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hp_justificationSome friends have encouraged me to explain “in a nutshell” and in easy-to-understand laymen’s terms what the big debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright is all about. Many who enjoy reading the works of these men have discovered they lack the time (or patience) to sift through all of the relevant material surrounding the New Perspective on Paul, and just how Wright’s version of this perspective is different from the traditional perspective maintained by men like John Piper.

“The Justification Debate: A Primer” (Christianity Today, June 2009) is my humble attempt at summarizing the two views as succintly and simply as possible. Please note that both John Piper and N.T. Wright looked over my work and made some slight revisions regarding their respective summaries. (To see the summary statements in the form of a helpful chart, download the pdf here.)

Together with the Piper/Wright summaries is an article written by myself and Ted Olsen entitled “Not An Academic Question.” This second article lets pastors sound off on how this theological debate is influencing their ministry.

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25 thoughts on “Piper vs. Wright on Justification: A Layman's Guide”

  1. Charlie says:

    This is what I have been waiting for. I am one of those who have not had the time or patience to sift through all of the relevant material. I am interested in the debate and see the importance of it, but to actually nail down the two positions such that they are understandable and practical has thus far eluded me. This helps big time.

  2. Mich says:

    Nice articles, but I think you’re missing the point–or rather the Bishop’s point. He is not just saying that Piper et al are looking at the Doctrine of Justification through 16th century eyes, but that they are basically yanking it out of Paul’s overall argument in his epistles. The Bishop is saying, first, look at the Doctrine through 1st century eyes–Paul’s–but ALSO in the larger context so we get:
    Piper–Doctrine of Justifaction–How I get saved–Anthropology
    Wright–Doctrine of Justification–Gods saving Purpose for the WORLD–Theology


  3. The says:

    The Justification debate is new to me. However, I have heard of Piper and NT Wright before.

    The article does mention that Piper sees the First Century Jews as using “works of the Law” as a way of establishing their righteousness, but NT Wright sees the First Century Jews as using “works of the Law” as a sign that they are part of the covenant with God, in other words, like a badge that marks them.

    However, it is difficult to understand the difference between Piper and NT Wright.

    They both seem to say that faith is central to being saved.

  4. Thank you so much for linking to this. There is no way on earth I could have the time to read what the two men have written about the subject, and this will be a big help.

  5. John Holmes says:

    An old Chinese proverb says, ” Correct definitions are the beginning of wisdom”. It seems that NT and Piper have been wrestling, over this for some time like two Sumo Wrestlers, ” Righteousness, ” Justification”. NT has a broad mind and his real calling may be a biblical theologian, the big picture. But Piper has called the bishop onto the mat, over clarity, what does it mean to be saved, how am I saved, how do we apply redemption in your system???? Does justification mean how this is applied, if so it becomes of supreme importance, thus the debate. But if it is esoteric information than it is not worth the ink. But as Luther struggled to make Romanism work and it failed him, after many and long attempts, is the Bishop now telling us in a very subtle way, it does work. Is he trying to make Reformation, and Romanism really debated something that was never there on either side. He wants to bring Rome and evangelicals together with a modified Dunn theology, is this more than we can take without a fight? With brilliant argumentation, and even insightful biblical theology, are we to throw over board, Calvin who preached the bible from the Hebrew text and the Greek text to his congregation, or Luther who was an Old Testament theologian, they never saw the implications of these words in the whole canon? It seems the bishop has been very muddy in how his system applies justification to our personal life. Luther’s wisdom may win out, the reason justification is the article on which the church rises or falls is, how is it applied for Luther, Rome gave no answers and left him lost, in a doctrine of death and ressurection, but no application to life. Justificaion open the doors for Luther in his study, as he read Romans, redeption applied that started the reformation revolution. To say all was for naught, if only Jimmy Dunn was there is a wild swinging heavy, but are we to buy all without questions and real anwers????? Piper keep him on the mat we are learning more of his real views….

  6. Steve D says:

    Gotta say, I think i’m with Wright on this one. For too long Western Christianity has tried to interpret first century Jewish issues with a post enlightenment, neatly packaged Greek philosophy. While I certainly appreciate Piper’s call to a truly holy life, I believe that his interpretation of Justification is more a product of medieval piety and the views it produced. As Christians I believe we really need to rethink the lenses we read unknowingly read the bible through. The Jews never believed that they could earn their salvation. God has always been and always will be a God of Grace. The purpose of the law was to set Israel apart from foreign nations and their “gods” so that the name and character of YHWH could be known ( and obeyed, etc…. all of these stem from an understanding of the reality of YHWH). It was not meant to grind their moral confidence to dust or provide a means of earning salvation. Thus, because of the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant as Israels representative ( and therefore the mediator between God and man) those who were once not included in the covenant can now receive the full benefits of it (forgiveness of sins, resurrection at the last day, eternal life, etc..) and among God’s chosen people. This is Justification : Those who were originally excluded from the people of God , ( and those who were but were not faithful) can now partake in the redemptive plan of God as his chosen people because of Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant. Thus the law is no longer what separates the people of god from the nations, faith in Christ as the Messiah and climax of history does.

    Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables by Brad Young, The Mission of God by Christopher J.H. Wright ( NO RELATION to N.T.), Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright, Romans and the Theology of Paul by N.T Wright (article), Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Ann Spangler and Louis T., and more to come as soon as i finish them !!!

  7. Steve D says:

    k one more thing and i’ll shut up. One of you guys asked how does Justification apply to our lives personally? Well, as a person who is now , (assuming you have submitted your self to the Messiah as his disciple)included in the people of God, you now share in the redemptive plan of God. Just as God was to use Israel to make his name and character known to the nations, thereby blessing them… so you too are to be used by God to make his name and character known to the nations. Through YOU the world will now the God who lavishes grace and mercy on his people, who longs to see creation restored through the faithful stewardship of his people and who will accept nothing less than all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Through you, having been justified as one of his people, the world will come to know the it has longed for. Practicals? Feed the poor because God has always identified and cared for them. Love the foreigner because God has chosen to love you ( even though odds are you aren’t from chosen Israel. Hold your community to account, challenging (gracefully of course…) sin and always being prepared ” in season and out of season” to confess Christ as the Messiah. Live in peace with your fellow man, Serve ONE king ( not your own nationalistic agenda) and as Wright as put it ” Like an agled mirror” reflect the image of God to the world. These are the things that describe a person who has been justified by the faithfulness of Christ.

    In the sure and certain hope of the age to come

  8. Mich says:

    Steve–no need to shut up, I agree with you!
    We are Justified by faith in Christ-making us members of His covenant people, then by dying and rising with Christ–The Resurrection–and being sealed and empowered with the Spirit, we live out the Christian life reflecting His love into the world around us and manifesting Jesus as Lord in our Lives and speaking the Gospel to neighbors and government.


  9. Andrew Cowan says:


    You have pretty fairly described Wright’s position here, but have you read some of the more substantive critiques of his thoughts on justification? Personally, I am big fan of Wright in general (as you seem to be), but his proposals on justification are not without their problems. The best point that Piper makes is that righteousness language in Paul seems to be more directly tied to moral performance than covenantal credentials (note the way that Paul lays out the charge “No one is righteous” in Rom 3:10-18). Piper, however, is only one of a number of voices protesting Wright’s proposals. Wright’s (and Sanders’s) work on Judaism has come under serious criticism. The Justification and Variegated Nomism series, Simon Gathercole’s Where Is Boasting?, and Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith all display the shortcomings of Sanders’s paradigm of covenantal nomism (on which Wright’s proposals depend) through hefty interaction with Jewish sources. The latter two in particular (because they are single author volumes and thus contain one coherent argument rather than a combination of various evaluations) well demonstrate from contemporary Jewish sources that there was a belief among Jews that final salvation was attained by means of one’s fidelity to the law. I would recommend consulting these works for more details (if you haven’t already).

  10. Bruce says:

    Andrew: I am interested on how you contrast the moral performance versus covenantal credentials in Romans 3. Could it be the case that part of a Jew’s covenantal credentials are the faithful observance of the various offerings for sins and transgressions as well as waiting for the promised messiah. It appears to me that there was no Israelite who fulfilled the Torah in a way that would redeem the Jews from sins past, present and future until Jesus.

    So then, Romans 3:10-18 is not measuring sin simply in an abstract moral perfection sense, but in the Torah-Covenantal sense.

    Am off in the weeds?


  11. Andrew Cowan says:


    I certainly wouldn’t say that you are “off in the weeds” because you are asking a very good question. There are several levels at which it ought to be addressed.

    First, “covenantal credentials” was perhaps a slightly misleading way of stating Wright’s position on my part, chosen for the pleasure of its alliteration. What I mean to say is that Wright understands “righteousness” language as a reference to “covenant membership,” he understands “justification” to be a verdict in the trial asking the question “who are the true members of God’s covenant people?” and he understands “works of the law” as what Jews thought of as the demonstration of their covenant membership and “faith” as what Paul asserted was the true sign of covenant membership. Thus, the question of whether an Israelite fulfilled the Torah in a way that would redeem from sins is a different question than that of justification.

    Wright does, however, think that the point of the nation of Israel was that it was to redeem the world, which the Messiah did through his fidelity to God’s covenant plan, but he links this more with Jesus’ death than with Jesus’ obedience to the law.

    The primary question is the meaning of “righteousness” language. Wright has asserted that this language means “covenant membership” when applied to humans; Piper claims that it refers to one’s absolute moral standing before God. What I find less than compelling about Wright’s view is that the terms in which the charges are laid out in Romans 3:10-18 seem to make more sense under Piper’s definition than Wright’s. The charge “No one is righteous” is laid out in terms of moral failure, and verse 20 summarizes the point with an allusion to Psalm 143:2, which says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” This latter text appears to me to be addressing the trial of one’s ultimate moral standing before God, not a trial determining whether or not one is a member of God’s covenant people. Was the Psalmist really asserting that no one would pass judgment in the trial determining if they were a member of God’s covenant people? That would be the implication if Wright’s view of “righteousness” language is correct. I find it more likely that the point of this verse, and Paul’s argument in Romans 3, is that all are sinners and thus cannot pass God’s judgment on their own. The covenantal interpretation of “righteousness” language proposed by Wright just feels forced at this point, and he sometimes makes telling awkward statements that seem to contradict his view of what justification is. For instance, on p. 112 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Wright states regarding Galatians, “the point of ‘works of Torah’ here is not about the works some people might think you have to perform to become a member of God’s people, but the works you have to perform to demonstrate that you are a member of God’s people. These works, Paul says, simply miss the point, as Psalm 143.2 had indicated, partly because no one ever performs them adequately, and partly because…works of Torah would simply create a family which was at best an extension of ethnic Judaism.” In this quotation, Wright claims that no one can perform works of the law “adequately,” but adequately for what? The previous sentence claims that their function was to demonstrate one’s membership within God’s people. Is that what no one can perform them adequately to do? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Rather, it seems that for Paul, no one can perform the works of the law adequately to attain the blessing promised in the law contingent upon obedience. The program of Leviticus 18:5 (“The one who does these things will live by them”) fails (cf. Gal 3:10-14; and the neglected Rom 7:7-11). The point, I think, is that the Sinai covenant was not a covenant that a sinner could obey sufficiently to attain ultimate moral right standing with God (this sort of combines the two elements that you contrasted in the final sentence of your comment). I think that Wright’s exposition omits this point, and could use some revising. His definition of “righteousness” in terms of “covenant membership” just doesn’t seem to square with the significant ways in which Paul brings this language into contact with moral obedience and the condemnation of immoral action (Rom 1:18-32, which 3:9-20 is simply reasserting with respect to Jews). Thus, although I love Wright’s work and consider his books to be some of the most influential on my thinking, I am not persuaded on this point.

  12. Kara Simmons says:

    My daughter came home with many of Wrights and Pipers books from college this summer. I have been sifting through them, especially Wright, whose Anglican views I am rarely exposed to being that I am an Evangelical Christian.

    He left quite an impression on my young daughter as has the entire group of Anglican teacher’s who head up a the English departments at her college. While I have no problem with her being influenced by the Bishop (he truly is a great teacher), we are more familiar and in tune with Piper’s theology. However, after reading the summary of Christianity Today, I am finding a big point missing in both camps…actually a critical point to the Justification argument.

    Justification did not start with the Law. It started after the Fall when God made a Way for man to be saved through the sacrifice of His Son. So the argument really should not be about what the purpose of the Law is, it did not bring salvation and never did. This is clear in the NT, the Law just a task master used to show man his inability to be perfect before God. While following it did mark you as part of the Covenant, following it did not save you, as the rich young ruler could testify.

    The keeping of the Law nor its Covenant gave man Salvation. That alone is and has always been a free gift of God through the Sacrifice of His Son (ex: David broke the Law numerous times, but yet was beloved of God). Furthermore God communicated this clearly in the form of an objection lesson-the Sacrifice, a requirement made of man since the Fall.

    Man was instructed LONG before the Law was ever written down on the purpose and practice of the Sacrifice. There was a reason Cain’s sacrifice was not acceptable before God, it was not a blemish free Blood Sacrifice. This sacrifice did not make them right before God, no it was the grace imparted to them through their faith in God’s provision as seen by their obedience to perform the Sacrifice. It was like a pre-sacrament, being done in celebration of what will happen in the future. Today we do the same when we take communion, we look back at what was done, OT believers looked forward.

    I feel that both men over complicate the issue, especially in the purpose of the Law, and this, muddies the waters and becomes a stumbling block to the Church. We need to keep our debate within the Body (and allow it), BUT Salvation is a gift, always has been, always will be…teaching ANYTHING else is NOT the Gospel.

  13. Kara Simmons says:

    Sorry one thing I will amend in my post, my Calvinistic based teaching demands that I add that according to both Ephesians 1:4 and I Peter 1:20, Salvation was fore-ordained in the form of Christ, so salvation did not start after the Fall, but before the foundation of the world. However, it was instituted after the Fall, because suddenly the need for salvation became apparent…man sinned and fell away from his God, and God in His Love and Mercy made a way for man to get right, a way back…

  14. Greg Terry says:

    The chart referenced in the article is not available to download at that link. Is there an alternate location for it????

  15. Jesse says:

    This is all too complicated. So complicated that I doubt its relevance to practical Christian living.

    Imagine explaining these nuanced differences to non-theologians(and theological enthusiasts), they would look give up on the faith out of frustration. The Spirit of God would have to do a work of patience within the believer as He did mine.

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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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