What’s Wrong with Wright: Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul

Bishop N.T. Wright (a.k.a. Tom Wright) has undertaken sterling and valuable work in defence of the historicity of the New Testament and the resurrection of Christ. Unfortunately, he is also a leading proponent of the New Perspectives on Paul.

Those, like Wright, who advocate the New Perspectives, posit that the Reformers were wrong in seeing first century Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness. As Dr. Cornelis P. Venema (President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, where he is also Professor of Doctrinal Studies) writes in his very helpful little book addresing the the New Perspectives, Getting the Gospel Right:

The problem with the Judaizers’ appeal to the ‘works of the law’ was not its legalism, Wright insists, but its perverted nationalism. (p. 37, original emphasis)

Venema continues in his description of Wright’s views:

One of the unfortunate features of the Reformation and of much evangelical thinking, according to Wright, is that they reduce the gospel to ‘a message about “how one gets saved”, in an individual and ahistorical sense’.

In this way of thinking, the focus of attention, so far as the gospel is concerned, is upon ‘something that in older theology would be called an ordo salutis, an order of salvation’. Because of its inappropriate focus upon the salvation of individual sinners, the older Reformation tradition was bound to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of justification.

Whereas the Reformation perspective understands the gospel in terms of the salvation of individual sinners, Wright maintains that Paul’s gospel has a different focus. According to Wright, the basic message of Paul’s gospel focuses upon the lordship of Jesus Christ.

(pp. 39–40, bold emphasis mine)

So, according to Venema, Wright thinks that the Reformers inappropriately focused on the salvation of individual sinners and exaggerated the importance of the doctrine of justification (how we obtain a right standing before God).

Venema summarizes (p. 41, Getting the Gospel Right) Wright’s understanding of the gospel like this (citing p. 61 of Wright’s book, What Saint Paul Really Said):

The great theme of the gospel is this message of Jesus’ lordship and its life- and world-transforming significance. Rather than the salvation of individual sinners, the theme of Christ’s lordship is the primary focus of Paul’s teaching.

Now, while it is true that the gospel does have life-changing consequences, these are not the Gospel itself, but its fruits.

And yes, Christ is most certainly Lord – Lord of all. But the Lordship of Christ is no comfort to a sinner standing before God clothed in his own filthy righteousness, but a terror. The lordship of Christ is a glorious truth, but it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is Christ’s life, death and resurrection for sinners.

Now, Venema’s summary of Wright’s gospel seems fair. This is, verbatim, how Wright defines his gospel in my copy of What St Paul Really Said (1997, Lion, p. 60):

[The gospel] is a fourfold announcement about Jesus:

1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

2. In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.

It is, moreover, a double and dramatic announcement about God:

1. The God of Israel is the one true God, and the pagan deities are mere idols.

2. The God of Israel is now made known in and through Jesus himself.

There’s much that is true there. Yet, somehow, Wright manages to have Jesus and the cross without ever affirming that Jesus died there for sinners. Instead, the cross is presented merely as a ‘decisive victory’ (which it is), without it also being the place where Jesus bore the punishment for our sin, being the propitiating sacrifice that reconciles us with an infinitely holy and righteous God. Wright’s version of the gospel sounds like the Biblical Gospel, but it is subtly different in critical ways. The problem lies not so much in what Wright includes, but in what he leaves out.

Contrast the Apostle Paul’s definition of the Gospel:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:1–8)

If Wright is correct, Paul is wrong, and the Gospel is not primarily about Christ’s death in the place of sinners and for their sins. If Paul is correct, then Wright is mistaken, and the Gospel is something other than the world-changing proclamation of the victory and kingship of Christ.

Wright’s views take him further, leading him even to reject the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Venema, again (p. 45, Getting the Gospel Right):

Though Wright affirms the forensic nature of this language in a way that is reminiscent of the Reformation view of justification, he maintains that the Reformation’s idea of the imputing or imparting of God’s righteousness to believers makes no sense.

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteous is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 99)

According to Wright, the ‘righteousness of God’, which refers to God’s faithfulness to the promises he made to Israel, cannot be granted or imputed to believers. Nothing like an act of imputation need occur in order for God to declare in favour of his people.

Wright seems mistakenly to view the Reformer’s understanding of the Biblical language of the law court through the lens of late 20th century jurisprudence. And in an attempt to bolster his position, Wright sets up a straw man, for not one of Reformers ever suggested that righteousness is ‘an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom’. (Wright’s words here are curious, because the idea of righteousness as an object imparted to the believer seems reminiscent of the Roman Catholic view of infused righteousness, something entirely antithetical to the doctrine of imputation.)

Compare Wright’s view with the words of St. Paul to the Romans:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified [declared righteous] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

(Romans 3:21–28)

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”

(Rom. 4:1–8)

And to the Philippians:

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3:7–11)

Paul speaks plainly of a righteousness from God that is accounted – imputed – to us through faith in Christ. One would have to work very hard to make those texts say something else.

By denying the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers, Wright has shifted the focus of the Gospel entirely away from justification by grace alone through faith alone in the merits of Christ alone. Instead, he offers a new locus of attention, the world-changing announcement of the kingship of Christ. Be in no doubt that Wright has radically redefined the Gospel.

How important is the doctrine of imputation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone? Martin Luther called it the ‘main doctrine of Christianity’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, commenting on Gal. 2:5).

In discussing the active righteousness that comes from keeping the Law, and the passive righteousness that we have through faith in Christ (that is, Christ’s own righteousness put to our account, though we did nothing to merit it), Luther makes clear the centrality of the doctrine of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us:

The flesh is accused, exercised, saddened, and crushed by the active righteousness of the Law. But the spirit rules, rejoices, and is saved by passive righteousness, because it knows that it has a Lord sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Father, who has abolished the Law, sin, and death, and has trodden all evils underfoot, has led them captive and triumphed over them in Himself (Col. 2:15). In this epistle [Paul’s letter to the Galatians], therefore, Paul is concerned to instruct, comfort, and sustain us diligently in a perfect knowledge of this most excellent and Christian righteousness. For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.

(The Argument of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Luther’s Works, vol. 26, Concordia Publishing House, 1999)

Like Wright, Luther makes much of the victory of Christ. Unlike Wright, Luther sees the comfort, joy, and power of this victory as originating in the perfect righteousness that Christ has won being accounted to us by faith.

Though there is much that is true and helpful in what Wright has written, his New Perspective is nothing less than an audacious challenge to what Dr. Walter Martin called ‘the historic orthodox Christian faith.’

Venema concludes Getting the Gospel Right with these fitting words (pp. 91–92):

According to the Reformation perspective, the most basic problem that any human being faces is the problem of his or her guilt before God. No human achievement or moral act can make amends before God for human sin and disobedience, No one can find favour with God on the basis of his or her own obedience to the requirements of God’s holy law. Only the perfect obedience and sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross can satisfy the demands of God’s justice and secure the believer’s right standing before him.

Thought it may be admitted that the new perspective has illumined some significant aspects of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, its claims to offer a more satisfying interpretation of Paul’s gospel than that of the Reformation seem at best overstated, and at worst clearly wrong. In a biblically and theologically satisfying manner, the Reformation perspective continues to capture one of the great themes of the Christian gospel: the amazing grace of God, who justifies, not the righteous, but the ungodly, for the sake of Christ.

Amen to that.

I highly recommend Venema’s gem of a book, which also gives an overview and critique of E.P. Sanders’ and J.D.G. Dunn’s views, in addition to those of Wright. Getting the Gospel Right is only 92 small pages long, so you can read it in a couple of hours.

Resources for further study

In 2009, Dr. Albert Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) chaired a panel on N.T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification. I found the discussion to be a helpful introduction to the topic.

(My thanks to Pastor Paul T. McCain for linking to this discussion in his article, Why Wright is Wrong: Refuting the “New Perspective on Paul” Movement.)

For a more detailed treatment rebutting the claims of the New Perspectives on Paul, the following books are widely regarded (they’re waiting on my bookshelf in my reading queue):

4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Wright: Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul”

  1. Curious if you read Pipers book on Justification which rebutted Wright and then Wright’s more thorough response in his book “Justification”.

    1. Nope – though I’ve not yet read it, I do have Piper’s book, and, IIRC, it was mentioned in the Mohler discussion I linked to, together with a statement to the effect that Wright’s rebuttal didn’t really address what Piper said.

      Have you read them, and if so, what did you think?

    2. I’ve ordered Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision – I shall give him a third chance to show me that he’s not wrong about justification and the Gospel.

      I say ‘third’ chance, because I was singularly unimpressed with the direction Wright took in Virtue Reborn. There, he seemed at first to be setting the stage for the gospel as some kind of Hegelian synthesis of legalism and antinomianism, but it then rapidly degenerated into the gospel-as-law (as law-gospel syntheses tend to do, since, when it comes to justification, Grace + Law Keeping = Law Keeping). I confess I didn’t read much further than that, so perhaps I misjudged him by not hearing him out.

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