Book Review: “The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright,” by John Piper

Get the book here, if you’re interested. The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, by John Piper.

Martin Luther once said “This doctrine [justification by faith] is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” This is the doctrine upon which the history of the church turned, loosing the church from the bonds of Roman Catholic works righteousness. It has been held firmly by evangelicals for the past five centuries. It is considered by many, following Luther, to be the core of the gospel without which there is no gospel. And today, it is being reconsidered.

Though there are others involved in the debate, perhaps the biggest names representing both sides are John Piper and N.T. Wright. John Piper stands to protect the traditional understanding of justification—that God declares righteous those who by faith trust Jesus for salvation. Wright thinks this understanding is wrong—or as he likes to put it: “saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong wBay.” He, rather, proposes that the church has been on the wrong foot “certainly since Augustine” (p. 61). Those in Piper’s camp are uneasy about Wright. Many in Wright’s camp claim that the traditionalists either don’t understand the “New Perspective” or are simply too buried in their theological system to see it.

The reason why John Piper stands in as the representative of the “Old Perspective” is because of his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Already a leading voice in American evangelicalism, this book landed him smack in the center of the debate. He has the credentials for the task: not only a pastor for three decades but an accomplished scholar and an established exegete. Before penning this rejoinder, he had already written and preached extensively on the topic of justification, along with scholarly book-length treatises on important sections of Romans that deal with the pertinent issues. Before stepping down from the pastorate, Piper was also the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

The book begins with two introductions. The first, which is actually titled Introduction, lays out the issues at hand. He introduces eight problems with Wright’s view and shares his initial concerns. The second is titled On Controversy and he begins it with the sentence: “I am a pastor first.” In it he lays the ground rules for conducting the argument. These two opening segments build trust with the reader.

The following chapters (there are eleven in all) proceed through various issues Piper has with Wright’s portrayal of Paul. Chapter one cautions against doing biblical theology through certain historical lenses. Chapters two through four address the issue of the “law-court” imagery; chapters five and six discuss the inner workings of justification and Piper’s problems with Wright’s views; in chapter seven he attempts to nail down Wright’s teachings on the role of works in the final justification; chapter eight wrestles through Wright’s teachings on imputed righteousness. Since much of Wright’s perspectives come from his understanding of certain first century documents, especially 4QMMT, Piper examines the document and asks whether Paul would have actually subscribed to such teaching. Chapter nine deals with Wright’s understanding of typical Jews in Second Temple Judaism, especially the “agitators” in Galatians. Chapter ten identifies implications of his teaching and compares it with Scripture. In the last chapter Piper presents his case that certain texts are clear in their teaching about justification and imputed righteousness. The work ends with a conclusion and six appendices for further study.

There are multiple levels of disagreement between Piper and Wright, and to navigate them and provide a defense of the traditional view is difficult. Piper says it’s “almost impossible” (pg. 17). But there are a few reasons I think that Piper did well.

First, Piper offered the soft answer that turns away wrath. His charity toward Wright earns himself a listening ear. Piper didn’t let his strong love for the traditional doctrine turn his tone to anger or condescension. He treated Wright honorably. Some critics forget about winning person while they’re winning the argument. Piper has both in mind. In several places, Piper gives Wright the benefit of the doubt, asking Wright for further explanation. Charity flavors every chapter.

Second, he offered his best understanding of Wright’s view. Rather than setting up the typical straw man just to smack him down, Piper did his best to let Wright speak for himself. This gives the reader greater insight into Wright. There are several instances where Piper quotes Wright at length to provide context for the citation he’s using. This makes the book seem fair and trustworthy– Piper is dealing with the real N.T. Wright, not a caricature.

Thirdly, and most substantially, Piper’s meticulous attention to the text is convincing. Many of Piper’s points are exegetical, drawn straight from the text. On the other hand, it seems that many of Wright’s views are drawn from the system of biblical theology that he uses to interpret Scripture. There are several passages of Scripture that, as Piper convinced me, do not fit with Wright’s views.

To critique a system like Wright’s is a difficult task because disagreement is found on several levels. First, there are hermeneutical and historical disagreements. These presuppositions are carried into the text are utterly foundational. There are lexical issues. Word-meanings. Arguments approach absurdity when old terms are loaded with new meanings, and to navigate through these things is an immense task. Finally there are exegetical issues, where there is disagreement as to how particular verses should be understood. These are the least foundational but are still important.

The reason I delineate these layers is because they give a way forward for dealing with the issue. It makes no sense to quibble over the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21 until we’ve established what righteousness means. And yet we cannot understand righteousness until we see what the flow of Scripture teaches about it. And yet we cannot discuss Scripture’s teachings about it until we understand our foundational and hermeneutical disagreements, which are often very hard to pin down. So, like building a house, it makes sense to begins by digging a deep hole and developing foundations.

My one critique for Piper has nothing to do with the content but more for the arrangement of the content. Piper would have been more effective in his debate by starting with the foundation and moving toward the specifics. Perhaps setting chapters nine and ten earlier in the book, right there with chapter one warning against misleading biblical-theological categories would have been helpful. Piper’s arguments against Wright’s understanding of justification, though convincing, could have proved more weighty had they followed a thorough critique of the lens Wright had been using to read Scripture.

As much as Piper works hard to present Wright’s case fairly, he cannot and does not present Wright like Wright would present Wright. This is the difficult nature of a book-length response—it lacks context. It’s like walking into an argument among friends as one is finishing and the other is beginning. Everything you hear will be from one perspective. But for someone who is immersed in the debate and has been present for the points and counterpoints, this rejoinder is a great resource and help.

To summarize, Piper was the right person to write this book, not only because of his academic credentials but also for his gentle approach and his charity. His honesty in presenting Wright made the book more accessible—Piper did as well as anyone would have done describing Wright’s complex views. It would have been much easier to misunderstand and condemn, but he did well communicating the opposing side. My only critique would have been to rearrange the information, but this is not so big a deal as to denounce the book.

Who should read this book? Those embroiled in the justification debate need to read it; it’s an important voice in the conversation. Those who are interested in the New Perspective and what it teaches about justification, righteousness, and imputation should could start elsewhere (articles, blogs, etc) and make their way to Piper if they’re determined to go deeper. Pastors who don’t have time to read Wright but want an overview of his doctrine and a helpful critique would benefit from this book as well. I don’t think this would be a good place to start for someone who has no context, no idea who Wright is, or who has never come into contact with the “New Perspective.”

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