Justification Present and Future
Trevin Wax: Some evangelicals within the Reformed tradition have taken issue with your division of present and future justification and your statement that on the Last Day, we will be justified “on the basis of the whole life lived.” Does this mean that our good works contribute to our salvation? Or is it that our good works prove our salvation?
N.T. Wright: It’s interesting that you shift from justification to salvation there because, though those aren’t the same thing… we have to train ourselves to use words accurately. And there’s so much loose Christian talk, for which I’ve no doubt been as guilty as any. We just trip over our own feet on this.
The word “salvation” denotes rescue. Rescue? What from? Well, of course, ultimately death. And since it is sin that colludes with the forces of evil and decay, sin leads to death. So we are rescued from sin and death.
Now those may be the same event as the present and future justification. But the word “salvation” and the word “justification” are not interchangeable.
It’s as though, supposing we have a class that starts at 9:00 in the morning and suppose that 9:00 in the morning also happens to the be the moment when the sun rises in the middle of winter. Now you can say “sunrise” or you can say “the beginning of class.” Those denote the same moment, but they connote something quite different. One is a statement about things that are going on in the wider world. Another is a statement about something very specific that’s happening this morning in my educational experience. They may be the same moment.
In the same way, justification present and future correspond to salvation present and future, but they’re different language systems to talk about different sorts of events that happen to be taking place at the same time. That’s hugely important. And it happens when we’re reading Isaiah, as well as when we’re reading Paul actually.
People have often said, “Your idea…” (pointing to me) “…that future salvation will be based on the whole life led.” I say, Excuse me. I didn’t write Romans 2:1-16! Romans 2:1-16 is Romans 2:1-16. The evangelical tradition has screened out Romans 2 because it didn’t know what it was there for. Because the great evangelical tradition to which I’m hugely indebted tends to say, “We know a priori that Romans 1:18-3:20 basically says, ‘You’re all sinners and that’s it’ in order that then, 3:21 and following can say, ‘You’re all saved by grace through faith.’” And so they screen out the fine tuning of what 1:18-3:20 is actually about.
And chapter 2 particularly has been very controversial, not only for evangelicals but actually for liberal scholars as well. Ed Sanders really doesn’t know, didn’t know when he wrote his two books on Paul what Romans 2:1-16 was all about. But it’s quite clear. It’s a typically Jewish statement of a future judgment day on which God will reward or punish according to the entire life led. And in case you should think that Paul is saying “This is an odd Jewish idea which I’m rejecting,” he anchors it with the fact that it is Jesus who is going to be the Judge on that last day.
And so, I would say, please don’t think this is something I invented. Again, it’s not a flash in the pan. He says it again in 2 Corinthians 5 and again in Romans 14. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that we may each receive what was done in the body, whether good or bad.” Now, frankly, if people have a problem with correlating that with justification by faith, it’s Paul they have a problem with, not me.
But I think it’s very easy to correlate it with justification by faith, because the whole point of justification by faith in Romans 3 is that that is something that happens in the present time and then in order to explain how it is that the present verdict issued over faith alone can be sure to correspond to the future verdict that will issue over the whole of life, Paul writes Romans 5-8 which ends up, “There is therefore now no condemnation” because of the Spirit, because, etc… with warnings attached. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
So things are much more complicated and happily much more interesting than the rather logic-chopping post-Reformational over-formulated systems would allow. Fortunately, Paul is much more interesting than most of his interpreters, myself included.
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