If you are an American and you are reading this today you probably don’t like your in-laws very much. If you post a comment the whole world will know who you are, so carefully weigh the cost and benefit of doing so. It would probably be best for you to shut down your computer, grit your teeth, and go back in there, carefully avoiding all eye contact with your uncle Jack.
If you’re still here, this begins the critique section of my ETS paper, where I raise questions for clarification and areas that may need further development. Wright declares that he believes in grace alone and faith alone, and I take him at his word. Since he redefines justification as something other than our acceptance with God which happens at the moment of our conversion, he does not necessarily sacrifice grace alone and faith alone when he says that our final justification is by works. Nevertheless, his redefinition of justification may lead in a non-Protestant direction.
My first question: Does Wright show sufficient interest in the question of how sinners can be right with God? He is so concerned about his new definition of justification that he seems to neglect a more important matter—how we are saved or accepted by God.
1. Wright focuses on other questions
“You cannot, in short, have a Pauline doctrine of assurance (and the glory of the Reformation doctrine of justification is precisely assurance) without the Pauline doctrine of the Spirit” (Justification, 237).
“Romans 5-8 is, in fact, a single great argument for assurance…” (Justification, 225).
“Justification by faith—God’s declaration in the present time that all those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, all those who confess him as Lord, are true members in the renewed covenant, and are assured thereby of final salvation—belongs inextricably…within the framework of Paul’s vision of God’s single plan of salvation, through Israel and hence through Israel’s Messiah, for the sake of all the nations and ultimately of the whole cosmos” (Justification, 247).
“What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear. It is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family’ (WSPRS, 122).
Point: Wright focuses on our status after we’ve been saved rather than the act of becoming saved. He is more concerned about how we know we are in than how we got in.
b. Ethnic Unity: Jew and Gentile together in God’s cosmic reconciliation.
“Reading Paul strictly in his own context…we are forced to conclude…that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ ‘to come into a right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship….the first signs are that, for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family” (Justification, 116, cf. p. 132-33).
“But it isn’t an either-or. The whole point of the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world always was to deal with the sin and death that had infected humans and the whole creation. Paul takes that for granted throughout this passage, and you can’t understand Galatians without likewise assuming it all the way through. The problem of human sin, and the divine answer in terms of the rescue provided by the Messiah, is the presupposition….But it is not the main argument.” The main argument is that “God is now creating a worldwide family where ethnic origin, social class and gender are irrelevant…” (Justification, 132-33).
“The whole passage is about the forgiveness of sins, because the whole passage is about something larger, namely God’s covenant purpose to put the world right through his chosen people, Abraham’s family” (Justification, 224).
2. Wright downplays Luther’s question
a. He doesn’t think works-righteousness is a large problem. It wasn’t a problem for first century Jews or medieval Roman Catholics.
1) Jews weren’t trying to earn their salvation through meritorious works. Paul’s “zeal for Torah was not, however, a Pelagian religion of self-help moralism” (WSPRS, 35). The “works of the law” were not “the moral requirements that encouraged people to earn their own salvation by moral effort” (Justification, 44). “They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformed tradition loves to hate….What one might gain by such ‘works of the law’ is not a treasury of moral merit, but the assured status of belonging to God’s people, separated from the rest of humankind” (Justification, 117).
2) Roman Catholics aren’t trying to earn their salvation through meritorious works. “There is simply no way that human beings can make themselves fit for the presence or salvation of God. What is more, I know of no serious theologian, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, who thinks otherwise; indeed, one of the best expositions of the Augustinian or Lutheran or Calvinist doctrine of justification I have ever heard was given by a Jesuit, Father Edward Yarnold, in an ecumenical meeting. If Pelagius survives at all today, it is at the level of popular secular moralism, which is in any case becoming harder and harder to find in the Western world” (Justification, 116).
b. Nearly every time Wright mentions salvation by grace alone and faith alone he says “Yes, but.” Yes, but this is not Paul’s over-riding concern. Yes, but this is really an Augustinian or Reformation hang-up. Yes, but the term does not arise from this text.