A Response to Phil Johnson on N.T. Wright

What do I think of Johnson’s critique of Wright? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

ETA: My first writing of this said R.C. Sproul. I was notified that this was by Phil Johnson so I have done necessary edits..

When I was in seminary, for a class on salvation for systematic theology proper, we were assigned to read The Future of Justification by John Piper. This was a response to N.T. Wright’s work on the topic of justification. I had heard about it some, but I never took the time to really look at it. As I read Piper, he would frequently quote Wright. When I read those quotes of Wright I would think “That certainly seems like a plausible way of looking at it more in line with Second Temple Judaism.” Before too long after finishing that book, I got Wright’s book on the topic and went through it and while I don’t sign on the dotted line yet, I do find it quite persuasive.

A friend asked me about this all yesterday. He has a fear that Wright has a position here that is heretical. Our discussion, which was friendly and I do like that, ended with him sending me this from Phil Johnson. So let’s take a look at this piece.

Johnson starts off with glowing praise of Wright and what a great scholar he is. Before too long, the clouds darken. Wright has a position that is not evangelical at all obviously. He has a position that denies Sola Fide.

Let me point out early on then that I am not a Calvinist. You can hold that against me if you want, but I’m just not, and that was before reading Wright even. I have never subscribed to Calvinism. I just do not find it a persuasive position on the Bible.

So let’s gon on and quote Johnson.

Wright begins by giving a sketch of the pedigree of twentieth-century scholarship on Paul. He acknowledges that the New Perspective is deeply rooted in the work of a line of scholars who were by no means evangelicals. Indeed, most of them were hostile to the evangelical perspective. He lists, for example, Albert Schweitzer, W. D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, and E.P. Sanders as the main influences in developing the New Perspective.

Schweitzer’s contribution was to emphasize the fact that Paul was a Hebrew, not a Hellenist. Paul thought in Jewish categories, not Greek ones. Schweitzer therefore argued that the traditional Protestant emphasis on justification by faith missed the heart of Pauline theology. Paul’s emphasis was on our union with Christ [true enough], but Schweitzer argued that it is therefore wrong to think of justification by faith as a forensic declaration, the way historic Reformed and Protestant theologians always have. Here’s how Wright describes Schweitzer’s view on page 14: “What mattered [to Schweitzer] was being ‘in Christ’, rather than the logic-chopping debates about justification, [and therefore] one was free to live out the life of Christ in new and different ways.”

Notice, then: the historic Protestant understanding of justification by faith was under attack from the very birth of the earliest ideas that led to this new interpretation of the apostle Paul. Forensic justification was denied in favor of living out the life of Christ.

Please note that part of the problem with this and with later looks is that this is simply poisoning the well. These people were not evangelicals. So what? It’s good to read critics of our position. They can point us to our blind faults. If the evangelical perspective has not been correct all these years, maybe it’s the others who can show us that who are just as much trained in the field as we are.

What has to be asked is can the data be separated from those who hold it? If the answer is yes, then there is no problem, and I don’t see any other answer. Data is data regardless of who discovers it. We also have no reason to think Wright would be wanting to be in line with someone just because of who they are. Wright has in fact written a leading evangelical defense of the resurrection of Jesus. (You know, the central fact of Christian teaching.)

Wright’s point seems to be that the New Perspective on Paul has an impressive scholarly pedigree. What I want to point out is that these views are rooted in the kind of scholarship that has historically been hostile to evangelical distinctives, such as the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is ironic, and I think not without significance, that the earliest exponents of this new expertise on Paul were all men who were happy to discard whatever portions of the Pauline writings did not fit their theories. So you have experts on Paul who reject large portions of what Paul actually wrote.

Okay. Did Wright do this? Has Wright jettisoned parts of Paul just because they disagree with his theories? It reminds me of how for a time thinkers in the medieval period were hesitant to take the words of Aristotle. He had been used by the Muslims after all. It was Aquinas who took this information and said it could be used by the church and in essence Christianized Aristotle. Did he take every belief Aristotle held? No. Still, he took his system of thought and said that it was in line with Christianity. He was also right.

I think Wright has done similar. He has not thrown out the material because it comes from non-evangelicals. Instead, he has looked at the data, said they might be on to something, and figured how it does work better with the Pauline corpus in his mind than the traditional interpretation. If this is so, the point of origins is irrelevant and just a big genetic fallacy.

Wright also claims that our misunderstanding of Judaism reached its zenith with Luther and the Reformers—in other words, historic Protestantism. Wright thinks evangelicals in particular have perpetuated the misunderstanding because of our systematic and theological approach to interpreting the New Testament. We’re guilty of thinking in Greek categories rather than Jewish ones. We have been too prone to read Augustine’s conflicts with Pelagius and Luther’s conflict with Rome back into the biblical text, and that has corrupted and prejudiced our understanding of the Jewish culture surrounding Paul.

Note what Johnson is saying about Wright. It is not our misunderstand of Scripture. It is our misunderstanding of Judaism. That did affect how we read Scripture. I think the Reformers were right in their stance on a problem in the RCC back in their day. They looked at the issue of their day and I think they gave the right answer. The problem was they also looked at what Paul was saying and thought Paul was dealing with the same issue. It was understandable why they would think that, but were they right? That is the key question.

For instance, if we look at the Gospels, we don’t find this being discussed that much. There is not really discussion on justification. It could be damaging that one time Jesus is asked about this topic, he tells the questioner to follow the commandments and then go and sell everything he has and give to the poor. He hardly gave the answer of justification by grace through faith.

Does that mean that it is false? No. It means that Jesus knew the heart of this person and this person was not willing to sacrifice to be a disciple. Jesus often speaks about the cost of discipleship. The strong words in Luke are highly misunderstood but they are the ones about hating your own mother and father and brother and sister. It doesn’t mean to literally hate, but Jesus is saying “Don’t become a disciple unless you are willing to give up everything.”

And let’s face it, we’re all still working on that one!

Let’s go to Jesus’s message in Mark. He starts by saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel. Question. What was He telling people to believe? If He was saying justification by grace through faith, on what grounds? No one other than Jesus had the foggiest idea that He would die on a cross and rise again, yet there was something in Jesus’s message to already be believed. What was it?

His baptism had had Him displayed as the Son of God which would be implicit evidence that He is the Messiah. The good news then is that the Kingdom of God is here. God is becoming king. Jesus regularly spoke about the Kingdom of God in His messages. Jesus spoke of it often. We barely say a word about it in church today.

How does this tie in with Paul? Go to 1 Cor. 15. Paul says that the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died and was buried and rose again for our sins. For Paul, this was the sign that the kingdom had come. Jesus being the promised Messiah meant something. The promise to the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had come to pass. The one whom Moses wrote about had arrived. By raising Jesus from the dead, God had vindicated Him and shown that this man is His chosen king to rule the world. It was a new age. Our modern new age culture is wrong. The true new age began when Jesus was declared king of this world. Christ does not find His identity in us. We find ours in Him.

Let’s also keep in mind we have something the Reformers did not have. We have access to Jewish writings they were not aware of that have changed the way we see the culture and we can see that we were wrong in some understandings. I am sure that if the Reformers were here, they would be eagerly wanting to look at these writings and learn all they could from them and if they were wrong about something, they would want to be the first ones to know it.

Please note also that you can say all of this and still say the Reformers were right in their struggle. You can still say that faith alone is all that one needs to be saved. We will get into more of this as we go along.

He goes on to say (still on p. 32), “This point is clearly of enormous importance, but I cannot do more than repeat it in case there is any doubt: Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, timeless, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say today, ‘going to heaven when they died.’” (By the way, that is a ridiculous statement, and if you want to see how ridiculous it is, read Hebrews 11:13–16. Those who had true faith were interested in going to heaven when they died. Hebrews 11:16: “they desired a better country, that is, an heavenly [one].”)

Except it’s not a ridiculous statement. What we have apparently is one text in the Bible that Johnson thinks makes his point. We don’t even have anything from Paul who this is supposed to be about. When Hebrews speaks of a heavenly country, what were they thinking? Going some place else when they died? No. They were thinking I think about God making this world His abode. This world is not an accident. It is not an afterthought.

Unfortunately, we have done this so much that we think going to heaven is the point of Christianity and then it’s not often so much about heaven as it is a get out of hell free card. You can have a call to salvation in a church service that talks about heaven and says absolutely nothing about the resurrection. It has no call to repentance. It says nothing about discipleship. Instead, it all becomes about how do I get to heaven.

If Johnson thinks that one passage can make something a ridiculous statement, then I have one passage from Jesus (Said three times) about selling all you have and giving to the poor to have eternal life. Therefore, it would be “ridiculous” to think that Jesus would believe in justification by faith. Do I think that? Not at all. I think all the passages have to be properly understood. The same with the Hebrews passage.

Johnson quotes Wright saying

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God. (I’m not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the notion of ‘relationship with God’, but we’ll leave that aside.) The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, [the problem] has to do, quite obviously, with the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?

At this point, the question to ask is “Is Wright right?” Let’s go back to the sources and look and see. Let’s look at those writings we have now that the Reformers did not have. Let’s look at the research. Johnson responds with

Wright is explicitly acknowledging that if the New Perspective is correct, and first-century Judaism had no issue with works-righteousness, then all the traditional interpretations of Romans, Galatians, and the other Pauline epistles must be thrown out the window, and we must go back to square one in our exegesis of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s critics, including me, have pointed out that this is a pretty audacious claim. Wright is claiming, in effect, is that he is the first person in the history of the church—or at least since the time of Augustine—who has correctly understood the apostle Paul (and hence the majority of the New Testament). Wright is pretty careful not to state explicitly that he thinks this would require a complete overhaul of Protestant confessional standards. And some of Wright’s Presbyterian advocates in America have denied with great passion that Wright’s beliefs pose any threat whatsoever to the historic Protestant creeds. But it would seem patently obvious to me that if the whole foundation of our Pauline exegesis is brought back to square one, then we can throw out every creed and systematic theology ever written by anyone who adhered to the old perspective on Paul, and start over with our theology as well. And in practice, that is precisely what is happening. That’s the very upheaval you see in the various controversies that are being addressed in this conference this weekend.

One can picture what it would be like if R.C. Johnson had been in a position of power in the RCC at the time of Luther.

“Can anyone believe this monk? He thinks he is the first one in church history for 1,500 years to truly understand the Scriptures and the rest of us have got them wrong! This is surely an audacious claim! If we follow him, we will have to go back to square one in our understanding of Paul!”

I remember years ago someone sent me a conversation with Al Mohler and others talking about Wright’s perspective. One speaker on this panel said “Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scripture, but he’s going against the tradition.” Yes. We as Protestants should have a problem with someone going with what they think they found in the Scriptures when that goes against our traditional understanding. Pardon me, but isn’t that what happened in the Reformation?

It’s happened elsewhere too. Galileo went against the tradition at the time as well. I also do think Galileo was arrogant. There was something else about him too. He was right. If we just say “Tradition!” then we always risk just being wrong. We dare not say we want skeptics to be open to Christianity if we are not open to being wrong.

We go on.

Of course, the apostle Paul uses that phrase repeatedly. In Galatians 2:16— in that one verse alone—he uses it three times: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” According to Wright, when Paul spoke of “the works of the law, he did not have in mind the moral requirements of the law of God. Rather, he was speaking of the badges of Jewish nationalism—circumcision, the dietary laws, the priesthood, the holy days, and whatnot. In other words, he’s talking about the ceremonial law. Quoting again from page 120, Wright says that the question Paul is addressing in Galatians is “the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?”

In this, I think Wright is definitely on to something. Peter’s main issue was not what must I do to be saved. His issue was how he would be perceived by the others. People living the Gospel do not need to eat according to the Law. The Law does not show that they are Christians. It is faith in Christ. Peter’s actions were a denial of that. Peter’s salvation was never an issue.

Paul is then saying to the Galatians that the Judaizers think that to be a Christian, you must keep the law. It is not so you can be saved, but to show that you are saved. All true Christians will keep the Law. How can you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Unfortunately, this would catapult us right back to Judaism. How do you recognize a Jew? He keeps the law. How do you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Christ becomes useless then.

So what is it that sets a Christian apart? Faith in Christ. How do you know someone is a Christian? They have faith in Christ. If you want to say the law is what identifies you, then you indeed have to keep all of it.

Wright insists that in the true Pauline theology, justification by faith has almost nothing to do with a person’s standing before God, but it has everything to do with the corporate makeup of the covenant community. To quote Wright again (p. 119),

Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.

So in Wright’s view, justification is not about how we relate to God; it’s about how ethnic and cultural groups relate to one another. Page 122: “What Paul means by justification … is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’ … [Justification] is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences.”

Is Wright right? I don’t think Johnson is. Wright is not saying it is about how we relate to one another. It’s about indeed who the community is. How the community treats itself is a good question, but the question is who is a part of the community. Whose community is it? The community of God.

This fits in very well with Judaism at the time. We in our world are much more individualistically based. To say to march to the beat of your own drummer and be your own man would make no sense to them. We often have the habit of reading our questions into Scripture thinking the Scripture is addressing the same questions when it is not. I think this is what is often happening in our reading of Genesis 1 as an example.

Is there no soteriological or personal dimension in Wright’s understanding of justification, then? There is, and this is one of the most troubling aspects of his work. Like many today who are proposing new understandings of justification, he bifurcates justification into immediate and future aspects, and pushes the personal and salvific dimensions of justification into the eschatalogical future, in a final judgment. Page 129: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life.”

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.

And it does no such thing whatsoever. Last I checked, we all seem to think that works are a part of the evidence of salvation. James is right. If you say you have faith and you have no works, then you do not really have faith. How is this a problem? I don’t know any evangelical who wants to say you can say the sinner’s prayer, live like a heathen, and still get eternal life at the end. Faith in Christ ought to result in some works.

And even though Wright’s defenders have tried desperately to exonerate him from this charge, it seems clear to me that throughout his book, he is selfconsciously and deliberately rejecting the main distinctive—the material principle—of the Protestant Reformation. In Luther’s words, this is the article by which the church stands or falls. In Calvin’s words, it is the principle hinge of all religion.

If Johnson thinks this is convincing, then I’ll use the same principle. It seems clear to me that Johnson has encountered a new idea and it goes against what he has always believed in his mind, so he has started pushing the panic button. I think this is also what Geisler did when Licona came out with his ideas and it is sadly a common evangelical tactic.

I also think it’s odd to say the church stands or falls by this. What happened to the resurrection? Do we really think the world was hearing in the first century “Good news! You can be justified by grace through faith!” and that was the contorversial message? The controversial message was about this dead man named Jesus who was alive and God’s Messiah through whom He would rule the world.

And you see this most clearly in the fifth distinctive of Wright’s position that I want to highlight for you. Here is idea number five, if you’re making a list of these: According to Wright, Protestant and Reformed exegetes who in the mainstream of evangelical theology have all misread what Paul meant when he spoke of “the righteousness of God.” According to Wright, divine righteousness is not an asset that can be imputed from God to the believer. It has nothing to do with virtue or excellence or moral rectitude that can be imputed. Instead, God’s righteousness is simply His covenant faithfulness. And when Paul speaks of the believer’s righteousness as a righteousness that comes from God, he is talking about covenant membership, our status in the covenant, which ultimately must be maintained by our own faithfulness.

Now if that sounds to you like implicit denial of the classic doctrine of imputation, I believe that is precisely what Wright is saying. He downplays or denies or redefines the principle of imputation at every turn. Page 98: “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”

According to Wright (p. 123), 1 Corinthians 1:30 is “the only passage I know of where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.” Wright then goes on to argue that if we are to claim 1 Corinthians 1:30 as a proof text about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom of Christ; the imputed sanctification of Christ … “ and so on.

Say what you will about Wright; he himself makes it abundantly clear that he does not like the notion of imputation, because he does not believe divine righteousness is something that can be reckoned, or put to the account, of the believer. And he is equally silent—ominously silent—about the biblical teaching that the believer’s guilt was imputed to Christ and paid for on the cross.

We can wonder if Johnson has changed any of this since Wright has now a whole book on the atonement, but I am doubtful that he has. Wright is correct that only one text explicitly says anything like that. It’s strange that Johnson would seem to have a problem with Wright saying he only has one text that can be said to argue for this position when that’s exactly what Johnson did earlier in this article with Hebrews 11:13-16.

Therefore, he says, we have got the gospel all wrong. And he says this repeatedly. Page 60: “‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense.” Page 41; here is how Wright 10 describes what he is convinced is a misunderstanding of the gospel: “In certain circles within the church … ‘the gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness.”

Some people’s language”? Wright himself disdains to use such language. He is careful to insist that he is not intolerant of people who do use that language. He goes on (p. 41): “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it’s what Paul means.”

But if that’s not what Paul means, it’s not what Scripture means. Is Wright suggesting that Protestants have historically proclaimed a “different gospel”? It would certainly be uncharacteristic of Tom Wright to anathematize anyone, but he does rather clearly imply that he thinks Protestants have been getting the gospel wrong since the 16th century.

And many Calvinists have been saying the same about others. Anybody seen that saying “Calvinism is the Gospel”? If that is really meant, then that would mean anyone who is an arminian is holding to a different Gospel. Wright has not denied the Gospel. Instead, He has broadened it. It’s not just about the individual. It’s about the community of God and God Himself.

Johnson says Wright thinks we’ve been getting it wrong for a long time. So did Martin Luther. If we followed Johnson consistently, we would have to get rid of the Reformation.

Now I promised to give you as many biblical answers to Tom Wright’s New Perspective as time allows, and in the time that remains, that is what I want to do. Let me try to answer each one of the five ideas I have outlined with at least one or two biblical arguments:

First, there’s the notion that we have misunderstood first-century Judaism. I answer that Tom Wright has erred by lending more credence to secular scholarship than he does to the testimony of Scripture. We ought to draw our understanding of the first-century religious climate from the New Testament itself, and not from the disputed conclusions of a handful of skeptical twentieth-century scholars who refuse to bow to the authority of Scripture.

And I say Johnson has not looked at the data that has been presented. Is the data wrong because some non-Christians came up with it? Do we really want to present an echo chamber approach? We tell non-Christians they should learn from Christians and non-Christians both, but we will not do the same?

And what about Johnson? Is he going directly to Scripture? I contend that he has pointed to tradition in this piece far more than he has to Scripture. Once again, I thought the Reformation had something to do with questioning long held traditions because of the truth of Scripture, but maybe I was wrong.

And what does Scripture say about the religion of the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular? Scripture clearly teaches that their central error was that they trusted too much in their own righteousness rather than resting their faith in the Old Testament truth that God would cover them with the garment of His own righteousness. Paul says this explicitly in Romans 10:3: “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” Jesus also said it repeatedly. He constantly criticized the Pharisees for trying to justify themselves. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican? Luke 18:9 says Jesus told that parable “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” And the whole point of Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3 was to show that he once had “confidence in the flesh”—those are Paul’s precise words in Philippians 3:4. But Paul turned from that, jettisoned his self-righteousness, regarded it as dung, and testified that his one hope now, as a Christian and a believer, was “To be found in [Christ,] not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Unfortunately, quoting a Scripture does not mean your interpretation of it is correct. The Jews in Romans 10 were rejecting Christ and saying “We will show our righteousness by the Law.” That would fit in just fine with what Wright says. In Luke, the Pharisee is not righteous because he keeps the law. The tax collector is because he lives by faith. Again, this is just fine with Wright. In Phillipians 3, Paul was one who kept the law blamelessly by his words, but his righteousness was not in keeping the law, but by identifying himself as a believer in Christ. Again, Wright would have no problem.

Wright tries to do away with the force of that text by removing the word righteousness, and suggesting that Paul was talking about “covenant membership.” But both the context and the very words of the passage prove that what Paul was describing was the difference between two contrasting ideas of righteousness—one he calls “my own righteousness,” and the other, an alien righteousness—the righteousness of God in Christ.

Not at all. Paul being faithful to the old covenant would not save if God had made a new covenant. The righteousness of the new is superior to the old for it is based on the fulfillment of the promises of Christ. That Johnson has not considered what someone who works to understand this can come up quickly shows me that Johnson is just pushing the panic button.

Wright is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was not a problem in first-century Judaism.

Johnson is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was a problem in first-century Judaism and maybe he should have read those scholars that Wright read instead of dismissing them.

By the way, Wright is making a caricature of the historic Protestant position when he suggests that most interpreters have equated first-century Judaism with Pelagianism, the notion that sinners can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves through their own works.

Just quoting this to say the irony of a caricature here is amazing.

Of course Judaism had a major emphasis on grace, and the mercy of God. The Pharisees knew the Old Testament, and the idea of grace was plainly prominent in the Old Testament. But the religion of the Pharisees, and the bulk of first-century Judaism, had corrupted the Old Testament notion of grace. Their religion wasn’t like Pelagianism, which is utterly devoid of grace. But it was much like semi-pelagianism, which has a watered-down notion of grace, and still places too much stress on human works. Semi-pelagianism suggests that grace is enough to get your foot in the door of salvation, but you have to maintain your salvation, or your covenant membership, by your own faithfulness and obedience to the law.

And Johnson bases this on….what? What scholarship on Second Temple Judaism is he reading to tell us that this is the way Jews thought? Your guess is as good as mine.

Listen, even in the way Tom Wright describes first-century Judaism, it is clear that there was a semi-pelagian tendency in that religion. And frankly, one of my great concerns with Wright and others who have followed his lead (as well as people like Norman Shepherd and the Auburn Avenue movement) is this: Their notion of “covenant faithfulness,” where a person maintains his membership in the covenant by legal means, through obedience, and looks for a final justification grounded at least partly in their own works—smacks too much of neonomian legalism for my tastes. It turns the gospel into a “new law”—a toned-down legal system where the requirements are diminished so that imperfect obedience counts as true obedience. And that makes the sinner’s own works either the ground or the instrument of final justification. That kind of thinking frankly has the stench of semi-pelagianism all over it. It is a subtle form of works-righteousness.

Except Johnson is reading his individualism into this. The Jew would not say I am doing the works of the Law so that I can be saved. They would say they are doing it because they are saved and this is what people of the covenant do. How do I know I am in the covenant? I fulfill my part of it! God is my patron! My role is to do what He has commanded me to do!

My reply is that if Wright is correct and the only issue Paul was concerned about was racial and cultural divisions in the Galatian churches and elsewhere, the force of Paul’s response is a little bit hard to understand. If Paul’s plea was merely an echo of Rodney-King theology (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) it’s hard to see why Paul himself pronounced such harsh anathemas against the Judaizers in Galatians 1. In effect, Paul banned them from the table Wright insists ought to be open to everyone who acknowledges Christ as Lord.

Actually, Paul’s response is pretty easy to understand. If the Galatians go the way they are doing, then Christ is useless because it’s being part of the community by the old standard as I said earlier. This is not about getting along. Again, Johnson has made, dare I say, a caricature, of the situation.

What about this third distinctive? Wright says we have mistaken what Paul meant by the expression “works of the law.”

Romans 3:20 alone blows that argument to smithereens. Paul says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

It’s the moral law, not the ceremonial law, that puts our sin under a bright light and condemns us. Paul is not talking about ethnic badges here; he is talking about the moral demands of the law. And he is saying as plainly as possible that the law, with all its high moral standards, cannot possibly justify us, because it condemns us as sinners.

Romans 3:20 hardly blows it to smithereens. Johnson speaks about the moral law and not the ceremonial law, but we have to ask if a Jew would have made that distinction. Paul in fact in the passage that talks about the morality of those who follow the Law also talks about circumcision. Does Johnson think that circumcision is part of the moral law? Is a Gentile man immoral if he does not get circumcised?

Does the Law show what sin is? Yes. The Law then could not be the final basis for justification. It would have to be something else that would show someone is justified. That would be faith in Christ. Again, this is not a problem for Wright’s view. Johnson strikes me as someone who does not want to learn what his opponents believe. He’s quick to find something he thinks makes the case and then declares victory.

Wright’s definition of justification (as “covenant membership”) downplays and almost completely eliminates the ideas of sin and forgiveness from the doctrine of justification completely. But forgiveness and redemption from the guilt of sin are the very issues Paul is dealing with in Romans 3 and 4. And Paul’s illustrations and Old Testament proofs make it clear that what he is talking about is first of all individual, not corporate, justification. He is dealing with guilt, not merely covenant status. Romans 4:4–5: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to the one who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted [“reckoned”; “imputed to him”] for righteousness.”

Verses 6–7: “Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.”

There’s no way to be faithful to the meaning of that text if you try to evacuate the notions of individual guilt and forgiveness from the idea of justification.

No way? Challenge accepted!

In fact, it is quite easy to be faithful to the text. Why is Abraham cited? Abraham is exhibit A in all of these. Abraham was the friend of God. Abraham was the person God made an original covenant with. If Abraham was justified by works, then the Jews would have a case. What does the text say though? Abraham believed in God and it was credited to Him as righteousness. Abraham’s identity marker then was not circumcision. It was faith to the covenant. We today are declared righteous by faith in the covenant. The difference is we see the covenant afterward.

David says the same. There is no need for individualism here. Community minded people certainly know individuals exist. Their focus is just not on the individual. It is on the community. The group comes first and then the person comes second.

I could go on, but time is short. Let me just give you one other example, from the teaching of Jesus. That parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18 teaches the very thing N. T. Wright wants to deny about the doctrine of justification. This is the one place where Jesus expounds most clearly on the principle of justification. And he is fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul. He ends that parable by saying in Luke 18:14: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There you have the principle of justification apart from works of any kind. It deals with individual guilt and forgiveness, not merely corporate relationships. One man was justified; the other was condemned.

And this passage I also explained earlier. Each individual has to show how they are a part of the community, but the question is what establishes the community? Many of us are interested in what establishes the individual. The ancients were not.

But Scripture nonetheless does speak of the imputation of righteousness to the believer. Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:33 to “seek” God’s righteousness—a notion that doesn’t fit with the New Perspective definition. Ephesians 4:24 connects the notion of righteousness with “true holiness.” In other words, it is a extensive moral attribute, not merely “covenant faithfulness.” Any definition of righteousness that does not include those concepts is an impoverished definition.

But why not? This is again simple enough. Jesus’s point is that God will be faithful to His people. Seek that when seeking God. Remember His promises and trust Him. Ephesians is about our being faithful to the covenant on our end. Again, this is not a problem.

Righteousness is a much bigger concept than Tom Wright will acknowledge, and herein lies my chief complaint with his approach to theology: he has made righteousness a smaller concept than Scripture does. He makes sin a minor issue. He downplays the idea of atonement. He barely touches on the sinner’s need for forgiveness. He diminishes the doctrine of justification by declaring it a second-order doctrine. What he ends up with is a theology that is destitute of virtually all the lofty concepts that the Protestant Reformation recovered from the barrenness of Medieval theology.

Yes. Next we’ll be told that he kicks dogs when he walks across the street and takes candy from babies. Not at all. Johnson is pushing the panic button here. In fact, I think many on the other side diminish the resurrection by making it a second-order doctrine. Justification is a result of the resurrection. The resurrection is not the result of justification.

There is nothing in Wright’s perspective that downplays sin. Sin is the reason the Kingdom of God has to come on Earth. There is nothing that downplays forgiveness. One cannot enter the Kingdom without it. There is nothing that denies the atonement. One cannot be at peace with God without accepting His covenant.

From here we go on to a look at Steve Chalke and that this is where Wright is taking us. We will downplay sin and the atonement and everything else. If downplaying is the problem, then let me make a suggestion. Only twice in this article does Johnson mention the resurrection. When he does, he is talking about Wright’s defense of it. Nowhere in this piece does Johnson in any way tie justification to the resurrection.

Now if I was talking about justification, I would have to go to the resurrection. The cross is not what justifies us because if Jesus had remained dead, there would be no forgiveness. Jesus would have been just another sinner who died for His sins. It is because He rose from the dead that everything is different.

In fact, I’d go back even further. Too often when we give our talks about the Gospel, we start with Adam and Eve and then jump straight to Jesus. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that stuff in the middle that we call the Old Testament could be important. Just saying!

Like Johnson, I am not a prophet, but I do think I see where the wind is blowing here. We can expect that evangelicals will once again push the panic button when a new idea comes up and refuse to look at the claims and go into protection mode instead. Such is a disgrace for us. It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle it without debating it.

What do I encourage you to do? Do what should be done. Read both sides. If you think these secular scholars are just trying to undermine evangelicalism, read their work. See what they say. What is their claim? What is the data behind it? Does the data back the claim? Read Piper, but read Wright as well. Learn from all. Come to your own conclusion.

And let it be clear also I am not pronouncing any anathemas on those who disagree. I stand with any who proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of all who rose from the dead bodily. That is the essential for me. I don’t expect my theology to be right in everything. When my time for judgment comes, I will say that I placed my trust in Christ and that is all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

  • Philip Cho

    This book should be interesting:

    Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation (Tom Holland) http://a.co/1Vrvh93

    I’m not done going through with this book yet, as it recently came out, but so far it seems like a thorough and constructive criticism.