A Justification Debate Long Overdue

A record crowd of more than 2,500 turned out in Atlanta this week for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, focused on “Justification By Faith.” The conference’s main event—three papers and debate over justification between New Testament scholars Frank Thielman, Tom Schreiner, and N. T. Wright—might be about three years too late to slow the spread of controversy over justification that has gripped evangelicals. Unfortunately, a planned face-to-face discussion between John Piper and Wright fell through when Piper took an extended sabbatical. But the novelty of pairing Wright on a panel with Schreiner, another key critic, still riveted an audience that enjoyed more than two hours of sustained debate over New Testament texts, Greek terminology, and ancient Near Eastern and Roman society.

Tom Schreiner

Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened the long-anticipated exchange by delivering a paper on Wednesday night called “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ.” He engaged in a direct and sustained critique of Wright, even as he labored to show common ground with the man he described as a groundbreaking thinker. He acknowledged that Wright is fundamentally correct that first-century Jews incurred the judgment of exile in the form of Roman oppression due to their sin. When Wright responded to Schreiner on Friday morning, he expressed surprise over their agreement on this point.

Schreiner also agreed with Wright that evangelicals who hold to sola scriptura recognize no other authority, including tradition, as final. But Schreiner identified three false polarities that he said Wright perpetuates:

  1. Wright argues that justification is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology.
  2. Wright says Israel’s fundamental problem was failing to bless the world. But Paul focuses on Israel’s inherent sinfulness.
  3. Wright contends that justification is a declaration of God’s righteousness but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

Supporting his first charge, Schreiner said justification is not identical to salvation, redemption, or sanctification. But the word appears in such contexts focusing on how we are saved, such as Romans 3:24 and Romans 4:6-8. Regarding his second point, Schreiner appealed to Romans 2 to show that the Jews’ sin was not primarily excluding Gentiles but rather failing to obey God and his law. Finally, Schreiner said it is strange that Wright maligns imputation when he admits God requires perfect obedience. Indeed, Paul would appear to teach imputation in such verses as 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. It is true, Schreiner agreed with Wright, that no human judge can give a guilty defendant his righteousness. But the law-court metaphor in Scripture should not be considered exhaustive. Indeed, its limitations at precisely this point should lead us to wonder in the gospel of God, who gave up his only Son for guilty sinners.

One Important Phrase, Several Intended Meanings

Frank Thielman

The second plenary address—delivered by Frank Thielman, Presbyterian professor of divinity at Beeson Divnity School—focused on Romans 1:16-17. Thielman offered a mediating position that suggested several intended meanings from Paul for the contested and consequential phrase “righteousness of God.” Original hearers, Thielman said, would have understand this phrase to refer to the saving activity and gift of acquittal from God on the basis of faith. They also would have understood that God is fair, even-handed, and equitable in the way he distributes salvation.

Thielman cited the first commentary on Romans, written by Origen, who spoke and wrote the same Greek language as Paul. Origen understood the apostle to teach that the “righteousness of God” means all, whether Jew or Gentile, may find salvation in the gospel. Thielman illustrated his point by citing several coins used in the Roman Empire. Nero, emperor during the end of Paul’s ministry, appeared on one coin with the word dikaiosune, which we translate in Scripture as “righteousness.” It would seem, Thielman said, that Nero seeks to portray himself not so much as just but equitable in how he distributes grain harvested in Egypt.

Is it really likely, though, that Paul would use one phrase and intend several meanings? Thielman said this practice was common in ancient writing. So Paul did in fact reveal in this famous passage that God counts believers acquitted, as Martin Luther realized. But the inspired apostle also taught that God is fair, and he powerfully rescues his people.


The Main Event

Probably the main attraction, though, was the Friday morning address by N. T. Wright, research professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University and the former bishop of Durham. For years now Wright has faced sustained criticism in the form of books, journal articles, and lectures from a number of the most prominent scholars in ETS. He jumped into the lion’s den in Atlanta with his paper, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Forever.” From the beginning, Wright displayed his characteristic blend of humor, charm, and wide-ranging intellect with an unrelentingly rapid speaking pace. He has indeed read his critics, but he hardly backed down at ETS. In fact, he seemed more than a little perturbed by the wide range of arguments leveled against his writing on justification. He called for a new ethic of Christian blogging and faulted believers for pulling his statements out of context and reaching false conclusions about his work.

N. T. Wright

In his preliminary remarks, Wright dealt directly with several of the most controversial charges leveled against him and by his defenders. He reasserted his Protestant credentials and said we need to allow Scripture to say things our human traditions have not said.  And he denied that any single person holding to the New Perspective on Paul has joined the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, he said critics who charge him with biblicism have no sense of irony and history; they are the real neo-Catholics. Wright made the case that the Reformers and his modern-day critics ask contemporary questions of Pauline texts, not the ones Paul actually addressed for the benefit of Jews and Gentiles gathered together in one church. Thus, Wright’s critics are the real modern-day demythologizers who abstract bits and pieces of Paul’s thought by tearing them from the original context.

One Big Story

True to form, Wright kept the big story in view as he analyzed specific passages. God’s plan to bless the world through humans was thwarted by the fall. Then he planned to rescue humankind through Abraham and his descendants. But they, too, failed. So God sent his Son, the Messiah of Israel, to announce that God’s kingdom had come with his life, death, and resurrection. Adam’s sin is the problem, Wright said, and God’s covenant with Abraham is the solution.

Known for weaving compelling biblical narratives, Wright rejected any claims that he distorts the meaning of passages by reshaping them to fit his big story. He willingly treated many of the most important verse from Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, and elsewhere. He complained that he continues to vainly search for serious treatments from his critics of Romans 4 as Paul’s exposition of the Abrahamic covenant. “Only by close attention to Scriptural context can Scriptural doctrine be Scripturally understood,” Wright said. Each element must be treated in light of the whole. But we derive our view of the whole by carefully interpreting each element.

Wright made numerous references to his critics and their works. But he referred to few by name. He disputed Simon Gathercole on Romans 4:4-8, which he said borrows the idea of reward from God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:1. He faulted the two-volume set Justification and Variegated Nomism—edited by D. A. Carson, Mark Seifrid, and Peter O’Brien—for not considering a crucial passage from the intertestamental Qumran literature that he says sheds light on Paul’s teaching.

During his paper, Wright did not, however, mention John Piper, originally scheduled to engage with him at ETS. But Wright clearly had him in mind. Piper has criticized Wright for undermining Christian assurance with his view on justification. In particular, Piper cites Wright teaching that final judgment will be on the basis of works. Indeed, Wright wrote in Paul: In Fresh Perspective:

The whole point about “justification by faith” is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3:26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2:1-16).

But Wright contends he does not mean what Piper and others believe he does. If doubts linger, however, Wright said that he believes final judgment will be in accordance with works—something Piper and Schreiner acknowledge from Romans 2:6—and not on the basis of works. Justification involves spiritual struggle, Wright said, and Christians should beware of antinomianism that neglects this teaching.

Wright appeared especially troubled by the charge that he wouldn’t know what to say to someone dying who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Wright said, “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and Lord of the world. That’s good news.” He would encourage someone dying to find eternal life by confessing the name of Jesus, the crucified and risen One, in whom we find healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and hope.

Irreconcilable Differences

During more than two hours of discussion that followed these papers, a number of differences remained irreconcilable. Schreiner said justification has ecclesiological implications, but contrary to Wright, he believes it is chiefly about the forgiveness of sins. Wright remains uncomfortable with describing righteousness as a gift, as if it can get passed around. Schreiner cautions against pushing the law-court metaphor hard, but Wright says Paul does just that in Romans 3. And Wright continues to believe that Schreiner and others fail to understand the significance of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 that God’s plan to save the world through Israel has not failed.

It’s too early to tell whether this week’s ETS meeting will fundamentally change the debate over justification. Wright ceded little if any ground to his critics. But he offered clarification for at least one of their chief concerns. He continued to disparage the Reformers, particularly Luther, for asking the wrong questions and missing Paul’s point. But Schreiner agreed with Wright that Protestants should privilege no tradition above God’s Word. Schreiner expressed sincere appreciation for Wright’s work. And Wright gave evidence simply by showing up in Atlanta that he takes his critics seriously. For that he and ETS and should be commended. This face-to-face debate was long overdue.

Listen to Al Mohler reflect on the justification debate at ETS:

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  • Bryan

    Is the audio of these lectures eventually put online by ETS?

  • James S

    My thoughts exactly, Bryan.

    These are the kinds of things that should be easily and freely available for everyone to see or at the very least, hear.

    If this is not going to be available, or available only for a fee, or through some other means that is not accessible by everyone (such as itunes), then that will be like saying this debate isnt really that important for christians spend time dealing with or understanding.

  • John Starke

    The audio from the society meeting can be purchased here:

    Unfortunately, the audio is not available for free.

  • http://www.andrewlisi.net Andrew Lisi

    Great recap for an event I wish I had been a part of in person. However, this all sounds eerily similar to how things went down at Wheaton earlier this year at the Theology Conference. Good critiques of Wright; Wright addressing them with wit, intelligence and rapid pace; presenting the big picture, a vague response, and not backing down; he felt misunderstood, that he wasn’t read well by his critics though he felt he had read them well. So I do wonder how much more talking over these things can be done. I agree the conversation is important, so am I giving up too early on this or are we beating a dead horse?

  • RonnieW

    $130 for the audio! You have got to be kidding me!!!

    • John

      The $130 is for the audio of all 500 papers given and all the plenaries. I’m sure individual talks will be made available once everything is finished. The society meeting just ended.

      • RonnieW

        Alright well I hope that the audio is free,considering it is a topic that is very important to all Christians.

  • Kip

    $130 is a joke … christians.

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  • https://hilltopbible.org Andy Kaiyala

    One thing that may be missed through all this. John Piper deemed it more necessary to say to his wife that she is precious (his stated purpose for taking the sabbatical)than it was to engage with NT Wright. He chose to stick to his guns and serve his family and his wife in a way that shows the sacrificial love and zealous commitment that Jesus has for His church, rather than come and engage in what is clearly the most important theological topic within modern evangelicalism. John Piper chose to trust Jesus Christ to work his sovereign will. Is there a lesson in that commitment and that discernment somewhere for all those who see themselves as “defenders of the faith” and who form the electronic cacophony?

    Jesus Christ will build His church. We do not by blogging until we drop defend that sovereign design. It may be possible that we participate in that sovereign design in a more meaningful way by being faithful stewards of the grace and mercy we have received in our own little insignificant (to the world, but not to God) circles.

    I continue to learn from Pastor Piper lessons that go far beyond the finer points of theological discourse (maybe they are grounded in those finer points?). I learn, from a distance, what it is to be a stout-hearted, humble, servant-minded, Jesus-loving man of God.

    Thank you John, and may God strengthen you in your resolve to bring God glory both by life and by death.


    • Russell K

      I’ve been pondering on this too.

      Valuable and refreshing point hidden in all this.

      Thank you.

  • http://contrast2.wordpress.com Brandon Adams

    Very disappointing

    1. The ETS annual meeting title was “Justification by Faith” not “Justification by Faith Alone”

    2. “he labored to show common ground with the man he described as a groundbreaking thinker” is hardly what Paul had in mind in his instructions for how to deal with those who distort the gospel Gal 2:4-5; 1:6-10;

    3. “Schreiner said justification is not identical to salvation” I don’t know the context of his comment, but Eph 2:5,8; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5 suggest otherwise

    4. “Schreiner agreed with Wright, that no human judge can give a guilty defendant his righteousness. But the law-court metaphor in Scripture should not be considered exhaustive. Indeed, its limitations at precisely this point should lead us to wonder in the gospel of God, who gave up his only Son for guilty sinners.” -What utter nonsense. Is that the best Christianity can do to refute Wright’s false gospel? Leave it as a mystery?

    • http://www.thekingandhiskingdom.blogspot.com Nick Mitchell

      ….and here we go again…

  • http://www.newnation.org.za Alastair Buchanan

    Thank you so much for providing this summary of this important debate. It is most helpful.

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  • http://crossviewchurchla.org PJ Tibayan


    You wrote: “But Wright contends he does not mean what Piper and others believe he does. If doubts linger, however, Wright said that he believes final judgment will be in accordance with works—something Piper and Schreiner acknowledge from Romans 2:6—and not on the basis of works.”

    This seems like a significant shift for Wright, or at least a significant clarification. In the article it didn’t seem to be as significant. Did that clarification/shift receive attention in the discussion?

    In Christ,

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  • Darren

    Maybe it would be helpful to many if TGC would run a blog series titled something like “What’s at Stake in the NP Debate.” The spectrum of response seems to run from calling Wright a heretic to blending his view in with Reformational thinking to complete agreement with his view and confusion why people have a problem with it.

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  • James S

    Thanks for answering whether the audio of these talks would be free or not.
    I’m probably alone in my thinking here, but as far as I’m concerned, any christian knowledge that is only available for a fee is gnosticism and nothing I need to concern myself with.

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

      You are.

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  • Adam

    As my grandfather once said, “Never trust a theologian with fuschia colored shirt.” I never knew what he meant by that until now.

    All kidding aside (kind of). I am curious…how bad can you jack up the doctrine of justification until you are no longer a Christian?
    MacArthur said on Wright at the T4G panel discussion talking about issues of justification, “It seems to me to be a very subtle deception to have a man who denies the doctrine of justification, affirm in such a huge volume…the resurrection. That lays the groundwork for a level of trust that is a deception.”

    MacArthur should be listened to on this one. Why are we so trusting of Wright when he affirms novel interpretations on such precious and core truths that the Lord died to create such as justification? Just because he wrightly (pardon the pun) affirms the resurrection doesn’t mean that he is not a dangerous deception on the doctrine of justification.

    Read Wright and his interesting interpretations of 2 Cor. 5:21. Let us all be more cautious and wary of him. Let the papers continue to be written until this fad (NPP) passes.

    • http://www.thekingandhiskingdom.blogspot.com Nick Mitchell

      What is so deceptive (and by using this language I get the impression you think of him as a false teacher) about Wright (and his interpretation of 2 Cor 5.21)? I don’t think that that passage clearly teaches “imputation” does that automatically make someone a heretic? He believes that we are righteous by virtue of our union with Christ. Just because he doesn’t want to use Reformed lingo doesn’t make him a “false teacher”, does it?

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  • http://www.dogmadoxa.blogspot.com Dane

    Thanks for this excellent re-cap, Collin.

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  • http://livestransforming.com Derek Wilder

    Good to see a serious debate continue over such a critical and commonly misunderstood topic that has such a direct influence on our daily walk. Unfortunately, covenant nomism appears to have a strong magnetic force on a humanity that desperately desires to elicit some attempt of control over the fear promulgated by the warnings of antinomianism. Paradoxically, however, Luther reminds us that a true understanding of justification must lead to obedience, and if not, the imputation has not been comprehended, thus, the fear becomes unwarranted.

  • James Krieg

    I was a bit disturbed by the statement,

    ‘God’s plan to bless the world through humans was thwarted by the fall. Then he planned to rescue humankind through Abraham and his descendants. But they, too, failed. So God sent his Son, the Messiah of Israel, to announce that God’s kingdom had come with his life, death, and resurrection.’

    If this is an accurate summary of what Wright said. It implies that humanity has been thwarting God’s sovereign plan, and the sending of Messiah was God’s third and (thankfully) successful attempt – His contingency ‘plan C’ in case his first two plans failed…

    It seems to me that as soon as we water down justification through faith alone, we also become fuzzy with the notion of God’s sovereignty. Is my final justification on the basis of faith – or is it ultimately on the basis of God’ free, sovereign, gracious choosing of me before the creation of the world?

    James (Adelaide, Australia)

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  • John

    Maybe an indication of Wright’s stature as a theologian was his admission during the debate that he wasn’t familiar with the phrase ‘positional sanctification’ and that he hadn’t seen this phrase in the scholarly works he had read!

  • http://www.citydomain.blogspot.com Ryan Donell

    How did we not get a good bootleg out of this? Have we learned nothing from the Dave Matthews Band fans? Shame! I repeat shame on us. And shame on me for not being there when I live so close to ATL. Shalom ya’ll.

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  • mark mcculley
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  • Jono

    I think there is a misunderstanding about his stance on future justification. Justification is a declaration about our changed status that comes after regeneration, which is a change in our condition by the indwelling of the Spirit made possible by the atonement. Faith is the evidence of regeneration-the fruit of the Spirit-which makes the declaration true and not a “legal fiction.” Faith is the evidence that the work of the cross has been applied to you. Justification declares that you are “in Christ,” not the means by which you become “in Christ.” Likewise, N.T. Wright is arguing that while perfection is the standard, that the declaration of future justification takes place following our final change of nature in the resurrection-where we will be like Him. Future justification is a declaration about complete restoration-the completion of regeneration through sanctification culminated in the resurrection. Future justification is a declaration about the completion of God’s work, which takes place after that completion. So he wants a clear distinction between atonement, application of atonement(regeneration completed through sanctification culminated in resurrection), and justification.

    To be fair to N.T. Wright everyone should read an article that clearly explains his position. http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Justification_Biblical_Basis.pdf

  • mark mcculley

    Wright is teaching an analytic justification. One way to avoid that is to see that regeneration is an immediate effect of justification and not its instrumental condition. Of course Piper and Schreiner don’t respond that way.

    We can and should make a distinction between the atonement and the application of the atonement in justification. We must avoid the idea of eternal justification, in which faith is only finding out what has always been true. But we don’t have to be Arminians to teach an objective change of status before God.

    Wright is not merely making a distinction between atonement and justification. He is making the Spirit’s work in us (the application) that which makes Christ’s death effective. In this, Wright is no different from most Arminian evangelicals who teach that Christ died for every sinner. The only difference is that Wright sees church water as that which begins to effect regeneration


    • Jono

      Thanks for the reply mark…I guess I am understanding Wright to make a distinction between regeneration and sanctification the same way that we would make a distinction between justification and sanctification. He would not argue against a objective change in status before God-he says that this is preceded by a change in condition which is preceded by the atonement. The imputation of God’s righteousness does not cause regeneration unless you say that righteousness=The Holy Spirit. So that it would be reversed: justification is an immediate effect of regeneration (being “in Christ” by the Spirit) and not its instrumental cause. Anyways…your thoughts?

  • mark mcculley

    Mark to Jono: I don’t think this is the place to talk about what we think of the order of salvation. I would be glad to talk to you over at my blog. My goal was to deconstruct the difference between being judged “according to works” and being judged “on the basis of works”. Schreiner and Piper might be happy with that revision, but it will not work. Those who are condemned are condemned both on the basis of works and according to works.

    Jono: the same way that we would make a distinction between justification and sanctification. He would not argue against a objective change in status before God-he says that this is preceded by a change in condition which is preceded by the atonement.

    mark: Which sanctification? If the change in status (justification) is preceded by a change in condition (regeneration, sanctification), then justification is not of the ungodly, even if that change in status is not a result of the changed condition. (Also, you seem to putting some words in Wright’s mouth.)

    jono:The imputation of God’s righteousness does not cause regeneration unless you say that righteousness=The Holy Spirit.

    mark: I deny that the righteousness is that done by the Spirit in us. The righteousness is Christ’s obedience to death. Righteousness causes regeneration; righteousness is not regeneration. You are confused if you think that I am saying the result of justification is the righteousness. Justification is the result of righteousness imputed.

    jono: So that it would be reversed: justification is an immediate effect of regeneration (being “in Christ” by the Spirit) and not its instrumental cause. Anyways…your thoughts?

    mark: I deny that the justified are in Christ by the Spirit. I deny that the Spirit puts the elect in Christ. Christ through the Spirit indwells those who are justified. Of course you are in the mainstream when you equate union in Christ with regeneration, but with Bruce McCormack I deny that order of salvation.

    To say that legal union in Christ effects regeneration is not to confuse the regeneration effect with the legal union. More at my blog.

  • mark mcculley

    Piper: I am not saying that there are distinct and uniform usages of the two phrases ej x e[ rgwn and kata; ta; e[ rga. The latter can carry the sense of “on the basis of” at times, though not always. Therefore, we must draw our conclusions concerning Paul’s understanding of the function of works in relation to justification not merely from the phrases themselves, but from the wider teaching of the apostle as well.

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  • http://finallyhuman.com Ian

    I’ve had a great respect for NT Wright since I saw him preach. I found him to be engaging, exciting and above all thrilled to be a participant in the Gospel. I found that very contagious about him. I reviewed his book ‘simply Christian’ and found it to be a seemingly contemporary version of ‘Mere Christianity’.

    On his ‘new perspective’ I’ve been very intrigued. I feel equally comfortable saying ‘I chose Jesus’ and ‘God saved me’ and so welcome the opportunity to expand my own view of the Gospel to say ‘I am part of God’s covenant community’.

    I find his teaching on works of faith to be somewhat similar to Bonhoeffer, who proposed that the work of faith is necessary to bring about saving faith, whilst it also is true that saving faith necessarily brings about Gospel works.

    Questioning what we think we understand about Paul is necessary, as it is necessary of all Biblical authors, but it does concern me that this discussion has become so public: There is potentially more at stake than the finer points of some obscure theology, and so see much of the discussion reduced to soundbites on Youtube makes me wary that people will swarm to a myopic view of the Gospel that they are most convinced by, rather than seeing the whole discussion in it’s proper, academic, context.

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