Beware of N.T. Wright

R. C. Sproul explains the imputed righteousness of Christ, a fundamental aspect of the doctrine of justification which N.T. Wright denies

N.T. Wright is one of the major crazes within the church today. It is as if you cannot be around a group of Christians without at least one saying how much he loves reading N.T. Wright. Wright may very well have some good insights on some matters. But regardless of this, God’s people must be informed of some of Wright’s particular views about salvation, which are nothing short of lethal.

In this post we include Wright’s dangerous views, in his own words. A major purpose of this post is to better inform those who have heard that N.T. Wright’s views are dangerous, but haven’t read enough to make an informed judgment.

I. N.T. Wright advocates the soul-damning heresy of Baptismal Regeneration

(For refutations of baptismal regeneration, see “The Danger of Believing Water Baptism Saves” and “Nowhere Does the Bible Teach that Water Baptism Saves.”)

A. In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008), he writes:

In order to understand baptism, here and elsewhere, we have to say something about sacramental theology. I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation, and of the overlapping of heaven and earth, that I have been exploring throughout this book. The resurrection of Jesus has brought about a new state of affairs in cosmic history and reality. God’s future has burst into the present, and (as happens sometimes in dreams, when the words we are saying or the music we are hearing are also happening in the events in which we are taking part) somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism—the action, the water, the going down and the coming up again, the new clothes—is not just a signpost to the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.

The important thing, then, is that in the simple but powerful action of plunging someone into the water in the name of the triune God, there is a real dying to the old creation and a real rising into the new—with all the dangerous privileges and responsibilities that then accompany the new life as it sets out in the as-yet-unredeemed world. Baptism is not magic, a conjuring trick with water. But neither is it simply a visual aid. It is one of the points, established by Jesus himself, where heaven and earth interlock, where new creation, resurrection life, appears within the midst of the old.

… Just as for many Christians the truth of Easter is something they glimpse occasionally rather than grasp and act on, so, for many, baptism remains in the background, out of sight, whereas it should be the foundational event for all serious Christian living, all dying to sin and coming alive with Christ. (pp. 271-273).

B. In “Romans,” in New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts-First Corinthians, vol. 10, ed. Leander E. Keck (2002), he writes:

“[Paul] was well aware of the problems that arose when baptized persons, regularly attending the eucharist, gave the lie to these symbols by the way they were living …. Yet he never draws back from his strong view of either baptism or the eucharist, never lapses back into treating them as secondary.  Indeed, in the present passage one might actually say that he is urging faith on the basis of baptism: since you have been baptized, he writes, work out that what is true of Christ is true of you (v. 11)” (p. 535). (Cited in “Enter the Church: N.T. Wright,” in Guy Prentiss Waters, ed., Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response, 2004, p. 145).

“But if the fact that the messianic events has become part of our own story through the event of [water] baptism, and the prayer and faith that accompany it, and above all the gift of the Holy Spirit … then we will indeed be able to make our own the victory of grace, to present our members, and our whole selves, as instruments of God’s ongoing purposes.” (p. 548) (Cited in Ibid., p. 146)

C. It should not be surprising that Wright teaches baptismal regeneration, since he is part of the Church of England, which holds to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

According to the Church of England’s own website,

“The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is a permanent feature of the Church of England’s worship.”  It is “one of the three ‘historic formularies’ of the Church of England, in which its doctrine is to be found (the other two – the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the Ordinal – are customarily published in the same volume). It cannot be altered or abandoned without the approval of Parliament.”

In the section “Publick Baptism of Infants,” for example, the book commands the Priest to say prior to baptizing an infant,

“Almighty and immortal God, the aid of all that need, the helper of all that flee to thee for succour, the life of them that believe, and the resurrection of the dead: We call upon thee for this Infant, that he, coming to thy holy Baptism, may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration.”

After baptizing the infant, the Priests says the infant is saved:

“seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.”

D. The 19th Century Baptist Preacher Charles Spurgeon denounced the Church of England for this doctrine during his day.  In his famous sermon Baptismal Regeneration, he states,

“I am not aware that any Protestant Church in England teaches the doctrine of baptismal regeneration except one, and that happens to be the corporation which with none too much humility calls itself the Church of England. This very powerful sect does not teach this doctrine merely through a section of its ministers, who might charitably be considered as evil branches of the vine, but it openly, boldly, and plainly declares this doctrine in her own appointed standard, the Book of Common Prayer, and that in words so express, that while language is the channel of conveying intelligible sense, no process short of violent wresting from their plain meaning can ever make them say anything else.”

Baptismal Regeneration, A Sermon (No. 573) Delivered on Sunday Morning, June 5th, 1864, by the Rev. C. H. SPURGEON, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington.

Listen to sermon by John W. Robbins on the theology of N.T. Wright

An eye-opening overview of Wright’s influence over professing conservative Presbyterian churches, compromises of the Gospel, and bad political views.  During Q+A, Robbins argues that Wright’s influence is splitting Presbyterian churches. (Disclaimer: We disagree with Robbins’ conclusion that Christian Reconstruction is a form of the social gospel.)

II. N.T. Wright Denies that the Gospel Taught by Paul Includes the Doctrine of Justification by Faith

A. In “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” N.T. Wright writes,

“It is important to stress, as Paul would do himself were he not so muzzled by his interpreters, that when he referred to “the gospel” he was not talking about a scheme of soteriology. Nor was he offering people a new way of being what we would call “religious”. Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord. It is, in other words, the thoroughly Jewish, and indeed Isaianic, message which challenges the royal and imperial messages in Paul’s world.” (Center of Theological Inquiry, 2002-2004)

B. But the Apostle Paul himself contradicts Wrights views.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16, 17)

III. N.T. Wright Denies the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness to Believers

(For a refutation of Wright’s denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, seeA Defense of the ‘Active Obedience’ of Jesus Christ In The Justification of Sinners” by Brian Schwertley)

A. At the “10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference,” N.T Wright said,

“Is there then no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in, for instance, Romans 5.14–21? Yes, there is; but my case is that this is not God’s own righteousness, or Christ’s own righteousness, that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of ‘covenant member’, and/or ‘justified sinner,’ which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith.’” (p. 8) ( “New Perspectives on Paul,” Rutherford House, Edinburgh, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: August 25–28, 2003).

B. In his paper “Romans and the Theology of Paul,” he writes:

Second, the divine “righteousness” (covenant faithfulness) is emphatically not the same as the “righteousness” that humans have when they are declared to be covenant members. That idea, despite its often invoking the “forensic” setting of the language, fails to understand what that forensic setting means. In the Hebrew lawcourt the judge does not give, bestow, impute, or impart his own “righteousness” to the defendant. That would imply that the defendant was deemed to have conducted the case impartially, in accordance with the law, to have punished sin and upheld the defenseless innocent ones. “Justification,” of course, means nothing like that. “Righteousness” is not a quality or substance that can thus be passed or transferred from the judge to the defendant. The righteousness of the judge is the judge’s own character, status, and activity, demonstrated in doing these various things. The “righteousness” of the defendants is the status they possess when the court has found in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less. When we translate these forensic categories back into their theological context, that of the covenant, the point remains fundamental: the divine covenant faithfulness is not the same as human covenant membership.” (p. 7) (Originally published in Pauline Theology, Volume III, ed. David M. Hay & E. Elizabeth Johnson, 1995, 30–67)

N.T. Wright softens the doctrine of Hell, neglecting to warn about its eternal, unquenchable flames as a punishment to all who do not know Christ.

IV. N.T. Wright promotes subverting the Gospel by Encouraging Protestants to Unite with the Apostate Roman Catholic Church

In doing so, Wright redefines the meaning of justification and implicitly denies salvation through faith alone. For Wright, Rome’s soul-damning views of salvation, according to his quote below, are “petty” matters.

A. In “What Saint Paul Really Said” (1997), he writes:

“Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith impels the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong at the same table (Galatians 2) should be used as a way of saying that some, who define the doctrine of justification differently, belong at a different table. The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family…the doctrine of justification is in fact the great ecumenical doctrine.” (p. 158)

B. Dr. Sidney D. Dyer, in response to Wright’s promotion of Protestant/Catholic ecumenism,  writes:

The most disturbing material in Wright’s book is that which sets forth his view of justification. His effort to take the doctrine out of the realm of soteriology and to put it in the realm of ecclesiology is undoubtedly motivated by his desire to tear down what divides Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. His view of justification is an attack on the very heart of the gospel.

Paul warned of the danger of preaching another gospel in Galatians 1:8, “But if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached, let him be accursed.” Paul, by using the words “any other gospel” (emphasis added), shows that he is attacking all other forms of the gospel, including therefore a proto-Pelagianism in the book of Galatians. It is against the backdrop of this attack that the true doctrine of justification shines so brightly and clearly.

An unbeliever stands guilty before God as a criminal charged with a capital offense. He can only escape the judgment he deserves by believing in Christ who lived a righteous life and died an atoning death for sinners. Men are not waiting to stand before God as members of one of two disputing parties in a civil lawsuit who are hoping that God will find in their favor.

Wright’s view of justification is an attempt to reverse the Reformation. We must resist such attempts. The issue is one of life and death – eternal life and eternal death. When theological professors and pastors abandon the biblical and confessional doctrine of justification, they sacrifice the gospel and the souls of men.

Sidney D. Dyer, Tom Wright’s View of Justification: An Ecumenical Interpretation of Paul (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003).  Retrieved July 8, 2009.

V. N.T. Wright Denies Galatians is a Warning Against Those Who Reject Justification by Faith Alone

(For a refutation of Wright’s view, click here)

“Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God …. The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? … On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?” (N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 1997, p. 120).

Galatians 2 offers the first great exposition of justification in Paul.  In that chapter, the nub of the issue was the question, who are Christians allowed to sit down and eat with?  For Paul, that was the question of whether Jewish Christians were allowed to eat with Gentile Christians.  Many Christians, both in the Reformation and the counter-Reformation traditions, have done themselves and the church a great disservice by treating the doctrine of ‘justification’ as central to their debates, and by supposing that it described the system by which people attained salvation.  They have turned the doctrine into its opposite.  Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial differences (and, let’s face it, a good many denominational distinctions, and indeed distinctions within a single denomination, boil down more to culture than to doctrine.  Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself, properly conceived, isn’t the thing which should determine eucharistic fellowship. (N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 1997, p. 158-159).

VI. Links

1.“The New Perspective on Paul: Calvin and N.T. Wright” by J.V. Fesko

2. “The Theology of N. T. Wright” (Audio Sermon) by John W. Robbins

3. “By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification” edited by Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters

This Post is a Work in Progress …

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