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.”

Does Calvinism stunt evangelistic zeal?

Who did God use to pull the church out of the Satanic grip of the Roman Catholic Church?

Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. All “Calvinists”.

Who went to Scotland and set the nation on fire with his zeal for preaching God’s truth?

John Knox, a man profoundly influenced by Calvin himself.

Who is known for their evangelism to the American natives, their compendium of lasting classic Christian literature, and their zeal to serve the Lord in all of life?

The Puritans– who were all-out Calvinists.

Which American preacher was used of God to spark the first Great Awakening?

Jonathan Edwards– who perhaps was more Calvinistic than Calvin.

Which other English preacher ignited the Great Awakening?

George Whitefield, a devoted believer to the doctrines of grace.

Who did Jonathan Edwards influence to take to the fronteir and minister among the native Americans?

David Brainerd. Calvinist.

Which famous missionary read David Brainerd’s biography and was so impacted that he went to the mission field and ignited the modern missionary movement?

William Carey. Calvinist.

The list is endless– Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones; not to mention our contemporaries John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul and many others.

History attests to the fact that Calvinism does not stunt evangelistic zeal, but rather it ignites it. As Steven Lawson has said, “Arminian evangelists are not playing with a full deck.” When Calvinism meets evangelism it’s like gas and fire– an explosion of power results.

Dead at 27

Mark Twain once said “Most men die at age 27. We just bury them at 72.”

That little quote that appeared on my twitter feed got lodged into my brain against my will. I’m 25. I’ll be 26 in a month. Time relentlessly keeps moving forward, like a seasoned mountaineer up the trail. There’s no stopping him. He doesn’t pull aside for snacks and water. He is stone-faced and determined.

It’s easy to see what Twain is getting at. Late teens and early twenties are fertile grounds for great ideas and big plans. Once one gets some real-world experience, however, swimming upstream isn’t so romantic as it used to be. A marriage forces him to get a job; kids force him to settle down. Bills force him to look at life differently. In most men, by 27, something very important has died, Twain says.

What has died? A vigor and passion for life. An enthusiasm to accomplish great things. A youthful, impetuous zeal. This doesn’t happen to everyone– but it does happen, as Twain says, to “most men.”

In Braveheart, William Wallace says, “Every man dies, not every man really lives.”

Jesus came to give men “life and life abundantly.” This is speaking not only of the eternal hereafter, but the here-and-now of knowing, by faith, the living, resurrected Son of God. By abiding in him through faith, we plug ourselves into the source of all energy, passion, fervor, joy, and love. Though we were once dead in our sins, we have been made alive with Christ. To be a Christian means to be spiritually alive, awake, and aware of all that God is doing in the universe. It means to be attached to Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. That is true life. It is the life that God offers through belief in his Son.

Spiritual sleepiness, complacency, or apathy are cross-opposing enemies of God– and the regenerate are not exempt from succumbing to these pitfalls. They are sinful lures that faithful disciples must wage war against. Christians are to be totally awake!

How Christians should fight against this kind of deadly sleepiness! The daily temptation to get on the sideline and become a spectator demobilizes thousands of could-be gospel bearers. It is much easier to waste your life than to spend it on something that will outlast you. You must fight to stay awake. You must struggle to stay alive. You must not turn 27, shift into maintenance mode, or auto-pilot, or cruise control– or whatever metaphor you want– and drift toward Judgment Day. Would you be great in this world? Our Lord taught us that the greatest of all is the servant of all. And the servant of all is the one who fights most persistently and violently against his sinful pride.

John Piper, author of the book Don’t Waste Your Life, once said, “Don’t waste your life is not a catchphrase for me; it’s a cliff I walk beside every day with trembling.”

Fight against every impulse within you that wants make peace with everything the way it is. Never settle. Keep growing. Do hard things. Don’t die at 27.

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. . . . If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next”

C.S. Lewis



32 pages that changed my friend’s life

My friend from seminary went back to school because of this book. He decided he didn’t want to waste the last years of his life. He was 64– in Hebrew class with 22 and 23 year-olds.

Are you thinking about retirement? Not sure what to do with the golden years?

Give it a read. It’s only 32 pages. And it’s free to download. And it just might change your life.

Click here to read another description of the book.

Click here to download it.

Here’s a taste:

Finishing life to the glory of Christ means resolutely resisting the typical American dream of retirement. It means being so satisfied with all that God promises to be for us in Christ that we are set free from the cravings that create so much emptiness and uselessness in retirement. Instead, knowing that we have an infinitely satisfying and everlasting inheritance in God just over the horizon of life makes us zealous in our few remaining years here to spend ourselves in the sacrifices of love, not the accumulation of comforts.

Guard yourself from the barrage of eternity-denying entertainment

O, how we need to meditate on the horror of rejecting the gospel. Satan does his best with television and radio to create in us a mind that is so trivial and banal and petty and earthly that we find ourselves incapable of feeling what terrifying truth is in this word anathema. O, how we need to guard ourselves from the barrage of eternity-denying entertainment. We need to cultivate a pure and childlike imagination that hears a word like anathema the way a child hears his first peal of thunder, or feels his first earthquake, or suffers his first storm at sea. The Bible does not reveal to us the eternal curse of God that we may yawn and turn the page. The wrath of God is revealed to shake unbelievers out of their stupor, and to take the swagger out of the Christian’s walk and the cocky twang out of his voice. Don’t skim over verses 8 and 9 quickly. There is much humbling and sobering and sanctifying to be had here. Ponder these things in quietness.

John Piper, “When Not to Believe an Angel,” February 6, 1983:

The Christian life is not clean noses and quality family time

Oh, how many lives are wasted by people who believe that theChristian life means simply avoiding badness and providing for the family. So there is no adultery, no stealing, no killing, no embezzlement, no fraud—just lots of hard work during the day, and lots of TV and PG-13 videos in the evening (during quality family time), and lots of fun stuff on the weekend—woven around church (mostly). This is life for millions of people. Wasted life. We were created for more, far more.

John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life pg. 119-120

Why John Piper Doesn’t Own a TV

Read this. The whole thing. Why John Piper Doesn’t Own a TV.

Here’s a snippet:

O, how we need to meditate on the horror of rejecting the gospel. Satan does his best with television and radio to create in us a mind that is so trivial and banal and petty and earthly that we find ourselves incapable of feeling what terrifying truth is in this word anathema. O, how we need to guard ourselves from the barrage of eternity-denying entertainment. We need to cultivate a pure and childlike imagination that hears a word like anathema the way a child hears his first peal of thunder, or feels his first earthquake, or suffers his first storm at sea. The Bible does not reveal to us the eternal curse of God that we may yawn and turn the page. The wrath of God is revealed to shake unbelievers out of their stupor, and to take the swagger out of the Christian’s walk and the cocky twang out of his voice. Don’t skim over verses 8 and 9 quickly. There is much humbling and sobering and sanctifying to be had here. Ponder these things in quietness.

Did Piper’s Desiring God change your life?

I’m curious.

In the wake of For the Fame of God’s Name: Essay’s in Honor of John Piper, I’ve been hearing a lot about how Piper’s magnum opus, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, has been marked as the single most important book in the lives of countless individuals. I don’t know about you, but it was exactly that for me.

And apparently, there are many more like me. I didn’t realize that so many others have the same exact story as I do. The story seems to go like this: an older friend recommends the book to you (in my case, it was my college pastor Jordan Bakker). You start to read the book, and it both liberates you and rattles you. The idea that God demands that you find your joy in him frees you to pursue joy like you’ve always wanted to. You struggle against the whole issue of God’s absolute sovereignty for a while, and then, in a climactic moment, you cave under the weight of God’s glory manifested in it.

And then you have this sort of Edwardsian revelation:

From childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty…It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of [dealing with] men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was, thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God’s shewing mercy to whom he will show mercy, and hardening whom he will. God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes, at least it is so at times. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.

And once that happens, you’re changed forever.

That’s how the story goes.

There’s a whole movement of us young, restless, reformed guys who point to Desiring God as the spark that ignited our passion for the glory of God.

Are you one of them? What’s your story?