According to N.T. Wright, justification is a subset of election, which, in turn, is an issue of ecclesiology. Justification therefore is intrinsically tied to being a part of the covenant community. Jews were by definition part of this community and, because of this, they were justified de facto. In Wright’s understanding, the Jews of Paul’s day, including Paul himself, were not seeking to justify themselves by their own works, but to remain a part of the covenant community. Therefore, the traditional Augustinian/Reformed view of justification by works vs. justification by faith is not what is a issue with Paul. In other words, the Jews never believed that they were justified by works. Wright believes that justification = “To be declared righteous due to initiation into the covenant community,” not “To be de righteous do to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”

Piper argues that such a definition cannot bear the weight of the New Testament text, especially Paul. Using Romans 3 and 4, Piper demonstrates that justification is not a recognition of a status with in a covenant community, but a declaration of a position before God. Piper notes, “. . . [J]ustification does not denote or mean covenant membership, but it does imply covenant membership” (p. 44).

This leads to a further review of Wright’s understanding of Justification in Chapter three. Here Piper gets to the heart of the issue admitting that the nuances of the covenant community definition of justification are not as serious, but provide a framework for Wright’s understanding of ultimate justification being yet future.

This eschatological view of justification departs from the traditional forensic view in that justification is not something that people acquire when they trust in Christ, but that which people may acquire during judgment. The vindication of God does not come at the cross, but during the final judgment. While the judgment came at the cross, those who place their faith in Christ will not be ultimately justified until the end. This justification provides us with a status, but not a reality of being righteous as God is righteous. This is in distinction to the traditional Protestant understanding of imputation, where Christ’s righteousness is declared to be ours immediately upon faith in Christ.

Piper defends the traditional view of imputation by posing that Wright fails to see righteousness not only in terms of what God does, but who God is (p. 63). Piper defines God’s righteousness as “his unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory.” This righteousness is given to us through imputation.

I agree with Piper. While I appreciate the questions that Wright brings to the table, it seems that he fails to understand the theological implications that are tied to the doctrine of imputation. Imputation has necessary connections to Christ’s role as the second Adam. Our identification with the first Adam is actual and forensic at the same time. We are born sinful with respect to our nature and have been declared guilty because the human race, in Adam, has been declared guilty, and we are part of that race. In this sense, we are hidden in the first Adam’s unrighteousness. Call this imputation, call it identification, call it headship, call it whatever seems best (terminology is not something I would die for), but we must understand how we are connected to Adam outside of Christ. We are found “in Adam” without justification.

Romans 5 is certainly not about our identification with a covenanted community, but with a representative head. This is where I really don’t understand why Wright parts ways with the doctrine of imputation. Christ, as the second Adam, serves as our new representative head. I guess one could say that Christ is the covenanted community just as was Adam, but this would just be semantics and would fail to sufficiently recognize the differences.

Whatever the Jews believed at the time, Paul sought to correct this by showing that the headship of Adam was the problem not only of the Jews, but the entire human race. Death was a result of the sin of Adam. Righteousness and life is the result of the righteousness of Christ. Just as Adam’s sin was imputed to the human race, so is Christ’s righteousness imputed to all who believe, in the same way. That is the key. If it is not the same way, then Paul’s argument of Romans 5 makes no sense.

Since Christ is the second Adam, we must be found “in Him” by a legal forensic declaration. While we don’t have a righteousness that is our own, we have been declared righteous (justified), through the imputation of an alien righteousness. Without this imputation, we would forever be identified with the first Adam and, hence, his sin, resulting in death.

In this, the imputation is both a biblical and theological necessity.

I don’t think we have misread Paul, even if our understanding of this is not perfect. I think that their is a sense which we can talk about “future justification” as a final vindication of the forensic justification that has already taken place.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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