John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), pp. 239.
"Justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls." Attributed to Martin Luther, this quote has become famous. But what is "justification"?
Among other things, it is a subject on which N.T. Wright and John Piper disagree. In fact, Piper disagrees with Wright so passionately that he chose to write a book--The Future of Justification--to air his objections. In Piper's words, "My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is...that his portrayal of the gospel--and of the doctrine of justification in particular--is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful" (p. 15).
Piper's book first begins to engage the substance of the matter on page 14. The subject of how one interprets Paul’s doctrine of justification is of such great importance, argues Piper, that "eternal life hangs in the balance." He continues: "How we live and what we teach will make a difference in whether people obey the gospel or meet Jesus in the fire of judgment, 'when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus'" (2 Thess. 1:7–8).
"Therefore," asserts Piper, "the subject matter of this book—justification by faith apart from works of the law—is serious." In this introduction, Piper clearly communicates his seriousness, naming eight points related to justification on which he is convinced Wright is wrong. He also conveys the impression that "eternal life" depends on us—more specifically, on "[h]ow we live and what we teach." His way of putting things suggests that we are saved not by Jesus, but from Jesus; we are saved from his "fire of judgment" by hearing and embracing right doctrine—which in this case is Piper’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching on justification. Piper employs a difficult passage from the obscure 2 Thessalonians to support his case. In their literary context (see especially 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6), the verses in question clearly speak of judgment on the persecutors of Christians in Thessalonica. They say nothing about justification, much less about needing to have a particular understanding of justification in order to avoid "meet[ing] Jesus in the fire of judgment." (Pertinently, the term "justification" does not appear even once in either 1 or 2 Thessalonians, perhaps Paul’s earliest letters.)
Piper does anticipate the objection that he makes it sound as if we are saved "by believing in justification by faith" (p. 20). He equivocates for two paragraphs before concluding: "[I]t is misleading to say [as Wright does] that we are not saved by believing in justification by faith…. If we hear that part of the gospel and reject it, while trying to embrace Christ on other terms, we will not be saved" (pp. 20-1). This logic seems to lead to the conclusion that it is ultimately not the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that saves us, but we who save ourselves (by embracing what Piper believes to be right doctrine). Of course, Piper might respond to this conclusion with the same head-scratching logic with which he responds to Wright: "[B]eware of thinking this means what you might think it means" (p. 22). (Wright can, however, take comfort in the knowledge that Piper does not judge him to be damned: "I do not infer Wright’s defective view of justification to mean that he is not himself justified" [p. 24)].)
Having introduced his issues, Piper continues with what is in effect a second introduction, this one titled, "On Controversy" (p. 27). Here Piper offers an apology for writing what he admits is a polemic (from the Greek word meaning "war"). Peace, Piper argues, "comes from hearty agreement in truth" (p. 30). (He reaches this conclusion from James 3:17, which reads, "The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable"; apparently, Piper thinks his interpretation that purity equals "hearty agreement in truth" is self-evident.) Throughout this defense, he repeats the word "truth"—with the implication that truth is a thing that he possesses, and that Wright does not. Piper therefore feels a need to share what he has with Wright (this reading, I think, is generous toward Piper).
Before returning to the topic of justification, Piper offers a chapter devoted to explaining why he is suspicious of the practice of interpreting biblical writings with attention to their historical contexts (a practice that includes things like considering other writings from the same time and place to learn how particular words and phrases were used then and there). The effect of this first chapter is to convey that Piper does not take historical context very seriously in his interpretive work. Indeed, when (after digressing for twelve pages) he returns to the question at issue (What is justification?), he writes as if Paul wrote in a vacuum.
Part II: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_11.html
Part III: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_9799.html
Part IV: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_12.html
Part V: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_8353.html
Part VI: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_14.html
Part VII: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_2825.html
Part VIII: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_2901.html
Part IX: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_7645.html
Part X: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_3871.html
Part XI: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/05/pipers-polemic-book-review-future-of_15.html