Book Review of NT Wright’s “Justified – God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision”
InterVarsity Press, 2009
By Kevin George
NT Wright wrote this book to clarify his view of justification, after having been criticized by another preacher, John Piper. Wright tries to lay out his case as to why he does not believe that the doctrine of justification is a declaration of being right in a positional sense, opting instead to say that it indicates the status of God viewing someone as being a covenant member in good standing.
Wright approaches the subject from what he believes is a first-century Jewish perspective (p. 37, 217), thereby enabling him to grasp concepts and themes that are often missed. This perspective leans heavily on his historical and covenantal beliefs to guide his claims (p. 73-77). Consistent with Wright’s attempt to take a new look at the doctrine of justification is his willingness to be skeptical of Bible translations, and he specifically states that the NIV was translated “to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said” (p. 52). He also points out various sloppy translation errors in Romans chapter 4 (p. 217-218). Wright is also willing to critique well-established Reformed doctrines that impact this doctrine of justification (p. 239).
Justification in Wright’s view is not about moral character or performance (p. 92), and therefore the declaration of being righteous must not be understood as a declaration of virtue or righteousness being transferred or imputed, but rather as the declaration of a legal status, more specifically, the status of being accepted as a member of God’s covenant family (p. 98-99). Righteousness, for Wright, “denotes a status, not a moral quality” (p. 121). It is the “status of the covenant member” (p. 134). It is not about making a person virtuous or infusing a moral quality, but of creating a status of “having-been-declared-in-the-right” (p. 135). Righteousness is also not about Jesus Christ obeying “perfectly and thus building up a “treasury of merit” which can then be “reckoned” to his people” (p. 135). Rather, “the way in which people appropriate that justification, that redefinition of God’s people, is now “by faith,” by coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah. The achievement of Jesus as the crucified Messiah is the basis of this redefinition. The faith of the individual is what marks out those who now belong to him, to the Messiah-redefined family” (p. 117). In short, justification is a declaration or redefinition of a person from not being in Messiah’s family to being in the family. It is about covenantal, familial status appropriated on the basis of faith.
In order to unveil Wright’s view of justification, he appeals to the covenantal situation of how “God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing of life of new creation” (p. 250). This explanation requires that Wright explain broad sections of Scripture from a 30,000 feet high perspective while holding firmly to his concept of covenant. Only after the concept is grasped can the reader then return to the actual text at sea level and read the text to fit it into this covenantal concept. This method is especially important since the primary texts under consideration (in Romans chapters 1-10) do not reference the covenant.
In part, Wright is to be commended due to his intent to grasp the background nuances that are often not recognized by unseasoned students of Scripture. Nevertheless, the fact that Paul, the author of Romans never refers to the covenant is a gaping weakness that others have also pointed out.
“Justified – God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” is not an easy read, in part because Wright is attempting to unveil a new or little-known view of the doctrine of justification, but also because he writes like a professor who has a lot to say before arriving at the point he is trying to make. This requires an extended and uninterrupted attention span over several pages before grasping what he is trying to say. He also speaks mostly from a high-altitude viewpoint of Scripture, and only occasionally bothers to dig into a few words of biblical text, and when he does, the literal text often does not match his claim.
On one hand, Wright makes a good point that righteousness is not something like a virtue that can literally be transferred from person to person, from Christ to man. This point seems to be what drove him to seek another alternative explanation to the typical teaching that justification is a declaration of being justified by means of imputation or accounting, and he believes he resolves this by having justification be viewed as a new status in a covenant.
In the end, Wright has probably done little to clarify the doctrine of justification. In fact, despite his good intentions, he may have just added more mud to the already muddy water of that subject. Justification will never make sense as long as the literal meaning of the word is rejected, which is “the act of setting something right.” When the moral implications of justification are denied as “not “moral righteousness”” or virtuous (p. 92, 135) and justification is only a label, a position, a legal fiction as a status (p. 91), then it is just not possible to make logical sense of how God could declare people to be in the right when they continue to live immoral lives.