In chapter 3 of The Future of Justification, John Piper pretty much dismantles N.T. Wright’s views concerning law-court dynamics and the meaning of God’s righteousness.
Wright tends to prefer that justification, and the law-court imagery, refer primarily, though not exclusively, to the final law-court. He does tie this to what has happened in Christ. The issue revolves around his distinction between the righteousness of a judge and that of the defender. Wright points to 4 senses in which the Judge is righteous: “his faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham, his impartiality, his proper dealing with sin and his helping of the helpless.” So, for the Judge it refers to His actions. Wright does not go deeper into His character that produces those actions.
With regard to the defendant, righteousness is a status- that one is a part of God’s family. It is not status in terms that one is righteous (in the greek, righteousness and justice are the same word group, and context determines the meaning). So, Wright writes “it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendent. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. … To imagine the defendent somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake.”
I would agree, to a point. The defendent is receiving the righteousness of the Substitute, the Representative. His righteous actions, according to all Paul belabors in Romans 3-5, are imputed to all who believe, or trust in, that Representative. The Judge declares us righteous because we are united to the Righteous One. It is Wright who makes a profound “category mistake”. He misleads through his use of the law-court imagery, not the imagery itself.
Piper focuses on the issue of God’s righteousness, asserting that Wright’s understanding is too superficial as I noted above. He summarizes his argument from his book The Justification of God (very good, but very technical book). “The simple way is to say that God’s righteousness consists in his unswerving commitment to do what is right.” What is right? “‘Right’ actions are those that flow from a proper esteem for God’s glory and that uphold his glory as the most valuable reality there is.” Piper then goes on to show how this fits Paul’s argument from Romans 1-3, showing Paul had this view in mind. As a result, we find that this view of righteousness creates a problem for covenant faithfulness, in that we have become idolators, and God should bring covenant curses on our heads. While sins went unpunished, it seemed like God didn’t value His glory. “When he justifies the ‘ungodly’ (who have treated his glory with contempt, Rom. 1:18, 23; 4:5), he is not unrighteous, because the death of Christ exhibits God’s wrath against God-belittling sin.” Sin has a big part Paul’s notion of justification.
In the basis of Romans 3:5 & 7 (parallels) Piper shows that it is righteous for God to show wrath for his own glory. This is something Chalke wants to deny, which is why Wright’s endorsement of his book is problematic.
As Piper works through Romans, he asks that we do that same thing with his definition of righteousness that he did with Wright’s: does it work in the whole text? Remember, Wright’s didn’t make sense in many parts of Paul’s argument (part of the same context, so we’d expect it to have a similar if not identical meaning). Piper’s makes much more sense. The implications of this will be explored more fully in his fourth chapter.