May 7, 2012

ROMANS 3:21–26 in relation to the NPP

ROMANS 3:21–26
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 
This has usually been understood as a passage about how God “bestows a righteous status in sinners” and “puts them in the right before his judgment bar”.  Yet, NT Wright takes this passage to be about covenant membership: “The passage is all about the covenant, membership in which is now thrown open to Jew and Gentile alike.”

Lexically, this understanding comes up short, for it has not been established that the Greek word dikaiosune (“righteousness”) can be defined as “membership within a group” or that dikaioo (“justify”) means “to make or declare the member of a group”.

Further, Paul uses the phrase “righteousness of God” nine times, and it usually denotes that the sinner’s new legal standing means that he is seen as righteous even while a sinner. This is the origin of Luther’s famous Latin phrase simul justus ac peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”).

Bruce notes that verse 24 of Romans 3 demonstrates that “God pronounces believers righteous at the beginning of their course, not at the end of it.”  This is very different from Wright’s understanding: “Paul traces the route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future.”  

Wright also suggests final justification is “on the basis of the entire life a person has led”.   If theological phrases (and their meanings) were members of different soteriological families, then the aforementioned sentiments expressed by Wright look a lot more like cousins to the “Works Family” than they do brothers in the “Faith Alone Family”. This analogy is somewhat imprecise but is not far removed from the reality of the situation. Continuing on in verses 25 and 26, Piper makes an incisive observation:

Wright’s most common definition of God’s righ¬teousness—God’s covenant faithfulness—does not, it seems, fit easily into Romans 3:25–26. On the contrary, in these verses God’s righteousness creates a problem for covenant faithfulness and must be satisfied in order that his covenant faithfulness may continue. Wright sees this and speaks of “the aspect of God’s righteousness that is called into question.” Yes. And this “aspect” is not most naturally, in this context, God’s covenant faithfulness. God’s passing over sin would seem to be not a problem for God’s covenant faithfulness, but an expression of it.

Piper’s reasoning seems sound. One could successfully argue that other interpretations just do not work. Centuries earlier, the Reformer Melanchthon wrote on this passage: believers “have forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us so that we are justified and are pleasing to God for the sake of Christ.”  I think he was right.

[] F.F. Bruce, Romans in the Tyndale NewTestament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985), 106. Thisis not to say that some of the ideas Wright and others express are absolutelyforeign to the meaning of the text. For example, see Bruce’s comments allthroughout on 3:21-5:21. Often the NPP exegesis truncates, minimizes, atomizes,and even reduces the full orbed meaning of key soteriological passages. This isnot to say that everything the NPP scholars say has no foundation in the text whatsoever, for most of the time that wouldbe an extreme and careless overstatement
[] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder ofChristianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1997), 128.
[] “N.T. Wright on Justification,” Charles E. Hill in IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number22, May 28 to June 3, 2001, 2. For a thorough enough yet accessible talk onthis – and other germane considerations – listen to Dr. Wayne Grudem’s two-partlecture on justification at March 02 and March 09, 2008, respectively.
[] Bruce, Romans, 108.
[] NT Wright, Paulin Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005). 148. 
[] “New Perspectiveson Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments andContemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2006), 260.  Wright also saysthat this is on the basis of ‘works,’” but it is often not exactly clearby what Wright means at all times. To my ears, though, it sounds much too closeto a salvation by works scenario.
[] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton,IL: Crossway, 2007), 68.
[] Phillip Melanchthon, “How Man ObtainsForgiveness of Sin and Is Justified before God” in Melanchthon  on ChristianDoctrine: Loci Communes, 1555.
[] Brian J. Vickers shows the LutheranReformation trajectory of teaching imputation in Luther, his successorMelancthon and his student Martin Chemnitz in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation,(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 23-29. Neither he nor I think that because theytaught it that it is correct, per se, but the idea is to flesh out further thetraditional understanding as well help moderns be more cautious in how theyread not only the Reformers but Paul. 

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