Interview With John Piper About The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright

[The following is an edited transcript of the audio.]

Bob Allen: John, you’ve focused quite a bit in recent years on the doctrine of justification. Now you’ve written an entire book on it, The Future of Justification.

Who is this book for? Is it for the same people who would pick up Desiring God and The Pleasures of God, or is this maybe for a different category of people?

John Piper: There’s going to be an overlap, but not everybody who has liked those books will want to read this. This book is dealing with controversy and it’s a response to a movement and a person that are fairly sophisticated. So I think the people who will come toward this book will be people who are in some way touched by the controversy surrounding justification in our day, by the New Perspective on Paul, by the role of the Law, or by the writings of N. T. Wright or James Dunn or E. P. Sanders.

That leaves out a lot of people who have read Desiring God. And I don’t in any way want to communicate that everybody should read this book. This book is written to a particular issue, a particular controversy because of how important I think it is. There will be a slice of people who will find it helpful—or at least find it provocative—and I think those are the people that are by and large the preachers and teachers and shapers of the theological lay of the land.

Bob Allen: As the title of your new book suggests, N. T. Wright is central to why you decided to write this book. Tell us a little about him for those who aren’t aware.

John Piper: N. T. Wright (N. T. stands for Nicholas Thomas) is a British New Testament Scholar and the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, which I think is probably the 3rd highest ranking bishopric in the Anglican church.

He is a voluminous writer. He’s written three major volumes in a 6-volume work on the New Testament and is regarded probably as one of the foremost New Testament Scholars in the world. And he has written popularly.

What makes him so significant, I think, is the combination of things that he brings. He’s an academic, weighty scholar; he has ecclesiastical leadership; he has a profound commitment to ecumenical involvement; he’s involved in prophetic, social statements and engagements—sort of a cutting-edge speaker on various things in that regard; he’s a popular Christian advocate; He’s written apologetics; he’s got musical talent—there’s a picture of him online playing a guitar; and he’s got a family that’s he’s raised. So what makes him so unusual is the combination of rigorous scholarship and very popular, winsome, eloquent way of speaking with an awareness, I think, of what the cutting-edge issues are in our day.

Bob Allen: There’s crisis that you see now in something N. T. Wright has been putting out there. Help us now to understand: Where is it that you feel like he’s made a wrong turn?

John Piper: Let me back up just a minute, if I can, to the bigger issue of justification before we go to his take on it. Just a word or two, because a lot of folks listening to this aren’t even sure what the term means.

This is my interpretation. Later we’ll get at whether he agrees with this. In the New Testament, justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side.

At that moment you are declared and constituted just, even though you’re ungodly. Romans 4:4 talks about the justification of the ungodly, and Romans 3: 28 says that “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

So that’s the general gist of the doctrine, and I regard it as a matter of life and death. Luther regarded it as the doctrine the whole church hangs on. It’s the moment and means by which we pass from being under the enmity of God to being under the favor of God, from being utterly unrighteous and damnable to being counted righteous in Christ by God so that he’s our father and he’s totally for us.

There’s what’s at stake—How do you move from being on the wrong side of God to the right side of God?

Paul said, “We were by nature children of wrath.” We Christians—even we elect Christians—were by nature children of wrath. And now we’re not under wrath anymore. Something happened.

Bob Allen: Where does N. T. Wright make a change to what you’ve just stated?

John Piper: Wright’s grasp—or expression—of the gospel itself does not include justification or a statement about how to be saved.

Let me read you a quote or two:

  • “The gospel’ itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.” (“Paul in Different Perspectives”)
  • For Paul, this imperial announcement was “that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead; that he was thereby proved to be Israel’s Messiah.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 46)

That’s great. That’s true and wonderful and glorious. He has defended the resurrection of Jesus, and I’m thankful for it. But then he says these sorts of things:

  • “‘The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is . . . the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ.” (133)
  • “Paul’s gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved.” (90)
  • “My proposal has been that ‘the gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved.’” (60)
  • “The gospel is not . . . a set of techniques for making people Christians.” (153)

Now, I find that misleading at best, because to declare the lordship of Jesus and say that’s the gospel, rather than the gospel being an explanation of how to be saved overlooks the problem that, for the person who has been in treason against the Lord of the universe all his life, the resurrection is not good news. It’s really bad news. He’s going to be destroyed if the resurrected Lord has all power in heaven and on earth.

How can that be that good news for him unless you begin to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death and what he achieved. What makes the resurrection good news is that now reconciliation with God can be enjoyed by faith, and you can move from being on the wrong side to the right side. All of that is a necessary explanation of what makes the resurrection of Jesus Christ “gospel.”

Wright’s view is a shift in emphasis. He believes in the death of Christ; he believes in the substitutionary atonement; he believes in penal substitution. But he is always backgrounding these things so that the universal lordship of Christ is foregrounded.
It’s the negations he makes that are so troubling, not his affirmations.

Here’s a few more illustrations of the sentences that, when I read them, I thought, he can’t mean this:

  • “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.” (125)
  • “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.” (119)
  • “[Justification] was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’” (119)

I think that is very wrong and very hurtful to the doctrine of justification, because he’s disconnecting it from the event by which we are saved, or by which we enter into favor with God. To me, that’s the main issue—at what point is God totally for me? Wrath was upon me before my conversion; wrath was upon me before I was in Christ by faith; after faith and union with Christ, wrath is no longer on me.

Justification, I believe, is the way the Bible describes that moment.. Justification is the act by which God says, “I no longer count you guilty. I count you as righteous with the righteousness of my son.” That’s a saving moment, clustered with the call. Wright sees our call as the only decisive saving moment. And I want to put with the call the work of God in justifying me.

Here’s another statement from Wright: “I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’” (132)

I just think that’s a devastating way to talk. He says,

If we come to Paul with these questions in mind—the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God—it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection—‘the gospel’ . . . is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit upon their hearts. (116)

I think it is devastating to say that when it comes to having a living and saving relationship with the Lord, justification does not come to Paul’s lips or pen. That is not only misleading and destructive, it’s just wrong.

The clearest example of how wrong it is is in Acts 13. Paul closes his sermon in Antioch with:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38–39, my translation).

So here he is bringing his sermon to a close—his gospel sermon in which he’s bringing people into an eternal relationship with god—and he brings it to a climax with justification.

So for N. T. Wright to say that justification does not come to Paul’s lips or pen when we ask him about how to find a living, saving relationship with God, I just say, No way. It’s not only misleading, it’s not true to the text and it’s going to hurt the church.

Bob Allen: Are there any other specifics in what N. T. Wright has been saying that also trouble you that you’d like to bring up before we get into some of that hurt to the church that you just referred to?

John Piper: There are four or five other things, but let me just mention one.

I’m concerned most especially about what he teaches about the role of the imputation of God’s righteousness in Christ to us and the imputation of the obedience of Jesus to us according to Romans 5:19.

Here’s what Wright says about imputation. (When I read it I thought, “I got to write a book about this.”)

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. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. . . . If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness’ . . . . But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense at all. (What Saint Paul Really Said, 98-99)

I almost titled this book Nonsense Happens, because he says, “That makes no sense at all.” But I knew that title would be misunderstood. People would think I was saying that I think everything N. T. Wright has written is nonsense, which I don’t believe in the least—he writes many amazing, helpful, glorious things. But this struck me as being very hurtful. To say that the imputation of God’s righteousness across the courtroom onto the defendant in union with Jesus Christ is nonsense is devastating.

There are other things that he has said that get my goat and I think are hurtful to the church, but that’ll be enough for this little introduction.

Bob Allen: What do you see as the damage to the church that could come from what N.T. Wright is saying here?

John Piper: Justification—being counted by God as righteous with the perfect obedience and righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to my account—is, I think, a key to the doctrine of assurance and a key to what it means to preach the Gospel. I don’t think we’ll preach the Gospel fully and faithfully if we don’t offer this gift in the preaching of the Gospel. And I don’t think we’ll help people who struggle with sin if we can’t point them backward to the moment of justification, when God moved from being against them to for the. So the Gospel seems to be at stake in how you preach it and how you offer salvation. And the ongoing enjoyment of fellowship with God is at stake.

Let me mention two other things. One is the glory of Jesus Christ and how we honor him. And the other is the ground or the foundation of our sacrificial acts of love.

N. T. Wright rightly so, really cares about the engagement of the church in the social issues of our day—from the environment to poverty. You name it, he’s there, and I’m saying Amen. And I think the way he deals with justification will undermine the very power that God is offering through justification to enable the Christian church to engage sacrificially with the injustices of the world.

I’m assuming, and I argue for it in more than one book, that the God we are to glorify—the Christ we are to glorify—is the one who justified us on the basis of his perfect sacrifice in our place (by taking our punishment) and his prefect obedience in our place (by living out our righteousness). So we have a perfect sacrifice; we have a perfect righteousness; and in union with him, by faith alone, we stand with God totally on our side.

In order for me to glorify God as I ought, I need to know that he is totally on my side on these bases—not mine. Christ is my sacrifice, Christ is my obedience. Now if you deny that Christ’s obedience is counted as yours, then when it comes to glorifying the Christ that you live for, you will only glorify him partially.

I think the New Perspective on Paul and other kinds of theologies flowing from it are giving God only part of the glory he deserves. They are missing the glory of Christ as our substitute obedience and our substitute sacrifice and punishment, and the glory that on the basis of those two things, we have God totally on our side.

So if we miss out on those aspects of God’s glory, we won’t worship him as we ought. He won’t get the glory that he should if we deny that he is the one who performed our obedience and that it’s imputed to us. The other thing that I believe this view of justification is damaging is this source and ground of obedience and love.

There’s a great irony here. N.T. Wright and others really want obedience to count—our obedience. We must do acts love, and to that I say Amen. There is an obedience without which we will not see the Lord, according to Hebrews 12:14. And there are things you do that you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven if you continue to do those things. And Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the things that I demand of you?”

So I’m saying, our obedience really counts; it really matters. The question is, how does it matter? What’s the function of my good works, my works of love, my acts of obedience at the last day when I’m judged? And how does it relate to my being right with God or God being totally for me right now?

I want to say it as clear as I can: the function of those necessary good works of love is not to move God to be totally for me. His being totally for me is what moves me to do those works. If we reverse that, we undermine the very power by which we can do the works. And I fear that’s what’s happening. Not intentionally—sometimes just because the language leans so hard in that direction.

N.T. Wright says things like we will be justified in the last day on the basis of the whole life lived. Now he may not mean what that sounds like it means. But it sounds like it means, and will be taken to mean, what Roman Catholicism really says it means, namely that justification is our becoming righteous ourselves, so that our acts of obedience are part of the ground by which God accepts us.

What I want to say is that at the moment when we put our childlike faith in Jesus Christ, he became our punishment and our obedience. That is, at that moment he became the obedience required for God to be totally for us.

The rest of our lives are lived to show the glory of that Christ. If we begin to describe our obedience in a way that it becomes a competitor with the obedience of Christ as the basis of how God is for me, then we undermine the sufficiency of what Christ did for us. And if that gets undermined, then the ground and the power of our obedience are destroyed in the long run.

Therefore, the very thing that N.T. Wright and others are wanting to accomplish, namely an engaged, bold, loving, sacrificial, mission-oriented church will cease to be that, just like the mainline churches have ceased to be dynamic forces in the world, because they threw away the essence of certain crucial doctrines. You don’t see it now, because N.T. Wright himself is such a good embodiment of engagement, but I’m saying that some of the things he says have the trajectory that if they’re followed out, are going to in fact undermine the very thing he wants to accomplish, namely, a sacrificially loving church.

So that’s what’s at stake. It’s a huge issue for me, and I hope the book will have some influence on him to get him to say some things better and more clearly. And I hope it will have influence on those who are reading him, so that they are not as inclined to follow his way of thinking about justification as they might have been.

Bob Allen: Where is it that you’re trying to preserve the doctrine of justification from moving?

John Piper: I want to prevent the reality of justification from moving off of the point where I become a Christian. I want to keep it right there, because that’s where I believe the Bible locates it. I become a Christian by what happens in the event of justification. That’s the first thing.

I want to keep justification from moving off of the basis of Christ’s death and obedience. And I want to keep the doctrine of justification from moving off of the imputation of that obedience to me by faith alone in union with Jesus Christ, so that my confidence in God being totally for me is resting not in what I do, but in what Christ did.

And I want to keep the doctrine of justification from moving as the foundation on which I stand when I risk my life to bless people. Because I think that’s what we all want—we want live in a way that exalts Christ and blesses people. If we don’t keep the doctrine of the imputation of the obedience of Christ right there in the center of the basis of God being totally for us, we will begin to offer our obedience as the basis of why we are right with God, and that will turn things totally upside-down.

It’s that he’s for me totally that enables me to obey, not that I obey that makes him totally for me. We have to preserve that for the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the gospel.

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