I love Tom Wright. He is the only Christian leader I have paid to hear speak, and I considered it money well spent. I once heard him lecture on worship, and I realized that I had probably never worshipped before in my life. I read his stuff on God’s cosmic plan of redemption, and I thought that I was just beginning to understand the immense scope of salvation. I cheered Wright on Nightline and The Colbert Report and on most of what he said in his new release, Justification.
But before I get to that, I want to target the part of the book that troubles me. Wright says here, as he has said before, that our present justification is by faith and our future and final justification is by works. Wright does not say that we merit or earn our final justification, because the good works that we do are the gifts of grace and they are never perfect, but merely “seeking” or “looking toward” God’s righteousness (192, 237). As the medievals would say, these works earn merit de congruo rather than merit de condigno (“close enough” rather than “full merit”).
I am not sure that I completely understand Wright’s view, for sometimes he says that we are justified solely by faith in Jesus (“the only justification the Christian will ever have is because of the merits of the Messiah, clung to by faith, rather than any work” ; “Paul concentrates on attributing justification, not to anything at all on the part of those who are justified, but to the work of the Messiah” ; and our assurance “rests all its weight, not on anything in ourselves, but only on God’s achievement in Christ” ), but he also repeatedly says that our final judgment or justification is “according to works” (102, 187, 191, 214, 234, 238).
He apparently reconciles this tension by declaring that our faith in Jesus must also include faith in the Holy Spirit, who inspires us to do increasingly good works which demonstrate that we are the children of God and so receive God’s final verdict that we are righteous (107, 146, 188, 239). This final justification by works seems more foundational than our present justification by faith, for Wright says that the point of our present justification is that it lets us know, in advance, what our final verdict will be. We now know by faith what will ultimately be true “on the basis of the entire life!” (214, cf. 139, 144, 147, 204, 215, 225, 239).
I will examine later the biblical-theological merits of Wright’s view, but for now I want to ask if his view is sufficiently Protestant. When I raised this question several months ago, some of you responded that Wright’s view was Protestant because he was using justification as an ecclesiological rather than a soteriological category. I didn’t think that let him off the hook, for as Cyprian taught us, ecclesiology and soteriology are inter-related (“Outside the church there is no salvation”). Wright himself makes the same point: “Is this ‘ecclesiology’ as opposed to ‘soteriology’? Of course not. It is ecclesiology (membership in God’s people) as the advance sign of soteriology (being saved on the last day. It is ‘justification’ in the present, anticipating the verdict of the future” (146-47, emphasis his; cf. 132, 174, 214).
The historic Protestant position distinguishes justification from sanctification, with the former coming solely by faith in Christ and the latter being the good works which arise from and attest to our regenerated and justified state. Roman Catholics conflate justification and sanctification, so that good works are an essential part of our justification.
Here is my question: is Wright’s view sufficiently Protestant? If so, how? If not, aren’t Protestant pastors who adopt Wright’s position obligated to inform their congregation that they differ from the historic Protestant view on justification?
Note that Wright’s big-tent Anglicanism may not feel pressed to answer the Protestant question, but it is a concern to those who serve in Protestant churches.