N. T. Wright on Resurrection Justification

[Editor’s Note: This material is a portion of a paper, entitled “Raised for our Justification: Resurrection Justification in Historical and Theological Perspective,” that I presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta.  In light of the popularity of N. T. Wright’s work, I thought I would excerpt the section dealing with his proposal here. 

While (as will be obvious) I have some significant reservations about Wright’s view of justification, I also want to emphasize that Wright (even if he is sometimes wrong) is almost always worth reading.  He is, after all, significant enough to merit a Wheaton Theology Conference devoted to his oeuvre (covered by yours truly here).  In short, he is a genuine theological “rock star” in an age of, shall we say, theological pub musicians.]

Bill Evans head shot

The notion of a resurrection justification of Christ has an intriguing exegetical and theological history.  Based in part upon texts such as Rom. 4:25, 1 Cor. 15:17, and 2 Tim. 3:16, the construct was utilized by earlier Reformed theologians such as Caspar Olevianus, William Ames, Herman Witsius, Jonathan Edwards, and others, and over the past century or so it has been championed by biblical scholars such as Geerhardus Vos, Markus Barth, Richard Gaffin, and N. T. Wright.[1] Moreover, there has been a more general recognition that the resurrection of Christ has forensic significance and thus a theological relationship to the justification of the believer.

As we shall see, the resurrection justification of Christ plays a prominent and even crucial role in the view of justification proposed by the noted English New Testament scholar and former Anglican Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright.  A voluminous writer, Wright has presented his views on justification in a number of contexts, most extensively in his 2009 reply to John Piper entitled Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision.[2]

While Wright is a controversial figure among American Evangelicals, and especially among Reformed Evangelicals because of his association with the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” there is much here to commend and he has given exegetes and theologians much to consider.  Many Evangelicals are pleased by his defense of the historicity of the Gospel narratives, his affirmation of the representative and substitutionary character of Christ’s atoning death, and by his recognition of the legal/forensic dimension of salvation.[3]  Following the Apostle Paul, Wright foregrounds the theme of union with Christ in his understanding of applied soteriology, and he takes firm issue with those who seek to frame a doctrine of justification in abstraction from union and solidarity with Christ.[4]  Moreover, his view of Christ as embodying the identity and telos of Israel is both insightful and heuristically useful, not only for understanding Paul but also evangelists such as Matthew.[5]  And finally, Wright’s relentless insistence on reading Paul in his Jewish and Second Temple context provides a helpful safeguard against abstracting the Apostle from his own heritage.

Particularly striking in this volume is Wright’s careful attention to the resurrection of Christ as soteriologically and ecclesiologically crucial.  In brief, the resurrection of Christ is God’s juridical vindication of Christ as the faithful and righteous Messiah, a verdict in which those who are united with Christ share.  Furthermore, the resurrection more broadly means rescue from death and the penalty of sin.  Thus, for Wright, the resurrection is no mere afterthought or addendum to Good Friday.  Rather, it is “at the center of the gospel” and at “the very center of God’s plan and purpose.”[6]  Our plan is to examine Wright’s understanding of resurrection justification, a task that will also involve placing it in the broader context of his doctrine of justification.

Wright is attempting here nothing less than a comprehensive Pauline biblical theology of justification, which he views as relevant and useful to the church.  He goes so far as to maintain that it accomplishes “everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve.”[7]  Needless to say, we should expect a certain level of complexity.  Wright locates his Pauline doctrine of justification at the nexus of four interlocking elements or themes—covenant, the lawcourt, eschatology, and Christology.  The first three Paul inherited from Judaism, while the last—Christology—holds everything together.

Wright’s foregrounding of covenant is pervasive, and the centrality he accords this theme might well make even the most hardened Reformed federal theologian blush.  He contends that “‘covenant,’ albeit clearly a shorthand, is an excellent way of understanding the full depth of Paul’s soteriology.”[8]  Key here is the Abrahamic covenant with its promise in Genesis 12:3 to bless the world through the offspring of Abraham.  In short, Israel was called with a special mission to the world to enact the saving purposes of God, and was to be kept on track by the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant.  This is what Wright repeatedly refers to as God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the world.”[9]  But alas, Israel was unfaithful to the “single plan” in that she failed to embrace this mission to the world and turned in on herself.[10]  The Messiah then comes as the one who embodies the identity and goal of Israel to offer the obedience to this mission to the world that Israel had failed to offer.[11]  As the “faithful Israelite,” Christ offers himself as the sacrifice for sin and rises as the vindicated Messiah in order to justify those in union with him and to establish in himself the people of God as including both Jews and Gentiles.[12]  This is an Irenaean sort of move, except that it is not Adam but rather Israel that is recapitulated.

The theme of the lawcourt is closely related to covenant.  It is rooted in the Jewish expectation of a great judgment at the end of history in which God, in accordance with his covenant promises, judges the wicked, rewards the righteous, and sets things right.[13]  Furthermore, and this is crucial, the covenant defines what “righteousness” is in the context of justification.  In fact, Wright argues that “covenant” and “righteousness” are closely related, and that the “righteousness of God” in Paul is to be understood as “the covenant faithfulness of God.”[14]  Likewise, the righteousness/obedience of Christ judicially vindicated at the resurrection is not his moral character or obedience to the Mosaic Law, but his obedience to the covenant plan of God to bless the world through Israel by dying on the cross.  Consistent with this view of covenant righteousness, Wright insists that the failure of Israel of which Paul speaks in Romans 3 is not sinfulness in general but rather the fact that Israel’s failed in its covenant mission to the world.[15]  Christ then fulfills the covenant mission where Israel had earlier failed.  By his death he pays the penalty for sin, and in his resurrection he is judicially vindicated by God.  This judicial vindication is then applicable to all those who are “in Christ.”

But what is the nature of this judicial “vindication”?  Wright insists that the righteousness/justification word groups refer purely and simply to legal standing rather than to any transfer (whether actual or putative) of moral character.  They have to do with acquittal and forgiveness, of a declaration that one is “in the right.”[16]  Here we must recognize two things.  First, Wright is affirming a forensic conception of justification which he believes to be consistent with the ultimate concerns of the Reformers over against the earlier Catholic tradition.  Second, he believes that this forensic justification is inconsistent with the Reformation notion of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

With regard to the third theme or element—eschatology, with its expectation of a final judgment and of God’s action in dealing decisively with the problem of sin—Wright contends that in Christ the promises of the Abrahamic covenant have been fulfilled, that the verdict of the great azzize at the end of history has been brought forward in time as Christ has been declared to be “in the right,” that the way has been opened for Gentiles to be included in the people of God, and that the age to come has been inaugurated.[17]  This is not, however, a completely realized eschatology.  There yet remains a judgment at the end of history, a judgment at which Christ himself will preside, and Wright marshals a great deal of evidence to show that this final judgment will be a judgment, even for believers, “according to works.”[18]  Thus there are, for Wright, two verdicts—a present verdict based on faith in Christ and a future verdict based on works.  The correspondence of these two verdicts is ensured by the work of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the believer.   As Wright puts it, “The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.”[19]

But why does Wright reject the classic Reformation doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ?  Here Wright’s argument strikes me as not entirely clear, but we will attempt to summarize it.  First of all, Wright opposes his notion of judicial declaration of being “in the right” to any transfer of “moral character.”  Here he contends that Rome with its notion of “making just” and the Reformation with its notion of imputed righteousness partake of the same problem.[20]  But here there seems to be a category confusion.  The Reformation trajectory has been concerned with the imputation of merit and demerit accruing from actions (the sin of Adam, the life and death of Christ), not the imputation of moral qualities.  Second, Wright also rejects any imputation of merit, and he repeatedly insists that the work of Christ does not result in a “treasury of merit” which can then be imputed to the believer.[21]  Wright’s point seems to be that the righteousness of God/Christ, understood as “covenant faithfulness,” simply is not the sort of thing that can be “imputed.”  Instead, what the believer needs is a new legal status as being “in the right” and this status is received through union with Christ.[22]  Consistent with this, throughout Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision Wright is clearly more comfortable talking about forgiveness, the non-reckoning of sin, and vindication than about any positive declaration of righteousness.[23]  But some would argue that we need more than just forgiveness (which would merely put us back in the Edenic situation of innocence) to enter glory; we need the status of positive righteousness.  It is this insight that lies at the heart of the Reformation affirmation of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

There are two additional areas where questions need to be raised.  The first has to do with Wright’s central theme of covenant as it comes to expression in his notion of God’s “single-plan-though-Israel-for-the-world.”  He contends that Israel was called to be a light to the nations and thus God’s instrument of blessing to the world in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.  However, Israel failed miserably in this task, and so Christ steps into the breach and offers the covenant obedience and faithfulness that Israel did not.[24]  There are, in fact, two problems here, the second more serious than the first.  First of all, this notion of Christ accomplishing what Israel failed to do has the smell of a “Plan B,” though Wright tries to safeguard against such a conclusion.[25]

Another and more serious problem has to do with the nature of this Israel strategy.  Was it really God’s plan to save the world through the nation of Israel?  Such a suggestion seems to run aground on both the larger structure of Old Testament narrative and upon explicit New Testament teaching.  In the Old Testament, Israel is called more to be separate from the nations than a missionary to the nations (e.g., Lev. 20:22-26).  To be sure, Israel was called to be a nation of priests and a thus a witness of sorts, but this is a subsidiary theme.  Moreover, it can be argued that the servant song passages in Isaiah speaking of a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6) and similar passages such as Isaiah 60:3 are best read as pointing ultimately to the work of the Messiah.[26]  This larger point is confirmed by Paul’s argument in Gal. 3:24 that the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to serve as a guardian or paidegogos until the Messiah came, and even more strikingly by Paul’s contention in Gal. 3:16 that the promise to Abraham was not to “offsprings” but to a single “offspring,” namely the Messiah.  In other words, the single plan of God is to bless the world, not through Israel, but through the Messiah with Israel as a means to that end, and Wright, by elevating a subsidiary theme to central and controlling status, has skewed things more than a bit.

This accounts for exegetical leaps such as his contention that Paul’s concern in Rom. 3 is not that the Jews were sinners but that they had failed in their mission to the world.  Wright’s arguments may mesh well with the current preoccupation with all things “missional,” but that does not fix the problems here, and if Wright is wrong on this central covenant theme then the understanding of “righteousness” tied to it comes into question as well.   After all, the great Irenaean contrast in Rom. 5:18-19 is between the disobedience of Adam and the obedience of Christ as the Second Adam, not between Israel and Christ.

The second major problem has to do with the relation of the present verdict and the final verdict.  Here Wright seems to equivocate on the identity of these two verdicts.  On the one hand, he suggests that the present verdict is the final verdict brought forward into history.[27]  On the other hand, he argues that the present verdict is “issued simply and solely on the basis of faith” while the future verdict is according to works and “will truly reflect what people have actually done.”[28]  In the end, these seem to be separate verdicts, the congruence of which is maintained by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  But this then poses the question of assurance in a fundamental way.  Wright deals with this in two ways.  First, he suggests that moral perfection is not required but that “the signs of the Spirit’s life must be present.”[29]  Second, he argues for a completely non-meritorious approach to justification.[30]  The notion that Christ obeyed the law and thus earned or merited salvation for believers is, Wright argues, a “legalism” alien to the New Testament.[31]  But all this suggests that this final verdict is not solely according to works, and furthermore that the “great azzize” is actually a rather casual affair—a “not-so-great-azzize,” if you will—designed primarily to keep Christians on their toes in this life.

An alternative and more satisfying explanation of the biblical data would hold, with traditional Reformed orthodoxy, that there is a final judgment according to works in which the wicked are condemned on the basis of their works and Christians are rewarded for their graced works but saved by the merits of Christ.[32]  This would seem to make better sense of passages such as 1 Cor. 3:15, which speaks of those whose works do not measure up but who are nevertheless “saved, but only as through fire.”

Copyright 2013 William B. Evans

[1] See Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1930), 136-171; Markus Barth and Verne H. Fletcher, Acquittal by Resurrection (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1964), 3-96; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987), 119-124.

[2] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).  Here Wright responds to John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).  See also N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996);

[3] See, e.g., Wright, Justification, 69, 90-91, 105, 207.

[4] See ibid., 32, 72, 85, 122, 142, 157, 217, 229.

[5] See ibid., 103-105.

[6] Ibid., 150, 235.

[7] Ibid., 252.

[8] Ibid., 99.

[9] See ibid.,  65, 95-98, 123.

[10] See ibid., 67, 104.

[11] See ibid., 103-106.

[12] See ibid., 203-204.

[13] See ibid., 100.

[14] Ibid., 99, 164.

[15] See ibid., 195-201.

[16] See ibid., 69, 90-91, 121.

[17] See ibid., 100-108.

[18] See ibid., 75, 183-191.

[19] Ibid., 251.

[20] See ibid., 66, 90-92, 121, 150, 206, 213.

[21] See ibid., 135, 228, 231.

[22] See ibid., 217.

[23] See, e.g., ibid., 221.

[24] See ibid., 95-104, 195-196.

[25] See, e.g., ibid., 243, where he argues that “even this failure was not outside the strange purposes of God.”

[26] See the subtle treatment of such passages in J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993).

[27] See Wright, Justification,148.

[28] Ibid., 190-191.

[29] Ibid., 237.

[30] Ibid., 237-238.

[31] Ibid., 231-232.

[32] See Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 33.