Chapter 2 of Piper’s The Future of Justification is on The Relationship Between Covenant and Law-Court Imagery for Justification. Here Piper begins to address Wright’s definition of justification and his use of law-court imagery. In the process we find places where N.T. Wright is right, and places where he is not so right.
N.T. Wright says that “‘belonging to the covenant’ means, among other things, ‘forgiven sinner.'” (from Paul in Fresh Perspective) He rightly connects justification with the doctrine of election. But here he makes an unusual definition of justification- “declared by God to be His people” (also from Paul in Fresh Perspective).
Piper does not go there, but Wright is conflating justification and adoption. See, sometimes those systematic categories are helpful. Justification and adoption are connected- you cannot have one without the other (like justification and sanctification) but they must be distinguished or you lapse into similar errors. This leads Wright to at the least neglect, if not reject, our imputed righteousness in his understanding of justification.
In Piper’s footnote #7 on page 40, he quotes a letter from Andrew Cowan who rightly states that “Covenant membership was never a guarantee that one would participate in the covenent’s blessings. ‘In the covenant’ as a salvific category is inadequate.” This is something that I think those who hold to believer’s baptism don’t understand when they criticize the Reformed view of infant baptism. Scripture consistently reminds us that there are covenant breakers- beginning with Ishmael, then Esau and more. Those who are truly saved are part of the covenant community, but being in the covenant community (church membership) does not mean one is truly saved. So, defining justification as “covenant membership” is at best superficial and at worst misleading and disasterous.
Piper explores this by showing that using Wright’s definition when Paul uses one of the “justification” word group shows that it does not work. It doesn’t fit the context consistently. So, Wright’s contention that “justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian” is false and inadequate. He is right, it isn’t how we become a Christians. But it is how God makes us Christians, not merely the declaration that we are Christians.
Piper draws on the parallels between Romans 3:28 & 4:6 where “justified by faith” is essentially equal to when “God credits righteousness”. Not covenant membership, but the imputation of righteousness. So Piper rightly sees Wright as conflating the denotation and implication (as a result of justification we are members of the covenant in a saving way).
Piper clears Wright of the accusation that he has missed or minimized the forensic, law-court, aspects of justification. Wright seeks to build a 1st century view of the law-court, but one that denies the imputation of righteousness. In Wright’s illustration, the law-court is strictly eschatalogical and the Christian is ‘vindicated’ by God, declared to be a member of His people. In doing this, Wright focuses on God’s righteousness as God’s covenant faithfulness (Piper examines this, finding it wanting, in the next chapter). But it is here that a discussion of the atonement takes place, including N.T. Wright’s endorsement of Stephen Chalke’s book which includes his ‘infamous’ statement about cosmic child abuse.
In his own writings, N.T. Wright has consistently defended the idea that God punished sins in Jesus’ death. This opens the door of forgiveness. But after endorsing Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus, a firestorm erupted over some of Chalke’s statements regarding the atonement. Wright tried to see Chalke’s statements in the best possible light. But I think he still misunderstands Chalke. Here is the quote:
“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse- a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: God is love. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil for evil.”
In his attempt to defend Chalke, Wright offers to explanations, favoring the first. The first is that to express God’s love on the cross Jesus took upon himself the full force of all of humanity’s evil (not God’s wrath). The second is that the cross only expresses God’s love, and there can be no idea of penal substitution at all. “There are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others.” So, he claims that Chalke is attacking distortions of penal substitution, not penal substitution itself. In the process he creates a distortion by pitting “God is love” against “God is just” instead of recognizing that both operate in the atonement. The atonement expresses both God’s love and justice, as Paul labors to express in Romans. As a good God, God hates evil. Rather than pour out his wrath on all of humanity, God lovingly chose to save some. To save them, his wrath is poured out on His Son as their representative (Paul explains this using federal headship in Romans 5). Jesus, suffers our punishment, as Scripture repeatedly declares. He is the sacrificial lamb who bore our sin. So, Chalke fails to represent biblical teaching on the atonement. Wright should not have gone in circles to defend him, but just said I don’t believe what Stephen Chalke does, or don’t understand it. But to say that Jesus suffers under the wrath of people, not God, in a way that saves us really misses what the Bible teaches about God and justice. Justice is violent! Justice in this instance is the act of a legitimate authority (vengeance is not). God, as Judge of all, acts to punish sin by offering Jesus as a Substitute. Jesus suffers God’s wrath, not for His own sin, but as Representative of the elect, our covenant head. This is vitally important to our understanding of justification. There must be a way for God to be just and the justifier of the ungodly who believe in Jesus. Apart from penal substitionary atonement, there can be no proper justification of sinners in Christ.