[K:NWTS 25/1 (May 2010) 54-55]

Book Review

John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007. 240pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-5813-4964-1. $17.99.

Piper’s response to N. T. Wright is a useful book for those looking for a basic orthodox assessment of the biblical passages on justification. This is its strength. His writing style is also lucid, making the book very useful for a broad audience. Piper goes through numerous biblical texts, engaging Wright’s basic exegesis and refuting it. Above all, he defends the Pauline and Reformation teaching that the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers in justification (contra Wright). For this, the book is to be commended.

Further, Wright generally reduces the righteousness of God to one category—God’s faithfulness to his promises. Here, Piper does a good job showing that God’s righteousness must involve more than his faithfulness to his promises. He shows from Rom. 3:25-26 that God’s passing over sin creates a problem for God’s covenant faithfulness. How can God be righteous in dealing with sin and so keep his covenant promises? If, however, the righteousness of God were simply God’s covenant faithfulness and nothing else, no aspect of his righteousness could stand above the covenant to raise this question.

Another pillar of the New Perspective is that justification by faith only relates to Gentiles. Again, Piper takes on the issue. Following Romans 3:29-30, he shows that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith alone. These are only a few of Piper’s helpful assessments of the biblical text.

At the same time, those looking for a penetrating understanding of Wright’s presuppositions in modern critical biblical scholarship beyond E. P. Sanders will want more. While Piper does present a basic understanding of the New Perspective on Paul and Sanders’ influence on Wright, he does not evaluate the influence of Ernst Kasemann or G. B. Caird (Wright’s doctoral advisor)[1] on Wright’s political approach to righteousness.

In this respect and others, Piper’s book does not engage the eschatological approach of modern biblical studies, either in its critical or orthodox manifestations. Piper argues that the righteousness imputed to us in justification is the obedience and righteousness of Christ (as noted). But we believe he would have strengthened his case by expounding the eschatological nature of that righteousness. That is, Adam looked ahead to a righteousness that he did not possess. This obedience would only arise as a result of his active obedience to God’s law and commandment. Christ has now accomplished what Adam failed to accomplish. Thus, his positive obedience to the law while on earth must be essential to the righteousness he has imputed to us. He does not simply bring us back to the garden, but brings us to eternal glory and eschatological righteousness. This righteousness can never be reversed. For it is the culmination of Christ’s active obedience to the law while on earth (as it would have been for Adam), come to its eschatological fruition in his death and resurrection. All of this is essential to the triumph of Christ’s righteousness in his resurrection, now imputed to us. For in him (and all that he is), we have eschatological righteousness. Praise God!

In the end, Wright’s own political approach to righteousness simply brings us back to the Garden of Eden, now made cosmic (a la Kasemann). As a result, the church’s present call is that of political engagement to put the world to rights, to justify the world as we see it. This is a failure to recognize that Christ has fully accomplished eschatological justification and now imputes it to his people by faith. The consummation alone will bring our mortal bodies into a new relationship to that righteousness, as they are caught up in the heavenly places where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father.

As noted, we believe that Piper’s assessment could have been strengthened by expounding the eschatological associations of the righteousness of Christ in Paul. Nonetheless, we recognize that Piper defends many of the aspects of Christ’s righteousness individually (i.e., topically) in a succinct manner. Clearly, his work deserves recognition and appreciation for that. N. T. Wright himself considered the work significant enough (even if only because of its influence) that he thought fit to respond to it in his next book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. While we do not recommend Piper’s work as the best book to turn to on this matter, we hope that it continues to help many in the church who read it.

—Scott F. Sanborn


[1] Admittedly, the reviewer has not yet read Caird either. Thus, I note him, not so much to correct Piper, but as an encouragement for further research. I thank Benjamin Swinburnson for referring me to Caird’s influence on Wright and to Wright’s introduction to Caird’s book, The Language and Imagery of the Bible.