I may have got myself into trouble with some comments I made on Adrian Warnock’s blog, on his post 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 5 – Two Critical Passages on Justification. This post is part of Adrian’s series on John Piper’s new book The Future of Justification. I was commenting mainly on these words which Adrian quoted from Piper:
Justification . . . happens to all who are connected to Christ the same way condemnation happened to those who were connected to Adam. How is that? Adam acted sinfully, and because we were connected to him, we were condemned in him. Christ acted righteously, and because we are connected to Christ we are justified in Christ. Adam’s sin is counted as ours. Christ’s “act of righteousness” is counted as ours.
In my first comment I argued that Piper is here basing his theology of justification on an analogy with Augustine’s understanding of original sin, an understanding which is faulty because, as widely recognised and as I explained in a previous post here, Augustine misunderstood Paul’s meaning in Romans 5:12 based on a poor Latin translation.
I went on to begin to sketch out some alternative views of my own. Now I have to accept that some of what I said was rather off the top of my head and does not represent a settled position. And, in response to a comment, I did realise that I had gone too far on one point and needed to take it back. There may be other ways in which what I wrote was not correct. So please take these comments more as thinking aloud than as my definite beliefs.
But this discussion is helping to clarify for me the fundamental inadequacy of “Reformed” theology of teachers like John Piper. They rely too much on a tradition of interpretation which is of very mixed value, giants (but flawed ones) like Calvin and Luther standing on the shoulders of theological pygmies – dare I call Augustine that? And when anyone questions Piper et al’s understandings or those of the teachers of past generations whom they admire, their response is not the “more noble” one of the Berean Jews who examined the new teaching to see if it is true (Acts 17:11), but more like that of the Thessalonian Jews with whom the Bereans are compared, who rather than listening carefully chased Paul and Silas out of town. This instinctive response is shown for example in the way that Adrian suggested in a recent post title that NT Wright is “preaching another gospel”. Now if Adrian and John Piper really understood Wright and his writings (something I don’t claim to do, by the way), they would probably recognise that he is in fact one of the best friends they have, because of his deeply theological defence of evangelical theology, including the doctrine of substitutional atonement. But they seem unable to look beyond Wright’s use of different terminology from theirs and his refusal to focus on controversies from the Reformation era rather than current ones, and are perhaps further prejudiced by Wright’s refusal to condemn Steve Chalke.
Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. Instead of this, the picture I have, based on various biblical passages such as Ephesians 4:22-24, is that the Christian consists of two separate persons or personalities: the “old self” (in some versions “old man”, but to be understood of course in a gender generic sense) born by natural birth who is a sinner, guilty, condemned to death and destined to die; and the “new self” born of the Spirit and into Christ, who is righteous, holy, free from condemnation, will not die, and indeed is already living eternal life in God’s kingdom. These two “selves” are in constant conflict in this world, but the “new self” is certain to prevail in the end. There is no legal fiction here: the guilty “self” will die, and the righteous one will not. On this understanding the work of Christ is not so much the reformation of the “old self” as the creation and preservation of the “new self”. But how this fits into atonement theology I am not yet sure.
PS: Here, for the record, is what I wrote in comments on Adrian’s blog, starting with my first comment:
Ah, now I see the root of Piper’s wrong theology. He depends on Augustine’s misreading of a poor Latin translation of Romans 5:12, which is the basis of the thoroughly unbiblical teaching (totally contradicted by Ezekiel 18:20 for example) that people are condemned for the sin of Adam rather than for their own sin. Piper takes this unbiblical picture as a model for how Jesus deals with human sin.
But, by God’s principles of justice, we cannot be condemned just because Adam was unrighteous, and similarly we cannot be justified just because Jesus was righteous. This idea of a “connection” between people through which condemnation or righteousness can be transmitted is completely non-Christian. Note that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not say “we might receive the righteousness of God”, still less “we might be reckoned as the righteousness of God”. No, it says “we might BECOME the righteousness of God”, as this righteousness actually becomes evidenced in our lives – just as we became guilty of sin as the sinfulness of Adam became evidenced in our lives, as we sinned, not “in Adam” (Augustine’s misunderstanding) but in our own behaviour.
So, the glorious promise of the gospel is not that we shall be reckoned as righteous even though we are really sinners, but that we shall become righteous in our actual behaviour, being “changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another”, 2 Corinthians 3:18.
I take it therefore that you disagree with Wright too, who would argue that we are righteous in Christ? …
Calvin reckons that properly distinguishing the renovative and the forensic benefits of union with Christ is key to understanding true religion.
In response I wrote:
Pete, thanks for your comments.
First, I should correct the last paragraph of my comment to “So, the glorious promise of the gospel is not so much that we shall be reckoned as righteous …”. Of course if we become righteous we will also be reckoned as righteous. But I understand the main point of the verse in question, 2 Corinthians 5:21, to be that we actually shall become, indeed are becoming, righteous, because Christ was made a sin offering (not the meaningless “was made sin”) for us.
What Calvin called “key to understanding true religion” is a distinction which I am not at all convinced about. I don’t have a fixed position on this, but it seems to me wrong to say that we are reckoned as righteous BEFORE we actually become righteous. There is certainly no trace of this teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:21. And I am not sure where else Paul teaches that we are righteous or have been justified now, as opposed to this being an ongoing process (as in Romans 3:24,26, present participles) or our future hope.
OK, Romans 5:1,9, these are aorist participles implying past justification. But I would see this justification as being incomplete. As Christians we are in a sense living in two parallel worlds. In the one into which we were originally born we are still sinners and subject to death. In the other in which we are in Christ by new birth, we are righteous, in reality and not by imputation, and alive eternally in God’s kingdom. This idea of course needs a lot more fleshing out.
I’m not sure if my position is the same as Wright’s. If his position is indeed that the righteousness we have is that of Jesus, not our own, then probably not. But I will agree with Wright in refusing to take sides on arcane 16th century disputes over the unbiblical distinction between “impute” and “impart”.