Wright on Imputation

I’m currently reading By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters.  The first four chapters deal extensively with the New Perspective on Paul, and special attention is given to N. T. Wright.  Cornelis Venema, T. David Gordon, Richard Phillips and C. Fitzsimons Allison are all concerned to expose the fundamental problems with Wright on the question of imputation.  Wright dismisses imputation and for that reason he falls outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy.  Among other things, he has argued that “the righteousness of God” refers to his covenant faithfulness in key passages such as Romans 1:17 and Romans 3:21, rather than a status imputed.  He says that there is no imputation of God’s righteousness for the Christian.  This contradicts both Scripture and the faithful summary thereof in our Reformed confessions (e.g. HC LD 23 & BC 22).

When it comes to justification (the heart of the gospel), Wright is a false teacher.  I don’t say that cavalierly.  I say that having studied Wright’s arguments and the counter-arguments.  If anyone questions that conclusion, I would urge you to get this book and read it carefully.

But the authors not only critique Wright, they also present a solid case for a faithful biblical doctrine of justification that includes getting imputation correct.  I like the way that Phillips expresses it:

Indeed, the glory of imputed righteousness is not merely that it overcomes the threat that I have looked upon with mortal horror, namely, the perfect righteousness of the divine Judge.  The glory of this scriptural truth is not mainly that it permits me to escape this praiseworthy office of God and his glorious attributes of perfect holiness, justice, and truth.  Instead, the glory of imputed righteousness is that it provides the grounds by which the Judge in his perfect justice acclaims me righteous and embraces me to his heart.  Clothed in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ I no longer fear God’s justice but I rejoice in it, for it now demands that I be entered into life with all the blessings of heaven.  God “shows his righteousness” in my justification; he is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

Praise God for the gospel!  Let us believe it and faithfully defend it.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

19 responses to “Wright on Imputation

  • Kevin Carter

    I have read Wright and heard him lecture and came away with the same conclusion – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Did you know that Wright is a favourite resource for many in the Emerging Church movement as well?

    An aside question – what is your take on C.S. Lewis’ view of the atonement?

    • David Bishop

      Lewis held to universal atonement with salvation based upon the merit of one’s faith. In actual fact, according to his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the vast bulk of his theology came from G K Chesterton, a Catholic who made no effort to hide the fact he despised Calvinism and particular atonement. I used to follow Lewis closely. Read through some of Chesterton’s work, Orthodoxy, Eugenics and Other Evils, The Everlasting Man left me with the impression Lewis all but plagiarized him.

  • David DeJong

    Wright’s soteriology is actually not that different from that articulated in, e.g., Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption. On imputation, the main thing Wright rejects is the medieval notion that righteousness is some sort of substance which can get transferred from Christ to us. He rejects imputation because his articulation of the doctrine of union with Christ makes it redundant. Gaffin does exactly the same thing, but then still (inconsistently) tries to hold on to imputation. One could argue that Wright’s focus on union with Christ is anticipated in the HC 59: “But what does it help you now that you believe all this? In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.”

    On Rom 1:17, 3:21: there is a strong exegetical argument to be made in understanding these passages as referring to God’s own righteousness, i.e. covenant faithfulness. Even Westerholm, one of Wright’s foremost critics, allows for this. There is more than a little irony when the heirs of the Reformation refuse to consider new interpretations of Scripture on the basis of their confessional traditions!

    I strongly disagree with your judgment on Wright. I don’t agree with him on everything but he is certainly not a false teacher. We should not allow particular formulations in systematic theology (e.g. imputation of righteousness) to obscure the underlying unity that we have with believers such as Wright, who may phrase things somewhat differently, but certainly hold to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

  • David DeJong

    No, at least, not in the way you understand.

    I’m saying that one can deny that the formulation “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is the best way to capture Paul’s soteriology without denying the heart of the doctrine, which is that we are righteous through union with Christ in his death and resurrection.

    Gaffin develops Paul’s soteriology within a “union-with-Christ” framework at some length. Imputation is only incidental in his thought (he deals with it briefly in the last two pages of chapter 1) and no one questions his orthodoxy.

    So, no, I’m not saying that the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a dispensable doctrine,” as you put it. The substance of the doctrine – that Christ’s righteousness becomes ours – is absolutely fundamental and central, as Wright would affirm. But I am saying that (1) the terminology of “imputation” is a matter of formulation and is not vital to the doctrine, since, as Wright has emphasized, the law-court metaphor can be understood differently in Paul; (2) Wright is in fact correct that “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is a way of formulating the doctrine that leaves out key components of Paul’s soteriology, most notably Paul’s understanding of how Christ’s messianic role functions soteriologically. As VanHoozer has recently emphasized, perhaps the term “incorporated righteousness” rather than “imputed righteousness” would do more justice to this aspect of Paul’s thought. It is somewhat ironic for Reformed theologians to be strenuously objecting to a soteriology that strongly emphasizes the covenantal federal headship of Christ!

    For me, it boils down to this: if the language of “imputation” is so vital, why doesn’t Paul emphasize it? Again, I emphasize however that my disagreement is mostly with “what is the best formulation?” than with the substance of the doctrine in itself.

    • Wes Bredenhof

      BTW David: what did you think of the essays by Venema, Gordon, Phillips, and Fitzsimons Allison?

      • David DeJong

        I haven’t read them (yet). I’ve read Venema’s _Getting the Gospel Right_. While aspects of his critique are solid, it contains some serious problems.

      • Wes Bredenhof

        Well, I’m surprised. I thought you would have read the essays before responding. I’d suggest that you do that before we continue further with this conversation. I think those essays address the points you raise above.

  • David DeJong

    Note the gracious manner in which a fine Pauline scholar in his own right, Tom Schreiner, critiques Wright:
    Now if there would be more details on what Schreiner actually said in point 3!

  • David DeJong

    The reason for my concern (expressed in multiple comments) is that you’ve stated publicly (in bold font no less) that you believe N. T. Wright to be a false teacher. This is a public judgment, one that you say is not made lightly. Words are powerful; we will give account for everything we say. I think you should retract this judgment, or at least give better reasons for it than you have above.

    For one, you have not interacted on this blog (at least as far as I’ve seen) with any of Wright’s actual writings. To make this judgment on the basis of second-hand criticism is poor form. I would like to see book reviews of Wright’s own work on your blog, to see where you say he goes wrong.

    Second, you have expressed much appreciation for the scholarship of D. A. Carson. While I appreciate Carson as well, I find it curious that you are blasting Wright, when you have as least as much in common with him as you do with Carson. In critical areas (doctrine of the sacraments, eschatology) I would imagine that you are much closer to Wright than Carson (unless you are in fact pre-mill, which I doubt). In other areas, you’re probably closer to Carson. But Carson is lauded here and highly recommended, whereas Wright is branded a false brother. This sort of treatment seems inconsistent and perplexing.

    As a minister of the gospel you have a position of responsibility. I’m curious: have you interacted with some of your CanRC colleagues before making this judgment? I’m quite sure that many of them would want to be much more nuanced; in fact, I’m sure of it, since I was at a Wright conference in the spring with several of them. In areas such as this one, it may be wise to seek the counsel of your peers before issuing judgment.

    I would also welcome responses to any of the points I made above about imputation, the covenant, Christ’s federal headship, etc.


    • Wes Bredenhof


      I’m not going to retract what I’ve said. I’ve been reading Wright and about Wright for a good ten years now. I’m convinced that when it comes to justification he’s on the wrong side of the fence. Do you really think that what Wright says is what the Belgic Confession says in article 22? Do you really think that Wright would affirm that God “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place”? If he doesn’t affirm that, he gets the gospel wrong. I wouldn’t be protesting so loudly if I didn’t believe that so much is at stake here.

      I’m not making my judgment “on the basis of second-hand criticism.” I’ve read Wright and I agree with what Venema, Gordon, Phillips, and Fitzsimons Allison have to say. Meanwhile, you haven’t taken the time to read most of what they say.

      The difference between Carson and Wright is that Carson gets the gospel right, while Wright is wrong on the gospel. The doctrine of justification is the article by which the church stands or falls and if you get that wrong, you’re a false teacher. BTW, you should be more careful in what you say about Carson. He is a Baptist, but he is an amillennialist. See his commentary on Matthew 24 too.

      And yes, I have interacted with colleagues on this matter over the years. From those interactions, I find it interesting that some twelve years ago, the NPP was responsible for disturbing the peace of one of our churches out west. It led to the departure of a minister along with several congregation members. Now twelve years later, we’re being encouraged by you and others (including at least one of my colleagues) to be open to this. What gives? If this appreciation for Wright becomes widespread, it does not bode well for the future of the gospel in the Canadian Reformed Churches.

      I would urge everyone reading this to test the spirits. I’m not saying that you can’t read Wright or perhaps even learn a thing or two from his writings, but you should know that he gets a crucial point of Christian doctrine wrong and so he should be read with careful discernment. In fact, there are much better writers to learn from overall. Given that discernment is not a strong point in our day, I would generally recommend that people steer clear. But if you must read him, then read books like Johnson and Waters’ By Faith Alone too, just to make sure you get the other side of the story.

  • David DeJong

    Thanks for the correction on Carson. I had understood that TEDS was officially pre-mill. But possibly he gets away with it, because, well, he’s Don Carson…

  • David DeJong

    Actually, Rev. Bredenhof, on the link you supplied there is some debate over Carson’s millenial views. Evidently no one knows exactly what they are. But to teach at TEDS you have to subscribe to premillenialism. Carson doesn’t seem to be the sort of scholar who would subscribe to a position disingenuously (much like Wright, that way).

    I see that you said above I should have read the essays before responding. Let me be clear. I wasn’t responding to anything you said about the essays. I don’t know their quality. I was solely responding to your judgment of Wright. You’re right that Wright wouldn’t be entirely happy with the formulation of BC Art 22. I suppose where we differ is 1) whether that is the only acceptable way to formulate the gospel message; 2) whether the confessions bind our exegesis or not. (For me, they don’t.)

    It’s not just one of your colleagues that is open to Wright. Many are. And Prof. Visscher, who has ably critiqued Wright, certainly would not call him a false brother.

  • Bill DeJong


    I fully support Dave’s suggestion that you retract your claim that Wright is a false teacher. Even John Piper, no friend of Wright’s views, would not say that.

    Moreover, I’m curious why you haven’t responded to the arguments that Dave has made. If Wright assumes that the essence of the doctrine of imputation is correct—namely, that salvation is based on the work of Christ alone, why should his rejection of the category of imputation, especially when it implies a medieval view of grace as a substance (something Jelle Faber also criticized), lead you do declare him a false teacher?

    In some ways, Wright is saying what J.I.Packer (another false teacher perhaps?) said years ago: “The phrase [the imputation of Christ’s righteousness] is not in Paul, but its meaning is.”

    Consider the words of Wright: “I have often reflected that if it had been the Reformed view of Paul and the law, rather than the Lutheran one, that had dominated biblical scholarship through the two hundred years since the Enlightenment, not only would the new perspective not have been necessary (or not in the same form), but the polarized debates that have run for the last hundred years, between the ‘participationist’ and ‘juristic’ forms of soteriology, would not have been necessary either. Many a good old perspective Calvinist has declared that the best way to understand justification is within the context of ‘being in Christ'” (Justification, 72).

    At the end of his book on justification, Wright writes, “Do we then overthrow the Reformation tradition by this theology? On the contrary we establish it. Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve with this glorious Pauline framework of thought.”

    Wright is not far from Mark Seifrid, a leading critic of the NPP, who writes, “By virtue of their extrinsic character and finality, Christ’s cross and resurrection exclude the notions of an inherent righteousness and progress in justification which the Protestant divines were concerned to avoid. As a result, there is no need to multiply entities within, ‘justification,’ as Protestant orthodoxy did when it added the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the forgiveness of sins . . . It is better to say with Paul that our righteousness is found, not in us, but in Christ crucified and risen. The Westminster Confession (and that of my own institution) puts the matter nicely when it speaks of ‘receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness by faith.'” (Christ our Righteousness, 175).

    Does this make Mark Seifrid a false teacher too??

    Can one affirm that we are saved by the work of Christ alone through faith alone without insisting on the mechanism of imputation?


  • David DeJong

    Bill: thanks for your comments. As I’ve noted above these standards would make Gaffin highly suspect as well.

    Rev. Bredenhof, you quoted approvingly from Philips. I reproduce the first part of the quotation here:

    “Indeed, the glory of imputed righteousness is not merely that it overcomes the threat that I have looked upon with mortal horror, namely, the perfect righteousness of the divine Judge.”

    My question is this: where do you find in Scripture that believers are to look upon the “righteousness of God” as a threat with mortal horror?

  • Shawn Van Dyken

    David De Jong: Concerning Belgic Confession Article 22, you state that “I suppose where we differ is 1) whether that is the only acceptable way to formulate the gospel message; 2) whether the confessions bind our exegesis or not. (For me, they don’t.)”

    Those who have been ordained to serve in a Reformed church, do not have the luxury of determining when and where to limit exegesis. In other words, any exegesis done by a Reformed minister — particularly with a view to its public proclamation/publication, and therefore under the supervision of ruling elders — must fall within the clearly delineated parameters of the three forms of unity.

    Confessions are not mere “markers” in the sense of being guideposts along the way. Rather, they are very definite fences or walls. Those who prefer the open range need to make their way there.

  • David DeJong


    How can you say exegesis must be done within the parameters of the confessions, when there are many topics in Scripture that the confessions hardly address?

    I don’t think Reformed exegesis should contradict the confessions. If it does then obviously the minister who does such exegesis needs to explain his qualms. But exegesis can go beyond the confessions, and our exegesis of specific passages need not be the same as the confessions’ exegesis of that passage.

    (To give an example on the latter point: when I was in seminary my systematics professor advanced an exegesis of Gen 1:27 on the “image of God” that was primarily functional rather than ontological in orientation. We challenged this professor on whether his exegesis conformed to HC Q&A 8. His argument in response – which I now think was correct – was that subscription to the confessions does not entail subscription to the exegetical reasoning contained in the confessions. I.e., we don’t subscribe to the proof-texts.

    Hope that clarifies things! Blessings!

    • shawn vandyken

      I believe your (and your fellow students’) suspicion of your systematics prof was correct. If you do not subscribe to the proof texts underpinning the various articles of the confessions, then you are essentially not subscribing to the original intent of the articles.

      Rather, you are subscribing to the articles *as you interpret their meaning* — not as the authors originally meant. I appreciate your clarification on this, and wish you well in a church that tolerates such.

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