questions about the new perspective

Trevin Wax posted his recent interview with N.T. Wright on the topic of Wright’s much anticipated response to John Piper which will be published next month in the U.K. and this summer by IVP in the states.

While I enjoy Wright’s stuff and have learned from interacting with the new perspective on Paul, a paragraph from the interview captures why many of us have deep misgivings about where this is going.

Wright says that his understanding of justification differs from Piper’s view in that “for Piper justification through Christ alone is the same in the future (on the last day) as in the present, whereas for Paul, whom I am following very closely at this point, the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life that the justified-by-faith-in-the-present person then lives.”

Wright acknowledges at the end of the interview that Reformed theologians will think that he is “smuggling in works-righteousness” to salvation, but he replies that he is actually just being faithful to Paul’s teaching that Christians “really do ‘please God.’”

I’m sure that some of you will disagree, but Wright’s view that we are initially justified by grace and later by grace inspired works seems indistinguishable from the Roman Catholic view.  Wright still holds to grace alone, but not faith alone, at least as articulated by Calvin and Luther. 

We can discuss the biblical merits of Wright’s case when his book comes out, but today I’m wondering whether people who embrace his new understanding of justification may still consider themselves to be Protestant (inasmuch as sola fide was a central tenet of the Reformation). 

Perhaps Wright’s broad church Anglicanism enables him to avoid worrying about this issue, but doesn’t the average Protestant pastor have to think long and hard before he follows Wright here?  Of course pastors should ultimately believe whatever they are convinced the Bible is teaching, but  don’t those who agree with Wright here owe their congregation a clear explanation of how their view of justification differs from their church’s Protestant position?






27 responses to “questions about the new perspective”

  1. Brian McLaughlin

    Is this a difference between biblical and systematic theology? In other words, Wright and the NPP are primarily concerned about reading Paul correctly, primarily in Romans and Galatians. Piper and systematic theologians, on the other hand, is most concerned about the systematic category of soteriology.

    I lean towards the NPPers on their exegesis of Romans and Galatians. It doesn’t seem that these letters were written against Jewish legalists who think you have to “earn” salvation through Torah. So I think Wright’s exegesis is sound. But, does holding to the NPP necessarily change our view of justification? I don’t think so and I think we can point to Fee and Moo on this for some evidence. So, yes, I think you can be NPP and still consistent with traditional protestant theology.

    I wonder if Wright now is bringing in a little more Gordon Fee. Fee is certainly grace alone/faith alone, but he emphasizes the role of the Spirit today as evidence of future salvation. Isn’t this what Wright is saying by the Spirit-generated life?

  2. Mike: Have you read Wright’s commentary on Romans?…it may shed some light on his perspective.

    Brian: I appreciate your well thought out response.

  3. mikewittmer


    Wright said that “the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life.” “On the basis of” is significantly different from “evidence of.” So yes, I think this is different from historic Protestantism.

    Again, I’m not here disputing the biblical merits of Wright’s case (though I think that there is still a fair amount of legalism in Paul’s Jewish opponents–Robert Rapa’s dissertation on the works of the law in Galatians addresses this), but I would like to understand how this view is still within the Protestant camp.

  4. Mike,

    I just happen to be re-reading your book “heaven is a place on earth.” It’s even better the second time!

    Regarding, Wright, one important clarification in this debate is necessary. Wright and his critics are using terms in different ways.

    Wright is using the term “justification” in an ecclesiological sense. That is… he is saying that what marks us out as being part of the kingdom of God is our faith – not circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. In other words, justification is concerned with “who is in the covenant.”

    So when Wright says one is justified on the Last Day by works, he is NOT saying that one is saved by works. He is not using “salvation” and “justification” as synonyms, which most of us tend to do. In fact, he caught me doing this in my first interview with him (Nov. ‘07). I asked a question about justification by works, switched over to talking about salvation, and he said I was equating them… He was right. I was. But he’s not and he wants to be emphatic about that. Salvation is by grace alone and justification is by faith alone, but for Wright, justification and salvation are not exactly the same thing.

    So part of this discussion is about how to frame the doctrine of justification. Is it merely an ecclesiological doctrine (that is, it speaks to who is part of God’s people) or is it also a soteriological doctrine (that is, it solves the problem of how one gets to be part of God’s people)? Piper and many in the Reformed tradition see it as the latter. Wright and others in the Reformed tradition (including Baxter and a few others it can be argued – Michael Bird is the expert on this) see it as the former.

    I happen to line up with the traditionally Reformed on this subject. But I don’t believe that Wright is advocating salvation by works.

  5. Yooper

    I’m not sure that I understand Wright, but doesn’t Paul in Galatians 3 have something to say on the matter?

  6. Brian McLaughlin

    Trevin is spot on. Here is how I’ve understood Wright: “Paul’s presuppositions for justification are found in Judaism. Saul was not concerned about a timeless system of salvation, he was concerned about redeeming Israel. Using the law-court imagery popular in the prophets, Paul viewed justification as “God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was a member of his people.” Therefore, justification is about ecclesiology and not soteriology.”

    That is the one difference that the NPP brings: are Romans and Galatians soteriological or ecclesiological? The Reformed camp emphasizes soteriology and the NPP camp emphasizes ecclesiology. But, the two are obviously not mutually exclusive.

    Here is how you can read the letters via NPP exegesis and still be Reformed in theology: Paul was not responding to a proto-Pelagian heresy in Rom and Gal, but was responding to self-righteous Israelites who were denying that Gentiles were in the covenant community on faith in Christ alone. They self-righteously thought that the Gentiles had to follow Torah for full membership/maturity (see Gal. 3:1-5). This self-righteousness, by the way, carries the same mentality and theological consequences as Pelagianism, just with a more ecclesiological/sanctification emphasis. Paul responds by insisting on a covenant membership defined by faith in Jesus Christ alone that includes acquittal, forgiveness, and union with Christ (which includes imputation).

  7. Sure, one can still be Protestant. Was Luther Protestant when he nailed the 95 Theses to the door? He was PROTESTant for sure. Much more than we are now. But I don’t think any of us would argue that Luther had hammered out his doctrine of justification to a nuanced point where he could have embraced Piper’s description and rejected Wright’s. I guess it doesn’t much matter to me, as “Protestant” is certainly not a badge of honor that I wear proudly. Reformed and Calvinist are, however. And obviously, Wright can’t be called either of those. CHRISTIAN is another badge I wear–with the most pride; BOASTING, even. And that one Wright can wear.

  8. mikewittmer

    Trevin and Brian:

    Thanks for your insights–I wondered what I was missing. I had read Michael Bird’s explanation for Wright’s ecclesiological definition of justification, but I forgot it as I read his response to your questions, Trevin. It would have been helpful if Wright had mentioned his new (relative to the Reformers) use of the term in your interview, and he may want to do it every time he speaks to a Reformed audience in the near future, or he will probably continue to be misunderstood.

    And yet, while I’m not ready to declare until I’ve read his new book and have had time to reflect, it does seem, as Brian acknowledges, that ecclesiology and soteriology are not mutually exclusive. So I’m still concerned that justification, inasmuch as it retains some soteriological meaning, is said to be “on the basis” of our Spirit-empowered works.

    Wright himself seems to acknowledge this problem, as he said that Reformed people will accuse him of “smuggling in works-righteousness to salvation.” If he was not using justification in the soteriological sense, why didn’t he stop the misunderstanding right then by saying that he wasn’t using justification soteriologically? Why did he go on as if he did mean it soteriologically, saying that he accepts Paul’s repeated premise that people can do good works that please God?

    It seems to me that Wright was using justification in a soteriological sense at key times in your interview. I hope that I am wrong, as I would like to find common ground with the good bishop any chance I get, but his ecclesiological/soteriological distinction does not seem clear or consistently followed. I hope that his new book will help me.

  9. Mike,

    As a point of clarification, if Wright is using “justification” as a sign of the covenant as Brian and Trevin suggest, that puts the good bishop firmly in the Thomistic definition of salvation and justification, giving further credence to your claim that his new perspective is in fact Roman Catholic, or at least leaning that way. As you might recall, I am a big fan of the angelic doctor, so Wright’s ideas intrigue me. I look forward to reading his book as well to gain a more complete understanding of his position.

  10. Mike, you continue to be bothered by the phrase “on the basis of.” Would it bother you if he said “on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness”? Isn’t that just about the same thing as “on the basis of the Spirit”? Aren’t both theocentric, and consistent with Reformed theology? In this case you can have a judgment based upon works (Rom 2), but the works that are judged are the works of Christ and the Spirit.

    Is that Reformed or did I just create a new theology?

  11. I know my comment is not directly related to Mike’s primary point in his post, but I think it relates to much of what has been said in the comments….

    In light of a passage like Romans 5:9-10, I cannot for the life of me see how the doctrine of justification, for Paul, is not centrally salvific, whatever its ecclesiological implications:

    “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (NRSV)

    Justification by his blood (propitiatory atonement) leads to salvation from divine eschatological judgment/wrath — a concept that Paul then restates in terms of reconciliation through death, with ‘salvation’ language being used again. “Enemies” (of God) are “reconciled/saved”…it’s not merely a matter of covenantal outsiders now being included.

    How one gets from passages like this to a primarily ecclesiological view of justification is bewildering to me.

    Doug Phillips

  12. mikewittmer


    On the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness is not the same as on the basis of the Spirit’s empowered works. “On the basis of works” is what bothers me, not “on the basis of the Spirit.”

    Your statement that “you can have a judgment based upon works (Rom 2), but the works that are judged are the works of Christ and the Spirit” is precisely Augustine’s position. But Luther and Calvin went further when they said that justification, both now and in the future, is on the basis of faith alone and not works, whether inspired by us or by the Spirit.

    Again, I think that ultimately we have to follow wherever Scripture leads us, but I also think that we should do so with our eyes wide open, with an honest admission of how our new view might significantly differ from our Protestant (Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.) heritage. And I’m not yet convinced that saying justification is an ecclesiological rather than soteriological term avoids this problem.

    By the way, I learned alot from your three consecutive posts on the Wright-Piper controversy, and I agree with your conclusions there.

  13. Ironically Wright has been criticized quite a number of times by the other side in this debate as being too Reformed.
    James Dunn for example has debated with Wright over whether Wright’s soteriology is more Reformed and even Calvinistic than is biblically warranted by Dunn’s reading of the texts.

    I think the terminology issue is important, so I’m glad Trevin pointed that out. In many discussions of Wright (including Piper’s book) I get frustrated by the way there is often an unwillingness to look at his project as a whole, instead of pulling out one phrase or term and missing that he may deal with the things that people assume he’s abandoning, but under another heading as it were.

    I entered into my own study of Wright deeply appreciative of his work on Jesus and the Gospels, but quite wary of the NPP part of it. However, after reading most of his works, I have no doubt at all that he is not teaching anything that could be authentically called ‘works-righteousness’ or that is a slippery path to Rome. Wright might not line up 100% with everything Piper or Carson want to say, but I think one can argue he is just as true to the Protestant heritage as anything they are articulating.

  14. Thanks for not blocking my long rants Mike. I just enjoy this topic…

    Doug – you are right that justification is soteriological. Where I find NPP helpful is that exegetically Rom and Gal seem to be ecclesiological (who is a part of the people of God) and to make that point they both move to soteriology (proving that the people of God are not by Torah but by faith alone). This is how I think it blends both soteriology and ecclesiology. As Wright says, “if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well.” In other words, having a primarily ecclesiological exegesis does not take away any of the soteriological truths. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too!

    Mike – I’m not sure Wright would agree with my previous point on Romans 2 (I’m not sure I agree with it either!!). But our theologies have created a tension between justification and sanctification: Roman Catholics blend them and Reformers separate them completely. But Rom and Gal say both go together: the justified will be sanctified.

    One last point (for now). I was rereading Wright this morning and here is the debate in a nutshell: Piper views justification as how you become a child of God. Wright views justification as evidence you are a child of God. They both deem in forensic and by faith alone, but on different sides of the “salvation equation.”

    On that last point I’m with Piper, but I still like how NPP handles the primary issue of Rom and Gal being ecclesiology but moving to soteriology. Am I inconsistent?

  15. Hi Brian,

    It still seems to me that, in keeping with more traditional exegetical treatments of Romans and Galatians, that the trajectory is the reverse of what you suggest (so that it is from soteriology to eccesiology).

    In other words, in Romans, Paul is dealing with how a righteousness from God is available to those (both Jew and Greek) who, due to their sin, are liable to eschatological wrath.

    “Justification” relates to the provision of that righteousness. And when Paul describes such a justifying righteousness, he can refer to David’s situation of being ‘reckoned righteous’ or, in the language of Ps. 32 (quote in Rom.4), having one’s ‘iniquities forgiven’ and one’s ‘sins covered.’

    So it seems to me that the semantic and theological sphere of justification is, again, primarily and essentially salfivic (not eccesiological or even covenantal). And so, contrary to what I think Wright is saying, justification is, in fact, at the heart of the answer to the question: How can guilty sinners (whether Jew or Gentile) be saved?

    Doug Phillips

  16. Brian McLaughlin

    Doug – I agree completely with your thoughts on justification: it addresses how guilty sinners can be saved. I guess my reading of Romans is that the historical situation Paul is responding to is an issue of who constitutes the church, specifically, Jew or Gentile? This is evident from his Jew/Gentile concerns beginning in 1:16-17, concluding in 15:7-21, and all throughout the epistle, primarily in 9-11. Paul’s answer to the question of “who” is a description of “how.” The “who” is made up not of an ethnic people, but a people saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. I don’t think the historical situation Paul was addressing was the Roman church asking “how does a person get saved?”

    But, the good Dr. hasn’t told me if I’m inconsistent yet…

  17. Hey Brian,

    One more for now: I didn’t quite mean that the ‘historical situation Paul was addressing was the Roman church asking “how does a person get saved.” But nor would I say that it works well to frame the issue as ‘who constitutes the church?’

    It sounds like you and I might be closer to agreement than my understanding of Wright, but I still think that understanding Romans as Paul’s explanation of the Gospel to a church he had not personally ministered to is perhaps the most comprehensive way to think of the letter. And in Paul’s Gospel, justification is at the heart of Paul’s understanding of how and why the Gospel is good news — because Christ’s substitutionary death has accomplished propitiation, redemption and reconciliation, and provided a status of righteousness as a gift received by faith alone, apart from law-works.

    But now we’ll both wait for Dr. Mike to help us sort this out further!… 🙂

    Doug Phillips

  18. […] Witter explains N. T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul: “Wright acknowledges at the end of the […]

  19. Yooper

    I pulled out my copy of “Simply Christian” by N.T. Wright last night. I wonder how N.T. Wright considers the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be a Christian leader (Simply Christian, page 14)?

    Desmond Tutu apparaently believes in a salvation found through other means than Jesus Christ alone.

  20. mikewittmer

    Brian and Doug:

    Wow, in honor of our new president, I say that you guys are quickly elevating this discussion beyond my paygrade!

    There are lots of issues to untangle here, but I think it’s clear from Brian’s comments that ecclesiology and soteriology are inextricably intertwined in this conversation, which brings me back to my initial puzzler: if ecclesiology and soteriology are really two sides of the same coin, then how precisely does saying that Wright means justification in an ecclesiological sense get him off the Roman Catholic soteriological hook?

    If I had to choose sides in your conversation, my Calvinism will opt for Doug, as he has not said anything I can disagree with. I think that I mostly agree with what Brian says as well, except that the ecclesiological-soteriological distinction/non-distinction isn’t yet clear to me. Are you/Wright making a distinction there or not? I don’t think that you can have it both ways.

    I also disagree with Brian that the Reformers “separate completely” justification from sanctification. They distinguish them, but Calvin for one wouldn’t “separate them completely.”

    Heuristically (thank you Jim Grier), I am entrenched with Doug in my Reformed reading of Romans. I am intrigued by the NPP, though I am cautious because of what I don’t yet understand: is the lack of clarity my fault (it may be) or am I being schnookered?

  21. Brian McLaughlin

    One more on this thread…I think some of the lack of clarity in this thread is my fault. I have been simultaneously presenting Wright’s view, hypotheticals, questions, and my own view. That isn’t particularly helpful. So one last time I’ll try to answer a couple of the questions:

    Wright – who I believe to be solidly orthodox and mostly Reformed (like us baptists can only truly be MOSTLY Reformed, not completely) – believes justification is purely ecclesiological. Justification does not cause salvation, it is the result of salvation. It is an identity marker that tells who is a part of the family of God.

    Piper and Reformed camp believes that justification causes salvation, i.e., it actually does something not just identifies someone. They are purely soteriological. I imagine a more Reformed evidence of who is a part of the family of God is the Spirit or a life of sanctification (yes, Reformers are firm on sanctification, but it is disinguished pretty strongly at times).

    Personally, I see a blend. I greatly appreciate the NPP reading of Romans and Galatians (that the issue is not proto-Pelagianism, but Jew-Gentile relations: are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians on the same plane since Gentiles don’t observe Torah?). So the exegetical issue in these letters is primarily ecclesiological. However, in answering this question, Paul often moves to two major points: 1) entrance and growth in the family of God is not by Torah but by faith in Christ alone and 2) the Spirit is the marker of who is in, not circumcision or any aspect of Torah (this is Fee’s point). Clearly any discussion of “who is in” gets to a discussion of “how someone gets in.” So the two are always necessarily intertwined. How can you answer “who” without an appropriate understanding of “how”? Furthermore, if “how” actually changes us, then it changes us into a “who.” The two must go together.

    However, where I remain Reformed is that in the midst of this ecclesiological discussion, Paul goes back to the issue of “how one gets in” (justification), and discusses a purely Reformed understanding of justification. I believe justification does something, it is not simply a marker (Moo is good on this). Rather, the Spirit is the marker (again, Fee).

    So I think the NPPers have does us a great service in understanding the original intent of Rom/Gal, but the Reformers have clearly systematized the theology well.

    My view is clearly not Wright’s view…it may not even be an NPP view. In this case, back to a very original question, I think you can have an NPP exegesis and a Reformed systematic theology.

    Well, there it is, as Mike said, heuristically.

  22. […] of my favorite authors, Mike Wittmer, asks some good questions about N.T. Wright’s view of justification explained in my recent […]

  23. Yooper

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken of course. Is not “ecclesiological” justification dependent upon “soteriological” justification (there, I used those impressive words)? I picked up a used copy of Wright’s, “Simply Christian” a while back. This interview caused me to take it down from my shelf and read through it. I wish Wright had used a different person instead of Desmond Tutu as an example on page 14, and I still have this gnawing feeling that something is awry when a person who mocks the belief of salvation in Christ alone, is named as a Christian leader. Or is this another word play?

  24. […] leave a comment » I apologize for thr numerous N.T. Wright postings as of recent, but I thought I would pass along the following link to an interview done by Trevin Wax of Kingdom People with N.T. Wright regarding his upcoming book on justification and his on going debate with John Piper on the same topic. To read “Interview with N.T. Wright–Responding to John Piper” click here. In addition, Mike Wittmer has asked some follow up questions about the interview which you can read  here. […]

  25. Mich

    The number one issue people have with N.T. Wright is they don’t READ him.

    Wright says, like Luther, let’s go back to the text and READ Paul.

    His critics say, “That’s not what the Reformers say!”

    You may end up disagreeing with the Bishop, but go read him. His findings are always backed by rigorous exegesis.


  26. I do understand the difference between the 2 views. If you carefully read james [the text Rome used at the council of trent to refute luther] James does actualy speak of a ‘future justfied state’ based on works. that is he uses the example from Gen 22 to define Abrahams righteous state. In essence the reformers were seeing the Gen 15 account, Wright [and to a degree Rome] are seeing the Gen. 22 account.

  27. bryon

    I love seeing this here; for the past 2 years this has been a consideration amongst our church leaders. Moreover, this is a popular topic in chats amongst mid-MI pastors (which might be a tip on the two chatty folks above). Ironically, all the RCA pastors with whom I’ve talked side with Wright. Thank you, Doug, Brian, and Mike in particular.

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