Wright, Paul and Justification

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In his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, NT Wright attempts to outline his understanding of Christian salvation, particularly on the meaning and significance of justification. He is a proponent of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP), which is an attempt to place the writings of Paul within his first century context, and to stop demonizing Judaism.

While the NPP is and has been a controversial movement within the Protestant world, I do feel that what Wright et al are attempting to do is helpful. In particular, Wright’s attempt to place Paul’s understanding of justification, and Christ’s work, in the context of the larger narrative of Israel, and covenant, and what Wright calls “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (98), is incredibly illuminating. In my opinion, it opens up the doctrine of salvation to the entire narrative of scripture. Indeed, Wright explains that justification — like any biblical doctrine — must have its context. And when taken out of that context, it loses its biblical, even Jewish, emphasis.

There is one section in this book that is especially helpful. In this section, Wright explains that to understand the gospel, and justification, one must understand Christology; that is to say, one must understand who Christ is, and what he was about. Then we can get what justification is.

Wright explains:

Paul uses Christos, designating Jesus as the Messiah, in conscious belief that the Messiah is one in whom two things in particular happen:

  1. “The Messiah” is the one who draws Israel’s long history to its appointed goal…The single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed…to culminate in the Messiah, who would fight the victorious battle against the ultimate enemy, build the new temple, and inaugurate a worldwide rule of justice, peace and prosperity. Paul of course, saw all of these as being redefined, granted that the Messiah was Jesus; but none of them lost
  2. The Messiah is therefore the one…in whom God’s people are summed up, so that what is true of him is true of them. To belong to the people over whom David, or David’s son, was ruling was spoken of in the Old Testament as being “in David” or “in the son of Jesse”. Paul can therefore speak of Christians “entering into the Messiah” through baptism and faith, as being “in him” as a result. He is the “seed of Abraham”, not simply as a single person but because he “contains”, as the goal of God’s Israel-plan, the whole people of God in himself. (103-104)

Wright makes the point that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came for the explicit purpose of summing up and completing Israel’s long history: he is the true and faithful Israelite. He is Israel itself realizing God’s Abrahamic promise to bless the nations! Consequently, Wright also explains that all who believe in Christ are caught up “in Christ”, and thus participate in him as the true Israel. Put another way, we are taken up in the faithful Israelite, such that we constitute the new Israel in him.

Salvation then — for Wright at least — is being caught up into the new Israel, into Christ himself, and entering into the new fulfilled people of God. It is constituting the new, eschatological, people of God.

Wright will go on to say that while justification is a distinctly juridicial term — he defines it as a declaration that believers are “in the right”, it is a “status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90) — it is a term which must be placed within the Israel, or covenantal context. Put simply, believers are declared to be in the right because of the reality that they are in Messiah, who is in himself faithful Israel, who has fulfilled God’s promises for the world.

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