Thoughts on N.T. Wright’s work on the atonement

nt-wright-the-day-the-revolution-began

It’s classic Wright, a long and sprawling work that reads like a novel and manages to talk about (almost) everything from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22:21. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2016) rediscovers many of the threads that have featured predominantly in Wright for the last several decades while also launching out into previously unexplored territory, even changing his mind from his previous work  on one significant question: namely, was God punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross? (See, for example, page 273.)

Before I get to the heart of the book, allow me a brief excursus on the author. I would bet a fair amount of money that Wright has been the greatest influence that you may have never heard of upon the pastors and friends that have influenced you and those that you listen to teach you every week. I know that’s certainly the case in the circles I run in. Wright has the almost superhuman ability to be a world-class scholar and a world-class pastor at the same time, which means that he has had an undue influence on both the academy and the pews. His written output and the amount of places he speaks through the year are remarkable. I had the privilege of beginning my theological discoveries at the 2010 Wheaton theological conference which was a celebration of Wright the man and his work. (All of the sessions can be found here.) Few scholars ever receive a festschrift in their lifetimes, let alone have the star power to be honored with an entire weekend of festivities that draws crowds in the thousands. At one lecture I sat next to the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today and at another next to a resident of Chicago who had never heard of Tom but wanted to check out what all the fuss was about. Such is the gifting of Tom Wright, a man humble enough to bless the establishment and those outside and with the grace and civility to respond to emails, phone calls, and coffee requests from myself and my friends.

To the work itself.

After reading two rather ho-hum reviews, I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting all that much from this book. (If interested, Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 though I would point you to my good friend Ben’s review who did a fine job [better job?] with more limited space on Scot McKnight’s site.) I expected a slender volume that was written mainly to introduce new readers to the major and familiar themes that Wright has laid out in his previous dozens of books. (I once heard a friend of Tom’s say that he was so thankful for an afternoon walk with Tom when he was an undergraduate but apologized for taking up Tom’s time because he could have written a new book in those two hours. Wright is quite prodigious.)

Thus, I was surprised upon receiving the Amazon package that the book clocked in at over 400 pages and, as far as the reviews, upon turning the final page, I wondered if the reviewers and I had, in fact, read the same book. Surely excitement about the glories of the drama of death and redemption and the majestic vision of God’s faithful and righteous plan for the salvation of his creation and what that now means for the world should have at least peaked through the reviews a little bit like the sun through drawn curtains? Have we gotten to such a place that we are unable to be moved by the drama of the story of God, even if we disagree with some of the details? How could such a bombastic manifesto be treated with such temerity?

Though, admittedly, The Day the Revolution Began starts off a bit slowly, it finds its pace beginning in part II (around page 75) and sprints into part III. I was swept up into the great story the rest of the way. The story Wright tells throughout is that Christ has died and and set us free from the idols which have enslaved us and defeated death itself by the power of the resurrection which gives us, his image bearers, the power to live as God originally created us to live!

CHRIST HAS DIED AND SET US FREE FROM THE IDOLS WHICH HAVE ENSLAVED US. HE HAS DEFEATED DEATH THROUGH THE POWER OF GOD— ON DISPLAY IN THE RESURRECTION—AND GIVEN US THE POWER, THROUGH THE SPIRIT, TO EMBODY HIS VICTORY IN THE WORLD! 

At some point in the near future I want to try and do a more full-scale review but for now let me highlight a couple of the main questions followed by three fancy theological terms that more or less embody what the book wants us to see in Scripture and the story of Israel and Jesus. To say it briefly for those who are familiar with Wright’s work, read this book if you have been unsatisfied with Tom’s previous treatment of what sin, forgiveness, and the  are not about, rather than giving new, positive understandings. That to me, is the importance of this book in Tom’s overall catalog, (without saying anything about its importance to readers in general, which is much more significant.)

Summarizing the aim of the book before diving into an exposition of Galatians, Wright says: “our task is to rescue the ‘goal’ from Platonizing ‘going to heaven’ interpretations and the ‘means’ from paganizing ‘angry God punishing Jesus’ interpretations—and so to transform the normal perceptions of what ‘atonement theology’ might be from a dark and possibly unpleasant mystery to an energizing and highly relevant unveiling of truth” (234).

The three questions that stuck out to me that are raised in the beginning of this work and that set the tone might be stated this way:

1.From whence comes the power of the cross to capture imaginations still to this day and what does that power mean? 

2. Why did the cross of Jesus have the place it did in the life of Christianity even from the very beginning? As Tom writes, “Jesus’s first followers… saw it as the vital moment not just in human history, but in the entire story of God and the world. Indeed, they believed it had opened a new and shocking window onto the meaning of the world “God” itself” (4).

3. How was the cross considered part of the “gospel” and how does it relate with Jesus’ Kingdom announcement?

Overall, we might crudely summarize, in one paragraph, why Wright thought it was necessary to write this book: “For too long, we have thought that the goal of Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive our sins so that we could go to heaven. In fact, the biblical story tells us much richer and complex story. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Israel has indeed been faithful to her covenant vocation and as a result, sins are forgiven and all nations can come to know and love the true God. Those who live out of this story are truly human, not waiting to die to be with God, but living with God now, as the first fruits of the new and redeemed creation, inaugurated by Jesus’ defeat of death in the resurrection.

Which leads us to the fancy theological terms that elucidate Wright’s major themes:

Hamartiology (sin)– At the heart of the book is the plea for Christians and the Christian declaration of the “gospel” to broaden the concept of “personal sin” from a moral lawbreaking to a more biblical notion of sin as a forfeiting of our power as image bearers of God to idols. Wright does much of his most important exegetical and thematically work out of this understanding and it does a lot of the heavy lifting in this book. Two brief quotes will do here:

“Worshipping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’: the Greek word for ‘sin’ in the N.T. means…not just ‘doing wrong things’ but ‘missing the target.’ The target is a wise, full human life of worship and stewardship. Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image” (100.)

The change of definition of sin means that a forgiving of “sins” looks quite different than we might have seen it in the past:

“Within that new reality, [the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is on heaven] the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name for a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailor has already been overpowered” (157).

Soteriology (salvation)– The major thematic readjustment here is closely related to our understanding of sin and is what Wright labels the “works contract” vs. the “covenant of vocation.” The caricatured understanding of salvation in the works contract model of salvation is the “Romans Road” reading: “God gave us a moral standard to live up to, we broke that moral standard and thus deserve death, but God punished Jesus for our sins instead of us on the cross which means we are now able to get in to heaven if we believe in what Jesus did.” This reading, while it has some echoes in Scripture, Wright says, is really more of a pagan version of redemption. The biblical version of salvation is the “covenant of vocation”: in completely gracious love, God made a covenant with Israel meant to bring all people back to himself. Israel itself stumbled, and was thus unable to fulfill its job. Jesus, acting both Israel and God, fulfilled both sides of the covenant on the cross, highlighting not God’s wrath, but God’s self-giving love, freeing humans up not to go to heaven when they die, but to be the regents of God on earth.”

“‘Forgiveness of sins’ belongs…within a narrative different from the one most people imagine today. The purpose of forgiving sin, there as elsewhere, is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come [not to go to heaven when they die.]” (155).

Missiology (mission)– What’s the result of this more biblical understanding of sin and salvation? Nothing less than an entire reorientation of Christian mission. The message and mission of Christians should be quite dramatically changed from “you can go to heaven when you die” to implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. That implementation of victory comes, however, not by the world’s understanding of victory. Jesus’ showed us that victory means feet washing and death. It is through suffering that the Kingdom message of the cross will be spread. “Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed” Wright says. And in perhaps the most striking sentence in the entire book: “Did we really imagine that, while Jesus would win his victory by suffering, self-giving love, we would implement that same victory by arrogant, self-aggrandizing force of arms?” (374).

What are your thoughts? How does redefining sin from a moral law code broken to a giving of our power to idols rather than God strike you as significant? How would our understanding of the cross change if we saw Jesus as dying on behalf of a fulfillment of the covenant of Israel in love rather than as appeasing an angry God that needs a blood sacrifice to atone for the breaking of a moral law code?

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Author: Mark Wampler

Books, Jesus, and family. With coffee and rain. I've got two little boys, Jeremiah and Isaac and a ridiculously smart and good-looking wife named Rebekah. I'm an InterVarsity campus pastor and write at Theologianslibrary.com which you should contribute to. Shoot me a message. :)

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