Doubts about the Bishop of Durham

07 May 2008

Evangelical big guns are firing away. John Saxbee explains what it’s all about

The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright
John Piper

“CHRIST died for us and our salvation.”

It would be very difficult to call oneself a Christian and not assent in some way to this article of faith. While for many Christians it is simply sufficient to accept Christ’s death as “for us”, and not to press too hard for an exact account of how this is the case, others feel a need to get at the mechanics of it all, so as to give a precise account of the work of Christ.

Of course, St Paul engages with this issue as a primary concern, be-cause it is at the heart of the gospel that saved him from his former life, and is central to the gospel he expounded and proclaimed. For Evangelical Christians, in particular, it has been axiomatic that Paul espoused a doctrine of justification by faith alone, and that he understood this in terms of Jesus’s bearing the due punishment for sin required by the righteous wrath of God, so that our sins are seen to be taken seriously while our salvation is none the less secured.

In recent years, a “New Perspective” on Paul has been promoted by J. D. G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright. It is the latter’s espousal of this New Perspective which has caused some considerable fluttering in the Evangelical dovecotes. Bishop Tom Wright has an international reputation as an Evangelical whose credentials as a biblical scholar, teacher, preacher, and pastor are of the highest order. When he is suspected of compromising traditional Evangelical teaching, especially in relation to the iconic doctrine of justification, then the big guns need to be trained on him — and among Evangelical conservatives, the guns don’t get much bigger than John Piper. He is Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and as an author he is no less prolific than Wright himself.

The key issue at stake here is whether salvation is achieved by faith in the justifying death of Christ, or whether, as Wright argues, being justified by Christ’s death is the confirmation of salvation achieved by being called into membership of God’s covenant people, who share the vindication secured by Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Does faith in Christ’s justifying death define salvation (Piper), or is it an implication of salvation already achieved on other terms (Wright)? For Piper, who has preached the primacy and priority of justification by faith alone all his life, like his father before him, the stakes are huge; and he argues his case with courtesy but barely disguised indignation. He is in no doubt that Tom Wright’s own salvation is at stake here, and so also at stake are the souls of those who are seduced by his catalogue of errors.

In 12 closely argued chapters, we are taken on a tour of current intra-Evangelical controversies that have threatened to retard the apparently inexorable rise of Evangelical Christianity around the world.

Did Jesus substitute for us on the cross, and was that substitution penal? Is righteousness imparted or imputed to those who have faith in Christ’s blood — and is the righteousness of the redeemed sinner of the same order as the righteousness of God? Was Christ’s obedience imputed to us along with his death and resurrection? What is the status of good works in the economy of salvation? How did grace and law relate to each other in second-Temple Judaism, as expressed in Paul’s soteriology?

A prodigious amount of text-trading takes place here, and it is not easy to discern what is fair trade and what isn’t. Suffice it to say that the real battle lines are drawn between Wright’s passionate commitment to the Kingship of Christ as Saviour of the World, and Piper’s equally passionate commitment to Christ as personal Saviour.

Both would see the other’s emphasis as an implication of their own; so we are left to wonder whether, on strictly Evangelical terms, they are equally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Meanwhile, after what can feel like over-exposure to a bout of Evangelical arm-wrestling, Mrs Alexander’s reassurance that “He died that we might be forgiven” and “He died to make us good” has a kind of refreshing simplicity.

Dr Saxbee is Bishop of Lincoln.

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