Posted by: Tim | July 22, 2008

Book Review: The Future of Justification by John Piper

John Piper’s The Future of Justification was one of the books given away at Together for the Gospel 08 (scroll to the bottom of this post for where you can buy it).  I picked it up to read because it looked like it might contain some good doctrinal meat, while at the same time it didn’t look too thick (about 200 pages)! It did indeed prove to be deep doctrinally but still be a manageable read.

The subtitle of The Future of Justification is “A Response to N.T. Wright”. Before reading this book I had heard of N.T. Wright as a well known Bible scholar, but I am not sure that I had ever read him. I had a sense from T4G that the leaders think he is headed in the wrong direction on some theological issues. Piper seeks to write a charitable but clear response to Wright’s work on justification, and he succeeds on both counts.

Wright follows what has been termed ‘the new perspective on Paul’, (Sanders & Dunn are well known scholars who teach it), though not in every respect as Piper notes (p22). This view says there has been a basic misunderstanding that has persisted for hundreds of years, of the phrase ‘works of the law’. They think it does not refer to trying to earn salvation by works, but rather it refers to some of the rules of Second Temple Judaism (about 515B.C.-70A.D.) such as circumcision, and Sabbath keeping. Works of law are seen as “an ethnic badge to show that a person is in the covenant” (p145). Thus in this view Paul is not putting justification by faith in contrast with justification by merit-earning works, but, “Rather he is addressing the problem of ethnic boasting” (p146).

Piper quotes Wright extensively and explains that he has redefined justification to not be how you get saved  but rather to be viewed as a declaration of who is already saved (part of the covenant community). Thus justification gives us “assurance, not salvation” (p96). This is a significant change in the traditional understanding of justification. Wright also talks about our present and future justification (thus the title of the book, which Piper points out has a double meaning – the future of this discussion and our literal future at Judgement Day). Wright sees works (ie good works we do) that ‘justify’ us at the final Judgement Day, but by this “he does not mean by legalism or by merit or by earning, but by the obedience of our lives that is produced by the Holy Spirit through faith” (p104). In reading it, it sounded perilously close to salvation by works, though Wright does not mean it that way. In the conclusion, Piper points out that Wright’s words sound very close to the official Roman Catholic teaching on justification (pp182-183), even if that is not his meaning.

Piper shows himself to be an excellent scholar, interacting well with the heavy theological issues that arise in this discussion. I got the impression from this book that Wright is not always that easy to understand, since Piper often had to say something like “it seems that Wright is saying…”, and I appreciate that Piper read him deeply and tried to nail down what he’s saying so the rest of us don’t have to!

What I gained from reading this book was the blessing of better understanding my own salvation and the doctrine of justification and related doctrines. What hit home for me was later on in the book, when Piper was explaining how we can try to earn merit with God and even give God the credit – like the pharisee of Luke 18:9-14 who thanked God for his righteousness – ie he gave God the credit for his own merit, yet he was still relying on his own works to justify himself! What wretchedness exists in our souls that we would try to use the fact that God does empower good works in us to say that our good works are earning us favour with God. It’s subtle but deadly. It reminded me and helped me better understand that my salvation is totally dependent on God and not at all on myself or any good works I may do. It caused me to praise God for His most generous provision of His glorious salvation in my life, that I so don’t deserve, but He gives me anyway.

I recommend this book, but admittedly it is not for everyone. While Piper is not hard to read, and he does make things fairly straightforward, some of the discussions can get confusing due to the nuance involved in explaining Wright’s view and where it goes wrong. I struggled at times but made it through, but I am pretty sure that I would not have read it in the days before I received my pastoral training.

I also note that there is a sense in which the book is painful at times, not because of any fault of Piper, but because Wright’s points just sound so wrong that it almost seems unnecessary to refute them, with so many familiar Bible passages seeming to speak against them. However, I do think Piper’s book is necessary and important, because scholarly work from a scholar of Wright’s stature can and does influence people in seminaries and scholarly circles, which spills over into the pulpits with time. A reasoned response is needed so that it is not just me or someone saying ‘that doesn’t sound right’, but there is scholarly weight showing why it not only sounds off base, but that it is off base.

I should also note that there are some good appendices in the back. I particularly enjoyed #4 “Using the Law Lawfully” and #6 “Twelve Thesis on What it Means to Fulfill the Law”. Also, the opening chapter about handling controversy is very good and applicable to dealing charitably with others on any controversial theological issue. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that chapter reappear in some collection of essays in the future!

I am happy to recommend this book.

You can buy it here directly from Desiring God, or here from Crossway Books (note that Crossway includes a free pdf version with purchase of the book) or here from or here from or here from

Piper, John, The Future of Justification A Response to N.T. Wright, Crossway, Wheaton, 2007, 240pages (though the actual Response is only about 188 pages, the rest is appendices and other notes)



  1. Tim, I wonder if you might briefly summarize just a few of “Wright’s points [that] just sound so wrong that it almost seems unnecessary to refute them.”

    My theology, I suspect, was much like yours before I came across N.T. Wright. Once I understood him, though [and you’re right — he can be quite abstruse], I wondered how I could’ve been blind for all those years.

  2. Tim,

    You sound like someone who is really on a quest for truth. I echo the sentiments of the prior post. In fact, he is my beloved brother and kidney donor!

    Before reading Wright I held (oddly for my background) views very similar to Piper. The first book I read by Wright was “What St. Paul Really Said”. It was very hard to understand but I couldn’t find a basis on which to disagree with him. Eventually it clicked and everything began to make sense.

    I discovered that, prior to reading Wright, I had failed to read the Bible in its historic context. Since then, scripture has come to life in the most exciting way. I highly recommend that you read Wright. It takes some time to understand the issues but the payoff is huge.

    May the Lord bless you in your quest.

  3. Dear Wyatt and Russell,

    Thank you for visiting my site and thank you for the comments. I was out of town today and didn’t get a chance to respond until now.

    —Tim, I wonder if you might briefly summarize just a few of “Wright’s points [that] just sound so wrong that it almost seems unnecessary to refute them.”

    Wyatt, I think there were a few times in reading Piper when I found it painful, because I felt he was methodically explaining something that seemed to be a very plain meaning of the text, but Wright had gone a different direction, seemingly because he had to go that way for his system to work, even though it was awkward.

    Here are few examples of my thinking in that sentence you asked me about.

    One would be the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, where the tax collector went home justified before God. It seems that the pharisee thinks he earns merit with God, while the tax collector cries out for mercy (literally ‘propitiate for me a sinner’). I just can’t see how Wright’s redefinitions of ‘justification’ (as declaring who is already ‘in’ the covenant community) and ‘works of law’ (with relation to a type of ethnic exclusivity in covenant-keeping rather than merit earning works), make sense in the parable. The traditional definitions just seem to fit so well. Even if we allowed for Wright’s works of law understanding, since the pharisee is talking about keeping the Pharisaical laws ( such as tithing, fasting), it still seems clear to me that the primary issue is self righteousness, since this is how Jesus introduces the parable in Luke 18:9 “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:” (ESV)

    I was also just generally referring to my sense that the traditional understanding of ‘justification’ makes good sense as is in the numerous times it is used in Romans, and Wright’s redefinition forces the need for a lot of re-interpretation of other verses, as Piper points out (a challenging one being 2 Cor. 5:21
    “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. ” (ESV)
    Piper goes into some detail on this verse.)

    Another thing that was going through my mind was the amount of nuance in understanding certain passages and concepts where what I consider to be a drastic reinterpretation by Wright hangs on a shade of meaning that is very debatable. I think the discussion of Romans 3:20ff would be an example. It seems that Wright has too much riding on one very disputable understanding of the text. Another example would be in his twofold (but related) understanding of justification now and then justification at the final judgment.

    Finally, I think Wright is giving too much weight to the Qumran historical sources. It seems to me that while this evidence is helpful in giving one perspective of the situation in the first century, it should get a secondary weighting in understanding the primary Biblical source. With archaeological evidence like this, I think it is really hard to know if the understanding that Wright gets from the Qumran writings is typical of others in the 2nd Temple Judaism, or if they were the oddballs of the time. Perhaps it would be comparable to someone 2000 years from now, (should the Lord not yet return), digging up a few older dispensationalist writings and determining that Christians in the 20th century generally understood the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount to be meant only for the Millennial Kingdom, and then making significant conclusions based on that understanding. Maybe that’s not a perfect illustration, but I hope it makes some sense as to why I think the historical evidence needs to be given a secondary weight.

    Hope that helps explain what I was getting at in my comments.

    I’d be interested to hear what were the key arguments that persuaded you towards Wright’s view.

    Thanks again,

  4. Tim,

    The primary factor that led me to agree with Wright was simply reading and reasoning through his book “What St. Paul Really Said”.

    But here are a couple of factors to consider. First I would say that Mr. Wright doesn’t place near the weight on Qumran as you might imagine. A brief review of his sources, particularly in one of his larger works will reveal that he has massive sources from which he draws his conclusions.

    Most importantly there are a couple of passages in Romans and Galatians that are inexplicable unless N.T. Wright is correct regarding ‘works of the law’. Romans 3:29 a prime example. Paul poses this question “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!

    Ask yourself why Paul introduces the question of ethnicity at the end of this hugely important pericope. If, in the mind of the average Jew, works of the law were these activities they thought might ‘earn’ salvation, why would he then talk about ethnicity? Was the Jewish boast ethnicity or this so-called idea of works-righteousness?

    If N.T. Wright is correct in his assertion that ‘works of the law’ delineates works that set the Jews apart as a people, Paul’s reasoning makes perfect sense.

    The Jews had boasted in Torah (which was given only to Jews). They subscribed to the idea of what is known as Covenental Nomism. That is, one is born into the covenant. Covenent membership is maintained by these ‘works of the law’ or rituals that set them apart as God’s chosen people. Specifically, circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance.

    The Jews believed that possession of Torah afforded them a favored nation status. They believed that the eshaton would entail God’s judgment poured out against the surrounding pagan Gentiles but vindication for loyal ethnic Jews. They would never have envisioned that God would include Gentiles in the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah.

    But Paul uses the Shema, the daily Jewish prayer against them. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one! The implication is that God is God over the entire earth, Jew and Gentile alike. And remember this, God is no respector of persons. He will judge both Jew and Gentile on the basis of, not Torah observance, but FAITH!

    This is what Paul is pointing out at the end of chapter 3. Here is the passage.

    Rom 3:28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.
    Rom 3:29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!
    Rom 3:30 Since God who will justify the circumcised by faith, is one, he will also justify the uncircumcised through faith. (verse 30 is R.B. Hays translation in Conversion of the Imagination)

    Here is how Paul’s reasoning works. Jews have always believed that God’s people may be identified by their ethnicity and observance of Torah. But now, we see that God’s people are no longer identifiable by these things that set the Jews apart from other nations (works of Torah), they are identifiable by faith.

    Since God is going to justify Jews by faith and since he is God over the entire earth (and is no respector of persons), he will also judge the Gentiles on the same basis. Does this undermine the law? Heck no, the Torah always envisioned that God would form a worldwide family for Abraham that would be defined not simply by ethnicity but by faith.

    Paul then, in chapter 4, goes on to explain how Abraham becomes the father of those who aren’t ethnic Jews.

    A better translation of 4:1 is as follows:

    Rom 4:1 What then shall then, have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh? (R.B. Hays)

    The obvious answer is no. Abraham does not become someones fleshly forefather but becomes ones forefather on the basis of faith. What was important where Abraham was concerned was the timing of God’s declaration of him to be ‘justified’. Was he justified after circumcision? No! He was declared righteous prior to circumcision. This was so he could be the father of the non-circumcised as well as the circumcised. On what basis? On the basis of faith.

    Remember that in Genesis, God had promised to make Abraham the father of ‘many nations’, not simply one ethnic group. THIS is what the Jews had failed to understand. Implicit in God’s promise to Abraham was that the blessing couldn’t be restricted to only one ethnic group (the Jews) who were set apart by ‘works of Torah’.

    I know this explanation is long but you will see where it makes much more sense of the passage. I hope this helps. If you need clarification on this matter just say so. Bless you brother.

  5. Correction to Hays translation of Romans 4:1. Should read as follows:

    Rom 4:1 What then shall we say, have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh? (R.B. Hays)

  6. Tim:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I will try to respond to the points you’ve rasied as well as I can, but I think I might have to break these into a few different parts.

    Your first observation relates to Wright’s reading of justification, specifically as the word is used in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18).

    From my perspective — and Wright’s too, I suspect — the entire passage (from 17:11 through at least 19:10) deals with the idea of justification. If we’re going to get the point Luke is making here, we must read it in its context.

    Jesus begins (Luke 18:2-8) by telling the story of an unrighteous judge who is compelled by the importunate pleadings of an opressed widow to grant justice. Jesus’ point is that if an unjust judge can be moved to justice, how much more with a just judge (e.g. God) do right. It’s a parable, yes, but one that will be acted out a few verses hence by Jesus himself in the story of the blind man (Luke 18:35-43). Here, Luke presents a blind man who simply will not be put off despite the rebukes of those around him (“those who were in front scolded him to get him to be quiet, but he shouted even more“). God will, and in fact, Jesus does, give him justice.

    Next, we have the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The parable, just six verses in length, contrasts the smug self-righteousness of the typical Phrarisee with the humility and contrition of a penitent sinner, a tax collector. It is told, Luke says, “to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else.” To whom was the story told? Not to all of Israel, not all Jews, but to “some” who were 1) confident of their own righteousness, and 2) looked down on others. In my opinion, there is little doubt that the “some” here refers to the “experts in the law” and the Pharisees. You believe “the primary issue is self righteousness, since this is how Jesus introduces the parable.” However, it does not necessarily follow that dutiful observance of the law amounts to “self righteousness.” In fact, we know Zechariah (a priest) and Elizabeth were both considered “righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. (Luke 1:6)” So, too, were Simeon (Luke 2:25) and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50). All were law-observant Jews, and all were righteous. It seems to me that Jesus’ main criticism of the Pharisees was not for their observance of the law, which would have applied to all the aforementioned righteous men as well, but for their hypocrisy (See Matthew 23:13-29). I agree with you that the Pharisee in the story sounds very self-righteous, but it seems to me that his boasting about two items from Torah is only a symptom of the real problem, which was his general attitude of pride. That’s why Jesus says: “I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For [OR BECAUSE] everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That — and not an emphasis on “works of the law” — is the moral of the story, as it were.

    Immediately following that parable is a scene in which people have begun to bring their children to Jesus for him to bless them. His disciples became indignant, rebuking the parents. This may seem an odd place for Luke to insert such a story, until one realizes that its placement is intended to support the main idea of the passage as a whole, which is to say that the kingdom of God is comprised of those unexpected souls, the outcasts, the untouchables and those who are on the outside looking in — those about whom Jesus speaks so movingly when he quotes Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry:

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and the regaining of sight to the blind,
    to set free those who are oppressed,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
    (Luke 4:18-19)

    The kingdom of God belongs to such as these, these who have been excluded by the powers that be. No more! Jesus has come to open the kingdom, and set the captives free!

    Up next, we have the story of the rich, young (and obviously Jewish) ruler, one who confesses to having followed the commandments since his youth. However, Luke doesn’t leave us with the impression that the young man particularly self-righteous. That, apparently, is not his problem. Jesus says “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. THEN come, follow me.” Notice that Jesus says that it will be the act of selling all he has and giving the money to the poor that will result in heavenly treasures. It is AFTER this point Jesus instructs him to follow.

    Finally, we have in Chapter 19 the story of Zacchaeus. This is a fascinating account, not least for the fact that it, too, is the actual living out two of the parables Jesus has just told — the story of the tax collector and the rich young ruler, combined. Zacchaeus himself was a chief tax collector (we might also assume, a law observant Jew, he being a “son of Abraham”), and rich. Those looking on are astonished that Jesus would “be the guest of a sinner,” and yet Jesus declares that salvation has come to the household of Zacchaeus, who is now going to give half of what he has to the poor, and repay those he has cheated four times over.

    Tim, what I’m trying to say in that this is, indeed, the story of justification, but it encompasses so much more than just the six-verse parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I have heard Phil Johnson state that the Tax Collector parable “blows to smithereens” the view of justification expressed by N.T. Wright. But it does not. To isolate that passage from its context, and shoehorn the Calvinistic understanding of justification into the text is proof-texting par excellence. Jesus is not making a statement about the technical aspects of justification here, he is giving us examples, some parabolic, some living and breathing, of who is and is not justified.

    Finally, let me reiterate that I do believe that the Pharisee in the story was self-righteous. However, we make a critical mistake when we project our understanding of Phariseeism onto the nation of Israel as a whole. The two are not the same. As I understand it, the “Reformed View” sees “works of the law” as being the equivalent of Phariseeism. Are you aware that Paul NEVER mentions Pharisees, except to say that he was once one? It seems to me that if Paul viewed “works of the law” the way that Reformed theologians would have us believe, why, then, doesn’t he mention them? Pharisees are mentioned 93 times in the Gospels and Acts. Experts in the law are mentioned 63 times. Yet there is no direct mention of them by the Apostle Paul.

    I’ll quite now. Sorry to be so long-winded. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  7. Hi Russell & Wyatt,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and help me understand what persuades you of Wright’s view.

    I taught a series through Luke 18 a few years ago and I’ve looked at the context, and saw it climaxing with the blind man persistently saying “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” – it seems to relate to the persistent widow, the tax collector (though he uses a different Gr word for ‘mercy’ it seems the attitude is still the same), the coming to God like children (yelling loudly and unashamedly when told to be quiet), but I can’t remember how I tied in the rich young ruler, though I seem to remember having trouble with tying it in!

    All that to say that I appreciate your insight on Zaccheus and how it relates to the previous passages (them uninspired chapter divisions can cause you to miss good things because you stop reading at the wrong time!!). I had not seen that before and I think it is a good insight.

    Regarding the justification theme in Luke 18, it seems to me that it’s not unreasonable to see some of Paul’s theological thinking in the parable about justification. I don’t think it is proof texting to do it. If I remember right, scholars think Luke and Romans would have been written not too far apart (I looked it up now so I don’t have to rely on memory – Romans is mid-late 50’s, Luke early 60’s though some think post 70, to avoid the temple destruction prophecy being actual supernatural prophecy). With Luke traveling with Paul, and hearing him preach and teach things that must have included the systematic presentation in Romans, it’s hard for me to imagine that he was not thinking of what he had heard Paul teach about justification when he tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

    Re Rom 3:29, It’s never occurred to me that Paul’s argument doesn’t make sense with the traditional understanding of works of law, rather than the new perspective understanding. He has spoken about Jews and Gentiles in chapter 2 and 3 and certainly it is important for him to make clear that all can be justified by faith, Jews and Gentiles alike. Since the law was given to Jews, if someone thought they could only be justified by doing the ‘works of the law’ (regardless of whether you take the trad. or new persp. view of that phrase), then they needed to hear that justification by faith is available to both Jews and Gentiles.

    That’s a few thoughts for now, but I have to get going as I am leading a funeral tomorrow and it is getting a little late here.


  8. Tim:

    Not only do I agree with you about Paul’s thinking about justification being present in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, I think Paul’s theology, as a whole, pervades all of Luke’s gospel. Luke sees Jesus through Paul’s eyes, in my opinion.

    I am not saying it is “prooftexting” to discern Paul’s thinking on justification in the parable.

    What I *AM* saying is that it IS prooftexting if, in making your point on justification, you include ONLY THAT parable (because the word “justification” is used in the text), and ignore the surrounding passages, all of which speak directly to the issue of justification, but do not include the actual word “justification.”

    Was Zaccheus justified, even though Jesus uses “salvation” rather than “justification” to describe it? Absolutely! Was the blind man, he whose faith had made him whole, justified? Yes, he was! At least I think he was.

    All I’m saying is that an understanding of justification would need to take into account the entire passage (and many others) which deal with the idea of justification, not ONLY those places where the specific word is used, which would be, in my opinion, very puerile approach to exegesis.

    Bless you, brother. Hope the funeral went well.

  9. Hi Wyatt,

    Sorry if I misunderstood you there regarding prooftexting in Luke 18 – I get what you are saying now.

    The funeral went well today. It was for a 94 year old saint who had served faithfully for most of his life as a missionary in several South American countries. He and his wife risked their lives and sacrificed so much to take the gospel to people, it puts me to shame. It was a privilege to be part of it.

    God bless,

  10. […] of justification is being hotly debated, as evidenced by the John Piper/N.T. Wright debates (see my review of Piper’s book on the subject here). I believe Sproul was right in writing this book and making an issue of justification by faith […]

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