In one of his central misunderstandings, N.T. Wright says that “it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plantiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas that can be passed across the courtroom.”
In the next Tabletalk article, John Piper and David Mathis interact effectively with this confusion. Their first point is that Wright’s definition of righteousness stops short of telling us in what way God could have been righteous before the world was created. If God’s righteousness is centered on what He does in the history of redemption, then what about before that? “But none of those is what righteousness is; they are only some of the things righteousness does.” Piper and Mathis define God’s righteousness as His “unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of His name.” This, because of the nature of the triune glory, is not dependent on the ebb and flow of sinful human history. They argue that this is relevant because of how his understanding limits Wright in the courtroom. If God’s righteousness is understood exclusively in terms of His actions, then of course those actions cannot be passed across the courtroom to become somebody else’s actions. But if His righteousness is understood as this “deeper attribute” then it is much easier to understand how that might be shared. There is much more to be said here, but suffice it to acknowledge that apart from the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, nothing of God’s will be shared with us.
The second problem is that because of God’s holiness and omniscience, any sentence of acquittal in this courtroom becomes a travesty, the very opposite of righteousness. A judge who declares not guilty over someone He knows to be very much guilty is not a righteous judge. Piper and Mathis acknowledge that Wright would say that this is where the atonement comes in. But the problem is that atonements don’t get passed across courtrooms like they were a gas or a substance. Wright cannot banish nonsensical gifts from the courtroom, and then resort to them later on to get him out of a theological jam. That’s my response to this appeal. But Piper and Mathis offer a more subtle distinction — being more gentlemanly they simply point out that a judge who shows clemency or mercy is not doing something that we would ever call “justifying.” “An omniscient and just judge always vindicates the claim that is true.” And the only way the sentence not guilty can be true is by means of imputation, and by imputation I mean it as Turretin would have defined it on one of his grumpy days.
Their third reply to Wright is that what Wright says is nonsensical is what “in fact really does happen.” This takes us back to the earlier point about the limitations of courtroom analogies. Everyone agrees that something really odd must have happened for the utterly holy and omniscient God to look at me and see a fine fellow. Heaven and earth are scratching their cosmic heads. How could that happen? And I think we have to admit at the end of the day that it seems nonsensical to us because this kind of thing is foolishness to the Greeks, and always has been. We should stop trying to fix it. It appears to be a design feature.
Incidentally, this was another fine contribution from the credos. I really will have to advance my theory sometime.
One other thing. What can we say to the counterargument that Wright affirms “union with Christ” and that everything we need from imputation we can get from this union? Two responses. First, if we are using the language of the courtroom, it makes no more sense to talk about the union of the judge and defendant than to talk about the transfer of righteousness from the former to the latter. The language of justification is legal and forensic, but when we talk about what God has done for us in Christ, we will bump up against the limitations of the analogy no matter what view we have of justification.
Second, this answer just pushes us back a step. What kind of union with Christ are we talking about? I have insisted before that there is a union with Christ which is not permanently salvific, a covenantal union (John 15:5-6). This is simply another way of saying that Christ’s illustration was apt, and represented something. But I have also insisted that there must be more to union than this, there must also be an eternally secure union with Christ — for Jesus not only talks about branches in Him, but also talks about branches that abide in Him. And we know from other portion of Scripture that this abiding is not going to happen apart from an efficacious decree from the Father.
This leaves me with two categories — union with Christ covenantally, and union with Christ decretally. There are dead branches in Christ who will be pruned, and there are living branches who will abide forever. God knows the difference, and has known the difference from all eternity. The former are unregenerate and the latter are unregenerate. The former bear no lasting fruit, and the latter do.
Now when we say that “union with Christ” gives us everything that imputation does, which kind of union? The answer to that will drive what kind of imputation you are appealing to. If you say the former, then you are defending an imputation that will not result in a saint standing on the walls of Zion’s city, smiling at all his foes. It will not result in a glorious taunt thrown against all the enemies of my soul — “Who can bring a charge? It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). Rather, is the kind of imputation that can at best result in some to-and-froing, some for-the-time-being, and a dash of for-the-most-part. Sorry, but this is a world with devils filled, and I want my armor to be thicker than three layers of tin foil.