Justification and the Gospel – A Response to N.T. Wright

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne

Is justification part of the gospel? Or is it a separate transaction? Is (final) justification delayed until the future when we face God’s judgment? What did the apostle Paul mean when he wrote about justification? Do we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness?

N. T. Wright, a world-renowned (yes he’s very popular, but Arius was even more popular!) New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has spent decades seeking “new” fresh interpretations of the apostle Paul’s writings. Wright is popular in both Britain and America. Among his conclusions are that “the discussions of justification in much of the history of the church certainly since Augustine got off on the wrong foot, at least in terms of understanding Paul and they have stayed there ever since.”

According to John Piper, Pastor (emeritus) of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Wright’s supreme confidence (the guy comes off as more than a tad arrogant and smugly pleased with himself) that the entire Church has gotten it wrong for over 1,500 years, given his enormous influence, set off warning bells for Christian leaders such as himself, a pastor and New Testament scholar. According to Piper, if Wright’s views find a home in the church, not only could the doctrine of justification be distorted for generations to come but the New Testament writers’ original intent could be silenced. Piper’s book on justification, which is a response to Wright, is a clarion call to all Christians, especially seminary professors and pastors, citing his warnings against “fresh” interpretations of the Bible and his plea to hold fast to what he considers the biblical view of justification. Piper believes in this issue so strongly and considers it of the utmost importance, that he has made his excellent book “The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright” (which gives a thorough defense of the traditional view of justification and a polite yet strong rejoinder to N.T. Wright) available for free as a PDF. Wright is the author of “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.” This book by Wright is utter heresy! Not only does it break with at least 1,500 years of orthodoxy, but it also redefines justification such that one is not justified until finally after they die and God decides their worthiness based on their merits. This is almost identical to the Roman Catholic view of works righteousness! Big red flashing alarms should be going off at this point. Wright (who is definitely wrong) even denies penal substitutionary atonement!

Wright has a massive ego and a vastly inflated sense of superiority. He and a few others alone have been clever enough to figure out what the apostle Paul truly meant (as if Paul is unclear – he’s not). Men like Wright place supreme trust in their intellects. I’ve known men like him. Faith for them is more an intellectual exercise, which they great pleasure in abstracting and constructing elaborate theories and models. I am not an anti-intellectual, but I’d rather have as a friend a person with simple yet profound faith. One with a hermeneutic that is straightforward and doesn’t have to do twists and turns and exotic allegorization to arrive at the authorial intent and to exegete the plain and clear meaning of Scripture. This is more akin to occult magic and witchcraft where Wright and his ilk alone are the true Seers who see what generations could not. Accept their novel view and become truly enlightened! What rubbish! I wish more seminarians and pastors would be more vocal in their criticism of Wright and the other New Perspective on Paul adherents. This fresh and new perspective is straight from the mind of Satan. Wright should be publicly denounced as a dangerous heretic, like a ravenous wolf, who Paul himself warned us would come to distort and change the Gospel. It’s obvious Wright is a conflicted soul.

Methinks it won’t be long before he swims the Tiber. Like former Anglican theologian John Henry Newman. The articulator of the Roman Catholic development of doctrine. Wright would feel right at home there. He will be empowered to keep gaining fresh new insights whilst being able to simultaneously believe they have existed since the Early Church. I guess cognitive dissonance has set in with Wright a very long time ago. He fancies himself an evangelical, yet acts more like a Roman Catholic in his theology! I hope Wright does us a favor and swims the Tiber sooner rather than later. Who knows what fresh new heresies he may yet attempt to introduce as orthodoxy!

C. H. Dodd in the early 1920s wrote a small book called The Gospel in the New Testament. Here is a free PDF. When he approached Paul, he laid out the gospel according to Paul. The major problem in Paul is sin and the human condition, and the major solution is what God has done in Christ. Dodd continues to explain how justification is a central aspect of Paul’s gospel:

When Paul speaks of faith, then, he is thinking of a confidence in God evoked by Christ, and securely based on what God has actually done through Christ for the redemption or emancipation of men. Through such faith, he says, a man is “justified.” That is, in fact, his answer to the old dilemma; no man can be saved unless he is in communion with God; yet, if God is righteous, how can a sinful man ever begin to have communion with Him? On the level on which Paul’s thought had habitually moved, the only answer, given in legal or forensic terms, is that, in view of all the guilt that lies on a man’s soul, God graciously acquits him, attributing to him a righteousness which is not yet his, but will be his through the divine grace. Thus God is not only just, but the Justifier of men, and His righteousness is shown to be of a larger kind than the justice of mere reciprocity (Rom 3:21–26, 4:3–5, 5:18–19; Gal 2:15–16).

The Gospel in the New Testament by C.H. Dodd

There are of course many threads of thought in Paul’s letters, especially if one begins probing the ‘sub-structure’ of his theology. But I think it is telling that Dodd, in summarizing Paul’s gospel message in so concise a manner for laymen, chose to highlight the major problem in Paul’s thought as man’s guilty status before God, and the major solution as God justifying men through faith in Christ. It is clear to me, and it’s been sufficiently clear to the vast majority of the Church’s great minds since at least Augustine, that one cannot divorce justification from the gospel Paul preached. To do otherwise sets up a false dichotomy. One has to make extremely sophisticated and utterly speculative models of Paul’s thought in order to arrive at a position like the one Wright believes.

Here is a quote from an article by The Rev. Roger Salter, an ordained Church of England minister who had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. I think he has keen insight into the man Wright is and his motivations and motives:

I cannot comprehend the adulation accorded to Nicholas Thomas Wright.

He may be a giant of the theological and academic world but that is no guarantee of his sound-ness or pastoral worth. It is from the context of the parish that I critique this man where puzzle-ment and confusion over his teaching is prevalent.

Wright writes smugly of his new and revolutionary insights that correct traditional teaching from the age of Augustine. He consigns the teaching of the Reformation, and especially Luther, to the dark cellars of medievalism. He liberally insults the old cronies who adhere to the traditional doc-trines of soteriology. All the way through his theological meanderings and muddle he denies the essential and key doctrines of the faith that attaches us savingly to the God of our rescue from moral perversion and condemnation.

Academics may like to play theological chess with him and glorify their reputations by clinging to his coat-tails but he is slowly impregnating the minds, even of intentionally loyal advocates of Ho-ly Scripture, with notions that ease them away from the truths of divine revelation.

I continue with some scribblings from some occasional notes that lie on my desk, and which I hope to amplify with more deliberation and evidence. I simply take the opportunity, following his disastrous comments in Time magazine to launch forward from the starting blocks.

I realize that this contribution is insufficient but my disgust with said author is huge, and I believe the danger he poses to authentic Christian faith is enormous, seeping into the thought of so many transfixed by his reputation and celebrity.

Just these thoughts for now:

There is something very dubious about NTW. On the basis of the “analogy of faith, so-called. He counters the authority of Scripture, tearing fundamental theology to shreds. I think his method is sinister. His enchantment with a particular subjective inclination is so destructive. He arrogantly dismisses the mind of the Church, long established, on human acceptance with God (the minis-try and revolution by the hand and wit of Luther is not a valid analogy whatsoever).

Even Catholic history manifests a basic orthodoxy in the procedure of controversy between the Reformed and the Romans. Hans Kung points to the different theological concerns of the people of God in various eras, and the theme of getting right with God is persistent in the history of Catholic thought. The evangelical conversion of Cardinal Contarini and the Italian “spirituali” (in-cluding Michelangelo) testify to the lively thought on justification in Roman circles. The two sides in 16th century debate recognize common issues and intent on the topic which definitely do not match the novelties of N.T. Wright. The two contenders for truth share a common purpose as to how sinners reconcile with God.

For Wright justification is not a salvific matter at all, but a formal identification with a community that ostensibly recognizes the kingship of Christ, but that due status of the Lord Jesus stems from his salvific achievement (Isaiah 53, especially vv 9-12). There is no warmth for the soul in Wright’s theologizing, for many of us still feel the weight and burden of our sin and seek the par-don and acceptance of the Lord whom we have offended so unjustly and unworthily, even if it is a medieval feeling in the thought of some – especially among unbelievers.

Wright affords no pastoral consolation, no personal security to the anxious and convicted soul. He cheapens valid Christian experience with snide asides (more later). We simply have a con-tract with a God who has ceased to insist upon certain Old Testament ordinances. We lose our assurance of reconciliation with God, pending the verdict on our attachment to him disclosed at the final assize. That’s the way I see it, if I understand Wright aright. But then, how can anyone be sure that they have grasped his meaning, as it changes, at least in presentation and many de-nials as a weather-vane? We all know the origin of confusion.

I believe Wright is fascinated with a subjective (subconscious) emotional impression that invites him to seek notoriety for the sake of personal significance. His advocacy of his view makes him big. It is all a project of self-love. If he really compared Scripture with Scripture, and did not treat of it with dash and cavalier enthusiasm (for his interpretation reveals many leaps and gaps in his application) he would be just one of the crowd of unsensational biblical expositors without a dis-tinctive name. Again, he is frequently insulting and patronizing to the ordinary chaps who seek faithfulness to the Word of God rather than astounding and dazzling originality.

A comparison of this man with the pastoral and biblical skill of Martin Luther is warranted.

https://virtueonline.org/problem-nt-wright

Wright is a virtual rockstar in the academic world. Among New Testament scholars he has more notoriety than any other. And I noticed his book review on Amazon had more than 100 additional reviews than did Piper’s book on justification. But as I said, we need only look at church history and the popular heresy of Arius (which denied Christ’s divinity), and see how close his view came to the unchallenged and eventually the historical ORTHODOX view to see the great danger men like Wright pose. Thanks to great men used by God like Athanasius we defeated Arius and his heresy became heterodoxy. We need a new generation of Athanasius who will boldly stand up for the truth of God’s Word and defend orthodoxy anew in our generation! No matter what it costs them. They may not be a media darling, they may not sell millions of books, they may not have a cult following in academia, they may not be a powerful bishop who has charge over many souls, but their faithful witness can be used by God to make all the difference. One thing which really struck me about Wright, the more I read his books, the interviews he has been in, read comments by his followers, is how extraordinarily lacking he is in humility. And I think he is a very poor writer and an awful communicator. He writes in such a turgid and multi-layered allegorical and symbolic style that it can be hard to pin him down. You can quote him in context and he’ll make a long-winded explanation of his verbose writings, as to why your understanding of his position is lacking nuance or is just plain wrong. It shows a supreme lack of confidence in one’s own beliefs. If you cannot clearly articulate your position something is very wrong. A child can understand be moved to repentance and faith by the Gospel, I was such a child at 7 years old, yet according to men like Wright unless you have a minimum of a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism, and have lapped up the teachings of men like E.P. Sanders, and of course Wright himself, then you aren’t qualified to understand the “real gospel” or understand the “real Paul”. Wright has been very cold and even insulting to the average Christian layman. He makes it no secret he believes his view is superior and he has an 800-page book explaining why! The Reformers, who were so mightily used by God to reassert the true Gospel, spoke to the common man. Yes, they had academic discourse, but they did not condescend, belittle, ignore, or speak down to the common man. Here is an excellent article by Phil Johnson on why he rejects the New Perspective on Paul.

Where there is one heterodox belief, usually there is more and this is perfectly illustrated by Wright who believes women should be allowed to be pastors and bishops!

Wright’s fallacious argument in the video is that all Christian ministry stems back to the Resurrection, the Resurrection was pronounced first to women (the women at the tomb), and women were the first testifiers of the Resurrection. Therefore, in Wright’s argumentation, it makes sense that women should be pastors and leaders.

Of course, Jesus did not pick any female leaders or officeholders for his church, and Paul strictly forbade female elders. Wright presumes that because Paul did not mention women as witnesses to Christ that he had “cleaned up” the Gospel accounts to make it more palatable to his patriarchal audience. Thus, Wright is actually maligning the authority of the Apostle Paul’s writings. The arrogance of this man knows no bounds. Watching this video 2 words kept popping into my mind: hubris and heresy!

When asked if it was biblical to preach and/or to lead congregations of both men and women, Wright answered directly, yes. So once again, as with justification, we see Wright ignore the clear teaching of Scripture and redefine the apostle Paul’s teachings to conform to his own views.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

1 Timothy 2:12

Thankfully, prominent evangelicals are stepping up to expose and denounce Wright publicly:

Phil Johnson said that NT Wright teaches a false gospel and calls him a heretic in this video below.

John MacArthur took an entire hour to call NT Wright a heretic (many times) in this video below.

R.C. Sproul said that if what NT Wright teaches isn’t heresy, “nothing is heresy” in this video below.

For a masterful overview and rigorous critique of Wright and the New Perspective on Paul see this 2+ hour video by celebrated New Testament scholar D.A. Carson below.

I should mention that because of the way Wright and his ilk redefine justification it renders Sola Fide (that we are saved through faith alone) meaningless. Since in Wright’s view final justification, which happens upon one’s death, is predicated on the works one did throughout their life. This brings Wright in line with the views of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Before I end, let’s look at 5 things that Wright has taught within the past 20 years. Much thanks to Ron Henzel, a ruling elder in the PCA, for skillfully articulating these 5 points:

The Gospel is not about “getting saved”

Wright puts it this way:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.

Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 132-133.

The problem is, that Paul tells us what he means by “the gospel,” and it seems to have quite a bit to do with how people get saved:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

1Cor. 15:1-5

It also has quite a bit to do with faith: “so we preach and so you believed,” (v. 11), and it is quite clear that Paul’s gospel message of Christ’s death is inseparably connected to the question of how we are justified (declared righteous) before God: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Rom 5:9 ESV)

So then, how does Wright think the gospel should be defined? He writes:

The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world.

Trevin Wax, “Gospel Definitions: N.T. Wright,” September 4, 2008, The Gospel Coalition.

Of course, this truth is a necessary prerequisite to the gospel. It is certainly good news (the basic meaning of “gospel”) that Jesus reigns as Lord of all, but how exactly is that good news to me, unless it somehow answers the question of where I will spend eternity?

Justification is not about being declared righteous in Christ here and now

In fact, according to Wright, it’s not even really about being declared righteous at all.

Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong.

Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 131.

Wright often uses familiar language in describing justification, but he means something very different from what historic evangelical Protestants have meant by the same language. For example, he uses the word “forensic,” to refer to God’s legal verdict, but that verdict is not based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Far from it!

Likewise, in keeping with his own brand of the New Perspective on Paul, Wright gives the word “justification” a complete makeover. In spite of being defined in every Greek lexicon as “the act of pronouncing righteous,” or something similar, he redefines it to mean membership in God’s covenant people. In connection with this, D.A. Carson records the following humorous incident:

I cannot resist an anecdote. A few years ago I found myself in prolonged conversation with a retired classicist and expert on the Septuagint. He had heard, vaguely, of the new perspective, and wanted me to explain it to him. I took a half-hour or so to give him a potted history of some of the stances that fall within that rubric, including the view that “justification,” for some, has come to mean something like “God’s declaration that certain people truly belong to the covenant community.” He asked a simple question: “Do those who hold this view know any Greek at all?”

Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” in Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds., Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, (Downers Grove, IL, USA and Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press and Apollos, 2004), 50-51.

There is a “final justification” by works

Wright interprets Paul’s statement in Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”, as meaning that at the judgment seat of Christ believers will be justified on the basis of works.7 Never mind the fact that in the very next chapter Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:20)

As Cornelis Venema has pointed out:

From an historical perspective, Wright’s position is not unlike that of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which also claimed that the Reformation’s view of justification by faith alone failed to do justice to the biblical theme of a final acquittal before God based upon works. If, as Wright insists, the justification of believers requires a final phase or “completion,” which will be determined by the works of the justified, then it seems evident that he teaches a doctrine of justification by grace through faith plus works. The apostle Paul’s teaching that works are wholly excluded as a basis for the justification of believers is incompatible with the idea that (final) justification will ultimately be based upon works.

Venema, “A Future Justification Based on Works?” February 1, 2010, Ligonier Ministries.

Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to believers
(penal substitutionary atonement)

Wright is very emphatic about this:

If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness.’…But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness.

Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 99.

Of course, Paul thought otherwise: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

The final judgment of God’s people is not ultimately about salvation from sin

But then, there is not much need for either legal or personal righteousness in Wright’s system, at least not when it comes to the final judgment.

Note that in our previous citation, Wright was only willing to go so far as to say that at the last judgment, God’s people will have a righteous status “metaphorically speaking,” i.e., only as a figure of speech. Notice also his use of the word “vindicated.” It’s one of his favorite terms.

For Wright, the ultimate point of the final judgment is not that the redeemed are put on display as trophies of grace before the entire universe. Rather, the point is that they are “vindicated as the true people of the one true God.” All talk of a “righteous status” is purely metaphorical. What really makes God’s people different is not that they are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (although Wright has never come out and denied that), but that they played for the right team. They didn’t side with those who worshiped idols.

Not surprisingly there lurks even more heresy within Wright’s thinking. In this interview, he not only explicitly rejects believing in Biblical inerrancy, but he also rejects a historical Adam and comes out in favor of theistic evolution! Wright’s view of hell is also heterodox. He denies eternal conscious torment.

Lee Irons has written an excellent article on Wright’s view of the atonement of Christ. In summation he says:

It looks more like a case of using orthodox labels to refer to a position that is not orthodox. At the end of the day, for Bishop Wright, sin is an impersonal evil force, not personal rebellion against God; sin has bad consequences, but does not elicit God’s punitive wrath against the sinner; and the cross is to be understood as some version of the Christus Victor theory in which Christ defeats evil by letting it do its worst to him, not as a penal satisfaction of divine justice.

https://upper-register.typepad.com/blog/2009/08/nt-wright-on-the-atonement.html

By the way, I highly recommend the paper N.T. Wright On Romans 5:12-21 and Justification: A Case Study in Exegesis, Theological Method, and the “New Perspective on Paul” by Cornelis P. Venema. He goes into a detailed analysis of Wright’s exegesis and historical theology and the New Perspective on Paul and explains why it is deficient.

One response to “Justification and the Gospel – A Response to N.T. Wright”

  1. This attempt to contradict the position of Bishop Wright on the meaning of “justification” in the Pauline epistles would be considerably more helpful if it actually focused on the faults in Wright’s argumentation rather than being filled with so much ad hominem argumentation.

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