I want to preface this review by saying that N. T. Wright’s work is very dense (in a good way). I have only read the book one time, and I feel I would need to read through it a second time, at least, to really grasp everything he is saying, as his explanation of justification seems to be a major overhaul of what we normally think when we hear that word. While I will do my best to provide my thoughts, I know it will fall way short.
Having been raised in traditional evangelical churches that held to a “Reformation” view of justification, I wanted to try to understand Wright’s views, as he is often linked to the “New Perspective on Paul.” I put the word Reformation in quotes because, as Wright argues, those who hold to the traditional perspective on Paul are, in his view, actually not holding up to the ideas of the Reformation; namely that we will constantly reevaluate our ideas and views in light of what Scripture actually says.
While N. T. Wright has bits and pieces of his view throughout essays, articles, and other books, his book Justification is his attempt to explain his views on this issue in one place. It was primarily written as a response to John Piper’s critique of his stance, and it works to lay out all of the historical and primarily exegetical reasons that he holds to the views he does. Since it is a response to Piper, Wright holds little back as he points out the weaknesses in Piper’s critique, as he sees them. Yet he does so out of a concern that everyone interpret Scripture rightly. For Wright, this means trying to do more than just read the words of Scripture; it also means we must understand the context from which Paul was writing those words.
The book is laid out in two parts. In the first part, Wright explains why the discussion matters, how to approach the discussion, explains some background on first century Judaism, and then gives some helpful explanations regarding the term “justification.” The second part applies what he has laid out in the first, as it works on exegesis with central parts of the New Testament dealing with justification: Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans. In addition, the book includes a section with notes, a bibliography section for those who want to dig deeper, a name index, a subject index, and a Scripture index. All told, the book comes in at 279 pages, but it is far from a quick read.
Wright sums up God’s purposes in justification as being God’s “single-purpose-through-Israel-for-the-world” (p. 243). In other words, to really understand justification, we have to step back and follow the flow of the entire Scriptural narrative, understanding that Israel is the primary focus, rather than creating a division between Israel and the rest of the world. This flows along with what I have been reading lately regarding our need to read Scripture with a large picture view as opposed to taking it apart at the expense of the whole. Why did Jesus come? Because Israel, being weakened by the flesh as all humanity is, failed to bring God’s restoring work to the entire world, as they were supposed to do. Jesus, then, came as the Messiah, God incarnate, to do what Israel failed to do. By dying on the cross forgiveness could be offered, by rising from the dead the resurrection was inaugurated, and by going back to be with God, the Spirit could come. Together this allows us, through faith, to be forgiven, to begin the process of being made new, and to be enabled to live the way we should, something the Torah could never accomplish.
As Wright argues, a large part of Paul’s explanation of the “mystery” of God was that both Gentiles and Israel were brought back to God, together, in the same way, through faith in the Messiah. Both Israel and the Gentiles had failed, and both needed to be restored to God. Israel mistakenly thought this was accomplished through Gentiles being made to follow the Torah and the ways of Israel. Paul points out that both Jews and Gentiles need to follow the ways of the Messiah and be restored through faith in Him, as the one who brought the promises to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations, to fruition.
Wright points out that the focus on justification as the aspect of receiving forgiveness of sins, while important, is not the whole point of what God is doing. He likens it to taking the steering wheel of a car (which is vitally important) and mistaking it for the car itself. I found this refreshing and eye opening.
This, of course, can have major implications for how we read certain passages. For example, I found that reading Romans with this in mind made it seem quite different from the way I had read it with my prior understanding. Romans 7, for example, seems very different when understood from Wright’s perspective. The traditional argument over whether was talking pre-conversion or post-conversion disappears. In reality, he is merely explaining his discovery that the Torah, which he had tried to follow as a faithful Jew, could not deal with his broken/fallen self. All it could do was show him his weaknesses. This, then, leads the way to understanding how life in the Messiah is the answer to this dilemma. Read this way, Romans 7 has nothing to do with whether or not Christians still struggle with temptation to sin and whether or not they fall a lot. While that may be an important discussion, Wright’s perspective would mean that Romans 7 is not relevant to that issue, as I understand it.
While there are some great insights through Wright’s book, interestingly, however, I seem to sense a lot of the same emphasis even coming from Piper and others. I have seen a huge push for understanding the entire story of redemption (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) in many traditional works of evangelical scholars. In other words, I wonder how much Piper (and other traditional Pauline scholars) and Wright (and others who focus on the New Perspective) are really saying the same thing in slightly different ways or with slightly different emphases?
Overall, I found Wright’s book refreshing and challenging. I do want to read it again, as well as reading more works by Wright. I also want to read Piper’s book that Wright is responding to, although I probably should have read it first, to see what the primary issue seems to be in Piper’s perspective.
I would highly recommend Wright’s book to anyone wanting to understand his perspective on justification as it is presented in Paul’s writings.
*Note: I was provided a complimentary copy of the book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.