Saturday, February 21, 2009


Tom Wright working away in Bishop Auckland Palace

Here below (see the link) is an interesting but all too brief interview of Tom Wright as he talks about his forthcoming book on "Justification" (apparently out in May by IVP on this side of the water). What Tom is stressing is that final justification when the Christian stands before the judgment seat of Christ, does indeed involve the review of our moral actions inspired and empowered by the Spirit as well as our immoral acts as well. This contrasts with initial justification which is by grace and through faith. In addition he argues that Paul does not suggest that Christ's moral righteousness is imputed to the believer. Rather initial justification has to do with forensic or legal right standing with God, not the imputation of Christ's moral righteousness to the believer. I think Tom is 100% correct in this assessment, and I also agree that the whole discussion needs to be read more closely in light of the early Jewish context, not the much later Reformed systematic context. See what you think.



dale said...

Oooooh, BW3, get ready for the hate mail! :)

Ben Witherington said...

We'll see how sanctified the respondents truly are :)


Anonymous said...

I personally think you agree with Tom Wright purely because you hate Reformed theology.

Is this a genetic fallacy. Yep. So it doesn't prove you or Tom Wright wrong. However, I am completly certain this is the main reason you agree with Tom Wright, unlike, say, Tom Wright who I think believes what he does because he actually thinks it is the Biblical teaching.

Ben Witherington said...

Actually Rob I don't hate Reformed theology at all--- I enjoy reading it. Just finished reading an excellent book on Jonathan Edwards, and I have plenty of respect for that tradition. I just don't think it is the best reading of the Biblical evidence, particularly on this issue.


Ben W,

Kyle said...

Dr. Witherington,

"Rather initial justification has to do with forensic or legal right standing with God, not the imputation of Christ's moral righteousness to the believer."

Is it not the case, though, that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are the basis upon which this forensic reckoning can occur? In this sense, is not the fruit of Christ's moral righteousness (obedience) "reckoned" to the believers at initial justification? In this sense, we are "credited" with righteousness through faith in Christ's work when we first believe.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Kyle:

It is certainly true that Christ's death and resurrection is the basis of all the benefits of salvation in a general sense, and it is also the case that Christ's obedience was unto death on the cross.

The fruit of Christ's obedience is one thing however, Christ's obedience quite another.

It is telling that Paul in Rom. 4 when he wants to draw an analogy between Abraham and the Christian believer says the following about Abraham---

'Abraham's faith was reckoned as Abraham's righteousness'. Notice there is nothing said here about some alien righteousness being imputed to Abraham. To the contrary the language here is of debits and credits-- it is Abraham's faith that is credited as Abraham's righteousness or right standing with God. And when Paul wants to talk about the Christian he says nothing different.

You will want to read the more detailed discussion in my Romans commentary.


Ben W.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Should be an interesting read as Wright fully develops his "controversial" views (among the Protestants at least) on justification in particular and in general interesting to see the exchange between an Anglican and a Reformed Baptist.

...but then again us Catholics have been saying justification is not instant for nearly two thousand plus years if you count our Lord and His Apostles.


R. E. Aguirre

Kurt Willems said...

I am excited about this book. When Piper's book came out, I found that among some of my reformed friends, that books by Wright lost all their credibilty. Now, I can put a book in their hand that will keep them thinking!

Side Note:
Rob, No need to call out Ben on his own blog. Lets have some class here... :-)

Nancy said...

How important is it to take sides on this issue? Is it ok to "credit" the details of this debate to Mystery, or is this just being lazy? I really struggle with this question since I have learned so much from both Piper and Wright. Maybe it's female social enmeshment (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen), but I really wish that these two men whom I admire would get along better! What do you think?

ndmb said...

Dr. Witherington,

A few sincere questions from someone from the Reformed camp genuinely trying to understand the stance that you and Bishop Wright take on justification.

You said that final justification does "involve the review of our actions". I'm curious about the word "involve". Do you mean that our actions have bearing on whether or not we are 'finally' justified? If so, wouldn't that mean that Christ's work isn't complete and that we are adding to it? Lastly, how is your view different from the Catholic view?


Kyle said...

Dr Witherington,

Other texts do seem to suggest a kind of swap or transaction:

2 Corinthians 5:21
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

It's true that Scripture doesn't explicitly say that in the language of Luther that it is Christ's alien righteousness that is credited to the believer (rather, it says faith is reckoned for righteousness), but it seems like a very small logical step to my mind. The believer is credited righteous on the basis of faith alone in Christ's work, and he stands innocent before God. The reason he is declared righteous is because of Christ's work in living a righteous life and shedding His blood. His righteous work is, therefore, in a sense, "put to our account" when we believe. True, this does not mean Christ's holy life takes the place of ours subsequent to justification, but it does seem to mean His holy life is able to stand in for our past sins in some sense. Christ's righteous work is applied to and covers our past sin.

Perhaps what you mean to avoid is the literal idea of a transference of character - is that what you mean when you say "imputed righteousness?"

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Nick:

This is an excellent and fine question and the answer is that the work of Christ is not complete until he returns and finishes the job! The cross and the resurrection do not complete the work of Christ, and it is most certainly not finished yet. It is a work in progress, as is our salvation.

What the cross does is make atonement for sin, and make possible salvation, which has three tenses to it for the Christian (I have been saved= conversion, I am being saved=sanctification which requires my own active and free participation, and I shall be saved=final conformity to the image of the Son at the resurrection at which juncture final justification happens).

Our actions most certainly do have a bearing on our final justification on the nullification side of the question. By this I mean that negative actions or apostasy, persisted in after conversion can lead one to not being allowed into the Kingdom when it comes on earth. Holy behavior on the other hand can not in itself save us.

For example, when Paul warns in Galatians 5 that Christians who continue to committee murder, adultery, apostasy etc. shall not enter the Kingdom of God, he is not saying "you weren't Christians in the first place if you do that". He's saying you are endangering your final justification, "work out your salvation in a sanctified way-- behave as well as believe". This is a normal Jewish way to view the matter, since few early Jews believed in divine predetermination of one's eternal outcome.

Now you need to understand that I am NOT saying that a person is saved 'by means of mere human efforts'. Without grace no one is saved, not merely grace at conversion but ongoing grace along the way in sanctification and glorification.

I am however saying that God has chosen not to save us without our own free and un-predetermined participation in the process. This is not Pelagianism or even semi-Pelagaianism. It takes into account the full effects of the Fall, but it believes that God's grace before, during and after conversion is greater, and is empowering so that we might live a holy life.



Ben Witherington said...

Kyle 2 Cor. 5.21 does indeed involve exchange language, and one needs to know how that works. Notice the key prepositional phrase "in Him". We could compare the use of this same prepositional phrase in Ephes. 1. Paul is saying we are elect in Christ, and we might become the righteousness of God in Christ. How does the latter happen, and why does he choose the verb become instead of simply the verb 'to be'? Election is corporate and in Christ if we are talking about the election of Christians. That is a position we have with God by grace through faith. But Paul insists we must become the righteousness of God--- how, when and where? This is in fact a subject Paul addresses at length in Romans whose major subject is the righteousness of God (referring to God's character, our right standing, and also our becoming actually righteous like Christ). Christ is the means by which we are given the Holy Spirit, become sanctified, and can act in holy ways. This is not a matter of Christ simply being righteous for us, it is a matter of becoming a new creature and being empowered to emulate the character and behavior of Christ. Right standing with God is reckoned on the basis of faith, as was the case with Abraham, faith in the saving work of Christ of course. But God is not interested in merely reckoning us righteous, he wishes to transform us into righteous persons, which is the work of the Spirit within us. We begin with right standing reckoned when we believe, thereafter righteousness is imparted to us through the Spirit's sanctifying work. This view is close to the Catholic view in some regards.



R. E. Aguirre. said...

Very close to the Catholic definition indeed as best expressed by Bishop Augustine of Hippo.

Consider the line of thought St. Paul draws in Romans 5:12-20. He draws many parallels between the First and the Second Adam's in a context of soteriology in general and justification/righteousness in particular.

It is not difficult to understand as Augustine did that the original sin that we contracted from the first Adam is actual, a real part of our nature - one that really does corrupt us and (makes) us unrighteous (not merely declarative). Sin is an actual reality of our nature. So then the second Adam (through His grace alone) restores our nature and makes us righteous (not on our merits but on His). The action is not just forensic but actual as Paul makes clear in the contrasts between the first and second Adam's. The effects are real and actual both ways.

This is the Catholic conception which is built on the foundation of God's grace not man's.


R. E. Aguirre

pennoyer said...

Dr. Witherington:

“Hate mail alert” (not really)

I have tremendous respect for Dr. Wright and have recommended him gladly many times. And as you know the secondary literature on this particular topic is enormous, rapidly growing, and (for me at least) difficult to master. But now and again I think it is important to step back and ask ourselves, in all our scholarship and intellectual sophistication, whether we have in fact started to affirm a “works-righteousness” (yes, that good, descriptive Reformation phrase). If we are, maybe we have taken a wrong turn somewhere.(This is an "if the shoe fits" argument; I am not accusing anyone in particular.)

To the extent that we affirm a works-righteousness, to that extent I am concerned that we are abandoning the gospel – the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, salvation that comes to us as “gift”. No one is saying that the Holy Spirit does not transform his people, or that Christ’s redemption does not reach to all of creation. (I doubt John Piper is confused on those issues, though I have not read the book in question.) The issue is rather the basis of our right standing before God: Is it first, last and always Christ Crucified? Or have we (God forbid) succumbed to the default religious position of fallen humanity – that I can somehow make myself acceptable to God?

I suppose there is a third, “mediating” position in which God’s grace somehow makes up the difference between what I can accomplish myself and what God actually requires. This last idea, in all its various permutations, makes three theological errors simultaneously: at once underestimating our sinfulness, God’s righteous demands, and the sufficiency of the work of Christ. And if we underestimate these three things, then we are indeed not far from the original, pre-Reformation Catholic position of the later Middle Ages. We need a new Luther!


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ray:

No one is affirming a works righteousness in this whole discussion, or anything like it.

In any case salvation and righteousness are two separable subjects, and one needs to make distinctions between the two or else one fails to place Biblical ethics on the right footing.

What is most surprising to me on a regular basis is that those who insist on sovereign grace are sometimes those least prepared to give grace its due--- its ability to enable moral conduct by believers! This I find stunning.

I can understand how an Arminian might say well sin is too overpowering and I can resist grace anyway. It's hard to imagine the basis for a Calvinist giving grace so little power and credit.

No one is suggesting that what Luther properly called justification-- namely the right standing one obtains by grace through faith has anything to do with human works, however meritorious or good. No one.

Salvation is not a reward, but there are certainly rewards (or lack thereof) for what one has done in the Kingdom. That is a different matter.

Furthermore, when we consider how we get into the Kingdom at the end--- by means of God raising us from the dead (without any help from the human being who is dead) it is hard to see how anyone could say final justification on the terms I am describing allows works righteousness into the picture.

The fact that God at the end holds Christians accountable for their behavior is not hard to demonstrate from Scripture (see 2 Cor. 5.10). The debate of course is how we should relate that fact to salvation.



Kyle said...

Hey again Dr. Witherington!

"But God is not interested in merely reckoning us righteous, he wishes to transform us into righteous persons, which is the work of the Spirit within us. We begin with right standing reckoned when we believe, thereafter righteousness is imparted to us through the Spirit's sanctifying work."

No doubt I agree that salvation entails actual transformation as well as right standing. It just seems to me that there was a kind of substitution or transaction in the Atonement as can be seen in places like Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 5 - Christ is obedient while we are disobedient, Christ is condemned whereas we are set free, Christ is reckoned a sinner while we are reckoned righteous by faith (at initial justification, and of course made actually righteous through regeneration and sanctification). So I suppose I am not terribly uncomfortable with the idea of a "crediting of Christ's righteousness" to the believer in the sense that the believer is set right with God on the basis of Christ's obedience unto death. Christ's righteous work is put to our account. Faith is reckoned "for" righteousness, which seems to mean faith is taken instead of the believer's past righteousness, of which there is none yet - and this is okay in God's court because Jesus paid the price and lived a perfect life. It is not the believer's righteousness - as he is a sinner at that point and has none - but God's, and we could say, Christ's. And naturally out of this reconciled relationship flows new life and holy obedience, empowered by Christ as well.

All this to say, I think the language of credited righteousness that is not the believer's own(Rom 4) on the basis of Christ's righteous work comes very close to an idea of reckoned or imputed righteousness of Christ, so long as imputed isn't taken to mean a transference of character that makes holiness optional.

Oh the riches of His glorious grace!

Kyle said...

"This is the Catholic conception which is built on the foundation of God's grace not man's. "

"So then the second Adam (through His grace alone) restores our nature and makes us righteous (not on our merits but on His)."

I'm not convinced that this is the Catholic position. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions" (Catechism, 2010, Emphasis in the original)."

And Trent states:

"CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema."

There is some very troubling stuff in here regarding the unbiblical notion of merit.


I agree with Dr. Witherington that God's grace not only restores our right relationship, but also our character, but I also agree with your statement here:

"The issue is rather the basis of our right standing before God: Is it first, last and always Christ Crucified? Or have we (God forbid) succumbed to the default religious position of fallen humanity – that I can somehow make myself acceptable to God?"

This is the heart of the matter when it comes to justification as it is normally understood, namely, the way we come into relationship with God. Is it a human achievement? Is it on the basis of our works, or achieved by our works? No, it is received by grace through faith alone.

I would say the same thing for sanctification. Is it by our works? Do we bring it about? No, our work is consecrate ourselves and offer ourselves to God in faith through various spiritual disciplines and means of grace, and God continues HIS sanctifying work in us.

pennoyer said...

Dr. Witherington,

THANK YOU for your gracious and helpful response to my post. If writers on this subject who believe the gospel would be as clear on those points as you were here, I think it would enhance the discussion enormously.

I guess I am more or less in the Reformed camp theologically. So if I could for a moment humbly speak for all Calvinists everywhere throughout history, let me suggest why it appears that we do not give the grace of God its proper “due” to enable moral conduct. It is not that we do not believe in the power of God to work in our lives, but that – in light of the approaching judgment seat of God – we are more suspicious of the true nature of apparent “good works” than other Christian traditions may be. That is, the distance to the goal of a pure good work is farther. Did you help your neighbor when you found them in need? Good - as far as that goes. But what was your motivation? Do you even know your true motivation? Perhaps you want something in return from your neighbor, and this was your way to put them in your debt? Or you wanted to put on a display of your religiosity? Or to earn brownie points with God?

These kinds of questions weigh heavily on people in the Reformed tradition, because they know that God does not judge by appearances and they also know that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). I should say would weigh heavily, if salvation were not from start to finish by grace of God through faith in Christ.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ray:

I certainly understand this suspicion, but its highly over-rated. Let me ask you this question-- do you question Paul's motives either when he says he has indeed been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives within him? After Paul was just another sinner saved by grace--- right? Well, I don't. I believe indeed that we are capable of, by means of God's grace, pure motivations. It doesn't always happen of course, but that is irrelevant. The point is there are moments of grace when it does, and more to the point the NT writers believe this deeply, which is why we have such a demanding ethic in the NT.



Ben Witherington said...

Oops, I meant 'After all Paul...'

ndmb said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for your patient and concise response! I'm still left with one nagging question though; how is your and Bishop Wright's view different from the Catholic view? Is it that, as you said, in your view your works can only NEGATE your salvation; whereas a Catholic would say that his works MERIT his salvation?

If that is the difference, my untrained eye doesn't see much of a difference because it would seem that you could just invert the statements, couldn't you? If, at final judgment, your works don't NEGATE your salvation, then they're upholding it or warranting it aren't they?

I very much enjoy your blog and commentaries - and this discussion in particular - because they stretch me out of my Lutheran/Reformed tradition.


Shane said...

Hi Ben-
Like you I eagerly await this book. And on the issue of the relationship of works and salvation, I can't see how Reformed folks could really argue with what Wright is saying. After all, true Reformed theology says that the regenerate display good works as a fruit of their conversion, just as you and I would. The only people on the surface who should be troubled by this are those who accept once saved always saved without the other doctrines of Calvinism in support.

For this reason, it seems to me that many of Wright's critics dismiss him out of hand simply because he plainly says he is trying to read Paul through a lens other than the Reformation. Otherwise, it is hard to understand the often hysterical attacks.

BTW, I am finishing a year of preaching through Mark and really enjoyed your commentary!


pennoyer said...

Dr. Witherington:

To respond to your question…

I don’t disagree with you at all that “there are moments of grace” when we are capable of pure motivations. But it seems to me that those Christians who are used most powerfully by God are often those who have come face to face with the depth of their own sinfulness, even in the midst of their best of intentions. Paul came to the end of himself when confronted by the risen Christ on his way to persecute the church. Peter, having bravely followed Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, then turned and denied him three times when the real moment of crisis came. From that point on, Paul and Peter no longer put confidence in the flesh, and they both became great leaders in the early church! To be used by God is to be used by grace. (We can have a taste of the same crisis if we simply take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.)

I don’t doubt Paul’s motivations or sincerity when he says in Gal 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” In fact the rest of the verse goes on to show the true, purest motivations for any “good works” – that of gratitude: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But Paul elsewhere explicitly says that he has not yet attained this principle. In Phil 3:12 he says, in a very closely related context, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

In another place Paul says “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). As is often pointed out, Paul clearly says here “I am the worst” not “I was the worst.” Paul recognizes that sanctification is incomplete this side of the parousia. Here, between the times, we never cease to be sinners saved by grace and used by grace. The same tenor seems to shine forth in 2 Cor. 4:7, where Paul says of his ministry, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” I also like the hopeful resignation of John in 1 John 3:20: “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

So I think it is right to be suspicious of our motivations this side of the parousia. Of course we should practice “good works,” just not tally them up to our credit! The purest motivation is always gratitude. A theology professor of mine once summarized Karl Barth as teaching “In Christianity, theology is grace and ethics is gratitude.” Do you see it the same way?


Bethel said...

Dear Ben,

Please help me understand the terminology being employed in this debate:

If ‘justification’ is a right standing before God using a law-court paradigm, is ‘salvation’ a result of justification? Or is salvation a result of what we did with the justification (by grace through faith alone) that God gave us in Jesus Christ at our conversion? That is, what did we do with the grace that God gave us to live holy lives, and so fulfill the Law of Christ? Did we surrender ourselves completely to God’s grace to live out righteous lives?

The implication I think you (and NT Wright) are trying to make here is that justification (by grace through faith alone) is a separate matter entirely from the final ‘salvation’ which involves a review of our moral actions. The former we receive as a matter of faith in Christ alone, but the latter must be ‘worked’ out in fear and trembling (but through ‘God who works in you’) because we must give an account before the Judgment Seat.

Conclusion: ‘Initial Justification’ by faith alone is a necessary but insufficient condition to enter the Kingdom of God. The initial justification by faith that gives us a right standing with God must be accompanied by fruits of a righteous life lived by God’s grace in order for us to enter the Kingdom of God. If the initial justification is the right standing, then a righteous life is the ‘proof’ or outworking of this justification. Please correct me where I got you wrong.

I know you used ‘Final Justification’ instead ‘Salvation’ when you say our moral actions would be taken into account when we face the judgment seat, but there is still a lot of confusion out there between ‘justification’ and ‘salvation’.

Further, you are saying that ‘works-righteousness’ is not in view here because we can never earn our salvation through works but rather it is our response to God’s grace to live out holy lives that will be taken into account at judgment day. Simply put, did our lives produce fruit in keeping with repentance after conversion? Again, if I misunderstood you, please correct me.

Finally, in your opinion what would be practical implications for our discipleship or faith whether you agree with Piper or NT Wright? How will discipleship based on the ‘Reformed Theology’ view of Scripture be any different from the ‘NPP/NT Wright’ understanding of Scripture in our everyday lives of faith?

Thanks & blessings,
Keith Tan

MWT said...

Dr. Witherington,

I have no theologically training and the level of the discussion here is generally over my head. So, please be patient with my very unsophisticated question.

At church (UMC), we often ask God to “blot out our transgressions.” Furthermore, everything I’ve been taught suggests that when we ask God to forgive our sins, He removes them from our record, so to speak. However, Wright’s description of justification (“the review of our moral actions inspired and empowered by the Spirit as well as our immoral acts as well”) indicates out transgressions are never really blotted out if they are reviewed in the end. I understand there can be nuances, be this seems to be contradictory on the face.

Thanks in advance.

Aaron said...

I have the same question As MWT - does God forget sins? remove them from us as far as the east is from the west? wash us white as snow - when we confess & repent - or do they hang around somehow for the final Judgement scene?

Thanks Dr. Witherington !

Ben Witherington said...

God of course forgets nothing. God is omniscient. As for forgiveness that is an entirely different matter. The issue usually debated is whether initial justification covers all sins, or only the sins one has already committed by the time of conversion. There have been a variety of views on this in church history. The issue here is not whether Christ atoned for all sins in all of human history, the issue is on what basis that forgiveness is applied. Is it applied on the same basis when a Christian sins, as in regard to the past sins of a person who just converts? Is there forgiveness applied without repentance? Does God require less under grace than he did under Law, or is it the case that "to whom more is given, more is required?" And then there is the complex issue of the difference between forgiveness which is available and offered by God, and forgiveness received. Consider an illustration.

If I put a million dollars in a safe bank somewhere in the world for you (and of course nowadays we could debate whether there is such a bank), that money does not benefit you unless you draw on the account. Some have said that forgiveness of post conversion sins is like that.

It appears to me that Paul says three things about post-conversion sin: 1) there is accountability for it (2 Cor. 5.10), but this may mean no more than that one loses some of one's eternal reward, not that one is ousted from the Kingdom; 2) serious, persistent sin by a Christian which is not repented of and turned from can lead one to be excluded from final salvation and the Kingdom of God. This is clear not only from Gal. 5 where Paul warns his whole Christian audience about this, but from the Pastorals where Paul speaks of those who were Christians but made shipwreck of their faith. Apostasy, the willful and ongoing rebellion and rejection of God's work in a person's life can exclude one from final salvation (see Heb. 6); 3) having said that, 1 Cor. 3 seems clear enough. Works, including works of ministry that are poorly done receive no reward, and indeed are harshly judged by Christ, but the individual in question is still saved, "as through fire". Here the issue is not salvation or not, but reward or not.



Adam said...

Dr. Witherington,
"This view is close to the Catholic view in some regards."

While I recognize your view is not identical to the Roman Catholic view, I very much appreciate your willingness to admit real substantive overlap between Roman and a non-reformed Protestant soteriology. It is refreshing to hear a Protestant voice assert that.

This will no doubt cost you points with our reformed sisters and brothers, but it is ultimatley quite fruitful in building bridges with the Roman Catholic community.

I am looking forward to the book and hope that it helps to clarify my current thought on justification (as my intercourse with John Calvin, John Wesley and Roman Catholics already has)[ See ].


Unknown said...

"No one is suggesting that what Luther properly called justification-- namely the right standing one obtains by grace through faith has anything to do with human works, however meritorious or good. No one."

well, except for that pesky James fellow. james 2:24

of course, we - so often- confuse justification with salvation

Paul D. Adams said...

Finally!!! Someone noteworthy (that's you, Ben!) has agreed with Wright and clearly spelled out the differences between Wright and Piper.

Brett R said...

Several things struck me.

1. It seems as if Bishop Wright is agitated about all of the opposition to his ideas.
2. NTW has something to add to the debate, but the reformed probably will not gain much from him until both sides of the debate simmer down (maybe 25 years).
3. The following is why many reformed get so bent out of shape:

Fourth, in line with many Reformed readers of scripture, including Calvin, I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification to be of those who are ‘in Christ’, whereas Piper and others don’t make that a central element in justification itself. Conversely, for Piper the center of justification is the ‘imputation’ of ‘the righteousness of Christ’, seen in terms of ‘righteousness’ as a kind of moral achievement earned by Jesus and then reckoned to those who believe. I believe that this is an attempt to say something close to what Paul actually says in Romans 6, namely that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is ‘reckoned’ to those who are ‘in him’. Putting it the way Piper (and one part of the Reformation tradition) puts it is a pointer to something which is truly there in Paul, but one which gives off misleading signals as well.
Finally, for Piper justification through Christ alone is the same in the future (on the last day) as in the present, whereas for Paul, whom I am following very closely at this point, the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life that the justified-by-faith-in-the-present person then lives. In fact, the omission of the Spirit from many contemporary Reformed statements of justification is one of their major weaknesses.


He is using an interesting technique here. On one hand, he is defending Paul's view of justification, and on the other hand, we have Pipers. Well, what he is saying is "Piper's view" is confessed in every single reformed and Lutheran confession and synod. Its not just one part of the reformed tradition as he says. If he really wants to get somewhere with reformed folks, he needs to say that he is out of line with pretty much all of Reformed theology, and that the Reformed Churches need to revisit the confessions. Of course that is a tall order, but it would be the only honest approach. Hi methodology is schismatic in the reformed community (it has already been the start of schism).

He is missing on either what Reformed means, what Reformed believe, or Reformed ecclessiology. In reformed Churches, teaching elders are bound to the confessions.

Gary said...


There was a very interesting conference in January of 2005. The speakers were (recently become bishop) Tom Wright and Richard Gaffin, long time [rofessor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. It was not a debate, but a conference on the shape of Pauline theology with a certain amount of time for back and forth questions.

While there was much of value said there, one of the interesting points was that both men were in COMPLETE agreement that final judgment was to be based on works. There simply is no other way to understand the NT texts that deal with the final judgment as they all point in this same direction.

I have to say it truly bothers me to see my reformed brothers and sisters throw out slogans, and then ask whether this position or that theologian agrees with the slogan. Shouldn't we Calvinists do as Calvin did and just study the word to see if things are so?

Sorry to vent my frustrations.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Paul. It makes me scratch my head with frustration whenever the Reformed or Evangelical bigwigs will take a text like Romans 2 or John 5:28-29 and not only completely twist the meaning, but anathematize anyone who doesn't twist it, calling them Romanists and so forth.

Unknown said...

It seems that Jesus is very clear in the sermon on the mount. If our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom.

Am I incorrect in asserting that the sermon on the mount is the narrow path through which we must walk, and when Christ claims to be the gate or way, he is not only referring to his identity, but his teaching?

How can works have no bearing on our final judgment when it is clear we will be judged for the good or evil we have done in the body? Some will say Lord, Lord, but will be denied the Kingdom.

Kyle said...


"While I recognize your view is not identical to the Roman Catholic view, I very much appreciate your willingness to admit real substantive overlap between Roman and a non-reformed Protestant soteriology. It is refreshing to hear a Protestant voice assert that."

Where, exactly, do you see the overlap? Reformed folk, non-Reformed Protestants, and Roman Catholics all agree that sanctification does occur. There are Lutherans who argue that Luther had a robust view of sanctification, as well as Calvinists. Rome does stress sanctification more, which is great, but they confound sanctification and justification.

If we want to build bridges here - and surely we do - let's be clear where precisely the agreement is. From what I can see, Rome still teaches merit pretty clearly in her official documents, and she still doesn't grasp justification. I'm all for agreement and overlap of themes where it's due (and in the case of the actualization of sanctification, there seems to be overlap in basically every single communion - no one thinks there will be sin in heaven), but in this case I'm just not seeing a whole lot once you zero in on the issues. I realize this may cost me points among some who will see me as wrangling over minute theological details, but that's when the serious differences are really brought into relief among the broad agreement of themes.

Anonymous said...

Michael hits on an interesting point here. I think, and I believe Wright would agree, is that the Spirit completes the picture. The Pharisees were judged because they would clean the outside but not the in - as in, they had no circumcision of the heart - whereas, according to Paul in Romans, the Spirit writes the law on the hearts of believers so that we fulfill its righteous requirements.

Where I think Wright gets it wrong is that he maintains a strong Reformed element that negates any possibility of apostasy, of failing to keep in step with the Spirit.

Richard said...

Ben, what is your understanding of what Paul means by "the righteousness of God"? Do you go with Wright and kaseman and translate it as covenant faithfullness/and or God's saving power or something else?

Also, i think the best part of the reformed tradition is actually much more in line with your position on eternal security/justification at least in terms of how holiness works its way out practically in the life of a believer. Wright, who holds to some sort of version of perseverance of the saints and reformed soteriology, is simply stressing that those who are saved most themselves really show that the law has been written on their hearts (Romans 8 and 2). This works it self out by the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer which helps us to become conformed to the image of Christ, and assures us of our union with him in his death and resurrection. Through the work of Spirit, what is true of Christ will be true of us and therefore sin no longer has a hold on us, and we anticipate God's future for us in the present. Wright has sometimes quite brilliantly talked about this as "imputed death and resurrection". Interstingly enough, this whole theme of Union with Christ was seen as central by Calvin! Wright's theology seems more reformed to me than anything else. He's not disputing our "eternal security", as you seem to imply, but rather trying to place salvation in its correct inaugurated eschatological framework and assert the importance of the spirit filled life for believers.

While you might not agree with the basic reformed position on how one is saved (monergism vs synergism etc.), i actually think most people who understand perseverance of the saints correctly would likewise agree with your explanation that "i am saved, i am being saved and i will be saved".

pennoyer said...

Dr. Witherington:

I continue to be concerned that this is so difficult a topic that we must keep an eye on the big picture to make sure, in all our wisdom, we are not abandoning the gospel. Two scriptures and a comment to help us do that. Again, this is an “if the shoe fits” type argument only. We must examine our own hearts as we peruse this great subject!

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? (Gal 4:21)

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28-29)

We cannot strip away the Sermon on the Mount from the person who spoke that message. He was on the way to the cross - to bear in his body the punishment that was due to us. And is due to us if God were ever to truly judge us by works apart from grace.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ray:

It is not at all a difficult task when you follow the bouncing ball. Paul in the text of Galatians you cite is talking about works of the Mosaic Law. He is trying his best to make sure that his Gentile converts don't get themselves circumcised and then obligated to keep the Mosaic Law. Does this leave them without a law to keep? Not at all, because they are under the New Covenant and it too has a law, the law of Christ is what Paul calls it in Galatians 6. This law is what Christians must obey and it involves the following components: 1) the new teachings of Christ (see the Sermon on the Mount-- note that what Jesus says to his disciples is one thing, and how he debates with the Pharisees who are still under the Mosaic Law is another); 2) the portions of the OT law(for example some of the ten commandments) reaffirmed by Christ; 3) some of the new apostolic exhortations or imperatives.

The saying you quote from the Gospel of John is not relevant to this discussion because there 'work' has to do with the divine works of the father and the Son, and of course it is true that for those who are responding to the work of God in Christ 'Job One' if we can put it that way is to believe in Him whom God sent. That's not the end of the story since in that same Gospel Jesus goes on to insist to his own disciples that they must keep his (i.e. Jesus') commandments (see John 14-17). The Law Christians will be evaluated by is the law of Christ, when they get to the judgment day.

Hope this helps,

Ben W.

Unknown said...

Ben, thanks for your wonderful post. I really enjoyed it.

Kyle, I kept reading your comments and felt compelled to respond. Its obvious you don't really understand the Catholic concept of "merit" and resort to that age-old weapon, just proof-texting things out of context. The Catholic Catechism is a huge book. Yet you found only 2 paragraphs that you could use as a weapon.

As any Catholic will tell you over and over again. Salvation is by grace and grace alone. Nothing we do can ever merit our salvation. But grace works through faith and love, as Paul himself says.

Jesus said, "This is the work we must do in order to be saved: believe". Guess what, in Jesus' day, "believe" meant not just putting your faith in somebody, but believing to such an extent that you leave everything and follow. In fact, Jesus illustrates over and over that faith requires actions. Consider just one example, the guy who found a treasure or pearl and sold all he had for its sake. And both Paul and James take pains to illustrate that faith without works is dead.

I think the issue is that we are still stuck with the medieval terminology of "merit". But merit then and now means the same thing, "reward". You don't receive a reward for something you didn't do. The Catholic Church goes to pains to also say that in the first place you can't even "work" a single thing if it weren't for grace. It is only the Holy Spirit within who causes the works to flow as Paul illustrates so well in Ephesians 2.

Are the works that we do efficacious or meritorious for our salvation? Of course they are. When I pray, it brings me closer to Jesus. Thus it makes me a better Christian. Thus my work of prayer or Bible study is helping me be a better Christian and perhaps strengthen me to fight sin and temptation.

But its all by grace. If it weren't for Christ or the Holy Spirit, I could not pray or I could not study the Bible.

So you see, its just semantics and terminology. To say however there is nothing I can do to live a good Christian life, says that praying and Bible study are useless too, because its all by grace.

Let me stress again. IT IS ALL BY GRACE and BY CHRIST's ATONING SACRIFICE ALONE (Caps for emphasis). But our good and bad works are rewarded as Paul himself says so clearly in 1 Corinthians 3. And our bad works could cause us to turn away from our faith, be unrepentant, deny Christ or apostasize and thus be in danger of losing our salvation.

The Council of Trent also stresses: "[N]one of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the Apostle [Paul] says, grace is no more grace" (Decree on Justification 8, citing Rom. 11:6). In other words nothing we ever did could merit that initial justification when we were first saved. Christ saved us and only in Christ can we have our salvation. But if we refuse to carry out our work of believing or abiding (Jn 6), we scorn Jesus to our own peril.

I am sure most Protestants agree with what I said in practice (which Protestant is going to say, "don't read your Bible. it does not make you wise unto salvation"), though not in doctrine. I think the Reformation really addressed abuses of doctrine and corruption in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately what a huge mess of division we have on our hands right now.

Unknown said...

I just read Ben's comment on the "work of God" in Jn 6. So I stand corrected on that. Nevertheless, I think the NT definitely uses "believe" in the sense of "faith+action" from Jesus's own teaching.

Kyle Megenity said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am sincerely appreciative of this blog and the clarity to which you have expressed your thoughts.

I have read the books related to the topic justification by both Piper and Wright, including Wright's newest book "Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision". However, When reading Piper's "Counted Righteous in Christ", he proposes an interesting argument from Romans 5:15-17 for the imputation of Christ's Righteousness to which I haven't yet read a good response from Wright or other New Perspective proponents.

Piper states "notice, in the last half of verse 16, that the 'free gift' (which is the 'gift of righteousness' according to verse 17) results in justification: 'The free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.' This is crucial because it shows that there is a foundation for justification in 'the gift of [Christ's] righteousness.' We must not miss this: Justification is not 'the free gift' in verse 16. The free gift 'results in justification.'"

I am desperately trying to understand what Paul is actually saying here, especially from a New Perspective point of view. But Piper's argument seems to be persuading that the 'gift' is not 'justification', but 'imputed righteousness' which leads to justification.

Here's my question: What is the gift, if not imputed righteousness, and how does it factor into justification? Could you help me see this passage a bit clearer from a new perspective viewpoint?