Dr. NT Wright is an eminent British theologian and historian, widely renowned for his work on the resurrection of Jesus. Wright has completed a massive volume titled The Resurrection of The Son of God in which he defends the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While Dr. Wright may convoke the applause of evangelicals for this work, there is another area of scholarship that many of us do not find very appealing. Wright has been a critic of the classical Protestant view of justification, suggesting that we have misunderstood what Paul was saying because we have overlooked his main themes. Throughout my reflections on NT Wright’s view of Justification, I will provide a bit of engagement while representing his position as delineated in his book Justification as accurately as I can.
However, I should also note that this is not meant to be a full refutation or “The Case Against Tom Wright.” Dr. Wright is one of the most esteemed New Testament scholars in the world today. For me to think that I could provide a full refutation in a blogpost would be nothing short of delusion of grandeur. Besides that, there is a lot in his book that I agree with. I can say that I, and most Reformed Christians, could probably agree with 70% of what he said. So what are my agreements and disagreements?
Wright’s Use of Terminology
The book Justification was meant to serve as a response to Dr. John Piper, who has been a critic of Wright’s. On page 10, Dr. Wright summarized Piper’s (the Reformed/Protestant) position that justification comes by faith alone. Then he added the commentary, “Absolutely. I agree. There is not a syllable with which I would disagree.” This implies that he would not object even to the use of the word “alone” as many dissidents to Protestant theology do. Wright often declares that he agrees with what the Protestant is saying, but does not think that the standard texts actually support what is being said. In his debate with Dr. James White on Unbelievable, he said something like, “Paul would agree with what you are saying. But he was not saying it there.”
If that is Dr. Wright’s position, then why should I even bother writing a response? He believes the same thing as classical Protestants, but just thinks that passages like Romans 4 do not establish it. So why bother addressing it? While Dr. Wright may say that he believes in justification by faith alone, he really means something different. He can say that he affirms every syllable of that statement, but he does not affirm what Dr. Piper is attempting to relay. I find his use of terminology is be a bit unhelpful. It muddies the water and makes him more difficult to understand (despite all of his effort to be as clear as possible). As an indicator that he is going to take back what he said, he added on page 10 that the Holy Spirit is left out of this formula. That initially tipped me off that he probably does not mean what everyone else means when he says “justification by faith alone” and that inkling was vindicated as I continued reading.
What Is His View of Justification?
So, what may we say in summary of Dr. Wright’s view of justification? If it is not really by faith alone, then what is it? What does he replace justification by faith alone with? Many Reformed thinkers have accused Dr. Wright of replacing soteriology (the study of salvation) with ecclesiology (the study of the church) because his soteriological is essential ecclesiological. Salvation occurs when one becomes a member of the covenant family of God. It is not about the individual coming into a relationship with God. It is about God’s covenantal faithfulness and our entering into it. God made a promise to Abraham and he is faithful to that promise, and we are the fulfillment of it.
Reformed Christians will not find a lot to disagree with here. That is part of what it means to be adopted into God’s family. It is part of the picture, but it is not the entire picture. There is still the issue of our sin, and that is what we really want to talk about. Since God is righteous, he has to deal with sin. That is why Christians believe in imputation and justification by faith alone. So, how does God deal with sin, on Dr. Wright’s model?
I was disappointed to find that Dr. Wright’s so-called New View of Justification is really a model of justification by faithful obedience, or, by works. But it is wrapped in a heavy emphasis on the covenantal element. It is almost as if to say that if you accept his view of the covenant, you are forced to accept his view of how we acquire righteousness, as if they are a package. (Although I should admit that Wright says that he prefers Calvinism to Lutheranism for its’ emphasis on the covenant.) The central prooftext that he appealed to was Romans chapter 2.
As I alluded to earlier, Dr. Wright spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation and how it is often left out of Reformed thinking. He hinted to that theme a few more times in the following chapters, asking something like, “How can we resolve Paul’s insistence that there will be a judgment according to our works?” In his chapter on the book of Romans, Dr. Wright treats Romans 2:1-16. He pointed out that the “first mention of justification in the letter states openly and cheerfully that it is the ‘doers of the law who will be justified’ (Romans 2:13).”
Now, one might say, “But perhaps Dr. Wright means the same thing that we do. Perhaps he is referring to something like Lordship Salvation.” That is surely not the case. On page 184, he writes that justification by “works of the Law” is typically regarded as “anathema.” His response? He did not write Romans 2. Paul did. Dr. Wright has in mind the specific nuance that Reformed thinkers regard as anathema. There will be a final judgment of believers that is according to works, and if you lived in faithful obedience to the covenant, you will be given eternal life.
What may we say about Romans 2:13? Well, there are two things that we may say in response (which did not go untouched by Wright). First, it may be said that Paul was setting up a category that he knows that nobody could meet only to present the gospel of grace. Dr. Wright refers to this maneuver as a “mirage,” a “desperate exegesis,” and concludes that we are regarding it as “not a particularly serious part of the book.” But I do not see any reason to think that. Only when people know that they are sick will ask for the cure. This seems to gain support from verses 17:24, in which Paul goes on to ask hypothetical question, “You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” He is helping the audience to recognize that everybody falls short.
What about the second objection to Dr. Wright’s interpretation? This is perhaps one that is more crucial. To say that the “doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to say that their doing the Law is the mechanism that will justify them. It is point out a correlation, not a causation. That seems to be a category error. As Protestants, we believe that justification comes by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone. The doers of the Law will be justified precisely because those who are justified by faith alone will do that Law.
Other Texts About The Guidance of The Spirit
After his treatment of Romans 2, Dr. Wright moves on to other passages that suggest that we can be pleasing to God. He refers to passages such as Romans 12:1, or when Jesus says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” He is attempting to connect this to the final judgment. If we have done good works, if he have served him faithfully, then we will “bring a smile to the Father’s face” (page 187) and be pleasing to God. This is what Dr. Wright meant on page 10 when he said that the Holy Spirit was missing from the equation of Protestant soteriology.
However, again, the treatment of these passages seems to ignore the careful and critical nuances of Protestant theology. After all, there is a sense in which we believe that we are pleasing to God. But what is the basis and the foundation for our pleasing God? It is the imputed righteousness of the Son of God. It is the fact that God has made us new creatures, and now the Holy Spirit is working through us and in us. The Holy Spirit is not missing from our soteriology. He just has a different role than what Dr. Wright is espousing.
Covenantal Theology – The Basis For Our Exegesis
Dr. Wright has some scathing and yet accurate criticisms of evangelical practice and theology. In evangelism, the question that we often ask is, “How can I be saved? How can I get to Heaven?” Then we will point to passages in the Bible that seem to answer this question. Wright indicts us with asking the wrong question. That is not how we should begin an exegesis. This is one insight with which most Christians should take to heart. Understanding the Jewishness of Paul and his insight is critical to understanding Paul. What was he talking about? Why did he refer to Abraham? Paul was concerned with the covenant that God made with his people and how God will be faithful to that covenant. Salvation is about the restoration of the world, when all things will be made new, and we have the opportunity to enjoy that by entering into the covenant of God.
However, there is a critical point that needs to be made. The fact that Paul was talking about God’s covenant with Israel does not mean that there are not implications for individual salvation. A Protestant Christian could accept covenantal theology and still believe in justification by faith alone on the basis of the common proof-texts. These are not mutually exclusive. Understanding the covenant does not immediately drive you to deny justification by faith alone. It would only lead you to answer a follow-up question, namely, “How can I enter into the covenant?” and I think that the answer is “justification by faith alone.” So my point here is that Dr. Wright has valuable insight regarding the covenant, but I do not think that consideration will overrule our exegesis of central passages such as Romans 4:5.
“To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Romans 4:5
This text is, as Simon Gathercole pointed out, the smoking gun that seems to establish Paul’s view of justification. It tells us how we can enter into the covenant by appealing to Abraham. Abraham was unrighteous and ungodly, a sinner and an idolater when he entered in the covenant. But it was his faith that was credited as righteousness. What does this mean to Protestants? There are two considerations.  Faith is credited as righteousness.  The ungodly are those who are justified. This seems to wholly undermine the doctrine of a final justification that is according to our works.
On page 220, Dr. Wright provides some thoughts on Romans 4:5. He writes that the “promise that is given,” was that Abraham would have a family. Paul is harking back to the entire narrative, using a few verses to draw our attention to that passage in Genesis 15. In context, the promise is that Abraham would have a family. Paul did not suddenly stop talking about that and move on to “How can I go to Heaven?” argues Wright. Is that correct? Is Wright right? (To borrow an overwhelmingly clever line from the students of the Twitter user and theology professor, Bible Students Say)
First, I do not think that we can ignore the grammar of what Paul said by harking back to Genesis 15. Paul generalized his statement. He said, “to the one who does not work…” seeming to indicate that he is talking about more than just Abraham. Second, that does not remove the focus from the promise that Abraham received. Abraham having a family is not something so quaint as a 21st century man hoping against hope that he will have children. Those who are in Abraham’s family are members of the covenant. Paul is explaining that God has kept his promises and that we may enter into the covenant by faith.
Is Imputation A Form of Legalism?
Dr. Wright raised several arguments against the doctrine of imputation. Those objections have largely gone unscathed in this blogpost (As they warrant a post of their own. Perhaps in the future I will write more about this topic. For now, you may want to read Dr. Thomas L. Schreiner’s brief blogpost on the topic.) One of the objections that he raised on page 232 is that the doctrine of imputation entail that Jesus must have been the ultimate legalist. Jesus kept the Law in our place and now gives the righteousness that he earned to us. Since we shy away from legalism, we should also shy away from “ultimate legalism.”
But I think that this objection misses the point. The reason that we shy away from legalism is precisely that Christ already kept the Law perfectly and that his righteousness has already been given to us. Legalism would entail that an individual was not trusting in the perfect righteousness of the Son of God that has been imputed to us. They were steering their eyes away from the cross and to their own righteousness. That is the difference. We may accept that Christ was the “ultimate legalist,” but I do not know that this terminology is helpful. What we are trying to express, and what we believe that Paul was expressing is that Christ took our place. Our sins were given to him so that his righteousness could be given to us.
Reflections On NT Wright’s View of Justification
This blogpost was over 2000 words, but still there is much that I did not cover. Dr. Wright mounted a lot of powerful arguments in his 250 page hardcover. Some of them were persuasive and others were not. If you want to understand what he believes, read the book. Let him speak for himself in his own words. He has a lot of helpful insight that can assist us in reading the Bible and thinking about these things. But some of his interpretations do not differ much from what we will commonly find in Roman Catholic circles. Either way, this book warrants careful study.