19 May 2006

The Key to the Gospel

With an Unexpected Addendum about My Criticism of NT Wright
by Phil Johnson

I've been reading the comments for the past two days, and it occurs to me that someone desperately needs to post something of substance here. So I'm going to do something I've wanted to do since I started blogging last year: This is the start of a series on the doctrine of justification by faith and the principle of imputation.
Second Corinthians 5:21 is one of my favorite verses of Scripture: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."

The whole gospel message is contained in embryo in those words. That short statement is crucial to our understanding of the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the twin principles of imputation and substitution. It teaches great truths about the character of God, the sinlessness of Christ, and the simplicity of salvation. It summarizes the core truth of biblical soteriology. It has important implications for Christology. And it even says something about theology proper, because it plainly assumes the sovereignty of God, the love of God, the justice of God, and the grace of God.

This is one of those crystal-clear verses that helps us make sense of all the rest of Scripture. It helps explain the significance of the priestly and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. It thoroughly illuminates the meaning of the cross of Christ. It reminds us why Christ is the only way of salvation from sin. It shows why no good works performed by sinners could ever contribute an iota to their salvation. And it demonstrates how salvation was accomplished for us without any of our own works—and yet in a way that completely fulfilled God's law, upheld His justice, and vindicated His own righteousness.

In other words to borrow an expression from Romans 3:26, here is how God can "be just, and the justifier of [those who believe] in Jesus." This text explains how God can pardon sinners and treat them as righteous without compromising His own impeccable righteousness or lowering His perfect standards in any way.

I love John MacArthur's summary of the meaning of this text, and it bears repeating. It's also a pretty good paraphrase of the text itself: "On the cross, God treated Christ as if He had committed all the sins of every sinner who would ever believe, so that He could treat believers as if they had lived Christ's perfect life."

In a series of posts that will probably stretch across the next two weeks or longer, I want to explore further the far-reaching ramifications of this simple verse. I think it's a good corrective for much that is lacking in contemporary evangelicalism's truncated gospel message.

Phil's signature

PS: The Pulpit Live blog now has open comments and an RSS feed. We've put a graphic link in the form of a small ad in our right sidebar to highlight the best of whatever is current over there. But here's something a lot of people missed anyway: Some interesting details about the size and shape of the pulpit at Grace Community Church.

The Wright Stuff

PPS: Somewhat germane to the topic of sola fide and justification by faith, over at Reformed Catholicism, Jamey Bennett posts this critical review of my comments on NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul. (He's reviewing a chapter of mine from the book Fool's Gold, which chapter was a slightly edited version of a seminar I did at the Shepherds' Conference a couple of years ago.)

I'll say this for Jamey: his comments are measured and reasonable, absent the tone of smug and ill-humored snideness often favored by a few of the regulars over at Reformed Catholicism. He rightly zings me for referring to Wright as an "Archbishop." (But then he commits a similar gaffe by referring to John MacArthur as my editor. Well, OK. On second thought, JM does sometimes edit me.)

Jamey at least did me the favor of reading the chapter before criticizing it, and he interacts with what I actually said (something some better-known critics have egregiously failed to do), as opposed to merely questioning my right to criticize the Bishop at all.

As a matter of fact, Jamey turns the normal defense of Wright completely on its head. Instead of complaining that no one has a right to critique Wright's popular-level books without first doing dissertation-level work on all his scholarly tomes, Jamey acknowledges that he himself has read only Wright's "... for everyone" commentaries. He confesses that he hasn't even read the book I was critiquing.

Nonetheless, Jamey objects to my criticism of Wright's view of justification as an incomplete process which culminates in a "declaration [that] will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life." My complaint was that Wright seems to smuggle the believer's own works into the justification formula with that definition. But Jamey says he sees no difference between that and John MacArthur's view that salvation (note: MacArthur does not say "justification") is a process that won't be complete until we are glorified.

Jamey's comments reflect a point of confusion—the equating of justification with all of salvation—that I would regard as the source of many evils in the world of contemporary Protestant soteriology. It's the very same error made by the advocates of antinomian no-lordship theology (though they push it to the extreme opposite conclusion from the "Reformed Catholicism" gang).

Anyway, the timing of this is propitious. My current series of blogposts on 2 Corinthians 5:21 will enable me to elaborate on some of the issues Jamey's review deals with.


Even So... said...

Looking forward to it, Phil. While you're at it, please do us all the favor of dispelling the false notions of how He "became sin for us". Wherever the real gospel is, another false gospel isn't far behind.

Sharon said...

Wonderful, Phil! I look forward to the series--it will help me "give an answer to every man" (1 Peter 3:15) as I deal with the characters in the Bible Study Conference I still moderate. I have just about one of each:

the "science proves evolution and Ken Ham is a nutcase" Catholic;

the "I divorced my wife, left my family, and don't attend church because the Spirit teaches me everything I need to know" floater;

the "all we have to do is love one another and we'll please God bcause people have been hurt by pastors" charismatic;

the "Jesus didn't exist, the apostles made stuff up, and God told me all about Himself directly" inventor;

and the "we don't worship Mary and where did you get all that rubbish" Roman Catholic.

An interesting group, eh?

Jeremy Weaver said...

Word of advice...set aside a week or more to discuss Active Obedience.

Gryphonette said...

Mercy Maud, Sharon! =8^o

Do you keep a tranquilzer gun loaded and ready? ;^p

Anne, lost in admiration of you

jamey bennett said...

Phil, pardon my unclear words. I realize John M is not your personal editor, that reference was to the editing of that book and an attempt to make clear why I was using MacArthur's words instead of yours. Thank you for dealing with me in kindness. I, too, look forward to your explanation of the glorious doctrine of imputed righteousness!

Sharon said...

Anne: Do you keep a tranquilzer gun loaded and ready?

Believe me, I've contemplated the wisdom in such verses as 2 Tim. 2:23, Titus 3:9, and even Prov. 26:4 many times. Why don't I just hang it up? It's just my little way of keeping myself sharp, buried in the precious Word of God, and, well, to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks [me] a reason for the hope that is in [me], with meekness and fear."

OTOH, this blog has given me some great ammunition of my own in replying to some of the outlandish posts these guys upload. Some of it truly of the "head-shaking" variety.

Solameanie said...

I am glad to see this coming, Phil. With related matters such as the substitutionary atonement coming under fire on a growing level, this series will be very timely and a good reminder.

As to the comments you've been reading, it does no harm for everyone to let down their hair and laugh once in a while. Except me. I don't have enough hair left to let down.

Jeff Voegtlin said...

This reminds me of a post I read by a pastor in Utah. Christ's substitutionary death can be explained but is really unfathomable.

Dr Thomas said...

One thing that I don't see addressed in this post is what the 'righteousness of God' means. This is after all what the whole justification debate hinges on. Allister McGrath in 'Iustitia dei' contends that Luther's understanding of the phrase (a moral righteousness) was somewhat novel. NT Wright takes great lengths to argue that the phrase refers to God's covenent righteousness that is his faithfulness to his people Isreal. NT Wright argues that this is why David can appeal to his righteousness (a faithful righteousness versus moral righteousness) before God (psalm 7:8).

When you read the verse with that understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’, then the passage appears to say that through Christ’s sacrifice, we were returned to the covenant that God made through Isreal.

David Gadbois said...

For anyone interested, Phil deposited some nuggets of wisdom in our combox at our blog: http://mongrelhorde.blogspot.com/2006/05/sixth-circle.html

Keep fightin' the good fight, Phil. I'll keep fanning the flames :)

Phil Johnson said...

"Dr Thomas" (or is it Will again?) suggests that Luther's understanding of the phrase "the righteousness of God" was "somewhat novel."

Short answer: NT Wright's interpretation of the phrase is a whole lot MORE novel than Luther's.

And even if we started with the definition of righteousness you propose, what you suggest the passage "appears to say" makes little sense in this context.

Speaking frankly: what New Perspectivists have to do to this text in order to make fit their system rivals the way Zane Hodges bowdlerized James 2.

Anyway, I'll get to that, I hope. This is the first of a series. Did you notice that? There's a lot more than "one thing" left unaddressed by this short post.

Incidentally, why don't you post with your real name, or at least a more suitable pseudonym? I have the utmost respect for Dr. Thomas, and it's irritating to see you use his name to post ideas that we both know he would find abominable.

Dr Thomas said...


First of all, I honestly have no idea who the 'real' Dr Thomas is. I picked the name at random with no intent on impersonating anyone.....kinda like Dr. Smith....or Dr Wilson....or Dr Johnson (those are probably all professors somewhere).

Second of all, I am not arguing Wright's point of view, I am fleshing out the other side of the argument for my own interest.

Third of all, the anonymity allows for me to ask questions without teaching. Its not that I am trying to teach Wright being correct, I am trying to understand why he is wrong. I would like nothing more for him to be wrong. The anonymity allows me to bounce questions off of a smart guy like you and all of your very smart readers without someone saying "hey, *insert real name* beleives NT Wright is the greatest". I don't want this because I don't.

I will stay tuned for your comments on ‘Iustia Dei’.

Steve said...

Thanks, Phil, for that aside on the interesting facts about the pulpit at Grace Church. There's one additional and personal "special meaning" the pulpit holds for me: It's where I chose to propose to Becky back in 1982. I wanted to chose a place of significance to both our lives, and because the solid Bible teaching at Grace Church meant so much to us, that's where I decided to pose the big question to her.

gegraphtai said...

Thanks Phil for calling out “dr. Thomas.” I was really scared I was going to have to offer up some exegetically driven question to the man I assumed had the audacity to write an exegetical commentary on the Book of Revelation. To my relief we are not talking about the same Dr. Thomas. Nonetheless I find “dr. thomas’” explanation of his truly random name rather disingenuous. For instance the last name “Thomas” does not even rank in the top 10 most common last names. As well I am suspicious of the title he credits himself with; dr. I am more inclined to believe that this is someone who wants instant credibility rather than anonymity. Why not just call himself Thomas, Smith or Wilson. Since Dr. Thomas is well respected in our circle I vote on nicknaming “dr. thomas" “dr. bob” giving him the academic credibility, personal anonymity, and grammar laxity he needs to post successfully.

oh it feels good to be back. Sorry bob

Dr Thomas said...


According to your list, Dr Thomas is #12 on the most popular list. It is more popular that Jackson, White or Robinson. It is also more popular than my other alter ego on my psuedo blog, Dr Stanley. Check out that blog and tell me if you still think I am going for academic respectablity.

DJP said...

"Dr. [Doubting] Thomas" faults Phil for not interacting with (who else?) NT Wright in this INTRODUCTORY essay.

Yeah, Phil -- I was wondering why you didn't say one word about what Parbar means. Or Cain's wife... blonde? Or brunette? And what about the days of creation. Were they EST, PST, or something else? And the little horn in Daniel's vision: could that be a flugelhorn?

Really, Phil; if you keep up this bad habit of not saying everything that could be said in every post you do about anything... well, I just don't know what we'll have to do with you!

< /s >

Momo said...

Not only that, djp, but I'm not even sure he was sensitive enough of other faith traditions.


DJP said...

Perhaps we should censure him? Or censor him? Or put his posts in a censer? Or run them past a sensor?

Dr Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I love John MacArthur.