This is a review and reflection of
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Hope of the Church.
New York: HarperOne, 2008. 332 pp. $24.95.
Copyright © 2008 by Alex S. Leung. All rights reserved.
Our future hope is securely grounded in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. N. T. Wright makes this point painstakingly clear in his popular work on eschatology, Surprised by Hope, arising as the major strength of his latest book. He argues that this assured hope in Christ’s resurrection should convince of us of our own redemption and renewal in Christ. This is promised and guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and as such, it is the very thing that the whole world’s waiting for (107).
For this reason, those who are united with Christ and indwelt by his Spirit should properly await and expect the resurrection of our bodies. Wright is correct to commend that Christians will be given a new, immortal body on the new earth through and by the Holy Spirit at the coming of Christ, the purpose of which is for us to rule over God’s new creation wisely (159-163). Wright’s impassioned cry to readers for this very hope to shape the church’s mission is compelling and contagious, and yet it is dangerously so. He incorporates a significant amount of biblical and theological material in making a strong case for a “hope-shaped mission” (194). Henceforth, the topic that this paper thus hopes to address is Wright’s understanding of salvation and the gospel. His definition of salvation and the meaning of it that is presented in his book is confusing at best and misleading to say the least. As a serious area of concern, we therefore must address the issue of salvation: what did Jesus come to save?
I would argue that Jesus came to save sinners, and that the gospel is the good news of Christ Jesus’ atoning work (his life, death, and resurrection) to save sinners. Let us then examine this issue through the lens of Wright’s book.
Salvation is Mission
Wright confronts the popular Christian notions of salvation and the gospel in chapter 12, “Rethinking Salvation: Heaven, Earth, and the Kingdom of God.” While the Christian’s work of mission to the physically dying and impoverished world should be a result of his faith in Christ’s atoning work, Wright seems to advocate that it is an essential part of the gospel. Consider his words here in this lengthy sentence:
To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an after thought. (191-192)
He seems to imply that service to these wounded people from the Christian hope should be included in the gospel, instead of being an afterthought. I could be mistaken, but his words seem to call for a gospel that includes serving the needs of the needful unsaved world. He continues,
And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it. (192)
Again, taken at face value, Wright appears to include the mission to the poor and needy as an essential part of Christian missions and evangelism. Is Wright correct in making this delineation of the gospel and salvation? He certainly goes on to explain that Christ himself was very active in his earthly ministry to do such a work as healing people from sickness and death, grounding Jesus earthly mission as the “not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the world presently is” (192).
I do not think Wright was clear enough with his gospel / mission presentation, and thus has caused significant confusion in my mind about the meaning of the gospel, what biblical missions is, and how it is directly related to the gospel.((I am not alone in feeling this confusion. For similar analysis of these issues, see Mark Dever, “Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology” (Session IV, Together For the Gospel 2008 conference, April 16 2008).)) Wright is well intentioned to motivate Christians to the ministry of bringing justice in this fallen world through the surprising hope of Jesus life, death and resurrection, but his perplexing commendations seem to stand in opposition to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15 : “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
God’s concern for societal issues like the welfare of our cities (Jeremiah 29:7) should be an important and vital part of one’s life as a Christian, but it is an implication of and result from the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ’s atoning death. The work to renew creation through alleviating poverty, hunger and bring forth justice in these areas is not the gospel itself, and should not be confused with God’s work in salvation itself. While it is true that God’s work of redemption is cosmic and will affect the entirety of creation, the corrupt world needs saving because it suffers from the sins of man. And because sin has come into the world through one man, salvation of the cosmos and the renewal of the world and all its woundedness is only possible through the salvation of mankind through the one man, Jesus Christ.
The Good News: Salvation for Those Who Believe
What more, Wright caricatures the “normal Western Christian view” of salvation: “that salvation is a about ‘my relationship with God’ in the present and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future” (196). Salvation, he argues, must not be seen in terms of going to heaven when we die or saving souls for the future, and he is correct on this point—salvation should not be seen as saved souls but as a “new and gloriously embodied reality” (197). I would only argue further that a proper understanding of the biblical gospel should not either or, but both and—the salvation of our souls as a present reality and future hope, as well as new, glorious bodies upon the new heavens and new earth.
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the Apostle explains clearly what the gospel (εὐαγγέλιον – “good news”) is: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, emphasis mine). Paul thus explains that the gospel is “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes”—and therefore, there is no reason to be ashamed of it.
“Salvation is the application of the work of Christ to the lives of humans ” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 902). What, then, is the work of Christ? What did he do? Consider further Paul’s words to the church at Corinth:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Cor 15:1-4, emphasis mine)
The historical authenticity and reliability of the Gospel rests in this four-fold description, and in this is the meaning of the gospel and salvation through Jesus Christ most succinctly expounded: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God (1) died, (2) was buried, (3) then raised from death to life, as prophesied and recorded by the Holy Scriptures. To all who trust in the atoning work of Christ, this gospel — the gospel — is the power of God unto salvation. Since we have been given the gospel by special revelation, let us not expand or shrink it from what it has actually been said to be. Adding to or taking from the Word of God is not only a sinful act of disobedience, but more than that, it is a outright rejection of God’s word. Therefore, adding to the Gospel of the Bible is not just detrimental to the spiritual health of the Christian, it is damning (Rev 22:18-19). We must not, then, proclaim any other gospel than the one we have been given through the Holy Bible.
Theological and Historical Truths
The theological element of the gospel cannot exist apart from the historical event of the atonement, and the historical event of Christ’s salvific work is meaningless if it is understood without the theological element. For Christ shed his blood cleansing sinners of their guilt and forgiving them of their inequities (theological) through the historically verifiable event of his death and resurrection (historical). Henceforth, the whole gospel and salvation includes both theological and historical elements. This means that we must confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:5-13). The gospel is all about what Christ did on the cross for us (salvation through atonement), and it includes nothing else but that.
Like the theological and historical elements, to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life while confessing that he is the resurrected Savior is utterly futile—the acceptance of a half-gospel is in essence embracing no gospel at all. Likewise, to serve the needs of the unbelieving poor by bringing cosmic justice and peace to them without first convincing them of their need for Christ is essentially divorcing our response of works from the ministry of faith. As J. I. Packer has so pointedly portended: “the result of these omissions is that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole-truth becomes a complete untruth” (J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 126).
To say that the gospel is social justice or redeeming our culture is thus to say that the whole gospel means or includes something that the Scriptures does not support. Such a thing that undermines the purity of the gospel, hence, also denies the fundamental elements of the gospel. To say something as outlandish as this is not only contrary to the canon of Scripture and the whole counsel of God, but furthermore, it is heretical due to its refutation of the whole, biblical gospel. Thankfully, despite Wright’s outlandish comments on Western Christianity’s view of salvation, he does reiterate biblical salvation, which is “not ‘going to heaven’ but ‘being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth’ ” (198). But sadly, he brings confusion back to the gospel again with his view that Jesus and his disciples’ work of “healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was [so] that this was a proper anticipation of the ultimate salvation” (198-199).
Through the often convicting statements of the Apostle Paul in passages like Ephesians 1:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Titus 2:11, we see the unique and united message of the gospel and salvation. But through the often confusing statements of N. T. Wright, we see the clear and present danger that arises when the implications of the gospel are referred to as part of the gospel message and saving work of God itself. When such a message is disseminated into the church, the unique message of Jesus’ reconciling death for sinners will be confused and his resurrection will be relativized. Those who add works to the gospel itself are worthy of being accursed (Gal 1:6-9).
Our gospel witness will be compromised if we only serve the material needs of our society—needs which will be present until Christ’s second coming. We must not be distracted from genuine gospel proclamation by succumbing to serving just the concrete societal issues of justice, poverty, and peace. Like how N. T. Wright strived to emphasize, a proper grasp of our future hope in Christ should lead us directly to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. However, this future hope must always be the center of all true evangelism and this present hope must also continually be the focus of all authentic Christian mission (Matt 28:18-20).