The Gospel According to N. T. Wright

By way of introduction, John Piper opens The Future of Justification by chronicling a litany of Wright’s statements from a variety of works aimed at defining both what the gospel is as well as what it is not. The first of these statements, as it regards the gospel positively, captures well the basic thrust of Wright’s thought:
The “gospel” itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.[5]
Key to Wright’s understanding (as Piper’s larger catalog makes clear) is the word “proclamation.” The gospel is, after all, news: the public declaration of something that has (first and foremost) happened in space and time. What precisely Wright means by the word “proclamation”—i.e., his formulation of the events themselves (both historically and theologically speaking)—is outlined at length by Wright in his earlier and frequently cited work, What Saint Paul Really Said. There the “gospel” is unfolded as an essentially “fourfold announcement about Jesus”:
  1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

  2. In Jesus' resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel's exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

  3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

  4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true King of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow. . . .
The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is the putting into effect of that kingship, the decision and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered . . . that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human beings they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.[6]
As Piper’s own comments readily display,[7] Wright’s focus upon the kerygmatic (or, proclamatory) nature of the gospel as the express declaration of Jesus Christ’s lordship is far from controversial.

It is, however, upon what Wright says the gospel is not where disagreement begins:
My proposal has been that “the gospel” is not, for Paul, a message about “how one gets saved,” in an individual and ahistorical sense.[8]

“[T]he gospel” is not an account of how people get saved.[9]

The gospel is not . . . a set of techniques for making people Christians.[10]

Paul’s gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved.[11]
To these statements more could of course be added (not least because of Wright’s prolific body of work). However, rather than simply add “precept upon precept” (quote upon quote), the most useful (and, it ought to be pointed out, the most recent) summary of both Wright and Piper’s position on the gospel appeared last year in a June 2009 Q&A with Christianity Today. There, in the wake their successive books, both writers provided summary statements regarding their understanding of the gospel proper:
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.

Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.[12]
Thankfully, there is much that could be said about the agreement between these statements; nonetheless, for our purposes, it is not so much their agreement that concerns us, but rather their disagreement. As such, the primary difference lies squarely in Piper’s inclusion of the traditionally reformed doctrine termed imputed righteousness (what Piper refers to as being “counted”; see especially note 12) within the gospel message proper—i.e., within what the gospel in and of itself actually declares. Wright, as we will see, not only rejects the concept of “imputed righteousness” (though he is quick to replace it with a robust doctrine of union with Christ), he also draws a sharp distinction between what the gospel is as an historical proclamation of good “news” and what the gospel does as a result of its proclamation. For Wright, the gospel does not save because it is a message about how to be saved—not, in other words, because it is a set of ahistorical instructions (repent and believe) about what a person must do to inherit life in the “age to come.” Rather, the gospel saves but because when it is announced God is active (through his Spirit) to bring its hearers under the saving lordship of Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith come about as a result of God’s grace exercised through such preaching.[13] They are the covenantal badges by which God’s people are marked out.

The real crux of the matter, therefore, is not whether the gospel saves from sin via Jesus’ penal substitution (both authors affirm that is does). Nor is it Wright’s preference for Christus Victor as the controlling concept for understanding the atonement. Instead, the dispute lies in whether or not the gospel (to be the gospel) must include justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

With this question in mind, our next task will be to begin examining the doctrine of justification itself.


[5] N. T. Wright, “Paul in Different Perspectives: Lecture 1: Starting Points and Opening Reflections.” Pastors Conference at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, Louisiana (3 January 2005). 28 December 2009.

[6] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 60-61.

[7] “Yes. That is an essential announcement of the gospel.” Piper, Justification, 18.

[8] Wright, Saint Paul, 60.

[9] Ibid., 133.

[10] Ibid., 153.

[11] Ibid., 90.

[12] Trevin Wax (compiler), “The Justification Debate: A Primer.” Christianity Today. June 2009. 12 April 2010. Equally interesting is the follow-up question: “How This Happens.”

“Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

“Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are ‘in Christ,’ so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the ‘works of the Law’ (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).”

[13] Piper’s otherwise incisive comments in The Future of Justification about the questionable goodness of such a bare declaration—namely that Jesus is the world’s true Lord—are easily assuaged by Wright’s inclusion of the line “who died for our sins” in his definition of the gospel offered in Christianity Today. Cf. Piper, Justification, 18: “But one wonders how the death and resurrection of Jesus could be heard as good news if one had spent his life committing treason against the risen King. It seems as though one would have to be told how the death and resurrection of Christ actually saves sinners, if sinners are to hear them as good news and not as a death sentence.”

No comments: