N.T. Wright wants to say that justification is not so much a matter of “getting in” as it is a question of understanding who “is in.” The problem I have with this (and a great deal of the NPP discussion) is that phrase “not so much.” It creates an adversarial either/or set up where none need exist.
Of course, biblical discussions of justification need to include both. The New Israel is eschatologically vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event which created that New Israel. This is an important element of the New Testament teaching on justification. Jesus was justified in His resurrection, and He was raised to life for our justification. But what on earth would possess us to say that it is not so much coming into the room that matters, but being in the room? In a world full of people not in the room (including many who think they are in the room), getting into the room is a big deal. An account of how you got somewhere is relevant to your belief that you are in fact there.
This is why individual justification (understood in the classic Reformed sense) is essential to all this. Those who understand the necessity of this, and who refuse to go along with Wright’s “not so much” statement of it, are therefore in a position to profit greatly from Wright’s articulation of corporate justification. But without the evangelical emphasis, this broad understanding of justification will become diluted with (to use some old-fashioned words) sin, apostasy, corruption, and sodomy. And this is not a random list of words for bad things; there is a reason for it.
This said, understanding justification includes the need to be able to discern the body of the Lord. The besetting sin of evangelical and Reformed people is to be so tight that they exclude from the body those who ought not to be excluded (most notably, our children). The besetting sin of people in N.T. Wright’s communion is the belief that someone who is a Druidic advocate of homosexual rights is a suitable candidate for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both of these are a failure to discern the body, and both are therefore failures to understand justification in this corporate sense.
In how many Reformed churches is it possible to hold back from the Table a ten-year-old girl who loves Jesus? Too many to count. But we are all one loaf, Paul says, and his point should be applied this way — all who are bread should get bread. But look at this girl (and she is a representative of many tens of thousands like her), and ask the question, “Who will lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” And the answer comes back — “Why the session will!” The irony here is that it is the session which is not discerning the Lord’s body — the girl discerns it, knowing that this is “my church, my people, my Lord, and may I have some bread?” — and so perhaps the session should suspend itself from the Table. The one thing we must understand about the Table, the girl understands and the session doesn’t. We are all one body, and all who are bread should get bread. The session says yes, we believe that you could love Jesus, but we have subsequent tests you have to pass before you get any bread. The session is failing to understand that she is clearly part of the justified people. They are treating her as unjustified, laying a charge against her though God has justified, and such behavior from Christian shepherds is not justifiable.
But there is a ditch on the other side of the road. Someone like N.T. Wright would see the folly of all this, I believe, and would certainly amen what I have argued above. But discerning the Lord’s body is a two-way operation. Not only must we see who is in, but we must also be able to tell who is not really in. The New Testament is filled with false brothers, and we are told how to identify them. The works of the flesh are manifest, Paul says, and those who live this way will not inherit the kingdom of God. This is not a form of higher math. We have learned to repent of that form of pietism that says, at the drop of a hat, “I don’t that this person is really a Christian,” and all because they cut me off in traffic once, or I saw them drinking a beer at a restaurant. Away with reading the hearts of others as though they were tea leaves! But the fact remains that this statement — “I don’t think this person is really a Christian” — is a perfectly honorable statement to make, provided the standard for making it is biblical. I would not be willing to say it for violations of the schoolmarmish ethics that govern certain quadrants of the Church. Nor would I be willing to say it for violations of the Ten Commandments, followed by repentance. Think of David. But I would be willing to say this sort of thing for those who live in high defiance of the law and gospel of God — ecclesiastical officials who solemnize homosexual unions, who sponsor witchcraft seminars, who draft statements in favor of abortion, and so on. This kind of moral folly is pervasive in N.T. Wright’s communion, surrounding him on every hand, and an old-guard southern Presbyterian can see the problem with this much more clearly than Wright appears to.
It would be nice if we would learn to discern the body. Wouldn’t it be glorious to find a church that accepted the little children (as Jesus commanded us to) and was able to do this without simultaneously accepting overt and manifest iniquity? And wouldn’t it be nice to find a believing communion that took a stand against sin and evil without simultaneously taking a stand against the pre-teens? But alas, most of the church does not yet understand corporate justification. Fortunately, our salvation doesn’t depend on this understanding — after all, we are justified apart from works of the law.