By Curt Devine
June 15, 2009
Challenging church doctrine may be the most controversial task a theologian can undertake. While critics accuse N.T. Wright of dissent, misunderstanding and even heresy, his book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision relies on Scripture and its historical context to explain the full meaning of justification. Wright contends that the Christian focus should not be on “me and my salvation” but rather “God and God’s Purposes.” Justification is only one part of a much larger debate, yet it has implications for anyone seeking to better understand salvation and the story of God.
In 2007, John Piper released his work The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, which challenges Wright’s theology of justification, often called the New Perspective. Various other theologians have since dialogued on the issue and debated back and forth. In response to Piper and others, Wright formed Justification to offer a comprehensive defense of his perspective, providing a broad overview of the debate and an intricate analysis of Paul’s writings. He shows that by “justification,” Paul refers to God’s unfailing commitment to bless the entire world through Abraham and his family. In this way, he reveals that individual salvation is entirely connected to the story God has been writing from the beginning.
The main controversy arises in addressing the action of personal justification. Wright compares many of today’s popular views to a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces still in the box. Although some of the pieces can be connected, the puzzle will never be fully assembled. In his intricate exegesis of Scripture, Wright contends that in early Church usage, the term “justification” had specific courtroom connotations. “It does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants a status,” he writes.
In other words, justification gives individuals a righteous status before God, just as an acquitted criminal is made innocent by a judge’s decision. This status then grants membership into the family of God and the freedom to carry out God’s will throughout the world. In this way, Wright passionately conveys that justification is much more than a get-to-heaven-for-free card. “Not only are human beings to be saved, they are to be the agents of God’s rule over the renewed creation,” he writes. “[Justification] is the declaration that those who believe in Jesus are part of a resurrection-based single family of the one Creator God.”
As bishop of Durham and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Wright approaches the topic with academic and pastoral care. He does not rely on his own inklings or conjectures to interpret Scripture, but rather seeks Paul’s meaning and the first-century connotations of terminology. While the text may be weighty and judicious at times, its sole intention is to clarify Scripture for the sake of seeing the full story of God. Wright repeatedly references Piper and others in order to highlight the exact differences in their perspectives. In this way, Justification allows readers to pull up a chair and listen in on one of today’s most disputed doctrinal debates.