The Justification Debate: A Primer
Since Christianity Today's August 2007 cover story, "What Did Paul Really Mean?" Piper and Wright have taken the debate on justification from the academy to the masses. Here is where the two evangelicals differ.
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John Piper: Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Author of The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.
Piper: God created a good world that was subjected to futility because of the sinful, treasonous choice of the first human beings. Because of this offense against the glory of God, humans are alienated from their Creator and deserve his just condemnation for their sins.
Wright: God created a good world, designed to be looked after and brought to its intended purpose through his image-bearing human beings. This purpose was thwarted by the sinful choice of the first human beings. Because of human sinfulness, the world needs to be put to rights again and its original purpose taken forward to completion. God's purpose in putting humans "right" is that through them, the world can be put to rights.
Piper: God revealed himself through the Law, which pointed to Christ as its end and goal, commanded the obedience that comes from faith, increased transgressions, and shut the mouths of all humans because no one has performed the righteousness of the Law so as not to need a substitute.
Wright: God made a covenant with Abraham in order to set in motion his plan to rescue his world through Abraham's family. God gave his people the Torah, his holy Law, as a pedagogue—a way to keep Israel, God's wayward people, from going totally off track until the coming of the Messiah. Israel was supposed to embody the law and thus be a light to the nations. But Israel has failed at this task.
Piper: The essence of God's righteousness is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does. No single action, like covenant keeping, is God's righteousness. For all his acts are done in righteousness. The essence of human righteousness is the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God in all we do. The problem is that we all fall short of this glory; that is, no one is righteous.
Wright: God's righteousness refers to his own faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham. Israel has been unfaithful to this commission. What is now required, if the world's sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite who can be faithful to the covenant in Israel's stead.
Piper: Many Jews in Jesus' day (like the Pharisees described in the Gospels) did not see the need for a substitute in order to be right with God, but sought to establish their own righteousness through "works of the Law." Whether keeping Sabbath or not committing adultery, these works became the basis of one's right standing with God. The inclination to rely on one's own ceremonial and moral acts is universal, apart from divine grace.
Wright: Jews in Jesus' day believed that the Law was given to them as people who were already in covenant with God. Therefore, the Law was not viewed as a way to earn God's favor, but as a sign that one was already in covenant with God. The "works of the Law" are not ways to earn favor with God, but badges of covenant identity by which one determines who is in the covenant and who is not. Many Jews in Paul's day were clinging to these identity markers (Sabbath, circumcision) in a way that made their Jewish identity exclusive. Therefore, their exclusivism was keeping the promise of God from flowing to the nations.