Wright Questions

This all started with a question about who gets to determine the definition of the term the gospel. It is an important question since we use the word all the time, and it would be helpful if we were all operating with the same definition. In our postmodern world it doesn’t always seem necessary to get entangled in a quibble over definitions as long as we end in a group hug or blowing bubbles for each other or something. But there truly is much at stake when we’re talking about something that is central and essential to our common faith.

The question of who gets to decide got derailed into a debate about the definition itself. Fair enough. At some point we need to return to the question (which is, perhaps, more ecclesiological than soteriological), but for now it is  fitting to sort a couple of things out for clarity’s sake.

Having read a bit of N.T. Wright (not enough to call myself an expert, but enough to catch his groove), I am impressed with his insights and reasoning. Wright, it seems, is dissatisfied with the modern TR (Truly Reformed, or, perhaps better, Typically Reformed) approach to topics like justification, gospel, lordship, etc. His work is controversial to say the least. Having exploded onto the popular theological scene with ideas in hand that challenge conventional views, Wright has been the subject of scads of criticism. Among the ideas he brings is a perspective of the gospel that is out of time with popular contemporary understanding.

Wright’s view on the gospel is that it is not, at least for Paul, “a message about ‘how one gets saved,’ in an individual and ahistorical sense.” He continues:

It is a fourfold announcement about Jesus:

  1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in the cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.
  2. In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.
  3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.
  4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.

It is, moreover, a double and dramatic announcement about God:

  1. The God of Israel is the one true God, and the pagan deities are mere idols.
  2. The God of Israel is now made known in and through Jesus himself.

In its most compact form, for Wright, the gospel is: Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord.

The profundity of this statement must not be lost on us. The gospel, as Wright has framed it, moves beyond being an offer of a personal religious experience to the declaration that the long awaited King has come. Now each person does interact with this proclamation, so it is intensely personal (and personally soteriological) in that sense. For the one who believes it is good news, indeed. For the unbeliever it is not good news. For all it is truth.

The implications of the gospel, therefore, extend far beyond the salvation of the individual (although I insist that is a significant feature of it!) to the whole of creation. It is not just soteriology. It is eschatology. It is ecclesiology. It is missiology. It is teleology. It is ontology. It is theology at its most spectacular.

For many, this is difficult because we don’t know what to do with that kind of gospel. How do we interact with such a sweeping statement? How do we get people to do anything (make a decision, live differently, do Christian things)? I think this is a large part of the evangelical problem. That is, I think we’ve long been caught up in doing religious things (which looks like anything from liberalism to fundamental legalism) and neglect being citizens of the kingdom of heaven…under the direct and universal lordship of Christ the King.

I’ll conclude, though there is much more to be said, by letting Wright speak for himself:

The ‘gospel’, then, is, as Paul says in Romans 1:16, ‘the power of God for salvation’. The word for ‘power’ here is ‘dynamis’, from which we get ‘dynamite’. To understand Paul’s meaning, we may invoke a further technical term. Paul speaks in Acts (20:24) of ‘the gospel of the grace of God’. But what is grace? Grace is not a ‘thing’ – a heavenly gas, a pseudo-substance, which can be passed to and fro or pumped down pipelines. The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love.

But it doesn’t just reveal all this so that people can admire it from a distance. It reveals it precisely by putting it into action. The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is putting into effect that kingship, the decisive and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered, at the heart of his missionary practice, that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them into a community of love across traditional barriers, liberating them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human being they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.

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4 responses to “Wright Questions

  1. God decides, but according to Wright, God doesn’t mind 99.9 % of us proclaiming it incorrectly for at least 400 years maybe more. In a practical way, every person who speaks of it decides what it is.

    Assuming 1 Corinthians is “God breathed” and not just Paul’s thoughts or worse -editors writing at a later date -(If it isn’t God -breathed we might as well put our Bibles on the shelve and go serve Whataburgers in our free time), chapter 15 verses 1-4 are insightful…the Bible says “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you”. So here it comes, he is about to summarize the “gospel” he preached to them – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,…”
    I’ll continue to read Wright’s stuff and search the scripture, but honestly and humbly I sometimes think he is too smart for his own good.

  2. According to 1 Corinthians 15, as Dan quotes, the gospel is an announcement of the good news of the death, burial, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus, who is now King and Savior. When that message is announced, it is the power of God to bring about a transformation of sinful people into something they were not before – a restoration into a new humanity in Christ. How is that an assault on the gospel? If that corrects the evanjelly-cals who think the gospel is a message about how to speak to Jesus like he’s your boyfriend, then let it be! If it also is a course correction — note, not a wholesale repudiation — to the way contemporary Reformdom thinks of, proclaims and lives the gospel, then praise God and pass the gravy.

    I am a pastor in the CREC. My denomination is usually thought of as being a bit controversial because there are men in our fold who are saying things that have not been said in a long time or that are not following the way of the rest of the Reformed fold, much of which, imho, has gone the way of pietism, individualism, and Enlightenment compartmentalism. Enough isms. My point is, whatever happened to semper reformanda? Let’s keep seeking the truth and seeking more faithful ways to proclaim it and live it. I see Wright as being part of that conversation. We don’t have to agree with everything he says to see value in some things he says. Sola Scriptura means we are willing to hear people out and compare what they say to the Bible (which you are doing, Dan, so keep it up!).

    Rob, your excerpts of NTW and your meditations are beautiful. The fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ is glorious, no?

  3. Rob,

    If, when we proclaim the gospel, we only say that the gospel is, “Jesus is Lord” then we leave out the part about forgiveness of sins. That is what I am fighting to hold onto.

    Here is a brief stroll through Acts to see what Peter and the boys were saying as their good news message (gospel).

    Acts 2 repentance and forgiveness of sins is a part of the gospel

    “‘The Lord said to my Lord,Sit at my right hand,
    35until I make your enemies your footstool.’
    36Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
    37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

    Acts 3 blotting out sins is important too (forgiveness)

    17″And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, 20that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

    Acts 4 salvation is cosmic and personal

    9if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

    Acts 5 the gospel is about Jesus being leader (Lord) and Savior. It also includes repentance and forgiveness of sins

    30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

    Acts 10 Lord and forgiveness

    36As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ ( he is Lord of all),

    43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

    Acts 13 Forgiveness

    38Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

    Acts 15 cleansed their hearts

    7And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.

    Acts 16 it is about believing in Jesus

    29And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

    Acts 20 repentance and faith

    “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Acts 26 ditto

    16But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

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