is this Protestant?

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” [186]; “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” [225]; and our assurance “rests all its weight, not on anything in ourselves, but only on God’s achievement in Christ” [238]), 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.


Add yours →

  1. I understand that N.T. Wright often critiques other Protestant understandings of the word “justification”. Is that true? If so, would you define for us what exactly Wright understands the word “justification” to mean, and how (if it is in fact different) Wright’s understanding differs from how Luther came to understand the word, and how Calvin understood the word?

  2. Let me be clear…I understand that this discussion, and your question as to the protestant nature of Wright’s thought centers on justification as a theological concept. I suppose I am attempting to ask a more technical question regarding any difference between his and the classic Protestant understanding of the dikaiow word group itself.

  3. What would Wright say concerning a person who placed their faith in Christ, but then died before producing good works? For example, a death-bed conversion or a tragic accident on the way home from the church service where the person came to faith? Would he say that the person is saved through faith or that he/she is not because there are no works?

  4. Mike, I don’t feel too qualified to interact with this material. I have Wright’s book and feel like I can never quite get a handle on it. I’m starting a series on Romans in the Fall, so this is no small matter to me right now.

    I do pray that you will continue to interact with Wright. I, for one, will benefit if you do.

  5. Mike:
    I wonder if the framing of your question is not just a reformulation of the Piperian view and sets us up to commit the error that Wright is addressing, viz., imposing a Protestant reading over Paul. It seems that your question sneaks in the back door some notion that Wright’s view is not sufficiently biblical while the Protestant view (historically understood) is sufficiently biblical. But, is this not the question that Wright’s view raises?

    Could we equally ask: “Is the Protestant view sufficiently Pauline?”

    Just thinking…

  6. Brian McLaughlin June 26, 2009 — 8:14 am

    I think he is still Protestant. A few things have to be kept in mind: 1) there is no meritorious salvation in his system, it is all about grace, Christ, faith, etc. 2) Related to this, he is Protestant because in this system he still holds to the five solas. He hasn’t forfeited any of them, in fact, he would claim he is doing justice to sola scriptura because scripture does use justification and works together in several places. 3) Wright has a slight change in a traditional definition of justification. He doesn’t view it as what leads to salvation, but evidence of salvation. It is in this context that his definition is more ecclesiology than soteriology. Not that the two are separate, but justification tells who is “in” not “how to get in.”

    Interesting side note on this soteriology/ecclesiology comment. You are correct, they cannot be divorced. This leads Gordon Fee to comment on Gal. 3:28 (which is often used by many evangelicals to say the equality of men and women is salvific and not related to church leadership). Fee says that soteriology necessarily impacts ecclesiology, therefore, if men and women are equal in salvation they are equal in the church. We need to chew on that one.

  7. Mike:

    I think Wright’s position is Protestant insofar as it is orthodox (so far as I can tell) and not a direct restatement of the Council of Trent. I think the concerns here are (1) what exactly is a Protestant definition of justification (see Justin’s note above); and (2) how much tension between works and grace can your doctrine of justification withstand. On the surface, I both applaud Wright for trying to take the best of many positions and meld them together and yet express some reservations because he has not fully ironed out some of the more troubling aspects of his statements, as you have noted above. Is there such a thing as an Arminian Lutheran? In many respects, this seems like an apt label for how I understand Wright to be defining justification.

  8. I would love to answer your question, but I have to agree with Chris Brauns. In all honest I am still trying to understand Wright’s position in all of it’s nuances. Maybe it’s the slight variation between his British English and my American English, or maybe it’s simply his vast intellect thats far superior to mine. Whatever the cause I am still scratching my head???

  9. Perhaps it would help if we remember that when Wright is saying things like “judgement according to works” he is not pulling these words out of a hat but is trying to make sense of Paul himself who says, “He will render to each one according to his works”. I know that we can quibble over using the word “basis” but if we understand Wright correctly then, I think, we are not far from what Paul himself meant. Romans 2 has scared me stupid many times but to think that judgment has already been brought forward into the present because of Christ Jesus and that gives me great hope.

  10. Justin:

    I don’t have Wright’s book in front of me now, but if memory serves, I believe that Wright uses justification in the same sense that Luther and Calvin did–it is God’s declaration that we are in the right. He says that this happens exclusively by our union with Christ (Luther and Calvin would add, contra Wright, that this union also supplies the imputed righteousness of Christ). So while Wright and the Reformers may differ on how we are justified (whether by imputation and whether by faith and/or works), they seem to agree on the basic meaning of the dikaiow word group.

  11. Tim:

    Wright would say that there is no quota of good works that a person must meet, but that their life, at whatever length, must demonstrate that they are God’s children (or at least not show that they aren’t).

  12. Mike,
    The main problem that you and almost everyone who asks this questions is that you seem interpret Wright’s discussion of justification through the standard definition of justification. When that is done it is quite easy to come out with some disturbing ideas. When you read Wright on how justification happens you have to remember that for him final justification is not the act where God declares someone to be in the right, but it is the act where God declares who has already been saved. Final justification, according to Wright, announces to the cosmos who the people of God are, it is not an effective salvific act. So then according to Wright justification according to works means we are displayed by God, as His people, to the cosmos, according to works. Our works are the means by which we are shown to be God’s people, not the means by which we become God’s people.

    On a lexical level, Wright obviously is in stark contrast to Luther’s definition where justification is almost equal to salvation. But on a deeper theological level Wright would echo the Reformers saying that salvation is only by grace through faith, so attributing merit de congruo is probably not right.

    Now you can certainly disagree with definition, and I do a bit, but the key is understanding his discussion of final justification being according to works is understanding his definition of final justification.

  13. Brian McLaughlin June 26, 2009 — 12:02 pm

    Mike, you are correct in that Wright is consistent with Luther/Calvin that justification is law court imagery, a declaration, etc, etc. But there is one significant difference: the Lutheran/Reformed tradition views justification as doing something (providing salvation), Wright’s position is that it is evidence of something (that someone has been saved). I haven’t read his newest, but in What Saint Paul Really Said Wright says this: justification is “God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was a member of his people.”

    Also, there is still something Reformed and Protestant about his understanding of works. Here is a quote from Piper (who quotes Wright) about the role of works: “I [Piper] have no hesitancy in agreeing with Wright when he says, ‘The attempt to shore up justification by faith in saying that the life we now live will be irrelevant at the final judgment is unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself.’ On that we agree.” (The Future of Justification, 116)

  14. Dan:

    Thank you for this. It is very helpful. I would just say that I don’t think Wright made this distinction clearly in this book. Several times he promised that he would clarify the relationship between our present justification by faith and our future justification by works, and I kept waiting for him to do it, but unless I missed it, I don’t think he did. And since this gets to the crux of the whole issue, it’s remarkable that he didn’t clearly and repeatedly make this distinction. Of course, I’m open to you showing me what I may have missed.

  15. Brian:

    Thanks so much. Your comment with Dan’s helps a lot. And it makes sense of his three quotes, cited in my post, which emphasize that our justification is grounded entirely in our faith in Christ. That’s why I said that I’m not sure whether I am understanding him correctly, because I couldn’t square those statements with his other statements concerning works. It’s unfathomable to me that he didn’t clearly and repeatedly emphasize this distinction in this book (unless I repeatedly missed it!).

    Thinking out loud here, but is it too simplistic to say that Wright’s present justification is roughly equivalent to the Reformer’s meaning of justification, and his final justification corresponds to what they called sanctification and glorification?

  16. For Wright, are we justified (declared righteous both in the present and future) based on faith (a firm and hearty trust) in the accomplished work of Jesus Christ, or are we justified based on our demonstrating this reality (our justification) in the whole of our life lived?

    Or to look at it from a different angle: On the doctrine of assurance, where would N.T. Wright (as a pastor) ultimately point someone who was struggling? Would he urge them to look at the whole of their life lived for God, or would he point them to the finished work of Christ and urge them to place their trust there?

    The answer to this will (in my humble opinion) determine whether or not he stands within the Reformed tradition of Christianity.

  17. Brian McLaughlin June 26, 2009 — 2:10 pm

    Justin, I’m pretty sure that Wright would always point someone to the finished work of Christ, especially the resurrection. This comes through clearly in Surprised by Hope and The Victory of the Son of God. He may (I’m speculating here) say that works are evidence of genuine faith. I hear that a lot in evangelical circles and is not new. So I guess in the end it isn’t 100% either/or.

    Mike, its a good question on sanctification/glorification. I don’t know. I imagine the way to resolve a lot of these issues is to read Wright’s detailed Romans commentary. I don’t own it yet but it is on the horizon. It would be interesting to see him walk through a detailed exegesis rather than simply a summary.

  18. How could you write that whole review without mentioning “union with Christ”? 🙂

  19. Justin:
    You asked “For Wright, are we justified (declared righteous both in the present and future) based on faith (a firm and hearty trust) in the accomplished work of Jesus Christ, or are we justified based on our demonstrating this reality (our justification) in the whole of our life lived?”

    He says that in the present justification is by faith but at the judgement according to works, or as he says “the whole life lived” but remember what I said earlier about how he defines justification, it is not effectually salvific but a declaration that someone already is in the covenant ie saved.

    As for the assurance question, his commentary on Romans 5-8 in the NIBC is excellent. He has also discussed this in Phil 3. Wright says this in a recent interview with BW3:

    “The initial verdict is the true anticipation of the final one because God will complete the good work he has begun (Philippians 1). That doesn’t lead Paul to a careless, oh-well-I’m-going-to-make-it-so-who-cares stance, because there is always the possibility that he is self-deceived and that having preached to others he himself will be a castaway (1 Cor 9). But I see that possibility as self-deception about genuine faith rather than faith today and apostasy tomorrow. Pastorally this may be a hard call for oneself and for others, which is why all the time the focus has to be away from oneself and towards God. Which is why the disciplines of scripture, sacrament and service to the poor are all vital.”

    Hope that helps!

  20. Matt:

    Thanks for sticking up for the good Westerholm name. Wright did criticize your uncle several times in the book, but none of them seemed particularly salient. I still think that his “Perspectives Old and New on Paul” (Eerdmans) is the best overview of this whole discussion and the place to start for anyone who wants to join the conversation.

  21. I will reiterate a few points made above in a slightly different way in an attempt to help clarify things a bit. The repeated postings of Daniel (hello again!) are correct that the crucial thing to realize about Wright is how differently he has defined justification. Justification for Wright is the declaration that one is a member of God’s covenant people. It is a declaration that one is “in the right” in the trial asking the question “who are the true covenant people of God?” That is very different than declaring who is “in the right” in the sense of having no sin and a record of good deeds in one’s moral bank account (the standard Reformed line).

    This reorients not only the significance of works in final justification, but also the significance of faith in present justification. According to Wright, conversion occurs in what Paul terms the “call,” when the Holy Spirit works through the proclamation of the gospel to bring one to faith in Christ. Present justification, in this view, is the declaration that one has been brought into the family of God’s covenant people, and this declaration is made on the basis of the reliable evidence that this has happened: faith. Future justification means exactly the same thing. It is a declaration of one’s membership in God’s people. Only, in this case, the evidence taken into account is the believer’s Spirit-inspired works. Just as faith is the initial evidence that God has brought one into his family, a transformed life is the final evidence that one truly was brought into God’s family through the call. Neither of these instances of justification make one a Christian, and although they certainly have soteriological implications (because a covenant member is surely one who is and will be saved), they are properly declarations about ecclesiology. These declarations are based on the evidence that demonstrates that one is a member of God’s people. The role that either faith or works play in making one a Christian is not addressed in Wright’s doctrine of justification, because justification simply isn’t answering that question or standing as a verdict in that court-case.

    Whether or not he is right is obviously another issue altogether, but one who denies that Wright is a Protestant based on his doctrine of justification hasn’t understood him yet.

  22. Andrew:

    Thanks so much for your helpful post. I think that this thread illustrates the difficulty which us Reformed folks have in understanding Wright. Some of the articulations of Wright’s view say that he distinguishes present from final justification, others that it is the same thing; some that it is soteriological because it is ecclesiological, others that it is ecclesiological and not soteriological. I’m not criticizing any of you–and I am genuinely thankful for your helpful insights–but I think it emphasizes that Wright, for all of his remarkable communication skills–doesn’t clearly articulate his own view in contrast to Piper in this book. That’s a shame, and inexcusable given the stated purpose of his book. For all that I still enjoyed the book and like Wright a lot, I’m just disappointed by his lack of clarity.

  23. Mike,

    Wright certainly has been difficult for the Reformed to understand (and I consider myself one of “us Reformed folks”). One of the problems is that the same misrepresentations of his position have been repeated over and over by Reformed critics, but you are right that some of the burden rests on Wright. I the new book, I think he made a tactical mistake in how he responded to Piper. Piper tentatively suggests that the logical outcome of Wright’s position is a version of works-based salvation because Wright believes in final justification by works. Wright has responded to this in two ways in the past. One is to emphasize that the works are Spirit-wrought, and thus cannot be meritorious. This is the response that he explicitly juxtaposes to Piper’s charge in the book. The other is to explain how his understanding of justification does not address the basis of salvation because justification is an analytical declaration about covenant membership rather than a constitutive declaration that brings one into the people of God (as per my comment above). He repeats this latter explanation in the book at the conceptual level, but he fails to bring it into explicit juxtaposition with Piper’s charge, so many readers are still not getting that point. This omission is perpetuating a lot of the confusion. He could have done better there.

  24. Andrew:

    I agree entirely with your assessment. I cannot fathom how Wright could write a book ostensibly responding to Piper and omit a crucial piece of that response. And then when Piper and myself say that he doesn’t sound Protestant, he will say that we don’t understand that the earth goes around the sun (his metaphor in the book). It seems like one side of this conversation is working really hard to understand the other, while the other (Wright), for whatever reason, is withholding key pieces of information. This is very frustrating. Now I have to go back and re-read the book with your insights in mind–i.e., reading what Wright doesn’t say back into the book and see whether this makes a difference.

    I will say that Wright doesn’t seem too afraid of the “you’re not Protestant” charge, as the only reason he gives in the book is that, as you say, we’re justified by our Spirit-driven works. This is classic Augustinianism, but not what the Reformers taught.

  25. Tyler Robinson June 30, 2009 — 6:28 pm

    Hey Professor,

    I’m working my way through Justification, but it seems that Wright seems very focused on the normative ends of justification – the tires that move to the right or to the left after the spin of the wheel (to use his metaphor). This focus seems consistent with his work as Surprised By Hope is very much about our normative response to his “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” theology (I’m assuming he got the idea for SBH after he read your book). I wonder if Wright focuses on one end of the spectrum so much because he might be assuming the affirmation of the other side which may or may not be a miscalculation on his part.


    Had a similar conversation about Wright with Professor Grinnell last week after he was done trying to convince us that too many people give Plato a bad rap.

  26. Tyler:

    I’m not sure I know what you mean by “the normative ends of justification.” Can you explain? And “normative ends” as opposed to what other ends? And who gives Plato a bad rap?🙂

  27. Okay . . . so my homework after this thread was to read Westerholm (Stephen rather than Matt), Perspectives Old and New on Paul. He concludes:

    “As I see things, the critics have rightly defined the occasion that elicited the formulation of Paul’s doctrine and have reminded us of its first-century social and strategic significance; the “Lutherans,” for their part, rightly captured Paul’s rationale and basic point. For those (like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) bent on applying Paul’s words to contemporary situations, it is the point rather than the historical occasion of the formulation that is crucial. Students of early Christianity must attempt to do justice to both (page 445).”

    What might help me get a better handle on this is to understand the road ditches into which each group might swerve.

    Mike, would you agree that a potential road ditch for the Lutheran emphasis is an unhealthy individualism that diminishes the centrality of the Church/church?

    Whereas for the NP, it might be a very fuzzy presentation of the Gospel that does not strongly call for individuals to repent and believe?

  28. Chris:

    I think you nailed it. As I was reading Wright’s “Justification,” it struck me that I have both dogs in this fight. Not to be self-serving about it, but “Heaven is a Place on Earth” attempted to recover the cosmic scope of the gospel, which Wright does so well and Piper not always; and “Don’t Stop Believing” emphasized the details of the gospel which Piper nails and which Wright, or especially some of his followers (see the endorsers of “Justification”) are in danger of omitting. If I had to choose, I’d rather make Piper’s mistake than the New Perspectives, but I don’t see why we can have both. And that’s why I appreciate Westerholm–he strikes just the right balance, it seems to me.

  29. I talked to one of the Hochster’s old crowd when I ordered the Westerholm book. He said, “I think that biblical theologians tend to favor the New Perspective, while systematic guys lean towards Luther.” It’s an interesting observation that fits with the N.P. emphasis at a time when the emphasis on biblical theology is also ramping up.

  30. Does Wright ever clarify himself as a protestant?

    The Anglican church has historically fallen half-way between protestants and catholics on many issues; so I find it ironic that he would be considered a protestant.

  31. Randy,

    Wright often locates himself within the Reformed tradition, emphasizing, however, that he has adopted more of the Reformers’ methodology than their conclusions. He certainly cannot be accused of granting to tradition the level of authority that it has in the Catholic church. Although he is fairly ecumenical toward Catholics, as he believes in the legitimacy of their confession of Jesus as Lord, it would be a mistake to group him in that category.

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