James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection

James Jordan has argued that the Scriptures teach two resurrections and justifications. The final justification is a justification that includes the person’s works and is only possible once the first justification has taken place. We cannot do any good works until the initial justification has taken place. In support of this notion Jordan cites Numbers 19. In Numbers 19, when a person has become contaminated through contact with a corpse, they go through two stages of purification. They are purified on the third day and on the seventh day their purification is completed with a final purification and baptism (quite possibly the ‘baptism for the dead’ referred to in 1 Corinthians 15; certainly the most likely contender in my estimation).

Most contemporary Christians would believe that such a passage is far too obscure to play any role in our doctrine of justification and that Paul’s theology never could have been informed by such a thing. This is the natural response for Protestants, who have very little time for liturgy. The assumption is that the ‘Bible’ is the only place where God’s revelation of saving truths is to be found. There are a number of problems with this notion. Chief among them is the fact that what we call the ‘Bible’ is a relatively recent creation. The people of God of previous ages encountered the Scriptures in the form of liturgical performance not as we do, by reading words off the pages of our mass-produced, privately-owned Bibles. It should not surprise us that, approaching the Scriptures as they do, most modern Christians make little sense out of it.

Once we appreciate this, we will need to reweight the significance of different parts of the Scriptures. The book of Leviticus, for example, is one of the most important books in the OT canon. Obscure as it may seem to us, the book of Leviticus shaped the daily worship of Israel. You will not really understand books like Romans until you have grasped something of the message of Leviticus.

Numbers 19 is a good example of a text that seems insignificant to us, but would have been many times more significant to an Israelite. In a time of higher mortality, when death was not something that took place away from the context of life in modern hospital wards, people would be far more likely to come into contact with corpses. The Israelite who came in contact with a corpse would have to go through the week long ritual of Numbers 19. Living out such a biblical text for a week’s period of time at a moment that was most probably one of profound personal transition following the death of a friend or relative would likely cause Numbers 19 to leave a far deeper impression on your consciousness than it does for the modern reader of the book of Numbers. One would not regard Numbers 19 as an obscure text.

Numbers 19 presents us with a baptismal resurrection. The person who has become unclean through contact with a corpse is separated from the realm of fellowship with God and is symbolically dead as a consequence of his contact with the dead body. They are only restored to the life of fellowship with God through a baptism.

Jordan insists that the ‘resurrection’ of the third day, whilst analogous to the ‘resurrection’ of the seventh day, is a distinct event. It does not ‘participate’ in the resurrection of the seventh day. The third day justification is not a case of the seventh day justification being brought forward into the present. Nor, for that matter, is the seventh day justification merely a reiteration, recognition or validation of the third day justification.

Jordan argues that Jesus’ original hearers would have heard the background of Numbers 19 when Jesus claimed that He would be raised on the third day. They would not have believed that there was only one resurrection awaiting them in the future (or, if they did, they shouldn’t have). Rather, they would have expected two resurrections, an initial one and a later final and consummative one. The NT teaching of two resurrections in such places as John 5 and Revelation 20 was not, therefore, a theological novelty (whilst Jordan does not believe that the first resurrection in these passages refers to quite the same thing, they can be seen as evidence for his basic point). There is an initial resurrection, followed by a later, final resurrection.

The pattern of two justifications is something that Jordan does not merely see in Numbers 19. One can also see this pattern in the sacrifices of Israel as the tribute/memorial offering, in which human works can be presented to and accepted by God on the basis of the earlier sacrifices. One can see it in Christian worship in the relationship between Baptism, which is initial justification, and the Eucharist, which foreshadows final justification in which our works are taken into account (symbolically presented to God in the bringing forward of the bread and the wine and own offerings in the offertory).

Jordan contrasts his position to that of N.T. Wright, claiming that Wright shares the same error as most Reformed approaches, which presume that justification is one event. Whilst most Reformed approaches see final justification merely as a reiteration of present justification, Wright errs by seeing present justification as being based on the bringing forward of future justification through the work of Christ. As Wright argues, what the Jews had expected to take place at the end of history had taken place in the middle of history in the case of one Person.

I have yet to be convinced that Jordan’s position is as far removed from Wright’s position as he generally presents it to be. Jordan claims that Wright holds to only one justification and that he holds to two, the first apart from works and the second including the person with all of his works. Jordan presents Wright as holding to a position in which God plays games with time, by bringing the future into the present.

I believe that this a misleading way to portray Wright’s position. Wright’s position is rather that the single future event of justification has taken place ahead of time in the case of one Person. There is no monkeying with time here. On the basis of this ‘bringing forward’ of the event of justification we can enjoy a present justification on the basis of faith, the positive verdict corresponding with a later verdict on the last day that will be delivered on the basis of the whole life lived.

The point where Wright might seem to be suggesting that God is tinkering with time is better understood as a claim that the future event is already present in principle — or in embryo — in the case of Jesus Christ and that we participate in an event that awaits us in the future as we are united to Jesus Christ. There is a single event of justification, which has different stages to it. There are not ultimately two separate justifications, but two phases of the one justification. This, it seems to me, is perfectly biblical as well. If justification is to be seen in the event of the resurrection of the dead, then it seems that we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a single event with different stages, not two separate events. Christ is the firstfruits of the event, which for us largely awaits us in the future. This future event is truly anticipated as we are united to Christ in Baptism. I think that Wright is correct to hold that there is ultimately only one justification, with plurality to be found within it. I also believe that his claim that the end of history has taken place in the middle of history is essentially true, provided that we add the proper qualifications and do not presume a meddling with time on God’s part.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Jordan is perfectly right to claim that there are plenty of OT reasons to argue that justification was not regarded as a single event awaiting Israel at one point at the end of history (although I would like to see some evidence from extra-canonical Second Temple Jewish texts that people actually held what Jordan argues is the OT position). A plurality of phases to the one justification was not a surprising development of OT belief in the NT, but was anticipated in many and varied ways in the OT text. Wright is wrong to see a two-stage justification as a teaching peculiar to the NT.

The weight of Wright’s understanding of justification is placed on a single event of justification, which, surprisingly (in the light of Christ’s resurrection), has two separate phases. The weight of common Reformed understandings of justification seems to be placed on a single event of justification that takes place by faith on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ and will be reiterated in the future. Wright disagrees with such a position in its failure to give proper weight to a future justification on the basis of the whole life lived as essential to the single event of justification.

I believe that Wright would take issue with Jordan’s position in other ways. I imagine that he would argue that Jordan detaches the two phases of justification too sharply. Rather than seeing the future justification as already having occurred in principle but yet to be fully realized in our cases, Jordan’s position sometimes seems to present justification in the present as an event to which a future event must be added. It is the idea of future justification as the addition of a new justification separate from the present justification that Wright would take issue with. Future justification for Wright is rather the consummation of the single event that is already present in embryo through the resurrection of Christ. It is a distinct phase of the single event, but the event itself cannot be split into two events.

I believe that both Jordan and Wright have important things to teach us here. I believe that Jordan’s treatment of OT evidence is helpful and can serve to counteract some of the weaknesses of Wright’s position on that front. Jordan’s position is also useful in counteracting the weak view of the final judgment in relation to justification that one finds in many Reformed contexts. Whilst I believe that his stress on two events of justification goes a little too far, the idea of justification having two distinct — albeit closely interrelated — phases is very helpful and can help to balance Wright out a bit.

On the other hand, I think that Wright is correct to teach the unity of justification. Present justification by faith is an accurate anticipation of future justification according to works and is in many senses a bringing forward of the final verdict. Although the fullness of the event of resurrection and justification await us in the future, this will involve conforming to what has already become true of Christ. For that reason, the resurrection of the ‘seventh day’ is already anticipated in the resurrection of the ‘third day’. Wright also clearly distinguishes present justification from final justification, even whilst closely interrelating them.

I think that some questions remain for Wright’s position, that could be helped by some of the emphases that one find in Jordan. Wright helpfully sees the future verdict of final justification as being present in the vindication of Christ in His resurrection. Jordan does not like any “already/not yet” approach to understanding redemptive history that would suggest that the future comes into the present in Christ, or anything like that. “Already/not yet” for Jordan is understood in terms of a linear timeline in which the future breaking into the present has little place.

I do not share Jordan’s position on this matter and believe that a purely linear account of redemptive history is insufficient. However, I believe that a linear approach to redemptive history is an essential perspective that must be retained and is too easily neglected. Without denying that the future has in some sense arrived in the present, we can see redemptive history as a continuing progression with stages that have yet to take place.

However, and this point is crucial, redemptive history can truly be viewed, not so much a progression beyond Christ’s resurrection, as a progression into Christ’s resurrection (I am not sure that Wright does justice to this either). This is where the “already/not yet” approach has so much to offer us. History is cyclical as well as linear. History is taken up in the resurrected Christ. What awaits us in the future is a full entry into something that has already taken place. This full entry will involve new redemptive historical events, but there is an important sense in which these events are not events that involve any progression beyond what has already taken place in Christ. It is this point that Jordan fails to do full justice to, whilst presenting us with the oft-forgotten perspective in which redemptive history involves a genuine progression beyond the resurrection.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in N.T. Wright, NT Theology, OT Theology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection

  1. garver says:

    What if Christ’s “first justification” was his reception of the Spirit at baptism (third day washing) and his “final justification” was his bodily resurrection by the Spirit (seventh day washing)?

    In that case, we can see a recapitulation of that in the life of believers, though with the qualification that, since baptism is baptism into the already finally resurrected Christ, our initial justification participates in final justification in Christ in a way that his own did not. Or something like that.

    I also don’t see the difficulty in saying that what happens in the future qualifies and gives shape what happens in the present or the past. This doesn’t require any sort of weird trangressing of time, but is simply how time works, as is evident in stageplays, novels, symphonies, and the like.

    I guess I’d have to side with Wright more than Jordan on this.

  2. Steven W says:

    So, obvious question, can someone participate in the present justification but later be condemned by the final justification?

  3. Al says:


    Good point about Christ’s Baptism. That seems to make a lot of sense. I find it hard to understand why Jordan so resists the idea of our present justification participating in final justification so strongly.

  4. Al says:


    My response to your question: a qualified yes. I am not entirely agreed with Wright on this issue. Wright does not, I believe, have enough place in his theology for the reality of apostasy (although he certainly argues both that Baptism has an objective force and that not all the baptized will be justified on the last day).

    I believe that present justification is a reality-filled promise of future justification. It is a downpayment of what is to come. However, it does not serve as a guarantee apart from faith. If we fall away from faith we will fall away from the state of justfication. To the person with faith it is a sure guarantee of future justification.

    Baptism brings us into union with Christ. In union with Christ we share in His justification. However, we must abide in the relationship that has been created through Baptism by faith. My thoughts from a couple of days ago on Leithart’s treatment of assurance are relevant here.

    The following is taken from some comments on mine on the Wrightsaid e-mail discussion list a few days ago:—

    In what way does Baptism accurately anticipate the future verdict, particularly given the fact that many baptized people rebel against God? Let me give an analogy. A rich and powerful man tells one of his servants that he will inherit all of his estate when he dies. The servant believes his master’s word. However, the servant’s friends don’t believe him. They think that he is making it up. Where is the evidence that he will inherit the great estate?

    Suppose that, prior to his death, the rich man were to adopt the servant as his son, give him many thousands of pounds in a yearly allowance and give him authority over much of his estate. This would serve as a genuine guarantee of future inheritance. The newly adopted son has a new status and all sorts of new privileges and responsibilities. However, the servant — now an adopted son — would still be able to turn his back on his adoptive father and forfeit the blessings of his new status. This would not make the new status of adoption totally meaningless, although it would frustrate its ultimate purpose. Even though the blessings of the adoption can be forfeited, the adoption can still serve as a genuine anticipation of future inheritance. Present justification works in much the same way. It serves as a certain guarantee to those with faith; to the presumptuous and unbelieving it cannot serve as such a guarantee, although it does grant a new status and privileges.

  5. Dana Ames says:

    With what I understand physicists are postulating about temporality, the present/future problem doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. I love listening to the conversations I have heard about this, but unfortunately can’t remember particulars… Have you heard of F. LeRon Shults? He is a theologian who is thinking with physics in mind.


  6. Al says:


    I think that I listened to some audio lecture of his a good while back and enjoyed what he had to say. I suppose that physics would not be my first port of call on the temporality question. This is not just due to my ignorance of the subject. I am also inclined to believe that there are theological ways of approaching the issue, which are more appropriate. I also question whether the eschatological work of the Spirit in respect to time can be adequately explained in terms of the categories of physics. It seems to me that such categories are transcended by the God who dwells in eternity.

  7. “…God who dwells in eternity.”

    The meaning of this phrase, of course, is hotly disputed in itself🙂

  8. Adam Naranjo says:

    I tend to a agree with Jordan. I’ve heard Leithart make a similar case (If memory serves). I would take it a little further. I think that we suffer from thinking about Justification as “event”, rather than “state”. I think of justification in the same was as I think of love. We are “loved” of God, yet there are times when God declares his love for us particularly. More importantly, we may say that God has declared his love for us particularly, whether he really has or not, on the basis of our being in a state of love. We are also “justified” of God. We are in a state, or better, a relationship wherein we are made right with God – not at a particular point per se, but we may speak of it in those terms. Where Wright says, “put to rights”, I would say, “at rights”, or simply “right”. There are “events” where God declares us righteous particularly, at least WE speak of these events, but these events only borrow from the perpetual state of justification. We are justified of God.

    This sense of justification works out in Paul’s epistles where Paul commends the Church toward justifying each other on the basis of God’s justification of us. When we trusted in Christ, in Baptism, we were justified. It’s not even as though God made a particular statement about us, but we may speak of it that way. In the same way that we might say that through faith a man is loved by God. God doesn’t make a declaration of love only as an event as part of an ordo solutus. However we are entitled to speak of God’s love for us in that way.

    Paul’s justification is probably not an event, but a way of us speaking about the fact that those who trust in Christ are “made right” with God. (Loved by God)

    It seems to me that we get somewhat off base when we think of justification as a event, or two events. Rather than a perpetual event.

    I’m certainly no denying the event all together. In fact I’m more than pleased with Jordan’s two Justifications, except that I would call them two declarations of justification, in a sea of justification. God is perpetually judging, and thus perpetually justifying.

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  10. Adam Naranjo says:

    I made a mistake above. I said that “Paul’s justification is not an event”. While that may be true, his language in Romans especially, certainly is event language, thus I should have said it this way…

    “Paul’s justification is certainly event language, but such language may be understood as a way of us speaking about the “state” of justification as a declaration in time. Does this make sense?”

  11. Adam Naranjo says:

    I don’t know, maybe it’s not event language. Paul doesn’t seem to have an event in mind. He seems to be stating a matter of fact. Those who trust are justified.

  12. Al says:


    I can’t agree with you on this one. It seems to me that Paul very much has an event in mind, for a whole range of different reasons.

    One of the chief among these reasons is the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is seen as His justification and the basis of ours. Christ lived by faith before His resurrection, but He was still in the realm of Sin and apparently condemned. In this sense He was not yet justified, although He could anticipate a positive verdict in the future. The resurrection was a public vindication of Christ that set things to rights. Christ’s resurrection was His justification and involved His being brought into a new state as a result of the divine court openly ruling in His favour.

    For this and other reasons, I do not believe that justification can be reduced to a matter of state. It is an event that gives rise to a new status and the event aspect of justification should not be lost sight of. If we do so we will lose sight of the biblical significance of Christ’s resurrection.

  13. Matt says:

    Jordan appears silent on the internal logic of the very verse he is attempting to explain. That is, granting the high plausibility of “baptism because of the dead” as the correct translation, and granting the reference to Leviticus, the question remains: Why would this baptism prove that the dead are raised?

    The logic would have to be something like this, I suppose: “If the dead are not raised, then their corpses cannot defile, and no one would need to be baptized after contact with them. But as it is, the dead are raised, and those who touch corpses must be cleansed.”

    Which raises the question: why should the ability of a corpse to defile those who touch it be dependent on its resurrectibility?

    Further: is it not also defiling to touch, say, a piece of roadkill? But the Jews did not believe that dead animals would be resurrected.

    I like Jordan’s OT connection and his retranslation of the verse, but I’m having trouble completing the logic.

    (I usually love Jordan’s Greek exegesis. It’s the other stuff — that all his other admirers like — that I have a harder time with.)

  14. Al says:


    I have asked Jordan and others if they can spell out the argument of 1 Corinthians 15:29 in a bit more detail. If and when I get an answer I will either try to post it here or e-mail it to you (with the permission from those who sent it).

  15. garver says:

    The first time I ran into this interpretation was about 10 years ago (and it wasn’t from Jim Jordan) and I thought it was intriguing. I still do.

    As I recall, the logic was explained to me this way:

    The reference in 1 Cor 15:29 asks why “those”/”they” are baptized for (or “because of” or “on account of”) the dead. “They” would refer to someone other than Paul’s own Corinthian Christian audience, perhaps the Jews or perhaps pagans.

    Then the question is, if we assume it is a Jewish refernece, how were Jews “baptized for the dead”? Hebrews speaks of OT rites, including “various baptisms” (9:8-10). Hebrews 9:13 specifically mentions “the ashes of the heifer.”

    Looking at the red heifer rite in Numbers 19, it speaks of the ashes as “water to remove impurity” (verse 9).

    One needs to insert the premise here that “impurity” = ritual death. The idea is that death spreads impurity, so that someone who comes into contact with a corpse becomes ritually unclean, the defilement of death itself spreading to them.

    The red heifer rite, then, in restoring the person from ritual death is, in effect, resurrecting the unclean person.

    Now, let’s assume that 1 Cor 15:29 is rightly understood not as being baptized “for” the dead in the sense of “for the benefit of”, but rather as being baptized “because of” or “on account of” the dead.

    Then, the sense of 1 Cor 15:29, interpreting it in light of Num 19, would be “If there is no raising from death, no possibility of ultimately reversing death’s effects, then why should those who are ritually defiled by death be purified and cleansed from that through the red heifer baptism? After all, cleansing is itself a sort of ritual resurrection, but if the grave and defilement of death is the inevitable end for everyone, why bother?”

    I’m not sure that works, but that’s what I understand the argument to be.

    I would love for someone to find some 2nd Temple Jewish exposition of the meaning of the red heifer rite that would somehow corroborate this as a possible way Jews were thinking about the rite in the 1st century.

  16. Matt says:

    Thanks, Joel.

    Sounds utterly implausible to me, resting as it does on the assumed equivalence between “unclean” and “dead” that is accomplished by the horribly modern adverb “ritually.”

  17. garver says:

    Well, drop “ritually” if you don’t like it. But it seems pretty clear to me that there are various sorts of conditions within the symbolic and ritual world of the OT that function as “death” apart from bodily death.

    One might try to construct a parallel here with “leprosy” (whatever sorts of skin diseases that means in the Torah) and with cleansing from leprosy, which has some similarities to the red heifer rite in terms of being a water-sprinkling rite administered by another person, involving the death of an animal mixed with the water and a seven day waiting period.

    In the case of a leprosy the overtones of death are perhaps more pronounced: exclusion from the community, living the place of execution, taking up the garb and practices of a mourner, etc. That seems to put the uncleanness resulting from leprosy somewhere in the ballpark of “death.”

    Even with contact with a corpse, apart from the red heifer rite, the uncleanness involved would result in being “cut off” from the people of Israel (Nu 19:13, 20), a term that in other contexts can refer to execution and death or being regarded as dead to the community of Israel.

    In the case of leprosy, the typology pretty clearly came to be associated with sin and the effects of sin (ultimately death). And so the language of cleansing from leprosy could be used to describe the forgiveness of sins and restoration from sin’s effects (Ps 51; Zech 13).

    In Ezekiel the cleansing sprinkling of Spirit baptism in chapter 37 is placed in parallel with the bodily resurrection of national Israel by the Spirit in chapter 36, drawing an association between sprikling rites, purging from sin, and resurrection from the dead.

    Assuming parallels and associations between cleansing from leprosy and cleansing from corpse defilement, perhaps makes the “death” associations more clear.

    I’m not sure if those are enough dots to connect — and as I said before, I would love to know how the red heifer rite was interpreted in 2nd Temple literature — but perhaps they get one at least partway towards the suggested interpretation of 1 Cor 15:29 against the backdrop of Num 19.

  18. Matt says:

    As I replied to John Barach on my own blog, I agree with the ritual-symbolic argument you’re making. I think it’s true, and a feature of God’s ritual microcosm in Israel’s cultic praxis. I just don’t think it can be what 1 Cor. 15:29 is saying. Paul would have to use different language to say what you are suggesting.

    To express your idea, we would expect Paul to say something like, “If the dead are not raised, how can baptism do anything for those who touch them?” or “what can baptism do for those who touch them?” or “What good would it be to baptize…?”

    That is, the effectiveness of such baptism would then be the proof of the necessity of resurrection for the corpse. Paul’s argument would then mean that, if (arguendo), the physical and eschatological reality were whipped out from under the ritual-symbolic practice, the latter would be vain, empty, and ineffectual.

    To express this, Paul would use hina ti or eis ti or some other interrogative for purpose. But as it is, Paul adduces not the effectiveness of the baptism, but the need for it. He asks, “why, then, do they baptize?” That is, why is it necessary? What’s the reason? What is the casus?

    And it is the corpses themselves whose resurrection is contemplated in 1 Cor. 15:29, not the person who touches one.

  19. garver says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying — probably due both to general thickheadedness and my barely rudimentary knowledge of Greek — though I’m happy enough to accept what you’re saying.

    But let me give it one more go, since part of my confusion was probably my own lack of clarity.

    I agree the issue concerns the resurrection of the corpses on account of which individuals are baptized. The idea would be that if — as a general principle — there is no resurrection of any sort, particularly of the corpses that defile, then why would one undergo a baptism that signifies resurrection when coming into contact with them?

    The baptismal resurrection of Numbers 19 is understood as proleptic of resurrection in general, including the resurrection of the corpses that cause defilement. Thus Paul’s question would be “Why bother with baptism if there is no resurrection?”

    Perhaps that involves too many suppressed premises, though I think though premises would be readily available even with Judaism and, especially, to a baptized Christian audience.

    Or am I still entirely missing your point?

  20. Matt says:

    Yes, you’re missing it.🙂

    My point is that even if there were no resurrection, the uncleanness would still obtain, and thus “why” or “because of what” (dia ti) is the wrong question for Paul to be asking. That the problem of uncleanness would have no solution is no reason for “dia ti” to become a rhetorical question. Paul’s not asking “why bother?” He’s asking “because of what?” “What need would there be?”

    Your question, “Why bother with baptism if there is no resurrection?” would be expressed with “eis ti” or “hina ti”, not “dia ti.” That would be properly rhetorical: the only answer would be “there’s no point”, “it can accomplish nothing.”

    But perhaps I am squeezing the Greek too hard and splitting hairs.

  21. adam says:


    I didn’t mean to say that Paul wasn’t using event language (read my second post). He is, but the event language draws its significance from a state of justification. Being the “just” of God is a relational reality primarily. Peace

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