It is unfortunate that most have pigeon-holed N.T. Wright into being a theologian with “liberal tendencies.” Many have categorized him as unbiblical in his “New Perspective” approach that at first glance seems to undermine classical Protestant Theology. “Justification by faith” has become the end all of Protestantism, more specifically for Reformed Theology, and Wright’s approach is not to discard it completely, but to understand in the grand framework of the Abrahamic Covenant.
The implications regarding our definition of justification is enormous, and Wright is simply using the New Perspective as a means to show that Paul’s use of “justification by faith” has way more implications than simply securing ones destination to heaven. Paul’s use of Abraham throughout his epistles, namely Galatians, and Romans, aren’t merely examples or illustrations of faith, but rather provide a framework in which we understand what faith and salvation really is.
The first part of this book is dedicated to a grand introduction, engaging with the “justification” on the basis of history, tradition, and of course the Bible. The second part of the book focuses on the exegesis of Scripture, as he goes through various Pauline epistles, bringing them into light through his exposition framed by the Abrahamic covenant.
Without giving away too many details in this book I will say a few things. Wright defines words like “righteousness” and “justification,” and does so with historical and literal context in mind. These words have familial and communitarian implications and essentially provide a greater Ecclesiology, Christology, and Missiology. For Wright, the righteousness of God is not explicitly (though perhaps implicitly) a moral virtue, but specifically refers to his covenant faithfulness made with Abraham. This is made clear throughout Wright’s exposition of the book of Romans. Our ‘righteousness’ has to do with our covenant membership and behaviour. The marker then for those who are part of this covenant community is — like abraham — faith, not “works of Torah.” The problem is, that since the late medieval period, the church has ‘de-judaized’ the gospel, and has assumed that the problem with Judaism, and specifically 1st century judaism was legalism; essentially, that Jews from the 1st century were trying to earn their salvation. This is precisely wrong.
The 1st century Jews were quite aware that they were already a part of this covenant family, and the works of the law were a “marker” that intensified their separation from their gentile neighbours. For them, they were “justified by the works of torah” – in other works, they were counted as part of the covenant family and the works of torah was evidence of that fact. There is no such idea that 1st century judaism is attempting to earn salvation, it was already given by God through Abraham.
It was an ethnic elitism that had become problematic for the famous Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Legalism was not the problem. God’s purpose of the Torah was not to intensify some kind of ethnic elitism but to provoke the surrounding nations to become part of the family of God, always intended since God’s covenant with Abraham. They were to be a “light unto the nations,” so that through Abraham, “many nations would be blessed” (Gen. 15). For this reason, Jesus reminds them that they are “a light unto the nations” and a “city set on a hill,” yet unfortunately, they failed miserably.
With this in mind, (and much more if you read the book for yourself), Wright points out that being “justified” by faith, has more implications than merely assuring the believer that he will one day go to heaven. So, if you’re wondering what those implications are, read the book. I highly recommend it.