Every bit as reliable and explosive as the hot gases which propel the waters of Old Faithful was the release of hot air by Reformed gatekeepers in response to N.T. Wright’s views of justification and imputation. Particularly at issue for many is 1) Wright’s insistence that the only proper notion of our present justification is one that depends upon a Jewish framework wherein God pronounces a final future judgment vindicating believers and judging their enemies and 2) Wright’s criticism of Reformed formulations of imputation as overblown and unnecessarily cumbersome (“a legal fiction”).
While I tend to disagree with Wright’s category distinction between (and preference of) “ecclesiology” over against “soteriology”, I found the clamor among Reformed folks over these two ideas listed above to be somewhat puzzling. Recently a good friend keenly pointed out a few passages in a popular Reformed volume on soteriology that furthered my befuddlement: Leon Morris' The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.
Concerning justification, he says:
When we turn to those passages where the verb “to justify” occurs, there can be no doubt that the meaning is to declare righteous rather than to make righteous. Thus we find a direction that the judges “shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked” (Dt. 25:1). The forensic background is unmistakable and the verb can only mean “to declare righteous” or “to acquit” (pg. 259).
Among Jews there could be no justification until the day of judgment (for as long as ever a man lived it was always possible for him to sin and fall away from his momentary right standing). That justification has such a future aspect is recognized (cf. Gal. 5:5). But while this is not overlooked, it does not receive the emphasis in the Christian view. Rather the glorious truth insisted upon by St. Paul is that justification is a present experience . . . Justification is both present and future, but it is the present aspect which receives emphasis in the New Testament (pg. 283).”
Further down the same page he says:
The continuity with the Jewish usage is to be discerned in a number of passages. Thus Jesus said “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:36f.). The idea is clearly that of an assize such as the Jews conceived of at the day of judgment,, and the opposition of καταδικασθηση to δικαιωθηση seems to put the matter beyond doubt. So it is in Acts 13:39 and Romans 3:4.
Compare this with Wright’s statement in his article, “The Shape of Justification”:
Justification in the present is based on God's past accomplishment in Christ, and anticipates the future verdict. This present justification has exactly the same pattern.
(a) God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3.21-31; 4.13-25; 10.9-13). The law-court language indicates what is meant. 'Justification' itself is not God's act of changing the heart or character of the person; that is what Paul means by the 'call', which comes through the word and the Spirit. 'Justification' has a specific, and narrower, reference: it is God's declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status 'righteous'. (We may note that, since 'righteous' here, within the law-court metaphor, refers to 'status', not 'character', we correctly say that God's declaration makes the person 'righteous', i.e. in good standing.)
(b) This present declaration constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham (Gal. 2.14 - 3.29; Rom. 3.27 - 4.17), the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jer. 31.31-34). Membership in this family cannot be played off against forgiveness of sins: the two belong together.
(c) The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus' death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11). Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a 'work' which one 'performs' to earn God's favour. It is, for Paul, the sacrament of God's free grace. Paul can speak of those who have believed and been baptised as already 'saved', albeit 'in hope' (Rom. 8.24).
Among Wright’s critics are those that fear his use of justification as a future category somehow denigrates Christian assurance. Some have even taken him to be denying that there is even such a thing as a present justification. But in light of the quote above, not only are these criticisms absurd, the position they imply (namely that justification is entirely a singular event at the point of conversion) seems to shoot past the accepted Reformed view as well (at least insofar as represented by Morris). Both the declaratory nature of justification (the fact that it speaks to a status before God) and the future aspects of it (the fact that its based on a Jewish eschatological rubric) are affirmed by both men.
What of imputation? Wright ignited a conflagration of epic proportions in the Reformed world by saying that their doctrine of imputation amounted to a “legal fiction.” In other words, he denies that justification means that God says sinners are righteous even though He knows they really aren't. Instead Wright affirms that by justification God delcares that they are indeed righteous, because their faith in Christ "rights" them in relationship to God. Cartoons of Wright sporting a papal party hat soon began appearing in Presbyterian restrooms throughout the nation. Bold faced, underlined and italicized accusations of “works salvation!” were broadcast all over the internet (try doing a Google search for “N.T. Wright”). The smug and savvy who have conducted their Google searches (and therefore have done the hard work of finding out what the Bible actually says), carefully explained to us the difference between imputed and imparted righteousness.
But listen to Morris again:
When we have grasped the fact that the righteous are those accepted by God, some of the controversy concerning imputed and imparted righteousness seem beside the point. What difference does it make whether we impute or impart a status? Denney has well said on this matter: “the distinction of imputed and infused righteousness is unreal. The man who believes in Christ the propitiation – who stakes his whole being on sin-bearing love as the last reality in the universe – is not fictitiously regarded as right with God; he actually is right with God and God treats him as such. He is in the right attitude to God the Redeemer, the attitude which has the promise and potency of all rightness or righteousness in it, and it only introduces intellectual and moral confusion to make artificial distinctions at this point.” Those who come relying trustfully on the work of Christ for their acceptance with God are accepted as righteous, and if we bear in mind the essentially forensic nature of the term “righteous” there seems little need to dwell unduly on imparted or imputed righteousness. By the same token it may be possible to cavil at Denney’s inclusion of a reference to the “promise and potency of all rightness or righteousness”, for men are justified on Paul’s view not on account of any merit of their own, potential or actual, but only on account of Christ’s work and of their faith (pg. 271-272).
We come now to the question of imputation which has seemed to very many to be a necessary corollary of the forensic view. Traditional Protestantism has made much of the doctrine of imputed righteousness and has given it precision by saying that the merits of Christ are imputed to believers. Thus Calvin can say “the Son of God, though spotlessly pure, took upon him the disgrace and ignominy of our iniquities, and in return clothed us with his purity.” But in modern times this position has been strenuously opposed, and for example N.H. Snaith maintains that, if we hold to imputed righteousness “we have not emancipated ourselves from that very doctrine which Paul spent most of his life combating – namely that salvation is by righteousness”: and he goes on to say: “the fact of the matter is that God does not require righteousness at all, in any shape or shadow, as a condition of salvation. He requires faith.” It is very difficult to substantiate either extreme from Scripture . . . In view of plain statements like these [in Romans 4:5, 23] it seems impossible to hold that Paul found no place for the imputation of righteousness to believers. On the other hand, he never says in so many words that the righteousness of Christ was imputed to believers, and it may fairly be doubted whether he had this in mind in his treatment of justification, although it may be held to be a corollary from his doctrine of identification of the believer with Christ (pg. 281-282).
It’s therefore ironic to me that many Reformed people who so readily give their “solid gold” endorsement for The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross have also joined the mob’s thirst for the blood of “New Perspective" sympathizers. This isn’t to say, of course, that either Leon Morris or N.T. Wright are necessarily correct in their assessments of justification or imputation. Nor is it to say that they don’t have profound areas of disagreement with one another. It certainly isn’t a blanket endorsement of the New Perspective on Paul. Let Scripture be the final judge and arbiter of these matters. But it IS to say that many times “the gatekeepers” are more interested in protecting their party lines than being faithful to the biblical witness, to the shame of their forefathers.