I was asked a question, through email, recently about N.T Wright’s view of Justification. Since I wrote a long answer, I figured I would post it as well on our blog.
N.T Wright has a great book that I though was extremely useful called The Climax of the Covenant. In this book he outlines how Jesus and the cross were the climactic event of God’s covenant with Israel. The law was there simply to point out sin (the wrong) and provide insights on how to truly bear and steward the image of God. God’s covenant with Israel, in this perspective, is not that Israel as a people, nor the law, nor sacrifices, etc., were the answer or solution to sin, only that the answer and solution to sin would come through Israel. N.T. Wright’s analogy for this was that Israel is like the bomb squad whose job is to manage the bomb until the time is right then lay it at the foot of the cross. His point was more often than not Israel believed they were also to diffuse the bomb and this is not the case. So covenantal theology that understands the covenant and how Jesus fits as the story of Israel’s climax is a core point.
The second is a more holistic understanding of sin (the wrong). For this the law court metaphor works quite well and I think brings even deeper understanding than most evangelicals allow it to. To fully understand the law court analogy we have to have the judge (God), the defendant (humanity) and the plaintiff (satan) all present. For this an analogy from The Lion, The Which and the Wardrobe is helpful. I think C.S. Lewis was onto something with how he presented this scenario.
When Edmund, representing humanity, comes into the camp Aslan takes him and speaks with him. Aslan then comes out and announces that the matter with Edmund has been settled (between Aslan and Edmund), Aslan had forgiven him. All of this without a sacrifice and without a substitution (yet)… Then the White Witch enters and says not so fast Aslan there is a matter that needs to be settled according to the law, she (the law and satan) still had a claim against Edmund. As we all know Aslan takes his place thus dealing with the claim the White Witch (satan) had on Edmund (humanity) once and for all.
This view I think is a much more biblical presentation of penal substitutionary atonement. It is penal only in the sense of the matter of the law, and substitutionary in that Jesus took our place in the matter of satan’s claim on humanity thus setting us free once and for all. But it does not present an angry God or one where we are starting off on the wrong foot with and someone needs to take the punishment to fulfill God’s wrath. It is more about settling the matter with the one who brings the claim up because of the law.
So back to the courtroom setting. Because of the scenario above, the matter has been dealt with. Satan has accepted the substitution once and for all and released his claim thus acknowledging the matter has been resolved and he will not bring it up again. There is to be no re-trial.. Satan believed that the Son of God who is the only person who can threaten his Kingdom was going to be killed (and not raised again) and was a fair trade for all of humanity.
So Justification in light of all of this is simply God finding humanity to be in the right and of no wrong doing. N.T. Wright points out what is different from most evangelical views, including those like John Piper, which is that justification is not about imputed righteousness in that we somehow become or attain righteous attributes from God. It is simply only that we are found in the right and to be not guilty (even though we still are because we still sin) God does not even acknowledge it is there, it is gone, forever, not just covered, transferred, etc. There is no longer any claim against us because of Jesus because the accuser lost the right to accuse us any more in accepting the substitution.
This, I would contend, even when reading Paul’s covenantal theology and even his understanding of sin, law, courtroom, etc., that this view is the way Paul understood all the Jewish heritage, with the amazing act of the cross and now into the Kingdom where God is becoming King through Jesus (his words) because of the resurrection (Jesus’s coronation) of the Kingdom that is inaugurated but not yet consummated.