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.