Justification and the Testimony of Paul
In chapter six, Wright interprets other Pauline epistles (Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians) in the light of his over-arching framework. In his famous contrast in Philippians 3 between “the righteousness of the law” and the righteousness that he now has “in Christ,” Paul designated himself, “‘…as to righteousness within Torah, blameless.’” “Ah, there’s the rub,” says Wright. “What on earth did he mean by that?” (143). “Does that not indicate Paul’s pride in his own achievement, and thus an ‘attitudinal’ failing, the sort of ‘self-righteousness’ which the old perspective made its chief target? Well, yes and no.” Like his fellow Jews, Paul believed (as Sanders suggests), that one gets in by grace by stays in by obedience. “It is vital to distinguish two things: the status of God’s people, prior to anything they do, and the life they are called to lead which points forward to the eventual judgment…there is, on the one hand, the verdict that is already announced, and there is on the other hand, as in Galatians 5:5, the verdict that is still eagerly awaited” (144).
At this point, Wright fails to mention a typical Reformed interpretation: Paul was blameless in terms of “righteousness within Torah”—and here, in this context of Paul’s specific appeal to his Pharisaical pedigree, we can say he is specifically referring to the boundary markers. In this sense, he was blameless, but all of this is to be considered a debit compared to being in Christ. Wright seems to approximate this view on page 147: “He performed the ‘works of Torah,’ attaining a standard that he had regarded as ‘blameless.’…; ‘blameless under the law’ is not the same as ‘sinless’….” “The keeping of the law was not a way of earning anything, of gaining a status before God; the status was already given in birth, ethnic roots, circumcision and the ancestral possession of Torah. All that Torah-obedience then does—it’s a big ‘all,’ but it is all—is to consolidate, to express what is already given, to inhabit appropriately a suit of clothes (‘righteousness’) that one has already inherited” (145).
However, is this really what Paul says here? Not exactly. First, Paul does not say that his circumcision and strict adherence to the ceremonies merely pointed to a righteous status that he already possessed by grace as a Jew. Rather, he refers to this blameless observance as “a righteousness of my own, which comes from the law.” Second, given Wright’s rejection of imputation in favor exclusively of God’s own faithfulness to his covenant, how does “righteousness” now come to mean “a suite of clothes” that one wears? Third, according to Wright, “The question is not, ‘What must I do to get to heaven?’ but How can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future?” (146). However, there is no indication here that Paul presupposes any division between the question of personal salvation and belonging to the right group. Even in the way Wright states the question, I fail to see the antithesis: If “going to heaven” means the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, as Christians confess, how is that different from being vindicated in the future?
Wright next introduces his distinction between present and future justification. On one hand, Wright says that the final justification will be based on works, a total life lived. Yet on the other hand, it is a verdict “here and now” that “will be repeated ‘on the last day.’ The works in question will not earn their performers their membership within God’s true, eschatological, covenant people, they will demonstrate that membership” (146). No argument here. This is standard “old perspective” fare, but is it a movement from Wright’s earlier work, where “future justification” is based on “a total life lived” rather than simply demonstrating the reality of justification?
Wright properly warns of treating justification as a “personal relationship.”
It is of course popular to say that, since the language of ‘righteousness’ is essentially ‘relational,’ ‘justification’ actually means ‘the establishment of a personal relationship,’ a mutual knowing, between the believer and God, or the believer and Jesus. But this is extremely misleading (and made more so by all the loose talk in some Christian circles about ‘my relationship with God’ as the center of everything, which then of course becomes problematic when one encounters depression, or enters a ‘dark night of the soul’) (149).
Here, Wright will find only approval in Reformed circles. In fact, we can identify with Luther’s reaction to Melanchthon’s introspective anxiety: “The gospel is entirely outside of you!” The gospel is an objective announcement about something that has happened in history, not a subjective feeling that we are close to God. The gospel provokes assurance and conversion, but cannot be confused with our inner states. The gospel creates a new relationship, but it is not itself to be identified as a personal relationship. Wright stresses, “relational” is different from “lawcourt” (226); this, despite his polemics, is in complete harmony with the “old perspective.” It is clear enough that Wright is once again reacting against a pietistic emphasis that he mistakes for a Reformation perspective.
One of Wright’s best summaries of justification appears on pages 150-151:
Paul unpacks the meaning of the status in the four ways we have seen. It is a status of (a) having the court find in my favor despite my unworthiness, (b) ‘covenant membership,’ (c) advanced eschatological judgment (hearing, ahead of time, the verdict which will be announced at the end), and above all (d) God’s verdict on Jesus himself when he raised him from the dead and thereby demonstrated that he really was his Son, the Messiah (Romans 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).
Therefore, “the ‘faith’ of the beneficiaries, looking away from themselves and to his achievement, is the badge which shows that they are indeed ‘in him.’”
Wright points to Paul’s repeated references to Christ working in us, God’s grace at work in us, and so forth—passages that are hardly passed over in Reformation preaching. Nevertheless, he writes, “If we, particularly those of us who have been strongly influenced by the Reformation, perceive such language as casting a shadow of doubt over ‘justification by faith,’ the problem is not with this way of putting it—it is after all Paul himself who puts it like this!—but with our traditions” (153). Here the author himself seems to assume that justification includes everything from grace to glory, but “old perspective” exegetes have ordinarily interpreted such passages as referring to sanctification as distinct from justification.
That Wright doesn’t appreciate this careful distinction is evident from his treatment of 1 Corinthians 1:30: Paul says that “‘righteousness’ is something that believers have because they are ‘in Christ’—though it is quite illegitimate to seize on that and say that therefore they have something called ‘the righteousness of Christ’ imputed to them, in the full sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sense so emphasized by John Piper.” Although there is “a great truth underneath that Reformation claim,” Wright says “we cannot press this verse into service as a primary vehicle of it, not least because, were we to do so, we should also have to speak, presumably, of ‘imputed wisdom,’ ‘imputed sanctification’ and ‘imputed redemption’” (157). This strikes me as another uncharitable reading of the tradition, as if it were saying that all of the gifts that we have in Christ must be given to us by imputation. Paul teaches that all of our blessings are in Christ, but justification is in Christ by imputation.
Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:19 appears to be an example of allowing one’s systematic-theological framework to run roughshod over exegesis: “In other words, that, in the Messiah, we might embody God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself” (163). A passage that conveys a transfer from “sinner” to “righteous” simply on the basis of Christ’s completed work is now read as our own activity in reconciliation. “The little word genōmetha in 2 Corinthians 5:21b—‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’—does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers…Surely that leans far too much toward a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness?” (165). This is an odd conclusion, given Wright’s own debunking of the idea of an infused moral virtue. “Become” (genōmetha) is not the difficulty that he supposes; a change has indeed occurred, but it is a change in status, as Wright himself suggests repeatedly elsewhere.
Next week, we’ll move on to Wright’s treatment of the Epistle to the Romans in chapter seven of his book, Justification.