What’s an Evangelical to Do? (2)

Mark Minnick

Yesterday we ran part 1 of this article. It closed with these words:

There are some counterfeits that you can’t detect over lunch, but you can when you hear them preach or if you spend a little time circulating inside their ministries. But from the passage it appears that there’s also a kind of religious leader whom you can’t peg over lunch or even when he’s in the pulpit or behind the lectern. In words and works he not only ministers in Jesus’ name, but he’s apparently so divinely empowered that the results are nothing less than supernatural. He exorcises demons! He does many deeds of power (dunameis pollas)!

This creates a terrific difficulty for sheep. How are they ever to know if such a wolf is in their midst?

We continue…

A First Application

Before attempting to answer that question, I’d like to pause long enough to reflect on what appears to be at least one legitimate application of what we’ve gained thus far. If churches, schools, mission boards, and fellowships can be taken in by theologians and leaders who don’t betray any sign of their threatening character, what should our posture be toward those who do? If we’re to be alert lest we be deceived about religious teachers who look like sheep, how are we supposed to respond to religious teachers who don’t?

A Much-Debated Example

Let me move to a current illustration of the kind of thing I’m thinking about. For some thirty years now, British theologian and writer N. T. Wright has been openly, unapologetically insisting that almost all Christians for the last fifteen hundred years have misunderstood the doctrine of justification. One of his most widely read books, What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), is lying here beside me as I write. I’ve culled out just a few of his claims as examples of his teaching.

The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot — at least in terms of understanding Paul — and have stayed there ever since (115). If you respond that the entire epistle to the Romans is a description of how persons become Christians, and that justification is a central theme, I will answer … that this way of regarding Romans has systematically done violence to the text for hundreds of years … (117).

What, then, does Wright think Paul taught about justification?

The first mention of justification in Romans is a mention of justification by works [he italicizes works for emphasis] — apparently with Paul’s approval (2:13: “It is not the hearers of the law who will be righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”). The right way to understand this, I believe, is to see that Paul is talking about the final [he italicizes final for emphasis] justification (126).

Wright emphasizes “final” justification, because in his view there are two justifications. One justification now pronounces, not (as we have always believed) that one is righteous due to the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, but that one is a member of the covenant family. A justification in the future declares that we are Christians on the basis of works wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to 2:14–16 and 8:9–11) on the basis of the entire life (129). These words entire life are at the heart of Wright’s view of the basis of future justification. To repeat, future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life.

But what about the imputed righteousness of Christ? Isn’t it the entire basis of our justification? Wright puts his answer in italics for emphasis: The righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. He continues (without italics), God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. … God’s righteousness remains, so to speak, God’s own property. It is the reason for his acting to vindicate his people. It is not the status he bestows upon them in so doing (99).

This denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, combined with a present justification (a declaration that we are in the covenant) on the basis of faith but a future justification on the basis of Spirit produced works, creates a subtle soteriology of faith and works. This is the very kind of thing Galatians is written to refute. Wright therefore reinterprets Galatians. Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God (120).

This reinterpretation of Galatians makes possible his applying his new doctrine of what justification is to the current polarization within Christendom, especially that between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith impels the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong at the same table (Galatians 2) should be used as a way of saying that some, who define the doctrine of justification differently, belong at a different table. The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in one family (158).

A Question

Sorting out Wright’s teaching is difficult because he employs standard theological terms but with new twists. I’ve listened by the hour to several Evangelicals, including Sinclair Ferguson and D. A. Carson, attempt to explain and refute him. I’ve read hundreds of pages written for the same purpose. I’ve profited immensely from these brothers’ hard work. But now that Wright has been so rigorously refuted, I have a question.

If a man’s teaching is so abstruse on justification that world-class Evangelical scholars must devote thousands of hours to attempting to refute him, isn’t there at least an outside chance that the man may not even be a true brother? Especially when he insists that all of them are wrong?

Let me nudge this back into the light of Christ’s warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing. If the church must be alert to the overtures of false teachers effectively disguised as orthodox, doesn’t it need to be even more guarded toward teachers who aren’t? Teachers who announce openly that they, in fact, are not orthodox (at least in the sense that Evangelicals have understood that term for hundreds of years)?

I wonder then, at the response of Evangelical men who have carefully studied Wright for the express purpose of refuting him, but who nevertheless seem to continue assuming that he’s truly regenerated. At the very least, why not apply Romans 16:17? Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

Wright’s teaching unquestionably causes divisions (or dissensions). It hinders people from coming to the truth. He himself insists (not admits, but insists) that his teaching is contrary to what we have preached for hundreds of years. Why not take both him and Romans 16:17 at their word and just turn away?

N. T. Wright seems to be described so exactly in Paul’s warnings that one would think that the apostle knew him personally. If Wright isn’t the kind of person described by Romans 16:17, who is? Or look at Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders about wolves. After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29, 30).

Wright is doing everything Paul warns against. Causing dissensions and hindrances. Teaching and writing contrary to the apostolic teaching we’ve learned. Speaking perverse things. Drawing away disciples after himself. So for the flock’s sake and for the Chief Shepherd’s sake, why not play it safe? Just say it. N. T. Wright is a wolf. If he’s not, the burden of proof lies entirely with him. To be continued.

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)