Tag Archives: Justification

One Degree of Glory to Another: Andy Davis on Growing Toward Christ

God saves us for his glory and then calls us to live for his glory.

Okay, but how? What does a God-pleasing life look like? Is he happy because of what we do, or is he happy because of what Jesus has done? What’s the relationship between justification and sanctification, and why does it practically matter?

In his thick new book, An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christikeness, Andrew Davis explores our growth in grace from a wide array of angles. The result is a lucid, compelling survey of Scripture’s teaching on an all-embracing, all-important topic.

I corresponded with Davis, a Council member of The Gospel Coalition and pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, about the Christian journey, lopsided emphases, introspection, and more.


“The modern evangelical movement has been far more concerned about evangelism than about discipleship,” you observe. What’s been the practical fallout of such an unequal emphasis?

God has set before the church two infinite journeys—the internal journey of sanctification (by discipleship), and the external journey of evangelism/missions. These two journeys are completely interdependent—symbiotic. We grow most in sanctification when we’re actively involved in evangelism/missions, and we’re increasingly effective in evangelism/missions the more conformed we are to Christ. So no Christian or church can focus on one over the other and remain healthy for long.

The long-term effects of evangelical churches being numbers-driven and focused on immediate decisions has been the immaturity and the susceptibility of many to worldliness, the lack of perseverance in evangelism/missions when trials come, and the intolerance for the meat of the Word. If not corrected, this immaturity will ironically result in these same churches forsaking both journeys—neither growing in spiritual maturity, nor winning souls to Christ.

Is justification more dependent on grace than sanctification?

God has ordained a full salvation from sin that passes through stages—regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. The entire salvation is by grace alone, all of it blood-bought by our Savior. Both justification and sanctification are all of grace, but that grace produces different effects in those being saved. In justification, grace produces faith and repentance, but no works. In sanctification, this grace produces faith and repentance, and Spirit-empowered works. But the works of sanctification, though done by the Christian, are wrought ultimately by Christ through the Spirit—which is to say, 100 percent by grace. Paul says powerfully, “I worked harder than everyone; yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5). God works in us to will and do his good purpose (Phil. 2:13). God set up salvation both to humble us and also to bring us endless joy.  So justification and sanctification are ultimately equally by grace.

What’s the relationship between justification and sanctification/Christian living? 

Understanding the differences between justification and sanctification is vital to Christian maturity. In justification, we must not work, only believe (Rom. 4:5). In sanctification, our works are essential to our progress (Phil. 2:12-13; Rom. 8:13-14). A lot of this answer comes down to skill in teaching/preaching. We have to continue laying a foundation of Christ’s finished work on the cross as the ground under our feet for making daily progress, for pressing on to perfection as Paul says (Phil. 3:12). To forget the one results in legalism, trying to finish by the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Gal. 3:3). To forget the other results in license, neglecting the clear commands to grow in holiness. Ultimately, we much teach a sequence of our perfect standing in imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:5, Phil. 3:9) followed by a practical righteousness that comes gradually by grace-empowered habitual obedience (Rom. 6:19).

I know I must be holy in order to go to heaven, but isn’t Jesus my holiness? Isn’t his obedience enough for both of us?

Perfect righteousness is required for entrance into heaven (Matt. 5:48), and that righteousness is credited as a gift by faith in Christ alone. When we are lying in the ICU, laboring to breathe on our final day, we will cling by faith to Christ’s righteousness alone. We will be clothed then (as we are now) in a perfect righteousness given by God, a righteousness Jesus earned by every moment he lived perfectly in the body under the law of God (Gal. 4:4). Our best day of sanctification is insufficient for the pure and holy eyes of God (Hab. 1:13). In everything we do for the Lord there is, as Richard Sibbes put it in his classic The Bruised Reed, a mixture of both smoke (imperfection) and fire (grace). Everything must be purified. Christ’s imputed righteousness is necessary and sufficient for judgment day. It’s a gift of grace.

Nevertheless, Romans 6-8 make it plain that every genuine Christian, having been justified by grace through faith, then receives the gift of the indwelling Spirit and is led into battle against the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13-14). If we are not led into that battle, we are not justified. But justification righteousness is our perfection, and in that we will stand on judgment day.

What’s the difference between introspection and self-examination, and what’s dangerous about getting the two confused?

Paul commanded the Corinthians to examine themselves to be certain they were in Christ (2 Cor. 13:5). Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Both are essential to a healthy walk with Christ. We must continually look to our Savior, and not lean on our own righteousness. But we need to make certain the Spirit is producing fruit in our lives. John 15:1-8 makes it plain that, without fruit, we aren’t truly grafted into the vine (Christ) and therefore aren’t truly his disciples.

Our ultimate focus must be on Jesus. If we’re too focused inwardly, it’s easy to become arrogant (if we like what we see) or depressed (if we don’t). We need to see ourselves clearly and biblically—positionally righteous, but still in need of much growth to be conformed to Christ.

The Bible includes exhortations that appeal to a wide range of motivations. As a pastor, how do you determine when it’s time to counsel someone to particularly (not exclusively) (1) run to the cross; (2) run away from sin; or (3) run for the crown? 

The commands of God are wide-ranging, complex, and crafted for every circumstance the universal body of Christ will ever experience throughout redemptive history. Not every command applies to every person at every moment. Pastors need special wisdom not to misdiagnose the spiritual condition of their sheep. If one must “run to the cross” because she’s unconverted, then the pastor must clearly proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected. If one is already converted but struggling with besetting sin, the pastor must diagnose that spiritual condition and apply exhortations (say, from Romans 6-8) to put sin to death by the Spirit. If one is converted and not living in sin, he must be exhorted to run the race for the glory of God, storing up treasure in heaven by good works. A skillful pastor will know the “marks” of each of these conditions and make them plain to the sheep. I like to use a “if the shoe fits, wear it” approach, describing various heart states and their dangers/remedies so that believers can take the best medicine.

Justification and Sanctification: What’s the Problem?

The relationship between justification and sanctification—between being pronounced righteous in a moment and being made righteous over a lifetime—is delicate, complex, and altogether crucial to grasp.

“Sanctification is always properly built on justification,” says Bryan Chapell in a new roundtable discussion with Kevin DeYoung and Rick Phillips. Still, he explains, we can make two mistakes concerning what motivates our obedience—denying either a plurality of motivations on the one hand or a priority of motivations on the other.

“We’re never in danger of talking about grace too much,” DeYoung insists. “But we can talk about grace in a truncated, reductionistic way.” We must take great care, then, to deal faithfully with the Bible’s multiplicity of motivations, resisting the tendency to flatten certain texts, while at the same time never becoming “suspicious of grace.”

Phillips cautions against rhetoric that suggests sanctification is a “tag on” to justification—little more than “being excited about justification.” Rather, he says, sanctification is a “twin grace with justification, each resulting from union with Christ.” Though not separable, each of these graces is a distinct aspect of Christianity’s gloriously good news.

Watch the full 10-minute video to hear these three pastors and TGC Council members discuss overcorrection, contextualizing warnings, and more.

Sanctification from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Proper Passion: A Lesson from Trent

Christian passion—the fervency to pursue the purposes of Christ over our own—is an enviable quality. In fact, looking back over two millennia of church history, we recognize it to be a common trait among those who have been used by God to advance his kingdom: we can hear it in their voices, observe it in their actions, and see it in their eyes. Passion is unmistakable.

It is possible, however, for passion to become a liability. Indeed, unbridled passion may spin out of control and inadvertently frustrate the purpose for which it was intended. When this happens, we allow our temperaments to usurp the gentle leading of God’s Spirit, which in turns spawns sins such as impatience, harshness, and even anger.

To shed light on the dynamics of Christian passion, I tell the story of Sanfelice, a 16th-century Catholic bishop who presided at the Council of Trent. Sanfelice, a zealous advocate of justification by sola fide (faith alone), allowed his passion for the doctrine to overtake his pastoral discretion. Sharing this unusual episode of the council from its historical location in northern Italy, I encourage fellow believers to embed our passion in the ethics of Christian humility and love.

Christian Passion: A Lesson from Trent from Chris Castaldo on Vimeo.

You Asked: Why Is Faith Not a Work?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Edward B. from England asks,

Why is faith not a work? If we are obligated to have faith before righteousness can be credited to us (Romans 4), how is faith not a work? I recognize that Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that we are saved by faith not through works, but I don’t quite understand how to reconcile faith not being a work if we are required to have it in order to be saved.

We posed this question to Matthew Barrett, assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. His most recent book is Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (P&R, 2013). He is the author of several other forthcoming books, which you can read about at matthewmbarrett.com.


Let’s begin with an analogy. When you walk into a dark room, what comes first, the appearance of light or turning on the light switch? As we perceive things, they seem to happen simultaneously. However, does one cause and logically precede the other? Absolutely. We all know that turning on the light switch brings about brightness in the room, not vice versa. The same is true in initial salvation. In Scripture, faith does not cause or bring about the new birth, but God’s effectual call and the Spirit’s work of regeneration produces faith and repentance.

To begin, we must remember that the unbeliever is pervasively depraved and therefore totally passive. Paul’s description is sobering: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1). Therefore, spiritual resurrection is needed. We are like Lazarus, four days dead, lifeless, and rotting away in the tomb (John 11:17). Only the life-creating words of Christ can awaken our dead soul. Or to switch analogies, we need to be born again, or born from above, as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:3-8). Notice, birth is not a cooperative effort; the child is passive. He can take no credit in being born. Likewise, spiritual birth is completely and entirely the work of God.

As I demonstrate in Salvation by Grace, when God calls his elect, he does so effectually (e.g., John 6:37, 44, 65; Rom. 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Eph. 4:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). And when the Spirit awakens new life in the spiritually dead sinner, he does so unfailingly and irresistibly, apart from the sinner’s cooperation (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; 32:39-40; Ezek. 11:19-21; 36:26-37; John 3:3-8; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Eph. 2:1-7; Col. 2:11-14; Titus 3:3-7; 2 Cor. 4:3-6; 1 John 5:1). In short, God’s sovereign work of effectual calling and regeneration bring about the sinner’s trust in Christ, not vice versa. What does this mean for our faith? Its inception does not originate within us.

Faith Is a Sovereign Gift from God

At this point, it might be tempting to think that effectual calling and regeneration are God’s work, while faith is our work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faith itself is a sovereign gift from God, and not merely one that he offers to us, hoping we will accept, but something he actually works within us. To quote my favorite Puritan divine, John Owen, “The Scripture says not that God gives us ability or power to believe only—namely, such a power as we may make use of if we will, or do otherwise; but faith, repentance, and conversion themselves are said to be the work and effect of God.” In other words, God produces not only the will to believe, but the act of believing itself. 

For example, in Acts 13 Paul preaches the gospel in Antioch. However, many Jews, filled with jealousy, revile Paul. In response Paul makes an astonishing proclamation: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (13:46). Suddenly, the Gentiles break out in rejoicing and gladness: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48). Notice, the text does not say “as many as believed were appointed to eternal life.” Rather, Luke explains that God’s election or appointment determined who would and would not believe. God, not man, determines who will and will not believe in Christ, and until God regenerates the sinful heart of man, he will not respond in faith and repentance (cf. Acts 2:37; 16:14; 18:10). Yes, we repent and believe, but we do so only because God has previously appointed us to eternal life and has, at the appointed time, caused us to repent and trust in his Son (cf. John 8:47; 10:26).

And consider Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Or as the NASB translates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” As many have observed, “this” and “it” in the Greek do not refer specifically to faith as the gift Paul has in mind, for “faith” is feminine while “that” is a neuter pronoun. If Paul meant to say faith is a gift he would have placed the pronoun in the feminine. Likewise, the same principle applies with the word “grace,” which is also feminine in gender.

Nevertheless, we still must ask ourselves, what in Ephesians 2:8 is the antecedent of “that” (“this” in the ESV)? Paul is referring to the gift of salvation in its totality. Therefore, every aspect of salvation is by grace alone. What then should we make of “faith”? Sam Storms answers, “That faith by which we come into experiential possession of what God in grace has provided is as much a gift as any and every other aspect of salvation. One can no more deny that faith is wrapped up in God’s gift to us than he can deny it of God’s grace.”

Likewise, consider Philippians 1:29-30: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” According to Paul, God, in his sovereignty, bestows suffering. But not only is suffering a gift, Paul also says belief (faith) in Christ is a gift as well. The wording is essential, for Paul specifically says “it [belief] has been granted.” “Granted” (echaristhē) means to give freely and graciously. As Thomas Schreiner observes, it is the same word from which grace is derived. It does not mean, as our English language assumes so often, reluctance or mere permission on God’s part. Rather, God grants belief or faith in Christ to those whom he has chosen.

Last, we cannot forget 2 Peter 1:1: Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Is it by man’s will that faith is obtained? At first glance, that might appear to be the case. But in reality, Peter assumes just the opposite. When Peter refers to obtaining faith he is speaking of a gift that we receive from God and by God’s choice. “What is of paramount importance here,” Sam Storms says, “is the word translated ‘have obtained’ or ‘have received.’ It is related to a verb that means ‘to obtain by lot’ (see Luke 1:9; John 19:24; Acts 1:17). Thus, faith is removed from the realm of human free will and placed in its proper perspective as having originated in the sovereign and altogether gracious will of God.”

Divine Work

We do not want to deny that faith is an act of believing on the sinner’s part. However, faith is ultimately a divine work, not a human work. As John Calvin states in his Institutes, “Faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack” (3.13.5). Herman Bavinck is just as insightful: “He indeed grants us the capacity to believe and the power of faith but also the will to believe and faith itself, not mechanically or magically, but inwardly, spiritually, organically, in connection with the word that he brings to people in various ways.”

In summary, while many other texts could be explored, these passages demonstrate that saving faith is sovereignly granted to the sinner and effectually applied within him. Therefore, we dare not call this initial faith in conversion a “work,” lest we attribute to ourselves what should truly be credited to God. As we reflect on our conversion to Christ, we do not boast in ourselves, but give God, and him alone, all of the glory, praise, and honor.

Was Jonathan Edwards Slippery on Justification?

Jonathan Edwards enjoys rockstar status among many evangelicals. After all, the 18th-century pastor from Northampton, Massachusetts, is arguably the greatest theologian America has ever produced. But when you dig deeply into his writings, you might quietly wonder, Was Edwards heterodox on the crucial issue of justification? Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Crossway, 2012), edited by Josh Moody, is a new book intended to explore this controversial question from an array of angles.

I corresponded with Moody, senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, about Edwards’s views on the subject, how Edwards conceived of the relationship between justification and sanctification, the risky beauty of creativity, and more.


What are some popular misconceptions about Edwards’s view on justification?

Where to start! In general terms, Edwards tends to be seen through the lens of his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and this has the effect of distorting people’s view of Edwards if their understanding of that sermon isn’t encased in grace. In particular, people tend to think Edwards’s doctrine of justification is either heterodox (risqué, on the edge of diverging from the traditional view) or thoroughly traditional in every way. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between, though it’s hard work to locate exactly where that truth lies. Edwards’ doctrine of justification was traditional in the sense that he held to the Protestant Reformed standard of biblical interpretation on the matter, but as was typical for Edwards in many areas of his work, he was more than willing to express that position with creativity according to his own lights.

Why are we, as you put it, “especially rewarded” by studying what Edwards thought about justification?

I think Edwards helps shape the doctrine of justification in ways that address some of the critiques of the traditional view without moving one inch from what I understand to be the biblical view. I suspect that at a theological level, in that crossover space between the pastoral and the academic, few matters in recent years have achieved more attention than justification. While some of the heat has probably dissipated, the debate has positioned us to see with better clarity the light regarding Edwards’s approach to justification.

Why did Edwards speak in terms of an “infusion” of righteousness? Hadn’t the Westminster divines decried this language a century earlier?

Yes, they had, but Edwards was always willing to “push the envelope” a little and employ language in his own way for his own purpose. As you say, that was a century or so before Edwards and in a very different context, though of course the language would be familiar to all those in Edwards’s “camp.” I address this matter at some length in the book, but in broad strokes Edwards is tackling one of his major bugbears at the time, which wasn’t so much latent Roman Catholicism but Deism and what he called Arminianism—generally speaking, the rationalizing effects of the Enlightenment. So by using this language, Edwards, as his “Miscellanies” and elsewhere make clear, is referring to regeneration, the divine and supernatural light, and the reality of Christ in us. In essence, he’s placing the discussion of justification in the context of Galatians 2:20, and that’s a helpful thing to do.

What prevents Edwards’s undeniable creativity from rendering him heterodox on justification?

He is not “creative” with the doctrine; he is creative with how he expresses it to answer the questions of his day. Those who are looking for someone just to repeat ad infinitum the form of words of the past will always find Edwards a little uncomfortable, if not confusing. But those who are glad that you can have a brain and employ it while still being a “sound” Christian will rejoice in the unusual gifts God gave Edwards.

For Edwards, what’s the relationship between justification and sanctification/Christian living? 

Generally speaking, I would say that for Edwards the “fruit” of Christian living is a result of the “seed” of the gospel being accepted by faith alone. Sanctification is a necessary sign of having been converted. Basically Edwards takes this teaching of Jesus (fruit and tree in the Sermon on the Mount), of Paul (fruit of the Spirit in Galatians), and of the English Puritans (who used it extensively in their pastoralia as they were famed “doctors of the souls”) and applies it to assessing the at-the-time highly controversial movement of the Great Awakening. That’s what all the books (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of GodReligious Affections, etc.) and sermons on assessing revival are basically about.

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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Justification’s Double Liberation

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” –Lam. 3:24

Our tendency in our evangelical universe is to articulate justification by faith alone morally, for the past (conversion) and future (entrance into heaven), without applying the soothing salve of justification emotionally and psychologically, for the present. We embrace Christ for forgiveness of sins but move on to other ideas and strategies when it comes to our emotional life and the daily pressures that do not lie directly in the “moral” realm. This is a great mistake and a recipe for worried, half-hearted Christians, dabbling their toes in an ocean of grace, thinking they’ve hit bottom.

When sinners are justified, however, two (organically linked) liberations wash into their life. The first and more obvious liberation is moral. The second liberation is emotional and psychological.

To be sure, these are two interlocking facets of a single gift. Yet it is easy to embrace the former and neglect the latter, as my own heart has been discovering over the past 22 months (under the tutelage of Martin Luther, Herman Bavinck, G. C. Berkouwer, and Paul Zahl).

The second liberation is more subjective and more slippery. Rescued sinners bring to their new life in Christ a host of latent emotional lifelines onto which their affections have latched—relationships, skills, bank accounts, sexual stimulation, a reputation, a salary, a golf swing, a sense of humor, an education, affection from children, affection from parents. These have provided psychological stability. Often one lifeline in particular is the lifeline of all lifelines. As long as we have this, we know we’re okay.

Transposed onto biblical categories, it is by this that we sought to be “justified.” This provided the security about which our heart of hearts has whispered to us, “If all of life unravels around you, at least you’ll still have _________.” It was a final retreat, a felt lifeline to emotional sanity. Whether familiar with the tune and words or not, every human heart fills in the first stanza of the hymn—“When ____________, it is well with my soul”—with something.

We must continue to clarify in our churches and books and preaching and conferences and blogs how alarmingly easy it is, operationally, to swallow the first liberation without the second. We embrace God’s free forgiveness of sins yet go on funneling our affections and emotions into our old felt securities—what the Bible calls idols. We rest assured of our ultimate destiny; but the internal frenetic scurrying continues in the meantime. The old lifelines lined up in the heart continue to function as psychological nicotine when life’s pressures rise.

This miserable half-liberation manifests itself in any number of ways—seminary students finding their emotional security in academic performance; businessmen finding psychological stability through profits; pastors assuring themselves of the legitimacy of their ministry through congregational favor; mothers undergirding their sense of worth with obedient children; church planters silently validating themselves through growing attendance. Each is a question of securing that elusive sense of “okayness,” of justification. More subtle than deliberate; more sub-conscious than self-conscious; more emotional than moral. But justification nonetheless.

The knife that severs these functional lifelines onto which the heart is latched is the gospel, returned to daily, tenaciously. For Jesus is the one person who ever lived who was, from the womb, “okay.” “Justified.” And on Calvary he allowed himself to be made un-okay, to be condemned, so that you and I can walk into every class, every business deal, every pulpit, every parenting endeavor, every church plant, every anxiety-generating real-life situation, already justified. Not only morally, but emotionally. Not only for the past and the future, but for the present.


Ligonier Ministries has done the church a great service by aggregating helpful resources on the doctrine of Justification and the New Perspective on Paul. From Ligonier:

For the past few decades, a paradigm shift in New Testament scholarship has led some researchers to question whether the church has rightly understood first-century Judaism and the apostle Paul. In the name of a “New Perspective on Paul,” certain men are calling for a reassessment of the traditional Pauline understanding of the doctrine of justification, the nature of good works, and other elements essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Prominent among these figures is N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham and theologian who in his voluminous writings is demanding a new reading of Paul, even claiming that the Protestant Reformers misunderstood the apostle.

These accusations cannot be easily brushed aside, for they strike at the heart of our entire understanding of salvation. With an aim to analyze the merit of Wright’s claims and expose both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, the editors of Tabletalk magazine have put together this collection of tools to help Christians discern the errors behind the approach of N.T. Wright. It is our hope that you will find these resources helpful in understanding the biblical doctrine of salvation and for making an informed assessment of the work of Wright and other New Perspective thinkers.

Check out the resources here. Thank you, Ligonier!