I just finished John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is a response to this book, so I thought I would read Piper's book before getting in to Wright's.
I love N.T. Wright. He's a great thinker and a brilliant communicator. That being said, I don't buy into all of his ideas on Paul. I am more along the James Dunn line of thought with a little Seyoon Kim and Francis Watson thrown in for good measure. (If you don't know who these guys are, Wright and Dunn are the leading proponents of the "New Perspective on Paul.")
Since a criticism against Wright is a criticism of the New Perspective, I felt the need to offer some thoughts. However, instead of blasting Piper for what was not good, I thought it might be more helpful to discuss the strongest points of his book. Piper brings up three points that make me think. First, there is his discussion on what makes the Gospel "good news." Really, this boils down to the importance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Second, there is his discussion of the role of "good works" in salvation. Third (and most significant), is the question of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer.
First, there is the issue of what makes the Gospel "good news." Wright argues that the Gospel isn't substitutionary atonement and going to heaven when you die; it's the message that God is making all things to right through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wright does not deny substitutionary atonement; he just says it's not the Gospel.
Piper cites 1 Corinthians 15:1–9:
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received--that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [bold and italics mine]
The issue here is the meaning and significance of the word "for" in verse 3 is. Piper argues that the Gospel is only "good news" if it is "good news" for me. In other words, until I realize that there is nothing I can do to save myself and that I am a hopeless sinner destined for damnation, I can't be saved. Thus, an essential part of the Gospel is the theology of substitutionary atonement.
To understand the Gospel, do you just have to affirm that Jesus died for sins and rose again, or do you have to understand the theology of substitutionary atonement that lies behind that word "for"? In other words, if someone believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but does not completely understand grace (i.e. they think that their works are of some benefit to their salvation), are they saved? Or does their lack of understanding of grace disqualify them from the kingdom of God?
Second, Piper discusses the role that works play in salvation. One serious weakness of the Reformed tradition is that in emphasizing the antithesis between "faith" and "good works," they fail to explain the plethora of passages in which Paul praises good works and presents them as normative to the Christian life.
Wright says that future justification is based on the Spirit-enabled good works that the believer does in this life. The major support for this is Romans 8:13, "(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" and Romans 2:13, "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous." In other words, when someone believes the Gospel, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit by grace through faith. The work of the Holy Spirit necessarily leads to good works which lead to justification. So:
Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works=>future justification (based on Spirit-enabled works)
Piper, on the other hand, argues that future justification is based on the works of Christ imputed to the believer. However, Piper also argues that good works are normative for the believer, even going so far as to call them "necessary evidence." So:
Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works and future justification (based on imputed works)
Is there a meaningful difference between these two models? Both agree that salvation is by grace through faith. Both believe that justification is both now and future. Both agree that works are necessary. The difference is that Wright says that works are a necessary part of justification and Piper says that they are a necessary evidence. If the evidence is "necessary," how is it not a "part"?
Third, Piper discusses Wright's view on imputation and union with Christ. I really appreciated the chapters on this issue because Piper clearly differentiated Wright's views from the Reformed position. As much as Wright wants to claim that he is in line with the Reformed tradition, when it comes to imputation, he is not.
Imputation is the idea that when we are united to Christ through faith/baptism (Rom 6), Christ's righteous works are imputed to us through this union. So, it's not just that we are forgiven of our sins, but we are also given a stockpile of righteous deeds that Christ did on earth. He takes our sin; we get his righteousness. The classic proof-text for this is 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God."
Wright, on the other hand, says that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not teach the Reformed doctrine of imputation and that the idea that righteousness is a substance that can be passed from one person to another is a category mistake. You don't possess righteousness, you are righteous. Wright says that justification is based on real righteousness that comes about by the work of the Spirit. He offers an alternate view of 2 Corinthians 5:21 that (in his opinion) does more justice to the "ambassadors" theme of the context. In my opinion, Wright's interpretation of this passage is a little weak.
However, if I could help Wright here, I might point out that 2 Cor 5:21 says nothing of the means by which people become the righteousness of God. The word "imputation" is nowhere in the verse. Does 2 Cor 5:21 demand imputation, or can Wright's view be fit into it?