Thursday, May 29, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 13)

Having warmed the reader up with history and theology, Wright decides to call down the thunder and start preaching in chapter 13 of Surprised by Hope. Given that resurrection is about "life after life after death" and not "going to heaven when you die," what should the mission of the church be? According to Wright, the church is to build for the kingdom of God.

Wright starts chapter 13 with a clarification of what he means by building for the kingdom. He criticizes those who would say, "We can't bring in the kingdom, only God can," saying that while this might sound pious, it is little better than "keeping one's head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 207.)

Wright grants that only God can bring in the kingdom. That is why he says the church doesn't "build the kingdom of God," it "builds for the kingdom of God." (208) Ultimately, God will bring the kingdom to consummation, but what we do here and now will have some continuity in eternity. Wright then explores the implication of this in the areas of justice, beauty, and evangelism.

Wright argues that the church should be working for social justice. He points out that the church has typically erred in two extremes on this issue. The first extreme is the social gospel, which sees Jesus as primarily a revolutionary and tries to build the kingdom through social, political, and cultural revolution. (215) He says that these folks are "fighting with one arm tied behind their back" because they neglect the theology of resurrection. (213) The other extreme is to say that nothing can be done until the Lord returns. (215) Wright compares this to the view that trying to live like Christ is pointless since we will never be fully sanctified until Christ returns. (221)

Having addressed the church's responsibility to work for justice, Wright moves to talk about beauty. He points out that humanity's first job was to create, or at least procreate. (223) He applauds the progress that the church has made in the arts in recent years.

Having addressed justice and beauty, Wright concludes chapter 13 by talking about evangelism. He writes, "Much evangelism has, of course, consisted of taking the traditional framework of heaven-and-hell expectation and persuading people that it's time they consider the heaven option and grab it while they still have a chance." (226) While Wright doesn't fully condemn this approach, he does say that it is less-than-perfect because it doesn't accurately communicate the gospel. According to Wright, the gospel is "the good news that God (the world's creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world's true lord." (227)

Finally, I love what Wright says about the effect that preaching this gospel would have on evangelism. He writes:

"Putting evangelism and conversion within the context of new creation means that the convert, who has heard the message in terms of the sovereign and saving lordship of Jesus himself, will never be inclined to think that Christian behavior--saying no to the things that diminish human flourishing and God's glory and saying yes to the things that enhance them--is an optional extra or simply a matter of wrapping your head around some rather strange rules and regulations. Some kinds of evangelism in the past implied that the main thing is to sign on, to pray a particular prayer, which results in the assurance that one is safely on the way to heaven--and failed to mention, to the frustration of pastors and teachers who then tried to look after such converts, the fact that following Jesus means just that, following Jesus, not just checking a box that says 'Jesus' and then sitting back as though it's all done. To speak, rather, of Jesus's lordship and of the new creation, which results from his victory on Calvary and at Easter, implies at once that to confess him as Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead is to allow one's entire life to be reshaped by him, knowing that though this will be painful from time to time, it will be the way not to a diminished or cramped human existence but to genuine human life in the present and to complete, glorious, resurrected human life in the future. As with every other aspect of new creation, there will be surprises on the way. But Christian ethics will only gain from being understood as one expression of Christian hope." (229–30)

I love that. Wright gets to the heart of what it means to have "faith." It's not just about checking a box, it's about following Jesus. If we were to do a better job at remembering this, the world would look much different than it looks.

What do you think about Wright's version of "the gospel"? What about his views on "faith"? Do you think most churches in America do a good or poor job at "preaching the gospel"?

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