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Piper’s chapter analyzing the lenses through which Wright looks at justification (Covenant and Law-court) is  important for understanding the criticisms that he will soon level against Wright’s theology. Piper rightly understands that a substantial, fair critique of N.T. Wright must do justice to the overarching framework that provides the structure to Wright’s theological outlook.Wright sees God’s covenant with Israel as the dominant concept for understanding Paul and justification. Piper enters into Wright’s covenantal “world” in order to give a fair critique from the inside. That is what this chapter is all about.

First, Piper takes issue with Wright’s view that justification is simply a declaration of the salvation event. For Wright, the effectual call to salvation and the act of justification may take place in the same instant, but the terms “call” and “justification” refer to two separate activities.

Piper doesn’t think this division in terminology holds up under intense scrutiny. He provides a couple of examples where Wright’s definition of justification doesn’t seem to fit (40-41) and appeals to other texts that seem to indicate that justification not only declares salvation, but also establishes salvation in some sense (42-43).

Piper’s conclusion?

“Wright seems to have things backward: first covenant membership, then justification. In fact, justification is part of the ground, not the declaration, of saving covenant membership.” (43)

The next section features Piper defending Wright’s desire to hold together both covenantal and law-court imagery. Interestingly enough, Piper takes on Wright’s critics here, as he quotes the Bishop over and over again regarding the importance of social and political redemption and personal forgiveness of sins (44-46).

Piper doesn’t take issue with Wright’s understanding of the global effects of salvation. He believes that Wright’s “gospel” (that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead) is insufficient because it fails to explain why or how that is good news for people (46).

In other words, Piper and Wright are agreed on the gospel message and its effects, but the two scholars are looking at the gospel from two different perspectives. Piper is looking at the gospel as primarily about the salvation of individual sinners, which has as an effect the restoration of the entire cosmos. Wright is looking at the gospel as primarily the restoration of the entire cosmos, which includes the personal salvation of individual human beings. (See diagram above.)

There is a danger in both ways of viewing the gospel. Piper’s way of viewing the gospel could lead us to so emphasize personal conversion and the salvation of individuals that we forget the cosmic implications of the lordship of Christ which are manifested politically and socially. If we negate the cosmic effects of the gospel, we truncate the message and leave the Caesars (idols) of the world on their thrones.

On the other hand, Wright’s view of the gospel could lead us to so emphasize the cosmic implications of the gospel that we devote all of our time and energy to politics, social work, and philanthropy and leave little room or passion in our outlook for personal salvation, evangelistic activity and bold proclamation of the gospel for individual sinners. If we negate the personal, individualistic aspect of the gospel, we neuter the message by failing to call individuals to repentance and faith.

We needn’t choose between the personal and cosmic gospel. We need both dimensions. Thankfully, Piper and Wright agree that the gospel includes both these dimensions. But I would suspect that they would also argue that the primary lens through which we view and preach the gospel should be either personal or cosmic.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 5: Covenant and Law-Court”

  1. RonH says:

    This point is a key one in understanding the differences between Piper and Wright. To oversimplify: I think that for Piper “the Gospel” is primarily the answer to Luther’s question, “How can I find a gracious God?” For Wright, the question is primarily “How is God putting the world to rights?”

    Obviously, “the Gospel” is the right answer to both questions. But if it were a Jeopardy clue, these two gentlemen would give different responses.

  2. trevinwax says:

    Insightful points, Ron.

    I think you are right. Both men are asking different questions. Both questions are right and both need to be asked. And the great thing is that the gospel does answer both.

  3. Great post!
    Christians in America need to learn from Piper and Wright in respect to their understanding of “salvation history.” What the church needs is a fresh reading of the Gospel and Jesus’ message, a good grasp of Paul’s theology, and its implications for the church today. To me, the church in America emphasizes more efficiently the salvific aspect of salvation, while undermining and neglecting its social and political effects. That includes, Christians’ interaction with the social and political order, our understanding of people whom we live next to and how we relate to other individuals. The Gospel of Christ embraces and has serious implications for the individual’s salvation and cosmos restoration (i.e. sociology, politic and anthropology). The difficult task is for the Christian to incorporate these matters in our daily life.

    It is also noteworthy to mention that those who have emphasized/want to focus on the social and political function of the Gospel are simply labeled as “liberal christians” by some evangelicals. I will not be surprised if some will take Wright’s view of salvation as liberal.

    Blessings in Christ,

  4. Ted Hans says:

    On this one i am with Piper – Was the earth not cursed because of Adams sin and according to Romans 8 is the whole creation not awaiting the full redemption of the sons of God? Sure there is a comic side to redemption but Pipers model here is closer to the bible than Wright.

    I agree that both questions are right and both need to be asked but first things first.

  5. daniel says:

    I don’t know about Piper’s questions when approaching his study of Paul, but I believe Wright’s questions may be something other than “How is God setting the world to rights?”

    Wright is quoted in a review of his book “Paul in Fresh Perspective” as saying that for him there is “no more stimulating exercise for the mind, the heart, the imagination, and the spirit, than trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him”.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that this suggests that Wright’s questions tend toward “What was Paul thinking?”, “Why did he say that…in that way….at this point?”, “Why quote that OT passage at this point in his argument?” and so forth.

    Again, I may be wrong but I think these questions are what lead him to ask “How is God putting the world to rights?”

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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