Recently, I have been attempting to study the difference between N. T. Wright and John Piper’s perspective on justification. This discussion involves the discussion of many biblical terms including salvation, justification, and the righteousness of God. In my mind, it appears that there are more foundational understandings about the biblical worldview which must be discussed prior to placing these terms into the story of redemption.
To many the big question facing the reader of the bible is how do I know that if I die tonight that I will go to heaven? Instead, N. T. Wright insists the actual biblical question is "how do I know if I am a member of the covenant people through whom God is going to bless the whole world"? If you asked a 21st century conservative evangelical it is not likely that they would ever wrestle with whether they are part of the community through whom God is going to “set things to rights”. Isn’t the world running headlong into hell while the church limps its way into heaven? Nothing is being "set to rights" as N.T. Wright insists. These two views of history and redemption are quite at odds. To the conservative evangelical, God’s plan is to rescue people out of the temporal world and into a life of hope for eternity. But to the biblical writers and Jesus Himself, God's plan of redemption is to build a beautiful community on earth, the church, that displays his glory and the power of the gospel? What is at odds here are two different worldviews. What is really in conflict are two differing understandings of where the story of redemption is being acted out. Is the story a story about hidden souls being redeemed in a sort of hidden way or is the story being played out in a very visible reality on earth between two very visibly distinct communities, the church and the world? Is the glory of God clearly seen in the community of the elect or is it hidden and secret?
The picture below depicts the difference quite clearly.
In this illustration, the greek or gnostic view sees the good life and the good existence as the life in heaven. In contrast, the life of earth is fallen and broken. These two aspects of reality are unchanging or static. Heaven good. Earth bad. To obtain the good life, the kingdom, one must be taken out of the life of earth to the life of heaven. As believers, according to this view, we are to expect very little out of this life but we hope for eternity in heaven.
On right in this illustration, we have a less greek and more biblical worldview. This understanding of redemption sees God's plan to bless all the people groups of the world, through faith in Jesus. N.T. Wright sees this as the covenant to Abraham. This blessing is something that God has promised to perform here on earth through His covenant people. The purpose of life is not to usher souls into a status of being qualified for heaven but to bring people into the life of the covenant and to participate in the life of the Kingdom of the Christ. We urge others to enter this life of the age to come knowing that one day, at Christ's return, our kingdom life will be had in full.
What is at stake is essentially a gnostic or mystic worldview or a biblical worldview of a full bodied hope. If we understand the story of the bible to be the unfolding of God's covenant people here on earth and the bringing of the elect into the kingdom here on earth awaiting the return of the king, then we approach terms like salvation and justification quite differently than if we see the purpose of life only the work of saving souls for a future heavenly existence.
From this worldview, it becomes much simpler to reconcile the teachings of Jesus regarding the kingdom and Paul's teachings concerning how a person is justified, i.e. how a person has assurance that they are a member of this community of the elect. Terms like salvation and justification simply mean different things if seen in the context of a kingdom worldview.