White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Watch out, Texas. Dad Rod is comin’

If you can’t get enough of Rod Rosenbladt on the WHI, you’ll have a rare chance to see him in person when he and Craig Parton (a regular contributor to Modern Reformation) speak at the “Defending the Faith Apologetics Symposium,” October 30-31 in Tomball, Texas.

For more information, visit out friends at New Reformation Press. While you are there be sure to take advantage of their pre-Christmas, 10% off everything in the store sale. They’ve built up a veritable treasury of Reformation merit over there and for a limited time you can get a great deal!

Wright Wednesdays: Part 6

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification, a response to the critique of John Piper and others to his version of the New Perspective on Paul, especially as it relates to the Reformation's understanding of justification.]

Justification, Faith, and Faithfulness: The Works of the Law

So far, Wright has approximated a traditional Reformation definition of justification several times: representation and substitution, a courtroom verdict—not that people are morally virtuous, but that they are right before God simply by virtue of his verdict, on the basis of Christ.  So then it seems odd that he should say so emphatically, referring to Romans 2:11-16a, that “to be justified” cannot mean for Paul “’to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ ‘to come into a right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.” However, Wright exaggerates the Reformation position in order to define justification as “God’s declaration of membership” (116).  Though forgiveness/imputation and covenant membership are obviously connected in Paul’s thinking, to declare someone righteous is different from declaring someone to be a member of a group.

As is well-known, Wright affirms the “faithfulness of Christ” (pistis Iēsou Christou) interpretation of Richard Hays (117).  “‘The faithfulness of the Messiah,’ in the sense described in the previous chapter—his faithfulness to the long, single purpose of God for Israel—is the instrument, the ultimate agency, by which ‘justification’ takes place…And the way in which people appropriate that justification, that redefinition of God’s people, is now ‘by faith,’ by coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah” (117).

First, in the light of this last statement, wouldn’t “faith in Christ” make more sense? Second, does it make any sense for individuals to “appropriate” a “redefinition of God’s people”?  One may appropriate (or better, receive) God’s verdict of right-standing, but how can one’s believing affect the redefinition of God’s people one way or the other? Even on Wright’s own terms, there is no way to escape the fact that Paul is speaking about a transfer of someone from a state of condemnation to a state of right-standing and forgiveness in justification.  “‘Works of the law’ cannot justify, because God has re-defined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah” (118).  “Nor, of course, is the idea of faith in Jesus Christ hereby rendered unnecessary: that is the very next thing Paul says in [Rom] 3:22, exactly as in Galatians 2:16.  God’s righteousness is unveiled through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah on the one hand, and for the benefit of all who believe on the other” (203).

Regardless of how one comes down on the genitive construction, the traditional Reformed view certainly includes Christ’s active obedience—his representative, federal (covenantal) fulfillment of the law—as the basis for both soteriology and ecclesiology.  So once again I wonder why Wright is averse to Christ’s active obedience and the concept of imputation?  He adds, “But in Romans 3:20 Paul does explain the meaning of the quotation [“By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified”], by adding, ‘For through the law comes the knowledge of sin’” (118).

Before moving on to Wright’s analysis, it is worth asking whether Paul’s justification for his claim that no one will be justified by works of the law makes sense in Wright’s view.  How could a Gentile become aware of his sin by kosher laws?  Wright believes that the “Gentiles” who “by nature” do some of the things prescribed in the law written on their conscience are actually Christians rather than the noble pagan.  But Paul says that Jews and Gentiles come to know their sin by the law, whether written on tablets or on the conscience.  Thus, every mouth is stopped (Rom 3:19).  How could Gentiles come to know their sin if “the works of the law” are merely the particular commandments given to Israel to distinguish Jews from the nations?  And why does Paul later mention even his own case of coveting in 7:7 rather than, say, keeping Sabbath?  It was because Paul did keep Sabbath, but nevertheless violated the moral law (Phil 3:9).

Wright tries to explain Romans 3:20 in less reductionistic (“covenant membership”) terms than he does, by my reckoning at least, in earlier works: “There are, then, two interlocking reasons why ‘works of the law cannot justify.’  First, God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah, and ‘works of the law’ would divide Jew from Gentile in a way that is now irrelevant.  Second, ‘works of the law’ will never justify, because what the law does is to reveal sin.  Nobody can keep it perfectly” (118). Now he’s sounding like the reformers again!  However, if “works of the law” refer only to boundary markers between Jew and Gentile, it’s obvious that Jews could—and did—keep the law in that sense.  Paul does not indict Jews for being uncircumcised or eating with Gentiles, but for failing to keep the moral commands while glorying in their ritual cleanness.

Expanding “works of the law” beyond mere boundary markers of covenant membership is further in evidence when he writes,

‘Transgression,’ we should note, is the actual breaking of the law, whereas ‘sin’ is any missing-of-the-mark, any failure to live as a genuine human being, whether or not the law is there to point it out.  Paul is still, in other words, continuing to explore the theological dimensions of the situation Peter had put himself in.  Either you stay in the Jew-plus-Gentile family of the Messiah, or you erect again the wall of Torah between them—but there will be a notice on your side of that wall, saying, ‘By the way, you have broken me’—both in general, because nobody keeps it perfectly, and in particular, because you have recently been living ‘like a Gentile, not like a Jew’ (Galatians 2:14).

Again he does not seem to understand the Reformation view, allowing only for two interpretations: justification = either (a) a moral quality / God’s own non-transferable attribute of righteousness or (b) membership in God’s family.  Justification “denotes a status, not a moral quality.  It means ‘membership in God’s true family’” (121).  He says, “The lawcourt metaphor behind the language of justification, and of the status ‘righteous’ which someone has when the court has found in their favor, has given way to the clear sense of ‘membership in God’s people’” (121).  By why not read it the other way: the former as the rationale for the latter?  Even in Wright’s own construction here, “someone” is declared righteous when the court has found in his or her favor.  Actual persons are “declared righteous.”  That is semantically distinct from “membership in God’s family,” even if it is the basis for it.  Once more, in the form of “not just this, but also that” ends up excluding “this”:

But the problem is not simply that the law condemns (though it does), shows up sin (though it does) or indeed encourages people into self-righteous ‘legalism’ (which Paul does not mention at all, in this chapter at least).  The problem is that the law gets in the way of the promise to Abraham, the single-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world, first by apparently choking the promise within the failure of Israel (Galatians 3:10-14), then by threatening to divide the promised single family into two (Galatians 3:15-18), then finally by locking everything up in the prison house of sin (Galatians 3:21-22) (123).

Wright reads Romans 2 as saying that Israel failed in its missionary enterprise, not in its faithfulness to the law.  Israel is under the curse because it has “proved unfaithful to the commission (despite the boast of Romans 2:17-20)” (124).  “‘Unfaithful’ here [2:17-20] does not mean ‘unbelieving’ in the sense of simply ‘refusing to have faith in God.’  It means ‘unfaithful to God’s commission” (198).  But then why does Paul contrast the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant, especially in Galatians?  In Galatians 3:16, 21-22, Wright interprets, “Yes, he says: there was nothing wrong with the law in itself, and had it been possible for a law to have been given which could have given life, then righteousness would have been on the basis of the law—the very thing which Galatians 2:21 had denied” (126).  But why would Paul have said this if the only issue was extending the Abrahamic promise to the world?  Paul’s point is that the law cannot give life, because it cannot give righteousness (justification) because of sin.

Where Wright is correct is in his insistence, “In fat, what appear to Western eyes as two separate issues—salvation from sin on the one hand, a united people of God on the other—seem to have appeared to Paul as part and parcel of the same thing” (127).  “Paul is not saying, as traditional readings have had it, that ‘the law was a hard taskmaster, driving us to despair of ever accomplishing its demands, so that we would be forced to flee to Christ to find an easier way, namely faith” (129).  But Wright can only dismiss this interpretation of Paul because he has reduced the law-promise contrast to the question of covenant membership.  For Paul, faith is opposed to works (and not just some, but all) not only because it keeps the gospel from going out to everyone, but also because (more basically), the gospel itself is distinct from the conditional terms of Sinai!  Where Paul sees the gospel as necessarily implying the reconciliation of human beings to each other, Wright sees the gospel as practically reduced to this social dimension:  “The promises God made to Abraham were a covenant.  Genesis 15 says so, Paul says so (Galatians 3:15, 17); that is the assumed starting point for the whole passage.  The covenant always had in view the liberation of the entire human race from the plight of Genesis 3-11, in other words, God’s dealing with the problem of human sin and the consequent fracturing of human community…” (133).

Boxing at shadows again, Wright opposes the Roman Catholic view as if it were the “old perspective” of the Reformation:

But the verdict of the court, declaring, ‘This person is in the right’ and thus making her ‘righteous’ not in the sense of ‘making her virtuous,’ infusing her with a moral quality called ‘righteousness,’ but in the sense of creating for her the status of ‘having-been-declared-in-the-right,’ is the implicit metaphor behind Paul’s primary subject in this passage [Gal 3], which is God’s action in declaring, ‘You are my children, members of the single Abrahamic family’ (135).

Does he really think the old perspective advanced rather than rejected justification as infused righteousness?

Wright does indeed see Christ’s obedient life and death as the basis for eschatological salvation:

The basis for all this, in theology and eschatology, is the faithful, loving, self-giving death of the Messiah.  This is the theological point of reading pistis Christou and its cognates in terms of the Messiah’s own faithfulness; and this brings us as close as Galatians will let us come to what the Reformed tradition always wanted to say through the language of ‘imputed righteousness’ …But this does not mean that he has ‘fulfilled the law’ in the sense of obeying it perfectly and thus building up a ‘treasury of merit’ which can then be ‘reckoned’ to his people.  That scheme, for all its venerable antecedents in my own tradition as well as John Piper’s, always was an attempt to say something which Paul was saying, but in language and concepts which had still not shaken off the old idea that the law was, after all, given as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to impress God with one’s own moral accomplishments (135).

“God’s promises to Abraham were stuck in the Deuteronomic curse, and could not go forward in history to their fulfillment,” flowing out to the world” (136).  But his choice of the term “curse” is crucial here.  It’s not just that Sinai stood in the way of Zion by virtue of the former’s exclusive claim upon Israel.  Rather, it is that Israel too—like the Gentile world—is under the condemnation of the law.

Next week, we’ll move on to chapter 6 and begin reviewing Wright’s treatment of other Pauline texts.

WHI-963 | Christianity & Popular Culture

Americans are addicted to Pop-Culture. But what exactly is popular culture, and how has it affected the way American Christians think about and practice their faith? Joining the White Horse Inn panel for this discussion is Ken Myers, producer of Mars Hill Audio and author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. (Originally broadcast April 27, 1997)


Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Artist: Dave Hlebo

Gospel Driven Life

Have you seen Mike Horton’s latest book, The Gospel Driven Life, on the web? Here are a few nice mentions. Thanks for the advance press, folks!








Let’s Try This One More Time

What is the relationship between evangelicals and the Reformation? It’s a topic that we’ve spent quite a lot of time on, but some folks are still confused.

It was recently brought to our attention that at the September 3rd debate between Roman Catholic Francis Beckwith and evangelical Baptist Timothy George, Beckwith said the following:

If you ask the editorial board of Modern Reformation magazine, evangelicals are the theological heirs of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticisms in all its forms in a variety of denominations. This, however, according to some would exclude most Pentecostals, Wesleyan, and Church of Christ bodies as well as some Anglican communities.

Well, interestingly enough Dr. Beckwith didn’t ask our editorial board (granted, it is difficult to find us most days, our residing in beautiful southern California, and all). If he had, we could have told him it was an interesting point, but not one that we shared. Not knowing Dr. Beckwith’s own views, we can only state that we think that evangelicals aren’t the theological heirs of the Reformation.

For more information about evangelicalism difficult relationship with the Reformation, be sure to take a look below at just a few of the many article we’ve published on this topic.

If you or Dr. Beckwith needs me, I’ll be at the beach.

To Be Or Not to Be: The Uneasy Relationship Between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism.

The Battle Over the Label Evangelical

The Evangelical Narrative: Getting Rid of the Church (Don Williams, a regular MR contributor, will be offering a response to this article by D.G. Hart in the November/December 2009 issue. You can participate in the discussion by signing up for our Free Trial.)

Looking for a Reformation Experience?

Friend of the Inn, Martin Downes, reports:

Over the summer we started a Curry Club for men at our church where we have ended the meal by listening to an episode of The White Horse Inn and having a discussion together about the issues raised. Great food, great listening, and plenty to discuss. I recommend it.

Thanks, Martin. And we recommend more supporter-based experiences like Martin’s Curry Club (and they can include girls, too; that whole cootie thing is WAY overrated).

Reformation, like the pilgrim life, happens best when it is done in community. What community experience can you create to help people discover the rich insights of the Reformation for themselves? Since we haven’t yet decided if or when we want to open up blog comments on this newest venture of ours, please post your ideas on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll begin featuring them on our website as places for people to get plugged-in.

Reformation Now!

Ever since Paul addressed the philosophers in Athens, there has been but a small number of those who embrace the gospel.  The church has nevertheless grown throughout the world precisely through such witness.

In our own nation’s religious history, we’ve always had skeptics, deists, various cults, transcendentalists, and atheists who kept us on our toes.  Not only theologians and pastors, but many people in the pew were at least able to formulate the Christian faith over against the arguments of its detractors.  They could reach for the Trinity, Christ’s Incarnation, vicarious Death and victorious Resurrection, as well as the doctrines of original sin and justification, as the Christian answer to the perennial paganism of our fallen hearts.

However, today, we have an entirely new situation.  We’re faced by a bewildering diversity of religions, spiritualities, and philosophies, which often coalesce to form an impressive opposition to any particular creed and its claim to ultimate truth.  At the very time that the culture is most distant even from any implicit Christian memory and seems most powerfully anti-Christian, not only the people in the pew but pastors and theologians seem the least capable of articulating the Christian faith, much less of offering persuasive arguments for it.

The August 31 (2009) issue of Newsweek features an article titled “We’re All Hindus Now.”  Lisa Miller acknowledges, of course, that most Americans aren’t practicing Hindus, but she appeals to various surveys to show that even most Christians—including many evangelicals—in America today embrace more Hindu tenets than Christian ones.  She refers to two examples.  First, the resurrection of the body.  She points out that most Americans apparently assume that at death the soul—that is, the real part of a person, is finally released from its bodily prison-house, to float off somewhere or to be reincarnated.  Second, she refers more generally to the widespread belief that all paths lead to God or the divine: another major Hindu tenet, but opposed to Christianity’s central claim that Jesus Christ is the only Mediator and Savior.

Non-Christian writers like Harold Bloom can write a best-selling book arguing that the pervasive American religion is basically Gnosticism and a bevy of sociologists can confirm all of this from their own angles, but none of this seems to register in the evangelical world as an alarming state of affairs.  We keep hearing that our doctrine is fine; in fact, we teach too much.  Our problem is that we’re not living transformed lives.  I think we need a reformation at the roots.

We’ll always fall short of God’s commands for our lives, but if our lives are really no different at all from the lives of our non-Christian neighbors, maybe it’s because our operating convictions aren’t all that different either.

-Mike Horton

What if God Was a Vending Machine?

WWJC: What Would Joel Choose?


Five for Friday

Five for Friday is our new blog series in which we interview Reformation pacesetters: those who are leading the way for Reformation in the own communities and churches. This week, we’re pleased to introduce you to Dariusz Brycko, the executive director of the Tolle Lege Institute, a Grand Rapids based outreach to Poland. If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please drop us an email with a brief explanation of their work and their contact information.

What impact, historically speaking, did the Reformation have in Poland?

Initially, the Reformation had a great impact on Poland! To be more specific, it was Prussia, at the time a vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which became the first Protestant state by adopting the Augsburg Confession. (Today, the Prussian territory still belongs to Poland and is called Mazury, but today’s Mazurians are not native to those lands and know very little about the Protestant heritage of the region in which they live.)

Furthermore, many “early Protestants,” such as the followers of Jan Hus (John Huss), were so heavily persecuted in Bohemia that they fled to Poland. This included Amos Komenski (Johannes Comenius), famous for his pedagogical ideas and a candidate for the first president of Massachusetts’ Harvard College. In 1555, the Czech Brethren united with the Polish Reformed (and even today some members of the Polish Reformed church continue to uphold their Czech heritage).

Many influential members of the Polish gentry and nobility were so interested in the Reformation cause that they invited John Calvin to come lead the Polish reformation. Calvin turned down this invitation, explaining that he already had accepted a job in Geneva. However, he dedicated his Commentary to the Book of Hebrews to the Polish king, and together with other Reformers (especially Bullinger) was always interested in the Polish situation. He carried on extensive correspondence with members of the Polish Reformed congregations.

Poland also had a reformer of its own, Jan Laski (Johannes a Lasco). Laski knew Calvin well, and before his work in Poland he led the Reformed Churches in Emden, East Frisia as well as the Stranger Churches in London.  Abraham Kuyper rediscovered Laski’s important contribution to the Reformation cause, and his influence upon John Knox and Presbyterianism has become well-recognized. While in Poland, Laski promoted an irenic union between the Reformed, Lutherans, and Czech Brethren. This union took place ten years after his death when, in 1570, Polish Protestants united under the Consensus of Sadomir.

Even into the seventeenth century, Poles continued to contribute to the Reformation cause, producing some of the most important Reformed scholastic thinkers of the era, such as Bartholomew Keckermann (who was ethnically German), the famous professor of philosophy in Gdansk, and Jan Makowski (Johannes Maccovius), professor of theology in the Frisian Franeker Academy. Interestingly, Makowski was one of the most popular professors in the history of the academy and attracted many Polish students who later returned to Poland to serve the church. I guess I should also mention that Makowski married a sister of Rembrandt’s wife and thus was related to the acclaimed Protestant painter.

This is only to sketch the impact of the Reformation on Poland in very broad strokes. I still have not mentioned Protestant thinkers and theologians such as the father of Polish literature, Mikolaj Rej, or prolific pastors such as Jakub Zaborowski, Bartlomiej Bythner, Daniel Kalaj. Also, I have not mentioned the schism within the Polish Reformed church that resulted in the birth of the Polish Brethren (later known as Unitarians) and their controversial Italian leader, Faustus Socinus.

In sum, Polish Protestants in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a vibrant community, which produced many important thinkers. To underestimate their influence is to have an incomplete understanding of the Reformation in Europe’s Early Modern period.

How did Poland’s existence behind the Iron Curtain help or hinder the cause of Reformation?

Before I answer this question, readers need to understand that the cause of the Reformation was already severely hurt even before the Iron Curtain went up. This was due to the 123 years of cultural and religious oppression from Germany, among others.

In 1795, Poland as a state disappeared from the map of Europe and was divided between Lutheran Prussia, Orthodox Russia, and Catholic Austria. In the German and Russian partitions, Polish culture and Catholicism were persecuted, and being Polish was often associated with being Catholic. Poland as a state was reborn only in 1918, but World War II, followed by 40 years of imposed Soviet Communism, in many ways stood in continuity with the political and religious struggle from the previous century against these non-Catholic aggressors.

The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II confirmed to many that Catholicism was the best guardian of Polish culture and that to be Polish was to be Catholic. Unfortunately, very few people realize today that this idea was foreign to Marshall Josef Pilsudski, the father of the modern state of Poland, who converted to the Reformed Church.

So, as I have said, the cause of Reformation was hindered before the Iron Curtian went up. What might have further hindered it was that some Protestant clergy and missionaries collaborated with Communists, but this was also true for Roman Catholics. In many ways, life behind the Iron Curtain was very beneficial to Polish Christians (both Protestant and Catholics), where true believers, pastors, and priests sometimes shared the same prison cell; and, as Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Part of what Tolle Lege tries to do is to nourish the soil in which these seeds have been planted.

What are the greatest dangers to Reformation now that they are no longer under the influence of Russia and Communism?

The greatest dangers to the Reformation (and also to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) in Poland are secularism, liberal theology, and materialism. However, what endangers specifically Polish Protestantism (especially Evangelicalism) is the church growth movement, the prosperity gospel and, recently, Federal Vision.

What does your group try to do to influence Polish Reformation?

Tolle Lege Institute is not a church and it does not seek to do what the church is called to do.  Thus its goal is to support the educational efforts of Protestant churches (Confessional and Evangelical) in the areas in which they continue to struggle.

We seek to accomplish this purpose by translating and publishing classic works of Protestant theological literature as well as works that will guide people to a better understanding of classic, orthodox Reformed theology.

We are now getting ready to print in Polish our first book (about 1000 pages long), which is the translation of Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson’s Meet the Puritans. This will be the first comprehensive guide to Puritan theology on the Polish market.  Once we have funds, we would like to put together a selection of actual Puritan writings, which will serve as a companion to the first volume. We hope that these two volumes will be popular not only with Protestant Christians but also in university circles interested in Early Modern studies and American history.

We are also raising funds to translate J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. We believe that this work will address questions of theological liberalism common to all Christian, not just Protestants.

There are still many other important classic Protestant works which have not been translated to Polish. This long list includes, for example, the works of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkof.

Finally, our dream is to establish a small research center in Poland where clergy, scholars, journalists, and skeptics could come to research the Protestant contribution to Christianity. However, in order to do this we need to find committed supporters because work in Europe can be very costly.

How can donors who are willing to stand with you help the cause?

There are few specific ways in which donors can help our cause:

  1. Potential donors can contribute to the translation of a specific book. We do not start a translation project until we have all the necessary funds. Anyone can participate in helping with the costs of the books for which we are currently raising money, or even propose a book that they would like to see translated and published in Poland. As long as the book meets our criteria, we would be happy to consider adopting it as our project.
  2. Potential donors can also donate to our general fund, which allows Tolle Lege to exist and develop. This has been by far the greatest need, since it is much easier to find support for specific books and projects.

Donations can be mailed to:

Tolle Lege Institute
P.O. Box # 150101
Grand Rapids, MI 49515

or made with major credit card via our website.

I always encourage any new donors to get in touch with us personally and let us know if they have questions or suggestions, and why they are interested in supporting our work.

Dr. Dariusz Brycko is the executive diretor of the Tolle Lege Institute.

Wright Wednesdays: Part 5

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N.T. Wright's Justification, a response to the critique of John Piper and others to his version of the New Perspective on Paul, especially as it relates to the Reformation's understanding of justification.]

Justification and God’s Righteousness: Covenant and Eschatology

Wright sees Genesis 15 as the background for everything that Paul says in Romans 4 (66).  So too did the Reformers (especially Calvin) and the federal theologians who followed.  Wright is even willing to speak of Abraham’s righteousness as “his right standing within that covenant, and God’s righteousness” as “his unswerving commitment to be faithful to that covenant—including the promise (Romans 4:13) that Abraham would inherit the world.  Here we have it: God’s single plan, through Abraham and his family, to bless the whole world.  That is what I have meant by the word covenant when I have used it as shorthand in writing about Paul” (67).

Wright does a great job of showing how Romans 4 is rooted in Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30, and Daniel 9 (67).  However, since he is only working with “one covenant” and his “single-plan” emphasis eschews any nuance between different types of covenants (a temporal-typological and an eschatological homeland) even within this one plan, he mistakenly assumes that Deuteronomy (the Sinaitic covenant) is just another form of the Abrahamic promise except for its ethnic exclusivism (esp. 67).  Wright is most persuasive in his insistence that justification be interpreted in the light of God’s covenantal promise.  This is something I never heard in mainstream evangelicalism, but have heard repeatedly from Reformed theologians.  “As in Daniel 9, it is because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant that he must punish his faithless covenant people, and as a result their covenant failure (‘unrighteousness’) thus shows up his covenant faithfulness all the more” (68).

It’s not an abstract point that Paul is making, Wright correctly insists, but one that is bound up with the covenant history of Israel.  “The point of Romans 3:1-8 is not a general discussion about God’s attributes and human failure,” he properly contends.  Nevertheless, again we meet an example of a good point swallowing other important things whole: “Likewise, the unfaithfulness of the Israelites is not their lack of belief…The point is that God has promised to bless the world through Israel, and Israel has been faithless to that commission” (67).  Paul expressly says in Romans that his countrymen according to the flesh were condemned for refusing to place their faith in Christ rather than in their own works (Rom 9:32).  The writer to the Hebrews says that the wilderness generation was barred from entering the promised land because they did not respond in faith to the preaching of the gospel (Heb 3:16-19).  As covenant theology has emphasized, the covenants with Adam and Israel are indeed a commission to bring God’s righteous kingdom to the ends of the earth.  However, it is not only a commission to global mission, but a specific kind of commission to fulfill all righteousness.  Adam and Israel were entrusted with God’s law, on trial in God’s garden, and both probations ended in the failure of the covenant partner.  This is the bleak backdrop of Jesus’ identity as the Last Adam and True Israel.  However, for Wright there is no distinction between covenants: judgment on the basis of Sinai (Dt 27-30), with deliverance on the basis of the Abrahamic promise (Gen 15).

Remarkably, Wright accuses the old perspective (or at least Piper) of down-playing the law-court metaphor (68).  This is highly ironic, given the fact that the grounding of justification in the law-court (imputation rather than infusion) has been the heart of the debate between Reformation and Roman Catholic interpretations.  As in his other books, Wright mistakenly assumes that the Reformation view argues that God’s essential righteousness—in other words, his own attribute of righteousness—is somehow given to believers.  But this overlooks the crucial role of Jesus Christ as mediator in the traditional view: It is not God’s attribute of righteousness, but the right-standing that results from a complete fulfillment of God’s law, that is imputed to believers.  It is Christ’s obedience, not his essence, that becomes ours.  Further, Wright appears to argue against the “old perspective” as if it were the very opposite (viz., the Roman view).   In this context, Wright insists, “righteous” doesn’t mean “virtuous,” but in right standing (68).  “That ‘finding in favor,’ that declaration, is ‘justification’; the result is that Bildad is now ‘righteous,’ that is, ‘in the right.’  This does not mean, primarily, that Bildad is virtuous, certainly not that he has a special concern for the glory of the judge” (69).  Why does Wright keep criticizing justification as “making virtuous” as if it is the Reformation view, when it is precisely the view that the reformers rejected?

Unlike his other works, in this book Wright does recognize that Calvin did not completely miss these crucial aspects: the Genevan reformer emphasized that we are saved by grace, but also affirmed that God saved us for obedience.  (Surely Wright is not unaware of Luther’s similar point, often observed under such maxims as “justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”?)  This, Wright suggests, is nothing more or less than “what Ed Sanders was arguing about Torah-keeping within Judaism.  That is ‘covenantal nomism’: now that you’re in the covenant, here is the law to keep” (72).  However, this is a very grace-friendly interpretation of Sanders.  Of course, his thesis is that Judaism is a religion of grace rather than of moralistic self-salvation.  However, Sanders can only say this because his own synergistic theology assumes that grace is a necessary but not sufficient cause of salvation.  Sanders himself points out in that seminal work the extent to which early Judaism taught a view of “salvation” that was clearly dependent on our works (the “merit of the fathers” and the good works of the righteous outweighing their sins, etc.).  Sanders’ formula was actually “get in by grace, stay in by obedience.”

Neither Sanders nor Wright recognizes any difference between this Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant of grace.  Sanders’ formula does indeed capture the substance of the Sinai covenant, which pertained to the national status of ethnic Israel in the typological land.  Israel was given the land by promise, not because of merits (Dt 8).  Nevertheless, Israel could remain in God’s land only by doing everything contained in the law.  The conditions and sanctions are “do or die.”  This is not how Israelites were “saved” (i.e., justified before God), but it is the basis of their title to the land as a nation prefiguring the messianic kingdom.

Wright also observes, “Many a good old perspective Calvinist has declared that the best way to understand justification is within the context of ‘being in Christ’: the two need not be played off against one another, and indeed they hardly can be without tearing apart some of Paul’s most tightly argued passages (e.g., Galatians 3:22-29 or Philippians 3:7-11)” (72).  Even more: “In Calvin and his followers…the great emphasis is on the single plan of God, the fact that God has not changed his mind” (73).  Then why did he assert repeatedly until now that being in Christ, and the single-plan based on God’s promise to Abraham, are themes virtually ignored by the whole Protestant tradition?

Paul’s point in Romans 3 is that “since the whole human race is in the dock, guilty before God, ‘justification’ will always then mean ‘acquittal,’ the granting of the status of ‘righteous’ to those who had been on trial—and which will then also mean, since they were in fact guilty, ‘forgiveness’” (90).  So it can’t mean Augustine’s “to make righteous,” i.e., “transforming the character of the person” (91).  It “does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status” (91).   At this point, one might have expected Wright to announce that he embraces the Reformation interpretation of justification over against the Roman Catholic view.  However, he sweeps them together.  Unlike “the post-Augustinian tradition,” Paul didn’t understand justification “to cover the whole range of ‘becoming a Christian’ from first to last…” (81).  Surely Wright must be aware of the reformers’ reluctant but firm criticism of Augustine and the medieval view at just this point (confusing justification and sanctification).

Romans 3 is not concerned with “a ‘moral righteousness,’” but “the status of the person whom the court has vindicated,” Wright insists, criticizing not only Piper but Stephen Westerholm and Mark Seifrid for dismissing the importance of the covenant-motif (92-93).  I concur with Wright entirely when he writes, “The contrast between promise and law is not merely that they function differently as abstract systems.  The contrast is that ‘the covenant’ is what God made with Abraham, the agreement that through him god would bless the whole world, giving him a single worldwide family, while ‘the law’ is what God gave to Moses, for reasons that will become (more or less) apparent, but which cannot include abolishing or tampering with ‘the covenant’ God had already made with Abraham…” (98).  Paul points out that “the promises to Abraham and his family were that they should inherit (not ‘the land,’ merely, but) ‘the world’ (Romans 4:13).  This is exactly the point” (99).  He adds, “It is also forensic, understanding the covenantal history within the lawcourt framework, not as an arbitrary metaphor chosen at random but precisely because the covenant was there as God’s chosen means of putting things right.  And it is also, of course, eschatological” (100).

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come.  Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated!  Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled!  Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well!  And these, for Paul, were not three, but one.  Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.  The eschatology, though, was as I said only partially realized (101).

The problem, as I see it, is that Wright can explain Paul’s contrast between law and promise, Sinai/Moses and Abraham, only on the basis of the former’s exclusivity rather than on the conditional character of the national covenant distinct from the gospel that God also promised to Abraham and foreshadowed in the typological rites of Israel’s worship.  He is right to criticize an abstract opposition of law and promise, but doesn’t recognize the deeper reasons why Paul indeed argues for a strict opposition when it comes to the question of how one is right with God.

Once more we are told, “This is the trouble with the great tradition, from Augustine onward: not that it has not said many true and useful things, but that by using the word ‘justification’ as though it described the entire process from grace to glory it has given conscientious Pauline interpreters many sleepless nights trying to work out how what he actually says about justification can be made to cover this whole range without collapsing into nonsense or heresy or both” (102).  But he nowhere observes that this “great tradition from Augustine onward” does not include the Reformation but was in fact the target of the reformers’ objections.  These sweeping indictments are made all the more confusing when Wright adds comments such as the following: “As John Calvin rightly saw—and as Paul himself said, in the first paragraph he ever wrote on the subject—we are ‘justified in Christ’ (Galatians 2:17)” (102).  Again, I ask, what then of the sweeping charge that nobody in the old perspective really understood this point?

Wright helpfully observes that “this faithful obedience of the Messiah, culminating in his death ‘for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ as in one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3), is regularly understood in terms of the Messiah, precisely because he represents his people, now appropriately standing in for them, taking upon himself the death which they deserved, so that they might not suffer it themselves.  This is most clearly expressed, to my mind, in two passages: Romans 8:3, where Paul declares that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ (note, he does not say that God ‘condemned Jesus,’ but that ‘he condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus); and 2 Corinthians 5:21a, where he says that God ‘made him to be sin [for us] who knew no sin’” (105).  “Notice how the sterile old antithesis between ‘representation’ and ‘substitution’ is completely overcome.  The Messiah is able to be the substitute because he is the representative” (106).  With these assumptions, it is puzzling to me at least why Wright would have trouble with “this faithful obedience of the Messiah” and his representation or “standing in for” as a righteousness that is credited or imputed to his people.

“Fifth, the resurrection of the Messiah is, for Paul, the beginning of the entire new creation” (106).  “Sixth—it may feel like a different subject, but for Paul it belongs right here—the ‘Spirit of his Son’ (Galatians 4:6), the ‘Spirit of [the Messiah]’ (Romans 8:9), is poured out upon the Messiah’s people, so that they become in reality what they already are by God’s declaration: God’s people indeed, his ‘children’ (Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 4:4-7) within a context replete with overtones of Israel as ‘God’s son’ at the exodus” (106-107).  “Seventh, and finally, the point which has just been hinted at: for Paul, Jesus’ messiahship constitutes him as the judge on the last day” (107).  “And at that judgment seat the verdict will be in accordance with one’s ‘works’” (108).  The old perspective has not had any trouble affirming the abundant exegetical warrant for a final judgment of works.  Not only are believers judged worthy in Christ already (justification), but they will be publicly revealed as “the righteous” in glory (as sanctification is immediately perfected in the glorification/resurrection of the dead).  The danger, however, is in making faith the condition of present justification and works the condition of an eschatological justification in the future.  In my view, it is more consonant with Paul’s eschatology to speak not of present and future justification, but justification as the already fully-realized verdict that ensures our eschatological glorification.

Next week, we’ll spend some time looking at Wright’s formulation of faith and faithfulness in relation to Christ and his work of passive and active obedience.

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