This “new perspective” is, in many respects, very congruent with the traditional teachings of the Churches of Christ. We’ve already noticed how Wright’s teaching on judgment in accordance with works resonates with historical Church of Christ teaching.
Much closer to the heart of traditional Church of Christ teaching is Wright’s understanding of baptism.
We begin with a 1980 paper by Wright and then dig more deeply into his thinking–
Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God’s people, the sign of regeneration (in fulfilment of God’s covenant promises), 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.
Wright plainly contradicts the Baptist (and Calvinist) view that baptism is not essential to justification. He declares that “faith … need not precede baptism” but concludes that if faith does not follow baptism, there will be “no justification.”
Now, this is hardly the traditional Church of Christ position, which requires that faith precede baptism. But neither is it the traditional Baptist position that denies the necessity for baptism at all.
In the same article, Wright concludes, that–
to make faith the means of union with Christ is to allow it to usurp the role which Paul gives to baptism.
Hence, Wright rejects the interpretation of “faith only” that denies any efficacious role to baptism. Rather, he considers baptism–quite literally–essential.
Now, Wright comes to this position, not only because of such classic Church of Christ proof texts as Romans 6, but because of the role baptism plays in his theology of justification. As he states in a 2006 article,
Membership of the church begins with a single action which speaks dramatically of what believing and belonging is all about: baptism. …
Jesus’s own baptism and his carefully planned Last Supper both point back to the original exodus (the coming-through-the-water moment), point behind that to the original creation itself, and finally point on to Jesus s death and resurrection as the new defining reality, the moment of new covenant, new creation. And to achieve that renewal it was necessary to go, not just through the water and out the other side, but through a deeper flood altogether. All the multiple layers of meaning that were already present in baptism were now to be recentered on the event of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Through the water into God’s new world.
That is why, from the earliest Christian sources we possess, Christian baptism is linked not just to Jesus’s own baptism, not just to the exodus and the first creation, but to Jesus’s death and resurrection. St. Paul, in one of his earliest letters, speaks of being “crucified with the Messiah” and coming through into a new life; and in his greatest work (the letter to Rome) he explains that in baptism itself we die “with the Messiah” and come through to share his risen life. The spectacular, unique events at the heart of the Christian story happen to us, not just at the end of our own lives and beyond (when we die physically and, eventually, when we rise again), but while we are continuing to live in the present time. Through the water into the new life of belonging to Jesus.
That is why, from very early on, Christian baptism was seen as the mode of entry into the Christian family, and why it was associated with the idea of being “born again.” …
In particular, we can now see why Christian baptism involves being plunged into water (or having it poured over you) in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The point is that the story which baptism tells is God’s own story, from creation and covenant to new covenant and new creation, with Jesus in the middle of it and the Spirit brooding over it. In baptism, you are brought into that story, to be an actor in the play which God is writing and producing. And once you’re onstage, you’re part of the action. You can get the lines wrong. You can do your best to spoil the play. But the story is moving forward, and it would be far better to understand where it’s going and how to learn your lines and join in the drama. Through the water to become part of God’s purpose for the world.
(italics in original). It’s an overly long quote, I know, but it’s necessary to establish the point. Wright (quite correctly, I think) shows how baptism is not just a Jewish ritual carried over from the Law and best left behind or treated as a quaint anachronism. Rather, baptism brings the whole story of God’s redemptive plan together and brings the Christian into covenant, into God’s new world, into new life belonging to Jesus, and into God’s purpose for the world.
And this is very truly what the Bible says.
Wright goes deeper in a 2003 article—
Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian. And, just as the final declaration will consist, not of words so much as of an event, namely, the resurrection of the person concerned into a glorious body like that of the risen Jesus, so the present declaration consists, not so much of words, though words there may be, but of an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipating that final resurrection. In other words, baptism. … Chrysostom and Augustine but also Luther would … have agreed with me.
Wright argues that justification–God declaration of acquittal or vindication–occurs at baptism!
Now, to most evangelicals, this sounds heretical, because most evangelicals, especially Baptists, teach that salvation precedes baptism. And Wright agrees. Remember: “justification” is not the saving event but God’s declaration that salvation has happened.
Therefore, Wright takes a position somewhere in between the evangelical and Church of Christ views: baptism is the moment of justification (very Church of Christ) but after salvation (very Baptist). But his view is very un-Baptist as he insists on the necessity of baptism, which Baptists–and more and more evangelicals–deny.
Traditional protestants may not like this much, but it is I submit what Paul is saying. And I want you to notice right away, before I draw some broader conclusions from all this, three things that follow. First, … that which imputed righteousness was trying to insist upon is, I think, fully taken care of in (for instance) Romans 6, where Paul declares that what is true of the Messiah is true of all his people. Jesus was vindicated by God as Messiah after his penal death; I am in the Messiah; therefore I too have died and been raised. According to Romans 6, when God looks at the baptised Christian he sees him or her in Christ. But Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ. That would of course be the wrong meaning of ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’. He sees us within the vindication of Christ, that is, as having died with Christ and risen again with him.
Wright reads Romans 6 and its parallel, Galatians 3:26-27, as saying what the Churches of Christ have always said–justification occurs in baptism because in baptism we are buried and resurrected with Jesus–or as Paul says in Galatians, clothed with Christ.
And Wright goes farther, saying that we should replace the erroneous doctrine of imputed righteousness with the correct doctrine of baptism. Indeed, the meaning of baptism explains how it is that we are saved!
Wright denies that we are buried into (or clothed with) Jesus’ good works. Rather, we are buried into and clothed with his death, burial, and resurrection, and hence we’ve become a new creation and, like Jesus, immortal.
Finally, although much more could be added, a quotation from a 2007 paper by Wright dealing with Easter and baptism–
But if God’s future has arrived in Jesus, how do we get in on the act? From the very beginning, the church has answered: baptism and faith. (Confirmation, as I expect most of you know, is how people who were baptised as infants make the baptismal promises good for themselves.)
Wright is, after all, an Anglican bishop. We shouldn’t be surprised that he remains committed to infant baptism.
Sometimes people worry about baptism because it involves a very physical act, of splashing someone under water, and they wonder, How can something spiritual, something about our hearts and our true selves, be brought about by an outward physical act like that? The answer, or part at least of the answer, is that God’s new world is going to be robustly physical, and, just as the bread and wine at the Eucharist come to us as gifts from God’s future world, as bits of creation already transformed and filled to the brim with the glory of God, so the water of baptism, and the act and fact of someone going under it and coming up again, is also part of the future reality – of God’s future overcoming of death and establishing of new creation – coming rushing forward into the present for this person, now, and all because of Jesus himself.
I really like this. We are sometimes guilty of a neo-gnosticism where anything physical appears too fleshly to be spiritual. We want to insist on the purely mental assent of faith as doing all the spiritual work, as though something physical can’t be truly Godly. It’s just not true.
Wright still caries the Anglican baggage of infant baptism and confirmation. But he quite correctly insists on the necessity of baptism as a most Biblical doctrine.
Now, Wright would consider a baptism by pouring or sprinkler and a baptism administered to an infant who later has genuine faith as a good baptism. Therefore, his doctrine would include nearly every believer–as nearly all denominations practice baptism in one form or another. Hence, he is not condemning millions of believers by this doctrine.
However, Wright is very properly restoring baptism to its rightful place in Christian theology. Most modern evangelicals have decided that baptism is a “work” and hence not a part of our salvation at all. In this, they disagree with Luther and Wright–not to mention Paul!
Wright’s position will seem internally contradictory to some. After all, he says we’re saved when we’re “called” at the moment of faith, but not justified until we’re baptized, and that without baptism there will be no justification, meaning that God will not render a verdict of acquittal until we’re baptized!
We might prefer to conclude that baptism is concurrent with God’s call and that justification occurs as we arise out of the baptistry. And this is a very defensible position. After all, the baptism of Jesus and Acts 2:38 both teach that the Spirit is received in response to baptism.
Ultimately, however, the question is, to me, not all that important. Justification occurs in heaven. God justifies. It’s not an earthly event. And God’s time does not correspond to our time (a post is coming on this one day). Why does it matter?
Well, it only matters if someone dies after attaining a saving faith and before being baptized. And I’m confident God is not going to damn someone who–as the famous preacher-story goes–is killed in a train wreck on the way to the baptistry. Or who comes to faith in a waterless desert.
God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. He won’t let a train or a desert get in his way.