Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wright on Justification: Part Three: Eschatology

After highlighting lawcourt and covenant, N.T. Wright moves on in Justification to a discussion of the third of his four aspects of the doctrine, namely, eschatology. Wright argues that Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, expected that there would come a time in which all the world's wrongs would be put to right, but unlike his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, insisted that this ultimate goal had already been launched in and through Jesus the Messiah.

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.
"For Paul," Wright goes on to say, "the events concerning Jesus the Messiah were nothing short of an apocalypse, the denoument of history, the bursting in of God's sovereign saving power to the world of corruption, sin, and death."

I remember some vigorous debates between faculty and students during my years of study at Westminster Seminary California on this very issue: Is there an eschatological element to our justification? In other words, is it solely a present phenomenon, or is it a present glimpse of a yet-to-be-announced verdict? I remember my own mind resonating with Horton's discomfort over one particular issue, namely, whether justification could truly be said to be eschatological if, as Wright insists, its basis in the present (faith alone) could be different from its basis in the future (the whole of our lived lives).

A good question, to be sure.

Now, Justification is the first of Wright's books I have read cover-to-cover (and it was not yet written when these debates were taking place at WSC), so it is possible that he has softened or nuanced his position since then, I'm not sure. While I certainly have serious misgivings about a supposedly already/not yet concept of justification if the basis of the former is different from that of the latter, I am somewhat comforted by the way Wright addresses this issue in his newest book:
This lawcourt verdict... is announced both in the present, with the verdict being issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived (emphasis original).
So for Wright, although the basis for future justification is the entirety of the believer's earthly life while the basis for present justification is faith alone, there is no instance in which the person being justified in the here and now could conceivably fail to be justified on the last day. The Spirit serves to ensure that the "doing of the law in order to be justified [on the last day]" will take place for all those justified in the present.

Some thoughts on all of this....

While I certainly do not expect Wright to conform to doctrinal standards to which he has never subscribed, his formulation of justification is, from a confessionally Reformed standpoint, problematic. Although Federal Visionist-leaning brothers in the PCA will almost certainly disagree, I see no basis in the Westminster Confession for the idea of a "future justification according to works." Yes, there will be a final judgment of all men that will serve to vindicate God's people and his mercy toward them, but confessionally speaking, "justification" takes place "not due to anything wrought in, or done by [us], but for Christ's sake alone." In order to be faithful to our Standards, therefore, we must beware of speaking of our final vindication on the last day as a "justification by works."

This leads me to another brief point. Although Wright's admission that the believer's final justification by works will be more of a vindication than a verdict that we nervously and nail-bitingly await, his statement that present justification's "basis" is faith alone is still, from a Calvinistic standpoint, incorrect. The basis of our justification is the work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. Faith serves as a non-meritorious and non-contributory instrument whereby we receive what justifies, but it is never to be thought of as the ground or basis of our being received into Gods graces.

OK, discuss....