Have you ever disagreed with a fellow believer’s theology? If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably a resounding, “Yes!”
Follow up question: How do your disagreements usually look?
I can almost guarantee they aren’t able to be summed up this way: “My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel—and on the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful.”
Too often in our theological disagreements we are much too quick to throw out the heretic card and condemn people to hell. This is not how it should be, and it is exactly how John Piper models biblical, loving, theological polemics in his excellent book The Future of Justification. The first words of his introduction state, “The Final Judgment feels too close for me to care much about scoring points in debate.” Souls are at stake—not, ultimately, who has a better hermeneutic—and overemphasizing who is right and who is wrong does nothing to bring people into God’s Kingdom.
Piper’s working thesis—in my understanding—is summed up on page 32: “I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity.”
Piper begins the body of his work by cautioning the church against being too fond of that which is new. He writes, “. . . [Wright’s] celebration of ‘delighted innovation’ may confirm a neophilia of our culture that needs balancing with the celebration of the wisdom of the centuries precisely for the sake of faithfulness to the biblical text.” Ultimately, just because something is new does not mean that it is better, especially when it involves what Paul himself exhorted pastors to be practicing: “holding to the faithful message as taught” (Titus 1:9). For it to be the message that was taught, it cannot be something new.
Piper continues for three chapters (2-4) to discuss the necessity of the Law-court imagery for understanding justification. Ultimately these chapters are interacting with Wrights statement, “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot—at least in terms of understanding Paul—and they have stayed there ever since.”
Piper accurately and graciously presents Wright’s view, which ultimately places works within God’s covenant as that which will finally justify the “believer” on the day of judgment. Since the Greek for righteous and justification are the same word, Piper spins Wright’s view as necessarily taking 2 Corinthians 5:21 to say, “In Him We Become God’s Covenant Faithfulness.” As is clear from a simple reading of the text, this ultimately makes zero sense.
Piper takes Wright’s understanding of righteousness and parses it out to prove that while Wright is on the right track, he does not take it as far as he should. Piper summarizes, “God’s righteousness consists in his unswerving commitment to do what is right.” Two pages later he tells us what the right is to which God is committed: “The righteousness of God consists most basically in God’s unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory.” Since humanity falls short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), how can people be justified? That question is especially important because,
An omniscient and just judge never “finds in favor” of a guilty defendant. He always vindicates the claim that is true. If the defendant is guilty, the omniscient, just judge finds in favor of the plaintiff. The judge may show mercy. He has it in his power to bestow clemency, and to forgive, and not to condemn the guilty. But not condemning the guilty would never have been called “justification” or “finding in favor” or “bestowing the status of righteous.”
If you want proof of this statement you need only look to Proverbs 17:15 to see this truth: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the just— both are detestable to the LORD.” God would never do something that would make Himself detestable to Himself, so He had to do something to make it possible to justify the wicked.
In chapter 5, Piper confronts Wright’s assertion that, “The doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’ . . . ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.” Piper shows his gracious heart when he writes, “Perhaps Wright would clarify his meaning with the words, ‘We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith.’” Piper’s point being: Absolutely. We are not justified by our belief in specific doctrines. We are justified by placing our faith in Jesus and Jesus alone.
In chapters 6-7, Piper ultimately answers in the affirmative that justification determines our standing with God, and he explains that our works have nothing at all to do with it. Instead of works being what ultimately justify us within God’s covenant on the last day (as Wright would argue), Piper argues that throughout the history of the Reformed tradition “good works are the evidence of authentic faith” and nothing more.
In chapters 8-10, Piper brings up several different questions that all relate to pegging Wright’s view of justification as “confusing.” In chapter 8, he poses the question, “Does Wright mean the same thing as the Reformed tradition when he speaks of ‘imputed righteousness’?” to which he answers, “No.” In chapter 9, he asks whether Paul believed that Judaism in the first century was grace-based, and then spends chapter 10 proving his negative answer. He concludes with the statement, “Paul was confronting a deep legalism when he articulated his doctrine of justification. The root of this legalism was self-righteousness, in whatever ethnic or moral dress.”
Finally, Piper concludes his book in chapter 11, by presenting the beautiful truth of justification through Christ. He writes of 2 Corinthians 5:21, “This text gives us biblical warrant for believing that the divine righteousness that is imputed to believers in Romans 4:6 and 4:11 is the righteousness of Christ. Becoming the righteousness of God in ‘in him’ implies that our identity with Christ is the way God sees his own righteousness as becoming ours.”
And thus the body of his book comes to a close—with those words.
In the conclusion of his work, he writes, “It is not accidental that the title of this book has a double meaning. The Future of Justification draws attention not only to where the doctrine itself may be going, but also to the critical importance of God’s future act of judgment when our justification will be confirmed. How will our obedience function in that Day?” Wright’s view overemphasizes the future when our works will supposedly justify us, and Piper writes with the goal of preventing our understanding of this doctrine from going that direction in the future. I for one want to preach the imputed righteousness of Christ until my dying day, and i am indebted to John Piper for penning this work and helping to clarify and encourage me in my view on the doctrine.
In summary, this book is an extremely good response to N. T. Wright’s teaching on the doctrine of justification. Piper handles it all with grace, but at the same time with a heavy sense of urgency. Even apart from the polemical nature, it is a good primer on Justification, though the polemical nature can make it slightly confusing at times. His conclusion is rock solid (and I posted more specifically on it here). I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in better understanding the Reformed view of justification.
Soli Deo Gloria
 John Piper, The Future of Justification in The Collected Works of John Piper (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 7:23. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 46.
 Quoted in Ibid., 68. Emphasis added by Piper.
 Ibid., 180. Heading.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., 84.
 Quoted in Ibid., 90.
 Ibid., 93. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 119.
 See Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 166. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 185. Emphasis in original.
 Ibid., 189-190.