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Tom Wright has mangled the concept of Justification
His revision varies frequently and blatantly falls short of the apostolic message of grace

By Roger Salter
August 5, 2019

Personal originality in thought and teaching is a great temptation for those entrusted with the ministry of theological discourse and education. Some novelty of supposed insight, or special acumen, occurring to a biblical specialist is hard is to suppress. It ought to be sufficient humbly and slowly (Cranmer-like) to think God's thoughts after him as faithfully discerned in Holy Scripture, but for some minds there is the irrepressible impulse to cry "eureka- I've found it", something exceptional, a discovery so exquisite and intoxicating, that surely no one else has made before; at least not as decisively. And the new line of thought is traced as the magic key to the comprehension of the entirety of divine revelation in a way that no one prior had ever dreamt of or suspected.

Karl Barth has accomplished this feat of innovation with the doctrine of divine election, and some reputable Anglicans have been strongly influenced by him. The eminent professor and undeniably gifted scholar, Tom Wright, has altered the doctrine of justification with his new perspective on Paul. Fleming Rutledge has seriously revised the doctrine of the atonement in her elegantly written volume The Crucifixion.

There is no denying the impressive learning, linguistic expertise, and plausibility of such skilled communicators as these three and many others. But there is no denying also that each has weakened the testimony of Sacred Scripture in vital aspects of the heavenly truth that the word of God conveys as a solid ground for assurance and joy in the minds and hearts of believers. Barth can be set aside. His 99% version of universalism (Christ rejected and elect on behalf of all) is openly untenable and in direct contradiction of the plain tenets of the biblical witness on the sovereignty of distinguishing grace in spite of his use of near Reformational vocabulary and even his rejection of synergism.


The doctrine of justification by faith alone is dear, clear and crucial to every seeker of salvation. It does not need to be complicated and confused by Wright's mangling of the concept. What he may justifiably contend for is already present and accounted for in the classic view of justification, and what he does present as valid revision varies frequently, this way and that, and blatantly falls short of the apostolic message of grace - free forgiveness, instant acceptance with God, assurance of eternal life on the basis of confidence in the substitutionary blood-shedding, and the knowledge that final judgment will vindicate the prior acquittal of the elect on the evidence of sincere faith evinced in genuine sanctification and grateful service to the Lord.

Wright rambles in his attempt to uphold his fresh discovery. At one time justification is nothing to do with salvation, at another time justification lacks completion until future vindication. Justification, seemingly is actually about God's character (and not the new status of the penitent) and the performance of divine covenant faithfulness. Or, it is the discovery that Jewish ceremonial law now has nothing to do with inclusion in the people of God. Justification is the admission of the gentiles to the people of God free of Jewish ceremony and ritual. It is alone the amazing declaration that non-Jews are now eligible for inclusion in the people of God. Galatians is clearly about more than the ethnic expansion of the community that acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord.

Wright's critics are over-polite. They tend to allege confusion on the point of Justification. We are informed that only sufficient familiarity with Jewish culture and outlook (the concerns that chiefly occupied the mind of St Paul in his time and societal setting) can qualify us for the correct interpretation of Paul (so much for the perspicacity of Holy Scripture for the common man).

But the essence of the gospel transcends any human condition in addressing the prime concern of sinners - how to get right with God in any culture or age. The professor's position seems to emerge from a touch of academic hubris, the same feeling second year theological students can experience as they become adept with their "high-falutin", newfound, specialist-speech. It becomes the elevation of the eminent scholar to the indispensable priesthood (to whom all must defer), humanly speaking. God is well able to compose a message of grace that is not bound by clever research and high-class historical expertise. The message of the cross embraced by saving faith is sufficient for every class, condition, and chronological placing of any person who calls upon God for rescue and restored favor. A word so vital for eternal salvation is not secreted at the centre of a labyrinth accessed only by the wit of the cognoscenti.

There are many highly competent rebuttals of Wright's position, but the very best is slow prayerful reflection over the simple words of Scripture and the consequent identification of Wright's contradiction of plain saving truth allied to the myriad inconsistencies within his theology of Paul. Grasp of the gospel is intuitive under the influence of the Spirit as well as an intellectual pursuit.

But we are not confined to Paul for a refutation of the new perspective. Scripture teems with corrective data of this liberal, modernist muddying of the good news.

Matthew 18: 9-14. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax Collector

Of the sinful social outcast Jesus said, "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God." The content, context, and idiom of this verse abundantly clarify that the tax collector was justified by God through penitent faith. The differentiation between the two men had nothing to do with ceremonial law or an affirmation of the the covenant arrangement in any external sense. Two hearts made appeal to God, one self-righteous, the other devoid of righteousness. The latter, leaning on mercy, was put right with God, as the Justifier of sinners himself declared.

Psalm 143: 2. Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

The BCP, in itself, in all its departments, is the standard, still, for orthodox Anglican theology. For the encouragement of the contrite and conscience-stricken worshipper the verse above is included in the introductory sentences for the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

This anxious plea is clearly and incontrovertibly a statement of salvific significance. It casts aside any claim to moral rectitude that qualifies the awakened offender for favor or right standing before God. It is renunciation of righteousness that looks to God for a solution to a pastoral predicament: "Do I find a merciful God above me, before whom I bow in total moral destitution?"

Somewhere Wright has been noted as saying that Justification does not relate to salvation. How could the Old Testament saint have been so wrong, and what could possibly assuage his deep disappointment if somehow he gained foreknowledge of Wright's disturbing theory?

That is the problem with Wright. He disappoints on the most vital point confronting the sinner - Justification, or pardon and acceptance, the two greatest gifts to be received from the Redeemer in the initiatory stages of the joy of eternal salvation. Isn't it too mild to say that TW is merely confused (John Piper). Perhaps a stumbling block is a more adequate description. We cannot place the doctrine of justification in even the slightest jeopardy.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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