Repost: Wright, Righteousness, and Covenant

N. T. Wright claims that in the Apostle Paul’s writings “righteousness,” as it predicated of humans, denotes “covenant membership.” When he wrote this in the New Bible Dictionary edited by Sinclair Ferguson, J. I. Packer, and David Wright, no one thought this was too big a deal. However, when he expressed himself again later in his excellent little book, What Saint Paul Really Said, his claims attracted a great deal more criticism, some of it worthy of consideration (i.e. Charles Hill’s review at

Frankly, I originally thought that Wright’s claims about righteousness and covenant membership were somewhat overblown. What he rightly pointed out, as far I was concerned, was that Paul spoke of “justification” and “righteousness” as a forensic status especially in the context of dealing with the question of the status of believing baptized Gentiles in relation to believing baptized Jews (i.e. mainly Romans and Galatians). In most other epistles dealing with Christian life, faith, and conversion (see especially First Thessalonians for this last), Paul doesn’t find any need to mention justification or even righteousness. But all this only showed when Paul used the word. That was a totally different question from what the word actually meant. Just because Paul had a certain use for certain terminology doesn’t mean there aren’t other legitimate uses for that terminology.

Still, since the Bible is authoritative, I thought it was a good thing to point out that the original situation in which Paul applied the doctrine of justification was arranged and recorded under the control and inspiration of the Spirit. While we can and should apply the doctrine in various ways as our particular circumstances demand, we dare not simply forget the original context in our exegesis. God told us about it for a reason. In this light, even if Wright was somewhat mistaken, it seemed obvious to me that his emphasis could be helpful to anyone who wanted to be faithful to Scripture. From this standpoint, Steve Schlissel’s pleas that Biblical studies on justification not be suffered to entirely ignore the issue of Jew and Gentile seem quite reasonables. I can’t help but wonder if the reaction to them in some quarters is more a reaction against Schlissel in general rather than the actual content of his statements on this issue.

It needs to be pointed out (not because it is unclear, but because highly-polarized and perjorative mischaracterizations are common) that Wright has always affirmed that justification is the conferring of a forensic status or righteousness in God’s sight—they are given legal right standing with Him. He never threatened the normal use of the word in Reformed dogmatics. On the contrary, he admirably defended justification as the conferring of a legal status and also popularized the need to distinguish justification from effectual calling in order to accurately reproduce Pauline theology. (Furthermore, he has consistently taught that this standing has an exclusively extrinsic basis in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

There is, however, more to be said regarding the meaning of righteousness or justification in relation to covenant status or membership. To have “right standing” can mean, by itself, just about anything. Two equals can have right standing with each other. Two strangers can get in an argument on the street, and when peace is restored, revert to being strangers who go on their way without any further relationship—which as strangers, would be a restoration of right standing. Obviously, this bare definition is simply not what the Apostle Paul means when he refers to God justifying the ungodly, not would it be the meaning used by Saul the Pharisee.

After all, Adam was God’s son (Luke 3.38). When God condemned him and Eve, they were disinherited from God’s family. By definition, reconciliation with God, being again accounted as righteous in his sight, would mean being restored as God’s children. In fact, it is difficult to think of a way that a sinful son of Adam could conceivably be pardoned of all his sins and accepted as righteous in God’s sight (Westminster Shorter Catechism #33), without being, in that very act, given status in God’s covenant.

Thus, Francis Turretin wrote that,

to no purpose do some anxiously ask here how justification and adoption differ from each other, and whether adoption is by nature prior to justification (as some hold, who think it is the first and immediate fruit of faith by which we are united and joined to Christ; or whether posterior to and consequent upon it, as others). For since it is evident from what has been said that justification is a benefit by which God (being reconciled to us in Christ) absolves us from the guilt of sins and gives us a right to life, it follows that adoption is included in justification itself as a part which, with the remission of sins, constitutes the whole of this benefit. Nor can it be distinguished from adoption except inasmuch as it is taken strictly for remission of sins, since in its formal conception it includes also acceptation to life, which flows from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Institutes, Vol. II, p. 668 / 16.6.7).

For God to give someone a relationship with himself is an inherently covenantal action. It is true that the prodigal son (Luke 15) could conceive of the idea of receiving some sort of forgiveness from his father without being restored to sonship, but his concept was quite obviously attenuated. If a father in that era were to say a son could only stay on the estate as a hired servant, he would be understandably perceived as disowning his son. Real forgiveness meant a restoration of the covenant relationship.

In short, if condemnation means expulsion from the covenant relationship then justification cannot fail to mean the restoration to the covenant relationship.

The discussion of the prodigal son, however, opens our eyes to why regenerate Jews and pagan Gentiles could both be said to have been justified when they heard the Gospel. Even though they enjoyed God’s love and favor, many barriers separated pious Jews from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. They were sons and yet were treated as mere servants in many ways. Thus, again, Turretin:

Now although this privilege as to the thing [adoption, righteousness before God] is common to all the believers of the Old Testament, no less than to those of the New, who were both sons of God and had a right to the heavenly inheritance (to which after death they were admitted), still it is certain that the condition of believers of the New Testament as to the mode is far better in this respect: they are no longer in an infantile age, held like slaves under teachers and the rudiments of the world, when the were not able to have either the sense or the use of their right, animated by the spirit of bondage. But now being adults and emancipated by Christ, they are admitted to the sanctuary of the Father and have a full sense and fruit of their right, the Spirit of adoption being received, in virtue of which they can confidently cry out, Abba, Father. Paul refers to this when he says, “Christ was made under the law to redeem them that were under the law” (to with, under the curse of the moral law and under the yoke of the ceremonial law) “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4.4, 5). Not that only by which we are separated from the children of wrath and the Devil, but also that by which we far excel infants, who do not differ from slaves.

Turretin goes on to refer back to his discussion of the covenant of grace (10.2), demonstrating that he sees adoption as a covenant identity.

So Wright’s idea that justification declares believers to be members of God’s covenant through Christ is not far-fetched. Indeed, it is impossible to escape. To be given, by declaration, right standing with God, is inherently to be given covenant status with him.
The question remains: Is Wright really getting into Paul’s mind to bring up such a meaning? Wright’s commentary on Romans shows that he finds this connection in Paul himself. Commenting on Romans 4.11 he writes:

We should note, in particular, that Paul’s effortless rewording of Gen 17:11 indicates clearly, what we have argued all along, that for him a primary meaning of “righteousness” was “covenant membership.” God says in Genesis that circumcision is “a sign of the covenant”; Paul says it was “a sign of righteousness.” He can hardly mean this as a radical alteration or correction, but rather as an explanation. The whole chapter (Genesis 15) is about the covenant that God made with Abraham, and Paul is spending his whole chapter expounding it; if he had wanted to avoid covenant theology he went about it in a strange way. Rather, we should see here powerful confirmation of the covenantal reading of “righteousness” language in 1:17 and 3:21-31. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the covenant membership marked by the faith he had while still uncircumcised” (Romans, 494-495).

Consider also Paul’s thought on what is reckoned:

  • So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision? (Romans 2.26)
  • He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be reckoned to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4.11, 12).
  • This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as offspring (Romans 9.8).

Add to this how closely justification is tied to membership in Abraham’s family (Romans 4, Galations 3.23-4.6).

Paul’s interpretation would be backed by what the Bible says about Phinehas. Just as Abram was reckoned righteous when he believed God so Phinehas was reckoned righteous when he slew a Moabitess and apostate Israelite.

Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was stayed.
And that was counted to him as righteousness
from generation to generation forever (Psalm 106.30, 31).

What does being reckoned righteous entail? We are told in Numbers 25.11-13:

Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Of course, the concept of justification can occur in contexts that don’t use that exact word. In Romans chapter 2 the forensic meaning of “justify” is rendered undeniable by the context of the judgment of God. To ask for God to judge favorably is to ask for God to justify. Thus, Ezekiel 20.37-38 provide more evidence that being justified means being put into a covenant relationship:

“As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you,” declares the Lord God. “And I shall make you pass under the rod, and I shall bring you into the bond of the covenant; and I shall purge from you the rebels and those who transgress against Me; I shall bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they will not enter the land of Israel. Thus you will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 20.37, 38).

God’s message through Ezekiel reiterates a major theme in the Exodus that is tied to the covenant made with Abram in Genesis 15 when he was counted as righteous for believing God. The sequence is that God spoke promises to Abram and Abram believed so that God accounted Abram righteous and then made a covenant with him. But this covenant itself promises that God will vindicate his descendants: “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15.13, 14, emphasis added). By promising to judge Israel’s oppressors God was promising to vindicate Israel, to justify them, to declare them to be righteous. Just as Abram had no outward evidence that he was favored by God as an “exalted father” (the meaning of his name) and simply had to cling to God’s promise of offspring and inheritance, so the Hebrew slaves hardly seemed to belong to a powerful and faithful God.But God’s promises are of much more value than the way things seem to be at present. Moses brought the message that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was now going to fulfill his covenant promises. They believed Moses and they were publicly declared to be righteous. This was demonstrated in the plagues on Egypt culminating in the slaying of the firstborn and the Passover sacrifice and meal.

In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt (Exodus 12.11-13; emphasis added).

God’s liberation of the Israelites takes place a courtroom situation. He is declaring and enforcing a judicial verdict in favor of his people and against the Egyptians. This is especially evident in the Passover meal, in which God judges the Egyptian gods who hold the Israelites captive, while providing escape from condemnation by the blood of a lamb or goat.

Thus there is judgment followed by being brought into a new or renewed covenant at Sinai, just as in Ezekiel’s prophecy and in the sequence of Genesis 15 itself. What all this might mean, I am not sure. But it certainly gives us reason to think of theological justification as being declared in right relation to God and thus a member of his covenant.

Paul was not the only one to see the relational point of justification or righteousness. James cites Genesis 15.6 just like Paul does, but adds an interpretative statement: “‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God” (James 2.23). Being given the status of righteous before God means being made God’s friend. It may well be that this is a covenant term itself. “My companion stretched out his hand against his friends; he violated his covenant” (Psalm 55.20).But friend has another connotation in some relationships—that of close advisor or member of one’s council. Haman had these sorts of friends (Esther 5.10, 14; 6.13)—notice that he summons them at will and they are also called his “wise men,” a term already used in Esther to denote members of an advisory council for King Ahasuerus. The high priest’s advisors who sat with him were also referred to as his friends (Zechariah 3.8). Job’s friends seem to play this role, albeit rather badly.Thus Jesus says of his disciples that they are his friends because he shares in his doings, and he promises them that their requests will be granted by his Father:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you (John 15.14-16).

Jesus had said virtually the same thing about Abraham many centuries earlier.

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him (Genesis 18.17-19).

The Lord proceeds to tell Abraham of his plan to visit Sodom and Abraham advices God to not to destroy the town for the sake as few as ten righteous men who might be there. No wonder Jehoshaphat called Abraham God’s friend (Second Chronicles 20.7) and that James followed his example. Being justified means being given access to God’s throneroom as a member of his council.

Jesus’ contrast between servants and friends (John 15.14-16) reminds us of Paul’s contrast between servants and sons and takes us back full-circle to his doctrine of justification and its relationship to covenant membership.

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3.23-29).

Remember, the reference to Abraham has been mentioned in the context of a discussion of the Abrahamic Covenent. God vindicated Israel from Egypt because “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4.22) and because “God remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exodus 2.24). And so we are justified because we are sons in the Seed of Abraham.

5 thoughts on “Repost: Wright, Righteousness, and Covenant

  1. Ken Christian

    If we accept Wright’s defintion of “righteous” as covenant membership, are we then forced into saying that a covenant member, who later rejects the faith, was at one time really declared righteous by God? This makes a lot of folks, including me, a bit squeamish.

  2. mark Post author

    Well, can’t we distinguish between *special* grace for the elect to eternal life alone and covenantal *common* grace with Israel/Church? Surely God’s attitude and acceptance of a person who is a professing Christian who will later apostatize is not the same as his attitude and acceptance of a person who is presently living as an unbeliever.

    (And even the professed unbeliever who remains in his unbelief will find on Judgment Day that he was, in fact, the recipient of God’s kindness and affection before and is now being cast out. What are people *cast out* from?)

    I think it is pretty clear from Wright’s treatment of Romans 11 that he believes *true* believers have a qualitative different standing with God than everyone else. They alone will persevere by God’s grace. How this would lead him to discriminate in term of a professing believers right-standing with God is hard for me to figure out. Has anyone pressed him on this kind of question?

  3. Ken Christian

    Thanks for the reply, Mark. I have no problem with distingushing between common (covenantal) and special grace. It’s just that we don’t often associate common/covenantal grace with a declaration of righteousness.

    I’m also trying to understand Wright’s position(s) in his own terms. And I would love to find a place where someone had pressed him on the questions you raised concerning his treatment of Rom. 11.

    I’d like to press him a bit more about his specific doctrine of covenant membership. As I understand him, justification (in the present) is a declaration that a person belongs to the forgiven, covenant people of God. And as he’s fond of saying, such a declaration is a true anticipation of that person’s final justification on the last day. So given all of that, I wonder if Wright has a category for someone who is in the covenant temporarily. If so, I wonder how he would describe their legal status before the Lord..

  4. mark Post author

    A distantly related question: what do we do with both Zacharias & Elizabeth (Luke 1.6) and Saul of Tarsus (Phil 2) are righteous and blameless in the Law? I know this has to be two different things but Doug Wilson pointed out that Wright hasn’t addressed the difference.

  5. Ken Christian

    I hear you. I haven’t found Wright’s model to be that clear about the real nature of things in the Old Covenant situation. For example, were Old Covenant believers ever justified, in the NT sense of the word? If so, was their justification, in some sense anyways, according to the “works of the law”? I’d really love to pick his brain about such things.


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