The Future of Justification - John Piper

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Dogfreid

Puritan Board Freshman
The doctrine of justification by faith alone has been at the center of controversy for nearly five hundred years. It was this doctrine that Martin Luther appealed to in response to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences for penance. To Luther and others, justification by faith alone became the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. So important was this doctrine that Luther later called it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.

But recent developments have shown us that this is not simply a Protestant vs. Catholic rift. The so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has come about in the last fifty years, also calls into question the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone, and it doesn’t do so on Catholic grounds. But it’s not just justification that has been targeted by NPP proponents. N. T. Wright, the most popular and influential advocate of the NPP, comments that “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot — at least in terms of understanding Paul — and they have stayed there ever since.” Wright believes that we’ve been reading Paul wrong all these years.

Aside from Wright, some other notable proponents of this New Perspective over the years have been E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn. Wright, however, as noted above, is far and away the most influential and well-known of the NPP scholars. This is why John Piper has chosen to frame his response to the NPP, entitled The Future of Justification, as a response against Wright. Piper explains: “The reason I take up controversy with N. T. Wright and not, say, J. D. G. Dunn or E. P. Sanders is that none of my parishioners has ever brought me a thick copy of a book by Dunn or Sanders, wondering what I thought about them. But Wright is a popular and compelling writer as well as a rigorous scholar” (p. 27).

In The Future of Justification Piper engages with Wright’s major critiques against the historic understanding of justification by faith alone. He responds to Wright’s law-court objections (chs. 2-4), Wright’s claims that justification isn’t the gospel, and that the gospel isn’t an account of how people get saved (chs. 5-6), Wright’s position on the basis of our justification (chs. 7-8), and Wright’s take on Paul in his first century context (ch. 9-10). Afterwards, Piper positively presents an impressive case for justification by faith alone as the imputation of Christ’s merit on our behalf (ch. 11). In the conclusion he spells out the implications of NPP theology. He writes, “My ultimate reason for writing this book is to avert the double tragedy that will come where the obedience of Christ, imputed to us through faith alone, is denied or obscured…. 1) [That] in our desire to elevate the importance of the beautiful works of love, we [will] begin to nullify the very beauty of Christ and his work that they were designed to display…. and 2) [That we will undermine] the very thing that makes the works of love possible…. Christ’s perfect obedience (counted as our righteousness) and Christ’s perfect sacrifice (counted as our punishment)” (p. 187).

Piper also includes six articles as appendices dealing with themes pertinent to the issues addressed in the book. Since they were written by Piper before he had read Wright’s work, they do not deal with Wright’s arguments head on. But they’re useful in drawing out some of Piper’s views more positively.

I found The Future of Justification to be a sound refutation of Wright and the NPP. It can be quite technical in certain places, what with greek words and grammatical observations. But overall the book should be accessible to anyone that has bothered to think through the soteriological issues in the Bible at some length. Piper writes clearly and repeats himself often, which helps to guide the reader along some of the tougher waters in this debate. He quotes Wright often, which is helpful in many ways, not the least of which in showing Wright’s perspective in Wright’s own words. Those that have yet to be introduced to Wright’s material can see for themselves how winsomely he writes. But on this topic he’s outclassed, not just by Piper, but by the biblical force of the historic Protestant position. Chapter 11, Piper’s presentation of justification by faith alone, is simply too powerful an argument for Wright’s thesis. Technically-precise, biblically-profound, and logically-sound, Piper’s The Future of Justification is a compelling argument for Christians to stand for the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone.
 
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