Guy Waters is next up in Tabletalk, and he asks whether the church has misunderstood justification. He says, “Justification in the present, N.T. Wright claims, is primarily about how you can tell who belongs to the church. It is not primarily about the salvation of the sinner. Wright, of course, is not saying that justification has nothing to do with the salvation of the sinner. It does. He is saying, however, that the church has missed what the Bible says is the heart of the doctrine: ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’”
First, I want everybody to note the two uses of that word primarily, and the phrase the heart of the doctrine. A lot of the confusion, for which Wright carries a significant portion of the responsibility, is really a matter of emphasis — is breakfast primarily a matter of bread or a matter of toast? You can’t really talk about being in the church without talking about coming into the church, and you can’t talk about coming into the church without talking about being in the church. Unless you revel in bread/toast debates.
In the middle of this article Waters does a credible job pointing out that the problem that justification solves is the problem of the curse, brought about by a failure to do everything that the Book of the Law required. Justification addresses curse and condemnation, which are the result of a failure to perform what the law required. Justification is not something that came to the Jews to teach them that the works that they were able to perform were nonetheless inadequate. Rather, the lesson was that they were a cursed people because of their disobedience — and their conformity to the covenant identity markers simply highlighted their sinfulness, throwing their condemnation into high relief.
The main complaint I would have about this article is that there was a missed opportunity. Waters points out that Wright says that in the new covenant “a person is identified as part of the people of God by the badge of faith.” The problem here is that faith is internal, and as such cannot be a badge of anything. The Lord gave us certain things we had to do and say externally to profess our faith (confess that Jesus is Lord, accept Christian baptism, etc.) Those are badges, and because they are badges, they can be faked. That is what creates the whole problem of wheat and tares. The internal reality cannot be the badge, unless you are looking for one of those churches where the pastor and session know how to read the human heart. And if you ever find such a church, run.
The whole notion that Wright advances — that faith is now the badge — is a striking vulnerability in his argument, and is truly an odd position for an Anglican bishop to take. It really ought to be the focus of a lot more attention than it is, and I wish that Waters had pursued it.
There was some irony near the end of the article. Waters concludes:
“Thus, Wright is mistaken to say that justification in the present primarily concerns membership in the church. Even so, there is a lesson for us to learn. The Bible teaches that justification is a powerful and compelling incentive for believers to live together in unity.”
It follows from this that those who understand justification the very best should be most characterized by a unity that is devoid of factionalism, typified by peace and comity, suffused with a spirit of biblical catholicity and . . . oh, never mind.