Ruminating Romans: N. T. Wright and Justification by Works

But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice has been displayed. God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory—and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26)

When we turn to N. T. Wright’s New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Romans 3:21-26, we find Wright exegeting the text pretty much as we would expect, given what we have learned so far from his more general presentations of Pauline justification (see “The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification“). According to Wright, St Paul’s formulation of justification by faith is fundamentally ecclesial:

This is the meaning of Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith.” The verdict of the last day has been brought forward into the present in Jesus the Messiah; in raising him from the dead, God declared that in him had been constituted the true, forgiven worldwide family. Justification, in Paul, is not the process or event whereby someone becomes, or grows as, a Christian; it is the declaration that someone is, in the present, a member of the people of God. … We may remind ourselves of the triple layer of meaning in Paul’s “righteousness” language: The covenantal declaration, seen through the metaphorical and vital lens of the lawcourt, is put into operation eschatologically. The verdict to be announced in the future has been brought forward into the present. Those who believe the gospel are declared to be “in the right.” (X:468)

At this point it’s necessary to jump back to Romans 2:4-11:

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to bring you to repentance? By by your hard unrepentant heart you are building up a store of anger for yourself on the day of anger, the day when God’s just judgment will be unveiled—the God who will “repay everyone according to their works.”

When people do what is good, and so pursue the quest for glory and honor and immortality, God will give them the life of the age to come. But when people act out of selfish desire, and do not obey the truth, but instead obey injustice, there will be anger and fury. There will be trouble and distress for every single person who does what is wicked, the Jew first and also, equally, the Greek—and there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, the Jew first and also, equally, the Greek. God, you see, shows no partiality.

This has been the challenging Pauline text for Protestant presentations of justification by works. Paul appears to be saying that at the final judgment, all human beings will be judged by their deeds. Those who are guilty of wickedness will be punished; those who have acted virtuously will be rewarded.

Wright places this text within the wider context of the diatribal style of Romans 2 & 3. As we have seen, Douglas Campbell identifies Paul’s conversation partner as a Christian-Jewish Judaizer. With most commentators, Wright identifies him as a moralizing Jew. Most importantly, Wright understands Romans 2:4-11 as expressing Paul’s authentic understanding of the final judgment. The text simply cannot be rationalized away. The challenge then becomes “How do we reconcile present justification by faith with the future justification by works?”

Wright’s exegesis of this passage has been controversial, particularly in Reformed and evangelical circles:

Paul now expands what it will mean that God judges according to works. He describes the contrasts in the sequence a, b; b, a;: the godly and the wicked, the wicked and the godly. The first contrast, in vv. 7-8 sketches out the underlying attitude of the two classes; the second, in vv. 9-10, emphasizes their final state and insists that Jew and Gentile will be judged fairly and impartially.

The attitude of the two groups is not described in moralistic terms. Paul does not, as a rabbi might have done, produce a list of things that will qualify or disqualify for the “age to come.” Rather, the one group, by “patience in well doing,” seeks for glory, honor and immortality. Paul does not say that they earn them or grasp them; merely that they are seeking them. The other group, seeking their own selfish gain, does “not obey the truth, but obey injustice’ (again the word is adikia, more specific than “wickedness” or “evil). The first group is defined in terms of that for which they seek and the means by which that quest is pursued; the second, in terms of that which is obeyed and not obeyed. We are left to fill in the gaps and to presume that the former do obey the truth and that the latter do not patiently seek for glory. What we are not encouraged to do is to draw up a checklist of things done and not done, to weigh them against one another and thereby to arrive at the final verdict. This suggests that Paul is being careful not to endorse the merit-measuring schemes that, despite not being at the covenantal heart of Judaism, nevertheless played some role in discussions of final judgment. (X:439-440)

Elsewhere Wright speaks of the determination of the final judgment on the basis of “the whole life lived” (Paul, p. 57), which would suggest that he understands Paul as saying that every human being, Jew and Gentile, will ultimately be judged and recompensed on the basis of who they have become through their active obedience and faithfulness. “After all,” as Paul himself says, “it isn’t those who hear the law who are in the right before God. It’s those who do the law who will be declared to be in the right” (Rom 2:13). And again: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah, so that each may receive what has been done through the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:1).

As I mentioned, Wright’s exegesis of the Apostle’s teaching on final justification by works has been fiercely criticized by those who believe that he is undermining the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. If we are judged by works, are we not thrown back upon ourselves for our salvation? Wright responds:

Ah, you say, but that is hypothetical, and Paul is about to declare it null and void and to show a different way altogether. I respond that it is you, O exegete whoever you are saying such things, that is making the word of God null and void through your tradition. Did you never read in 2 Corinthians 5 that we must all appear before the Messiah’s judgment seat, so that we may each receive what was done in the body, good or bad? Who wrote that verse? Ed Sanders? Tom Wright? No: Paul. Or, back in Romans, what about 14:10–12, where each of us will give an account to God, at his judgment seat? How do you fit that into your system? Unless you can, you have stopped reading Paul and have instead imposed your own scheme onto him. For Paul, future justification will be in accordance with the life that has been lived. He does not say we will earn it. He does not say we will merit it. He says we will have been “seeking for it” by our patience in well-doing. And the whole of Romans 5-8—which generations of anxious exegetes have struggled to fit with a Protestant reading of chapter 3—is there to explain how it works: how it works in theory, how it works in practice. The theory involves baptism and the Spirit, neither of which feature that much in normal Protestant schemes of justification. The practice involves reckoning that if one is in the Messiah, one is dead to sin and alive to God; and then, on that basis, and in the power of the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body. If that is not happening, then according to the logic of Rom 8:5–11 it must be questioned whether one really belongs to the Messiah at all.

The future justification, then, will be in accordance with the life lived, but the glorious conclusion of chapter 8 makes it clear that this is no ground for anxiety. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” This is looking to the future, trusting that the Jesus who died, who rose, and who now intercedes for us will remain at the heart of the unbreakable bond of love with which God has loved us. And when we read this wonderful passage, as we must, in the light of the whole of the preceding argument, especially Rom 5:1–11 and 8:12–27, it is clear that it is precisely the Spirit who enables us to be the people who can celebrate in that way, the people of patience, the people of hope, the people in whose hearts love for God has been poured out. (“Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” JETS 54.1 [March 2011]: 61-62)

In the present, we are justified on the basis of faith. In the future, we will be justified on the basis of our concrete lives. What is the connection between the two judgments? The Holy Spirit!

I was beginning to wonder when Wright would finally connect justification with Romans 5-8.

I suspect that evangelicals located in the “once saved, always saved” camp are at the least queasy about, if not outright hostile to, Wright’s construal of future justification by works. Is it possible, according to Paul, for one to be justified in the present and yet rejected at the final judgment? Is it possible to be justified and to lose one’s justification? I suspect the Apostle Paul would say yes. Certainly St John Chrysostom and St Augustine of Hippo would say so. (And then there are the mysterious universalist verses in Romans 5-8, which we will examine, God willing, sometime before the Parousia. How final is the final judgment? How eternal is Pauline hell?)

(Go to “Is Justification Forensic?”)

This entry was posted in Apostle Paul and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Ruminating Romans: N. T. Wright and Justification by Works

  1. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    I am following along with much interest. What translation are you quoting from as you go through Romans (or is it your own from the Greek) ?


  2. Rhonda says:

    “This has been the challenging Pauline text for Protestant presentations of justification by works….fiercely criticized by those who believe that he is undermining the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith…evangelicals located in the “once saved, always saved” camp are at the least queasy about, if not outright hostile to, Wright’s construal of future justification by works.”

    Agreed! Basically they seem to ignore such parts or diminish their meaning to something along the lines of “…we’re justified by faith & the works are only the proof of our justification…” I have had this discussion several times with evangelicals. I like to throw Matt 21 (the sheep & goats) into the mix 😉 One can argue about St. Paul, but Christ was pretty clear & definite.Thrown in another Matt. passage 7:21-23 & they can get really nervous.

    “If we are judged by works, are we not thrown back upon ourselves for our salvation?”

    I think that this is a concern for them, but not the only nor main concern. They seem not to realize salvation is the grace of God & since both faith & the works are part & parcel of salvation… neither earn us–neither can they earn us–any merit.

    I think often the main issue has to deal with the potential “what-if”s. A big one seems to be what if an atheist does good works, as some do? Does the atheist (an unbeliever who not only does not believe, but even denies God’s existence) then get into heaven along with the believer? Another what if is what if a believer does not do good works, as many do not? It seems to say & hold logically then that the atheist will get into heaven while a believer would not. The potentials of both what-if’s are thus deemed unfair & since God is fair (just), the what-if’s just cannot be true. Rather than adjust or change their theology to eliminate the contradictions, it seems easier to just throw the works out the door again.

    I don’t know…just random thoughts…

    Thanks, Fr. A.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Rhonda, I find the “once saved, always saved” position curious. I’m not well acquainted with it. This is not the position of Luther or the Lutheran confessions. I suppose it might make sense if one holds a strong Augustinian predestarianism. Hence one could then claim that the “elect,” whoever they are, are guaranteed salvation. The problem then becomes, How does one determine whether one belongs to this elite club (see the article by Philip Cary. But I gather that the “once saved, always saved” position does depend on absolute predestination. So how does initial salvation happen? Are we talking about a baptism born again experience? And why would initial salvation guarantee perseverance and final salvation?


  3. Jim says:

    Does anyone wonder, if Luther got it wrong on Paul, pounding a square peg of Pelagianism into the round hole of into the texts dealing with Judaizers, maybe, just maybe, he got it wrong on the medieval Catholic Church as well? Luther had major mental problems, thinking the devil was behind every tree, fearing storms, hating Jews, vows, Anabaptists, and anyone else who dared follow his own doctrine of private interpretation of the Bible. Perhaps the Reformation has been wrong on the gospel since day one.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      N. T. Wright believes that Luther got Paul wrong on a number of points. What specifically did you have in mind, Jim?


Comments are closed.