"Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision" (2016), by N.T. Wright. A Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Around a decade back, while working on my doctorate, I attended a public discussion between N.T. Wright and Richard Gaffin. During one of the breaks I approached Bishop Wright to ask him to sign my copy of his commentary on Romans. He asked the reason for my coming to the event and I explained that I needed an elective course and had convinced my director to allow me to craft a self-directed class on “N.T. Wright’s doctrine of Justification”. He chuckled and said, “There’s not much mystery about it.” A few years after that meeting, in 2009, he published “Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision” which has been recently repackaged with a new introduction penned by Wright. This book shows “that there’s not much mystery about it.”
The material of the 2016 “Justification” is exactly the same as the 2009 edition, even down to the pagination. As Wright asserted then he affirms now, “Any preaching of justification which focuses solely or even mainly on Jesus’ death and its results is only doing half the job. Justification is not just about “how I get my sins forgiven.” It is about how God creates, in the Messiah Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, a single family, celebrating their once-for-all forgiveness and their assured “no condemnation: in Christ, through whom his purposes can now be extended into the wider world” (248). Everything in the book shores up this explanation and fills it out with thought-provoking exegesis on Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, and Ephesians; and a stimulatingly extended chapter on Romans. Throughout the work the author takes away from the normal Reformed and Lutheran classifications of justification with one hand, and then gives most of them back with the other. His biggest beef, so to speak, seems to be with the imputed righteousness of Christ which he, somewhat reluctantly maybe, comes around to attach (in modified form) to Christian baptism (231-3).
For a person who may be unfamiliar with Wright and why all the hullabaloo over his characterization of justification, this book is a good entry point. In the first part of the book he carefully works out how eschatology, Christology, Covenant and the law court are all packed into the term and filtering into Paul’s understanding of the doctrine (101-108). The author gives background and back-up for his understanding of Paul, working the reader along, step-by-step, building brick-by-brick until he has made his case. Then in the second segment he works over several of Paul’s to show how his reading of justification is consistent with the Apostle.
The only difference with the 2016 publication is the cover design and the new introduction which reflects more thoughtfully on the discussion of justification after his researching and writing “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” “Pauline Perspectives,” “Paul and His Recent Interpreters,” and “The Paul Debate.” Now Wright sees with clearer precision that the issue underlying the debate over his understanding of justification is the category known among Reformed theologians as the Covenant of Works. Therefore he asserts that, “The work of Jesus, ( . . . ), cannot be captured by the works-related ideas of active and passive obedience. It is better summed up ( . . . ) in terms of Jesus’ own unique “royal priesthood” winning the decisive victory over the powers of evil by bearing human sins and their deadly result in his own body, and through his life-blood, purifying his people from every impurity – that is, from everything that reeks of death, or invokes and courts it by idolatry and sin” (8).
The 2016 issue of “Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision” is a good entryway into N.T. Wright’s understanding of Paul, eschatology, ecclesiology, Christology, and Covenant. Even if a reader disagrees with some of his conclusions, they will have benefited from the rich insights and perceptions. And the new introduction will help settle what many long-term readers may have suspected for some time. I highly recommend the book.
Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “Justification” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).
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