Chapter 6 ends with a return to John Piper’s contention that the doctrine of justification must be included if the gospel is to be good news. (See two of my previous posts here and here.) Piper believes that those influenced by N.T. Wright’s view of “the gospel” will have a global scope, but will not deal adequately with personal human sin and the need for people to know how a person can “find rest in the gospel of grace (101).” (I hope to be a preacher that proves Piper wrong in this regard, always holding in tension the cosmic scope of the gospel while faithfully proclaiming salvation by grace for individual sinners.)

Though I agree with Piper (over against Wright) that the doctrine of justification actually establishes and does not merely declare our salvation, I agree with Wright (over against Piper) that when Paul speaks of “the gospel” in a specific sense, he is referring to a message about Jesus’ death, resurrection and lordship that has salvific implications for us.

Why does Piper insist that the doctrine of justification be included in the strict definition of “the gospel?” I do not want to assign incorrect motivations to Piper. I believe him to be a man who loves the Word and is ready to follow the biblical text wherever it leads. That is why I suspect something below the surface of this debate is driving Piper’s definition of the gospel, something more than the biblical witness. (In my previous posts, I pointed out Piper’s perplexing inconsistencies on this subject).

The real reason why, in Piper’s view, the doctrine of justification must be the very essence of the “gospel message” is because Wright’s definition (and I believe the apostles’ definition too) that “Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen for us, is the Lord of the world” is agreed on by Christians of all stripes. If we define the gospel message this way, then Roman Catholics are right on the gospel.

For those in the Reformed camp, it is unthinkable that we would share common ground with the Roman Catholics (or the Eastern Orthodox for that matter) on the very essence of the gospel of Jesus’ lordship. Out of necessity, Piper must bring justification into the center of the picture – otherwise, the ecumenical implications are too startling and controversial.

Let me conclude by stating my agreement with Piper on the doctrine of justification. I am as Reformed as can be regarding the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, justification by faith alone, all on account of Christ alone. I believe official Roman Catholic teaching to be in serious error on this matter. (So I am not advocating a return to the papacy!)

But while Roman Catholics are wrong on how the gospel works and how salvation is accomplished, I can stand shoulder to shoulder with them in affirming the very essence of the gospel proclamation: Jesus – the crucified and risen Savior is Messiah of Israel and the true Lord of the world.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 12: Justification and "The Gospel"”

  1. John Mark Inman says:

    When I read Piper’s comments about Wright not being able to preach the gospel to individuals and helping an individual find rest, I questioned whether he had heard Wright preach. Most of his online stuff is lectures and conferences and such, but there used to be a sermon of Wright’s on John 4 online. It was given in a seeker/unbelievers present Sunday night service. He challenged individuals to face up to sin and trust Jesus.

    Maybe in theory Wright’s theology doesn’t allow for preaching to individuals(although I don’t think so), but it certainly doesn’t in practice.

  2. RonH says:

    Trevin, you are dead on. Wright’s understanding of justification and the gospel casts the Protestant-Catholic tension in a new light. If anyone wants to know why conservative Reformed types in the US respond so aggressively to Wright, he need only read chapter 9 of _What St. Paul Really Said_. This is also why Piper in the conclusion to his book spends most of it refuting the notion of justification by works — despite the fact that Wright doesn’t affirm justification by works at all.

  3. Hmmm… any half-way slippery enough Arian ought to be able to agree to any of the statements that you suggested. And Pelagianism has nothing to do with Christology proper, so Pelagians ought to be able to sign up to the statements as well.

    Perhaps there are nuances we’re missing here, perhaps Christology seul drives soteriology and we’re missing the links, or perhaps Wright’s definition is correct and we’ve all to be even more ecumenical than he suspects. I’m plumping for the first, although am open to the second. If the third, I’ll stop evangelising door-knocking JWs.

  4. trevinwax says:

    Philip, I would argue that “Jesus Christ is Lord” also refers to Lord – Adonai – as in YHWH, so that claiming that Jesus Christ is Lord is (at least implicitly) a reference to his deity, not only to his rule. So that rules out the cults right away.

    I do not want to imply that what constitutes “the gospel” is the only important Christian doctrine. Surely we need Confessions of Faith that lay out parameters of Christian faith and practice.

    But I do believe that when Paul is speaking of “the gospel” in a specific sense, he is referring to the announcement that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead and is Lord of the world.

  5. No doubt, that argument (Kyrios/Adonai) is correct. But I would sooner we were up-front and honest about saying that Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh, since (a) Paul is sufficently so in the passage to which I allude, and (b) we need to be completely clear with people. Paul was working within a culture which understood that claim “Jesus is Lord” to entail deity. We aren’t, so we need to make that claim explicit.

    The Pelagianism thing still worries me: Paul tells the Galatians that some have perverted the gospel, preaching another gospel which is no gospel at all–they were teaching some version of justification by works. He says that refusing to eat with Gentiles is failing to act in line with the truth of the gospel. We need to be able to state the gospel in such a way that Paul’s language in Galatians makes sense.

  6. trevinwax says:

    Philip,

    You make some good points. It’s not enough to preach “the gospel” of Jesus’ lordship as just a bare statement of his reign. We must flesh that out for our hearers today if we’re to be faithful to the biblical witness and to the importance of the biblical worldview.

    Regarding Pelagianism… I see the perverted gospel of Galatians as being a direct assault against the announcement of Jesus’ lordship over the whole world. Through their legalistic self-righteousness and the emphasis on circumcision, the Judaizers were, in their actions, claiming in essence that Jesus is not Lord of the world, but of the Jews alone – that certain works of righteousness (that are centered in Jewish exclusivism) are necessary for salvation.

    Notice that Paul in Galatians 2 calls out Peter’s failure to uphold the truth of the gospel by refusing to sit with the Gentiles. Peter’s action was denying the both the gospel (that Jesus is Lord of the whole world – Gentiles too) and the means of salvation (that salvation comes through faith in Jesus alone, not through works of the Law).

    Paul reaffirms this in Galatians 3 when he speaks of the gospel being preached beforehand to Abraham through the statement, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

    The Judaizing doctrine (and Pelagianism too) is devastating to the gospel because 1. it asserts that we are not really in need of diving saving, but only of divine help (therefore nullifying the importance of the cross and resurrection) and 2. it denies the gospel that announces Jesus as Lord of the entire world – the one through whom blessing and salvation flows to ALL – Jew and Gentile alike.

  7. Jeremiah says:

    Can you post some texts that Piper quotes to affirm that justification is that which effects salvation, and not merely a declaration of one’s salvation. I have heard Wright using Galatians 2 to present his case, but not really read or heard Piper.

    I also wonder if ‘justification’ is used in both sense i.e. in effecting salvation as well in declarative sense. I don’t know Greek and so I don’t go so far. If I am right ‘sanctification’ is used in the Bible in different ways… sanctified; being sanctified and will be sanctified.

  8. Doug says:

    Trevin,

    I really appreciate your posts, but it seems to me you (and Wright) might be ‘under-exegeting’ Paul’s phrase “for our sins” in his definition/description of the Gospel in 1 Cor. 15. To say it another way, it is not only the news that the ‘crucified and risen Jesus is Lord’…, but that the ‘crucified-for-our-sins and risen Jesus is Lord.’

    Along with passages like Acts 13:38-39 (including, “…through Him everyone who believes if justified from all things, from which you could not be justified through the Law of Moses”) and Luke 24:47 (“…repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name…”), it seems that the NT definition/description of the Gospel/Good News includes the new covenant fulfilling aspect of forgiveness/justification. (cp. Jer.31:34).

  9. Mate says:

    Trevin,
    I am currently reading this particular book of John Piper’s while appreciating your review along the way. Maybe I am missing something in my understanding of the Reformed doctrine of justification and would welcome your clarification.Is it correct that justification (in the reformed view) must include both forgiveness of sins AND the imputed active obedience of Christ, so that when we read “crucified for our sins” in 1 Cor 15 does one exegete forgiveness of sins and Christ’s active obedience from that text? I always read that forgiveness of sins is not enough in reference to justification so I get confused when it is said that the the doctrine of justification is the gospel – Is there a particular text that has that gospel proclamation (forgiveness of sins and imputed active obedience proclaimed together by Jesus and the apostles)? Humbly looking for your help in this matter. Thank you

  10. Trevin Wax says:

    There is a specific text that brings together forgiveness of sins and imputed active righteousness and then calls them both “the gospel.” This fact does not negate the importance of the doctrine of justification.

    Reformed thinkers are divided as to how “justification” and “gospel” fit together. You can find Reformed thinkers going back to the 1500’s who do not want to equate a correct understanding of justification with “the gospel.” This discussion has been going on for quite awhile.

  11. Nick says:

    I always found this point of Wright’s encouraging. That we could differ on certain aspects of theology and yet share common ground in the gospel just floored me. I think it also helped to connect the gospel to the later in-depth discussions that circulated around Christology. The center of Christianity should be about who Christ is, for he reveals God.

    This isn’t to say that justification, for instance, is adiaphora. It’s just to say that when we start talking about theology, we would do well to start by talking about who Christ is.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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