Future of Justification 16: Self-Righteousness
First, Piper takes on Wright’s view that the “works of the Law” did not refer to the “boasting of the successful moralist.” Piper examines the relevant texts and seeks to dismantle Wright’s exegesis (146-147).
Next, Piper seeks to show how Wright’s insistence that first-century Jews were only ethnocentric and not legalistic represents a false dichotomy. Ethnocentrism is rooted in lovelessness and represents a type of legalism that cannot be dismissed (148-150).
“Wright and other representatives of the new perspective on Paul offer an inadequate analysis of the roots of ethnocentrism. Can one, for example, draw a line between the evil of legalism and the evil of lovelessness?” (150)
Piper makes a great point here, and he backs it up by pointing to Paul’s opinion of his own pre-Christian days, as well as Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisees (152-155). He shows that ethnocentrism is evil.
“Exclusivism rooted in religious pride remains the same. Jesus identifies the ethnic exclusiveness of the Pharisees as deeply rooted in morally reprehensible pride – that is, self-righteousness… For Jesus, the line between ethnic pride and moral pride vanishes. Ethnocentrism and self-righteousness are morally inseparable.” (156)
Piper makes an excellent case against the New Perspective vision of first-century Judaism. He goes to great lengths to show how the mere mentions of grace and gratitude do not exclude the presence of legalism or exclusivism. (After all, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable prayed: “I thank you that I am not like this tax collector,” etc.)
Regarding first-century Judaism, I believe Piper makes the stronger case. The New Perspective is right to remind us that ancient Judaism was not a precursor to 16th century Roman Catholicism. I believe that Wright is correct in seeing “works of the Law” more as badges of membership than as ways to earn one’s way to heaven.
At the same time, I believe the substance of the Reformed understanding of legalism to be consistent with the Judaism of Paul’s day. Piper is right. “Badges” of covenant membership that are then turned into their opposite (a way to promote moral superiority and ethnic exclusivism) are rooted in gracelessness. However much ancient Jews wrote of grace, I concur with Piper that the ethnic exclusivity invalidates the boast of “grace.”
And lest I be considered anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic here, let me turn the tables and ask myself a question. Allow me to issue a warning that has stuck with me ever since I read this chapter:
Is it possible to turn our doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone into a badge of exclusion – to turn the very doctrine of grace into a badge of self-righteousness that replaces faith in Jesus? Is it possible that some of us who emphasize grace, grace, grace might actually be demonstrating a self-righteous, exclusivist attitude rooted in self-righteousness, and not in God’s grace at all?
If Piper is right (and I believe he is) then we should all be forewarned! Talking about grace, saying we believe in grace, preaching grace does not mean we have tasted of God’s grace. Our actions speak louder than our doctrines here.