Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review 10: Piper's Future of Justification Chapter 8

Today we review Chapter 9 of John Piper's new book: The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. This chapter is titled: "Does Wright Say with Different Words What the Reformed Tradition Means?"

I felt in this chapter like I was listening in on someone else's conversation. None of it is particularly new territory, but Piper is addressing an issue of great concern in his circles. To his credit, he is open to the possibility that Wright is saying the same thing that he believes, only with different words. In the end, however, he concludes that Wright is saying something different in at least one key respect.

I thought the following quote from Piper gave the upshot of the distinction between the two:

"... when Wright describes our works in relation to the final judgment as 'the things which show ... that one is in Christ,' he does not mean what most Reformed exegetes have meant when they speak like that.

They mean that the necessary works--the imperfect but real life of love--at the last day show that there has been authentic faith and union with Christ whose atoning death and imputed obedience are the sole ground of acceptance and vindication, apart from any grounding in our Spirit-enabled, imperfect deeds.

Wright, we have seen, does not believe Paul taught such an imputation of Christ's obedience" (127).

Or, to put it even more specifically,

"In historic Reformed exegesis,

(1) a person is in union with Christ by faith alone.

In this union, (2) the believer is identified with Christ in his

(a) wrath-absorbing death,
(b) his perfect obedience to the Father, and
(c) his vindication-securing resurrection.

All of these are reckoned--that is, imputed--to the believer in Christ.

On this basis, (3) the "dead," "righteous," "raised" believer is accepted and assured of final vindication and eternal fellowship with God" (124-125).

The difference between Reformed theology and Wright, Piper claims, is that Wright has no 2b in his system. Wright does not see Paul claiming that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer who is in Christ in the way Piper does.

Piper sees three major implications of Wright's missing 2b:

1. The believer's status still stands before God's court without real perfect imputed obedience.
How then can the holy God vindicate them?

2. That leaves only our own Spirit-enabled imperfect obedience as Christians to stand before the holy God, even though our past sins are taken care of.

3. Uncertain about how works play into our future justification creates doubts abou their role in our present justification.

Here Piper quotes Wright: "What is 'justification by faith' all about? Paul's answer is that it is the anticipation, in the present time, of the verdict which will be issued on the last day" (129).

Piper's argument is that

a). if present justification is by faith (as Wright seems to affirm) and
b). present justification is an anticipation of future justification,
c). how can Wright say that future justification is by works?

I would agree that Wright's words are often difficult to pin down (he reminds me of Barth, although I think Barth's ambiguity is more coherent than Wright's). Let me here fully confess that someone could have a hey day with my comments too if they started pulling contradictory sounding sentences from the many words I've put on this blog.

I think, however, that some of the ambiguity here is not Wright's fault and some of Piper's clarity is not to the Reformed tradition's merit. Rather, Paul himself leaves us with many statements that sound to be in tension with each other. Just as an example:

"We reckon that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law." (Rom. 3:28)

"It is necessary for all of us to appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah so that each might be paid back for the things that they did with their body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

In short, the charge of alleged discrepency between present and future justification must lay first at Paul's door before one puts it on Wright, who in his ambiguity is a fair reflection of Paul's own ambiguity.

Here I have some thoughts:
1. Perhaps God has inspired the Reformed (or Wesleyan) tradition to hear the right meanings in and connections between Paul's words on this topic. But it is important to recognize that the text of Paul himself on this topic has what Paul Ricoeur called a "surplus of meaning." There is more than one way to account for what, at least at first glance, are comments that appear to be in tension.

These are "gaps" in the text (cf. Wolfgang Iser) which can be filled in coherently, as the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions have. But for me it is also important to recognize that we are the ones filling in these gaps. Piper is deluding himself if he thinks his interpretation of imputed righteousness comes from Paul himself. It comes from Christian tradition filling in gaps in Paul's writings.

This is not a bad thing--it is in fact a necessary thing.

2. My sense in Paul is that he speaks broadly and generally. The Protestant Reformation, along with Augustine, have polarized Paul's language by making it more either-or in ways he didn't.

a. predestination versus free will (Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley have filled in the philosophical gaps that sat loosely for Paul)

b. human depravity versus goodness (The Pelagian controversy polarized this issue in ways it wasn't fully polarized for Paul)

c. faith versus works
Paul simply never uses the phrase "justification by faith alone." Paul never says that we are purely justified by faith, understood not to involve works at all. Wright is correct over Piper that for Paul faith involves human action (versus Piper on 130-131). Paul does not worry about whether this faith is a "work" itself done by human effort--these are much later debates.

We are justified by faith now--by trusting in what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead. We will be justified by faithfulness then--with the atonement of Christ in place for past sins, how we went on to live in the Spirit. Paul doesn't work out the details.

Once again, we can discern that the primary fly in Piper's ointment is his undertanding of penal substitution in relation to God's holiness. Christ has to take the last drop of our punishment and, conversely, we have to have the last drop of Christ's righteousness.

Meanwhile, Paul doesn't care. Jesus dying for our sins is not a mathematical equation to satisfy a wrath-number crunching God. Nor is God a righteous-number crunching God. He's God. He is sovereign enough to forgive for free if He had wanted to. The image of penal substitution is just one of several true pictures of atonement.

But to make it a fully literal understanding of God--just as to make predestination fully literal or depravity--is to skew Paul with other bad theological consequences.

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