A Wesleyan-Arminian Analysis of the New Perspective on Paul
A Biblical Critique of Dr. N. T. Wright’s View on Justification from the Book of Romans
Justification has been a hot-button topic in evangelical circles for a generation or more. Not only does the debate rage between Protestant and Catholic theologies, but even within Protestantism itself. No longer is it simply the dispute between Reformed theology and Arminian theology, but between conservative, biblical theology and ecumenical, liberal theology. This liberal theology has many shapes and forms, and its influence is felt throughout Christendom.
In this coliseum of ideas is a loosely-connected group of scholars known as the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter referred to as NPP). This group challenges the traditional interpretation of Paul and other New Testament writers, of the patristic writers, and as well the Reformation writers and scholars. One critique summarizes the movement this way:
“At the heart of NPP’s critique of both Protestant and Catholic interpretation of Paul is the charge that Reformational-era theologians read Paul via a medieval framework that obscured the categories of first-century Judaism, resulting in a complete misunderstanding of his teaching on Justification. The ideas of “the righteousness of God,” “imputation,” and even the definition of justification itself—all these have been invented or misunderstood by Lutheran and Catholic traditions of interpretation.”
Several men initiated the current ideas of the NPP. E. P. Sanders, who studied the Judaism of Paul’s day (called Second Temple Judaism), accuses the Protestants of the Reformation as interpreting Paul incorrectly; namely, that they interpreted Paul in the framework of their fight against the legalism of Roman Catholicism. He claimed that Judaism in the first century was not a Pharisaical legalism, but rather a religion of grace. Subsequent to Sanders was James D. G. Dunn, who promoted the idea that Paul’s “denial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws.”
Enter the leading modern advocate of the NPP, N. T. Wright. Wright is a bishop in the Anglican Church and is a prolific author, having written some thirty books. Wright is one of the few in this movement who considers himself an evangelical. His book, What Saint Paul Really Said, published in 1997, brought together in a cohesive unit the basic teachings of the NPP, while carrying them to their conclusion. Wright argues that he does not agree completely with Sanders, Dunn, and others, yet concurs enough to draw his own new conclusions as to the real meaning of Paul. Many scholars sprang to the defense of the “old perspective,” but none with the proficiency and notoriety of John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. Piper responded to Wright’s claims in his own publication, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, published in 2007. Following the firestorm surrounding those two books, Wright authored another tome in 2009, this time entitled Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. This book is perhaps Wright’s best treatment of the subject of justification.
The focus here will not be to explore the interaction of Wright with the Reformed theology, although that group interacts with him more than any other. Instead, the focus will be to extricate from his writings – books, magazine articles, web offerings, and interviews – the core of his belief, and then to compare his theology with Paul’s, more specifically to Paul’s writing in Romans. It is most unfortunate that Wright reprimands the Reformed theology writers for pretending to know the mind of Paul, and yet makes the same claim himself: “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions.”
The Forensic Nature of Justification
The first avenue to explore is the forensic nature of justification recognized by Wright. He is correct in assessing justification as a law-court metaphor, and evangelicals concur. The Greek word dikaioß and its cognates do have a forensic meaning, but Wright has a peculiar idea of how it plays out. The dilemma comes with his understanding and application of that imagery. He suggests that the court in mind is a Hebrew civil court, where a defendant and a plaintiff stand before a judge. The participants in this scene are God as the Judge, the people of God as the defendants, and idolaters as the plaintiffs. His conclusion is that God the Judge rules in favor of His people against their enemies. Wright equates justification with vindication.
Paul’s teaching on justification is much more substantive, and in reality describes a different scenario than that drawn by Wright. In Romans Paul speaks to the guilt of everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, in 1:18-3:20. In other words, each one stands before the Judge guilty of breaking the law. “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). This is not civil court language but rather criminal court language. Each defendant stands alone before the Judge, and has been declared guilty of the crimes presented against him. Then Paul presents the sentence; not the expected sentence of death for the defendant, but the sentence of acquittal for the guilty because the real sentence has been placed on a substitute. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:22b-26) Perhaps one of the best definitions to incorporate every one of these ideas comes from the pen of the British Wesleyan Dr. Jabez Bunting:
“To justify a sinner is to account and consider him relatively righteous; and to deal with him as such, notwithstanding his past unrighteousness, by clearing, absolving, discharging, and releasing him from various penal evils, and especially from the wrath of God, and the liability to eternal death, which by that past unrighteousness he had deserved; and by accepting him as if just, and admitting him to the state, the privileges, and the rewards of righteousness.”
The Relationship of Salvation to Justification
The view of the gospel of salvation as held by Wright is suspect, and affects his view of justification. He deliberates extensively in his writings concerning what the gospel is and is not. It is not, says Wright, a system of how salvation occurs, or how people “get in” to the family of God. Rather, he argues that it is more about God’s declaration that someone is a person of God. But the basis for that justifiable declaration is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. For Wright, justification occurs when a person of God believes that Jesus is Lord through His resurrection (Rom. 10:9-10). He further proposes that God does not declare a man to be righteous, but to be in the right. His interpretation is that God simply finds in the favor of the one indicted, and providentially declares that one is in His family. He prefers to think of justification as an ecclesiological doctrine rather than a soteriological one.
This view flies in the face of the Apostle Paul and his treatise of the subject in Romans. While proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” on the basis of His being raised from the dead is very important, it is not enough to fulfill the demands of a righteous God. According to Paul, it is the blood of Christ that is the ground of justification (Rom. 3:24; 5:9). This implies that the cross of Christ, upon which His blood was shed for man’s redemption (Rom. 3:24), is as important of a factor as the resurrection is. In fact, “that God raised him from the dead” must be understood from all of Paul’s instruction, and means that the resurrection validated Christ’s work accomplished on the cross for mankind.
Since there is no emphasis on the work of Christ in justification, Wright also never verbalizes any need for repentance or for the need to “flee from the wrath to come” (Rom. 2:4-5; 5:9). As a matter of record, none of Wright’s discourses express in any tangible way the necessity of appeasing the wrath of God against mankind. He never addresses the death of Christ as a satisfaction of God’s just demands and as a propitiation for God’s wrath. He does not even explain how the proclamation of Jesus as Lord results in sinners being saved. Evangelicals know that the good news is indeed more than simply declaring Jesus as Lord. It also includes Jesus as Savior, providing the only means by which man may avoid God’s wrath.
Righteousness and Justification
Dr. Wright describes righteousness as a forensic term, but a perusal of his work demonstrates that he views it more as a covenantal term. The “righteousness of God” in his understanding denotes the righteous acts by God because of His faithfulness that fulfills His covenant with Israel. Essentially, it expresses the covenant faithfulness of God. When the word righteousness is applied to humans, Wright characterizes it as covenant membership. It is a declared righteousness by the judge, a pronouncing of the defendant to be in right standing. Imputed righteousness is portrayed as God recognizing the person as a new member of the covenant and not, as Reformed theologians suggest, God placing His righteousness on the person. He claims that imputation of God’s righteousness never has anything to do with what is done to the believer, but what is done for the believer. Wright occasionally stabs at the Roman Catholic doctrine that teaches the impartation of God’s righteousness, but insists that his view will bring Protestants and Catholics to an agreement.
Though Wright claims to be an exegete, his exegesis appears to be more eisegesis. Imputation is taught in Paul’s writings, specifically in the epistle to the Romans. The Greek term for imputation, logizomai, is used by Paul eleven times in Romans 4 alone. Wright is correct in rejecting the Reformed view of the imputation of Christ’s active and passive righteousness. Wesleyan-Arminians also reject this view. He is incorrect in his assumption that the righteousness of God always means His covenant faithfulness. As true exegetes know, context necessarily determines the usage of a word. In the context of Romans 3 and 4 Paul teaches that a believer’s faith in the atoning work of Christ is credited, or imputed, to him for righteousness. Romans 3:21-26 clearly indicates that the righteousness of God is imputed to a believer, and that it frees him from the punishment for sin. In chapter 4:1-5 Paul uses the example of Abraham not to demonstrate God’s covenant faithfulness, but to insist that Abraham’s faith was the condition he met which resulted in him being declared righteous and his sins forgiven. He quotes David in Rom 4:5-8 for the same reason, to indicate the true understanding of the imputation of righteousness, which is pardon from sin.
Since Paul views condemnation as the converse of justification (Rom. 8:33-34), the imputation of righteousness must therefore be the non-imputation of sin, which refers to the pardon or forgiveness of sins. Pardon is the benefit of Christ’s death, and that is accounted to the believer. There is a declaration of righteousness which takes place, although we differ with Wright on what that means. The declaration concerns the fact that the one who by faith accepts the saving work of Christ is now pronounced absolved from sin and righteous because of that deliverance from the condemnation and judgment of God. It is through the instrumentality of faith that a believer is justified, and that faith is reckoned as righteousness.
The Eschatological Sense of Justification
For Wright, a correct understanding of Paul’s view of justification begins in the future and works backward. He contends that Romans 2:1-16 refers to God’s final judgment of the world, where some will be found guilty and some will be vindicated. This, according to Wright, is final justification. This “final” justification occurs on the basis of a person’s entire life, led in the power of the Spirit, and will be judged based on the person’s works as led in the Spirit (2:13).
The final justification is based on the past action of God through the Messiah, who was faithful and obedient to God’s covenant right up to His death on the cross. The resurrection is emphasized by Wright, and through it God decisively declared Jesus as the means through which sin had been handled. He asserts that the faithful death of Jesus accomplished what the law could not do (Rom. 8:3), but the resurrection was the causal event that brought about this no condemnation for those who belong to the Messiah (Rom. 8:1, 31-39).
Wright concludes that justification in the present hinges on the past accomplishment of God through the Messiah, and also anticipates the future judgment at the final judgment. In the present, one is vindicated by believing in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3:21-31; 4:13-25; 10:9-13). It is not a change of heart and character, according to Wright, but a declaration that the person is now in the right, bestowing a status of “righteous.” This, in Wright’s mind, unites all believers into a single family unit, the promised family of Abraham. Baptism is viewed as the occasion in the present which corresponds to the death and resurrection of the Messiah in the past and the resurrection of believers in the future. Baptism is a sacrament of God’s grace, and those baptized are already saved although “in hope” (Rom. 8:24).
That justification has future implications is undeniably correct. Wright, however, seems to confuse justification, sanctification, and glorification, wrapping them neatly into one bundle. It is inconceivable that justification could be according to faith in the present, but be according to works in the future. Paul is very clear that justification is by faith apart from works (Rom. 1:17; 3:26; 4:1-6). Whereas the Bible declares justification by faith and attested to by works, Wright sees justification to be by works at the final judgment and anticipated by faith in the present. Protestant theology clearly teaches justification by faith attested to by works, while Wright apparently agrees with Catholicism in that faith plus works equals justification. While he does state that believers do not merit salvation by works, his doctrine of final justification requires us to present our works as a basis on which we can ultimately be justified. The Wesleyan-Arminian stance is a denial of a final judgment on the basis of works for believers, but an acceptance of a final judgment according to works.
This view presented by Wright does not have the death and resurrection of Jesus as the sole basis for justification, but rather the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation with us. The question is: How do we have a transformed life through the Holy Spirit without the death and resurrection of Christ? It is in this respect that Wright merges the declaration of salvation – justification – with the transformation of salvation – sanctification. The basis of our assurance that we are accepted of God is no longer the sufficiency of the work of Christ on our behalf, but instead it rests on the sufficiency of what the Holy Spirit is doing inside of us.
Point of fact is, Romans 2:6-11 does not reference how believers will be judged in the future, but rather how religious people hope to be judged. Paul is arguing against justification by works and for justification by faith. Romans 2:13, rather than being the basis for future judgment, becomes Paul’s argument against those who attempt to be justified on the basis of law-keeping: the law requires perfect obedience, which has not been and cannot be done (Rom. 3:10, 20).
Though N. T. Wright is certainly a scholar in his own right, his theology, particularly his view of justification, is far from the norm. His novel approach to the understanding and interpretation of so important a doctrine is to be regretted. Where he could have supplied excellent resources for the evangelical church, Wright has provided divisive and controversial writings which tear out the heart of the truth of God’s Word. The NPP, led by Wright, redefines or denies the fundamental doctrines of the faith.
The foremost charge to be levied against Wright and the NPP is that its nature is ecumenical. Wright repeatedly speaks of reuniting Protestants and Catholics through this new interpretation. His main desire is that the entire church, including both Protestants and Catholics, would see the value of his interpretation as providing the means whereby it can stand united in the world today.
It is most unfortunate that a charge of post-modernism must also be imposed against Wright. A scrutiny of the writings of this man will reveal a distinct postmodern slant. Blended in his writings are inclusivism (the belief that there is no one true way of expressing religious reality and that there are many ways through which one may gain eternal salvation), anti-individualism (the idea that individuals are identified by the group to which they belong with little or no individual worth), and deconstructionism (defining words according to one’s own frame of reference or ideas rather than within the context of the author).
The view of justification purported by N. T. Wright and associates must be regarded by Wesleyan-Arminians as fundamentally opposed to the true meaning of the Word of God. It must be categorically rejected as a harmful and discordant doctrine, though there is a sprinkling of good scholarship to be found within its voluminous pages. Although it seeks to put the Reformation in perspective, it actually destroys it at its very foundation. These attempts must be opposed, for the greater issue is one of eternal life and eternal death. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must not be sacrificed upon the altar of ecumenism and postmodernism.
Duncan, J. Ligon. “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Trinity Presbyterian Church. Jackson, MS. October 2001.
Dunn, James D. G. “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 65 (1983), pp. 95-122; idem, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1990.
Ralston, Thomas N. Elements of Divinity. Nashville: Publishing House M. E. Church, South, 1913.
Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.
Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.
—. “Justification.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. “New Perspectives on Paul.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. Romans. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
—. “The Shape of Justification.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. “Righteousness.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.
Wright, N. T. “Justification Present and Future.” trevinwax.com. Trevin Wax, 18 Nov. 2007. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54.1 (2011): 49-63. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
—. “Q and A with Bishop Wright on ‘Justification.’” blog.beliefnet.com. Ben Witherington, 3 June 2009. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
 Duncan, J. Ligon. “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Trinity Presbyterian Church. Jackson, MS. October 2001.
 Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.
 Dunn, James D. G. “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 65 (1983), pp. 95-122; idem, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1990.
 Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.
 —. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.
 —. “New Perspectives on Paul.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
 Ralston, Thomas N. Elements of Divinity. Nashville: Publishing House M. E. Church, South, 1913.
 Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.
 —. “Righteousness.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
 —. Romans. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
 —. “The Shape of Justification.” ntwrightpage.com. N. T. Wright, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.