We’re comparing the differences between John Piper and N. T. Wright on Paul and the New Perspective using helpful summaries compiled by Trevin Wax featured in the June 2008 edition of Christianity Today. Today we follow up the significance of the saving work of the gospel of Jesus Christ by asking the question: “How does this happen?” In other words, how does the saving work of Christ get applied to us?
PIPER: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.
WRIGHT: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are “in Christ,” so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God’s declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God’s purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the “works of the Law” (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).
Some of my observations:
1. Here the rubber meets the road in the debate. Yes, Jesus saves. But exactly how? Yes, Christ is our substitute and dies in our place? But in what particular way is Christ our substitute? Faith unites us with Christ and all the benefits of Christ are transferred to our account, securing our salvation. But what kind of “transaction” is this? We are justified by faith in Christ alone. But, again, what exactly does it mean to be “justified” before God? Is Christ’s own righteousness counted as our own by imputation? Or, does justification mean one is declared righteous by virtue of belonging to God’s worldwide family of Abraham through faith in Christ?
These are a few of the more complex questions on the table of this debate. We MUST not merely gravitate towards and embrace Piper’s classic definition above merely because it’s familiar, it’s what we were taught in Sunday School, it’s all settled in our minds. Wright insists that we rethink Paul on his own terms, going back to Scripture — not to Grudem’s systematic theology or the Westminster Confession. Do you have the courage to question tightly held beliefs in light of new scholarship? Do you have the humility to accept correction if indeed we have gotten Paul wrong on certain things? I’m not suggesting Wright and the New Perspective have proven their case. But one must answer ‘Yes’ to these two questions if we are to give Wright and others a fair hearing.
2. Wright and Piper both believe salvation is by faith alone through Jesus Christ. Both believe in Christ’s substitutionary work of atonement. Both believe the cross and resurrection are the means by which God brought redemption to the world.
3. Piper believes that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us — that is, in the divine courtroom where human rebels stand guilty awaiting their just condemnation, the righteous judge applies his own righteousness to us and declares us not guilty. Wright challenges whether such an notion of “imputed righteousness” can indeed be found in the Pauline texts. (That’s another debate for another day.)
4. Piper’s view tends toward a sort of abstract “transaction” between God and men for salvation. Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ salvific work is anchored in the larger Abrahamic covenantal context. Jesus is not plan B (i.e., a new plan) after God’s covenant with Israel failed to bring blessings to the nations. Rather, as Wright says, God himself acted in the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself the representative of Israel, “allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world.” Jesus’ stands in the place of sinful humanity (Adam) and in the place of wayward Israel, in order to at last bring God’s original covenant purpose to rescue the world through his chosen people to fulfillment.
5. Thus, for Wright the important thing on Paul’s mind is not an abstract, individualistic transaction between God and men by virtue of some imputed righteousness. Rather, Paul in Romans and elsewhere is concerned about who is indeed part of God’s renewed worldwide family of Abraham to whom redemption has come by Christ’s faithfulness to God and through whom God will extend restoration and salvation to the entire world. Wright believes justification has to do as much with ecclesiology as soteriology. Here Piper and Wright go their separate ways for sure.
What are your thoughts? Are these two different understandings mutually exclusive? Complimentary? Where is Wright’s new perspective weakest at first glance? How much is at stake in this debate? If you are unfamiliar with the very complex, ongoing scholarly debate in the New Testament guild on the so-called New Perspective on Paul, please go read Wright and others on their own terms before you draw hasty, uninformed conclusions.
NEXT: Our final comparison from Trevin Wax’s comparison chart between Piper and Wright will address the question of the “future of justification.”