique of scholar N.T. Wright’s take on justification. Wright’s view of justification, in Piper’s eyes, is a flawed and perhaps a heretical take on the issue. Because of the scope of Wright’s influence in the evangelical world, Piper takes the necessary step to openly challenge Wright’s interpretation of justification for the sake of biblical truth in modern Christendom. Justification is a topic that is worthy of faithful exposition and clarification, which is why Piper sets out to write about this important salvific truth. In The Future of Justification, Piper documents the errors in N.T. Wright’s view on justification and proposes an orthodox solution that is both timeless and true to the intent of the New Testament writers and what has been defined by the Reformers.

The book follows a fairly simple structure of identifying the topic of discussion (justification), the problems raised by an alternative view of justification (N.T. Wright), the true interpretation of the topic (by John Piper), and the implications on Christian living. It begins with Piper commenting on Wright’s so-called illuminating discovery concerning the nature of justification, and makes the important point that not all such discoveries are enlightening and true. In fact, this particular one is problematic and detrimental to the Christian faith. The author describes the core meaning of Wright’s interpretation of justification by describing Wright’s proposal that the righteousness Paul spoke of in the book of Romans really stands for “covenant faithfulness,” and not imputed righteousness as the evangelical world understands it. Piper describes in chapters 2 and 3 how 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.

Piper also quotes Wright’s understanding of what the gospel message is: that it is not about an individualized faith of saving one’s soul from sin and hell, but rather about the coming of God’s kingdom and a submission to the Lordship of Christ. Wright’s reasoning, as Piper explores in Ch 9, is that Paul wrote his epistles with an understanding that Christian soteriology is really an extension of the salvific message apparent in Second Temple Judaism: that the Jews did not teach salvation by works or adherence to the Law, but rather that they believed in God’s grace through faith but acted in error when they tried to impose ethnocentric ideas (ex. Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) on the Gentiles as a means of salvation rather than faith in Christ as sufficient for salvation. The book ends with an appropriate discussion by Piper on the truth of imputed righteousness and why it is important to hold to this doctrine in contrast to the one proposed by N.T. Wright.

As a book critique on another scholar’s theology, Piper does a respectable job in writing out his response and upholding the orthodox belief about justification and defending the gospel as a whole. Although the book is a firm opposition to the theories proposed in the recent years by N.T. Wright (and perhaps others who have held to similar theories of the New Perspective on Paul), it is never condemning or slanderous, as Piper takes moments to defend unjust criticisms against N.T. Wright’s theology. A good example of this is in page 44, when Piper defends Wright from critics who accuse Wright of missing or minimizing the forensic dimension of justification. This gives some measure of academic integrity to the intent of the book, because the author does not set out unfairly or unjustly slander and attack the opposing camp (though their theology may be wrong), but to represent them as truthfully as possible so that their views, and Piper’s, can be more accurately assessed and taken into consideration, especially as it regards this important, soteriological topic.

One of the strengths of this book is how vividly Piper quotes Wright’s material and interacts with his views through sound exegesis of selected texts. Because the book revolves around the idea of solving the meaning of “righteousness,” it is Piper’s task to state what Wright’s understanding of the Greek term is (“covenant faithfulness”) and what that means. Piper’s extensive use of the Greek language and defining its meaning also proves to be helpful in the author making his case for the orthodox interpretation of this issue. Piper’s proposed definition of righteousness as “God’s unwavering commitment to the honor of His glory” establishes a foundation for what righteousness is, in contrast to how it merely acts as Wright believes. Piper is also reasonably thorough in his analysis of Wright and his theology, linking Wright’s justification theory to Wright’s understanding of the religion of Second Temple Judaism, which informs his understanding of the idea of a future justification of the saints based on their remaining in the covenant through faith and works. This proves to be a tremendously strong case for Piper’s conclusion that Wright’s view of justification is unbiblical, and even dangerously close to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification discussed in Chapter 11. No matter how much Wright thinks his idea to be enlightening, innovation, or truthful, the fact is that it has no basis either in the Bible, amongst the early church fathers, or in the teachings of the Reformation, in which Piper hints that Wright’s view of justification is nearly identical to the process of sanctification and is essentially makes salvation a works-based system.

Though this book gives a good overview of the issue at hand and gives a clear-cut presentation of Wright’s understanding of justification, there are a couple of themes that could have been touched on. Chapters 2 and 5 discuss Wright’s understanding of the gospel as the narrative of Christ and the need to submit to Him as Lord, but they do not really give an explanation of what Wright thinks about the issue of Jesus as “Savior,” and what that means. How would this relate to his understand of salvation through grace by faith alone? How would this relate, in any way, to his theology of justification? Another issue that could have used further elaboration was Wright’s theory about how one stays within the covenant family after his inclusion into it by repentant faith. In other words, how much faith, works, or fruit does the believer need to bear in order to testify of the security of his inclusion in the covenant family? Is there any assurance of final salvation? How does this relate to other soteriological themes such as perseverance of the saints, apostasy, or salvation by works? These are some questions that Piper could have included (if such things were in his immediate knowledge) in the book so as to give us a better picture of whether or not N.T. Wright is a false teacher or not (if that was the intent of Piper to begin with), but it is a commendable thing that Piper extends the invitation for N.T. Wright to respond to difficult questions he has concerning Wright’s integrity as a scholar.

In conclusion, The Future of Justification is a noteworthy book that sets out to accomplish its goals and is a sound commentary on the nature of biblical justification. It takes an unorthodox idea, such as the one set forth by Wright, and demonstrates how it is unbiblical and why such theories need to be refuted. Piper does not see this issue as a secondary one, but a primary one since it deals with soteriology and the foundation of Christian theology that traces its roots back to the Reformation. I thoroughly recommend this book as a good introduction into topics such as the New Perspective on Paul and the importance of what justification by faith entails. The foundations of the Christian faith must always be contended for and preserved, which is why even defenses like these against professing Christian scholars are absolutely necessary so as to inform the evangelical public who need to exercise discernment.