This is perhaps the part of Wright’s New Perspective that is most controversial (which is saying a lot!) Wright believes that Paul’s central concept of “justification” has been misunderstood in a subtle but profoundly important way.
Even since Luther, the Protestant churches have taken “justification” to refer to the saving event, particularly, being converted. Wright believes that justification occurs immediately following our conversion. It’s God declaration–as our judge–that we are vindicated: “not guilty.”
The significance of this fine distinction is not immediately obvious, but for Wright, it’s a step toward a radical rethinking of imputed righteousness–that is, the concept that Christians are saved because Jesus’ merits are credited to them.
Now, we need to pause a consider two theological terms. “Substitutionary atonement” is that idea that Jesus suffered our punishment on the cross. Because he took our punishment, we don’t have to suffer it. Wright does not deny this, although many people have accused him of so doing. He does try to correct some false understandings. And he does take pains to express the concept in terms of the great Biblical themes he likes to talk about it, but he does not deny it. In fact, he has recently affirmed it.
In particular, the early Christians were clear that Jesus’ death was to be understood in terms of Isaiah 53, and they were equally clear that this was not a new idea they were wishing back on Jesus. …
He was wounded for our transgressions
and bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that brought us peace
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many … .
It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel – Abraham and his family – as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up.
And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel’s representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves.
It is because Jesus, as Israel’s representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul’s logic works. ‘One died for all, therefore all died,’ he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ he concluded seven verses later, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (5.21).
And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19).
It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. …
Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ …
[O]n the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one.
[italics in the original. boldface is mine.]
“Imputed righteousness” is indeed denied by Wright and is a different concept. The idea is that we are saved because Jesus’ merits–his perfect life–are credited to us, so that God sees us as perfect people.
Now these are related but different ideas. Jesus can agree to accept our punishment so we don’t have to suffer it. And to do that, he really does need to be perfect, because if he were not, he’d have to suffer the punishment on his own account and wouldn’t be able to take ours for us (how could a man on death row agree to serve our jail sentence for us?)
Thus, we most certainly gain from Jesus’ perfection as it qualifies him to make atonement. Indeed, the common metaphor of Jesus as sacrifice or the Passover lamb requires that Jesus be “without blemish.”
But Wright argues that we are forgiven because we participate in Jesus death and resurrection, not because Jesus’ good works are credited to us. Again, it’s a fine point, but one which has led to considerable misunderstanding.
In fact, some Emerging Church authors use Wright to argue that the Biblical doctrine of propitiation (Jesus’ death assuages God’s wrath) must be left behind by the Post-modern church. This is just not what Wright says.
Agree with him or not, Wright is a strict Biblicist. He argues for strictly reading and interpreting the Bible. Those who see liberalism in him have horribly misunderstood him.
Now, I say all this just to clear the decks to talk about Wright’s re-interpretation of the doctrine of “justification,” which is the subject of the next few posts.