Review: Justification, God’s Plan (Wright)

I wrote this in 2011.  I don’t think everything Wright said is correct, but we should definitely go with the idea of righteousness as covenant faithfulness.

This is Tom Wright’s response to John Piper’s recent work on justification, and we can think Piper for writing that work: without his work Wright would not have written this one. As most know, Wright has been accused in the past fifteen years of denying justification by faith, attacking the Reformed tradition, and microwaving kittens. Granted, most accusations that Wright has “denied the gospel” are meaningless (for when is the gospel not at stake for Reformed bloggers?). However, there are some serious “old perspective” rebuttals to Wright, and Piper’s is one of them.

While I have not read Piper’s actual work, I’ve read most of his other works, including his major work on “God’s Righteousness,” which is a prominent theme in this debate (Piper, 1993). What many do not realize, however, is that Wright considers himself a Calvinist (!), advancing and improving Reformed themes. In this review we will outline Wright’s major arguments, see whether he is indeed faithful to the Reformed traditions, and offer some tentative ways through the current debate.

Wright agrees with the truths behind traditional Reformed claims about soteriology, but he notes that Reformed have been unable (or even reluctant!) to apply these in a broader cosmic vision. His main problem with Reformed formulations is that they simply dead-end.

Wright gives a brief summary of his project, seeing the 1st century Jews, per Josephus, as living in a continuous narrative, which stretched back to earliest times and would have a climactic moment of fulfillment (Wright 2009: 59). He points the reader to Daniel 9, where the “righteous” God is said to “keep covenant” (Daniel 9:4). Further, God is righteous in terms of this covenant (vv. 11-14, echoing Deuteronomy 27-30). Therefore—and this is something the reader familiar with the debate should see coming—God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness.

Contra Piper, God’s righteousness is not “God’s concern for his own glory.” Hardly anyone in any tradition takes this view, and even J. I. Packer comes to a different view (65).

Supposing one accepts Wright’s denotation, can we assume that Paul even worked with a covenant theology? For Reformed people, this should not even be up for debate. Granted, Piper is a Baptist and isn’t concerned to defend covenant theology (at least by Reformed standards), but it is a question worth considering: did Paul structure his theology around the covenant(s)? The main argument to the contrary is that Paul (and the New Testament) rarely uses the word diatheke, or any of its cognates. True, but can we still see a covenant theology at structure?

The Jews saw themselves living in a continuous narrative, as noted before. The focus of this narrative was Abraham (Gen. 15, 17, and Deuteronomy 27-30). Given Second Temple Judaism (hereafter 2TJ), this story is seen moving forward. Paul rethinks this whole framework around the person of Christ (95-96). We see specific examples of this in Galatians 3. Verse 17 makes it clear that Paul is referring to the Abrahamic covenant. Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are similar; in both cases Paul is appealing to God’s covenantal actions with Abraham.

If Paul is using covenantal theology, then this provides the best context to interpret the arguments concerning God’s righteousness, and ultimately justification. Further, covenant is social in character, which means justification will also have a social dimension.

Interesting, the first time Paul uses the word “justification” he is not using it in a law-court context, but at a dinner table. Justification does concern who is a member of God’s covenant. Justification primarily means we are members of God’s family and have a right to table fellowship.

Further, “works of the law” means “living like a Jew” (Galatians 2:14-15). It does not mean abstract good deeds through which one gains merit, only to see that we are justified by not-merit. Galatians 2:16 must be read in the context of Galatians 2:11-15 (117).

Summary of the review so far (cf. Wright, 133-136):

The promises God made to Abraham were a covenant (Gen 15 = Gal. 3:15, 17). The Abrahamic covenant had in view the liberation of man from the plight of Gen. 3-11. This overall context compels us to understand Paul’s use of dikaios in terms of membership in God’s family. One’s covenant status, therefore, is “righteousness.” God creates a status of “having been declared in the right.” It does not mean God infuses virtue or imputes the righteousness of the judge onto the defendant(!).

Per Romans 1:17 Wright argues that “righteousness” refers to God’s own and reflects his faithfulness to the covenant (180). To understand Romans Wright suggests that Paul’s theology of justification hinges own two poles: eschatology and spirit (189). The judgment in Romans 2:1-16 is a future judgment. The future verdict will correspond to the present one, which (per 3:21-26) is issued on the basis of faith. This happens via the Spirit (Rom. 8:1; 2-27). “Doing the law” in 2:13 should refer to 8:5-8. This points to 10:5-13, where doing the Torah spoken of in Leviticus is explained in terms of Deuteronomy 30, and further in terms of Joel 2:32, the passage about the outpoured spirit (190).

Justification is an act of God that brings about the new situation in terms of the law court. This act of justification enables God to deal with the problem of relationship, reconciliation (225-226).

Wright offers a few other conclusions as well. If one wants to maintain the “imputation” language, then it is fair to say that Christ’s death and resurrection is reckoned to the believer (Wright, 233. Cf. Romans 6:6-11). Further, given the law-court scenario of Judaism, it is quite bizarre to speak of “imputed righteousness.” That’s not the way the lawcourt metaphor works. The judge does not impute his own moral character to the defendant (especially in America, where the judges are usually the most corrupt ones in the room!). The judge simply declares “this one is in the right.”


Wright makes a persuasive case. And though he clearly wins the debate, he is gentle about it. He really wants to maintain what the Reformed tradition sought contra Rome. He is offering exegesis that steers clear of many dead-ends, and contra to being a novelty, he shows how his view incorporates the best of other traditions as well.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why Wright wants to claim he is in the Reformed tradition. He rejects most of the key distinctive. His chapter on Romans 9 is one of the most thorough arguments against unconditional election. But that’s his call. I think he pulled punches as well.


Piper, John. The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9: 1-23. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Review: Justification, God’s Plan (Wright)

  1. Pingback: Review: Delivered from the Elements | Kingdom Authority

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