If you want a good idea of some “cutting edge” theology going on right now, a good thing to start reading about is the debate between N.T. Wright, the current Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and John Piper, American preacher and Reformed theologian, over the nature of justification. Wright is part of a movement called the “New Perspective on Paul”, an attempt to understand and re-interpret Paul based on his 1st-century Jewish context over and against the Lutheran/Calvinist interpretations of the Protestant Reformation.
That’s quite the mouthful.
Anyway, Wright is one of the popularizers of this New Perspective and has published, in the last decade or so, a number of different books (the man’s pen never stops moving, I think), not to mention a commentary on Romans which have sparked a pretty heated debate, especially in evangelical circles, where Wright is beginning to gain a lot of influence. One of those evangelicals is John Piper, who came out with a book two years ago called The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wright responded himself with another book (a nice email couldn’t have sufficed?) called Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.
Sounds pretty intense. I can’t believe the way these theologian people just write books at each other all day. But. I’m really excited about it, and my friend Ben and I stumbled across a recent series of interviews with Piper over at his ministry’s website, desiringgod.org. The interview starts here (there’s seven short segments total), but I wanted to just pull out some key quotes on one of the central issues surrounding the debate. It all starts after the jump.
Go on. Hit this link. I dare you – – – – – ->
Let’s just reduce the question to this: When is a person ‘saved’? Here’s Piper:
This is my interpretation. Later we’ll get at whether [Wright] agrees with this. In the New Testament, justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side.
Here’s Wright (his interview with Trevin Wax here):
I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification as eschatological, that is, the justification of the faithful in the present time is both the fulfilment of the long story of Israel and the anticipation of the eventual verdict to be delivered on the last day, as in Romans 2.1-16 and 8.1-30 . . .
[F]or Piper justification through Christ alone is the same in the future (on the last day) as in the present, whereas for Paul, whom I am following very closely at this point, the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life that the justified-by-faith-in-the-present person then lives. In fact, the omission of the Spirit from many contemporary Reformed statements of justification is one of their major weaknesses.
Confused? Here’s the way I’m understanding this. Basically, for Piper, justification is ego-centric: it’s about the moment I accept Christ as Lord and Savior, and then Christ’s moral perfection (his ‘righteousness’) is imputed to me based on my confession of faith. For Wright, justification is theo-centric: it’s about what God did, is doing, in will do in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah through the power of the Holy Spirit, who, in his words, enables “the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says.”
Why do these kinds of debates matter? Mainly because within Christianity, your theology, what you believe, is (or at least, should be) the primary shaper of your ethics, what you do. One of the problems with this neo-Reformed stuff Piper and others are teaching is that when you place the locus of justification in the believer’s confession, rather than in the work of God in Christ through the Spirit, you get to stop at conversion. Now, Reformed folks would object to that as a caricature of their theology, and it is a bit of exaggeration, I’ll admit. But when salvation is an event, rather than a process, where does that leave you after you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Seems like that’s it to me. Nothing else is required.
For John Calvin and most Reformed folk, the way a believer progressed morally and spiritually is not by the perfecting work of the Spirit, but through contemplation of and gratitude for what has already happened at the moment of conversion. Worship is thus a response to what God has done for me rather than a participation in what God is doing in the world.
My sense is that Piper’s theology does not provide a powerful enough reason for me to perform good works. My own contemplation of what God has done in the past will only get me so far: what ends up happening is that the further away I get from the event of my conversion, both spiritually and temporally, the less intensity my faith has. What’s much more attractive to me is a more participatory vision of salvation, in which I get the privilege of being a part of God’s mission to the world, of partnering with God in redeeming and restoring God’s creation and rescuing it from sin and decay. Indeed, as I participate in the salvation work of Jesus Christ by dying to myself through the power of the Spirit, I begin to resemble, more and more, the one who saved me, to become what the Orthodox call a “little Christ”. As I participate in his death, so I will participate in his Resurrection. Worship is not then a response to what God has done, as Piper would have it, nor is it a fearful attempt to “earn” my salvation, as Piper thinks Wright has it, but rather what happens when I begin to participate in God’s own life and work.