I have two observations from reading N. T. Wright’s response to John Piper in his latest book entitled, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision:

First, Piper views justification narrowly, as looking into a room through a key-hole. Wright swings the door wide open to view the entire room including all the furniture, one piece of which is Christ’s death and resurrection in our stead. Similarly, Piper claims Wright is denying Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer. Wright explicitly affirms Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer but gets at it differently and, he claims, a more biblically responsible route by defining “righteousness” more in covenantal terms rather than moral/ethical terms. This, Wright believes, is faithful to Paul’s understanding.

Consider carefully Wright’s comments on Romans 6 (pp. 231-234. Spoiler warning: Apologies in advance to those who’ve not yet read Wright, but zeroing in on this is far more important than the thrill of your first reading!)

John Piper is rightly concerned to safeguard the great Christian truth that when someone is “in Christ” God sees him or her, from that moment on, in the light of what is true of Christ. But, in line with some (though by no means all) of the Protestant Reformers and their successors, he insists on arriving at this conclusion by the route of supposing that the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ–his “active obedience” as opposed to the “passive obedience” of his death on the cross–is the ground of this security….I want to say, as clearly as I can, to Piper and those who have followed him: this is, theologically and exegetically, a blind alley–but you can get the result you want by a genuinely Pauline route if you pay attention to what is happening here in Romans 6. Three points are vital here.

First, there is no suggestion that when Paul speaks of the “obedience” of Jesus Christ he refers to his moral uprightness, still less, more specifically, his obedience to the law of Moses. As we saw in Romans 5, the “obedience” of Jesus (Romans 5:19, with cross-reference to Philippians 2:8) refers back, in line with the “obedience” of the Isaianic servant, to the achievement of his death. The law arrives as an extra on the stage (Romans 5:20), adding a new spin to the whole process but not providing the foundation for a theology of Jesus’ supposed righteousness-earning “active obedience.”

Second, Paul’s entire understanding of the Mosaic law is that it never was intended as a ladder of good works up which one might climb to earn the status of “righteousness.” It was given, yes, as the way of life (Romans 7:10), but was the way of life for a people already redeemed…The gift always preceded the obligation. That is how Israel’s covenant theology worked. It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus “obeyed the law” and so obtained “righteousness” which could be reckoned to those who believe in him. To think that way is to concede, after all, that “legalism” was true after all–with Jesus as the ultimate legalist. At this point, Reformed theology lost its nerve. It should have continued the critique all the way through: “legalism” itself was never the point, not for us, not for Israel, not for Jesus.

Third, have we thus abandoned the wonderful good news of the gospel? By no means. Paul has a different way, a far more biblical way, of arriving at the desired conclusion. It is not the “righteousness” of Jesus Christ which is “reckoned” to the believer. It is his death and resurrection. That is what Romans 6 is all about. Paul does not say, “I am in Christ; Christ has obeyed the Torah; therefore God regards me as though I had obeyed the Torah.” He says: “I am in Christ; Christ has died and been raised; therefore God regards me–and I must learn to regard myself–as someone who has died to sin and been raised to newness of life….”

All that the supposed doctrine of the “imputed righteousness of Christ” has to offer is offered instead by Paul under this rubric, on these terms and within this covenantal framework.

And when we bring the doctrine of “imputed righteousness” to Paul, we find that he achieves what that doctrine wants to achieve, but by a radically different route. In fact he achieves more. To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah.

All emphases are Wright’s.

Finally, I would like to offer some links to worthy discussions elsewhere (for and against Wright) on this most important debate.

Wright and Righteousness by Paul Helm
Justin Tayor’s Blog
Michael Horton, White Horse Inn
Kevin DeYoung on Wright’s Justification
Can the New Holy War Be Avoided? A Review of Justification
Q & A with Bishop Wright on ‘Justification’
The New Perspective and Evangelicalism: N.T. Wright, Justification, and the Gospel
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper (free download)
Tom Wright introduces his reasons for writing Justification
Piper/Wright Summaries: Christianity Today
With Justification: Ben Witherington
Guy Waters Review
Schreiner, Seifrid, and Vickers Assess Piper-Wright Debate at Boyce College
Book Review: Justification by NT Wright
Ben Witherington: N.T. Wright’s Response to John Piper on Justification
Craig Blomberg’s Review
Justification – Tom Wright / A book review
Michael Bird on Blomberg’s Review
Michael Bird on SBTS Wright Review Panel
Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works
Why Covenant Faithfulness is not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be) by Paul Helm
Paul Helm on N.T. Wright
Paul Helm, again
Paul Helm, first post in a 4-part series
Trevin Wax’ on Piper vs. Wright on Justification: A Layman’s Guide
Trevin Wax Michael Bird Interview
Trevin Wax N.T. Wright Interview
Trevin Wax: The Future of Justification Series
Scot McKnight on N.T. Wright’s Justification
Reformed Forum on N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification, Part 1
Reformed Forum on N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification, Part 2
Nijay K Gupta (doctoral candidate at University of Durham)


  1. Paul,

    Thanks for getting the discussion started. I’ve not read very far in Wright’s book yet and since I was distracted by a couple of other books since I started I plan to go back and start again. But I have read Piper’s book and I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that Piper “claims Wright is denying Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer.” More precisely Piper claims that Wright denies the “imputed obedience” of Christ as the basis of that imputed righteousness. (See pp. 121-30) This seems to be verified by the quote you provide. It seems to be that Piper has correctly understood Wright at this point and stated his position well. He says of Wright, “In other words, when we think of imputation, we should not think of Christ’s obedience–his moral righteousness, or his fulfillment of the law–but rather his position of being vindicated into a glorious resurrection life after his atoning death. So it is not the ‘status’ of a fulfilled moral law that is reckoned to us in union with Christ, but the status of vindication, that is, covenant membership.” (124) Does this not correctly state Wright’s view? I’m not looking for who is right or wrong at this point but simply to know if Piper has adequately understood Wright on this issue.

    I’m still pondering the key hole and wide open door illustration.
    Let the dialogue begin.


  2. Thanks, Louis. As always, I appreciate your keen eye for details. Agreed that Piper does charge Wright with denying Christ’s obedience imputed to us rather than Christ’s righteousness. Wright does seem to restrict Christ’s obedience to his work on the cross and that obedience has little/no place on our side of the balance sheet, save as the basis for forgiveness. This article, though dated, nicely captures the misunderstanding many seem to have on Wright.

  3. I was fascinated by your comparison of Wright to Baxter. I once sat down for tea with him at Westminster Abbey and jokingly asked him if he “stole” his ideas from Richard Baxter. He graciously redirected the conversation, but I remember being struck by the similarities between his own views and Baxter concerning soteriology.

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