The next article in Tabletalk is by Cornelis Venema, and is entitled “A Future Justification Based on Works?” In it he tackles Wright’s emphasis upon a future justification on the basis of works. Venema’s point is that Wright “radically compromises the scriptural teaching that justification is not based upon works or human performance.” Venema adds that “Wright’s position is not unlike that of the medieval Roman Catholic church, which also claimed that the Reformation’s view of justification by faith alone failed to do justice to the biblical theme of a final acquittal before God based upon works.” Venema says that it seems evident that Wright “teaches a doctrine of justification by grace through faith plus works.”
Now here is Wright’s view, as laid out in Trevin Wax’s comparison of Wright and Piper in Christianity Today.
“Wright: Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.”
Now here is Piper’s position on this:
“Piper: Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.”
And here is Venema’s view, taken from this article.
“Rather than treating the final judgment as another chapter in the justification of believers, we should view Paul’s emphasis upon the role of works in this judgment in terms of his understanding of all that salvation through union with Christ entails. Because believers are being renewed by Christ’s Spirit, their acquittal in the final judgment will be a public confirmation of the genuineness of their faith and not a justifying verdict on the basis of works.”
Got that? It will be an acquittal in the final judgment of the genuineness of faith because of the works seen, but it will not be a justification. It will be an acquittal that confirms the genuineness of the believer’s faith, and not a verdict announced over the Spirit’s work in the believer’s life. We’re okay so long as nobody slips up and uses the magic word justification about any event in the future.
Meanwhile, because Piper even talks about future justification, thereby not using the secret decoder ring that enables Reformed theologians who have read Gaffin to translate everything into union-with-Christ acquittal, instead of Spirit-empowered justification, he too falls under the condemnation that Venema issues here — for is this also “not unlike” certain condemned forumulations of four centuries ago? But this is awkward, because if you flip a few pages ahead in this very same Tabletalk (from pp. 10-11 to pp. 30-31), we find John Piper writing, as orthodox as anybody in the joint.
Now I think I should be marked down as at least nervous about Wright’s position, and would want to ask just a few more questions about it. In my mind, everything hinges on that phrase “the present verdict gives the assurance.” What kind of assurance? Neither height nor depth nor any other created thing assurance? Or some lesser breed of assurance that you might be able to get from a friendly but effeminate priest who pats the back of your hand and tells that God don’t make no junk? But nervousness and a desire to ask more questions don’t really provide the ground for the sweeping condemnations that Venema issues here, particularly when that kind of carpet bombing theology wipes out a few of your own villages in the same magazine.