Two quotes from N.T. Wright that I read recently on the gospel and justification. Late last week I read his recent book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision and yesterday read What Saint Paul Really Said. The two books overlap quite a bit in terms of themes, ideas, exegesis, etc, although it was helpful to read the same ideas expressed in slightly different ways in each book.
His understanding of the gospel and justification is provocative and compelling. I’m planning to read more on the topic, particularly from the works he critiques (or the works he cites as critiquing him), but found these two quotes worth sharing.
For Paul, “the gospel” creates the church; “justification” defines it. The gospel announcement caries its own power to save people, and to dethrone the idols to which they had been bound. ‘The gospel’ itself is neither a system of thought, nor a set of techniques for making people Christians; it is the personal announcement of the person of Jesus. That is why it creates the church, the people who believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. ‘Justification’ is then the doctrine which declares that whoever believes that gospel, and wherever and whenever they believe it, those people are truly members of his family, no matter where they came from, what colour their skin may be, whatever else might distinguish them from each other. The gospel itself creates the church; justification continually reminds the church that it is the people created by the gospel and the gospel alone, and that it must live on that basis.
– N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 151.
The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community. If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning, at the center of your theology, you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism. This wasn’t so much of a problem in Augustine’s, or even in Luther’s, day, when society was much more bound together than it is now. But both in Enlightenment modernism and in contemporary postmodernism, individualism has been all the rage, with its current symbols of the personal stereo and the privatization of everything. Tragically, some would-be presentations of ‘the gospel’ have actually bought into this, by implying that one is justified or saved first and foremost as an individual. Paul’s gospel could never do that; nor could its corollary, the doctrine of justification. Of course every single human being is summoned, in his or her uniqueness, to respond personally to the gospel. Nobody in their right mind would deny that. But there is no such thing as an ‘individual’ Christian. Paul’s gospel created a community; his doctrine of justification sustained it. Ours must do no less.
– N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 157-158.