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Were the Reformers Right about Justification?
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, July 21, 2017
Alf Cengia

Were the Reformers right about Justification? Some are questioning this doctrine. And there's a lot of confusion.

From the outset I must stress that I often write about things above my pay grade. I do so because they're topics which stir my passion. This column is one of these cases.

There have been several "tremblors" in the evangelical world over the last few weeks. The most recent one was Eugene Peterson's statements on LGBTQ issues, and then his apparent flip flop. Another one was the John MacArthur comments regarding British theologian N. T. Wright's view of the doctrine of Justification.

Both issues have been simmering in the background for years. Today I want to address the latter.

My introduction to Wright was through his acclaimed 800+ page book The Resurrection of the Son of God. This academic work wasn't suited to someone like me, who had just left the New Age. In parts it was above my comprehension level.

Due to my interest in eschatology, I met Wright again via his article Farewell to the Rapture. While Wright has been cited as affirming inerrancy, he also often redefines the NT and OT based on his presuppositions. Mike Vlach cites Wright:

Jesus spent His whole ministry redefining what the kingdom meant. He refused to give up the symbolic language of the kingdom, but filled it with such a new content that, as we have seen, he powerfully subverted Jewish expectations.

Later on I heard a Christian radio program interview of a pastor on the "New Perspectives on Paul." The pro-NPP pastor predicted that this new concept ought to be heard and considered by all evangelicals. He said it would cause a major rethinking of Paul.

MacArthur's recent comments about Wright sparked a stir among the latter's supporters, even in some reformed circles. Scot McKnight on Patheos suggested several works by Wright which MacArthur ought to have sourced in order to properly understand the issue.

Predictably, MacArthur's scholarship was subsequently dismissed in the comments section. The problem with McKnight's point, and the critical comments, is that MacArthur isn't alone in his concerns. Did others also misunderstand N T Wright?

Justification is an important doctrine. So, what's the problem with Wright's system? This is the part that's above my pay grade. Fortunately, others have been helpful and I'm leaning on them. Let's begin with what it means.  According to Ligonier, Justification is:

 ...a legal declaration in which God pardons the sinner of all his sins and accepts and accounts the sinner as righteous in His sight. God declares the sinner righteous at the very moment that the sinner puts his trust in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-26, 5:16; 2 Cor. 5:21)...We are not justified by our own works; we are justified solely on the basis of Christ’s work on our behalf.

See also Got Questions?

John MacArthur noted that Wright is a prolific writer, but also a confusing one. I agree. While MacArthur can't figure out what he believes, it's clear what he doesn't. The following comments by Tom Wright seem problematic:

That Christ died in the place of sinners is closer to the pagan idea of an angry deity being pacified by a human death than it is to anything in either Israel’s Scriptures or the New Testament... To worship God as one who justifies through sacrifice and by imputation is nonsense. ~ Wright

It's no wonder Wright is cited and lauded by progressive and Emerging-Emergent Christians who question the Atonement. Another scholar who has expressed concern is Ligon Duncan:

In the classic view, justification is grounded on what Christ has already done, and the Day of Judgment will confirm and declare it. However, Wright says, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life...” (Emphasis mine)

As Duncan observes, this seems: "dangerously close to teaching a dual instrumentality of faith and works as held by traditional Roman Catholicism." I recall coming out of Catholic school worrying about some Divine Scale weighing good works over sins which I'd be judged on. Wright's comment wouldn't have helped me.

According to Wright:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by the gospel. The gospel is not an account of how people get saved. (See the MacArthur link above)

Yet Paul wrote:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you-- unless you believed in vain. 1Cor 15:1-2

While MacArthur has been chastised for speaking up, the Banner of Truth Society also concurs with his concerns:

There is no doubt that Wright is a first-class communicator, which makes his departures from Scripture all the more dangerous. He claims that what the Apostle Paul really said was very different from what the Reformers understood by his writings. What then is the gospel according to Tom Wright?

If we're not justified now - or if our justification may only be confirmed in the future - it would seem logical that works must somehow be involved. Is Ligon Duncan justified (no pun intended) in his concerns about Wright's views and Roman Catholicism?

Interestingly, the World Communion of Reformed Churches recently joined the Catholic-Lutheran agreement on Justification. Make no mistake that this is an Ecumenical Counter Reformation effort which obfuscates Luther's Reformation.

Simple faith is being pushed into the background while Social Justice Works is being slowly appended to salvation. We're never justified by our works. These, (though small, as in my case) are the result of our faith. But works never contribute to salvation.

I'll let Leonardo de Chirico have the final say. Commenting on Catholics and Lutherans and "the agreement," he said:

“[They] significantly converge in presenting an inflated view of man’s abilities to do something for one’s own salvation (whatever salvation means for them), a defective view of sin, a rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and an uneasiness towards everything related to God’s justice and judgment.”

This seems to be another sign of our times.

Lord, Come Quickly!

About Alf  Cengia

Last week: Fixing the North Korean Problem



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