N.T.Wright Displaces Imputation with Regeneration by Water

Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Paperback), Bruce McCormack, editor, (Baker, 2006)

I recommend the book, especially the essay by the editor McCormack. He does a good job of showing how Barth’s doctrine of justification is both like and different from the classical Reformed views of Calvin and Luther. For Barth, there is no imputation to individuals in time: the only transition from wrath to forensic favor takes place in the history of Christ.

The good thing about Barth’s doctrine of justification is that Barth does not make the Holy Spirit the agent who puts the elect into union with Christ. The bad thing is that Barth makes the gift of faith to the elect to be only the recognition of a transition from wrath to favor that took place in Christ; there is no passing from death to life by imputation in the life of the individual elect person. Of course this goes with the idea that all sinners are elected in Christ.

The only truly bad essay in the volume is by NT Wright. While avoiding the difficult questions (was Adam’s guilt imputed to us humans?), Wright again caricatures his critics. But the clear reason he’s so comfortable discarding justification based only on Christ’s finished work is that Wright has confidence in the water of “the church” to make Christians by the Holy Spirit’s regeneration. What this watery birth has to do with “the covenant” is less clear.

I quote from Wright on p 260: “This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit, that is, it occurs, on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense…just as the final justification will consist not in words so much as in an event, namely the resurrection of the person, so the present justification consists not so much in words but in an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him. In other words, baptism. I was delighted to rediscover…that not only Chrysostom and Augustine but also Luther would here have agreed with me.”

NT Wright has come to the place in his life when he can only keep rediscovering how he is right. But some of us critics still insist that the water regeneration of Luther and Augustine (and NT Wright Anglicans) is in competition with the biblical good news about justification in Christ.

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10 Comments on “N.T.Wright Displaces Imputation with Regeneration by Water”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    While we negotiate our way closer to N.T. Wright’s “worldview”, he continues on with his agenda. I quote from his essay on justification in The Great Acquittal, ed Gavin Reid, 1980):

    “Precisely because we believe in justification, we must get our view of the Church sorted out, and have done once and for all with the watery semi-Baptist theology which has been creeping into evangelical Anglicanism over the last decade or two.

    Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God’s people, the sign of regeneration, and thus faith, which follows and does not precede regeneration, need not precede baptism, though if it does not follow afterwards there will consequently be no justification.”

    My concern here is not to refute the idea that future justification is a result of regeneration imparting righteousness, nor even to reject the idea of infant baptismal regeneration. I am saying that, if we choose to be quiet now about the semantics of what to call “justification” and “imputation”, then it will be too late to call into question Wright’s assumption that the finished atoning work of Christ needs to be supplemented by “regeneration” as the atoning work of the Holy Spirit.

    I certainly appreciate the urge not to correct folks when they don’t talk about “sanctification” in the way the Bible does. After all, what can we expect when the confessions themselves talk about “more and more” sanctification? Nevertheless, the Biblical language about “sanctification” has much to say about the holiness of God and the nature of the gospel. For an excellent book on the “sanctification” topic, I recommend David Peterson’s Possessed By God (Eerdmans, 1995, New Studies in Biblical Theology)

  2. markmcculley Says:

    t in its baptism it was made a child of God, a member of Christ, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven, which has a tendency to take off all concern, in persons when grown up, about an inward work of grace, in regeneration and sanctification, as a meetness for heaven, and to encourage a presumption in them, notwithstanding their apparent want of grace, that they are members of Christ, and shall never perish; are children and heirs of God, and shall certainly inherit eternal life. Wherefore Dr. [John] Owen rightly observes “That the father of lies himself could not easily have devised a doctrine more pernicious, or what proposes a more present and effectual poison to the minds of sinners to be drank in by them.”

    John Gill, “Infant Baptism: a Part and Pillar of Popery,”

  3. markmcculley Says:


    Andrew Webb asks—we have regeneration, adoption as Sons, and redemption via baptism, it will have inevitable repercussions on whether, for instance, we urge our children to close with Christ by faith alone. Why, after all, would we urge them to do something that has already occurred at the font?

    Calvin in Book 4, Chapter 15, section 15 of his Institutes, “But from this sacrament, as from all others, we gain nothing, unless in so far as we receive in faith.”

    The problem with the way Ursinus and Calvin occasionally speak of baptism is that they presuppose that this necessary faith exists in the children of believers. Note the language in Ursinus here, after affirming that adults must first believe and make a profession of faith prior to being baptized, Ursinus writes:

    “This we admit and would add, that to be born in the church, is to infants, the same thing as a profession of faith. Faith is, indeed, necessary to the use of baptism with this distinction. Actual faith is required in adults, and an inclination to faith in infants… Infants born of believing parents have faith as to inclination.”

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Charles Hodge

    “The doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that is, the doctrine that inward spiritual renovation always attends baptism rightly administered to the unresisting, and that regeneration is never effected without it, is contrary to Scripture, subversive of evangelical religion, and opposed to universal experience. It is, moreover, utterly irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches. For that doctrine teaches that all the regenerated are saved. “Whom God calls them he also glorifies,” Romans 8:30. It is, however, plain from Scripture, and in accordance with the faith of the universal church, that multitudes of the baptized perish. The baptized, therefore, as such, are not the regenerated.”

  5. markmcculley Says:

    A A Hodge—Protestant advocates of Baptismal Regeneration, without committing themselves to the Romish theory of an opus operatum, hold that baptism is God’s ordained instrument of communicating the benefits of redemption in the first instance. That whatever gracious experiences may be enjoyed by the unbaptized, are uncovenanted mercies. That by baptism the guilt of original sin is removed, and the Holy Ghost is given, whose effects remain like a seed in the soul, to be actualized by the free-will of the subject, or neglected and hence rendered abortive. Every infant is regenerated when baptized. If he dies in infancy the seed is actualized in paradise. If he lives to adult age, its result depends upon his use of it (Blunt’s “Dict. of Theology,” Art. Baptism). See above, Ch. 29., Ques. 4.

    Hodge–1st. Faith and repentance are the fruits of regeneration. But faith and repentance are required as conditions prerequisite to baptism.- Acts 2:38;8:37;10:47, 11:17.

    2nd. This doctrine is identical with that of the Pharisees, which Christ and his apostles constantly rebuked.–Matt. 23:23-26. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by love–but a new creature.”–Gal. 5:6, and 6:15; Rom. 2:25-29. Faith alone is said to save, the absence of faith alone to damn.–Acts 16:31, and Mark 16:16.

    3rd. The entire spirit and method of the gospel is ethical not magical. The great instrument of the Holy Ghost is the TRUTH, and all that is ever said of the efficacy of the sacraments is said of the efficacy of the truth. They are means of grace therefore in common with the word and as they contain and seal it (1 Pet. 1:23, and John 17:17,19). Our Savior says “by their fruits ye shall know them.”–(Matt. 7:20).

    4th. This doctrine is disproved by experience. Vast multitudes of the baptized of all ages and nations bring forth none of the fruits of regeneration. Multitudes who were never baptized have produced these fruits. The ages and communities in which this doctrine has been most strictly held have been conspicuous for spiritual barrenness.

    5th. The great evil of the system of which the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is a part, is that it tends to make religion a matter of external and magical forms, and hence to promote rationalistic skepticism among the intelligent, and superstition among the ignorant and morbid, and to dissociate among all classes religion and morality.”

  6. markmcculley Says:

    Many Arminians say that Jesus died for all sins except the sin of rejecting Jesus. Why do they send out missionaries talking about Jesus? Many Calvinists say that only those who actually reject election are lost. Why do they talk about election to anybody? If you overhear RC Sproul talking about predestination in that other Sunday School class, can you still go on being an anonymous Christian?
    Questions for NT Wright
    If justification is not about how we “get saved”, how do we “get saved”?
    What do we get saved from? Do we get saved from not being the “exceptional” elect nation (Israel) we were supposed to be?
    Do we “get saved” from having to be Jews (israel) ? Since the Jews knew they were sinners and knew they needed grace, why would we need to “get saved” from that?
    Since Roman Catholics also know that they are sinners and need grace, why would a Buddhist need to become a Roman Catholic in order to “get saved”
    Since Jesus is already Lord, who would anybody need to confess that to “get saved”

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Larry Ball–The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the time of the administration of baptism, but it is tied to the administration of baptism itself. No Christian parent should expect that grace be “conferred” (Confessional language) on their children apart from their children being recipients of the sacrament of covenant baptism. The same can be said of adult baptisms. The grace promised in the ordinance of baptism is actually conferred in God’s appointed time “by the right use of this ordinance” (Confessional language). Grace is conferred because the ordinance is used.

    Larry Ball– I am certainly not denying the doctrine of election. HOWEVER, the doctrine of election was never given to negate the hope of the promises that are given to Christian parents. The doctrine of election taught in Romans 9 to explain why there was unbelief among the covenant people of God. It was intended to be an explanation — not a qualification to the promises of God.
    Some preachers are haunted by what I call the “if clause.” For example, it is often said to Christians that the promises of God are for you “if you are saved” or “if you are a true believer.” The very promises that give hope to Christians often die a slow death by a thousand qualifications.

    Larry Ball–Covenant Baptism is not merely a symbol. If anyone is dedicating himself in covenant baptism, it is God who is dedicating himself to keep the promises he has made to Christian parents This is a high view of the efficacy of covenant baptism. It is simply the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith.http://theaquilareport.com/a-high-view-of-the-efficacy-of-baptism/

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