This morning I listened to John Piper’s recent sermon on Luke 18. As A.B. Caneday observes, John Piper seems to think that he has N.T. Wright’s view of justification firmly in his crosshairs. Unfortunately, he seems to be seriously off target.
One of the great differences between Wright’s approach to such a passage and the approach adopted by many of his critics is to be found in the meaning that they give to the language of righteousness. For Wright, righteousness is at heart a relational concept, whereas many of Wright’s critics begin with the assumption that righteousness is primarily a matter of conformity to an absolute standard. For Wright righteousness is ‘right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.’ This has a very significant effect upon the exegesis of such passages as Luke 18. It is also important to recognize that, for Wright the term ‘justified’ is far more closely related to terms like ‘vindicated’ (see, for example, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.366fn.174). This draws more attention to the eschatology of justification, something that is very much in view in the immediately preceding section of Luke 18.
The Pharisee was confident in himself that he was righteous. We should not presume that this confidence was based on the righteousness that God had ‘worked within him’. That is the wrong meaning of ‘righteousness’. The ‘either imparted righteousness or imputed righteousness’ approach to righteousness language causes all sorts of confusion here. Such terms are far too narrow to give us a real handle on the sense of the language of righteousness in passages like Luke 18. The confidence of the Pharisee was founded upon his conviction that YHWH had marked him out as different through the Torah and its ceremonies. By his possession of and adherence to the Torah his right standing with YHWH was demonstrated. He believed that the Torah gave him a peculiar claim to YHWH’s grace that the tax-collector did not possess.
The problem with the Pharisee was that his confidence was misplaced. His possession of the Torah was no basis on which to claim forgiveness. God reckons righteousness apart from the works of the Torah. Jeremiah observed the same problem in his own day when he warned people against putting their trust in the temple. We can never presume upon God’s grace. God has promised to be gracious to all who call upon Him, but this grace must always be received as a free and undeserved gift.
Abraham received circumcision as a sign and seal of his righteousness — his right standing with God — but he always had to ensure that his faith was in God, rather than in circumcision. The problem that Jesus deals with in Luke 18:9-14 and Paul deals with in Romans and elsewhere is the presumption of many Jews that they had an inalienable right standing with God simply by virtue of their possession and strict observance of the Torah. The point that Jesus and Paul both make is that right standing with God is received, not as an entitlement of the person possessing and observing Torah, but as a free gift given by sheer grace to the person who throws himself upon God’s mercy. The thing that marks out the true people of God is not possession and observance of Torah, but the faith that trusts in the God who raises the dead. This is something that is crystal clear in the writing of N.T. Wright.
It is also something that we frequently find in the Scriptures. Ezekiel 33:13 is a good example. A person’s righteousness (right standing and consequent right behaviour) is no basis for presumption upon God’s grace. God is quite entitled to cut people off, even though they were once declared to be righteous before him. This is what happened to many in Israel in the first century. They trusted in the Torah, rejected their Messiah and were destroyed.
I will conclude with Wright’s comments on the parable from Luke For Everyone (2001), p.213-214:—
The second parable looks at first as though it is describing a religious occasion, but it, too, turns out to be another lawsuit. Or perhaps we should say that the Pharisee in the Temple has already turned it into a contest: his ‘prayer’, which consists simply of telling God all about his own good points, ends up exalting himself by the simple expedient of denouncing the tax-collector. The tax-collector, however, is the one whose small faith sees through to the great heart of God (see 17.6), and he casts himself on the divine mercy. Jesus reveals what the divine judge would say about this: the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, returned home vindicated.
These two parables together make a powerful statement about what, in Paul’s language, is called ‘justification by faith’. The wider context is the final lawcourt, in which God’s chosen people will be vindicated after their life of suffering, holiness and service. Though enemies outside and inside may denounce and attack them, God will act and show that they truly are his people. But this doesn’t mean that one can tell in the present who God’s elect are, simply by the outward badges of virtue, and in particular the observation of the minutiae of the Jewish law. If you want to see where this final vindication is anticipated in the present, look for where there is genuine penitence, genuine casting of oneself on the mercies of God. ‘This one went home vindicated’; those are among the most comforting words in the whole gospel.