John Piper and the imputation of a real moral righteousness

Reading through John Piper’s response to N.T. Wright, The Future of Justification (see also Piper’s objections to Wright’s ‘good news’), and not having much of a background in Reformed theology, I found myself repeatedly asking where the idea that the real moral righteousness of God is imputed to those who are in Christ actually comes from. Although admittedly Piper has written a great deal elsewhere about the doctrine (167), I found the main exegetical chapter of the book (163-180) remarkably flimsy; and although I have set out below my immediate response to it, I can’t help thinking that I must have missed something somewhere.

Piper argues in this chapter against Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God as ‘God’s covenant faithfulness or impartiality in court’ that this does not get at the heart of what God’s righteousness is: it merely highlights a couple of things that God’s righteousness does (Piper, The Future of Justification, 164). God’s righteousness is really much deeper than either of these things. It is fundamentally his commitment to do what is right; it ‘consists most deeply in God’s unwavering allegiance to himself’; it is ‘his unswerving commitment to uphold the worth of his glory’ – and he demands the same ‘righteousness’ from us, that we ‘unwaveringly love and uphold the glory of God’.

Since we have failed to do this, we find ourselves on trial in God’s law-court, and at this point we arrive at what Piper regards as the critical questions:

When the Judge finds in our favour, does he count us as having the required God-glorifying moral righteousness…? And does this counting us as righteous happen because we meet this requirement for perfect God-glorifying allegiance in our own heart and mind and behaviour, or because God’s righteousness is counted as ours in Christ? (165)

Piper’s answer is that the latter is what happens when we are justified: ‘God counts us as having his righteousness in Christ because we are united to Christ by faith alone’.

The first thing to note about this argument is that it is thoroughly decontextualized. Wright is perhaps partly to blame for this by placing so much emphasis on the law court metaphor, but we have lost all sense of how what Paul has to say about righteousness belongs in all instances to an argument about Israel under particular historical conditions. Whereas Wright insists that the righteousness of God is in one way or another a factor of the covenant relationship between God and his people, Piper argues, in effect, that the righteousness of God precedes or transcends covenant. The effect of this is to make the covenant largely redundant – it has been left behind, and we are now in a grand universalized law court beyond the boundaries of a petty historical narrative about Israel. The doctrine then sounds as though it has been constructed on this universal theological premise and then read back into the texts.

The problem is that in scripture the question of the righteousness of God always (at least, I can’t think of any exceptions off the top of my head) presupposes, directly or indirectly, a covenant context, a historical context, and in most cases an eschatological context: it has to do either with how God acts in relation to his people or with how he acts in relation to the enemies of his people. As long as there is disagreement at this hermeneutical level, there is bound to be disagreement over the meaning of the phrase ‘righteousness of God’.

My second concern has to do with the exegetical reasons for thinking that Paul understood justification to entail the imputation of righteousness from one person to another. Piper considers five texts (he also examines Romans 10:4 in an appendix).

1. He points out that in Romans 4:3-8 justification is ‘conceived in terms of “counting (or imputing) as righteous” ’ (168). He then quotes from Simon Gathercole’s critique of the New Perspective. The ‘justification’ of David presupposes the metaphor not of the law courts but of the ledger. On the one side, David’s sins are wiped clean; on the other side, a positive righteousness is attributed to him. The metaphor requires that this positive value must come from some, so we conclude that there has been a transfer of righteousness from God to David.

But while the logic of the metaphor may require this, it is not at all clear that Paul’s argument requires the metaphor. Gathercole alludes to Jubilees 30, but this hardly supports the contention and is in any case of little relevance for interpreting Romans 4. The killing of the Shechemites by the two sons of Jacob is reckoned to them as righteousness and inscribed on the heavenly tablets as ‘blessing and righteousness before the God of all’ (Jub. 30:19). These heavenly tablets are a record of the ‘righteous’ deeds of the sons of Jacob; they are not a ledger – there is no corresponding negative side on which their sins are listed. What we have are two books: a book of life and a ‘book of those who will be destroyed’ (30:22). It may be that in his book Gathercole presents a more coherent case, but on the face of it he appears to have misunderstood the Jubilees passage.

Besides, nothing in Romans 4:3-8 suggests that Paul has the specific ledger metaphor in mind. Just as Abraham’s faith or trust in the God who promises was reckoned as righteousness, so David’s faith in the God who forgives was reckoned to him as righteousness – and subsequently the faith or trust of those who ‘believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord’ will be reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:24). In effect, this trust is counted as a ‘righteous’ deed – and perhaps implicitly is written in the book of life. But the thought is simply that the act of trusting (rather than performing works of the Law) is judged as righteousness. There is no imputation or transfer of a moral quality involved in this.

2. Piper’s argument from Romans 5:18-19 fails, I think, because it simply reads too much into the connection between Christ’s act of obedience and the appointment or making of many as righteous. Certainly Christ’s obedience has had the effect of many being reckoned as righteous, but this is by way of faith – as we have just seen in 4:3-8, it is the person’s act of trusting that leads to the pronouncement ‘righteous’ or ‘vindicated’. There is no transfer of righteousness from Jesus to us: we are declared ‘justified’ because we believe in the one who was obedient.

The analogy with Adam, moreover, does not work the way Piper would like it to. There is no counting ‘as having sinned in Adam’ (170). Sin passed into the world, by the trespass of the one man many died, through one lapse condemnation for all people (there is no verb here), through the disobedience of one man many were made sinners – none of these statements requires the thought that Adam’s sinfulness was imputed or transferred to the rest of humanity.

3. In Philippians 3:9 Paul speaks of having a righteousness that is not his own by right of being an observant Jew but which comes from God. That he repudiates his Jewish heritage is an argument for rather than against keeping the covenant context in view. His ‘righteousness under the Law’ is not simply an instance of a generic legalism or moralism: it is the particular case in point: what does it mean to attain to the resurrection that will mark Israel’s eschatological vindication?

Piper admits that there is nothing in this passage on which to base a doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness (171). It has to be read in from elsewhere. Unfortunately, it seems that it has to be read in from Reformed tradition rather than from anything that Paul writes.

4. Piper’s argument with respect to 1 Corinthians 1:30 is that when the statement ‘you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us… righteousness’ is read alongside Galatians 2:17 (‘in our endeavour to be justified in Christ…’), it appears that Christ’s becoming righteousness for us ‘is related to justiification – our being counted righteous’ (172). I must confess, I have trouble following the line of thought here, but I fail to see how this constitutes an argument for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer in the forensic sense intended.

Paul makes the statement in the context of his consideration of the ‘calling’ of the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). His main point is that they have no reason to ‘boast’ according to worldly standards. In fact, God chose them precisely for that reason in order to ‘bring to nothing things that are’ – they are in themselves, in their very weakness and poverty, a prophetic sign with eschatological purpose. What they may ‘boast’ in is the fact that Christ has become for them ‘wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption’. Clearly ‘wisdom from God’ answers the ‘not many of you were wise’ of verse 26, and there may be a hint of a ‘Wisdom’ theology here. The immediate rhetorical relevance of the other three terms is less apparent, but there is no compelling reason to understand ‘righteousness’ here as a moral righteousness possessed by Christ or by God that is imputed to the Corinthian believers. To understand it as a reference to their status of having been vindicated, declared justified, in a world in which the powerful and wise stand condemned makes much better contextual sense (cf. Wright, Justification, 134).

5. The last, and for Piper most important, text is 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Again, the principle issue appears to be how this statement works in the context of Paul’s argument. Piper regards it as having basically a soteriological significance and links it closely to verse 14: ‘one has died for all, therefore all have died’ (176). Wright argues that it forms part of a ‘long apologia for Paul’s apostleship’ (Wright, Justification, 136).

Wright deals with the verse at some length in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 135-144, and should be read. But it seems to me that the crucial point to note here is that Paul is writing to believers, to a church, which must immediately put a question mark against Piper’s insistence on a soteriological setting for the statement. Paul is not making an evangelistic appeal; he is imploring a community that has lost faith in his ministry to be reconciled to the God who gave him the ministry of reconciliation.

The quotation from Isaiah 49:8 in 2 Corinthians 6:2 suggests that Paul has in mind Isaiah’s vision of a faithful servant who is instrumental in the restoration of sinful Israel. Given this background and the general context of the argument, when Paul says that ‘we’ have become the righteousness of God, it is likely that ‘we’ refers not to all those who believe but – as throughout this passage – to the suffering and ill-treated apostles, who have died to themselves, and who now play the role of ambassadors of God to an alienated community. In this narrative the question of a moral righteousness or perfection simply does not arise. The point is that because the apostles are in Christ, who was faithful, obedient, who did not rebel against his Father (ie. he knew no sin), they embody in themselves the ‘righteousness’ of the God who acts in keeping with his covenant faithfulness to reconcile his people to himself.

This has been a cursory examination with limited consideration given to Wright’s own response; and as I said, I may be missing some critical piece of Piper’s argument – which is an invitation to put me right. In any case, I am left wondering how the widening split between Reformed theology and the New Perspective might ever be resolved – or, perhaps more to the point, how emerging theologies might move beyond a controversy that is still so circumscribed by Christendom categories. Although Wright believes that the Reformation got justification badly wrong, he bends over backwards in his apologia to preserve the essentially Reformed character of the modern church. But it seems to me that the whole Christendom theological paradigm has become so unwieldy, so bent out of shape, so baggage-laden, so deeply polemical in its construction, and so out of touch with the narrative shape of biblical thought, that imaginatively, at least, we should scrap the whole thing and start again.