Thursday, June 11, 2009

Guy Waters reviews N.T. Wright's "Justification"

Earlier this year, Guy Waters was on the Reformed Forum giving an oral review of N.T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. Now at Reformation 21, he has a written review at hand. One quote from Waters merits attention:

"[S]ome of Wright's critics may indeed deny a final judgment according to works. His Reformed critics do not. They deny a final judgment on the basis of works, but they do not deny a final judgment according to works. In other words, the believer's conduct is not the basis upon which he will sustain God's final judgment. Instead, his conduct will publicly show the Christian to be who he already is: a person justified solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, received through faith. If Wright understands the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone to necessitate much less to permit a denial of final judgment according to works, then he has been misinformed. Reformed readers' do not object to Wright's insistence that there shall be a final judgment of the believer at the Day of Judgment. They have objected to what he claims are the place or role of the believer's works in final justification".

I think this really is the problem with Wright's articulation. Judgment "according to works" is quite biblical, but a final judgment on the basis of works is not. I think it was Charles Cosgrove who many years ago examined the prepositions in relation to justification (ek, dia, kata etc.) noting that Paul always made faith the instrumental for justification (though my memory is a bit hazy on that one). What is the difference between "according to" and "on the basis of"? In my mind works, even Spirit enabled good works, do not constitute the basis of aquittal at the final judgment. What role for works then? Well, to quote St. Leon Morris (peace be upon him) good works demonstrate the integrity of the faith that we profess. Thus, with Calvin, we can say that we are not justified by works, but neither are we justified without them. In fact, Christ justifies our works when we are engrafted into him: "Therefore, as we ourselves, when we have been engrafted into Christ, are righteous in God's sight because our iniquities are covered by Christ's sinlessness, so our works are righteous and are this regarded because whatever fault is otherwise in them is buried in Christ's purity, and is not charged to our account. By faith alone not only we ourselves but our works as well are justified" (Institutes, 3.17.10).


Erick White said...

Thank you for your post.

This is quite interesting.

I would ask one qestion however.

When we confess that a judgement "according to works" is stated in scripture with respect to God's judgement of all human beings, and then confess that there is a difference between a judgement "on the basis" of works versus a judgement "according to works", then is the judgement of unbelievers (which is eternal hell) not on the "basis" of their evil works? But rather "according to their works"?

Those biblical texts which speak of a judgement according to works or a rendering to each according to their deeds (in my opinion) will not allow us to say that it will be "according to works" with reference to believers and "on the basis of works" for unbelievers.....for the text speaks of the judgement being "according to works for both".

In short, if the judgement of unblievers will be "according to their works" and since these works are indeed the basis of God's judgement, why is there a shift in explanation when it comes to the believers judgement "according to works"?

I've developed some sort of a solution, but I wanted to put this out there for discussion,.

Steve Duby said...

Thanks for pointing out this particular facet of the discussion. One of the reasons I am in agreement is that it seems only natural to posit that the present verdict of acquittal and the future confirmation of that verdict share the same basis. In other words, I don't think we experience justification now on the basis of Christ's saving work and by means of faith only to experience it later on the basis of our own obedience. In my mind it's better to envision a continuity with respect to the basis of justification.

If we're pressed to answer why a Christian still does good works, I think we need locate the impetus in the very nature of conversion. While we don't merit salvation, when we opt for it we sign up for the whole of it, including the transformation of our minds, hearts, and actions. We perform good works because they are integral to the good life to which we say "yes" when we embrace the gospel. A robust theology of conversion dismantles the tension between the "by grace through faith" of Protestantism and the biblical call to a holy lifestyle.

Daniel Kirk said...

Mate--are you serious?!

Daniel said...

As we have discussed before, I think it would was possible and even easier to read Wright as saying "basis" and not "according to" if you only read his two little Paul books and not his Romans commentary or listened to any of his lectures online or read many of his articles. He was imprecise in those two books and that certainly hurt him and caused a lot of confusion. But I don't know how you can read his new book and think that, here. He makes it absolutely clear on 2 or 3 accounts what he means. His recent interview with Ben Witherington is even more illuminating, my thoughts here.

Erick White said...

Thanks for the input,

I would add that I do not believe in a end-time justification on the basis of works.

I believe that our justification is founded on the basis of Christ's shed-blood (Rom 5:9) and since Christ's death is not something which can fluxuate in efficacy (be applied more at one time than another), our end time justification must be upon the same basis.

However, it still prompts the question with respect to unbelievers. If they are judged according to works, how can this "according to works" be understood in any other way then to be the basis for the judgement?

Steven Coxhead said...

In all of this debate concerning justification, no one seems to distinguish between covenant righteousness and absolute righteousness. I think that's a mistake. For example, what do we make of Deut 6:25 or Matt 5:20? The proper covenant response (worked in us by the Spirit) is a kind of righteousness, and God's acknowledgment of that a form of justification. A concept of covenant righteousness also exists in Scripture (see Ezek 18:5-9).

Christopher said...

Hi Michael,

Just a disclaimer: I Really like reading your blog, and so it's with a good deal of respect that I'm asking this: are we just quibbling over semantics here? I really fail to see the difference between the two prepositional phrases...

Michael F. Bird said...

I have to confess that "on the basis of a life lived" is the one aspect of NTW's configuration that I've never liked. The thing is I understand how he gets there in light of Phil. 2 and Rom. 2. and his views can be coordinate with others like Martin Bucer. If pushed, I think NTW would use the language of evidential rather than instrumental (and he certainly doesn't see them as meritorious). What is more, while the major concern on emphasizing works at the last judgement is that you can lose assurance, yet in his commentary on Romans 5-8 he really does plug assurance as an outcome of authentic faith.

Dirk Jongkind said...

Frankly, I believe the distinction between 'on the basis of' and 'according to' is the most apt summary of the whole issue I have seen so far. What is the history of this particular formulation?

Erick White said...

It is interesting to see how those accusations brought against Wright due to the (doctrinally fatal) consequences that it brings sometimes do not realize that he himself does not submit to those doctrinal deviations.

For instance, some would say Wright believes in a works-based salvation due to his statements on the final judgement. But wright would not confess that he believes works alone are the basis of salvation.

But it still remains, the words and doors for meaning. We mut be able to identify what each of us means in our discussion.

As I said above, the believer's justification (in Paul) is linked with the believer's faith. Those expressions "The righteousness of God' -- "the righteousness of faith" -- "are justified..." -- "righteous" -- are almost always tied to faith.

And, in the context of Romans, faith is that conduit by which God justified the ungodly (Rom 4:4), not those who demonstrate good works.

Therefore, in terms of the usage (statistically), the believers justification is only by faith and never by works. Even when Paul entertains the notion of a future "righteousness" to which we eagerly wait still remains to be by faith apart from works (of the Law, of jewish heritage, or any kind like Abraham).

Moreover, this justification which occurs through (by or from) faith still has another basis than faith. Remember, Paul says we are "justified by His blood" (Rom 5:9). Somehow, these two statement have to be correlated (and yet distinguished)...

"...we conclude that a human is justified by faith..." (Rom 3:28)

"...having now been justified by His blood" (Rom 5:9)

We are justified by two things, by our faith and His blood.

I reason that the basis for our justification is located in His blood, and the benefits of such are timely applied to us when we have faith in Christ.

This is all to say that our justification is left (by Paul) in these categories. For Paul, this justification is effacacious to render certain the believer's future (those whom God justified, these he also glorified).

The above stated facts remain true and confessed. However, with regard to those biblical statement of been judged according to our works, it remains to be undiscussed.

If the wicked are judged "according to their works" , does this not mean that their works will serve to be the basis of God's judgement? And if so, then why do we use the same expression "according to works" differently with respect to believers?

Nicholas P. Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicholas P. Mitchell said...

In their book "The Race Set Before Us" I believe Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday speak on the subject of whether or not the judgement is on 'the basis of works' or 'according to works'. I heard Schreiner speak on it and it was quite helpful. I think in the case of Wright it is just poor wording. I don't think that he would say that we are merit-ing anything on the final day.

Andrew Cowan said...

I think that Wright believes that final justification "on the basis of" and "in accordance with/according to" works are interchangeable because of the way in which he conceives of the eschatological trial. In Wright's view, the question before the divine jury is "Are you a member of God's covenant people?" It is not a trial about one's absolute moral status (although a positive verdict has implications for one's moral status because being a covenant member entails being forgiven for one's sins), it is a trial about one's covenantal status. In Wright's view, the positive verdict "righteousness" thus does not refer to one's record of obedience, but to one's status as a member of God's people. Within this trial, the function of works, as Dr. Bird suggested above, is evidential; it is the proof that one is a member of God's people. However, because of the way in which Wright conceives of the trial, works will be evidential whether one uses the words "based on" or "according to." When God renders the verdict that one is a member of his people via the evidence of their Spirit-empowered lives, that verdict is "based on" works in the sense that the works are the evidence he considers. For Wright's view, to distinguish between final justification being "based on" or "according to" works fundamentally misconstrues the question that the trial is addressing.

Daniel said...

Like I said, I totally understand how Wright could have been misunderstood from some of his previous stuff, it was written poorly. As for evidence or instrument, if I read him correctly I would think he would want something between evidence and instrument, maybe “necessary evidence” or “required evidence” so that they do not add anything to Christ’s death/resurrection as the grounds, but they must be there or we will not be justified. I think he would be best summed up in saying what you said about Calvin “we can say that we are not justified by works, but neither are we justified without them.”

As for emphasizing works and assurance, I think there is a false dichotomy that is often played. I think we can see two types of assurance, objective and subjective. Objective assurance is that all those who trust in Christ will receive eschatological salvation But knowing whether I really trust Christ is subjective; is the Spirit working in us (Rom 5-8), are we striving after the goal (Phil 3) do we hate the world and love our brother (1 John)? Well how much of those do you have to have to know for sure? The problem is trying to make something the Bible talks about subjectively objective. Comfort and assurance com not from our faith, but the faithfulness of God to fulfill His promises, namely He will vindicate those who persevere, and that perseverance is empowered by the same faithful God. I think it all comes down to trying to make the text answer a question that is does not ask.

By the way, have you had a chance to get that second round of question? Thanks!

I am glad you brought up the Schreiner book, My thing is It seems like that book and what Wright is saying are pretty much the same thing!

You are exactly right! I think most of the problem is reading Wright’s comments on justification outside the context he puts them. I notice you are a Biblical Studies student is Chicago, where are you at?

Andrew Cowan said...


I am currently a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and formerly a student in the graduate school at Wheaton.

Thanks for your endorsement of my comment. I am slightly bewildered, however, by your opening paragraph. It seems like, given the way that Wright has redefined the trial, he would not agree with Calvin that "we are not justified by works." I think he would (and does) say that we are justified by works, but adds that justification is not what Calvin thought it was. For Calvin, to say that we are justified by works would mean that we are saved by works, because justification, for Calvin, is a directly soteriological term. For Wright, however, to say that we are justified by works means that we are declared to be people whom God has saved, because justification, for Wright, is only indirectly soteriological in that it declares whom God has already brought into the family of his people. In Wright's scheme, works function as the evidence, and thus the "basis" for the verdict, but since the verdict is not a constitutive act that makes one a Christian but a declarative act that states that one is a Christian, this is not works-salvation. Unfortunately, this distinction has been missed by many of his critics and even some of his advocates.

Daniel said...

Yeah, that probably did sound a bit confusing, sorry. I guess I was trying to explain what Wright says in the way other people talk about justification, which like I said is the problem. So I’m guilty of my own accusation.

This brings up the one area where I would have a small disagreement with Wright. While justification is based on covenant membership, I do not think it is only a judgment of covenant membership. So eschatological justification is God's declarative act where He announces that the people of God are in right relationship with Him because they members of the covenant. So the declaration is not "you are covenant members" but "you are in the right because you are covenant members". Covenant membership then happens through true (ie persevering) faith, which, since I am Reformed, is technically just the outworking of election. The basis, or the work that was needed to establish and maintain this covenant relationship, is the death and resurrection of the Messiah that fulfilled the God's promises to Abraham. So we are justified on the basis of our covenant status, which is based on Christ's death and resurrection, and we enter into that covenant through true faith (which by definition includes perseverance), and by, here I agree with Wright "the call (ie election) of God." (The hard part I think, is since I (and I think Wright does too) see all of salvation, including perseverance, as an act of God, how to use language that does justice to the objective viewpoint that God simply saves His people by electing them into His covenant and how to explain how all that from the ongoing human viewpoint.)

So my only disagreement with Wright would be what actually is declared. Justification, while a covenantal term does not mean covenant but rightness, but the Bible does use it almost exclusively in covenantal contexts. So for me if Wright did say "by works", taking that the declaration of justification is a pronouncement that someone actually is a covenant member, then I have no problem, the difference is so minor.

What I think a lot of people get mixed up is that they think Wright is saying that the covenant status is based on works, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is not what he says. He is saying that the eschatological pronouncement showing who is actually in the covenant is based upon the evidence that is produced by true covenant membership, ie works.

I hope that’s clearer. Any problems with that?

Glad to find another TEDS student in the biblioblog world.

Erick White said...

Would we say that works, if they functioned as evidence that one is part of the people, are a basis for our final justification?

It would seem to me that it doesn't make much a difference if you say we are justified by our works or justified because we show evidence by our works.

Daniel said...

I probably should have also said that like Wright I think that covenant status (and everything else for that matter) comes from being united with the crucified and risen Messiah.

Andrew Cowan said...


Yes, that is clearer, and I think it is correct as an interpretation of Wright. I think that I, however, have more differences with the good bishop than you do, but overall I am a big fan of his work. Above all else, I strongly feel that his critics need to represent him fairly (and a few do) so that there is real dialogue rather than misrepresentation. On that score, Wright could also do a better job of representing his opponents; I found a few places in the new book where he hasn't understood Piper rightly, either.

I didn't know you were a TEDS man. Are you still in school there, or have you moved on to something else?

Daniel said...

Still here, going into my second year

A. B. Caneday said...

If anyone is interested, I address the importance of the distinction between "on the basis of" and "in accordance with" here, here, here, and here, among other places on my blog, "The Race Set Before Us" in places where I have addressed the writings of N. T. Wright and of John Piper on justification.

Benjamin Wolaver said...

Quite frankly, I think this entire question is another example of jumping through theological hoops.

1. Paul states that Jesus' resurrection is our justification in the beginning chapters of Romans. He says this because the Resurrection is our guarantee and hope that we will be resurrected like Jesus.

3. According to Paul's argument, if we are resurrected, we will, by necessity, have the same "spirit of holiness" in us that was in Jesus. God's verdict of justification is part and parcel with resurrection, as Wright has made clear.

4. Justification is, therefore, a total package. We attain the resurrection through faith in God, but our faith is quite simply that we will be made perfect like himself. Therefore whether we are judged by our works, or our faith, we will be alright.

To summarize, the only reason we should feel a need to differentiate between faith and works from a Last Judgment perspective is from personal uncertainty as to the holiness of our current lives. Since we live by faith that God will make us holy, this uncertainty should not play a role in our thinking.

In other words, our faith, considered apart from good works and perfection, is like saying you have faith in your car and then saying your faith in it as nothing it to do with it starting up.

davey said...

Nobody seems to have considered an implication of Wright's, that Christians will be punished for being not very good Christians. How might they be punished? Anybody any suggestions?