Home > Brian's Blogs, New Perspective on Paul, Theology > Piper’s “The Future of Justification”: A Review

Piper’s “The Future of Justification”: A Review

I’ve provided a chapter by chapter summary of John Piper’s The Future of Justification, but I have not yet provided any editorial comments on the book. Here are my thoughts on Piper’s newest release.

Allow me to begin with my conclusion and then proceed to specifics. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love John Piper. I read all his books and greatly benefit from them. On the issue of justification, I remain Reformed and agree with Piper more than I agree with N. T. Wright. But if you want a book to truly understand Paul’s view of justification, this is not the book. It is helpful in some ways, but limited in many others.

First, the positive: Chapters 10 and 11 are absolutely excellent. Chapter 10 interacts with the true nature of second-temple Judaism through the Qumran texts, the Gospels, and Paul. This is the foundation of N. T. Wright’s entire exegesis and Piper convincingly challenges many of Wright’s views (I’m not sure why Piper doesn’t make this his first chapter because it would have laid the foundation and corresponded better to Wright’s own books). Piper is correct to show that Jesus saw some legalism in second-temple Judaism, so it is natural that Paul would as well.

Chapter 11 interacts with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through several Pauline texts. Here Piper provides limited exegesis (in the same manner as Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said) to challenge Wright’s exegesis of the very same passages. Piper is convincing in many regards, notably 2 Corinthians 5:21.

Now, the negative: Piper’s book disappoints on several levels.

1. Clarity. One of the things that makes N. T. Wright so popular and convincing is his clarity. Piper’s book, in terms of structural organization and explanation, is not nearly as user-friendly as Wright. We would have been better served had Piper taken the format of What Saint Paul Really Said and responded to it chapter by chapter. But, then again, I’m not an author so this is very subjective.

2. Systematic, Not Biblical Theology. As I have stated in a previous post, the New Perspective on Paul is primarily an exegetical debate that may have implications for systematic theology. However, Piper approaches the issue as a systematic theologian. He does not begin with exegesis (and provides limited exegesis) but with the Reformed understanding of justification. Therefore, Piper assumes that the Reformed understanding is correct and interacts with N. T. Wright on that basis. This will be encouraging to those who hold to Reformed systematic theology, but not decisive for anyone else.

3. Limited Exegesis. I know that John Piper is an excellent exegete. This is evident in his sermons and his books such as Counted Righteous in Christ and The Justification of God. But The Future of Justification does not offer similar exegesis of the biblical text or of N. T. Wright. Here are few examples.

a. In Chapter Four Piper sets out to prove imputation from Romans 4:4-6, but he doesn’t provide any exegesis. He simply states “[Paul] describes the justification of the ungodly in the language of imputation when he refers to the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works…Paul himself raises the question of an imputed righteousness…” Has he? Isn’t this what the debate is about? But rather than engage the debate, Piper simply claims that this is what Paul meant with no supporting exegesis. I realize that Piper has provided this exegesis in his well-written Counted Righteous in Christ, but he should at least reference that exegesis here. In this chapter, there is no exegesis of Romans 4 and no exegesis of Genesis 15 in the Hebrew or in the LXX.

b. When Piper does provide some exegesis of Psalm 32, here is how he frames the debate: “It is plausible that when Paul quotes Psalm 32…he is making forgiveness and justification ‘equivalent.’ But I find it more plausible that in Paul’s mind wherever sins are not counted, a positive righteousness is counted.” What is the basis of this plausibility? Not exegesis, but Piper’s understanding of how an omniscient judge acts in a courtroom as opposed to how a human judge acts in a courtroom. While this is an interesting explanation it is not based upon exegesis but Piper’s own philosophical theology.

c. Piper’s limited exegesis focuses on the term “righteousness” while N. T. Wright’s exegesis often focuses on the specific phrase “the righteousness of God.” This may be significant in their conclusions.

d. There are a variety of times throughout the book that Piper challenges Wright’s exegesis without addressing Wright’s actual exegesis. For example, in Chapter Two Piper claims that Wright’s meaning of justification as covenant membership doesn’t fit the context of Romans 3:4. However, he never explains Wright’s own exegesis. Since Wright has written over 500 pages of commentary on Romans (New Interpreter’s Bible and Paul For Everyone), it is inexcusable to not allow Wright to address the matter. For the record, Wright’s exegesis of Romans 3:4 is: “when God condemns this sin there will be no question about the rightness of the verdict.”

4. Interaction with N. T. Wright. Piper’s book is replete with quotations from N. T. Wright’s books. However, I understand that Wright provided Piper with an 11,000 word response to a rough draft of this book. Perhaps Piper didn’t have time to include it, but Piper speculates a lot in Chapter Eight on Wright’s views of imputation that I imagine Wright attempted to clarify (but I could be wrong). It would be helpful to know Wright’s own clarifications.

5. Missed Connections. I wonder if there is more common ground than Piper allows. For example, I was surprised when I read that Piper believes “the righteousness of God” is his “an unwavering allegiance to treasure and uphold the glory of God” (p. 71). N. T. Wright believes “the righteousness of God” is (to paraphrase) his “unwavering allegiance to uphold the covenant.” In a Jewish context, couldn’t these two be equivalent? In other words, for an Israelite, covenant is everything. Wouldn’t they claim that allegiance to God’s covenant is allegiance to God’s glory? I’m not 100% sure on this one, but they might be saying the same thing.

6. Nit Picking. I only have one example of this, but I was bothered by Piper’s excursus in Chapter Two. In this chapter Piper affirms beyond a shadow of doubt that Wright believes in penal substitution. So why does Piper provide an excursus on Wright’s support of Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus (which seems to deny penal substitution)? If this is a book about Wright and justification (not penal substitution), and Piper goes out of his way to show that they agree on penal substitution, what is the point of this excursus?

Again, Piper is an amazing pastor and theologian. The final two chapters of this book are extremely helpful. However, ff you want detailed exegesis and biblical theology from a Lutheran/Reformed perspective, I recommend Doug Moo’s magisterial commentary on Romans. Moo interacts with all of the background and exegetical issues while clearly and convincingly making his case.

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  1. December 1, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Good review. Thanks. Very Helpful.

  2. November 21, 2008 at 11:21 am

    (Calvinist) Imputation is next on my agenda of things to seriously study because it sounds so great and easy yet so illogical and Wright’s critique of it as a “category mistake” seems dead on. Does everything hang pretty much on 2 Cor 5 or, at least, is 2 Cor 5 the clearest passage on this?

    I must concur with you that Wright and Piper share much common ground. I would take Piper to task at some points in his “A Response to The New Perspective on Paul” for not properly trying to understand Wright’s position and slightly misrepresenting it. In particular, he switches between “faith” and “faithfulness” in such a way as to make sense and unwittingly agrees with Wright whilst disagreeing with much of what he (Piper) holds…

    Can ANYONE point me to a work which describes Imputation in a logical and not dogmatic fashion which starts “Imputation is true, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”?

  3. Dale Harris
    February 26, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Thank you for this helpful and balanced review.

  1. December 3, 2007 at 10:55 am

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