This morning I participated in a panel discussion of N. T. Wright’s views on justification. The panel met during the Thursday chapel hour at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. Albert Mohler moderated the panel comprised of Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid, Brian Vickers, and me. The audio is available at both the Boyce College website and at the Southern Seminary site, or you can listen to it below. Or you can see the video here.[audio:http://www.sbts.edu/media/audio/fall2009/20090903panel.mp3]
A colleague here at SBTS has e-mailed some items that we didn’t get to address during the discussion. His questions are in bold below, and my answers follow.
What do we do with passages that seem (on first glance) to describe final judgment based on works â€“ the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example? Here is where Wright must be answered exegetically and theologically. We cannot simply appeal to the traditional Protestant understanding.
I think the seminal text for Wright on the question of final justification is Romans 2:5-6, 13: “5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will render to every man according to his deeds . . . 13 for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” Wright argues in numerous places that this text leads us to seeing a final justification of sinners based on their works. For instance:
“The Spirit is the path by which Paul traces the route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future.” â€“Paul in Fresh Perspective, 148
“Paul has spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people on the basis of their whole life.” â€“Paul in Fresh Perspective, 121
“Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life.” â€“What Saint Paul Really Said, 129
I think this is a fundamental misreading of Romans 2, which does not talk about a final justification based on works. Romans 2:6 says that God will “render to every man according to his deeds” (emphasis mine). Wright wrongly equates “according to his deeds” with “on the basis of deeds,” but that is not how the text reads. The distinction here is critical because everyone in this debate agrees that Paul teaches a final judgment according to deeds. The question is how Paul says those deeds function in the final analysis. Those who “do good” will indeed inherit “eternal life” (Romans 2:7). But that does not mean that “doing good” is the basis of justification. Paul says in Romans 3 that the basis of justification is the redemptive work of Christ (Romans 3:24-25). This is where I think Wright has horribly misconstrued Paul.
Are there any nuances that careful biblical study can add to the Reformational understanding of justification?
Yes. But it seems to me that Wright has not refined the Reformation so much as he has gone outside of it. That being said, we could cite numerous examples in which exegesis of key texts have changed since the time of Luther’s great insight. For example, my view of “the righteousness of God” would probably differ somewhat from Luther’s. I would argue that “the righteousness of God” is a reference to God’s own righteousness which is the ground and motivation of his justifying work through Christ. I think this is a refinement of Luther’s original understanding of the phrase. Having said that, I think I end up pretty near Luther in terms of my overall view of justification. So there is exegetical refinement, but not a stepping outside the mainstream of the Reformation.