The Evangelical Heart of Wright’s Atonement

I just finished N. T. Wright’s book on atonement, The Day the Revolution Began. As with every Wright book, it’s about 60% stuff he’s said a dozen times over, 25% helpful and enlightening ideas for reading and understanding the New Testament, and 15% things that you just end up unsure about. And as always, that 25% that is helpful and enlightening really is worth the reading.

In the case of The Day the Revolution Began, part of that 25% is the way he handles the relationship between sin, worship, and atonement. See, many (especially younger) Christians today are reacting strongly against a reductive Gospel that is about nothing more than Jesus paying the price for our sins so that each of us can go to heaven when we die if we believe with our ~~feelings~~ hearts that He is our personal Savior. I myself have opposed such a small picture of the Gospel. But most widespread reactions become overreactions easily. They rightly try to correct the tiny Gospel by emphasizing what the Bible teaches about the social and creational aspects of life in Christ. In all too many cases, however, this can become an increasingly temporal and tangible focus until the point where only the visible counts, worship is an afterthought, and supporting social justice or the environment or the poor becomes in this life becomes the only real concern. In trying to rescue the Gospel from a pie-in-the-sky God, these Christians end up leaving the real God Himself tucked into a corner.

N. T. Wright has been accused on some occasions of being one of these people because of how strongly he emphasizes the goodness of creation, the worth of work we do in this life, and the need to pursue temporal justice as we do the work of the kingdom. But his account of atonement in The Day the Revolution Began makes it impossible. For Wright, the atonement’s dealing with sins must be at its heart and root a strike against idolatry. It is corrupt worship from which all other kinds of sin flow. Most of what we name as “sin” is not the disease, but a symptom of the real disease, which is a failure to honor God in love and be His image-bearers. As he explains on page 75:

The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.

So the basic problem of the world is not sin in a generic sense, but rather broken worship, which prevents human beings from being truly human and puts off from God. Man is first and foremost a worshiping creature, and it is thus the worship of non-divine beings, forces, and elements which generates everything else which we know as sin. So in Wright’s account of the atonement, a heavy emphasis is placed on the overthrow of idols, the cleansing of impurity, and the paving of a pathway back to worshiping God. We must be freed from false worship to be saved, and the Cross makes this freedom possible by forgiving sins and toppling false gods.

Now, if evangelical means anything, it means the absolute necessity and centrality of missions, and not just “missions” in some generic sense, but specifically as declaring the Gospel of Christ. To be evangelical, more than anything else, is to insist that all people need true worship more than anything. And this is exactly what Wright affirms. While he certainly emphasizes the social and creational aspects to the Church’s mission, he recognizes that what men need most is to worship the one true God embodied in Jesus the Messiah. Salvation simply is restored life as God’s image-bearers, the ones who worship Him, receiving His glory into themselves so that they can reflect it into the creation. No amount of effort toward social justice or any other cause, however important they may be and however directly they are entailed by the Gospel, can be or become ultimate or the essence of the Christian life. They instead follow from faith in God and His Son, the faith which is ultimately loyal love and worship.

This applies every bit as much, by the way, to people who aren’t inclined to the error of a purely social Gospel or merely temporal works. Because for plenty of people who err on the “traditional” side of a Gospel simply about me and Jesus, there is a strong tedency to make moral behavior, decency, social propriety, abstaining from drink or illicit sex, voting Republican, or church attendance the “real stuff” of the Christian life. This is just as incorrect. Prayer, thanksgiving, immersion in Scripture, partaking of the sacraments, and all other forms of direct worship are primary. Without Christ we can do nothing. God is the Gospel. Let this be our creed. Let this be our life.

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So what do you think?