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394239.jpgIn Chapter 10, John Piper critiques N.T. Wright’s vision of first-century Judaism by seeking to show how the ethnocentrism of the Jews of Paul’s day was actually a sign of self-righteousness.

First, Piper takes on Wright’s view that the “works of the Law” did not refer to the “boasting of the successful moralist.” Piper examines the relevant texts and seeks to dismantle Wright’s exegesis (146-147).

Next, Piper seeks to show how Wright’s insistence that first-century Jews were only ethnocentric and not legalistic represents a false dichotomy. Ethnocentrism is rooted in lovelessness and represents a type of legalism that cannot be dismissed (148-150).

“Wright and other representatives of the new perspective on Paul offer an inadequate analysis of the roots of ethnocentrism. Can one, for example, draw a line between the evil of legalism and the evil of lovelessness?” (150)

Piper makes a great point here, and he backs it up by pointing to Paul’s opinion of his own pre-Christian days, as well as Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisees (152-155). He shows that ethnocentrism is evil.

“Exclusivism rooted in religious pride remains the same. Jesus identifies the ethnic exclusiveness of the Pharisees as deeply rooted in morally reprehensible pride – that is, self-righteousness… For Jesus, the line between ethnic pride and moral pride vanishes. Ethnocentrism and self-righteousness are morally inseparable.” (156)

Piper makes an excellent case against the New Perspective vision of first-century Judaism. He goes to great lengths to show how the mere mentions of grace and gratitude do not exclude the presence of legalism or exclusivism. (After all, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable prayed: “I thank you that I am not like this tax collector,” etc.)

Regarding first-century Judaism, I believe Piper makes the stronger case. The New Perspective is right to remind us that ancient Judaism was not a precursor to 16th century Roman Catholicism. I believe that Wright is correct in seeing “works of the Law” more as badges of membership than as ways to earn one’s way to heaven.

At the same time, I believe the substance of the Reformed understanding of legalism to be consistent with the Judaism of Paul’s day. Piper is right. “Badges” of covenant membership that are then turned into their opposite (a way to promote moral superiority and ethnic exclusivism) are rooted in gracelessness. However much ancient Jews wrote of grace, I concur with Piper that the ethnic exclusivity invalidates the boast of “grace.”

And lest I be considered anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic here, let me turn the tables and ask myself a question. Allow me to issue a warning that has stuck with me ever since I read this chapter:

Is it possible to turn our doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone into a badge of exclusion – to turn the very doctrine of grace into a badge of self-righteousness that replaces faith in Jesus? Is it possible that some of us who emphasize grace, grace, grace might actually be demonstrating a self-righteous, exclusivist attitude rooted in self-righteousness, and not in God’s grace at all?

If Piper is right (and I believe he is) then we should all be forewarned! Talking about grace, saying we believe in grace, preaching grace does not mean we have tasted of God’s grace. Our actions speak louder than our doctrines here.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog


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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 16: Self-Righteousness”

  1. Kathy Hanson says:

    Great post, Trevin. From what I have read from Wright, I would say he would agree wholeheartedly with you and Piper. The definition of legalism that I find Wright explaining is not “good works = salvation and right standing,” but rather badges of exclusion = membership in the covenant community (circumcision and Torah keeping) which decay into self-righteousness that replaces faith in Jesus. In Piper’s application of modern badges of exclusion, I think Wright would have no quibble.

  2. brannon says:

    Trevin, great thought there at the end.

  3. Nick says:

    Thank you for this post Trevin. I read it before; but now that I am reading “What Saint Paul Really Said” it is helping me to see some of the benefits of reading Wright for myself. I think Piper is correct but I too think that Wright has a point in saying that “Works of the law” mean badges of membership. This post will help me to read Wright in a discerning manner but in a profitable manner as well.

  4. Tom Oury says:

    Trevin, great post. Thanks! I’m enjoying your bolg a great deal. I felt Piper’s critique of Wright on 1st century Judaism was ‘thin’ and focussed on ‘casting doubt’ on Wright’s conclusions in favor of the traditional caricature of 1st century phariseism as primarily ‘works oriented legalism’. This caused me to pick up a book I had read about 10 years ago by Tom Hovestol, Extreme Righteousness. Tom does a great job of showing how we evangelicals are the ‘Pharisees’ of today, and his book stimulates some very good personal applications from the study of the Pharisees in the new testament. Thanks again for your blog!

  5. Ian says:

    My comment is about “works of the law”. Growing up as a Calvinist in the Reformed tradition, my initial reaction to the “new perspective” view on Paul was that it was not what Paul’s letters referred to. When doing my Post-Graduate study in New Testament studies in the 1990s, however, I saw that the texts of Romans and Galatians pointed to a possibility that I (along with John Calvin) had got it wrong. What I find confusing in retrospect, is what now look to me unfortunate English translations of particular Greek phrases in, for example, the NIV. Where Paul’s Greek says straightforwardly, “from/out-of works of the law” [ex ergwn nomou], the NIV team felt a need to elaborate with phrases like “by observing the law” (Gal 2.16, three times). This 20th century post-Reformation editorializing makes the issue harder for the (post-)modern ear to hear what Paul was saying to his churches.

    As the blog entry correctly recognizes, talking about grace but acting as if grace never existed is anathema. I find it poignant to remember that this is the way that Saul the Pharisee had formerly been viewing the Gentile hoardes. He did not believe that the grace showed by God to Saul’s own ethnic group was applicable to other ethnoi (=Greek for Gentiles). Then following his Damascus Road episode, he realized that he had been honestly but actively opposing God’s plan to expand the narrow ethnic scope of salvation, and in so doing earned a very personal debt that could only be overcome by grace abounding.

  6. Nick says:

    Thanks for this, Trevin. Piper makes a great point here that shouldn’t be overlooked in the discussion.

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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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