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The Future of Justification?

November 8, 2007

*I have shifted this discussion to

The much anticipated Piper book The Future of Justification is a well-thought out response to N.T. Wright’s overall theology of justification. His tone is humble yet forceful, irenic and ever pastoral. Piper levels various critiques of Wright’s understanding of justification, some valid others invalid. However, his treatment of the classic text on double imputation, 2 Cor 5:21, is disappointing.

In particular, Piper (and most Reformed theologians) take issue with Wright’s interpretation of the phrase “righteousness of God.” Piper takes this to be legal language inferring the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account. Wright takes it to mean God’s covenantal faithfulness embodied in those who hope in Christ.

Piper sets up the reader up for his treatment of 2 Cor 5:21 very early in the book: “When Paul says, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” one must break the back of exegesis to make this mean, “We become the covenant faithfulness of God.” Chapter 11 is my effort to show that this unprecedented reinterpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not stand.” (24) However, chapter 11 is hardly a rigorous treatment of the text, with only 5 pages actually devoted to this verse. Two of his three contentions against Wright are hardly central to the actual text itself. Instead, they focus on the context, arguing that it is more soteriological than covenanatal (which are hardly incompatible).

What is most disappointing about his exegesis of the text is his failure to explain why Paul uses two very different words to describe a) Christ “becoming” sin and b) our “being made” the righteousness of God. He simply assumes that the iva clause (so that) means tit for tat, Jesus gets sin the same way we get righteous. The problem with this is that Paul actually uses two very different verbs to communicate the activity upon Jesus and humanity.

In 2 Cor 5:21 when God is making (poiew) Jesus sin, it is different from how God then makes (ginomai) us the righteousness of God. When God makes the one who was not acquainted with sin (personally) to become sin, he in cooperation with Jesus made sure that Christ knew sin by experiencing its damning, deathly result–separation from him (not having sin in his back account). We, in turn, actually become the righteousness of God. Whatever interpretation one takes for that phrase, the case still remains that the verb used refers to us constitutively not fictionally becoming the righteousness of God. Those in Piper’s camp, however, would have us interpret us as receiving imputed righteousness in our salvation bank accounts. Where we had an infinite deficit of sin, we now have an infinite surplus of righteousness.

This verbal issue is not discussed in chapter 11 or anywhere else that I can find in the book. Other issues could be mentioned, but I believe, this is perhaps the most glaring oversight. I am open to being persuaded of the Reformed position, but at this point, have not found it compelling in 2 Cor 5:21.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2007 8:56 am


    I find it unfortunate that you feel compelled to refer to imputed righteousness as “fictional righteousness.” I think this is a caricature, and it seems (though I hope I’m wrong) to belie a presupposition that if something is legal and forensic it is therefore less than real. Lose that assumption and you gain the gospel.


  2. November 9, 2007 9:51 am

    Thanks for your comment, Justin. Perhaps I should revise that terminology. I certainly believe in a forensic reception of sin on Jesus’ part, though his bearing sin is certainly more multifaceted than imputation, as you well know. Nevertheless, my point remains regarding the the verbal difference in 2 cor 5:21. This is not an equative statement or great exchange in identical manner. Do you have some thoughts on this issue? I’d love to hear them, brother.

  3. November 9, 2007 9:59 am

    JD: Do you also believe in forensic reception of righteousness on our part?

    I think I’d need to see more argumentation regarding your interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21. As you well know, the use of two different words does not automatically entail two different concepts. I see the assertion, but I’d need to know more of the argument.

    As long as you’re considering revising your post, it may be worth considering whether your disagreement on the exegesis of one verse entails labeling the entire book as “forgettable.”


  4. November 9, 2007 10:18 am

    I haven’t thoroughly exhausted all the classic texts on imputation of righteousness, so I can’t say that I “believe in forensic imputation of righteousness.” I do have concerns with the reduction of the gospel to justification alone. What of adoption and regeneration and other biblical conceptions of salvation?

    I’ll be glad to provide more exegesis, just wanted to get the critique on the table. I meant for the forgettable bit to refer to Chapter 11. As stated early in my post, there is much to admire in how Piper addresses Wright’s overall theology of justification (Wright definitely overplays his hand on covenantal readings, but makes a much needed point). As I also point out, Piper winsomely and engages Wright, something i find edifying and imitable, something I admire about your writing, editing, and character.

  5. November 9, 2007 10:33 am

    I wasn’t able to get my Greek Font (BibleWorks) to work in the comments box – so I have commented on this post on my own blog. Please click the link to my website to see this.

    Thank you,


  6. November 9, 2007 11:13 am

    Hi David, thanks for your interaction. You are right to point out my error in the statement about usual translations. That was written too late last night! Nevertheless, the exegetical issue still stands. To be sure, the verbs can function differently in different contexts. As with righteousness of God, it all comes down to lexicography.

    However, if we are to take your example from John 4.46, then this would mean that Jesus actually, ontologically became sin. As Driscoll others have erroneously said, that would make him an addict, a prostitue, etc.

    Yes, my statement about reading it as Jesus experiencing experiencing the damning, deathly result–separation from the Father is a dynamic interpretation meant to reflect the use of poiew here, to highlight the fact that while Jesus was made sin, he experienced sin in some way besides it being in his “bank account.” Ginomai, on the other hand, consistently refers to inherent change, to being “born” “becoming” etc. as the context supports. 2Cor 5.17 speaks of us becoming a new creation, not being imputed with newness. Should we not continue to read 2 Cor 5.21 in this vein, as people who are actually, constitutively becoming the righteousness of God, not simply possessing a imputed righteousness in our so-called bank accounts?

  7. November 9, 2007 11:55 am



    First, I am not saying that Jesus was turned into sin. I was simply trying to demonstrate the semantic range of “made”. This is clearly also the meaning in has in the LXX in Genesis 1:1 and elsewhere (there are over 800 uses of “epoinson” in the LXX. I have only checked a small percentage of these – but they primarily refer to making/constituting).

    Also, your assertion that “ginomai” consistently refers to inherent change is not true. I gave the example in my post from John 9:39 where, quite clearly, Jesus is NOT bringing about inherent change in order to make those he is speaking about blind.

    There is a great deal of overlap in the semantic ranges of “poiew” and “yinomai”. It would be helpful if you offered evidence why they must have fundamentally different meanings in the context of 2 Cor 5:21 so we could evaluate that evidence together.

    To the contrary, the structure of the passage suggests that they are used as synonyms or near-synonyms.

    This means that the “treat as though” dynamic qualifier that you are rightly applying to Jesus being made sin would naturally apply to the second clause as well.

    Best wishes,


  8. November 9, 2007 12:09 pm

    I didnt mean to imply that YOU were saying Jesus turned into sin, but that that reading can be taken from using poiew that way.

    As I said earlier and I agree with you, this is a semantic issue especially given the breadth of ginomai; however, the top definitions in BAGD do refer to inherent change and it is frequently used that way, especially in the near context of 2 cor 5.17. It would be fruitful to look at other occurences where these two verbs are used to gether, which I dont recall doing. I will try to get around to offering more evidence in a later post. It has been some time since I wrote or thought on this text.

    As for the structure of the verse, it does not require a synonymous reading unless we read the iva clause as equative, but it can also be read as purpose. In fact, it may be a purpose clause which would then require us to read it as Jesus death/reception of sin as the empowering force for disiciples to become new covenant keepers, to be covenantally faithful to the gospel.

  9. November 9, 2007 1:36 pm


    Thanks for your response.

    I would just add that just as “ginomai” most commonly has the meaning of inherent change, “poiew” most commonly has the idea of real change (whether by making or doing) as well. There are well over a 1,000 uses of “poiew” (in its various forms) between the LXX and the NT. It would be interesting to find some other than 2 Cor 5:21 where the understood meaning was “to treat as though”. I am not aware of any uses other than 2 Cor 5:21 where we would do this.

    Have a good weekend.


  10. November 9, 2007 1:58 pm

    Good exchange, brother.

    To clarify, I am not suggesting that “to treat as though” is a technical definition of the word…

  11. November 9, 2007 4:59 pm

    Dear J,

    I think your analysis is way off here. You are reading too much “consituitiveness” into GINOMAI. Consider Romans 2:25 for instance:

    “Or indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become [GINOMAI] uncircumcision.”

    You cannot read GINOMAI as “constituitive” here, at least not in the way you are defining “constituitive.”

    I would rethink the semantic range of GINOMAI before offering this critique.


  12. November 11, 2007 8:29 am

    Thanks for the point, Denny.

    You are right to point out that use of ginomai in Rom 2.25, but that does not require a “rethinking of the semantic range” but rather demonstrates the semantic range. BAGD clearly notes that ginomai can also mean “to be born or begotten” “to be made, created” with the fundamental meaning of the word as “originate.” So, this word is very ontological. By using the word “constitute” I am picking up on these primary uses of the word, though my interpretation of 2 cor 5.21 as a whole does not rest on this lexical observation. Given the new creation context in 5.17, this passage is highly ontological, appearing to focus on the subjective impact of the gospel of reconciliation and not the objective work of Christ.

    In this text, it seems that Paul is trying to communicate an existential/situational gospel, not the normative dimensions of the gospel (re: triperspectivalism). Hence it is about real reconstitution, real change, we are new creatures, not imputed as new creatures. We are the righteousness of God not just possessing a legal record of God’s righteousness. As a result, this verse tells us that the cross provides the power for us to embody the actual righteousness of God, perhaps as Spirit-led new covenant keepers (Scott Hafemann).

  13. rey permalink
    November 13, 2007 5:20 pm

    The “New” Perspective is not really new, as Piper accidentally admits in asserting that Wright claims that the “church” has been wrong for 1500 years. Why doesn’t Piper say Wright claimed the “church” was wrong for 1974 years (2007 – 33 = 1974)? Because the “mainstream” perspective on Paul didn’t begin in 33 AD but with Augustine in the 5th century. Augustine died in 430 which makes it more like 1577 years than 1500, but the point is the same. The perspective on Paul that existed prior to Augustine is clearly much closer to the so-called “new” perspective than to Augustine’s (and hence Luther and Calvin’s) view! Everyone prior to Augustine believed in a distinction between present-day justification and future-justification. Prior to Augustine nobody thought that future-justification would be on faith-alone but everyone believed it would be (in Wright’s terms) “on the basis of the entire life lived” (or as Paul says, in Romans 2:9-11 “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.” ) Basically, I’m not impressed with Piper’s book. He just seems to be like “we can’t abandon the 1500 years of misreading Paul that Augustine caused because we just can’t.” He doesn’t really grasp what Wright is saying, and overall he just appears weak in understanding.

  14. shaw permalink
    November 13, 2007 9:40 pm

    hey bro’,

    I have avoided this whole debate… and honestly am confused as to whole thing.

    what about offering a summary of the debate….? would you? that would be so helpful.

    or do you know of one out there?

  15. November 13, 2007 10:07 pm


    Ligon Duncan provides a summary/critique here:,,PTID307086%7CCHID560462%7CCIID1660662,00.html

    Wright article:

    Read N.T. Wrights small book, What St. Paul Really Said.

  16. July 6, 2008 9:06 pm

    Regardless of who’s right about the exegesis of 2 Cor. 5:21, you made an excellent point in your conversation with Justin that I think reveals the paradigmatic way in which this text is typically interpreted. The gospel should not be summed up exclusively in terms of justification. Adoption, reconciliation, redemption, regeneration and incorporation are perhaps equally as important.

    Thanks for giving me something else to explore. Now if I could just learn Greek…

  17. Mark permalink
    July 18, 2008 3:49 am

    I find this discussion interesting. I have Piper’s book, but have yet to read it. I agree that biblical salvation is more than just “being imputed with Christ’s righteousness” but I also believe that double imputation is very important to hold onto for the integrity of the gospel. I also strongly disagree with those who say that believing in imputed righteousness undermines sanctification and perseverance. Those who are regenerated by God’s grace will persevere in faith and righteousness in varying degrees (Phil 2:13). Those who apostasize (1 John 2:19) or continually live in gross sins (Gal 5:19-21) were never true believers. Saying that we must cooperate in our salvation with God’s grace or saying that sin will forfeit one’s justification is just as abominable as antinomianism.


  1. once more with feeling » Blog Archive » Piper & Second Corinthians 5.21
  2. Another Blog? « Think Theologically, Live Redemptively

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