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Wright Wednesdays: part 4

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 by Eric Landry

Justification and God’s Righteousness: Imputation and the Future Hope

Whatever the merits of John Piper’s critique, it is disappointing that Wright fails to engage with “old perspective” writers who emphasize the importance of covenant and eschatology as he does but without surrendering the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  “Biblicism,” the assumption that a concept must be stated in so many words in the Bible in order for it to attain the status of a biblical doctrine, is apparent in Wright’s rhetorical question: “if ‘imputed’ righteousness is so utterly central, so nerve-janglingly vital, so standing-and-falling-church important as John Piper makes out, isn’t it strange that Paul never actually came straight out and said it?” (46). How would Wright defend the doctrine of the Trinity?  Or the hypostatic union in the incarnation?  Systematic and historical theology appeal to a host of concepts and terms that are not found expressly in Scripture that are nevertheless crucial for stating precisely the intention of the whole teaching of Scripture on a given topic.  Indeed, Wright employs many constructions that articulate a biblical view that cannot be found in exactly the same words in the Bible.

There may be legitimate exegetical debates over what exactly Paul means by logizomai and its cognates (particularly what is imputed and why), but it is generally agreed to mean “impute” or “credit.”  In fact, Wright has no trouble holding that the believer’s sins are imputed to Christ, so why the difficulty with the imputation of his righteousness?  Jesus says that the sinner rather than the Pharisee “went to his house justified” through faith in God’s mercy (Luke 18:14).  Like other terms, such as “redemption,” “salvation,” “atonement,” “the new birth,” the importance of justification cannot be determined by a word-count.  The biblicistic tendency emerges again when Wright says that “all the discussion of ‘formal cause’ of justification as against the ‘material cause’” represents an intrusion of questions alien to Paul and the first century (50).  Yet in the next chapter, he even quotes Daniel 9:4-19, including the penultimate sentence: “We do not present our supplications before you on the ground of our righteousness (epi tais dikaiosynais hēmōn, translating al tsidqothenu), but on the ground of your great mercies” (62, emphasis added).  The formal cause of our salvation is God’s grace, the material cause (or ground) is Christ, and the instrument through which we receive it is faith: salvation by grace, in Christ, through faith.  What is so anachronistic about this?  I think it is pretty obvious in Paul—and in passages like Daniel 9.

Over and over again, Wright insists that when the Bible talks about righteousness, whether God’s or ours, it’s not talking about “virtuous acts,” but keeping covenant promises (63).  Aside from whether keeping your word is a virtuous act, who is he targeting?  [Wright correctly rejects Piper’s definition of “righteousness” as “God’s concern for God’s own glory” (64)].  Wright follows Ernst Käsemann in arguing that God’s righteousness is chiefly “his faithfulness to, and his powerful commitment to rescue, creation itself.”  For Wright, it is even more specific: “…in Paul’s reading of Scripture, God’s way of putting the world right is precisely through his covenant with Israel” (65).  Righteousness is relational, but not in the sense of “getting to know someone personally,” but rather in terms of “how they stand in relation to one another”—i.e., “the status of their relationship” (66).  In my view, this is another case of overstatement—an over-correction of pietistic individualism.  “God’s righteousness”—especially in the Psalms and prophets—clearly includes an important aspect of divine faithfulness to the covenant.  In this sense, justification clearly includes not only God’s “righting” of sinners apart from their works, but of righting the world.  The resurrection of the righteous, which most Jews longed for, is clearly tied especially in Paul to the justification of the ungodly who have already received this verdict in the present.  Christ not only bore our sins, so that we can withstand his judgment, but secured the righteousness and peace that will dominate all of creation at his return.  However, none of this future hope is conceivable apart from the repeated emphasis of Paul on the present justification of the ungodly by imputed Christ’s righteousness to all who trust in Christ.  Not only is all of this consistent with a Reformed understanding of justification; it is part and parcel of a great deal of exegesis even before Käsemann, much less Wright.

Next week we’ll turn to Wright’s misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the covenants God made with Abraham and Israel.

-Mike Horton

The Limits of the Law

Thursday, May 28th, 2009 by Eric Landry

One of our favorite radio programs around here - other than White Horse Inn of course - is This American Life. Rarely does a week go by without the program taking up some theme that makes us pause and reconsider some great truth about Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.

The May 1, 2009 broadcast (available on the show’s archives page at thisamericanlife.org) begins with a story of one Florida judge’s attempt to instill shame in young convicts who have been caught stealing from local stores. The law-breakers must wear a sign indicating their crime (”I stole from this store”) and parade themselves in front of the store so that everyone who drives by can observe their humiliation.

The show’s producer asks the court minder what the percentage is of those who have been sentenced to this shame who eventually commit another crime. Although statistics aren’t available, the lady says she can see it in someone’s eyes. And so the stage is set to determine what course the young woman wearing the sign that day will do: she is unapologetic, the sentence has done nothing to dissuade her from crime, and she will definitely steal again, she says.

The law, even in the hands of an imaginative Florida judge, cannot create righteousness, nor as he found out after hearing this episode of This American Life can it always prevent sin. All the law can do is create a reluctance to sin again (because of fear of consequences) or shame over sin (because one has been exposed) or begrudging acceptance of a power that constrains our behavior.

Righteousness can’t be created out of whole cloth; it can only be given to those who do not deserve it, don’t expect it, and wouldn’t accept it unless they had been transformed by the new birth. Sadly, the church (in it’s effort to replicate a form of godliness without the power thereof, otherwise known as Christless Christianity) has settled for morality instead of the gospel. We are happy if people are reluctant to sin. We are still happier if they feel shame over their sin. We are living off of a fading power to constrain behavior, a power that has already disappeared in some sectors of society.

The health and eventual success of the church depends not on regaining this power of constraint, nor even of moral influence. It depends solely on our ability (or is it willingness?) to proclaim again the gospel of a righteousness that comes to us while we were yet sinners. Anything more or less is a corruption of the gospel.

Eric Landry
Executive Editor, Modern Reformation


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