All posts by Derek Vreeland

  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 4

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the fourth of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3]

     The Kingdom of God and the Triumph over the Powers
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 10-11)

    Chapter 10: The Story of Rescue

    When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, he is not talking about a place called “heaven,” where we go upon death, but the “rule of heaven,” that is the kingdom of God. The warnings Jesus gives associated with hell are often directed toward pending disaster in this world, namely the imminent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD., even if some references to hell, (Greek word Gehennah), seem to point to something beyond calamity in this world. (For example see Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:4-5.) If the gospel writers could talk to modern preachers of the gospel, they would most certainly confirm they were proclaiming the gospel, while our speculative theories and propensity to hand-pick individual verses of Scripture have turned atonement into a mechanism rather than the crucial moment when God’s revolutionary kingdom was launched.

    While the gospel writers have tended to be ignored when we have turned to the Scripture to understand the meaning of the cross, the time has come to turn up the volume on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in order to hear the stories they are telling about the kingdom, the Temple, Pilate, and the mocking crowd. By doing that we can hear the big story they are telling. Listening to these stories guides our journey towards understanding what exactly happened the day Jesus died. During this quest we will find both historical answers and theological answers.

    Historically, Jesus died because the chief priests saw Jesus’ ministry as blasphemous. The Romans saw Jesus as a rival king. The Pharisees held Jesus in contempt for challenging their rules. The followers of Jesus abandoned him, including one who betrayed him. Our search for theological answers, asking what was the divine reason Jesus died, cannot continue without taking into consideration the historical answers. For Wright, “The historical questions and answers are the place to go if we want to find the theological answer” (199). Our purpose in paying attention to the historical questions in the gospels is to determine Jesus’ own understanding of his mission and purpose.

    When we listen to the gospel writers we can hear them telling the story of Jesus as the long-awaited return of Israel’s God. In fact, they intentionally connect the Jesus story with the story of Israel. Jesus came as the Son of God, the living embodiment of Israel’s God, and Emmanuel, God with us. The life and ministry of Jesus was filled with compassion and love in the gospels. Jesus’ death is the tragic end of the one who embodied the covenant-keeping love of Israel’s God. The gospel writers, particularly John, described the growing hostility towards Jesus (see John 5:18, 7:1, 7:19-20, 7:25, 8:37-40).

    Within the story the gospel writers are telling is not only the story of Israel but the story of darkness and evil that has plagued God’s good world. Evil has been depicted throughout the story of Israel in various forms of idolatry and injustice not only by pagan people but by members of the people of God. The patriarchs and the kings, the heros in the up-and-down story of Israel were all flawed, hindered by the ever-presence of evil and sin. Evil is not merely a pagan problem but a disease affecting all people and all creation.

    The storm clouds were forming around Jesus from his birth, as Herod sought to kill him before his ministry even got started. The poor responded to his ministry, but his kingdom message did not draw applause from the ruling Jewish elite. The Pharisees opposed him. The chief priests sought to kill him. Rome saw him as a political threat. He taught the way of peace, reconciliation, and self-sacrifice, eclipsing all the traditional Jewish cultural markers. All of this animosity and opposition was how evil coalesced into a single force putting Jesus to death. Jesus had been battling not people and their evil ideas as much as Jesus was battling evil itself. As Jesus drew near to his death he told his disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32). Jesus’ death would be a victory over evil by casting out the ruling force behind the evil in the world. This victory was not placed artificially over the story of Israel but reaches its climax with the story itself.

    In this way, we can read the gospels as the coming of God’s kingdom being the culmination of Israel’s story, but equally as a story of how evil came together against Jesus wherein Jesus defeats death, evil, and sin itself. In Acts 4, as the followers of Jesus were praying, they quote from Psalm 2 acknowledging that “the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Acts 4:26). Evil had gathered together in Herod and Pilate at the trial of Jesus, just as Psalm 2 said. When Jesus was arrested he told the chief priests and the temple guards, “this is your hour, and the (the hour of the) power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). The battle Jesus was in was not against flesh and blood but against the power of darkness itself.

    The power of darkness is the satan, the “ruler of this world,” who will be cast out by Jesus’ death. The satan entered Judas turning him into “the accuser,” the literal meaning of the word “satan.” This battle with evil is not the convenient backdrop to the death of Jesus which is about something altogether different. Particularly for John’s gospel, the meaning of the death of Jesus is connected to the story he tells, a story of struggle and death, victory and love, a story of Jesus’ death as the defeat of evil according to God’s covenant love. As we have seen, the gospel writers convey to us the words of Jesus about his death at the Passover. Jesus is the Passover lamb who, in the words of John the Baptist, “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). As sin is taken away, a great victory over the power of evil has been won. The coming Messiah rules in the proclamation of God’s kingdom by putting an end to sin. The great themes of God’s kingdom rule and the redemption of the world through the cross are inextricably tied together in the gospels.

    Forgiveness of sins, and thus the end of exile, comes about because Jesus bears the punishment of Israel. Jesus brings an end to exile also by redefining the shape of the kingdom of God by his very death. The kingdom of God in contrast to first century Jewish expectations looks like self-giving love and self-denial. As Israel’s representative, Jesus does what Israel was called to do but ultimately could not do, namely, representing the light of God’s truth to the Gentile world. Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up,” a reference to his death (John 3:14). As Jesus was lifted up on the cross, sin and death that had plagued not only Israel, but all mankind, were brought together. When we see the cross and gaze upon the suffering of Jesus we realize our sins have been dealt with. According to Jesus, his death was not to appease an angry God, but rather it demonstrates the love of God, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16).

    Jesus dies as a rebel in the place of rebellious Israel, as depicted in the crowd’s desire for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. The gospel writers make it clear that Jesus was innocent. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was sentenced to death. Even as he hung on the cross, the penitent thief being crucified with Jesus announced that Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong (Luke 23:41). Jesus promised “paradise” to this thief – not heaven, but a restful holdover until resurrection. Within Luke’s gospel we see the powers of darkness are defeated because Jesus dies on behalf of the guilty. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had warned people of coming disaster – not going to hell after death, but real world disaster. Hell in the afterlife is a reality not to be overlooked, but not the primary form of punishment Jesus was talking about.

    Jesus dies as a substitute in that Jesus represents Israel as their Messiah. Jesus bears the weight of Israel’s sins and the sins of the world, and dies as the forces of evil collude against him so at long last the kingdom of God may come. The death of Jesus is what it looks like when Israel’s God becomes king of the nations, but it does not look like conventional power. This surprising death of King Jesus revealing the power of the kingdom of God is the power of co-suffering, self-giving love. The kingdom is therefore launched not by the elites of society but by the poor, the meek, the mourning, and the peacemakers. The kingdom will not come through the military might of empire, but through the way of nonviolence, enemy-love, and prayers or persecutors.

    By his death, Jesus sets forth a new ethic – the ethic of love and reconciliation that will become the ethic by which God redeems the world. The death of Jesus therefore does not save us from the world by taking us to heaven. Rather the death of Jesus saves us for the world, a powerful revolution within the world, a vision found among Israel’s prophets. Israel was always called to be the means by which the kingdom of God would come, but the means by which the revolution began took most of Israel by surprise. The Messiah came into this world born of a virgin in Bethlehem, but he came with the words of peace and forgiveness on his lips. The very nature of power had to be radically reimagined by the followers of King Jesus. According to Wright, “A new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love. This is the heart of the revolution that was launched on Good Friday” (222). The powers are overthrown by the death of Jesus in part because Jesus was powerless in his death.

    As we step back and take a bird’s-eye view of what we see about the death of Jesus in the gospel, we find the following predominant landmarks. First, the gospel writers do not give us bits of information that we need to factor into a formula or theory about what the death of Jesus really means. Rather the meaning of Jesus’ death is found in what they have written. According to Wright, the “formula” is in fact a “portable narrative, a folded-up story” (223). We resist any attempt to understand the death of Jesus apart from the historical context, which has much to say about the kingdom of God coming to Earth.

    Second, before we begin to look at how Paul deals with the cross in his letters, we acknowledge the revolutionary and kingdom-nature of the cross. In this wide-angle view of the cross, we do not lose the truth that Jesus died for our sins, which has personal implications for all those who believe. Individual faith and responsibility are still intact, but we as modern individuals are invited into a larger story that is more than going to heaven when we die. We find ourselves in a story of creation, covenant, and new creation, a story we repeat as we come to the communion table, a story we live out as we cooperate with the Spirit’s work of peace and reconciliation.

    Chapter 11: Paul and the Cross (Apart from Romans)

    The Apostle Paul had much to say about the death of Jesus. Traditional atonement theologies have had the tendency to look first to Paul, running right past the gospels and much of the Old Testament. But just as we want to ground our understanding of the death of Jesus in its historical context, we also want to ground our reading of Paul in his historical context. Paul used a variety of different images to describe the cross of Christ. We can develop a singular vision of atonement based on one of these images, which some have done with the penal substitution theory from the perspective of the works contract. We do find both “penal” and “substitutionary” aspects to the death of Jesus, but these are not the only images Paul uses. Reducing the atonement to only the penal substitutionary view limits our understanding of the cross, because Paul has more to say about the death of Jesus.

    Two overarching concepts to keep in mind as we look at what Paul has to say about the cross are (1) the story of redemption is moving towards new creation and (2) the death of Jesus is the means by which new creation is attained. Jesus takes upon himself the divine condemnation of sin on behalf of Israel and the world. This sacrificial act becomes the supreme revelation of God’s love, the very covenant-faithful love we see throughout the story of Israel. Paul proclaims the power of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). However he does not explain precisely why or how the cross has the power it has. So while we do not know how the cross is powerful, Paul does identify the effects of the cross which includes both the salvation of those who believe and the driving out of “rulers of this age” (1 Corinthians 2:6).

    As we have discovered, Paul delivered to the churches as it was received that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In other words, Jesus the Messiah died for our sins according to the story of Israel. The expectation of Jewish believers in Jesus was that the death (and ultimate resurrection) of Jesus would establish the kingdom of God (see Luke 23:42, Acts 1:6). The various images Paul used are not random metaphors but all find their cohesion and definition in the Old Testament. Behind all Paul revealed about the death of Jesus stands the truth that Jesus died as Israel’s Messiah. The English word “Christ” comes from the Greek word christos which means “anointed one.” The Jewish tradition was not to coronate their kings. Rather, they anointed them with oil. The Hebrew word for “anointed one” is mashiach, best translated in English as “Messiah.” Christ or Messiah was the Jewish title for their king.

    The metaphors Paul used to describe both the death of Jesus and its effects including sacrifice, atonement, redemption, deliverance, justification, victory, and rescue all bring resolution to the previously unresolved story of Israel. When we make the death of Jesus only about individual sinners going to heaven when they die we lose the story of Israel, the very context we need to make sense of what Paul wrote. The goal of new creation underscores God’s promises to Abraham to be the father of many nations, where Gentiles would come and worship the God of Israel (Romans 15:8-9). Let’s take a brief look at what Paul said about the death of Jesus in various letters.

    Within the book of Galatians we never find the words “saved” or “salvation,” emphasizing the fact this letter is not about individuals “getting saved.” Rather the letter is about unity, that is, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham of a single family made up of Jews and Gentiles worshipping the God of Israel as a unified family. Paul offered a blessing from Jesus “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). Deliverance is Passover language, pointing the death of Jesus towards a new Passover. The “present evil age” and the “age to come” are standard ways of thinking of Jewish eschatology.
    Paul summed up his unity letter to the Galatians by pointing to what really matters – new creation (Galatians 6:15). This new creation is a present reality because through the resurrection of Jesus the new age has broken into the present evil age. Jesus’ death has abolished the power of the old world. In this new creation world, Gentiles are now welcomed into the family of Abraham. The law of Moses was a temporary guardian (Galatians 3:24), but now Jesus has come and redeemed us.

    Redemption, like deliverance, is Exodus language. We were slaves to sin like Israel was enslaved in Egypt and Jesus came to rescue us through his death and resurrection. Now, Jews and Gentiles have full knowledge of God through Jesus and the Spirit. The need for circumcision has passed away with the old world. Jesus has redeemed Israel from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), a reference back to Deuteronomy. The blessings and curses in Deuteronomy were not bestowed on individuals, but on Israel as a whole. Paul does not say Jesus bore the curse so that individual Gentiles could be forgiven. This new Exodus for Israel would require new thinking about what identified people as members of God’s family.

    Galatians 3:10-14 is “penal” and “substitutionary,” but not according to the traditional narrative coming out of the Reformation. This section of Galatians is best read within the context of the covenant of vocation. Exile is over because the curse has fallen on Jesus as Israel’s substitute or representative, thus freeing Israel so she could be liberated to fulfill her vocation as a light to the Gentiles. As Israel’s representative, Jesus can act as a substitute. Jesus enters into the story of Israel and receives Israel’s curse, so the story of redemption for the world can move forward. The problem with Israel is not their sin in general, but that their sin has stalled the promise of world-wide redemption. When sins are forgiven, the powers are robbed of the power so that the goal of new creation, including the promises made to Abraham, can be reached.

    Along with this new Passover/new Exodus journey toward new creation, we also have a new identity. Each person in Christ can now say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). While most of Paul’s descriptions of salvation were plural, he did speak of himself in the singular as having a reshaped identity in Christ. Paul lived “within the faithfulness of the Son of God,” a better translation than “faith in the Son of God.” The revolutionary nature of the cross changes how we look at ourselves. We identify ourselves by the cross; if we were to identify ourselves by the Jewish law there would be no reason for Jesus to die (Galatians 2:21).

    Wright sums up three points in locating the connection in Galatians between the death of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of God. First, God has condemned the present evil age and broken in with the “age to come,” freeing all people from evil and sin. Second, God has done this through the death of Jesus who died for our sins. In Christ no one is labeled “sinner” or “unclean” or “excluded from the family of God.” Third, Jews in Christ have a radical new identity formed around the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Galatians is about unity in Christ, although older interpretations of Galatians going back to the Reformation tend to read it as a text advising the church not to attempt to earn “righteousness” or salvation by good works. Any attempt to read a rebuke of “legalism” in Galatians is to miss Paul’s point. The old age is passing away, which implies the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) associated with that age. The Spirit-driven age to come ushers in a new lifestyle typified by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Moral energy and effort for those in Christ is not connected to earning one’s salvation, but in recognizing what has happened in Christ. This new Passover event was a means towards the kingdom’s triumph over the powers of the present evil age. A new kind of unity and holiness for the people of God is the appropriate response to this revolution. To live according to the ethics of the present evil age is to deny that the age to come has arrived through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    As with the book of Galatians, Paul does not give us a clear explanation of how or why the death of Jesus accomplished what it does. Paul does continue with the use of Passover imagery. “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:6). He connected the practice of communion with the “new covenant in my blood” and the “proclamation of the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:25-26). We have seen Paul’s important statement regarding the death of Christ “for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This sacrificial death, and the resurrection that follows, defeated sin and death for us that we may share in his victory (1 Corinthians 15:57). Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God through death overturned all conventional approaches to power.

    The followers of Jesus exercise power on the earth through suffering: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). The cross is not simply a mechanism by which salvation occurs. The cross shapes our lives as followers of Jesus and the cross reveals to us what God is like. According to Wright, “The Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it” (251). This understanding of the cross fits within the covenant of vocation. The cross was the means by which our sins are dealt with and the cross becomes the way we live as the image-bearing creatures of the Creator God.

    According to Paul, as we are in Christ, we have entered into God’s new creation and have received a job to do, that is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not so we could keep the rules according to the works contract, but so we could be agents of reconciliation in God’s world: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might (embody) the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

    Those working from the perspective of the works contract see in this verse what has been called “double imputation,” where our sin was imputed to Christ and his “righteousness” was imputed to us. However, in the context of the ministry of reconciliation (and the larger context of the covenant of vocation), Paul was not talking about a righteousness we receive, but a righteousness we embody. The “righteousness of God” in this verse is not a moralistic status, but a covenant status. God’s own righteousness, or “rightness,” speaks of God’s fidelity to the covenant. God made him, Jesus, who knew no sin to bear our sins, taking them away through his death, so we could embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Jesus, in reflection of God’s love, dies innocently on behalf of the guilty that we might be restored in order to reflect God’s fidelity and love into all creation.

    In Philippians, Paul recorded what was either an ancient hymn or poem (see Philippians 2:6-11). At the very heart of this poem is the line “even death on the cross.” This poem tells the story of Jesus with the cross at the center. In the great crescendo we see the victory of Jesus over all powers and creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. This exaltation of Jesus is kingdom-language marking the inauguration of the kingdom of God led by King Jesus. The poem also noted that Jesus took the “form of a servant,” echoing Isaiah 40-55 and the servant of the Lord. The kingdom of God is established precisely by destroying the power of idolatry and taking away the power of sin and death.

    According to Colossians 2:13-15, Jesus at the cross disarmed “the rulers and authorities.” These ruling powers are both the earthly rulers of Rome and their appointees (namely King Herod in the Judean province of the Roman empire), as well as the invisible rulers, the dark forces that manipulate earthly power structures. Jesus in his death triumphs over them, putting them to shame, because their system of power and domination results in putting to death not just an innocent man, but God in human flesh.

    Earthly rulers are able to rule through the power of punishment (i.e. death) and through the enslaving power of idolatry. In ancient Rome, the Caesar was worshipped as divine and the pantheon of gods offered idolatry to the masses. When human beings worship in the place of God that which is not God, corruption of their humanity begins. But through the death of Jesus sins are forgiven and taken away, breaking the power of sin and idolatry and reconciling broken humanity to their Creator. In this act, the invisible powers at work within idolatry lose their power.

  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 3

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the third of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2]

    A Renewed Covenant and the Passover
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 8-9)

    Chapter 8: New Goal, New Humanity

    The two disciples on the road to Emmaus we waiting for (longing for!) the redemption of Israel. As Jesus spoke to them, he was revealing that indeed redemption had happened through the suffering of Christ, who had come into his glorious reign as King. They just did not know it. Israel had been redeemed through the death of Messiah, but they would have to rethink what “redemption of Israel” meant. God was redeeming Israel as a rescue mission to restore Israel, and thus all humanity, to their original calling of reflecting God’s image into the world. This reimagined hope is not about going to heaven, but experiencing a new creation on earth. The death and resurrection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah causes the followers of Jesus to rethink the entire story of Israel. The questions we ask at this point are two-fold: What are human beings called to do and be in God’s new creation? How is God rescuing human beings from the devastation of sin so they can become what God has called them to be?

    Wright argues that Christians have made a three-layered mistake in answering these questions: “We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of ‘salvation’ (substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore)” (147). A Platonized eschatology describes God’s future goal as discarding the physical world and taking human spirits to a non-physical heaven. A moralized anthropology describes humanity’s essential purpose as keeping God’s moral rules. A paganized soteriology describes Jesus’ death as that which necessarily satisfies the wrath of God in order for us to experience salvation.

    Yes, we find a heavenly element in God’s new creation. Yes, the human vocation contains a sense of moral obligation. Yes, the death of Jesus is both representative and substitutionary in nature. But all of these themes need to be reassigned in a way consistent with the big story the Bible tells. This reassignment begins by returning to Israel’s Scriptures where we find the hope of Israel is not abandoned. Israel’s hope included the forgiveness of sins, which implied not that Jewish people would go to heaven upon death, but that Israel would be redeemed and the Gentiles welcomed into the family of God.

    The suffering and death of Jesus read as a fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies made the forgiveness of sins possible, meaning Israel and the world were released from the captivity to sin. The goal of God’s redemption of the world through Christ was not the blessedness of heaven for those who had departed the earth in faith. This worn-out mistaken view is not what is meant by the “forgiveness of sins,” a phrase which belongs to the story of Israel. The book of Acts opens with the assumption that the kingdom had been launched. The disciples, still unaware of the significance of what has happened, asked if Jesus is going to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). They did not ask if now they need to go tell people their sins were forgiven so they can be assured of heaven upon death. In their minds, the work of Jesus was related to the kingdom of God on earth. Without this historical context, we can easily shrink the gospel down to a “detached spirituality” (156). Within the long sprawling story of Israel, the “forgiveness of sins” implied a new Passover, a new exodus, a new covenant, and a new creation.

    One of the problems with a focus on heaven, and not new creation, as the goal is the modern myth that heaven is where good people go and hell is where bad people go after they die. Some Christian traditions want to respond to this myth by saying we are all bad people and all that has made us bad has been dealt with at the cross and the goodness of Jesus has been added to our account, making us good. However both this myth and the Christian response is distorted in that goodness vs. badness is placed at the center of an equation that is supposed to lead to heaven. Living as the good people of God finds a role in God’s redeemed people carrying out their calling. God’s new humanity has been redeemed to be a “kingdom and priests” for the world.

    The restoring of Israel fulfilled the three hopes of Israel (1) freedom from Roman occupation and domination, (2) Israel’s God becoming King of the world, (3) God dwelling once again with his people. We see the fulfillment of these three expectations in the book of Acts in the theme of the kingdom of God. Modern readers tend to connect the kingdom with the second coming of Jesus, while Luke describes it as a present reality. Wright describes three kingdom symbols in the book of Acts.

    The first symbol is the “restoration of true worship” (161). Jesus has ascended into heaven joining together heaven and earth in his very person. We reject the idea of heaven as a far away spiritual place. We reject this idea in light of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus causes us to rethink things. “In Christian theology we have to start with Jesus and reconfigure our ideas around him, rather than trying to fit him into our existing worldviews” (162). The followers of Jesus become the living temple, a new community where the one true living God is worshiped.

    The second symbol is the witness of the Christian community to God’s rule over the entire world. The principalities and powers colluded to put Jesus to death publically. As the Apostles proclaimed the gospel, the “forgiveness of sins” was communicated as a real historical event and the whole world was called upon to turn from sin and believe the good news. The rulers of this world have been defeated as God has made Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The Apostle Paul would go on to proclaim this message throughout the Mediterranean world enduring the suffering associated with proclaiming the kingdom of God. In God’s rule, God’s people are the royal priesthood doing the work of the kingdom through worship and witness.

    The third symbol is the hope that Israel would be finally free from living under the rule of a pagan power, that they would truly be freed from exile. Jesus fully embodied Israel’s identity becoming Israel-in-person and as Jesus was freed from death, the ultimate weapon of all pagan powers, Jesus freed Israel (and the world) from the power of foreign oppressors. In this regard, God is not rescuing people so they can escape the world. Rather God is rescuing people so they can escape death and cooperate with God in the work of redeeming the world. This work is the work of the kingdom of God accomplished by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

    Chapter 9: Jesus’s Special Passover

    At the very center of the book is the burning question: How did the earliest Christians understand the death of Jesus? The Christians during the time of the Apostles believed that something had happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus, “something as a result of which the world was now a different place. A revolution had been launched” (169). So, the pressing question as we consider the meaning of the atonement is: What changed and how did things change with the death of Jesus? Much of the theological work on atonement has ignored the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and have failed to connect the death of Jesus with the kingdom of God. The Gospel writers record what Jesus said about his death and how he said it. The most significant thing Jesus said in talking about his death is that he chose the Last Supper to describe in the clearest of terms what his death meant. The larger context for the Last Supper is the Jewish Passover, a central, and often overlooked, aspect to how the early Christians understood the death of Jesus.

    If the goal of salvation is a disembodied heaven, then the gospel writers have very little to say about the implications of the death of Jesus. Furthermore, many of those who have worked on the meaning of the atonement have treated the gospels as the backstory, whereby the four gospels simply tell us what happened to Jesus at the end of his life, whereas Paul in the epistles tell us what it means. This approach is a mistake. As we have seen, the goal of salvation is new creation and, contrary to popular approaches to the atonement, the gospel writers have much to say about the atonement, each in their own way.

    The crucifixion of Jesus in its historical setting held no immediate significance other than the message of despair and defeat. No one who witnessed his death understood he was dying for the sins of the world. None of the disciples expected Messiah to die for their sins. On the day of his death, nobody was doing what we now call “atonement theology” at all. The death of Jesus was the end to everyone’s hopes and messianic dreams.

    The catalyst for the reinterpretation of the death of Jesus was the resurrection. Many Jewish people in Jesus’ day believed in the resurrection of the dead, which would usher in God’s new world at the end of this age. Nevertheless followers of Jesus believed he had risen, physically and literally, from the dead in this present age. This central belief caused them to look back at the cross through the resurrection and for the early Christians this reflection did not immediately produce the atonement theories we know today. The gospel writers did not pepper their gospel accounts with atonement theories; rather, they wove their own interpretation of the death of Jesus into the fabric of their narratives.

    When we look to the four biographers of Jesus for how they understood the meaning of his death, we see first that Jesus was crucified by the Roman officials who displayed a sign above Jesus’ head which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus had regularly proclaimed the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom and therefore died as a Jewish king. Rome regularly executed rival kings. The gospel writers also make it clear that Jesus died around the time of the Jewish Passover. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” Jesus challenged Jerusalem one last time while the nation was celebrating God’s act of freeing them from slavery in Egypt. Jesus chose Passover for this final proclamation of God’s coming kingdom, because the in-breaking of God’s kingdom implied the overthrow of enslaving powers. Moses confronted Pharaoh before the Exodus; Jesus confronted the Temple establishment before his death. Israel was leaving Egypt in order to worship God; Jesus’ death, and soon-to-follow resurrection, would reimagine worship and the meaning of the Temple for the renewed people of God. Jesus’ death was a new Exodus.

    Jesus describes the meaning of his own death in the clearest of terms as he is with his disciples in the Upper Room sharing a Passover meal with them. According to Wright, “When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his forthcoming death was all about, he did not give them a theory, a model, a metaphor, or any other such thing; he gave them a meal” (182). Jesus transformed the Passover meal from looking back towards the Exodus to looking forward to his pending death. The cup of wine was the “blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The death of Jesus would be an experience of liberation and victory and the launch of God’s kingdom. Jesus connected his death with the Passover tradition.

    The victory over the powers of slavery was secured as Jesus’ death dealt with the sins of Israel and the sins of the world. The Jewish people were still experiencing exile. Even though they were in their ancestral homeland, they were still in bondage to the powers of their Roman oppressors. This New Exodus event coming through the death of Jesus would be an act of forgiveness of sins and thus the long-awaited end to exile. With the Last Supper in sight, we can rescue our discussions about the cross from the pagan ideas of a wrathful God demanding satisfaction. Instead, we find a covenant-faithful God taking sin upon himself in order to move the story of redemption forward. Atonement from the perspective of this sacred meal is more of a story for Christians to enter than an abstract theory to try to understand. Sharing in the bread and the cup makes followers of Jesus active participants in God’s story.

    Jesus makes mention of the “blood of the covenant” as he lifted the cup in the Passover meal pointing to the sacrificial overtones of his death. Drinking blood would have been unimaginable for Jesus’ Torah-observant followers. In the face of scandal and controversy, Jesus connects the cup with blood, covenant, and the forgiveness of sins, pointing to Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant which is itself connected to the exodus event (See Jeremiah 31:31-34). Jesus connected the shedding of his blood to the blood of animals, which, when they were sacrificed, were not being punished. We have seen that early Christians understood Jesus died “according to the Scripture,” that is in accordance with the story the Bible is telling. This story included the suffering not only by God’s people, but the future suffering of God’s servant who would do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself, which includes remaining faithful to the covenant and vocation of Israel to be a light to the Gentile world.

    Jesus as the servant of the Lord offered forgiveness throughout his ministry as he was announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. As we have seen the announcement of the forgiveness of sins implied the end of exile, the liberation from oppressive powers, and a renewal of the covenant. Jesus offered forgiveness with great compassion and mercy explaining to his disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus wasn’t offering his disciples an abstract theological principle to understand his sacrificial death. Rather, he was summing up his entire life mission. Jesus was giving his life as a ransom because of his great love, which remained “to the end” (John 13:1).

    The offering of his life, as Jesus announced at the Last Supper, was an announcement of the coming of the the kingdom from heaven to earth. Jesus renewed the covenant as Israel’s representative substitute, taking upon himself the vocation and fate of Israel, laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Theories of the atonement grow out of the story of Jesus as Jesus’ entire life and ministry guide us in understanding the meaning of his death. Without the foundational story of Jesus found in the gospels, a story rooted in the story of Israel, the death of Jesus too easily becomes a “paganized doctrine” where an innocent person dies to appease an angry deity. With these stories in view, Paul’s summaries of what happened when Jesus died become much clearer, namely that God, the God of Israel, the Creator God, was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Through Jesus’ death the covenant to bless the nations of the earth through the people of Abraham was renewed. For Wright, “The cross became the encoded symbol as well as the actual outworking of the dying, and hence the undying, love of Israel’s God” (194).

    Discussion Questions

    1. When you first heard of salvation, “getting saved,” or “accepting Christ” was it in the context of the assurance of heaven after you died? What were your earliest memories of salvation?
    2. If God would have been an angry deity demanding blood to satisfy his wrath, what would that communicate to us about the nature of God?
    3. Why do you think it is still a cultural assumption that “good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to hell”?
    4. Why is it important to start with Jesus and reconfigure our ideas around him when we are trying to understand the nature and work of God?
    5. Look again at Matthew 26:28. What does Jesus say about his death here?
    6. Look again at Jeremiah 31:31-34. What does this say about the new covenant that was fulfilled in and through Jesus?
    7. Why is it necessary to understand the story of Israel in order to understand why Jesus died?
    8. How would you describe the love of God you see revealed in Jesus’ life, ministry, and death?

  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 2

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the second of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1]

    The Stories of Israel
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 4-7)

    Chapter 4: The Covenant of Vocation

    Some approaches to atonement make the wrong assumption that sin implies that human beings have done wrong and thus need to be punished. This is in addition to the mistake of heaven as the goal of salvation.
    Wright describes these mistakes as a “platonized goal” (going to a disembodied heaven) and a “moralizing diagnosis” (the problem is that human beings have not kept the rules God commanded), which together lead to a “paganized solution” (Jesus’ death pacifies the anger of God).

    The primary problem is not merely that human beings have failed to obey God’s moral commands, although that is a part of the problem. The primary problem for which human beings need rescue is idolatry and the corruptive forces unleashed on the earth when human beings reject the worship of the one true God and begin to worship idols.

    Wright calls the mistaken view the “works contract,” whereby humanity was under contract with God to keep a certain code of moral behavior. Either humanity obeyed and was rewarded or they disobeyed and were punished. The good news for humanity according to the works contract was Jesus obeyed God’s rules according to the contract and took the punishment for disobedience that humanity deserved for not obeying God’s rules.

    For those who believe in Jesus, “righteousness” was transferred from Jesus to believers. “Righteousness” from the perspective of the works contract was a moral status, like five gold stars, that has been conferred from Jesus to believers.

    The problem with the works contract is that it is a shrunken view of the story the Bible tells. The works contract view ignores the heart of the Old Testament and it oversimplifies the problem of human sin. The story the Bible tells about God’s creation, humanity’s purpose and failure, and God’s solution in Christ is what Wright calls a “covenant of vocation.”

    This vocation, this job, given to humanity by God was to reflect God’s image into creation and echo all of creation’s praise back to God the Creator. When God’s people fail to obey God’s commands they not only break God’s laws, they empower dark forces through idolatry that ends up enslaving them and all Creation. The solution needed to correct this problem is not that human beings need to be punished, but that these enslaving forces need to be broken.

    Idolatry does not embolden God’s desire to punish; idolatry corrupts the primary human vocation whereby we improperly live out our humanity. We not only fail to rule effectively in our royal position, but idolatry corrupts our ability to live as adequate priests standing between heaven and earth.

    According to Wright, “We humans are called to stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, holding together in our hearts, our praises, and our urgent intercessions the loving wisdom of the Creator God and the terrible torments of his battered world” (80).

    One place where we see God’s persistence in the viability of his covenant of vocation is 2 Corinthians 5:21, which is obscured by the works contract. Wright translates it like this: “The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant” (81). The context of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is not “going to heaven when you die,” but new creation and reconciliation (See 2 Corinthians 5:17).

    Part of why Jesus saves us is so God’s redeemed people can become the place where God’s promises to Abraham are extended to the world. The Messiah’s death, according to Galatians 3:13-14, does not save us from hell, but from the curse of the law so that the blessing of Abraham would come upon the nations of the world. In his death, Jesus is obedient not in the context of a works contract, but, according to Romans 5:17, in the context of a priestly vocation.

    The death of Jesus restores humanity to their original vocation of being God’s image-bearing caretakers of God’s new world. Sin implies a failure of that vocation. Idolatry, lying at the root of sin, represents humanity’s fundamental rejection of that vocation.

    A helpful way to think of death associated with human sin in the context of a covenant of vocation rather than in the context of a works contract is to think about the difference between getting a speeding ticket and experiencing a car wreck. If you speed you could get pulled over and get a ticket as a form of punishment. Or you could speed and end up in a car wreck. The ticket and the fine would be the punishment we would receive for breaking the law. This is the form of punishment in the works contract. The car wreck is the form of punishment in the covenant of vocation. This view of punishment is one that is not enforced from the outside, but is rather the natural consequence of our actions. So if Jesus was punished for our sins it was like the punishment of a car wreck, not a speeding ticket.

    In the works contract view, somebody has to get a ticket and, good for us, God the Father gave God the Son the speeding ticket that we deserved. In the covenant of vocation view everyone is getting into car wrecks all the time. Jesus entered into our car-wrecking world and, even though he wasn’t speeding, allowed himself to get into a car wreck in order to break the power of sin and idolatry which was the reason we have been wrecking our cars.


    Chapter 5: “In All the Scriptures”

    The phrases “royal priesthood” and “a kingdom of priests” draws upon the primary vocation of Israel to be the representatives of God to and for the world. As we read through the Old Testament we join the ancient people of God looking for the ending to Israel’s story. Israel had gone into exile in Babylon and even though they had returned to their homeland to begin to rebuild they were still living as exiles as an occupied people.

    Jesus comes as the ending to the Israel story. Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension marks the fulfillment of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17). In Romans 10:4, Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the law.” The word “end” is the Greek word telos which is better translated here as “culmination” as read in the New International Version.

    Reading the Old Testament and New Testament as a cohesive account of the story of redemption implies that the Jesus conclusion makes sense only when it is read in connection to the story of Israel. The early Christians used various metaphors to describe Jesus’ death, and these metaphors only work together when we consider them in the context of the Old Testament.

    When Paul passes on what he received of “first importance” regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus, he did so saying Jesus died for our sins “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is not shorthand for “according to a few hand selected Bible verses in the Old Testament,” but “according to the entirety of the story told in the Old Testament.”

    The story of Israel is a microcosm of what God intended for all creation. God designed the whole world to be saturated with life and the personal presence of God. Both Israel and Adam and Eve rejected God and were sent out of the land. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and Israel was sent into exile, a picture of perpetual death on Earth. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God would be faithful to the covenant and faithfulness seen ultimately in Jesus.

    The problem which sent Israel into exile, the problem which Jesus becomes the answer for, is sin. The Greek word most often translated “sin” is the word hamartia meaning “missing the mark.” Some Christians interpret “missing the mark” as missing God’s moral standard (works contract). Yet the unfolding story of Scripture describes sin as missing the mark of humanity’s created purpose (covenant of vocation). Humanity has failed as God’s image-bearing people.

    Since human beings become transformed by their objects of worship, sin is rooted in a failure to worship the one, true, living God. As we worship anything other than God (i.e. participate in idolatry) we give power to an idol to reflect an image into the world, but it is always a broken image which produces corruption in the earth. We have become like spoiled children who have been invited to participate in a theater production, but instead of learning our lines and playing our part we have tossed the script to the side and done our own thing. The results are disastrous.

    If we think of sin as the failure to maintain God’s moral standard, and death as the just punishment for such failure it is easy to imagine Jesus’ death as necessary in terms of divine justice so that sins may be forgiven (works contract). We can find individual verses we can force into that narrative, but it does not fit the big sweeping description of sin and redemption in the Old Testament; the failure of Adam and the failure of Israel was much more of a vocational failure than a moral failure.

    The story of Israel’s exile and hope for restoration becomes a signpost for early Christians attempting to understand the death of Jesus. Exile and restoration become a very “Israel-specific” picture that cannot be sanitized into an abstract theory of atonement, which is why Paul speaks of the death of Jesus as a death in accordance to the Scriptures, meaning the Old Testament scriptures.

    To ignore the story of Israel is to pull the death of Jesus out of Scriptures. The forgiveness of sins by the death of Jesus was necessary; Israel’s sins had to be dealt with so the story of Israel could go forward, a story which has the redemption of the world as its great goal.


    Chapter 6: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins

    Within the big story the Bible tells, the theme of God’s presence weaves its way through the story of Israel. The ark of the covenant became a predominant item connected with the presence of God throughout Israel’s wandering story.

    The lid for the ark was called the “mercy seat,” the place where God promised to meet with his people (Exodus 25:22). Any discussion of the mercy seat in the New Testament is in the context of this bigger story of God dwelling with his people, which is both the story of God and Israel as well as God and the world.

    King David looms large in the story of Israel. The “house of David” turned out not to be a building, but a human being, the coming Messiah. Through this King the glory of the God of Israel would fill the entire earth (Psalm 72:19). God’s presence dwelt in the Temple until it was destroyed and the people of God were carried off into exile. The Temple had been rebuilt by the time of Jesus, but the presence of God had not returned.

    Jews of Jesus’ day were not looking for rescue from an angry God threatening to send people to hell. Most Jewish people were looking for “rescue and renewal with the present world” (113). A shorthand way to communicate this rescue was by talking about “forgiveness of sins,” which included a return from exile, rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of God’s presence.

    God’s people were sent into exile because of their sins; therefore, to be released from exile Israel’s sins needed to be pardoned. Forgiveness of sins from this perspective emphasizes the heart of the revolution taking place on the cross where (1) Israel’s God was becoming king, (2) suffering was a necessary component, and (3) God’s covenant love was being demonstrated. Israel’s audacious claim to the pagan world was that their God was the world’s true King. The Psalms celebrate this fact particularly in Psalm 2, 46, 72, and 98. These Psalms are filled with kingdom-of-God language. For example see Psalm 2:8.


    Chapter 7: Suffering, Redemption, and Love

    In the Old Testament, and also in Jewish literature before the time of Jesus, a common theme could be found: the end of exile, including the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, was coming for the people of God, but it would come through suffering.

    The Old Testament describes suffering during the rise of Messiah, but most often it is not described as redemptive suffering (Daniel 12:1 Psalm 22:1-2, 6-7, 16-18). The only place in the Old Testament where we see suffering as the means by which salvation would come to Israel is in Isaiah 53.

    According to Isaiah, God’s servant would be the source of salvation which would include suffering (Isaiah 53:5). In Isaiah 53 we see for the first time in the Old Testament that suffering is not only the context of the coming deliverance from exile, but also the means by which that deliverance will come. It includes both the language of redemptive suffering, as well as victory language (Isaiah 53:12). Isaiah 53 became a key passage in how the New Testament writers describe Jesus’ death. The servant of the Lord who is suffering is both Israel (Isaiah 49:3) and a person (Isaiah 52:13 ff).

    The suffering of God’s servant would not only occur at the time of Israel’s redemption; suffering would be the means by which Israel experienced the forgiveness of sins and their long awaited end of exile.

    Jewish literature records the suffering of Jewish martyrs bringing an end to the suffering of God’s people during the Maccabean revolt 160 years before Jesus. The description of punishment by the Maccabean martyrs does not indicate that their death somehow absorbed the vengeance of God, but their description is similar to what Paul says in Romans 5-8 which Wright will discuss in later chapters. The concept of redemptive suffering was present in Jewish literature before the coming of Jesus.

    Isaiah 53 is important for how early Christians viewed the death of Jesus, but this chapter must be read in the larger context of God’s faithful love. We do see God’s anger at human rebellion and sin in the Old Testament, but divine anger in Israel’s Scriptures is not like what we see in pagan religion. Israel’s God isn’t an angry god that needs to be pacified. He is a loving, faithful God whose anger at human sin is mixed with mourning. For Wright, “When God looks at sin, what he sees is what a violin maker would see if the player were to use his lovely creation as a tennis racquet” (132).

    We trace God’s covenant love back to Deuteronomy 7:6-9 where Moses makes clear that the people of Abraham were chosen by the LORD who loved them. This theme continues through Isaiah (43:1, 3-4; 63:8-9), Jeremiah (31:3), Lamentations (3:22-23), and Hosea (11:1). In Isaiah in particular we see this covenant love will result in a new Exodus and this love would be extended to all the nations of the world.

    Before we encounter the sufferings of the LORD’s servant in Isaiah 53, we see the love and comfort coming from the LORD to his people beginning in Isaiah 40:1-52:9. The suffering servant is “wounded for our transgressions…upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:5) and after this time of suffering the covenant will be renewed, when the LORD will gather the people of God again (Isaiah 54:7). The picture of rescue, or salvation, we see from Deuteronomy through Isaiah is accomplished by the LORD according to his love for his people. While suffering is included in God’s rescue plan, this suffering does not turn away God’s anger or judgment. Rather, salvation through suffering is an expression of the LORD’s love.

    Three themes rise to the surface in a quick recount of the story of Israel, the ongoing exile, and the unresolved story we find in the Old Testament. (1) Forgiveness of sin implied the end of exile. Israel’s sin had led them into exile and God’s act of forgiveness indicated that their time of enduring exile was over. (2) The expected coming salvation would be a new Exodus, where the coming Messiah would lead Israel and the world out of a slavery to sin and death. (3) Salvation and redemption would come about by the LORD himself.

    Isaiah’s suffering servant embodies these three themes. This servant would also embody the covenant love of the LORD, bringing forth redemption for Israel and the world.


    Discussion Questions

    1. When you were punished as a child, did you understand it as the result of:
      1. breaking the rules
      2. disappointing your parents
      3. your poor choices
      4. your parents’ anger
      5. some combination of the above
    2. How have you seen people become enslaved by the idols they worship?
    3. What are the key differences between God creating a system of rules for people to follow (works contract) and God creating a world for people to cultivate (covenant of vocation)?
    4. What does it mean for human beings to “reflect God’s image into creation”?
    5. What are the differences between getting a speeding ticket and getting into a car wreck? How does this inform how God punishes us?
    6. What do we lose if we eliminate the story of Israel (the Old Testament) from our understanding of Jesus and the cross?
    7. What does it mean for God’s anger to be mixed with mourning, like a violin maker seeing a player use the violin like a tennis racket?
    8. How does Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrate the love of God?
  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 1

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the first of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book.

    Getting Things Started
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 1-3)

    N.T. Wright is not only a brilliant theologian, he is a warm and colorful writer, which is a rare combination for a Bible scholar. The Day the Revolution Began contains his thoughts on the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross. It is a book of theology and “theology” is not a bad word. Christian theology is a 2,000 year-old conversation among preachers and prophets, scholars and shoemakers. Theology is not the study of God as much at it is a study of how God has chosen to reveal himself. God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer, in the long winding story of the Great Tradition and the broad history of the church.

    Theology is not reserved for intellectuals, although we welcome and value their contribution; theology is a whole-people-of-God activity.

    Let’s define some key terms and phrases…

    Post-Christian: the cultural shift in Europe and the United States where the virtues and values of the Christian faith no longer have a dominant place in public life.

    Atonement theories: While we confess in the Nicene Creed “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven…for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” the church has never definitively defined how the death of Jesus saves us. Throughout history, Christians have constructed theories to explain how the death of Jesus atones for our sin.

    • Recapitulation Theory: Jesus comes to sum-up the entire life of Adam including taking Adam’s sin and experience death to become the head of a new humanity.
    • Ransom Theory: Jesus’ death is a payment made for the debt incurred by sin.
    • Moral Influence Theory: Jesus dies as a sacrifice for sin as an example for us to follow.
    • Christus Victor: Jesus’ death sets us free from the power of sin and Satan.
    • Satisfaction Theory: Jesus’ death satisfies God’s demands for justice and honor.
    • Propitiation Theory: Jesus’ death turns the wrath/anger of God.
    • Penal Substitution Theory: Jesus dies in the place of sinners taking upon himself the penalty sinners deserve.

    In this book, Wright tends to critique satisfaction, propitiation, and penal substitution.

    The Reformers: The Protestant reformers of the 16th century include figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simmons, Huldrych Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, and others.

    Eschatology: A theological understanding of “end things,” including heaven, hell, and the second coming of Christ

    Roman-Greco World: The “Greco” part of that description refers to the influence of Greek culture upon the Roman Empire. The Romans had built their mighty empire on top of the fallen and divided Greek empire.

    Chapter 1: A Vitally Important Scandal

    In the opening paragraph Wright imagines the death of Jesus in its historical setting without much fanfare. Rome has executed another political rival because this is what Rome does. But death is not the end of the Jesus story. As followers of Jesus look back at the cross through the resurrection they see that in Jesus “his death had launched a revolution” (3).

    The resurrection completely changes how we see the cross. Instead of reflecting on the cross as a sad, pitiful end to another Jewish revolutionary, we see the cross as the beginning of a worldwide revolution. We often assume Jesus died so we could go to heaven when we die, when the early Christians talked about the death of Jesus in ways that were “bigger,” “more dangerous,” and “more explosive.”

    A bigger view of the cross reveals the death of Jesus makes a huge difference not just for individuals but for the entire world, which prompts the why questions. Why is the cross so powerful? What does the cross continue to captivate and convict? Why does the death of Christ continue to change the lives of millions?

    According to Wright, “You don’t have to have a theory about why the cross is so powerful before you can be moved and changed, before you can know yourself loved and forgiven, because of Jesus’ death” (12). We don’t have to fully understand the cross any more than we have be able to explain how the elements of communion connect us with Jesus; we just need to be present in humility and faith. And yet, if we want to grow in the faith it is worth our time to explore with why questions.

    Asking ourselves “why did Jesus die” has two different sets of questions including historical questions: Why did Jewish leaders and the Roman governor want to execute Jesus? And theological questions: What does the death of Jesus reveal about God? What did the death of Jesus accomplish?

    Chapter 2: Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now

    How did this awful implement of torture and death become the enduring symbol of a world-wide movement? Roman crucifixion was so shameful that it wasn’t talked about openly in the first century world. Early followers of Jesus could have brushed over the cross and focused solely on the resurrection of Jesus in order to avoid the ridicule and confusion, but they did just the opposite. Early Christians celebrated the cross, but they did not define it. The important early creeds of the church did not contain what we now know as atonement theories.

    Understanding the cross for us modern Christians is possible because we have 2,000 years of reflection on the meaning of the cross, but we start not with the theological puzzles created by theologians over the years. Rather we start with looking at the crucifixion of Jesus within the context of the big story the Bible is telling.

    Three recurring themes regarding the cross can be found in writings of the early church fathers:
    1. Through the cross God secured victory over the powers of evil.
    2. Jesus died in our place so we do not need to experience death.
    3. Jesus’ death was sacrificial.

    These themes did not exist as stand-alone theories, but as metaphors in the story the Bible tells. For the Orthodox it was not necessary to specify a specific explanation to explain why the death of Jesus was necessary or how exactly the cross saves. The current debates surrounding the meaning of the crucifixion are rooted in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

    The Reformers did not devote as much attention to the future of God’s people as they did to the salvation of God’s people, which is problematic because understanding the implications of salvation and the direction salvation takes us is necessary to understand how the death of Jesus saves. The Reformation was, in part, a response to two doctrines within Catholicism: Purgatory and the Mass. Arguing against these two doctrines had a direct effect on how the Reformers talked about the cross.

    Purgatory, during Medieval Catholicism, was the belief in a place of temporary punishment, whereby Christians could suffer some for their sins before going to heaven. The Reformers opposed this teaching. Behind this doctrine was the emphasis within Roman Catholicism on heaven or hell as the final destination of the human soul. Absent from their view of the future was new creation. Heaven was the goal, not the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

    The Reformers argued that Christians did not need to suffer after they died in order to be purified of the sins and enter heaven because, according to their interpretation of the cross, Jesus was punished for sinners on the cross. In this regard, Jesus not only bore our sins but also the wrath of God against sins.

    The particular point of opposition for the Reformers in their critique of the celebration of the Mass was the Roman Catholic understanding that in one sense the priest was sacrificing Jesus to share his body and blood with the congregation. The Reformers again looked to the cross to point out the impossibility of sacrificing and re-sacrificing Jesus at every Mass. Jesus suffered on the cross in our place once for all.

    As with purgatory, the Reformers drew upon penal substitutionary atonement to form their argument against the Mass and their interpretation of a justification by works. What they missed was questioning the assumption of divine wrath and the need somehow for that wrath to pacified.

    The Reformers provided correct answers. We are indeed justified by faith and not by works, but the problem was not that we required justification because God was angry and his justice required his anger to be “satisfied.” The right answers about justification to the wrong questions about pacifying an angry god mixed with a limited vision of the future has created what Wright calls a “paganized vision” of the cross, a vision not consistent with the early Christians.

    For Wright, atonement is connected to eschatology. If the end is not enjoying God forever in a disembodied heaven and is instead bodily resurrection and new creation, then maybe the death of Christ is not a matter of appeasing an angry God so we can go to heaven upon death.

    For Wright, “The cross was the moment when something happened as a result of which the world became a different place, inaugurating God’s future plan. The revolution began then and there; Jesus resurrection was the first sign that it was indeed underway.” (34)

    By the 1800s, the popular assumption in Protestant Europe and the United States had become Jesus died for my sins to take me to heaven when I die and because my sin incurred the wrath of God my Savior died for me. The problem with this heightened view on the individual was the division it created between personal sins and evil in the world.

    The most popular history-ignoring equation for modern American evangelicals is one that goes like this: You have sinned. Sin separates you from God. Jesus died for your sins to bridge the gap. Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and you can have a relationship with God. This formula is not altogether untrue, but neither is it what we find in the New Testament, at least not the New Testament read in the context of history of the first-century Jewish and Roman worlds.

    Popular atonement theologies saw the cross as the remedy for our personal sins while the so-called problem of evil had to be dealt with by means other than a deep reflection on the cross. In other words, the cross saves us from sin so we can go to heaven, but systemic sin and evil on a global scale needs to be dealt with in some other way, as if the Gospel has nothing to say to global evil.

    Some people hear the “gospel” as God is angry, but Jesus satisfied the wrath (anger) of God for us. This version of the Gospel leaves many with the impression that God is not love, but an angry petulant god who desires blood. Some people reject the faith over this misunderstanding of cross. Others reread the Scriptures and the early church fathers to discover the cross reveals the co-suffering, self-giving love of God that has defeated the powers of sin, death, and hell. Indeed this is the bigger story that the Bible is telling.

    Questioning the necessity of violence and punishment in considering the meaning of the cross has raised a number of questions: Does the God and Father of Jesus use violence for his purposes? Does the Father use violence against the Son? What about divine punishment? Does God use violence to punish people? Some people hear the Gospel sounding something like: “God so hated the world, that he killed his only son” (43). This rewriting of John 3:16 is the very distortion we end up with if our view of God is one of an angry deity hell-bent on violent punishment.

    Some people will argue that if God is willing to employ violence to accomplish his saving, forgiving work, then we human beings, created in his image have an example to follow. We too can justify violence if we have enough righteous anger. How Christians talked about issues like global terrorism or capital punishment are rooted in our views of the atonement. If we are to reject the view that depicts a grouchy god using violence to pacify that god’s own anger in the death of Jesus, then what are the alternatives?

    First, the death of Jesus wins a decisive victory over the “powers” of this dark and evil age dominated by sin and death. This view raises a number of questions that Wright will explore later on in the book. Second, the death of Christ reveals the love of God in a unique and powerful way that becomes an examples for us to follow.

    However this view also raises questions, primarily: How does Jesus’ death necessarily reveal the love of God? I could try to prove to my wife that I love her by jumping into a freezing cold lake during the middle of winter, but that doesn’t demonstrate love or courage. It would really only demonstrate my own stupidity. Unless the death of Jesus achieved something that could be achieved no other way, then the death of Jesus is neither a demonstration of God’s love nor an example to follow.

    Chapter 3: The Cross in Its First-Century Setting

    We understand the various meanings of the cross when we seek to understand it in the historical context of the death of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. A wide-angle view of the history surrounding the crucifixion begins with a look at the world of the Roman Empire built on top of an older Greek culture.

    Crucifixion was perfected by the Roman Empire as a way to execute rebels, traitors, slaves, and violent criminals in public to remind people of the might and sovereignty of the empire. Romans and Jews alike viewed crucifixion as abhorrent and a public humiliation; it was too ghastly to talk about openly.

    Crucifixion had both political and cultural meanings, which helps us to understand the cross theologically. Roman crosses symbolized the all-encompassing power of Rome. Jesus, according to Wright, “grew up under the shadow of the cross” (57). Jewish revolts had sprung up in the days before Jesus and Rome crushed them every time. Jesus grew up hearing the stories and seeing the horror of the Roman cross.

    This historical account of crucifixion stands in the background of how early Christians understood the meaning of the cross in general and Jesus’ death in particular. Their view of the cross was loaded with social, political, and religious meanings.
    * Socially, the cross signified the superiority of Rome.
    * Politically, the cross implied Rome was running things.
    * Religiously, the Roman emperor was revered as the divine and thus more powerful than the local “gods” worshipped by the Jews or other people.

    The question for readers of the New Testament is: How did the cross acquire such a fundamentally different meaning by the followers of Jesus? Wright leads us into a discovery of the meaning of crucifixion from the perspective of the earliest Christians which will underscore the biblical and revolutionary roots of the cross in early Christian thought.

    The ancient world of Greece and Rome were filled with stories of people who were sacrificed, or sacrificed themselves, to secure blessings or turn away divine wrath. These stories are more rare in ancient Israel. Wright will touch on those later. As Jewish leaders were plotting Jesus’ death, Caiaphas argues that it is better that one man die for the people, so the nation may be spared. According to Wright this view is found more often in pagan literature than in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    In pagan literature those who were dying on behalf of other people were dying what would have been considered an honorable sacrificial death. No one living in the Roman Empire would have called death by crucifixion “honorable.” For Christians to speak of the death of Jesus upon the cross with any kind of significance would be rejected by Roman citizens as foolishness.

    Within the wider cultural context of the Greco-Roman world, the more narrow historical context to examine when considering the meaning of the cross is the Jewish world of the first century. Wright mentions three important ideas regarding the Jewish context for the death of Jesus.

    First, no Jewish festival was more important than the Passover, the commemoration of the time when the God of Israel delivered the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery under the heavy hand of Pharaoh. When Jesus chose to reveal, in clearest terms, the meaning of his death he did so at Passover meal, his final meal with his disciples before his arrest. The Passover event became a primary way for the early Christians to work towards understanding the implications of the death of Jesus.

    Second, Jewish people of Jesus’ day saw themselves as exiles, living in their homeland, but still under the yoke of a foreign, pagan, occupying force. The Babylonian exile five-plus centuries before Jesus had been extended into the present-day. According to the prophet Jeremiah, God promised to do a new thing, to make a new covenant, one in which sins would be forgiven, bringing their exile to an end.

    Third, while many first-century Jews expected God’s Messiah, God’s reigning King to come to enact this new covenant, none of them expected Messiah to come in the way Jesus did. They looked for Messiah to come to restore the kingdom to Israel, but none expected Messiah to suffer in the way Jesus did.

    Wright will dedicate a large portion of the book to how early Christians read the Old Testament in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, but he offers a few observations regarding the specific world of the first-century Christians. This world existed within a Jewish world, within the world of the Roman empire.

    The themes of the New Testament writers use metaphors from the Jewish world, but in new and surprising ways. Wright will show how the themes work together later in the book. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) fit together with the Epistles (the letters of Paul, Peter, John, and others) in a cohesive way under the banner of the early Christian statement: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible,” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

    How do we see the meaning of the cross work out in the diversity of writing and writers in the New Testament? Wright sketches out his plan to answer those questions at the end of this chapter with these points:

    1. We need to reject the popular view of going to heaven when we die, with the more biblical view of the new heavens and new earth at the end of the age.
    2. Sin isn’t what prevents us from going to heaven, but sin, and the idolatry standing behind it, keeps us from bearing the image of God in and for the world.
    3. Idols have been empowered by human idolatry. God’s new creation to break in and renew the old broken-down creation, the power of idolatry must be broken.
    4. God’s act of dethroning the power of idols is God’s way of dealing with sin so that human beings can be restored to God’s image-bearers and thus fulfill their primary vocation.
    5. God’s single plan of dealing with human plight, sin, corruption, and idolatry is centered in the story of Israel.
    6. Jesus comes as Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s representative to do for Israel, and ultimately for the world, what Israel could not do for herself.
    7. The climactic act of Jesus’ death enacts God’s revolutionary plan to rescue the world God loves.

    Discussion Questions

    1. How would you describe your earliest encounter with the message of the cross? Was in one of awe, fear, love, or devotion? Share your story.
    2. What value is there in becoming aware of the history of the church?
    3. In what ways is our understanding of the end (eschatology) connected to our understanding of the meaning of the cross (atonement)?
    4. Do you now or have you ever had a vision of an angry god who determined to punish you for your wrong doing? Where do you think that image came from?
    5. How do things change for you if you begin to see salvation in terms of what God is doing in and for the world more than simply what God is doing for you?
    6. Where are the differences in how people hear: “God so hated the world that he killed his only son” and “God so loved the world that he gave his only son”?
    7. Why do you think Jesus waited until the Passover (last supper) with his disciples to speak so clearly about his pending death?
    8. Why do you think so many Jewish people did not expect the Messiah to come the way Jesus did?

  • How Tom Wright is Saving Evangelicalism

    Well looky here! A new blog post.

    I realize that I have not been posting here very often , but I am preparing to lead a six-week small group study of The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. (Tom) Wright and I had some thoughts to share.  By the way, I am writing once a month for Missio Alliance, so if you are interested you, can follow me there.

    I am looking forward to leading people through Tom Wright’s new book on the cross. Lent is the perfect season to focus on the cross and, beyond the timing of our study, I believe Tom’s book on the cross is a game changer. I believe it will revolutionize our view of soteriology the way Surprised by Hope revolutionized our view of eschatology. I am not recording our small group study which begins tomorrow night, but I will post my notes on this blog, much like I did when I led a group of people through Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I called that small group “N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul” and it turned into a 100–page book that has humbled me with how it has helped so many people.

    This small group study will be called “N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross” and I will post notes on this blog over the next six weeks. And maybe, just maybe I will turn it into a reader’s guide. We shall see.

    As I was preparing my small group study, I began to realize the significance of Tom’s ministry. (I do call him “Tom,” because not only is he my theological mentor…and bishop!…I consider him a friend, even if we have only exchanged a few emails over the last couple years.) I do not believe there is another theological voice that is more widely heard than Tom Wright. I have friends from lots of different traditions and denominations and I can say quite confidently that no one else writing and lecturing in New Testament studies has more of a predominate voice than Tom. The emergence of N.T. Wright Online has expanded Tom’s influence, giving him an even broader audience access to his teaching.

    What excites me more than anything is that I believe he is saving evangelicalism and his timing could not be better.

    Evangelicalism Needs Saving

    Today the term “evangelical” refers to a voting block in the United States, determined by a very select few issues in the very present “culture wars.” For many evangelicals the title has become polluted and vandalized to the point that many do not want to be labeled “evangelical.” Fine with me. Don’t call yourself an evangelical if you don’t want to, but for those of us who have found a theological and ecclesiastical home in evangelicalism, let’s not throw away our evangelical heritage with values rooted in personal conversion, a high view of Scripture, and the necessity of mission.

    Many of us who have a theological perspective shaped by Tom Wright have been called “post-evangelicals,” but such a designation is not helpful. This label attempts to define what we have left behind, but doesn’t define who we are. Furthermore “post-evangelicalism” has many different expressions including progressives, neo-sacramentalists, neo-Anabaptists, etc. These Christian expressions have cross pollinated and have left outsiders confused. It is not so much that we have left evangelicalism behind, rather we have left behind sectarian fundamentalism, biblicism, and the “religious right,” three ideologies that have overtaken popular expressions of evangelicalism. Indeed these three ideologies are killing us.

    • Sectarian fundamentalism turned conversion into a formulaic experience of “getting saved.”
    • Biblicism turned our high view of Scripture into the impossible task of forcing the beauty of Scripture into a compressed flat text of points and principles.
    • The “religious right” hijacked our mission and led us in the way of constantinism, the faulty attempt to change the world through legislation and partisan politics.

    Evangelicalism is sick and in need of a doctor. I believe Tom Wright may be exactly what we need. Maybe he is saving evangelism or maybe as Alan Bean argues, he is saving Christianity.

    So how is Tom Wright saving Evangelicalism?

    Wright has given us a better eschatology.

    We have suffered too long with a shrunken view of salvation whereby we have wrongly assumed Jesus came to save us in order to take us to heaven when we die. Over the years I have challenged people to show me in the New Testament where Jesus or the Apostles clearly taught such a thing. I have searched and it is simply not there. The thief on the cross was promised to be with Jesus in paradise. Jesus said in his Father’s house there are many mansions. He said he will go and prepare a place for us and we will be with him when he comes again. Lazarus was taken to “Abraham’s bosom,” and Paul mentions to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I may have missed a few, but these are the brief references to an experience of what we call “life after death,” but what Wright has shown us is that the overwhelming emphasis in the the New Testament is that Jesus came to offer us new life, eternal life, the life of the age to come, which is life after life after death. This new life is a part of God’s new creation project which is not about taking people from heaven to earth, but about bringing heaven to earth whereby heaven and earth will be conjoined once again. Once we adopt this much more biblical view of the end, the rest of our theology begins to change because eschatology is not the caboose at the end of the train. It is the theological engine that drives the entire enterprise.

    Wright has given us a more coherent way to read the story of Scripture.

    God has had one plan to rescue the world. God initiated his plan through Abraham and brought it to its termination point through Jesus. While Christians divide up Scripture into the Old and New Testaments, Wright has argued that this is one continual story that needs to be read together. As we work to understand specific passages of Scripture, Wright has taught us to look at the particulars in light of the whole. In this regard we can see Scripture tells as a five-part story:

    1. Creation
    2. Corruption
    3. Covenant
    4. Christ
    5. New Creation

    God has created the world and all that is within it. He created human beings to reflect his image into his world and reflect back creation’s praise to its creator. Humanity failed to be God’s image-bearers and thus failed to care for God’s good world. The corruption of sin in the forms of idolatry and injustice entered and marred all of creation. God did not give up on his creation project, but sought to set right a world gone wrong beginning with a covenant God made with Abraham. The children of Abraham became Israel, the people of God. They were given the Law to form them into a people of worship and justice, but they too fell under the corruption of idolatry. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to bring Israel’s story to full completion. Jesus dies for our sins and is raised from the dead to offer new life to those who would repent and believe this good news. The gathering of those who follow Jesus stand within the broken world as the people of new creation, awaiting the appearing of King Jesus who will come to complete the new creation project.

    Wright has given us a better way to read Paul.

    The Apostle Paul has been read and interpreted in various ways since the Protestant Reformation. Often Paul has been read in a way disconnected from Jesus and disconnected from the story of Israel. Wright has given evangelicals a tremendous gift in giving us a reading of Paul’s epistles that is connected both to Jesus and Israel. Paul was first and foremost a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language, Jewish metaphors, and most importantly Jewish Scripture. When we come across Paul writing about justification, works of the law, righteousness, and other theological terms critical to evangelical theology, we interpret them not in the context of the anxieties and issues of the 16th century, but within their covenant Jewish context. Justification by faith is not so much a right standing with God as it is God’s act of declaring us to be withing God’s righteous covenant family. The larger thing happening in Wright’s interpretation of Paul is that he is connecting together history with theology. All theology is biblical theology and all good biblical theology is historical theology. Wright’s better way of reading Paul has taken us to the triple peaks of monotheism, eschatology, and election, rooting election-language not in the fatalism of a God who predetermines who is saved and who is damned, but a God who gathers a group of people to bring light and salvation to the world.

    Wright has brought together the academy and the church.

    When I was a seminary student at Oral Roberts University in the mid 1990s, the world of academic theology opened up a new world to me and I could not read fast enough to absorb everything I wanted to explore. I spent countless afternoons in the office of Dr. Dorries, our church history professor, wrestling with God’s call for my vocational life. I entered seminary with a desire to enter church ministry as an evangelist or pastor, but my first taste of theology had me thinking about a career as a scholar. Dr. Dorries did his Ph.D. work at the University of Aberdeen and he helped me think through post-graduate studies. At one point I declared a double major, adding a M.A. in Historical Theology, to prepare for Ph.D. studies, but soon after I dropped the second degree. As much as I love the work of the academy, I knew my calling was to serve the church. Wright, as much as any scholar working in the area of New Testament studies, has been able to bring together the academy and the church. He has been able to lecture and write, teach and preach, in both the lecture halls of the some of the most elite universities in the world and in parishes and local churches in the UK and the US. He writes and speaks with the mind of a scholar and the heart of the pastor reminding us we need both. We need scholars and pastors and the academy needs the church, just as much as the church needs the academy.

    Wright has given us a renewed vision of the cross of Christ.

    Throughout his career Tom has gone back and forth from Paul to Jesus and back to Paul. He started with Paul. His Ph.D. was focused on Romans. He has written extensively on the historical Jesus. For me How God Became King maybe his most significant book in that regard, while other may look to The Challenge of Jesus or Simply Jesus. He spent longer than we all expected to finish up Paul and The Faithfulness of God, which people are still trying to digest. And now he has turned his attention to the cross in his latest work How the Revolution Began. He has been dodging the subject of atonement theories for years. I remember reading Trevin Wax’s 2007 blog post “Don’t Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies Penal Substitution,” when I was working on understanding atonement theories myself. Finally Wright has answer the question of atonement is this stunning new book. I believe the cross is central to an evangelical vision of church life and mission and I believe Wright’s vision of the cross will help us move forward from stale fundamentalism into a new era of evangelical life where we know nothing except Christ crucified.

    So what does Wright think about the cross? Follow my blog posts over the next six weeks for a summary of his fascinating book.

    Thanks to Ben Mulford for carefully proofreading the first draft of this blog. 

  • When Death Is So Near: A Spoken Word Poem

    Yesterday I did something impulsively, something I had never done before.

    Let me back up and offer some context…

    My friend Ruthie Johnson wrote a poem yesterday. She is a person of color and lives 5 miles from where Philando Castile was shot. She wrote in response to what she was feeling. She works 3 miles from the gas station where he was shot and she had even stopped there before. This shooting happened in her neighborhood. Her poem was deep and poignant. It was prophetic in that it was words from elsewhere. The more I read her poem, the more I was moved by it. I began to hear this voice inside my head as I read it over and over. It was the voice of a preacher, a spoken word poet, crying out in lament. I felt compelled to record her poem as a spoken word. I have never done anything like this before, but as I said, I felt something calling me (demanding me!) to give voice to the words I was reading.

    A few caveats…

    First, I am no poet and I am the furthest person from hip hop culture. I literally have one Jay-Z song in my music on iTunes. Any weaknesses in my reading should not take away from the brilliance of the poem.

    Second, I am not taking a side in the growing hostility between the Black Lives Matter movement and the police. I equally mourn and pray for the city of Dallas and the police officers who lost their lives. I do not want to add to the hostility. I want to grieve with those who have lost the lives of people they love.

    Third, I do not pretend to understand the pain and struggle of my black neighbors and people of color. I am simply offering this spoken word as a way to say: “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I am a white son of the South who grew up in the suburban Midwest and I am learning to listen and love people who are not like me.

    Finally, in recording this I changed one word of the poem. I did this subconsciously, but chose not to correct it. Near the end of the poem, Ruthie writes: “When death is so near we must repeat.” I say: “When death is so near we must REPENT.” And with this slight change, I encourage you to repent, to turn away from hate, name-calling, scape-goating, discrimination, and suspicion and turn to King Jesus who teaches us to love God and love one another. Jesus died to take away our hate and violence. He rose from the dead to offer us new life.


  • Book Review: How Jesus Saves the World From Us

    How Jesus Saves the World from Us_book image copy

    Morgan Guyton is on a journey.

    He has left behind Christian fundamentalism with its debilitating toxins and has trekked his way through the expanse of God’s wide-open grace. His book How Jesus Saves the World From Us serves, in part, as a chronicle of that journey. He does not presume to have arrived, as many of his humble, self-deprecating stories reveal. He is following Jesus with sincerity and intent and has shared with us what he has gained from his experience. Parts of what he has learned on his journey resonates with my own story. In these sections, I found myself applauding Guyton. In other parts of the book, I found myself scratching my head as I failed, at times, to connect the dots as he offers a better way to live the Christian life than the narrow confines of ugly fundamentalism. A few times I found his anecdotes and illustrations distasteful. In these sections I felt my attention distracted from the richness of the solutions he was offering. In the end, much of the valuable insights in this book are overshadowed by a dualistic, polemical tone that is a toxin of its own kind. It seems this book is an attempt to be prophetic in the Hebrew tradition of prophets. In Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann makes the case that Hebrew prophets both energize and criticize the people of Israel through their acts of prophecy. In the case of How Jesus Saves the Word From Us, Guyton seems to be far too critical and far less energizing in most chapters.

    Strengths of the Book

    Let me back up a few steps and draw out some of the strengths of this book. First, Guyton writes from a Christ-centered and Church-centered perspective. This is a book for the church, for those who are serious about following Jesus and working to support the work of Jesus in building healthy churches. One of the strongest chapters in the book is “Servanthood, Not Leadership.” Guyton writes:

    “When Christian leaders structure their churches around their need to feel important, they are creating cancer in the body of Christ. What would our Christian communities look like if our leaders truly sought to define themselves primarily as servants?”

    He rightly identifies the rampant self-ambition in church leadership and offers a Jesus-model of leading through servanthood. Other chapters have equally strong solutions which will promote church health.

    Second, he consistently draws upon love as the supreme ethic whereby we can identify and remove the toxins in the church. For example, in the chapter entitled “Honor, Not Terror,” he describes the fear of the Lord not in terms being scared of God, but honoring God and honoring the God-image in other people. He uses the story of Huck Finn who goes against his cultural and religious upbringing to show kindness to his friend Jim, the slave, even if such kindness will “send him to hell.” Guyton writes:

    “Fearing God is not being afraid of what God will do to me, but afraid of what I might do to Jesus.”

    This helpful corrective rightly classifies the fear of the Lord as a kind careful respect, locating Jesus in and among the suffering and the oppressed.

    Third, the chapters in this book are written from the vantage point of a life lived in honest pursuit of Christ and his kingdom. Guyton has no pretense in telling his stories, stories of pain and stories of transformation. Never is this transparency more clear than in the story he tells about encountering poverty while on vacation in Mexico. A young five-year old girl in a dirty dress is begging Guyton to buy a doll from her. This encounter wrecked him. This moment was when he claims he “got saved.” Stories like these are raw and honest and lend credibility to many of the solutions Guyton offers the church.

    Weaknesses of the Book

    For all of it’s strengths, I found How Jesus Saves the World From Us riddled with weaknesses which honestly surprised me. First, the book is trapped within a dualist, “us vs. them” paradigm. The overarching theme throughout the book, as captured in the title, is that the church, primarily the evangelical American church, is filled with toxic practices and beliefs hindering the brightness and beauty of the gospel. Guyton argues for solutions to these toxins as way for God to save the world from us and our unhealthy ways. Sadly this dualistic theme (the world against us) undercuts the many helpful solutions Guyton offers because it pits the world against the church, or at least the unhealthy church. The classic Wesleyan vision is of God at work among his people for the sake of the world, and not, as Guyton positions things: God saving the world from his people. This dualism, the world against the people of God, filters into a number of issues dividing progressive and conservative evangelicals.

    For example, in the chapter on “Outsiders, Not Insiders” Guyton argues that Jesus was not a religious “insider,” but that he associated with the “outsiders” (i.e. sinners). He creates a false dichotomy here in that Jesus was both a religious Jew who came as a fulfillment of the Law to be Israel’s Messiah (as an insider) and he was fulfilling Israel’s vocation to bring the light of salvation to the sinful Gentile world (as an outsider). Guyton does rightly advocate for the church to embrace the outsider, but he does so from a dualistic point of view. When speaking of the church’s response to the LGBT community, a sensitive and delicate topic among progressives and conservatives, he creates an unhelpful divide. He confesses that he has “almost given up on trying to argue (that being “queer” isn’t sinful), because it seems like so many insider Christians are so invested in their anti-LGBTQ stance that it’s become their litmus test for Christian identity.” The language here sadly reveals the antagonism between progressives and conservatives causing ongoing disintegration in the conversation in the church on how to best love our LGBT neighbors. If I stand with the great tradition of the church in defining marriage as a sacred, male plus female relationship, which I do, then am I anti-LGBT and against their community? He has already defined Jesus in this chapter as an outsider, which implies I am an insider not only opposing a community of people for their sexual orientation, but I am opposing Jesus. This kind of unhelpful polemic only creates greater divide in the body of Christ. I too do not want to argue with gay-affirming evangelicals, because arguments and debates seldom produce the love Jesus commands of us.

    Second, I found some of Guyton’s anecdotes and illustrations cynical and at times distasteful. I sense that Guyton is attempting to be provocative, but I felt he pushed some metaphors too far. He mentions yelling at his kids, teenage boys who are “horny and incapable of controlling themselves,” a girl who was molested by Bill Gothard, and worship through fasting as an “erotic experience,” an illustration to which he adds the disclaimer: “as icky as that may sound.” Yes it was icky. He should have left that one out. These are examples in just the first three chapters. I found these and other anecdotes distracting me from some of the great points he was making. For example the worship through fasting description is in the context of a larger metaphor for hearts that need to be emptied of clutter more than they need to be cleaned. And while I think this metaphor is a false dichotomy (I think we need both a decluttered heart and a clean heart), it is a helpful way for us to think through the difficult subject of sanctification.

    How Jesus Saves the Word From Us is a mixed bag. There is so much I loved about this book and so much I disliked. In the end I think there are better, more constructive, ways to root out the pathogens in the modern American evangelical church. The ancient Church has given us ways through prayer and conversation to root out those things hindering the work of the gospel. It begins with prayer, contemplative prayer, rising above the harsh dualisms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” “right Christians” and “wrong Christians.” Guyton loves the church and I appreciate his work in calling us to greater faithfulness to the mission of Jesus, but solutions tainted with dualisms fail to bring about their intended cure.

  • Book Review: People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

    people to be lovedI have been anticipating the release of this important and timely book for some time. I have followed the author’s blogs on the subject and listened to him talk about the project for a while now. Understanding how to love our LGBT neighbors is an extremely important topic of discussion for Christians in general, and for evangelical Christians in particular. Preston Sprinkle has gone to great lengths to ground People to Be Loved not only in exegetical and theological research, but also in the real-life stories of LGBT people, stories of people who have suffered insults and isolation or worse throughout their lives. The result of his work is an honest, and at times heart-wrenching, look at what the Bible says about the sexual ethics related to those who have same-sex attraction. The strength of the book is in its ability to challenge people on both sides of the discussion. Far from fueling the culture wars over “gay marriage,” this book has the potential to bring people together in conversation as Sprinkle leads us in taking a fresh look at Scripture.

    rainbowI read the book over a three-week span. One night when I grabbed my copy of People to Be Loved, I saw something sticking out from book like a bookmark. My six year-old had drawn a rainbow and tucked it into the book. I took it as a sign! I finished my reading of the book with hope for the church, not that we will all agree, but that we can find a way forward to love one another despite our differences. Let me be clear: this book is not simply a pragmatic tool on how to carry on a debate about sexual ethics. Rather this book focuses on the Bible, and not merely what the Bible says, but what it means. Sprinkle argues that the debate surrounding homosexuality is not about what the Bible is saying, but what it means, because the Bible is clear in what it says. This claim is a bit over-stated as Sprinkle’s own exegesis shows. What the Bible is saying, the words it uses, is deeply entrenched in layers of cultural meaning requiring much effort to understand the key texts in this discussion. Thankfully Sprinkle has done solid work in grounding key Greek terms like pornia, malakoi, and aresenokoites in their historical context, a context which is debated among scholars. The book is itself a conversation with others who are writing on this topic, those who are also wrestling with Scripture to determine what it means and how it informs how we love and how we live…

    Read my entire review on the Missio Alliance blog here:


  • Wendell Berry, “To a Siberian Woodsman”


    Today was a day full of activity…meetings, emails, and phone conversations. The work of a pastor is not a weekend gig and neither is it a 9-5, clock-in/clock-out kind of vocation. I love serving the church, but it requires us to wear a lot of different hats. I do not mutli-task so well and it takes me some time to transition from one task to another.

    In the business of clearing out my inbox today (which I like not to be longer than 10-15 emails) I saw that I had received an email from a friend inviting me to read a poem he had recently come accross from Wendell Berry. I thought that in the fury of that moment a break from email to read a poem may be a perfect idea. So I switched gears. I took off my “office/admin/clearer-of-the-email” hat and put on my thinking cap. I am glad I did.

    The poem I read from Wendell Berry was “TO A SIBERIAN WOODSMAN (after looking at some pictures in a magazine).” Reading it stopped me dead in my tracks. I want you to read it too, but let me offer a few introductory comments.

    First, Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. No joke. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American-sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. Granted he wrote this poem in the late 1960s, but it carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. This is true. He is also a farmer, which offers credentials much more believable than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels, “prophets” lost in a mixed up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology.

    Second, this poem is about love and peace and letting go of the idol of nationalism, at least these are some of the themes I drew from the poem. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but do not read it with too critical of an eye. Do not read it with your defenses up. Do not read it looking for things you disagree with. There is time for critical evaluation, but as with all art, do not start there. Instead start with a mind and heart that is open. Read it multiple times. Remain open until this poem speaks to you and then, if you must, evaluate what you are hearing.

    I have probably said too much (or maybe I have not said enough!). Nevertheless I invite you to read and listen. Perhaps God will grant you ears to hear.

    (after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
    by Wendell Berry

    You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
    listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
    with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
    after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
    in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
    Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
    her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
    like people familiar with the land they were born in.

    You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
    tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
    Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
    Over you is the dream
    of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
    you in the trees.

    I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
    your son in your tracks.
    You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
    whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
    of your own voice
    or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
    and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
    and you take the path beside it.
    I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
    as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
    over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.

    And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
    in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
    and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
    and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
    and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
    of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
    the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
    My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

    Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
    hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
    with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
    that I should desire the burning of your house or the
    destruction of your children?
    Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
    that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
    rivers, and the silence of the birds?
    Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
    to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

    Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
    or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
    that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
    these pictures of your face?
    Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
    or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
    you in the forest?
    And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
    gladly talk and visit and work with me.

    I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
    As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
    carefully as they hold to it.
    I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
    or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
    nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
    They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

    In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
    the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
    and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
    official hates,
    so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
    looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
    but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.

    There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
    you in silence besides the forest pool.
    There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
    hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
    There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
    dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
    There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
    comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

  • Teaching Christians to Speak Christian: 12 Essential Words

    Nicene-Constantinopolitan-CreedOne of the things I enjoy about distance running is the time it gives me to think. While on a long run this morning, I began to think about our task of making disciples of the Jesus way. I was thinking these things not because I am employed at a church and the word “Discipleship” appears in my title. I was thinking about these things, because I have been baptized into a community marked with this distinct vocation—to go into all the world and make disciples. On my run, I was specifically thinking of something I read from Stanley Hauerwas. In his new book The Work of Theology, he tackles a number of subjects including the connections between theology and ministry. As a self-proclaimed “high-church Mennonite,” Hauerwas cares deeply, and has written widely, about the importance of the church. Those who have been given the task to lead churches, we who are pastors, ministers, priests, and ordained clergy, are by nature theologically-driven people. Theology is after all what we say and what we think about God. Theology has (or should have) everything to do with our pastoral vocation.

    In the context of the connection between theology and ministry, Hauerwas writes, “one of the essential tasks of the theologian is to teach speech; it is to teach Christians how to speak Christian” (The Work of Theology, 111). I am surprised I had never thought of this idea before. Hauerwas is quite right. A part of my job as pastor and a member of the church Jesus is building includes teaching Christians to speak Christian. Words are important after all. Words have the power to shape the world we live in. We are a storied people in that we are the stories we tell and we are the stories we believe. While it may be theoretically possible to tell a story in images, good stories, well-told stories, are communicated with words. Learning new words give us the capacity to think in new ways, opening up new possibilities. In order to help Christians grow as true disciples, which includes a renewing of the mind, a reshaping of one’s worldview and beginning to think Christianly, we need to teach Christians the essential language of the Christian faith.

    So what are the core words that form the essential Christian vocabulary? I began to compile a list in my mind while running. I couldn’t keep all the words in my head so I grabbed my iPhone and used Siri’s assistance in recording the first couple of words that came to mind. I then took to social media and I asked my friends and followers a simple question: If the task of disciple making includes teaching Christians to speak Christian, then what are 10 words Christians should have in their vocabulary? Here is the master list I complied thanks to the help from my friends online:

    Salvation, Trinity, disciple, faith, hope, love, resurrection, Christ, Lord, Grace, church, surrender, Paschal mystery, relinquishing control, redemption, incarnation, transformation, justification, reconciliation, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, Father, intimacy, Eucharist, servant, Bible, prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, proper theology, formation, Jesus, fruit, repentance, holy, mercy, ministry, communion, apprentice, humility, covenant faithfulness, baptism, justice, peace, praise, Maranatha, and theodicy. Also mentioned: tithe, transubstantiation, and Shibboleth which were all jokes except “tithe,” that one was half joke/ half serious.

    These words are good, but I want to condense this list down to the essentials. Maybe 10 words is too limiting, so I am going with 12. These are essential words in the Christian vocabulary. There are more words to learn, for sure, but these are the essentials, the big overarching words, every Christian must have in his or her vocabulary.

    1) Jesus
    God’s Son, Israel’s promised Messiah, and the world’s true Lord and Savior; fully God and fully Man

    2) Trinity
    The one God of Christian worship revealed in a holy community persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

    3) Disciple
    A follower of Jesus who learns from him, obeys him, and lives according to his teachings

    4) Church
    The gathering of disciples devoted to worship, community, and justice

    5) Grace
    God’s expression of love in the world to sustain and transform

    6) Salvation
    God’s act of rescuing people from sin and death and bringing them into his covenant family

    7) Humility
    A lowly mind, thinking of other people as more important than yourself

    8) Ministry
    Finding greatness by serving the church and others according to the gifts one has received

    9) Formation
    Becoming like Jesus in thought, character, and action

    10) Forgiveness
    Removing a person from the penalty they deserve to promote healing and wholeness

    11) Love
    Seeking the good and well being of another with heartfelt devotion

    12) Resurrection
    The victory of God in raising Jesus from the dead and our future hope

    My description of each word is not intended to be complete, but to open up conversations about the essential words of our story.