Rethinking the Gospel?
“But the real point is, I believe, that the salvation of human beings, though of course extremely important for those human beings, is part of a larger purpose. God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world. We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around.”
—N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 24
Bishop Wright believes the Christian church has fundamentally misunderstood the gospel. If he is right about this, we must hear him and accept his corrective. But, if he is wrong, he will lead us away from the gospel. The stakes simply could not be higher.
Bishop Wright is brilliant, creative, provocative, and fascinating. His writing is scintillating. His arguments, however, are exceedingly slippery and often dangerous. What he proposes is nothing less than a complete reconception of what Christians believe about salvation and the gospel of Christ.
In his earliest work, he called for a revolution in our understanding of Jesus, Paul, and the gospel. He insisted that the church must reverse centuries of understanding and abandon what Christians, and Christians committed to the Reformation traditions in particular, have held to be the very essence of the gospel.
The gospel, Wright insists, “is not an account of how people get saved.” The apostle Paul’s message, he proposes, was not “a doctrine about how to get saved.”
This will certainly come as a shock to most Christians. The church, in virtually all its main traditions, has commonly understood the gospel to be exactly what Bishop Wright proposes that it is not — a message about how sinners are saved.
In order to make his point, Wright first proposes that most Christians reduce the scope of the gospel by accepting the worldview of modern individualism. For many Christians, the gospel is reduced to nothing more than their personal salvation from sin, without any understanding of the eternal purpose of God to redeem a people through the blood of the L amb.
On this point, Bishop Wright deserves to be heard. Without doubt, contemporary evangelicalism is particularly given to the error of reducing the gospel in this way. Furthermore, individualism does indeed undermine the atonement of Christ and the saving purpose of God.
Nevertheless, at this point it is important to note how Wright so often frames an argument. He is absolutely correct in lamenting the excessively individualistic focus of so many Christians and churches. But he then turns his argument on the assumption that any concern for the salvation of individual sinners must be secondary to something else.
What else? Reviewing the message of the New Testament, Wright then turns to criticize contemporary Christianity for losing sight of the fact that the created order is also part of God’s redemptive plan and purpose. Wright argues that the remaking of creation is at the center of the gospel. “New creation” is the culmination of “God’s project” and the gospel is the declaration of this promise, revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Evangelism is to be reconceived as the announcement of God’s kingdom and the promise of new creation. Any claim “that the main or central thing that has happened is that the new Christian has entered into a private relationship with God or with Jesus” is to be avoided.
Once again, there is truth in Wright’s lament that far too many Christians have little appreciation for the cosmic significance of the gospel. The Bible does point us to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, even as we are reminded that creation is now groaning under the curse of sin. We should wholeheartedly agree with Bishop Wright that a failure to appreciate the eschatological promise of the new creation is to reduce the gospel as it is revealed in the Bible.
Once again, however, Wright moves from a legitimate criticism to a deliberate reconstruction of the gospel. While missing or minimizing the meaning of the gospel for creation is an error, the fact remains that the Bible reveals the redemptive purpose of God to focus primarily and pervasively upon the salvation of sinners.
We must not miss what is at stake. If Bishop Wright is correct, the gospel is not mainly about the salvation of individual sinners through the redeeming work of Christ, but about God’s project of new creation. If this is true, evangelism is the act of declaring God’s purposes and pointing to Christ as the divine agent of accomplishing the redemption of the entire cosmos.
At this point, Wright’s emphasis upon new creation and his insistence that the gospel is not primarily about “how one gets saved” can be seen to fit perfectly within his larger project. His argument that justification is about ecclesiology rather than soteriology, his insistence that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul understood to be the gospel, and his assertion that the gospel is more about right action in this world rather than hope for the next, all fall into place together.
In the end, N.T. Wright’s project, no matter how brilliantly presented, falls far short of the New Testament’s central focus on what Paul described as the gospel “by which you are being saved” (1 Cor. 15:2). As is so often the case with those who suggest a recasting of Reformation doctrine, the problem is not so much with what Wright proposes to add to our understanding, but what he wants to take away.