Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Gospel: Is Wright Wrong? Yes and No...

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

N.T. Wright is one of the most creative – and important – Christian theologians of our day and even when I don’t agree with him I am usually grateful for the thought-provoking stimulation he provides. Perhaps in future postings I’ll discuss other areas where I think he is right and/or wrong, but I thought I would right this first one about things I think he has gotten right and things he has gotten wrong about the gospel message itself.

Wright criticizes popular Christian descriptions of the gospel for being to anthropocentric. They make it sound as though it’s all about us. God loves us. God sent Christ to die for us so we could have eternal life. We get eternal life and other wonderful blessings through the gospel. He argues that gospel is not really about us at all. According to him it is “is a fourfold announcement about Jesus” (What St. Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997], p. 60):

1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his 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, 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.

According to Wright it is the Spirit-empowered proclamation of this Christ-centered and God-centered message that results in the salvation/regeneration/conversion of (some of) those who hear. It results in personal salvation and justification but is not about either of those subjects. For Wright it is a mistake to make the gospel about (or even to include in the gospel message, it seems) the terms by which men and women come to experience the blessings of the reign of this wonderful Lord.

This is one of those many places where I think Wright is both right and wrong at the same time. He is right that the gospel message is Christocentric and not anthropocentric. As Paul says, “We do not proclaim ourselves [or yourselves, we might add], but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). It isn’t primarily about us. It is primarily about Christ. The fundamental Christian confession is not “I am saved” or “You can be saved” but “Jesus [Christ] is Lord!” And I think he is right that many evangelicals have turned it into a message that is primarily about how we get what we need rather than about the person of Christ and how God has acted in Christ to set this world right and bring himself the glory that he is due. After people are told “the gospel” they know they have found the key to forgiveness and eternal life but all too often have no clue that the gospel has implications for all of life. After mentioning that the Lordship of Christ is at the heart of the gospel I have had Christian leaders ask me what relationship there might be between the gospel and the Lordship of Christ. No wonder young Christians might not understand what is going on when after they trust in Christ we come back and tell them that they need to start living a different kind of life – the life to which Christ has called them.

I know a number of believers have found themselves deeply convicted upon reading Wright’s exposition of the gospel and realizing how man-centered their own understanding of the gospel had been. I’m afraid I would have to count myself among them. To just slightly modify the words of Matt Redman’s song, “The Heart of Worship” (©1999 Thankyou Music) we have responded by saying

I’m coming back to the heart of the gospel
And it’s all about You
It’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about You
It’s all about You, Jesus

I don’t actually think Wright’s exposition does full justice to the whole gospel message as Paul presents it. I’ll have to wait until my next post, however, to point out some of the things that I think Wright gets wrong. For now it’s enough for us to consider whether or not our presentation of the gospel has tended to put the accént on the wrong sylláble and has obscured the centrality of Christ in the gospel message.

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