Today, I was reading a review, the particulars of which are not relevant, but the author speaks of “N. T. Wright’s brand of the New Perspective, in explaining justification: . . . . imputation of Christ’s righteousness is refuted; . . . and there is a final eschatological justification based on the faithful life lived.”
That reminded me of the review I wrote a couple of years ago, of N. T. Wright’s book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. That review has not (yet?) been published, but I have just added the text of what I wrote to a relatively new section on this site (“Book Reviews,” under “Documents”). You don’t need to read the review to make sense of this post. But I want to make a few brief remarks about justification, some of which may also show up in my review. So I mention it now, though I did not reread the review before adding it to my site.
Wright has certainly made some strong negative statements about the classical Reformation doctrine of the imputation of justification, but he seems to have misunderstood the intent of that doctrine (if I may be so bold as to say so, regarding so fine a biblical scholar). That being said, I myself began to use the term “imputation” very seldom, for a long time before Wright expressed his dislike of it. For years, I had appropriated B. B. Warfield’s scheme of a threefold imputation: (1) Adam’s sin to those in him, (2) believers’ sin to Christ, and (3) Christ’s righteousness to us. Luther had spoken of the first as our “alien guilt” and the third as our “alien righteousness,” but I grew dissatisfied with the “alienness” in that description. Increasingly, I came to view the whole situation covenantally and to think of our imlication in Adam’s sin, and then in Christ’s righteousness, as the fruit of covenant solidarity. We all start life spiritually dead by virtue of our solidarity with Adam, but we become spiritually alive through union with Christ.
Having thought and spoken of human guilt and righteousness in this way for some years, I was prepared to be somewhat sympathetic with Wright’s concerns, while not being satisfied with his reconstruction. In Michael Bird’s dialogue with Wright, at the ETS annual meeting whose theme was “justification,” Bird suggested the term “incorporated righteousness,” as better than “imputed righteousness.” That terminology represents very nicely the direction my own mind had taken, emphasizing the centrality of our union with Christ in this, as in other aspects of salvation.
That is where I am now in my thought and language, but I welcome comment from others who have given attention to this matter in their own theological construction.
The final basis of justification
In 1974/75, I enrolled in a seminar on “Justification” with Norman Shepherd, at Westminster. It was a very stimulating course, in which participants selected sections of the biblical text and presented their findings in regard to justification. In those days, Shepherd was already speaking about “a certain instrumentality of works in justification,” and I remember struggling to get a clear grasp on what he was proposing, and to assess its correctness. After I graduated from the seminary, they went through a lengthy and painful process of examination of Prof. Shepherd, which generated significant tensions within the faculty, I gathered. In the end, Shepherd was released and moved on to pastoral ministry in a Reformed church. I have had correspondence with him more recently, as I have grown more sympathetic with his intent. It has now become quite common for evangelical theologians to acknowledge that justification is through faith but that the final judgment is according to works. I have wondered whether Shepherd might have fared better now than he did in the 70s, but it is impossible to know.
In my own reading of the NT, and of Paul in particular, it has become increasingly clear to me that, for Paul, the issue was not so much faith versus works, as grace versus works. The critical factor is ground, rather than instrument, especially when the instrument is seen to be God’s gift to us. I was helped to see this when my colleague, Edmund Neufeld, gave me the chance to read work he was doing on justification in the synoptic Gospels. That work was eventually published as “The Gospel in The Gospels: Answering the Question ‘What Must I Do To Be Saved?’ From The Synoptics.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008):267-96. It is a very fine paper, with which I heartily agree, and it demonstrates the prominence given to our deeds in statements about our justification or vindication, in the Synoptics.
N. T. Wright himself has acknowledged that he overstated himself when speaking of the role of our works in final justification. It was certainly never his intention to resurrect the classical Roman Catholic doctrine of double justification. There, justification is infused in our initial justification, through faith, but we are then enabled to do meritorious works, and those are instrumental in our final justification. At points in Wright’s work, it sounded as though he was echoing that doctrine, but it is now clear that this was not what he wanted to say.
The statements from dialogues between Roman Catholic theologians and Protestants, in various venues, have struck me as rather confusing. On the one hand, many Roman Catholics are anxious to assert that they agree with Protestants that justification is by grace through faith, but Rome has never officially rejected Trent’s way of speaking. In that regard, I think the Reformation is not yet over, though I am encouraged with more recent developments.
Among evangelicals, however, there now seems to be widespread comfort with reference to final judgment as according to our works, while not attributing to those works any instrumentality in justification. The “not guilty” verdict made by God concerning us, when we are united to Christ by grace through faith, is made on the ground of our union with Christ, and that same verdict will be pronounced at the end, on that same ground. Nonetheless, in the lives of those whom God declares “not guilty,” at the “last day,” their works done in the flesh will bear testimony to the righteousness of Christ that had been practically at work in them, through their mutual indwelling. Justification is forensic, and needs to be distinguished from sanctification as a matter of ongoing experience, but the two cannot be separated. The Roman Catholic concern about antinomianism in the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” is a healthy one, and we should share it. But we must not compromise the purely gracious nature of our salvation in Christ, from beginning to end, a truth that has not been well taught to millions of Catholic lay people around the world.
Soli deo gloria!