N.T. Wright on the Gospel & Justification

23 07 2011


N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar whom Christianity Today has described as one of the top five theologians in the world today. After serving three years as the canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, Wright became the Bishop of Durham in 2003 – the fourth highest ranking position of authority in the Church of England.

Tom Wright has spent his life studying the history surrounding the New Testament and early Christianity. He has written several widely-acclaimed books on the historical Jesus as well as many on the Apostle Paul and the New Testament epistles.

Wright has received both praise and criticism for his work. Anne Rice, the author of the Interview with a Vampire series, has credited Wright’s work on the historical Jesus with bringing her back to her Christian faith. Reformed theologian J.I. Packer has described Wright as “brilliant” and “one of God’s best gifts to our decaying Western Church.”

As Bishop of Durham, Wright has been a lightning rod for controversy from both conservatives who take offense with his political views and from liberals who reject his traditional views on homosexuality.

As a New Testament scholar, Wright has faced criticism from both sides of the theological aisle. Liberal scholars, such as those who make up the infamous “Jesus Seminar” decry Wright’s work on the historical Jesus as much too conservative and traditional. Conservative scholars appreciate his strong defense of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.

But many conservatives of the Reformed persuasion are perplexed by Wright’s views on the doctrine of justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Several well-known theologians, such as D.A. Carson, Mark Seifrid, Guy Waters, and now pastor John Piper, have written extensively to refute the “New Perspective on Paul” that Wright advocates.

In our interview with N.T. Wright, we will ask questions that will help illuminate the current discussions within Reformed circles on the legitimacy of Wright’s exegesis of the New Testament texts.


Questions that Wright answers during the interview:

Could you give us a brief definition of “the gospel”?

N.T. Wright: I could try taking a Pauline angle. When Paul talks about “the gospel,” he means “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” Now, that’s about as brief as you can do it.

The reason that’s good news… In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor came to the throne, there’d obviously been a time of uncertainty. Somebody’s just died. Is there going to be chaos? Is society going to collapse? Are we going to have pirates ruling the seas? Are we going to have no food to eat? And the good news is, we have an emperor and his name is such and such. So, we’re going to have justice and peace and prosperity, and isn’t that great?!

Now, of course, most people in the Roman Empire knew that was rubbish because it was just another old jumped-up aristocrat who was going to do the same as the other ones had done. But that was the rhetoric.

Paul slices straight in with the Isaianic message: Good news! God is becoming King and he is doing it through Jesus! And therefore, phew! God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s world is going to be renewed.

And in the middle of that, of course, it’s good news for you and me. But that’s the derivative from, or the corollary of the good news which is a message about Jesus that has a second-order effect on me and you and us. But the gospel is not itself about you are this sort of a person and this can happen to you. That’s the result of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.

It’s very clear in Romans. Romans 1:3-4: This is the gospel. It’s the message about Jesus Christ descended from David, designated Son of God in power, and then Romans 1:16-17 which says very clearly: “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation.” That is, salvation is the result of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself.


If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?

N.T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.

And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.

The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be the means by which the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.

So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed in advance of that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!

And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.

So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.

And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.

Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But that is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.





Other questions asked during the interview (you can click on the link below to read–or listen to–the full interview):

You have said in many of your books that justification is not how one becomes a Christian but a declaration that one is a Christian. What language do you use to explain how one becomes a Christian?

Some evangelicals within the Reformed tradition have taken issue with your division of present and future justification and your statement that on the Last Day, we will be justified “on the basis of the whole life lived.” Does this mean that our good works contribute to our salvation? Or is it that our good works prove our salvation?

So how would you share all of this with an individual in the evangelistic task, if an individual were to come up and to say, “What must I do to be saved?” “How can I become a part of this…”

You have been critical of the post-Enlightenment secularization of government and society. What is the proper relationship between a church or a faith and the government? What is the proper status of minority faiths in any given society?

How does the doctrine of sola Scriptura influence your work and your method?

You have criticized very strongly the arrogance of Enlightenment modernism, especially in Enlightenment thinkers’ hasty rejection of the supernatural, Jesus’ resurrection, etc. – an attitude that claims we have needed 1700 years for modern science to tell us that dead people stay dead and so on and so forth. Yet, you are advocating what’s called the “new” perspective on Paul’s theology, a recent innovation in the history of Christian thought. Could it be that, ironically, even as you critique the arrogant attitude of the Enlightenment, you have opened yourself up to the charge at least, that you are sort of embodying that same attitude by discounting years of Christian theology, in effect saying, “Now, finally, we are coming to what Paul or Jesus actually meant to say!”?

In your opinion, has scholarly criticism of the New Perspectives in America, such as Carson, Piper, Moo and others, have they been fair? Or have they misunderstood the New Perspective?

It is becoming increasingly clear in evangelicalism that we have often emphasized the cross as central to the gospel and then treated the resurrection as an afterthought, a vindication of Jesus only. Your massive work on the resurrection has begun to stir up much thought about how we can better integrate the truth of Christ’s bodily resurrection into our theology and into our practice. What is the significance of Christ’s resurrection for us today?

You stress the Christian’s eschatological hope as the new heavens and new earth. You are also very strongly committed to issues relating to social justice as a way of anticipating in the present God’s restoration of the world in the future. Some of your works emphasize social justice and give scant or no attention to evangelism, church planting, discipling, etc. Where does evangelism fit into this task? And how important is it for Christians to actively evangelize unbelieving people?

Click here to read the interview, or here to listen to it.



Click here for the interview of N.T. Wright responding to John Piper on Justification.

What would you say are the key differences between you and Piper on justification?

N.T. Wright: Well, I set justification within the larger Pauline context, where it always comes, of God’s purposes to fulfill his covenant promise to Abraham and so to rescue the whole creation, humankind of course centrally included, from sin and death. Piper holds that Abrahamic context at arm’s length.

Second, I understand justification as basically a law-court term, where it means the judge’s creative declaration that a person is ‘in the right’ in terms of the lawcourt, whereas Piper holds that justification involves the accrediting to a person of the moral, not the forensic, ‘righteousness’ of Christ – something Paul never says (as J. I. Packer admits).

Third, I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification as eschatological, that is, the justification of the faithful in the present time is both the fulfilment of the long story of Israel and the anticipation of the eventual verdict to be delivered on the last day, as in Romans 2.1-16 and 8.1-30.

Fourth, in line with many Reformed readers of scripture, including Calvin, I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification to be of those who are ‘in Christ’, whereas Piper and others don’t make that a central element in justification itself. Conversely, for Piper the center of justification is the ‘imputation’ of ‘the righteousness of Christ’, seen in terms of ‘righteousness’ as a kind of moral achievement earned by Jesus and then reckoned to those who believe. I believe that this is an attempt to say something close to what Paul actually says in Romans 6, namely that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is ‘reckoned’ to those who are ‘in him’. Putting it the way Piper (and one part of the Reformation tradition) puts it is a pointer to something which is truly there in Paul, but one which gives off misleading signals as well.

Finally, for Piper justification through Christ alone is…


Click here to see a side-by-side comparison of the issues.


What is “the gospel”?


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