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The Future of Justification:
A Response to N. T. Wright

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright
John Piper
(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007)

Piper devotes an entire book trying to dismantle N. T. Wright’s interpretations of Paul, yet he is just as tendentious as he accuses Wright of being. Piper’s starting point is not the Bible itself, as he would like to claim, but rather “fifteen hundred years of church tradition.” That is Piper’s ultimate authority, which he invokes repeatedly. Yes, Piper does say that scripture must come first, but his Reformed tradition is clearly the prism through which he views scripture and his criterion for deciding issues on which the biblical text itself is ambiguous. According to Piper, Wright can’t possibly be right because on some key points he dares to question this tradition. Never mind that much of this tradition has brought us intolerance (only believers are saved regardless of their “works”) and even bloodshed in the name of a loving Christ. If Wright questions any of it, Wright must be wrong.

This is not to say Wright isn’t vulnerable. His understanding of “justification by faith” as essentially a marker of belonging to the covenant people seems reductionistic, ignoring the spiritual struggle that underlies the need for justification. But Piper is not really helpful. While presuming to be a better exegete than Wright, he still relies on church tradition to tell him what the Bible means. Well one must rely on something, since the biblical text is often ambiguous and cannot by itself always definitively prove one point over another. (One famous point of contention is whether “pistis Christou” means “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.” The Greek supports either translation.) It is circular reasoning for Piper to claim Wright is mistaken in questioning church tradition when that same tradition informs his understanding of the Bible that leads him to that conclusion.

Another example of Piper’s circular reasoning is his use of the condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 to “prove” that first-century Judaism was little more than a dry legalism. In this area Wright relies heavily on the research of E.P. Sanders, who argued that Matthew 23 and similar passages have read back into the time of Jesus conflicts between the synagogue and the new church that arose later. That is precisely why such passages do not give us insights into the Judaism of Jesus’s day. Therefore if Piper wishes to contest that conclusion he needs to address its premise, which is that Matthew 23 is a polemic reflecting later tensions between synagogue and church. Instead Piper just ignores the issue and uses Matthew 23 with apparently no awareness that the very argument he is addressing questions the validity of that use.

Piper’s abuse of Matthew 23 is very disturbing, for a very important reason. Piper seems hell-bent on demonstrating that Judaism is a religion of arrogant, self-righteous boasters. He uses Jesusís criticism of an alleged Pharisaic distortion of Judaism to characterize the entire religion. This kind of anti-Judaism, as history has proved, leads inevitably to anti-Semitism, with tragic consequences. Piper questions the assertion of Wright, following E.P. Sanders, that Jewish observance of Torah is a response of gratitude to a gracious God. Instead, Piper dismisses such observances as “legalism,” self-righteous, akin to ethnocentrism, and in fact evil. This will resonate with Christian anti-Semites, but it cannot stand as a legitimate critique of Judaism. Piper flirts dangerously with a longstanding anti-Semitic tradition of using Jewish self-criticism (in this cases Jesusís castigation of Pharisaic excesses) against the Jewish people themselves. It is also ironic (to say the least) that Piper so sharply criticizes Jews for their “ethnocentrism” and “exclusivism” while he himself practices an even more radical exclusivism: eternal salvation for professing Christians only.

While Piper claims that scripture is his ultimate authority, he does whatever he can to bend scripture to conform with Reformed tradition. An example is his convoluted exegesis of Romans 2:13 (“It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”). After going through all kinds of contortions and speculations to get to where he wants to go, he concludes that we are indeed justified by faith alone, but good works are the “evidence” of that faith; it’s how we know that such faith is present. Well if good works necessarily accompany faith in Christ and are how we may decide whether such faith exists, then works, not faith, become the criterion by which one knows that a person is justified. If faith automatically led to good works, then there would have been no need for James to say that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) and that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). No wonder you will rarely hear a Reformed pastor preaching from James, even though that too is scripture. In fact Martin Luther hated the Letter of James; he called it an “epistle of straw.”

The greatest stumbling block and the most eloquent refutation of Reformed theology is the unethical Christian. History has shown us many of them. The unethical Christian is proof that good works and the profession of Christian faith are not necessarily companions. The Crusades, the Inquisition, numerous religious wars, two millennia of anti-Jewish violence, and modern-day Evangelical support of Donald Trump’s cruelty are only the most obvious examples of how the fusion of professed faith and loving behavior is not a reliable expectation. If you say that such behavior is evidence that a Christian’s claim to faith is not real, then you are using works, not faith, as your criterion for justification. If works are needed to show that faith is actually present, and if the lack of works proves that one’s faith is false, then works become the “badge” of justification and “faith alone” has no real meaning.

One thing that should be obvious but is virtually never mentioned is that the Reformers’ doctrine of “faith alone apart from works” completely contradicts everything Jesus taught. Jesus was very clear (in Matthew 25, Luke 16, and elsewhere) that works are indeed important, even critical, and that you cannot expect to escape judgment if you are cruel to others. Unfortunately Reformed theology, growing from an Augustinian/Lutheran interpretation of Paul, has substituted a distorted Paulinism for the teachings of Jesus as preserved in the Gospels. Wright has taken some positive steps in correcting some traditional misunderstandings of Paul, but he has not gone nearly far enough in liberating soteriology from the distortion of sola fide.

So before becoming too complacent about Piper’s defense of the “old perspective” one would do well to read Wright’s answer to Piper in his new book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Wright does a good job of putting Piper in his place, especially pointing out the egotism of using the Bible primarily as a manual for one’s personal salvation. As Wright so aptly puts it, “We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around.”

Finally, Piper appears extremely concerned that Wright will lead souls astray with his false teachings about justification. Piper is especially exercised about Wrightís maintaining that there will be a second judgment of the faithful based upon the life one has lived, in other words, according to works. But there really is no practical difference between these two views. According to Wright, the initial justification, which is indeed by faith alone, merely anticipates and predicts the final verdict based on the life lived. Therefore that latter verdict, based upon works, is an empty one. Once justified, always justified. According to both Wright and Piper, only Christian faith will win you Godís acquittal and bring you to salvation. So just what are these two arguing about?

Piper’s approach will no doubt remain popular among many who find security in received doctrines and who consider questioning them illegitimate or even blasphemous. However, Piper’s Christianity, which likely will appeal most to American evangelicals, is not the only form of authentic Christianity, nor even is it the most faithful to scripture, in spite of its pretensions to absolute, exclusive truth. While I cannot subscribe to all of Wright’s interpretations, his work should stimulate independent inquiry and deeper investigation of the biblical text. And that, after all, is much of what the Protestant revolution was all about.

August 2009