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46.gifChapter 3 of The Future of Justification represents John Piper’s first significant area of disagreement with N.T. Wright’s theology. Piper seeks to fairly represent the building blocks of Wright’s theology of justification and righteousness. He quotes Wright extensively at the beginning, especially Wright’s words about justification being primarily the final justification at the Last Day (57-58).

Piper sees Wright’s contention that justification in Pauline usage is always final justification as “too sweeping.” He then quotes Wright on what “righteousness” means in this Last-Day lawcourt.

The question surfaces: Is N.T. Wright a modern-day Martin Luther? After all, if Wright is correct on the definition of righteousness, then 1500 years of Christian theology have been terribly misguided. Piper appreciates that Wright hopes to stand in the Reformation stream of questioning tradition by appealing to the text (61). But Piper gently points out how the Reformers sought to show that the early Church Fathers agreed with their interpretation, something that Wright does not do.

Piper’s main critique deals with Wright’s definition of righteousness as “covenant faithfulness.” Piper believes that Wright’s definition is reductionistic.

“Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God does not go to the heart of the matter, but stays at the level of what divine righteousness does rather than what it is. (62)”

Piper affirms what Wright affirms. Righteousness is God’s faithfulness to the covenant, his impartiality, his dealing with sin, and his helping the helpless. But Piper wants to go further than Wright in actually defining what righteousness is in its essence, not merely its actions.

Piper wants to ask the question he believes Scripture demands we ask: What is it about God’s righteousness that inclines him to act in this way?

What follows is a very Piper-esque definition of righteousness:

“The essence of the righteousness of God is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name. And human righteousness is the same: the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God. (64)”

Piper-esque though it may be, this definition is closer to the biblical understanding of righteousness than Wright’s. Piper trots out several Old Testament texts containing Hebrew parallelisms which back up his definition (64-66). He then argues that Paul himself saw righteousness in these terms. At one point, he lists a text where he sees Wright himself backing away from his reduced definition because Piper’s fits so much easier (68).

One of the reasons I enjoy reading N.T. Wright is because he never allows the “gospel” to be narrowed down to just me and God and my personal salvation. He insists we see the gospel in all its glorious manifestation and makes the pale, truncated gospel of evangelicalism look as pitiful as it often is.

That’s why I am all the more surprised that Wright has rejected what is essentially a more robust, glorious definition of “righteousness.” Piper has not argued against what Wright says righteousness does. He has zoomed in like a laser beam and exposed the reductionistic definition of righteousness in Wright’s theology. He is arguing essentially that Wright doesn’t go far enough, doesn’t go deep enough. I believe Piper’s critique is valid.

This sets the stage for the next chapter – where Piper tackles Wright’s denial of imputation…

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog


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6 thoughts on “Future of Justification 7: Defining "Righteousness"”

  1. Stephen says:

    I think it is important to remember that for Bishop Wright it is important to stay with the text and understand the words in that text, whatever that word, in its contextual relationship, both in the immediate text and at large in the entire corpus and canon. This requires or results in a concrete-ness that is set against abstractions of these words. I believe his understanding of righteousness in the text is a necessary one to understand the picture(a more concrete than abstract thing) that is being presented. I do not think that he is being reductionistic but rather he is the one that he is using a “laser beam” to pinpoint exactly what “righteous” means in the context of law court, what it could probably only mean in St. Paul’s understanding, so that he is not being reductionistic but is limiting how we can understand righteousness to understand the picture. Obviously there is something in God’s nature that makes him “righteous” but I do not know that it helps our understanding, which God condescends to, by saying that God being righteous is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name. Rather I think it is better to understand God’s being righteous not by some abstract proposition, but rather by these concrete examples which we can relate to. As for going “deeper”, this can be good and bad. I think of what C.S. Lewis said in his The Abolition of Man “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”
    To see through to what righteousness is, is in a sense not to see righteousness.

  2. daniel says:

    I don’t understand how Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness is more “robust” and “glorious” than NT Wright’s.

    Piper’s definition comes across to me as though God is primarily concerned with God. However, when Wright unpacks his definition and explains that God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Israel ripples beyond Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Daniel and out into the whole of creation, I get the impression that God is concerned with others more than he is with himself.

    I think God’s glory is served by His self-giving (not self-serving) love and commitment to his total creation.

  3. ounbbl says:

    NT Wright’s definition of righteousness (as covenantal faithfulness) is difficult to accept and understand.

    When we say God is right, righteous, or just, that statement is meaningful only in a relational sense. Most hung up with its judicial tone (not ‘forensic’), which is covered by the word ‘justice; meeting out justice’. I would take it with existential tone as ‘worthiness’. It is that God sees us ‘righteous’ in His love. On that level, He sees us WORTHTY and wants us to be worthy (rather than ‘just). I believe ‘God being righteous’ is at a sub-domain in semantic domain than ‘God being holy’. God is holy in His essence, not because as if God is holier than others, but because He is ‘separate’ and ‘different’ from others. God’s being righteous is not intrinsic (or as His essence) but it’s derived from who He is when He is facing the created beings like us.

  4. ounbbl says:

    That ‘God is primarily concerned with God’ – does it make any sense?

    That seems completely antithetical to ‘God is love’.

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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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