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The whole point about ‘justification by faith’ is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3.26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2.1–16). —N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 57
One of the remarkable features of N.T. Wright’s reformulation of the Protestant doctrine of justification is his emphasis upon a “future justification” on the basis of works. According to Wright, the apostle Paul clearly teaches that believers will be subject to a final judgment “according to works” (Rom. 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10). This future judgment according to works constitutes, in Wright’s opinion, the eschatological completion of the believer’s justification.
Wright defines justification as an act of God’s covenant faithfulness that involves an eschatological vindication of those who belong to His covenant family. When God justifies those who are members of His covenant community, He does so in anticipation of their “final justification” at the last judgment. Accordingly, we must recognize that justification occurs in three tenses or stages — past, present, and future.
In the past event of Christ’s cross and resurrection, God has already revealed what He will do at the end of history. Jesus, who died as the “representative Messiah of Israel,” was vindicated by God in His resurrection from the dead. This event, Christ’s resurrection, represents God’s justification of Jesus as the Son of God — the Messiah through whom the covenant promise to Abraham (“in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” Gen. 28:14) will be fulfilled.
The past event of Christ’s justification becomes a present reality through faith. All those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and L ord are justified, that is, acknowledged by God to be members of the one, great family of faith composed of Jew and Gentile alike. Because the present reality of justification focuses upon membership in the covenant community, baptism into Christ is the present event that effects this justification.
Though justification has these past and present stages, its primary stage lies yet in the future. At the final judgment or “justification,” God will declare in favor of His people (the covenant community promised to Abraham). This final justification or vindication of God’s people will include a “justification by works.” Commenting on Romans 2:13, Wright insists that “those who will be vindicated [that is, justified] on the last day are those in whose hearts and lives God will have written his law, his Torah.” The “works of the law” that justification excludes are only those badges of Jewish identity that prevent Gentiles from becoming members of the covenant community. Justification does not exclude, however, those works of the L aw that are born of the obedience of faith.
Since Wright identifies the final judgment with the final chapter of the justification of believers, he radically compromises the scriptural teaching that justification is not based upon works or human performance (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:10–14). From an historical perspective, Wright’s position is not unlike that of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which also claimed that the Reformation’s view of justification by faith alone failed to do justice to the biblical theme of a final acquittal before God based upon works. If, as Wright insists, the justification of believers requires a final phase or “completion,” which will be determined by the works of the justified, then it seems evident that he teaches a doctrine of justification by grace through faith plus works.
The apostle Paul’s teaching that works are wholly excluded as a basis for the justification of believers is incompatible with the idea that (final) justification will ultimately be based upon works. Paul regards justification as a thoroughly eschatological blessing, which anticipates definitively and irrevocably the final verdict that God declares regarding believers. The notion of a final justification on the basis of works inevitably weakens the assertion that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). A final justification on the basis of works also undermines Paul’s bold declaration that no charge can be brought, now or in the future, against those who are Christ’s (Rom. 8:33–34).
Rather than treating the final judgment as another chapter in the justification of believers, we should view Paul’s emphasis upon the role of works in this judgment in terms of his understanding of all that salvation through union with Christ entails. Because believers are being renewed by Christ’s Spirit, their acquittal in the final judgment will be a public confirmation of the genuineness of their faith and not a justifying verdict on the basis of works. Undoubtedly, because believers always receive Christ for both righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30), they are not saved without good works. But these good works are the fruits of faith, not the basis for a future justification. For this reason, Paul speaks of a judgment “according to,” not “on the basis of” works.
Instead of embracing Wright’s confusion of justification and a final judgment according to works, we should recognize the biblical wisdom of the puritan Thomas Manton: “By the righteousness of faith we are acquitted from sin [justified], and by the righteousness of works we are acquitted from hypocrisy” [confirmed to be justified by a true faith].