N.T. Wright on Justification at ETS

I have been in Atlanta this week attending a series of professional meetings for theologians and Bible scholars. The first meeting was the annual gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). This year, the theme of ETS was “justification,” and our special guest in one of the plenary sessions was N.T. Wright.

Tom Schreiner gave an excellent critique of Wright’s views on justification and actually teased out of him a rather remarkable concession. In fact, I would say that this concession was the most significant thing that happened this week at ETS on the topic of justification.

Schreiner critiqued Wright’s published view that justification occurs “on the basis of the whole life lived.” In N.T. Wright’s response, Wright said that he couldn’t remember ever having said such a thing. Wright’s forgetfulness on this point was rather astonishing to me, because the heart of John Piper’s critique of Wright was on precisely this point—a point that Wright never answered in the entire book that he wrote in response to Piper. Here are some direct quotes from Wright’s writings to illustrate the point:

“Paul has . . . spoken in Romans 2 about the final justification of God’s people on the basis of their whole life.” –Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 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.” –What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129

“This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense.” -“New Perspectives on Paul,” 260

Nevertheless, Wright conceded in his exchange with Schreiner that if he did use the phrase “on the basis of” that he would want to “nuance” it to mean “in accordance with” works. Don’t miss that. Wright believes that justification is in accordance with works, not on the basis of them. This is huge in my view, and I don’t want anyone to miss the significance of this statement. This brings him much closer to the traditional Protestant position (and the biblical one too!), and that is no small matter considering how the debate has unfolded thus far.

Schreiner and Wright’s papers will eventually be published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and you will be able to read them there. In the meantime, you can order an audio recording from ETS if you want to hear the interaction between Wright and Schreiner on this point.


  • Daniel


    thanks for the report. I am also surprised wright doesn’t remember using that phrase. If I remember correctly in his justification book a footnote mentions that his critics make the distinction between “basis” vs. ” accordance” but Paul doesn’t in regards to works and the final judgment.

    In my understandind, reformed people uses these phrases with a particular meaning with a certain story of how salvation is EARNED. Do you think wright is using the phrase like the reformed people? Is wright just using the phrase “accordance” to mean that we don’t earn our final judgment but we are still judge by our works in order to receive final approval rather that proving that we are in Christ? Was wright clear how works relate to the final judgment or did he just switch phrases to please the reformed people?

  • Donald Johnson

    I think it helps understanding what Paul wrote to see that “works” can be different from “works of the Law” which I understand to be a Greek translation of the Hebrew concept “Ma’aseh haTorah” as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Jewish identity markers.

  • jigawatt

    Denny, do you think this has always been Wright’s view? Since he couldn’t remember saying it, I’m guessing that his view has softened a bit since those writings and his ‘nuancing’ is a way for him to eisegete his own words and say “but that is what I have been saying all along”.

    But I wasn’t there. Is this a fair assessment?

  • Ryan K.

    Good point Donald. There is a difference between works aimed at securing salvation, and works that are the natural fruit of salvation.

  • tyler mcnabb

    Great to see Wright softening his view, I hope this continues and cant wait to hear this! Does anyone know where I can just buy the audio for this particular event? I went to ets but couldnt find it, only where I could buy everything from the whole event.

  • Ryan K.

    Hey Tom1st if you are going to claim that Dr. Burk’s post is less than “fair” please give a reason.

    Also, I do not think the Gospel Coalition recap was meant to be exhaustive or imply that since they did not mention something then it did not happen.

  • Denny Burk


    I think I’ve pretty fairly summarized what was said on this narrow point, and what I have here is not at all in tension with Collin’s report. N. T. Wright has until now advocated a final justification “on the basis of” works (see quotes above). He reversed that in his remarks yesterday.

    Wright does sometimes have the tendency to change his position and then say that such was his position all along. I don’t think, however, that such an argument will work in this case. For instance, consider this paragraph from Wright’s essay “New Perspectives on Paul“:

    “I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works. It is not often enough remarked upon, for instance, that in the Thessalonian letters, and in Philippians, he looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favourable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, not because like Lord Hailsham he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work. ‘What is our hope and joy and crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus Christ at his royal appearing? Is it not you? For you are our glory and our joy.’ (1 Thess. 3.19f.; cp. Phil. 2.16f.) I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a swift rebuke of ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling’. The fact that Paul does not feel obliged at every point to say this shows, I think, that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done – though sometimes, to be sure, he adds a rider, which proves my point, that it is not his own energy but that which God gives and inspires within him (1 Cor. 15.10; Col. 1.29). But he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him. We are embarrassed about saying this kind of thing; Paul clearly is not. What on earth can have happened to a sola scriptura theology that it should find itself forced to screen out such emphatic, indeed celebratory, statements?”

    Wright is clearly arguing that Paul’s final justification would be “on the basis of” his apostolic “works.” He even highlights the idea that Paul says this without reference to Christ’s work on the cross.


  • Tom1st

    Whoa! Call off the dogs!

    I never said Denny was being “less than fair.” I never said he was being unreasonable. I never claimed he was even wrong. I’m merely pointing to a more complete discussion of the matter – one that takes Wright’s recent words into account.

    Whereas Denny’s article merely assumes he changed his mind or mis-remembers, Wright doesn’t say that about himself, he maintains that he has been misunderstood. By actually citing Wright’s perspective (from ETS), the Collins article is being ‘more’ fair b/c it is more comprehensive. And it mentions nothing at all about him conceding any points of his doctrine, merely clarifying. (Whether or not Wright claim is true or not is beyond the intention of my statements.)

    So please call off the dogs, friends. Not everyone on here is trying to pick a fight. I wanted to just point everyone to a better discussion of the entire matter.

  • Tom1st

    And by ‘better’ I don’t mean to be insulting to Denny or his post. I’m merely saying that the Gospel Coalition post offers more fair, more comprehensive, more contextual, understandings of Wright’s comments from his own perspective. No intention to insult Denny here…I promise.

  • Tom1st

    After reading my initial post I can see why people took me the way they did. But I think it’s mostly due to the fact that we can’t read each other’s ‘tone’ over written communication. I had no ill intent in my original post. I apologize if that was communicated.

  • Ryan K.

    No worries Tom1st, and I did not mean to come off as to harsh (your right, tone is impossible online).

    I was inferring that you thought Denny’s post was not as fair as the GC one and I just wanted to know why. I apologize also if I came across as to strong in going after your words.

  • Denny Burk

    Whereas Denny’s article merely assumes he changed his mind or mis-remembers, Wright doesn’t say that about himself.

    This is incorrect. I was in the session, and Wright said that he could not remember ever saying “on the basis of” but that if he had he’d want to nuance his meaning. This will all come out when the papers are published. Thanks.

  • Ray A.


    NT hasnt reversed anything. if anything his critics have been straightened out to understand his meaning all along. you can see it in the essay you just quoted:

    “Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16.”

  • Tom Wright

    Denny–nice to meet you again yesterday. But don’t get too excited. I haven’t retracted anything that I meant in my many, many earlier statements on this subject. How could I, since I was simply stating what Paul states rather than trying to squash him into a dogmatic framework? Sadly I didn’t have time to check anything in my own earlier writings after I received Tom Schreiner’s paper — I was on the road in a complicated trip. Clearly I did say ‘basis’. But — as you will see from my commentary on Romans 2.1-16 — I have always made it clear, as I did yesterday, that I did not mean or intend the kind of thing that clearly some theologians think that word ‘must’ mean. Since the word ‘basis’ is not itself a biblical word I’m not claiming any great status for it. Obviously people have read it without reading the other things I say and then jumped to conclusions which are not warranted by the fuller exposition I give.
    I don’t normally look at, let alone respond to, blogsite comments, but a good friend drew my attention to what had been said. Let me say it again: all I am saying is what Paul says in Romans 2 (and elsewhere). Our own technical terms (‘basis’ etc) are fluid and flexible in our discourse and, like all summary terms, need to be teased out in terms of the larger discourse — Paul’s, and mine…
    The point, again, is that by the Spirit those who are already justified by faith have their lives transformed, and the final verdict will be in accordance with that transformation, imperfect though it remains.
    I thought it was a very good discussion. But I wouldn’t have said that the clarification of ‘basis’ was the highlight!
    Tom Wright

  • Tom1st

    As I was not at the session, I obviously cannot contend with ‘he said; he said.’

    However, I’m not sure how your citation of me is contradicted by the comment that follows. (Not trying to be obstinate here, I’m just saying that it’s unclear.)

    A.) You say he changed his mind or mis-remembers.

    B.) He claims he doesn’t remember at all (which is a DIFFERENT claim than your claim that he misremembers – from his perspective, he doesn’t misremember, he just doesn’t remember at all…suggesting to me that, again, he thinks he has been misunderstood).

    A and B are two completely different statements – Especially when one considers that you think he has a tendency to change his mind and then lie about what his position has always been.

    In the information I have access to (which is limited, admittedly), I’ve never seen Wright saying, ‘I’ve changed my mind’, ‘I relent my position’, or ‘I’m moving closer to the Reformed position on this matter.’ What I’ve seen him do is claim that HE DOES NOT REMEMBER DOING WHAT HE HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF DOING.

    In short, you say I am incorrect, but your follow up comment in no way indicates that 1) he acknowledges having changed his mind, or 2) that he acknowledges misremembering (all he says is that the doesn’t remember).

    But, again, I wasn’t there. And it’s always possible I’m misunderstanding you…I am prone to mistakes.

  • Daniel

    Can someone help me understanding what Wright is now affirming by choosing to use the phrase “according to” instead of “basis”?

    I know it isn’t that Wright has changed his view from the fact that good works earn our final salvation.

    In Piper’s NT wright book, he states that he is not concerned about Wright’s view of earning salvation?

    “In other words, Paul believes that all men will face a final judgment (law-court) in which people will “be vindicated, resurrected, shown to be the covenant people”- this is, justified by works. When he says “by works,” he does not mean by legalism or by merit or by earning, but by the obedience of our lives that is produced by the Holy Spirit through” (pg.104)

    So if the issue is not about our good works earning salvation what is Wright now affirming.



  • Christiane

    So much ‘of theology’ can be confusing. It gets convoluted.

    Michael Spencer once said so well,

    ” God revealed himself in Jesus. It is the kindness of God that appears and saves us when we cannot save ourselves. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It was the Gospel story of the crucifixion, not of sinners in the hands of an angry God, that caused 3,000 to be “cut to the heart.”

    …We are given a very simple message. It may rest on profound and intimidating revelation that only truly great minds can grasp, but any one of us slower types can go to the cross and hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them….” I don’t understand it, but as theology, it can’t be surpassed.”

  • Tom Wright

    Reflecting overnight, I think two of the key moments in the debate — and it’s a pity you didn’t mention them — were Tom Schreiner’s agreement with me that some of the push-back I have received, appealing to tradition rather than scripture, is basically neo-catholic in its method. This, as I said in my paper, makes it heavily ironic when folk accuse people like me of being crypto-catholic in our theology. It also makes it the more interesting in that it is some of TS’s colleagues who were guilty of that position.
    Second, TS in his paper, and Frank Thielman in his earlier work, make it clear that they agree with me on the business of ‘extended exile’. This, too, puts them at odds with quite a few of my critics, including again some of TS’s colleagues.
    But the really good thing about the debate, apart from the cheerful and Christian spirit in which it was carried out, was that we actually discussed some specific texts in considerable detail rather than dealing in slogans. That is what real debates ought to be about, and what blogsites are not always very good at.

  • John Holmberg

    Thanks to Tom Wright for clarification on here and Denny for providing the avenue for such. This sounds like it was actually a fruitful dialogue. If that statement makes it sound like I’m surprised, it’s because I am. I didn’t know if Tom would make it out of ETS alive. I really appreciate all you do, Tom. If you haven’t considered starting a blog, you would be magnificent. You would reach 10 times as many people on a blog as you would in your scholarship. It’s a way to be pastoral & academic for the average Christian. Give it some thought…

  • Josef

    I’m glad that the debate actually went somewhere. The panel discussion was the best example of what the tone of this debate ought to be. I didn’t know what to expect when I went to ETS this year. Would I simply see people holding Wright in contempt and talking at him? Would I see what has characterized too much of the Reformed response to the New Perspective? Thankfully, I didn’t see any of that from Schreiner or Thielman. Although I wish Wright didn’t go as much on the defensive as he did during his session (although I found his response to the words of a certain professor, during a certain panel discussion, at a certain seminary, to be certainly justified and funny), I still found everything during the plenary sessions to be fruiful and helpful in my own engagement with the debate.

  • Denny Burk

    Thanks for all who have stopped to comment. Since Dr. Wright has written in, I think the response deserves a separate post. I’ll have another post up later today, and we’ll continue the discussion there.

  • BPRJam

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’ve come to realize that Wright is either sloppy with his language, or he uses english in a way that is not intuitive to Americans.

    That’s not to say I don’t like Wright – I do. It is instead to say that I can’t ever use a single passage (and by that I mean a paragraph or so) and think I understand Wright. I’ve got to follow the intuition of what he is saying to really “get” his argument. I think his own responses in the comments of this post validate my approach.

  • John

    I was personally astounded with Tom Wright’s admission that he wasn’t familiar with the phrase ‘positional sanctification’ and that he hadn’t come across this phrase in his reading (of …?).

  • mark mcculley

    John Fesko wrote: Richard Gaffin tries to argue, on the basis of the grammar involved in a similar Pauline statement, that works are not the ground of judgment: “It is not for nothing, I take it, and not to be dismissed as an overly fine exegesis to observe, that in Romans 2:6 Paul writes, ‘according (kata) to works,’ not ‘on account of (dia),’ expressing the ground, nor ‘by (ek) works,’ expressing the instrument” (By Faith, Not By Sithgt [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006], 98-99; similarly, Venema, Gospel, 266). Though Gaffin’s comment concerns Paul’s statement in Romans 2:6, at the same time we find the same prepositional combination with the accusative in John’s statement in Revelation 20:12e, the only difference being in the use of the singular and plural pronouns (cf. Rom 2:6). Gaffin argues this point because he wants to preserve sola fide in the judgment of the works of the believer. Relying upon the analysis of Ridderbos and Murray, Gaffin’s finer point is that the judgment kata works is “in accordance with” the works, and such works are synecdochical for faith in Christ (see Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt [1975; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 178-81; Murray, Romans, 78-79).

    Yet can such a fine distinction be supported by the grammar alone? The use of “dia” with the accusative means “because of, on account of,” and the use of “kata” with the accusative means “in accordance with, corresponding to” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 368-69, 376-77). One must ask, what difference exists between the two? In fact, when we delve more deeply into the significance of “kata” with the accusative, we find that “often the noun that follows kata specifies the criterion, standard, or norm in the light of which a statement is made or is true, an action is performed, or a judgment is passed. The prep. will mean ‘according to’, ‘in conformity with’, ‘corresponding to.’ This use is common in reference to the precise and impartial standard of judgment that will be applied at the great Assize (Matt. 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev 2:23)” (Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in NIDNTT, 3:1200). Pace Gaffin and Venema, their argument apparently fails to account for judgment kata works for the wicked. This point seems to be borne out by Paul’s own use of kata, as he says, “He will render each one according to [kata] his works” (Rom. 2:6), but this rendering kata works is for both the righteous (v. 7) and the wicked (v. 8). According to Gaffin’s interpretation, are the wicked judged according to their works, but are they not the ground of their condemnation (see 2 Cor. 11:15)? Again, note how Paul uses kata: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due [to de ergazomeno ho misthos ou logizetai kata charin alla kata opheilema]” (Rom 4:4; see also Brian Vickers, Jesus Blood and Righteousness [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006] 95; Yinger, Paul, 21-26, 89-90, 135-136, 175, 182, 186). Judgment therefore is indeed kata (in accordance with, or on the basis of) works – the evil works of the unbeliever and the good works, or righteousness, of Christ.

    “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” p. 315

  • Mark

    Doesn’t the whole Calvinist-Reformed tradition since the Reformation period emphatically state that though forgiveness and justification is wholly based on the work of Christ that a transformed heart and life is a necessary fruit and evidence of a regenerated soul?

    When it comes down to it, could it be that there are no practical differences between the various Calvinist or Reformed scholars on this topic, no?

  • mark mcculley

    I would recommend the book in which Wright’s essay appears, but not Wright’s essay.

    Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Paperback), Bruce McCormack, editor, (Baker, 2006)

    While avoiding the difficult questions (was Adam’s guilt imputed to us humans?), Wright again caricatures his critics. But the clear reason he’s so comfortable discarding justification based only on Christ’s finished work is that Wright has confidence in the water of “the church” to make Christians by the Holy Spirit’s regeneration. What this watery birth has to do with “the covenant” is less clear.

    I quote from Wright later on the same page (260)which talks about “on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit, that is, it occurs, on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense”

    “Just as the final justification will consist not in words so much as in an event, namely the resurrection of the person, so the present justification consists not so much in words but in an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him. In other words, baptism. I was delighted to rediscover…that not only Chrysostom and Augustine but also Luther would here have agreed with me.”

    NT Wright has come to the place in his life when he can only keep rediscovering how he is right. But some of us critics still insist that the water regeneration of Luther and Augustine (and NT Wright Anglicans) is in competition with the biblical good news about justification in Christ.

  • Johnathan Pritchett

    Splitting hairs…

    I think the point of either “basis” or “in accordance with”, is that God intends to make His people something more than they were prior to conversion. It is in this sense that God will “declare righteous” at the final judgment, the people He transformed for more than just their “thinking right things about Biblical trivia concerning Jesus”…which is what some people seek to reduce “faith” into…

    If anything, the “faith” now and “faith plus works” later scheme of the now and later justification seeks to give God more glory for what He has don e in people rather than just God gifting people with “intellectual content” about Jesus…

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