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Anyone who has done a cursory reading of John Piper and N.T. Wright knows that a major area of disagreement will come up regarding the ”imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” 

I’ve already shown how Piper believes Wright’s definition of righteousness to be too minimal. Piper sees another major flaw in Wright’s set-up of the law-court scene where justification takes place: Wright fails to take into account the omniscience of the Judge (73).

For Piper, God is unjust if he (knowing the guilt of the defendant) rules in the sinner’s favor (74) without something to uphold to the standard of justice.

N.T. Wright treats “reckoning righteousness apart from works” and “not reckoning sin against someone” as equivalents. They are two ways of saying the same thing: God has forgiven guilty sinners. God has granted clemency (74).

Piper admits that this interpretation is plausible, but he believes that it is more plausible to interpret Paul as counting a positive righteousness wherever God does not count sin against someone (75).

Why is Piper convinced that Paul is speaking of a positive righteousness being counted to the defendant that is not the same as the verdict of clemency? The Judge’s omniscience.

“An omniscient and just judge never ‘finds in favor’ of a guilty defendant. He always vindicates the claim that is true. (76)”

Piper (in a very long footnote) admits that “righteousness” is used in a variety of perplexing ways in the Old and New Testaments. He understands that the biblical witness is messy at times. He is not arguing for one sweeping definition of righteousness that can be easily inserted into every single place it’s used in the Bible.

But Piper is convinced that Paul’s writings clearly point to the truth expressed in the doctrine of ”imputation.” He brings “moral righteousness” into the picture (77), already anticipating Wright’s counter-argument that he is introducing a foreign concept into the biblical category. Piper seeks to show that “moral righteousness” is a feature of Pauline theology, again making use of Hebrew parallelisms (77).

Piper then makes the case for seeing imputation of divine righteousness as an integral part of the text. The way Wright has set up the scene keeps Wright from going in this direction. By tweaking Wright’s law-court picture, Piper shows how imputation of Christ’s righteousness not only fits, but is demanded by the biblical picture (78-80).

I am closer to Piper than to Wright on the question of imputation. Wright doesn’t see imputation. Piper creates a bigger picture in which imputation is clear. But I think Piper is missing an even bigger picture that includes, but transcends the question of imputation.

Reformed scholars have not traditionally made the imputation of Christ’s righteousness the basis for justification. Most Reformed theologians see “union with Christ” as the ground for justification, of which imputation then plays an integral part. (D.A. Carson would argue something like this, for example.)

Yes, it is true that God justifies us because God imputes our sin to Christ and his active obedience and righteousness to us. But why stop here? Why not see that everything about us is put on Christ and all that Christ can offer is given to us? Why stop at righteousness?

1 Corinthians 1:30 states that Christ became for us (1) wisdom from God and (2) righteousness and (3) sanctification and (4) redemption. Yes, righteousness is an integral part of this picture (and I’m surprised that Wright doesn’t see the emphasis on imputation in Romans). But the picture is bigger than even Piper sees. By virtue of our union with Christ, we have everything that Christ can give us – including moral righteousness.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog


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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 8: Imputation”

  1. Pete Scholtens says:

    I’ve really appreciated your posts on this. I’ve noted a couple of times that your differences with Wright and sympathy for Piper’s position on justification comes out of your shared credobaptist heritage.

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    That might be the case… I encourage you to wait until next week’s posts. There are some other issues that I differ sharply from Piper and am in Wright’s camp. I don’t think that someone will be able to read all of my posts about this book (once they are all finished) and conclude that I am firmly in one camp or the other.

    Both Wright and Piper have good points to make and both have significant weaknesses in their arguments.

  3. Stephen Roye says:

    I believe your last comment (By virtue of our union with Christ, we have everything that Christ can give us – including moral righteousness)
    is the key to understanding why Bishop Wright does not use the term imputed righteousness. I think that for Bishop Wright to be “in Christ” makes the whole idea of imputation redundant. If you are in Christ, then you have his righteous by virtue of that union and his righteousness is counted as yours because it is in fact yours because of that union(as in the vine and the branches). The idea of imputation has in it a separate-ness from Christ, and therefore a need for a “credit” of righteousness to be applied to your account. This is the problem I have with imputation is that it forces you to think in term of you being separated from Christ and his righteousness being artificially applied not so much to you as to some metaphysical account. But the key is union with Christ and then you have everything that he is. I think imputation idea gets its strength from people not understanding that particular of union with Christ truth, and/or seeing union with Christ as just a metaphor, and imputation as the more fundamental idea when I believe it is the other way around.
    As for the law court imagery I believe that the problem is that Bishop Wright is, correctly I believe, going back to the jewish law court to interpret what St. Paul is saying, and I don’t know if that is being appreciated as much as it should because we are perhaps accustomed to reading our own judicial forms back into St. Paul. Obviously there are many open questions left after Bishop Wrights use of this framework(I have them) and John Piper’s concerns about moral righteousness and omniscience are to my mind valid points but what I do not believe is valid is a reversion to a framework that is not at all in St. Paul’s mind in order to have easier resolution or to put it as Bishop Wright might: to “short circuit” the argument.

  4. Stephen Roye, you have stated N.T. Wright’s position well. Not many people can do that. Thanks brother.

  5. u says:

    I haven’t read the book, but the assertion that, “An omniscient and just judge never ‘finds in favor’ of a guilty defendant. He always vindicates the claim that is true” needs to be backed up, and is not something I am inclined to agree with prima facie. Imputation is a wrong-headed attempt to “justify” God’s verdict. It is not needed.

  6. u says:

    Another thing I like about Wright is his view that “righteousness” cannot be transferred like a gas. too many theologians are treating righteousness like a “thing”, a “substance”, like atoms. It is none of those. It is a mistake of quadrants (to use philosopher Ken Wilber’s AQAL terminology) to say that righteousness can be imputed. It makes as much sense as to say that my stapler is very loving.

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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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