I was struck by a paragraph in N. T. Wright’s new book on justification that reveals a stark difference between the perspective of Wright and that of John Piper. The passage appears in the midst of Wright’s argument against Piper’s belief that the righteousness of God should be defined as God’s concern for His own glory. I will quote Wright at length and then add some of my own reflections:
‘There is a sense in which what Piper claims about “God’s righteousness” could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative loveâ€”God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply “for the sake of his own name.” But “God’s righteousness” is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynÄ“ theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel, and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and “God’s righteousness” is a way of saying, Yes, and God will be true to that character.’ â€“Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, pp. 70-71
Wright’s main point in this section is to show why he thinks Piper’s definition of the righteousness of God is off-base. We can boil down Wright’s objections in this paragraph to two points. One is biblical and the other is theological. Let me address each of these in turn.
First, Wright asserts that the scriptures do not regularly invoke God’s righteousness when God is acting “for the sake of his own name.” The main problem with this contention is that it is not accurate. God’s righteousness and His concern for His own self-exaltation are in fact linked in numerous texts of scripture. Consider, for instance, these texts.
In Thy righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline Thine ear to me, rescue me quickly;
Be Thou to me a rock of strength,
A stronghold to save me.
3 For Thou art my rock and my fortress;
For Thy name’s sake Thou wilt lead me and guide me.
For the sake of Your name, O LORD, revive me.
In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
In these two texts, the connection between God’s righteousness and His acting for His name’s sake is explicit. There are other texts, however, in which the connection is less explicit but still present. The obvious New Testament example that comes to mind is Romans 3.
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26
for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In the immediate context (vv. 21-22), it is clear that this paragraph is dealing with God’s righteousness, which is set forth in chapter 1 as the theme of the book of Romans (vv. 1:16-17). In these two verses, Paul explains that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to “demonstrate His righteousness.” God redeems sinners for the purpose of manifesting something about Himself. In the cross, God is exalting His own righteousness and showing that He is both just and justifier. In other words, God is magnifying Himself (and in particular His own righteousness) in Christ’s redemptive work. God is doing the polar opposite of what sinful humanity does in verse 2:24 (“the name of God is blasphemed”). He is exalting the glory of His own name through the cross which in turn demonstrates His righteousness.
I have only three texts here, and I think I could marshal some more. But isn’t the point already clear? God’s righteousness and His doing things for the sake of His name are connected in scripture.
Second, Wright says that God would be guilty of “divine narcissism” if God were only ever concerned with doing things “for the sake of his own name.” While it makes for good rhetoric, I don’t think that invoking the term “divine narcissism” is all that helpful in terms of theological analysis. We get our word “narcissism” from Greek mythology, but the term’s meaning in common parlance is “inordinate fascination with oneself.” But the Bible teaches that it is not possible for God to be inordinately fascinated with Himself; nor is it possible (as the myth goes) for God to be so enraptured with the reflection of His own image that it becomes a vice.
The sum of the Bible’s teaching is that God is the only being for whom self-exaltation is not a vice, but a virtue. That God would exalt the beauty of His own perfections for others to admire is the essence of love. That is why you have texts in the scripture that express God’s jealousy concerning His own worship and glory: “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). Only with God is self-exaltation a virtue, since He is the first and best of beings, the only One who can satisfy the soul. When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing.
And herein is the problem with Wright’s argument. Wright says, ” God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God . . . is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel, and an undeserving world.” Here Wright does not speak of God’s God-centeredness as a virtue in itself but as a potential vice that has to be balanced out by His othercentered acts of grace.
This kind of analysis is wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. First, as I stated above, God is the only being for whom self-exaltation is not a vice but a virtue. Second, Wright misses the connection that the Bible draws between God’s God-centeredness and His gracious redemptive acts. God’s grace and His God-centeredness are not impulses in God that are opposed to one another. On the contrary, the one is a means by which the other comes about. God’s redemptive work in Christ is the means by which God exalts the glory of His own grace. This is precisely the connection drawn by texts like Ephesians 1, which says that God blesses us with every spiritual blessing “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6).
I am not totally convinced the John Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness is correct. I think that God’s concern for His own glory is rightly understood as an implication of His righteousness, not a definition of it. That being said, Piper is absolutely right about God’s priority of exalting His own name for the enjoyment of all people. And Piper is also right to see the biblical and theological connections between God’s glory and His righteousness. I think Wright has missed it on this point, and his book is the weaker for it.