Justification and Romans
Wright’s seventh chapter focuses on justification in Romans. Among other things, “part of its aim is to challenge, at several levels, the ideological foundations of Caesar’s empire” (177). If we had not made “‘justification’ cover the entire sweep of soteriology from grace to glory…,” we would have recognized Paul’s central point: “God’s own ‘righteousness,’ unveiled, as in a great apocalypse, before the watching world” (178).
According to the author, the old perspective misreads Romans in several ways:
1. 3:27-31 “comes unglued at its crucial joint, the ē at the start of Romans 3:29.”
2. Abraham in chapter 4 is treated as an ‘example’ or ‘illustration,’ and the point of the chapter is thereby completely missed, resulting in the oddity of placing within parentheses phrases in Romans 4:16-17, which are actually the main point of the whole discussion.
3. With Romans 9-11 itself, even when Paul structures his argument by questions about the word of God having failed, about God being unjust, about God’s rights as judge, about his revelation of wrath and power, and then about his mercy (Romans 9:6, 14, 19, 22, 23)—all of which, to the eye trained in Scripture and Jewish tradition, should say, ‘This is all about God’s own righteousness’—the point is simply not seen, let alone grasped. Such is the effect of the late-medieval blinkers still worn within the post-Reformation traditions.
4. Then, of course, Romans 10:6-13 falls as well. If one is not thinking about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, one might well miss—and the vast majority of exegetes have missed!—the central significance of Deuteronomy 30 within its own biblical context and within the re-readings of Scripture in Paul’s day, and the way in which that passage, and the various second-temple re-readings of it, including Paul’s, all point to the foundational belief that God is faithful to the covenant and will therefore bring about its renewal at last.
5. Finally, the climactic statements about God in Romans 11 (see Romans 11:22, 32, and of course 33-36) still fail to alert those whose minds are steeped in the theology of a different age to the fact, which even the verbal statistics will tell you, that the primary thing it is saying about God is that he is the God of faithful, just, covenantal love, that this has been unveiled in the gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, and that through this gospel message, and the radical unveiling of God’s covenant justice and faithfulness, God’s saving power is going out into the world, and will not rest until creation itself is set free from its slavery to corruption and decay and shares in the liberty of the glory of God’s children” (179-180).
The link between Romans 2:27 and chapter 9-11 is key for Wright. All roads lead back to Romans 2: “The journey from Romans 5:1-5 to Romans 8:31-39 is also the journey from Romans 3:21-31 back to Romans 2:1-16” (225). He does not think that Paul is talking about noble pagans when he speaks of Gentiles “without the law” nevertheless following its precepts written on the conscience. Rather, Wright believes that Gentile Christians are intended. Those who actually fulfill the law will be justified. The future judgment according to works (182-193). “Possession of Torah…will not be enough; it will be doing it that counts (whatever ‘doing it’ is going to mean)” (184).
This “doing” is to be taken seriously, and at this point Wright takes a swipe again at the “old perspective,” as if the “let go and let God” teaching of Wesleyan groups (especially Keswick) were one with Luther and Calvin: “And if, as a late-flowering but spurious post-Reformation romanticism and existentialism has conditioned people to think, we simply ‘wait for the Spirit to do it within us,’ so that we only think it right to do that which ‘feels natural,’ we have missed the point entirely and are heading for serious trouble” (193).
“The point of future justification is then explained like this. The verdict of the last day will truly reflect what people have actually done” (191). He says that boast of “the Jew” in Romans 2 is not that they have and follow Torah, but, “Well, but I am the solution to this problem” (195). [What problem? They didn’t see the salvation of the Gentiles as a problem in the first place!] “He is not here demonstrating that all Jews are sinful. He is demonstrating that the boast of Israel, to be the answer to the world’s problem, cannot be made good” (195). However, there are several questions that might be raised against this interpretation. First, how does it fit with the conclusion to this argument in 3:19, namely, that every mouth is shut, the whole world is guilty before God, and there will therefore be no justification by works? Second, why are the Gentiles whom Paul has in mind described as idolaters and engaged openly in perverse immorality? All along, the examples Paul cites concern transgression of the moral law, not the ceremonies. Third, how could Paul mean that Gentile Christians do not have the written law, but only the moral law written on the conscience? Fourth, “doing the works” prescribed in the law cannot be limited to the ceremonies (boundary markers), since Paul’s polemic is against those who have kept these—and gloried in them! Finally, Wright says that Romans 2:27 is speaking of “Christian Gentiles, even though Paul has not yet developed that category” (190), but why would he begin an argument by employing a category he had not yet developed?
Wright also appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. The context is the Corinthian penchant for schism based on personalities. Paul seems to be saying that we are to await the last day, when the quality of the materials used (viz., the message and methods used in gospel ministry) will be tested and true churches will be revealed as such. However, Wright understands this passage as a more general reference to a final judgment based on works (185). The amount of material on future judgment can’t be swept aside, he says (186), as if this were a legitimate criticism of the “old perspective.”
This present-and-future justification motif highlights the single plan of a worldwide family promised to Abraham. Thus, Romans 9-11 picks up where Romans 2:27 left off, according to Wright. God has remained faithful to his covenant, despite all appearances to the contrary, precisely by making faith in Christ rather than circumcision that basis of covenant membership. Though ingenious (and, I would argue, containing important points present in chapters 9-11), the connection to 2:27 seems hermeneutically odd to me. Whatever its relative place in the same epistle, Romans 2:27 is part of an argument that leads naturally from the “thesis statement” (the gospel as the only power of God unto salvation for everyone, Jew or Gentile, 1:16), to the indictment of Gentiles (2:12-29) and Jews alike (3:1-20), with the conclusion that no one can be justified in the present or in the future on the basis of works, but only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the ungodly (3:21-8:39). Has God revoked his plan? Not at all, Paul answers in chapters 9-11. Justification has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—however the revelation of this gospel has been more fully unveiled in the new covenant. Nevertheless, Israel’s national status in the land was conditioned on strict obedience to Torah. It is this confusion of covenants that Paul is always working to untangle (especially in Galatians) and the failure to distinguish them that the new perspective continues to overlook. This in no way invites Wright’s sweeping claim, “Of course, as the literature shows abundantly, summaries of the ‘doctrine of justification’ down the years have regularly answered the question [of God’s revoking his plan] with ‘yes.’ God will revoke his plan! Torah will be set aside as a failed first attempt to rescue humans!” (199)
Romans 3, then, introduces the need for a faithful Israel, since the nation had been exiled for its sins. “It was not so much that ‘God needed a sinless victim,’ though in sacrificial terms that is no doubt true as well, as that ‘God needed a faithful Israelite,’ to take upon himself the burden of rescuing the world from its sin and death” (204). Once more, one wonders why Wright has trouble with the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, since its intent is to make this point. “[Ernst] Käsemann was desperately anxious to prevent Paul from having anything to do with the ‘covenant,’ lest his theology collapse back into Jewish particularism. He nevertheless conceded that 3:25-26 certainly looked like a Christian version of Jewish covenantal theology.” He recalls an angry Lutheran complaining to Fortress Press for publishing such an obvious piece of Reformed theology: viz., covenant (205).
He repeats that “‘righteous’ here does not mean ‘morally virtuous.’ It means, quite simply, that the court has found in your favor.
That is why the declarative verb dikaioō, ‘to justify,’ can be said to indicate the creation of something, the making of something. But, as we noted earlier, the thing that is made is not a moral character, not an infused virtue, but a status…Notice what has not happened, within this lawcourt scene. The judge has not clothed the defendant with his own ‘righteousness.’ That doesn’t come into it. Nor has he given the defendant something called ‘the righteousness of the Messiah’—or, if he has, Paul has not even hinted at it. What the judge has done is to pass judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the lawcourt verdict, ‘in the right.’ And the point, putting covenant and lawcourt together, is that this is what the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed to do!…Here again is the truth to which, at its best, the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ can function as a kind of signpost. God has ‘put forth’ Jesus so that, through his faithful death, all those who belong to him can be regarded as having died. God raised him up so that, through his vindication, all those who belong to him can be regarded as being themselves vindicated (206).
Why does Wright object to the language of believers being “clothed” with Christ’s righteousness? He has already spoken of Philippians 3 referring to Paul’s experience as a Jew, being “clothed with righteousness,” demonstrated by Torah-righteousness, so why not the obverse? And if Jesus had done what Israel (and the world “in Adam”) failed to do, namely to fulfill the commission entailed by the law, even to the point of bearing their curse, why can’t this be called “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” especially since “impute/credit” and its cognates are actually used, along with images of “clothing”?
Perplexity concerning Wright’s critique mounts as he comes close to stating the classic covenantal perspective: “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah’ is, actually, a way of stressing—as one might have thought any good Reformed theologian would welcome!—the sovereignty of God and the unshakeable, rock-bottom reality, within the events of justification and salvation, not of the faith of those being justified, but of the representative and therefore substitutionary death of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus” (207). Faith isn’t the basis, but the badge (207-209). “What becomes of boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). “The ‘boast’ in question is the ‘boast’ of Romans 2:17-20: the ‘boast’ that Israel would take its place within the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, the boast not merely of superiority (and perhaps salvation) because of Torah-possession (and the attempt at Torah-keeping) but of a superior calling within God’s purposes.” “’Boasting excluded—by what Torah? A Torah of works? No—but by the Torah of faith’ (Romans 3:27). Who are God’s people? They are those who keep the Torah—but whose Torah-keeping consists of faith” (211). “Nomos” here as limited to “Torah” is questionable. Plus, what does this do to the earlier argument that Torah-keeping consists of Torah-keeping and the final justification is according to works?
Again he repeats: “‘make righteous’ here does not mean ‘make them morally upright or virtuous’ but rather ‘make them ‘people-in-whose-favor-the-verdict-has-been-given.’
The idea that what sinners need is for someone else’s ‘righteousness’ to be credited to their account simply muddles up the categories, importing with huge irony into the equation the idea that the same tradition worked so hard to eliminate, namely the suggestion that, after all, ‘righteousness’ here means ‘moral virtue,’ ‘the merit acquired from lawkeeping’ or something like that. We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have someone else’s credited to us, and ‘justification’ can’t mean ‘being made righteous,’ as though God first pumps a little bit of moral virtue into us and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole. No, replies Paul, you’ve missed the point; you haven’t gone far enough in eliminating the last traces of medieval understanding. ‘Righteousness’ remains the status that you possess as a result of the judge’s verdict…’Imputed righteousness’ is a Reformation answer to a medieval question, in the medieval terms which were themselves part of the problem (213).
At this point, Wright returns to the category of future justification. The point of Romans 2:1-16 is this: “…justified in the future on the basis of the entire life!” “The judge has declared the verdict before the evidence has been produced!” (emphasis added). But then, one might ask, what becomes of a judgment based on works, on the basis of an entire life? Justification can be rendered in the present on the basis of “the extraordinary, unprecedented and unimagined fact of the resurrection itself coming forward into the present” (215). It seems that Wright plays with two conflicting ideas: present justification (according to faith) hopes for a corresponding future justification (according to works) vs. the future justification is brought forward into the present: the very same verdict, already announced and guaranteed. God’s purpose for Israel was fulfilled finally in the Messiah, his Son in whom he is well-pleased. “And what God said about Jesus in that moment, he said and says about all those who belong to Jesus the Messiah” (215).
Romans 4 is the lodestar for Wright on justification, as it is for Paul. “The point of Romans 4 is, in any case, not simply about ‘how people get justified,’” but (as in Gal 3) the question, “who are the family of Abraham?” (217). But look at the construction of Paul’s argument in Romans 4: “Therefore, it is by faith, so that it might be in accordance with grace, so that the promise might be confirmed for all the seed, not only that which is from the law but also that which is from the faith of Abraham…” Doesn’t Paul’s own construction of the argument suggest that the “single family of Abraham” is the benefit of justification rather than justification itself? Wright adds, “Literally, more or less word by word, the sentence [4:1] reads, ‘What then shall we say to have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?’” But Wright suggests that “What shall we say that Abraham found [in this matter]” “is an odd way of saying even what the normal theory wants Paul to have said” (218). Wright translates, “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” (219). But this makes no sense with the next sentence: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast—but not in the presence of God.”
Wright adds, “What follows in Romans 4:4-8 makes it crystal clear that ‘reckoned it as righteousness’ means that although Abraham was ‘ungodly,’ a ‘sinner,’ God did not count this against him” (220). And the promise “was not, as the old perspective might have imagined, ‘the promise that his sins would be forgiven and that he would go to heave when he died.’ It was rather, that he would have a family as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:5)” (220). However, we may ask why David and the forgiveness of sins in the next breath? Wright simply explains away 4:4-5 in another sweeping polemic:
The brief discussion in Romans 4:4-5 about people ‘earning a reward’ (or not as the case may be) does not mean that Paul is after all talking about proto-Pelagianism, self-help moralism or whatever, except to this extent: that he is ruling out any suggestion that Abraham might have been ‘just the sort of person God was looking for,’ so that there might be some merit prior to the promise, in other words, some kind of ‘ boast’ (220).
He does affirm “the non-reckoning of sin” (220). So there’s imputation, at least non-imputation! In fact, “Forgiveness—the non-reckoning of sin—is thus right at the heart of the larger picture which Paul is sketching, but we must not for that reason ignore that larger picture” (221).
At several points, I have pointed out where Wright verges on the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, only to pull back. At this point, he speaks to it directly: “We note in particular that the ‘obedience’ of Christ is not designed to amass a treasury of merit which can then be ‘reckoned’ to the believer, as in some Reformed schemes of thought, but is rather a way of saying what Paul says more fully in Philippians 2:8, that the Messiah was obedient all the way to death, even the death on the cross.” He is the faithful Israelite who fulfills the single plan for one family (228). It’s not just that people can go to heaven when they die now, but that the age to come has in some sense already dawned, which encompasses all of creation (228).
On one hand, he seems to assume that he invented “union with Christ” and was the first to observe and it “fully dovetails” with “the doctrine of justification.” “It is not the case, in other words, that one has to choose between ‘justification by faith’ and ‘being in Christ’ as the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought. As many Reformed theologians in particular have seen—though one would not know it from reading John Piper, Stephen Westerholm and many others—the two must not be played off against one another, and indeed they can only be understood in relation to one another” (228-229). Paul “…established in Romans 6:1-11 that what is true of the Messiah (dying to sin, rising to new life) is now to be ‘reckoned’ as true of all who are baptized into him…” (229).
Wright nicely points up that Romans 6 isn’t a shift from “doctrine” to “ethics,” but continuing the same covenantal story of exodus through water. “Baptism recapitulates the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt and, as in Romans 8, of the journey to the promised land—in this case, the entire new creation”(230). The Sinai covenant “began with grace…, and ended with the promise of blessing on obedience and the warning of curse on disobedience (Deuteronomy)” (230). It is here—in Romans 6—not in “the active obedience of Christ” that we find Paul’s line of thought. The law was never given as a moral ladder of merit, but as the way for the redeemed to live (231-232). But does this entirely account for Jesus’ “woes,” or even with what Wright himself has just said: “warning of curse on disobedience”? Deuteronomy doesn’t present the Torah as simply a “reasonable service” for those who are redeemed, as Paul assumes concerning the moral law in Romans 12:1-5.
In any case, “It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection…All that the supposed doctrine of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ’ has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric, on these terms and within this covenantal framework” (232-233). “There are many things which are pastorally helpful in the short or medium term which are not in fact grounded on the deepest possible reading of Scripture” (233).
Wright next turns to Romans 8, launching out with another caricature: “What has been lacking in much of the tradition has been the interlocking Pauline features of (a) the renewal of creation and (b) the indwelling of the Spirit” (236). We partake of salvation in advance. “At the same time he insists that the signs of the Spirit’s life must be present: if anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, that person doesn’t belong to him (Romans 8:9), and ‘if you live according to the flesh, you will die’ (Romans 8:13)”
You cannot, in short, have a Pauline doctrine of assurance (and the glory of the Reformation doctrine of justification is precisely assurance) without the Pauline doctrine of the Spirit. Try to do it, and you will put too much weight on human faith, which will then generate all kinds of further questions about types of faith, about faith and feelings, about what happens when faith wobbles. This, in turn, will generate worried reactions, as people look on and see a supposed Protestantism which appears to regard strong emotional certainty of being saved as the criterion for being saved in fact (237).
“The trouble with some would-be Reformation theology is that it is not only insufficiently biblical. It is also insufficiently trinitarian” (239). Since it is not clear what “would-be Reformation theology” he has in mind, it is difficult to know quite how to respond, except to say that the Reformed tradition has been thoroughly shaped in its covenant theology by a trinitarian perspective. Its emphasis on the Spirit’s person and work is especially pronounced, particularly in the light of other Protestant trajectories.
Do we then overthrow the Reformation tradition by this theology? On the contrary, we establish it. Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought. The difference is that, whereas for some of their followers it really did look as though the sun was going round the earth, we have now glimpsed the reality (252).
To employ his own analogy, there are indeed impressive pieces of Paul’s puzzle in Wright’s box to make sense of some of the arguments. However, the best pieces are drawn from biblical-theological box-tops that Reformed theologians have long recognized. “Israel recapitulates the primal sin of Adam and Eve” (241). “Embrace the God-given law, Paul says to his fellow Jews (to his own former self!) and you are embracing that which must declare you to be a transgressor, a lawbreaker, on all fours with the ‘sinners’ who are outside God’s covenant” (243). However, Wright is working with only one covenant and this inevitably constrains his interpretation throughout. In Romans 10 Paul “is thinking, in fact, of a covenant renewal which will be recognizably that of which Deuteronomy 30 was speaking when it spoke of ‘doing of the law’ which was not difficult, requiring someone to bring it down from heaven or out of the depths of the sea” (245). However, this misses the important and intentional switch of terms in Romans 10. Instead of saying that Torah—God’s law—is not far off, Paul speaks of the gospel. Wright puts his own conclusion in italics: “When people believe the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection, and confess him as Lord, they are in fact doing what Torah wanted all along, and are therefore displaying the necessary marks of covenant renewal” (245). However, this is to turn the law into the gospel.