Thursday, 25 November 2010

Baffled by Wright - or maybe not!

Can anyone unpack this sentence by Tom Wright for me, which he posted as a ‘clarification’ in a blog discussion (adding that he doesn’t usually read or respond to blog posts)?
The point … is that by the Spirit those who are already justified by faith have their lives transformed, and the final verdict will be in accordance with that transformation, imperfect though it remains.
As it stands, Wright says that justification is, quite simply, “by faith”, that those who are so justified have their lives transformed by the Spirit, and that this transformation will be the basis of a “final verdict” on their lives.
Now I know that Wright wants to distinguish salvation (how we are saved) from justification (that we are saved). Nevertheless, he does not add a ‘plus’ to his statement about ‘justification by faith’, and I therefore take it he means justification is ‘by faith alone, through grace alone’. I may be wrong, but that is a legitimate inference from the sentence as it stands.
Allowing for the nuances between ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’, I cannot see how this differs from the classical Reformed position, even though Wright says this is based on a misunderstanding of Paul.
As to the ‘final verdict’, if one is justified (ie, in Wright’s terms, a member of the people of God), the content of this verdict can presumably only be with respect to how well, or badly, one has done in regard to living out one’s ‘calling’ into God’s people.
As Jesus taught in the parable of the sower, some will bear fruit thirty fold, some sixty fold and some a hundred fold. Or as Paul remarks in 1 Corinthians,
If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:12-15)
According to this, then, the final verdict is on the quality of one’s Spirit-transformed life as a ‘justified’ member of the household of God.
Once again, however, I cannot see any tension between this and the classical Reformed position.
Is it just, then, that Wright and Luther reach the same position by (what Wright thinks ought to be) a different route?
I have a feeling I am missing something, but if Wright’s statement above is a summary of his actual position, I cannot work out what it is!
John Richardson
25 November 2010
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. no, I think it's slightly different.
    Is he saying, "the justified (in the sense that Wright understands it) man is so changed by the Spirit so that on the last day the final declaration/verdict is positive (since it will be a declaration of a "positive" life)"?

    Make sense?

  2. My paraphrase of what I think he is saying would be:

    The Holy Spirit produces in saved Christians the "works" which are evidence and fruit of genuine "saving faith."

  3. Thanks for the rapid response, David. I was still editing as you wrote!

    However, if a person is one of "the justified", then, whatever it may be, the "final declaration" is, as it were, a mark ranging from C- upwards.

    In other words, by reason of being justified by faith, no-one 'fails' in Wright's scheme.

  4. David (Baker), that's my point. Isn't this - at least as it stands - just classical Reformed theology, with a 'twist' about salvation/justification?

  5. it seems the thing missing from his statement is clarity about what the *basis* of the final verdict is. "in accordance with" is open to interpretation.


  6. Jeremy, in the discussion thread he seems to want to avoid the word 'basis' as extra-biblical (although 'Trinity' springs to mind, and Calvin's comments on those who objected to this word in the same way).

    However, since he has said that justification is "by faith", I would assume that faith is therefore the 'basis' of our justification.

  7. When it comes down to it, I think Wright wants everyone to use his language of covenant faithfulness and the 'unique story of Israel and Jesus' as the fundamental context for reading Romans. Provided one does this, he acknowledges that there are similarities between the Reformers' reading and his and so their readings can be maintained and even enhanced (NIB.X.464)!

    I think he wants 'justified' to carry a stronger social angle: faith is 'the badge that identifies, in the present time, the members of the people of God', but he's not denying that it is also the bringing forward of the final verdict to the present (468). The connection between present justification and final verdict seems pretty indirect and I'm not sure it is, for Wright, A-C for Christians. I think, with David, it may be A-F. But the implied threat here is allayed by confidence in the effectiveness of the Spirit's work in producing fruit. So, you may be 'adopted' but you will have had to have done good works. How many, who's to say? But I may be falling into the trap of seeking 'casual self-satisfied salvation assurance' (443).


  8. Thanks Matthew. Can I get you to explain a couple of terms (NIB, A-C and A-F)?

    Personally, I would have thought baptism was the social 'badge that identifies members of the people of God', rather than 'faith'.

    He doesn't indicate in his summary that there can be any doubt about the final verdict, since it is based on the transformation wrought by the Spirit, even though it may be imperfect.

    Still, you can appreciate my bafflement!

  9. Sorry John - NIB is New Interpreter's Bible. Volume X has Wright's commentary on Romans.

    By A-C, I was trying to continue your analogy of school marks. By A-F, I meant a judgement which included the possibility of fail, or condemnation based on one's works or lack of them.

    I agree that despite this, Wright doesn't seemed concerned about the possibility of an F. I don't recall having come across anything by Wright on the relation of the cross of Christ to the final judgement, but I haven't read all the Piper-Wright stuff.

    I'm sure I could find a Wright quote to agree with you about Baptism. I suppose (thinking of Calvin on the Sacraments) if Baptism is a Gospel sacrament, then the distinction between it and faith would not be so big.

    Following Wright's (and Dunn - I'm no expert in this and the whole New Perspective pantheon sometimes begins to merge in a big soup in my head) argument concerning Romans, faith is being contrasted with law obedience and Jewish identity as a marker of who is 'in'. Reasons for baptism not playing this role? I don't know. Abraham?

    Thinking about it, it's probably the problem of Gentile obedience to the Law. If you said that your identity and membership of the community as a Gentile was secured by Baptism, then someone could argue that you should then keep the Jewish Law. By using faith as an identity marker, you're pitting it directly in opposition to those who would argue that Gentiles had to keep the Law.


  10. Dear John,

    I agree with you that it can be difficult to grasp what Tom Wright is saying on occasion. He alternates between issuing his correction of the classic position, and feeling that those who criticise him for this are polemical and unfair.

    I'm thankful for much of his writing. Some years ago I came to the conclusion that Bishop Tom confuses the application of the doctrine of justification by Paul with the doctrine itself. Once I read his statements through that filter, I can see more easily where he differs from the Reformation (and Biblical, and Patristic) position.

    Thanks for the stimulating blog -

    Clifford Swartz
    currently resident of New York
    sometime resident of York

  11. I think NTW is generally correct in what he affirms from Scripture, and incorrect in what he denies about the classic Reformed position, and this is no exception.

    Some of that is the classic problem of the academic - they are so used to seeing things through their own spectacles that they don't realise that other people say much the same things in different language.

  12. You wrote: "I cannot see any tension between this and the classical Reformed position."

    Hmmm ... yes.

    I once heard an interesting take on the Piper/Wright debate, which basically said that they are essentially saying the same thing, except NTW uses Pauline language, and JP uses Reformation language, and they have literally spent years saying the same thing using different language, and then taking the difference in language as difference in theology.

    I think there is much to commend this idea - as you seem to suggest.

    Jonathan (London)

  13. John,

    There is another way of reading Wright. Piper, Carson, O'Brien, Seifrid, & Ovey all read him broadly this way:

    For Wright, justification= God's end-time declaration of membership of the right group (the People of God).

    Faith= the badge of membership of the people of God.

    Works= spirit-inspired good deeds of the people of God, on which God's end time verdict is based.

    The Cross= Where sin is defeated. But penal substitution does not actually play a large part in Wright's thinking on justification.

    The Reformed position is:

    Justification= God's end time declaration of not guilty of rebellion against God.

    faith= self-despairing trust in Christ

    The cross= as where the believer is covered by Christ taking the penalty for sin and, by uniting the believer to Himself, Christ clothes the believer with His righteousness.

    Works= the evidence & fruit of faith in a Christian's life.

    So is Wright's position (despite formal similarities) actually radically different to the Reformers?

    So does Wright's thinking actually lead to the possible implication that(despite his denials)justification is faith plus?

    Ro Mody,

    Virginia Water.

  14. Personally I think much of Paul's point in Romans is that our lives are not so transformed and that is why we should not judge each other!

    Thank Christ for our justification and the fruit our lives produce be it 5% or 100%.

    Theology and words seem to confuse one so much even those speaking them!! oh thank God I am not clever! opps.

  15. I do not want to put words in NTW's mouth, but I cannot help but wonder if he is building on an eschatological interpretation of the parable of the talents, particularly the version in Luke, which seems to imply that there will be differential rewards among those who brought profit to the master. I do not see that as being inconsistent with the Reformed position, focused as it is with the question of justification rather than either sanctification or glorification.

  16. Justin Taylor on his Gospel Coalition/Two Worlds blog has today posted a helpful explanation by Andrew Cowan of NTW's comments at a recent ETS meeting, which to me sheds some light on this debate, potentially resolving some of the recent confusion about the 'basis' of 'initial' and 'final' justification. And thus sending us back to the key question: what do we understand the NT to mean by 'justification'.

  17. Tom Watts, Winsford26 November 2010 at 17:08

    What you see even in this comments thread is that Wright is simply not clear enough about what he actually thinks, especially in relation to Reformed theology. He has never properly taken the time to (a) demonstrate that he really understands the Reformed position on justification, and not some charicature of it, or (b) carefully explain to his critics why he's not guilty of what they say he is guilty of (rather than just waving his hands in despair, as he tends to do).

    I think he may well be a lot closer to the Reformed position than either he or many others think, but until he takes Reformed criticism seriously it will be very difficult to say. Taking it seriously means using the closely argued and footnoted style of Piper's critique of him, as opposed to the handwavy/big picture/ "you've all misunderstood me"/"I am Luther" style of his reply.

  18. Here Here to what Tom Watts said although I would also caution evangelicals from embracing a similar approach when considering NTW where we end up criticising/repudiating him largely based on things we've heard from others OR a misunderstanding of what constitutes Reformed Theology. For example, it is increasingly clear that the Puritan Divines in formulating the Westminster Confession of Faith, had differing opinions on the Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience and considered this a matter on which folk could disagree and yet be considered brothers. This touches on some of the issues NTW has raised in his writings and rather than evangelicals jumping on the bandwagon and accusing him and others of being radically different to the reformers or even worse (a heretic!). We ought to be careful how we judge remembering the very serious warning that our Lord Jesus Christ gave that "men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken."

  19. Does anyone else agree with me that if Tom Wright had actually been a parish priest at any point in his career, we wouldn't be having this frustrating thread?

    Because then he'd have been forced to express himself in terms the average pewfiller would understand. As it is, he's obviously never learned how to do this.

    On this topic, I fail to understand how anyone can be appointed a bishop who's never functioned as a presbyter. (Chaplain at Oxbridge colleges doesn't really count.) Of course I realise Tom's far from being the first in this regard.

  20. Those following this discussion might like to see an update on the overall topic here: