N.T. Wright writes the following, in one of his books:
“If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteous’… But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense at all. God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness, because of which he will (Israel hopes) vindicate her, and bestow upon her the status of ‘righteous’, as the vindicated or acquitted defendant. But God’s own 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.” (Wright, “What St. Paul Really Said,” p. 99)
“Justification takes place on the basis of faith because true Christian faith—belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead—is the evidence of the work of the Spirit, and hence the evidence that the believer is already within the covenant.” (Wright, “Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism”, p. 16)
“Justification is not how God makes someone a Christian: it is his righteous declaration that someone is already a Christian.” (Wright, “Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism”, p. 16)
Is justification not part of conversion? “Those he called, he justified” in Romans 8 seems to even make “justified” stand here for conversion itself.
Romans 4:2-3 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Wright’s statement seems to make this separate, and quite distinct from conversion. Now there is also a claim made that the New Perspective is really quite old! That it was the early church’s view, yet it seems it was not:
“All His saints, also, imitate Christ in the pursuit of righteousness; whence the same apostle, whom we have already quoted, says: ‘Be ye imitators of me, as I am also of Christ.'” (Augustine, “A Treatise on Forgiveness of Sins and Infant Baptism”)
“Imitate me” was spoken by Paul to believers, so Paul can’t mean “belong like I belong,” for they belonged already. Thus this must be about right conduct, not belonging, thus “pursuit of righteousness” must mean the ordinary sense of right conduct, too. And this is in speaking of justification, for the next sentence is this:
“But besides this imitation, His grace works within us our illumination and justification, by that operation concerning which the same preacher of His [name] says: “Neither is he that planteth anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.” For by this grace He engrafts into His body even baptized infants, who certainly have not yet become able to imitate any one.” (Augustine)
Now note that Augustine distinguishes “God’s righteousness” in the first quote, from “justification,” in this second quote! This doesn’t fit with Wright’s interpretation of these terms. Another quote:
“Why, indeed, is the judgment from one offense to condemnation, while the grace is from many offenses to justification? If original sin is a nullity, would it not follow, that not only grace withdraws men from many offenses to justification, but judgment leads them to condemnation from many offenses likewise? For assuredly grace does not condone many offenses, without judgment in like manner having many offenses to condemn.” (Augustine)
Now his point here is about original sin, but it is plain to see that “condemnation” corresponds to offences, certainly it is not a synonym for not belonging. And justification is the opposite here of condemnation, and thus is about the ordinary sense of being declared free of offense, righteous in the usual sense, again, not about belonging.
But what if the objection here is that Augustine was not knowledgeable of Greek? What about the Greek early church fathers? Well, we can check Irenaeus:
“For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally molded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation.” (Irenaeus)
Now “justified” is in contrast here to “made sinners,” not “ceased to belong,” what is in view is sin, and thus justified is “made righteousness,” in the usual sense that this is understood, not in the sense of belonging or not belonging. And we read “receive salvation” here, not “receive membership.”