Wrong about Wright?

Tom Wright has written-in to clarify that he in fact did not intend his ETS plenary address to signal a change in his position on justification. He writes, “I haven’t retracted anything that I meant in my many, many earlier statements on this subject.” His step back from “on the basis of” language was only a change in terminology, not a change in substance. In short, he says that his current views on the matter are what they have always been.

There are at least three items that I want to respond to from the two comments that Wright contributed under my earlier post (his comments are here and here).

1. Has Wright changed his position?

As I noted above, Wright says that he has not changed his view on justification. I think this is a matter that is still worthy of some discussion. I concede that in his own reckoning he has not changed his view, but I still think that what he said on Friday is very difficult to reconcile with some of his earlier published work.

On Friday, Wright said that he could not recall ever having affirmed future justification “on the basis of works” but that even if he had he might want to nuance that language a bit. Wright clarified his view that future justification will be “in accordance with” works, not “on the basis of” works. He also said that future justification in no way compromises justification by faith in the present time (as is taught in Romans 3). Justification by faith in the present is forensic, sure, firm, and unchangeable.

When Wright put these remarks forth at ETS, I thought it sounded very different from the many books and articles that I have read by him in the past. For instance in Wright’s essay “New Perspectives on Paul” (Baker, 2006), Wright distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from human works and argues that final justification would be “on the basis of” Spirit-wrought, human works.

“[Paul] looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favorable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, or because he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work… 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 that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done… He is clear that the things he does in the present by moral and physical effort will count to his credit on the last day…” (p. 254)

In the same essay, Wright goes on to say that future justification “occurs on the basis of ‘works’” (p. 260). This is just one essay, but Wright has made similar “on the basis of” remarks elsewhere (see previous post for examples). So when I heard his address on Friday, it certainly sounded like a change to me.

I am not the only one who interpreted Wright’s address in this manner. In Tom Schreiner’s response to Wright, he also detected a change in Wright’s view. I’ll quote directly from Schreiner’s remarks:

“I am delighted that Tom [Wright] now speaks of the final judgment as one that will be in accordance with our works instead of on the basis of our works. I think this adjustment and clarification is exactly right and does not contradict the idea that our righteousness is in Christ… I am in full agreement with his formulation: we are judged according to our works, but not on the basis of our works” (underline mine).

Schreiner noted an “adjustment,” and there was no correction from Wright on this point. Since nothing else was said on the matter, it is not surprising that many people in the room agreed with Schreiner’s interpretation that Wright had changed his view (e.g., Ardel Caneday, Marc Cortez, Mike Wittmer, et al.). I was among them, and that is why I made a note of it in my previous post.

I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether Wright’s earlier published work can be reconciled with the view that he expressed on Friday. I confess that I have difficulty seeing how it can be done. In any case, the clarification that Wright made on Friday was a good one. Future justification is “in accordance with works” and not “on the basis of works.” This language is welcome, and with Schreiner “I am in full agreement with his formulation” on this point.

2. Why not highlight the agreement on the return-from-exile theme in Paul?

Wright also mentioned that it was a pity that I neglected to mention some other key moments in the debate. Wright thought the agreement over the return-from-exile theme was something that I might have highlighted over and against the bit about future justification.

I highlighted the discussion of “on the basis of/in accordance with” because I read that to be one of John Piper’s chief critiques of Wright’s work on justification. After reading Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, I never found where he clearly answered that particular critique from Piper. So from the outset of Wright’s address on Friday, I was listening for him to address that point in particular.

It is notable that Tom Schreiner agrees with Wright on the return-from-exile” theme, as does our colleague Jim Hamilton who just published a biblical theology that explicitly agrees with it as well (see God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology). So this aspect of agreement was no news to me, and that is why I didn’t think to mention it. I guess our perspective shapes what we see to be important.

3. What about the charge that Wright’s opponents are Neo-Catholics?

Wright also highlighted Tom Schreiner’s apparent agreement with him “that some of the push-back I have received, appealing to tradition rather than scripture, is basically neo-catholic in its method.” This part of Wright’s address was really clever rhetorically. Wright is sometimes accused of having a Roman Catholic view of justification, and he turns that criticism right back on his critics. He argues that his critics’ dogged adherence to tradition over scripture is a tacit denial of sola scriptura and makes them Roman Catholic in their theological method.

Of course Schreiner affirms the principle of sola scriptura over and against all human tradition, and so do I. I also think, however, that Wright needs to be careful with his charge of neo-catholicism. Yes, there are Old Perspectivites who make appeals to reformed tradition and who do not engage this debate sufficiently at the level of biblical exegesis. We can all be grateful for correctives against this sort of error. Nevertheless, I think Wright sometimes paints all of his critics with this broad brush. Schreiner and Thielman engaged the issue at the level of exegesis and could not fairly be charged with the neo-catholic error. I think Piper engaged the matter at the level of exegesis as well in his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. I suspect Wright would agree with me about Schreiner and Thielman, but I’m not so sure that he would agree with me about Piper.

Many thanks to Wright for being with us at ETS this year. Evangelicals have been greatly blessed by him on many points, and it was an honor to have him on the platform. Many thanks also for his follow-up in the comments on this blog. The interaction has been a privilege.


  • Derek

    Dr. Wright, I am wondering how you could have been surprised or unaware of the controversy that was stirred by your usage of the “on the basis” terminology? As Dr. Burk mentioned on his earlier blog entry, this was a major focus of John Piper’s critique and it is quite surprising that you responded to Dr. Schreiner (on this point) as if it were the first time you had heard of this, or as if the controversy itself was not worthy of a response.

    I realize that this is a blog and as Dr. Wright previously mentioned, blogs are a forum often used for overstatements. However, I don’t think Dr. Burk was overstating things when he described this as “astonishing”.

  • Nick


    Although I’m sure there are still significant disagreements between Wright and his critics do you think that this years ETS meeting will help reformed Christians appreciate the works of Wright more? In his case it seems like the good far outweighs the bad.

  • Daniel


    I think Wright switching phrases from “on the basis of” to “in accordance with” works in the final judgment is to help his Reformed critics understand that our good works do not earn our salvation even though our faithfulness is a condition for it (just like “faith” is a condition for justification and both are not meriting anything because it is produce by the Spirit). According to my reading of Wright, he has always been clear in regards to this.

    If the issue in regards to Wright is not about good works earning salvation (Piper admits this) then what is it? Are you trying to press him to say that goods works have no “instrumental” or direct connection to the final salvation and are only evidences that we are truly in Christ? Therefore good works only have indirect connection to salvation?

  • Denny Burk

    Daniel, you wrote:

    “Our good works do not earn our salvation even though our faithfulness is a condition for it (just like “faith” is a condition for justification and both are not meriting anything because it is produce by the Spirit).”

    Your last line is the part that is problematic. Reformed critics will not be satisfied with this formulation at all.

    First, they would argue along with Piper that Christ’s redemptive work alone is the “basis” for our standing before God, both now and in the eschaton. Our works (even our Spirit-wrought works) are not the “basis” of initial or final justification.

    Second, Reformed people would also insist that this is a significant revision of the Reformed doctrine of justification. They believe that the Bible teaches faith alone as the instrument of justification, Christ’s atoning work alone as the basis of justification, with Spirit-wrought works serving as evidence of justification at the final judgment.


  • Cortez

    Just as an FYI, one of the people who commented on my blog suggested that the difference between ‘on the basis of’ and ‘in accordance with’ might be somewhat cultural. He’s from South Africa and indicated that those two phrases are usually viewed as basically parallel. I have no way of knowing if that’s correct, but if so it might support Wright’s contention that he he has always meant something more like ‘in accordance with’, even in his earlier formulations.

  • Brian MacArevey

    “…Paul has said in v.7 they have not earned glory, honor and immortality, merely sought it; they know it remains a gift, however much it will turn out to be in accordance with the life they have in fact lived.”

    Wright Romans commentary 2:14-15, pg. 442.

  • A Liberal Bulldog

    I became interested in this discussion about 5 years ago when during my first year of Bible College. I was told then that NPP was dangerous and that I shouldn’t believe it. I went ahead and dismissed it out of hand then. I was still interested in the topic, but was sure that I would not be convinced.

    I took Greek Exegesis of Romans by Tom Schreiner and picked up Dunn’s commentary on Romans to supplement my reading. This was my first exposure to NPP, and as Dunn can be ambiguous at times, I was not sure what this whole thing was about. I went to the N.T. Wright conference at Wheaton this last spring, and so I picked up a few books on NPP from both perspectives.

    As I read Climax of the Covenant (which surprisingly no one quotes from when attacking Tom Wright), I was set to prove him wrong. I remember sitting down one Sunday afternoon at my pastor’s house writing out an argument to counter his reading of Galatians. I wrestled with a few verses and 1 paragraph in the book for about 8 hours total, and then it hit me; I realized what he was saying, and it made sense.

    I was well on my way now to becoming NPP, but I hadn’t quite figured it out yet. I was hoping to read Piper on the subject before going to the conference, but did not have time to read both it and Justification, and since I had read mostly reformed guys so far, I read Justification by Wright. It was his chapter on Galatians in that book, that finally convinced me, and the book as a whole that has helped me understand what he says.

    Having said all of that, I want to address one of the points of this post. I want to say at the outset that I have not heard what was said at ETS, but I have read a few blogs on it along with this one. I can honestly say that I have not understood Wright to be saying anything different from what I am reading on blogs today. In fact, I have often said leading up to ETS that Schreiner seemed to have the same interpretation of Romans 2 as Wright. Now, maybe I understood him wrong in class and in his commentary, but I am pretty confident that Schreiner agrees that only those that do the law will be justified (As I type this, I see on the earlier post that someone seems to agree, so I think I am on the right track here).

    I would also like to call you to my comment on 4/19/10 on the post “John Piper at T4G” on this blog. It is there that I first said, this is not what he is saying. I quoted from Justification there, and asked for counter-texts from his work, but it seems as though my comments are not worthy of responses on this blog. Anyway, that post only goes to show that I have read Wright in this way long before he spoke at ETS.

    I want to make my main point clear, so please read everything holistically and do not isolate one phrase: I have understood Wright in this way since picking up his works on Justification (St. Paul, Climax, Justification, and most of his articles online).

    I have responded to Piper in the above mentioned comment, and would only like to add that Piper seems to make the same ‘mistake’ he accuses Wright of when he speaks of the thief on the cross. I said then that I hope NPP will not be labeled heretical, and that all perspectives grow in faith, hope, and love; praying that recent events will help this become a reality.

  • Mark

    Actually, Wright did use the phrase “on the basis of” in his essay on Paul’s view of the law in Romans 2 which was part of a volume edited by James D. G. Dunn titled “Paul and the Mosaic Law” (Eerdmans, 2001).

  • Mark


    Good works are the evidence and fruit of having been justified, forgiven, adopted, regenerated, etc. There is NO instrumental value of the fruits of grace in connection with our justification before God.

    This is the problem with some NT scholars of the past (think Daniel Fuller) who attempted to argue that our obedience played an instrumental role in declaring a person righteous before God. To me, that kind of view is really no different from the RCC, Orthodox, and cultish views on justification. Justification is exclusively grounded in Christ’s work via faith alone and our obedience is only the necessary fruit that this reality has truly taken place in our lives.

  • Tom1st

    Honest question – How does Jesus’s discussion of the sheep and the goats, separated in eternity by virtue of their works (which we all agree are done through the power of the Spirit) not point to Wright’s view?

    What I’m asking is, why does it seem Jesus has no qualms with positing that their WORKS are what bring about a certain judicial decision from God?

    There’s no mention of Christ’s meriting works here a what finally decides their destiny. There’s no mention of faith. There’s just a mention of their works.

    Again, this is an honest question; I’m not all up on these Wright vs. Reformed debates. I’m just wondering how you who hold the Reformed position go about dealing with this passage, especially considering that it seems like it could be a proof-text IN SUPPORT of Wright.

    (And I do understand this is largely an argument about Paul, but as I’m more interested in the entire biblical corpus, I thought this is an important question.)

    Thank you for any help.

  • Tom1st

    I love reading Roger Olsen’s blog. He’s a good, fair minded theologian. He recently discussed this entire topic:

    “The only difference that I can see between his doctrine of justification and the traditional Reformed doctrine is his denial of imputation of Christ’s active obedience. For him justification is nevertheless a divine declaration about a repentant and believing sinner’s status. It is not infusion of moral virtue. Could it be that, in the overall scheme of evangelical theology (including both Reformed and Wesleyan perspectives on soteriology) this is a tempest in a teapot? Wesley also denied imputation of Christ’s active obedience. But, then, Wright’s critics probably consider Wesley less than fully Protestant.”

  • Preston Sprinkle

    Denny and Friends,

    I don’t think the primary problem has been Wright’s lack of clarity on the issue (re: the “on the basis of” stuff), but the pre-critical approaches to reading Wright’s work. If you’re on a witch hunt, you’re bound to find some witches. In other words, if you seek to pick apart someone’s use of individual words without paying close attention to the main point the person is making, you’ll probably find some loopholes in their theology. (You’d certainly find loads in mine! And I bet I can find a few in yours.) But are they really there?

    For instance, Denny, you yourself quoted Wright in this second post in saying:

    “[Paul] looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favorable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, or because he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work… ”

    Wow, this certainly is heretical, if I were to tag it in my “Systematic Theology of N.T. Wright.” But what is Wright saying here? He’s simply drawing attention to Paul’s statements in 1 Thess and Phil (which you left out in your quote), where PAUL DOES NOT, in these passages, ground the future verdict in the merits of Christ. Wright’s point is simply that Paul doesn’t always qualify his statements about the role of works (in this case, apostolic works) in the future judgment. This isn’t an edgy argument by Wright, intending to divorce the future judgment from the work of Christ; it’s simply an observation of the text. I’m very confused how you could read this statement by Wright, which is making a contextual statement about Paul’s statements in a couple letters, and conclude: “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.” You moved from Wright’s observation about how Paul’s argument carried on in a couple places in his letters, to make a conclusion about Wright’s belief about Paul’s theology as a whole?

    We also need to pay close attention to Wright’s brief discussion on your post about the English word “basis” which is much more flexible than his critics have made it out to be. Wright’s own shift from speaking of works as “basis,” “condition,” and “evidence” in a seemingly interchangeably fashion should alert us to the fact that Wright is using these concepts more flexibly. For instance, in that same quote above, he says “on the basis of apostolic works” but a few sentences down says that Paul’s works are “the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him.” Effective “signs” are nothing different than what MacArthur and others would say about works (evidence, etc.).

    To me, the elephant in the room is that Wright didn’t even realize that he said basis in his writings. He’s either a lunatic and needs some serious help; or he’s a liar, and maybe he really is a witch then; or (to depart from Lewis) he really never did argue–I mean ARGUE–for works being the basis of future judgment, detached from the work of Christ, because we all know that Wright is trying to smuggle in some neo-catholic theology into our young and naive evangelical minds!

    In short, Wright’s view hasn’t changed, just his future use of the English preposition “basis.”

  • Daniel


    What is your concern with Wright’s view that has God directly judging our goods works as a condition for salvation vs. the reformed view that requires God judging our good works to see if we are truly united to Christ with the result of that judgment being eternal life or hell?  To put in general terms, the only difference I see between the two views is that Wright has a direct connection between good works and final salvation while the reformed view as an indirect connection, especially since Wright seems to embrace the doctrine of perseverance of the saints and penal substitution. Of course, he doesn’t believe in Christ’s active obedience.

  • Denny Burk


    Thanks for weighing-in. I don’t think it’s a very convincing argument to say that Tom Schreiner, John Piper, Frank Thielman, et al. are on a “witch hunt” and that this “witch hunt” explains their misreading of Wright. In fact, I think we are long past the point of attributing disagreement with Wright to misunderstanding of Wright.

    The world cannot be neatly divided between those who disagree with Wright and those who misunderstand him. Yet this is at times the prism through which Wright seems to address his critics. Many charitable scholars have offered criticisms of Wright on his view of future justification, and it just won’t do to dismiss their concerns as a big misunderstanding. After decades of engagement with Wright if misunderstanding really is the problem, then I would argue that some of the responsibility falls on Wright for not being very clear.

    Yes, Wright wants to use the word “basis” more flexibly, and doesn’t want to be tied to a rigid definition of a non-biblical word. Two responses to this.

    First, why do we have to reinvent the wheel when we talk about this topic? The term “basis” has a long history in theological discourse and enables us to speak precisely as we describe what the Bible teaches about how works function at the judgment. Why does Wright want to step out of that discourse so that he can employ a more ambiguous use of the term? No, he doesn’t have to define his terms like everyone else, but he would greatly serve his readers if he would. He also could avoid controversy.

    Second, even though “basis” is not the normal gloss for ἐξ ἔργων (and we all know there’s a huge debate over the meaning of “works of law”), it is the term that Piper used to distinguish justification “on the basis of works” (ἐξ ἔργων, Rom 3:20, et al.) from future justification “according to works” (κατὰ τὰ ἔργα, Rom 2:6). It seems that Wright would have engaged with Piper a little more closely on this point, even if he disagreed with him. See chapter 7 in The Future of Justification.

    Thanks again for the interaction. I hope all is well on your end.


  • Brian MacArevey

    I think to be fair, it is important to note that (at least in the Chrisitan Origins series) Wright’s critiques were most often leveled at the reformers. As far as I understand (though I could be wrong) the reformers only spoke of justification in the present, which was based entirely on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If there was any future tense of justification at all, it was related to the assurance that the same exact verdict, on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, would be announced at the final judgment. I could be wrong, but this is how I have always understood them.

    My point is that, if there was any role for works at the final judgment, we can be sure that, whatever the reformers would have been talking about (I don’t think that Luther really talked about it all, but again I could be wrong)they would not have used the language of justification. I would like someone to show me where the reformers (especially Calvin and Luther) ever said that justification was in accordance with works…that would be helpful to me.

    If I am correct though, then it is strange that we are arguing over “in accordance with” and “on the basis of”, because that would only serve to prove that the reformed of today have departed from their reformation heritage, and also that Wright is correct in his critique of the reformers, who ignored the eschatological dimension of the doctrine of justification, and the role of the Spirit in it.

  • RonH

    So even when Wright agrees with a point, he’s still wrong because you say he changed his mind and he says he hasn’t? Can’t the man speak with some authority on his own positions?

  • John

    First, having read much Wright material, I was inclined to understand “on the basis of” as “in accordance with.” In context, it seemed to me that he intended such by his language (which has been both non-technical and slippery from book to book, imho). So for me, the “clarification in language” is not such a big deal.

    Second, Wright’s language choice is quite good. “Judged…according to works” is a direct translation of Revelation 20:12 (kata erge). No one can now disagree with Wright without ostensibly rejecting Scripture. However, the point is – and always has been – not the words used by Wright, but his intention by them and their meaning within his greater operating system. I suspect that “according to works” means something rather different in Wright’s system than in Schreiner’s

  • A Liberal Bulldog


    I feel that I must respond to your contentions that 1) Wright is understood, 2) that it’s partly his fault if he is misunderstood, and 3) that he needs to define his terms.

    If Wright is so understood by everyone, then why have two of your last three posts been on the question of whether Wright is changing his position or if he has been read in/correctly? I will concede that this is an over-played card, but it appears that there is still at least a little confusion among some.

    I will also contend that Wright is not necessarily at fault when he is misunderstood (again, read my comment on 4/19/10). He has written several books and articles to help clarify his position, and many people do understand him (Hays, Dunn, Campbell, et al) so it seems that his position is discernable from his writings. As I wrote in April, I still believe that the biggest reason people don’t understand him is because they do not try to leave their own theological world and enter his. The biggest problem that the hyper-reformed camp is that they do not actually engage with the text, and that they pick phrases out of texts and do not read all that the author is saying. This leads to misunderstandings and is only perpetuated in those who follow them.

    In line with what I have just written, I would actually say that Wright does define his terms. If we read Wright as a whole and follow his argument, we then will see that he is defining his terms by using them in context. I think it is important that we move beyond thinking that words have a particular meaning. They have ranges of meaning, and an author is justified in using words without defining them as long as they are being used within the range of meaning. It is context that must help us in determining what the author’s illocution is. I know someone commented several days ago, somewhat obnoxiously, on the importance of linguistics; I think he may have a point.

  • Denny Burk

    Daniel (#13),

    The main difference is that one view is consistent with Paul’s teaching, and the other is not. And there are huge implications theologically and pastorally.

    Paul argues that justification is by faith alone apart from doing works of obedience to the Jewish Law (Rom 3:20-21; 4:2-6; 9:30-32; 11:6; Gal 2:16; 3:2-10; Eph 2:8-9). In Paul, the basis of justification is Christ’s redemptive work (Rom 3:25-26). Paul rebukes those who would add any work to faith as the instrument of God’s verdict in favor of His people (Gal 3:2-3).

    Pastorally, this means that no person’s imperfect works will be made the basis for their not-guilty verdict at the end of the age. On the contrary, the end-time verdict has already been announced in the present because of the vindication that Jesus has already provided for us. Our works will only bear witness to what God has been doing in us through the Spirit (that’s what judgment according to works is all about). But the basis will still be Christ’s work alone, not our spirit-inspired works.


  • Preston Sprinkle


    I don’t usually side with liberals nor bulldogs, but I would have to concur with L.B. above. My point was also his.

    And Denny, you’re right, bro. I shouldn’t use the phrase “witch hunt.” It’s dated and perhaps too harsh. And for what it’s worth, I didn’t name the scholars you did when I said this phrase (I certainly wouldn’t put Thielman in this category, since his reading of Paul is close to Wright’s). But I still think that my point above is still true (the point I made in the paragraph beginning with “Wow, this certainly is heretical…”). Whatever you want to call it, it does seem that you were trying hard to find a loophole, instead of trying hard to understand what he was saying.


  • Mark

    Another key issue in this debate is whether our present justification is continuous with our future justification (i.e., is there a possibility of a “break” between already and not yet aspects of justification).

    Traditionally, the Calvinist/Reformed camp has emphatically stated that those two aspects can never be severed no matter how faithful or slothful the elect person has been in his or her Christian life. On the other hand, some NPP people (like Dunn) have suggested that there is a possibility of a breach between those two. That a true believer may have the present justification but still may not be justified in the future if he or she doesn’t fulfill the duties of the covenant.

    Thus, I think there is also the matter of the “eternal security” of the believer in this debate too.

  • Paul D. Adams

    Sincere appreciation for chiming in here and, for what it’s worth, I agree with you. We’ve made far too much our of the details and can’t seem to step outside ourselves to see the [Wrightonian] big picture.

    Also, as I said to you in the hotel lobby, THANKS for staging the Πίστις Χριστοῦ session. It was priceless!

  • Daniel

    Moreover, when Scripture intimates that the good works of believers are causes why the Lord does them good, we must still understand the meaning so as to hold unshaken what has previously been said–viz. that the efficient cause of our salvation is placed in the love of God the
    Hi all,

    To those that deny any direct connection with good works to final salvation, what do think about Calvin’s phrase “inferior cause” in describing this relationship which appears to be more than good works being an evidence for faith. I am not a scholar, but do u think his phrase is an attempt to do justice to the direct relation between works and final salvation found in scripture? The quote found in book III 14.21

    Father; the material cause in the obedience of the Son; the instrumental cause in the illumination of the Spirit, that is, in faith; and the final cause in the praise of the divine goodness. In this, however, there is nothing to prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how so? In this way: Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works

  • Daniel

    Sorry my last post got messed up, that’s what I get for commenting through my iPod:) 

    To those that deny any direct connection with good works to final salvation, what do think about Calvin’s phrase “inferior cause” in describing this relationship which appears to be more than good works being an evidence for faith. I am not a scholar, but do u think his phrase is an attempt to do justice to the direct relation between works and final salvation found in scripture? The quote found in book III 14.21

    “21. Moreover, when Scripture intimates that the good works of believers are causes why the Lord does them good, we must still understand the meaning so as to hold unshaken what has previously been said–viz. that the efficient cause of our salvation is placed in the love of God the Father; the material cause in the obedience of the Son; the instrumental cause in the illumination of the Spirit, that is, in faith; and the final cause in the praise of the divine goodness. In this, however, there is nothing to prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how so? In this way: Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works”

  • Mark


    As someone who has done extensive research on Calvin’s theology at a formal academic setting, that statement about good works being “inferior causes” have been taken out of context by some.

    Calvin was stating that because he wanted to reassure true believers that their labors in the Lord will not be in vain. He also wanted to give them comfort for their Spirit-driven deeds in the face of difficulty that they would be repaid back in full.

    I don’t think it is wise to develop a systematic formulation of Calvin’s view of justification on that statement alone. Calvin was no proto-Federal Visionist. In fact, if I understand him correctly, he would have serious problems with the way some FV scholars talk about the relationship between our works and justification.

  • John

    Just three thoughts:
    1. As I mentioned on a previous blog entry, Wright admitted in the debate that he wasn’t familiar with ‘positional sanctification’! This admission, coupled with his apparent surprise at why such a big deal would be made over the difference between ‘basis of’ and ‘according to,’ means that we should take his assertions about who is or isn’t a neo-Catholic with a grain of salt. His understanding of basic historical theology seems pretty thin.
    2. Wright’s discussion of ‘works’ (whether ‘basis’ or ‘according to’) at the judgment must be connected to his view of justification. Since he maintains that justification is ‘ecclesiological’ he is merely talking about things which ‘mark out’ God’s people. So, this is perhaps not the main issue.
    3. Therefore, the real issue is still his lack of response to Schreiner’s exegetical evidence that justification is consistently soteriological (i.e. in contexts where there is a contrast to condemnation, etc). This, ‘downgrade’ of the significance of justification together with his thin account of the gospel message as simply a statement of Jesus’ lordship (in the debate at ETS) still indicates that we’re not all ready to hold hands and sing ‘kumbayah’ just yet!
    Note Preston: Schreiner and Thielman were agreed (against Wright) in their understanding of justification as soteriological and the gospel as a message of salvation for sinners.

  • Tom Wright

    Thanks to those, especially Preston S and LB, who have clearly ‘heard’ what I have been saying, and to the (unnamed?) South African who pointed out the potential difference in usage. The blessed word ‘basis’ is not itself scriptural; it is some people’s summary of some scriptural points.
    Denny: in your post a few back you quoted a string of passages which were all about PRESENT justification. Nobody — least of all me — is denying what you say there (except perhaps citing Eph 2.8-10, where the word ‘justify’ and its cognates is absent; and a sense that you are still reading e.g. Gal 2 without reference to its context, but we’ll let those pass). I find this worrying, because to go on hitting the button which says ‘there you are, this is what Paul says about justification’ while referring only to those present tense passages — which Paul demarcates as such in some cases by ‘in the present time’ etc — might indicate that you are forgetting that the whole point of the discussion is FUTURE justification. It’s somewhat surprising that nobody has yet quoted Galatians 5.5-6: we by the Spirit wait by faith for the hope of dikaiosyne; for in the Messiah Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any power, but faith working through love.’ Go figure.
    Greetings to one and all
    Tom Wright

  • A Liberal Bulldog


    I feel honored that you commented on my post. I read your book, ‘Pistis Christou,’ and thought it was well put together. Thanks for putting that together for the church.

    I would like to clarify a couple of things regarding my name. I’m not trying to be cryptic (as many people have been able to guess who I am), but I am trying to be funny.

    First, I went to Liberty University for a year, and so it is part of my past as well as a joke on Ergun Caner. I also played basketball for Boyce, so I am a bulldog; again it is part of my past.

    I call my several liberal in jest. I feel that the term liberal has lost any real meaning; it has come to mean either someone is more left of you, or that you disagree with what they are saying.

    I also think that most people at Southern would say that I am liberal, although I would not say that about myself (I am unsure about a lot of things but would have at least some disagreement with: gender roles, violence, politics, justification, et al). I think that most people on campus there would call me liberal for these things, and I would say it would be an inappropriate title.

    The last reason whyu I use liberal is because I do not take a non-stance on the inerrancy debate. I am not willing to say whether or not the Bible has errors; I do hold to the authority and the inspiration of the Bible. The only book I’ve read on the topic is Kenton Sparks. It’s an interesting read, but has plenty of flaws in argumentation. I have thought about it myself and talked with friends about it and have come to it not being as important as most people make it out to be. Inspiration and authority seem to be what is important. I will concede that someone can call me liberal for this, but I would disagree.

  • Derek

    From an ontological standpoint, I’m not convinced that there is a difference between present and future justification (I’m open to persuasive arguments, however). Even if there is, I’m not sure we would ever agree on which passages are referring to one, the other or both.

  • John

    May I suggest that we have gotten off track a little here? Doesn’t much of this discussion concerning ‘on the basis of’ or ‘according to’ depend on what one means by ‘justification’? Am I missing something here? Doesn’t Tom Wright think that justification is ‘ecclesiological’ rather than ‘soteriological’? That is, isn’t justification for Wright not about how you ‘get in’ but a statement about who is ‘already in’? In that case, the distinctions about ‘basis’ or ‘in accordance with’ are not as significant. He is talking about a statement declaring who the people of God already are not how one becomes one of God’s people.

    So, the real issue is still the exegetical evidence presented by Schreiner (at the ETS debate) that justification is soteriological (i.e. it appears in contexts where there is a contrast with condemnation, etc). As far as I can see, this is the major issue.

    I must also say that equally important is the minimal definition that Wright gives to the content of the Gospel (in contrast to both Schreiner and Thielman at the ETS debate).

  • John White

    I’m a little confused, if I may pop in for a minute here. Philosophy is more of my thing, but I couldn’t help but find some bits here worth chewing on. Don’t we need to clarify exactly what the issue is at this point? Tom Wright has plainly divided the issue into present vs. future justification. I see no problem in the history of “Evangelical” or “Reformed” thought with the idea that future judgment/justification is in accordance with works, or even ‘on the basis of’ them. I always thought, per a common understanding of James 2, that works were the necessary evidence of genuine and saving faith. Therefore it is entirely appropriate to say that our final judgment and justification are on the basis of works, but only insofar as our works are the evidence of our faith–that is, to put a final Reformed polish on it, the evidence of God’s working in us by His Spirit.

    What has worried many of us, I think, is Tom’s acceptance of many ideas of the New Perspective (or the formation of many such ideas himself) which seem to undermine the above understanding of the relationship between faith and works (one idea being, for example, what Paul means by ‘works of the law’). Tom’s clearest and neatest expression of his views, to me, comes in his 2003 paper at the Edinburgh Dogmatics conference. Here, one application he makes is that based on several of the aforementioned ideas, we are obligated to accept our Roman Catholic friends as brothers and sisters in Christ. Obviously, this is troubling for anyone who accepts the “Reformed” understanding of Romans 3:20, for example, where I understand Paul as saying that any who put their own works into the equation, expecting or hoping to gain merit through them, are in grave danger (given, of course, that Roman Catholics believe this sort of thing).

    Not to rehash this whole discussion again, but I personally know many who have been confused by the New Perspective and have taken to preaching a different gospel–one that somehow incorporates works. While I believe the Bible is clear, unified, and easily understood on this point, and that virtually none of the ideas of the New Perspective which Tom lays out in the aforementioned paper are accurate, obviously these things will always need to be clarified and defended afresh. Thank you, Denny, for attempting to do that, and for holding not to a tradition, but to what the Bible plainly teaches.

  • Luke

    I am not equal to this conversation, especially not to it’s participants. But, as the question has been raised and I don’t know the answer, could somebody tell me: What is the benefit a present justification that is on the basis of faith, if FUTURE justification is on the basis of works?

    I ask because I’ve understood Tom Wright in his most recent comment to be saying that he agrees with Danny’s formulation of justification, but that that only refers to the present.

    If Paul makes a distinction, then why?

  • Michael Templin

    Bishop Wright,

    You are a blessing to the Holy Church! I thank you for you continued scholarship and Christian love, and I do apologize for some of my brothers whom are less than charitable, when you so clearly are.

    In Christ and waiting his ἐπιφάνεια!

  • Jason B. Hood

    “Many charitable scholars have offered criticisms of Wright on his view of future justification, and it just won’t do to dismiss their concerns as a big misunderstanding.”

    One example: Mike Bird is fairly charitable to NTW but also has commented in the past in several places (search his Paul book and his blog) on the need to go with “in accordance with” rather than “on the basis of”.

    “After decades of engagement with Wright if misunderstanding really is the problem, then I would argue that some of the responsibility falls on Wright for not being very clear.”

    Denny, I think both you and Preston have points here? I know there are times when I’ve wished Tom was clearer and tighter with his language (but then again, I’ve also wished that of the Bible and many believing scholars). I’ve also had times reading his critics where I’ve felt a less suspicious reading of his work would have been helpful. If some of Tom’s critics read James like they read NTW, they’d be throwing in their lot with Luther on James (at best).

    Preston’s example seems poignant.

  • Denny Burk

    Dr. Wright,

    The texts about present justification are inextricably related to Paul’s teaching about final justification, are they not?

    In each of the present-time texts, Paul is talking about the end-time verdict which has already broken into the present because of the redemptive work of Christ (I think we agree on this). Even when Paul accents the present, favorable verdict that God has rendered to His people, it is always with a view to the end. The present-time verdict is never different than the one issued at the end. In that sense, the verdict rendered in the present is one and the same with that at the end.

    It is precisely because the end-time verdict has already been announced that Paul can speak of the certainty of the blessings to come: “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:1-2); “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom 5:9). For Paul, the justification in the present always and without fail issues forth in blessing and life in the age to come. This could not be the case if present justification were not inherently eschatological. I don’t think that we are very far apart on these points.

    Thanks again for weighing-in. Blessings to you.


  • Timothy

    The relationship that NTW is seeking between present and future justification would appear to be that present justification will produce future justification, just as Calvinists have argued that present justification results in perseverance. So is this so very a terrible divergence?
    As to the issue of whether present justification is ecclesiological or soteriological, both sides surely have to say both. But NTW is surely on very safe ground when he argues that the context for the discussion of present justification is ecclesiological, that the application being made by Paul of present justification is ecclesiological, and that this represents a significant correction to traditional versions of justification by faith which have usually created a remarkably individualisitc version of salvation.

  • John

    “… he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (Titus 3:5-8).

    It is Paul who is interested in individual salvation when he speaks of justification. This of course has application to ecclesiology (believers are all saved by grace and therefore all are equal members of Christ’s body) but justification and ecclesiological statements are not exactly the same thing.

    Note too that if we have stressed ‘justification by grace’ and the ‘hope of eternal life’ (and the necessity of the new birth) it is only because we are following Paul’s command above.

  • Preston Sprinkle

    To all,

    I know this blog is long past its due date, and on the verge of collecting some mold, but I wanted to respond to a few people really quick:

    First, thanks LB for your bio and explanation of your “name.” I can sympathize very much with your journey. And as you said, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean very little, since they are always defined by those using them to accuse others of theological deviance–whether to the right or to the left of the accuser! (It’s pretty arrogant and dangerous to assume that WE are the standard, and everyone else is either to the left or right of ME. As you implied, we need exegesis and dialogue, not stereotypes.)

    Second, thanks Paul for your encouraging words. I’m glad you enjoyed the panel!


    John, it does very little to simply cite a passage or two and say “there, N.T. Wright (or whoever) is wrong; justification is of the individual; it’s not ecclesiological.” The discussion necessitates good, sound, thorough exegesis of passages in their historical and literary context, not citation of verses. (BTW, it’s interesting that Paul says “we” in Titus 3, a passage in a letter focused on Ecclesiology through and through.) Also, Wright never said that justification is NOT about Soteriology and only about Ecclesialogy. He simply emphasizes the latter, while Schreiner emphasizes the former. At the end of the day, it’s not a huge difference, as they both recognized at the ETS panel discussion. Lastly, it would be nearly impossible to unravel the soteriological and ecclesiological strands that are woven together throughout Paul’s arguments surrounding justification (Rom 3:21-26 with 3:28-29; 4:1-8 with 9-16; or Eph 2:1-10 with 2:11-22; et al.) Why unravel what Paul has bound together? He certainly didn’t trip over himself to keep them as separate as some today try to do.

    This is the most words I’ve spent on a blog all year! Here’s my email if anyone wants to continue the dialogue:

    For His glory,


  • John

    Preston: I think it helps to remember that some things are ‘inseparable’ but nevertheless ‘distinguishable.’

    Exegete (carefully!) ‘saved’ in the same context as ‘justified’ and ‘eternal life’ and you get ‘soteriology’ or ‘how one gets saved’ (i.e. referring to an entry point in anticipation of ‘final salvation’) and not ‘ecclesiology’ or ‘this are how you define who God’s people are’ (i.e. a subject not focused on ‘how one gets in’).

  • John

    Great post Andrew. That is an articulate description of what I was fumbling around with. The discussion of ‘basis’ appears to be a red herring in view of Wright’s ‘ecclesiological’ view of justification.

    So, I think we are back to trying to work out what Wright means by ‘soteriological’ and justification in texts such as Titus 3:5-8.

    And, may I add, his view of the gospel message itself needs further attention! Any thoughts (Preston)?

  • Preston Sprinkle


    In as much as Eph 2:11-22 is in the near context of 2:8, then “saved” certainly has ecclesiological implications. In as much as the Jew/Gentile issue is ecclesiological, then Paul’s logic in Rom 3:28-29 correlates justification with ecclesiology. And the very fact that Wright is adamant about the courtroom metaphor for justification shows that he hasn’t divorced justification from soteriology. Again (and again), it’s a matter of emphasis.

    Which view of the “gospel message” are you talking about? That Wright emphasizes that the gospel is an announcement of the cosmic Lordship of Christ? This seems to be the dominant (if not exclusive) emphasis in Acts, and very prominent in Paul as well. Wright also is very clear in his latest book that this (the gospel) includes the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sins (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-5), and yet the main focus in many biblical passages (along with Acts, Rom 1:2-4) is on the resurrection, ascension, and current Lordship of Jesus.
    So what’s the attention that you wish to give to Wright’s understanding of euangelion?

  • John

    Once again, it is helpful to remember that some things are ‘inseparable’ but are nevertheless ‘distinguishable.’ Of course there are ‘ecclesiological implications’ to justification (imagine the ecclesiology we would have if we were saved by ‘the righteous things we do’ – to misquote Titus 3). But, ‘ecclesiological implications’ does not mean that justification is ecclesiology. Justification (in Titus as well as Romans, etc) is not ecclesiological because in the near context there are ‘ecclesiological implications.’ It has to do with how one ‘gets in’ (i.e. by grace, mercy, through faith, and therefore not by works, what we do, etc). It has to do with our relationship with God which is ‘put right.’ This of course has ecclesiological implications but it is not ecclesiology.

    Andrew’s post also helpfully shows where the ‘law court’ fits into this for Wright.

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