Most helpful critical review
“Christ died for our sins” becomes “Christ died for God to become King”
on 20 September 2015
SUMMARY FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT LIKE LONG REVIEWS
When I first started reading one of Wright’s books I came across an Amazon comment to the effect that Wright has an aversion to any mention of our sin, God’s wrath and the need for our sin to be dealt with before being acceptable to a Holy God.
Now that I have read several of his books I tend to agree with the comment.
Take for example his statement in “Simply Good News” pg 65, referring to the belief that Jesus took my punishment, “this ASSUMES, first, that I DESERVE IT, and second, that BECAUSE JESUS TOOK MY PUNISHMENT I THEREFORE GO FREE”. Assumes?
Yes, Wright repeatedly claims to agree with the fact that Jesus “somehow” died for our sins and that that is important, but systematically side-lines it to oblivion – a very, very effective technique. An extreme form of “damning with faint praise”.
In this book Wright quickly sets aside all the relevant and explicit passages and punts “Christ died for our sins” out of the ball park as not being the main theme of the New Testament.
Instead, in spite of the lack of explicit Scriptural teaching and based on "hints" that Wright discerns in the structure of the Gospel narratives and on "paradoxical" statements to the contrary, he deduces that the main theme of the NT is that “Christ died so that God became King”
It boils down to what Scriptures explicitly states versus what the world’s greatest NT scholar discerns.
“You pays your money and you takes your choice”.
DETAIL FOR THOSE INTERESTED
# PART 1: Side-lining “Christ died for our sins”
• The Goal of the Gospels
Wright effectively side-lines the “Christ died for our sins” aspect of the message as not being the main theme of the gospels as the gospel writers do not go on and on about atonement on every page.
“Atonement and justification were assumed to be the heart of ‘the gospel’. But ‘the gospels … appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects” pg 6
He claims that if aspects of the traditional Gospel were as important as everyone over the past 2000 years (especially the last 500) has believed, the Scriptures (rather, the Gospels, as Wright is setting aside Paul’s epistles) would have been much more explicit in these areas.
“If that is what they were trying to say, you’d think they would have made it a bit clearer. ..
Again we have to say, if that’s what the gospels were trying to tell us, they didn’t do a very good job of it” (pg 51)
Wright appears to be totally oblivious to the extreme irony of his statements.
What everyone over the past 2000 years (i.e. many millions of Christians since and including the early Church) HAS understood from the Scriptures is, according to Wright, NOT sufficiently clearly stated in Scripture (i.e. Gospels).
Yet, in extreme contrast, what he alone has observed in 2000 years is apparently explicitly, clearly and repeatedly presented in Scripture – but went totally unnoticed by everyone on the planet!
An extreme example of the pot calling the polished, shiny metallic kettle black!
[Apparently the expression comes from the idea of the pot seeing its black reflection in the shiny reflective kettle and thinking that it is the kettle that is black. In effect the pot accuses the kettle of a fault that only the pot has.]
Do the Gospels go on and on about “Jesus died for God to become King of the Earth” on every page?
Do they even state that explicitly anywhere?
If everyone over the past 2000 years missed this, one must conclude with Wright that “you’d think the Scriptures would have made it a bit clearer, they really didn’t do a very good job of it”
Although the gospel writers do not go on and on about atonement on every page, that was not their purpose, they are NOT theological expositions but, as pointed out by Wright (pg 62-63), biographies of the life of Christ.
The significance of the details of Christ’s life and death, as presented in the Gospels, is specifically unpacked and explained in detail for us in the epistles, but Wright chooses to ignore these Scriptures in this book, preferring to unpack the Gospel story himself.
For the most part, the gospel authors present things in a quasi-chronological order, as events occurred, from Christ’s birth to His death and resurrection.
They, and everyone else, even John the Baptist, expected Messiah to become King and physically sit on David’s throne and rule. God was to restore Israel (all 12 tribes) as an independent kingdom which would rule over the Gentile nations. The wealth of these nations would flow into Jerusalem and gentile nobility would serve Israelites.
That is what was prophesied.
Messiah came and all that did not happen, leaving everyone bewildered, including the Gospel writers.
As Wright himself puts it “Even Jesus’ closest followers, however, cannot begin to see in the strange events of his arrest, trial and death any kind of fulfillment” of the prophesies concerning Messiah and his work.
“They had been living in the currently prevailing version of the Jewish story, and it certainly wasn't supposed to end with the violent death of God's anointed” (pg 76).
To be fair to them, Jesus (initially) went out of His way to hide His identity and His mission; forbidding demons, those He healed and His disciples from revealing who He was and speaking to the people in parables about the Kingdom so that they would NOT understand.
Even though He later explained the parables to His disciples they still did not grasp that Messiah had to die for our sins rather than become King.
As Wright puts it “it is not something that casual readers (of the OT) can see at a glance. .. People would need to ‘search the scriptures day by day to see if what they were hearing was indeed the case (Acts 17.11)” pg 77
The writers largely present the story as it happened without too much “hindsight theologizing”. They keep the reader in the same suspense as they experienced by (generally) not fast-forwarding the story and overtly revealing the twist at the end that caught everyone by surprise, including Satan.
They tell how Messiah came and presented Himself as King (though generally avoiding the titles “Messiah” or “King”, preferring the less obvious Messianic title “Son of Man” of Daniel 7), how He was rejected and crucified and how, VERY belatedly, they came to understand that this had all been part of God’s plan.
It had in fact even been prophesied in the OT that Messiah would die for our sins to enable us to enter His Kingdom.
The Gospels do however present the clues Christ gave them that He had to die for our sins (see below), which they did not pick up on at the time until their minds were opened (Luke 24:44, 45).
Like any good film or book, the unexpected twist at the end has to be credible and fit with clues scattered earlier throughout the story. Suddenly, little details in the story that we (and they) initially ignored all come together and we see, with admiration, how it all fits together beautifully.
In the Gospels the twist does not come out of nowhere, the writers have liberally scattered such ‘clues’ throughout their accounts, some of them rather explicit.
So, no, it is not “Atonement, Atonement, Atonement” on every page, but it is very much present from beginning to end, MUCH more so than “Christ died so that God could become King”.
It is also very present in the (ignored) "official", Scriptural unpacking of the story by Paul
Wright’s total side lining of “the central and vital statement that Messiah died for our sins” is somewhat surprising given that he stresses the “centrality of ‘Jesus died in my place’” in Simply Good News” (pages 66 & 68).
It the present book, our sin and Messiah dying for them does not even figure as one of his four themes or “speakers”. He specifically argues against this view (pg 66 & 67). In fact, “forgiveness of sins” becomes in Wright’s hands “the end of Israel’s exile” (which did not in fact happen, see later)
• Wright’s stated grounds for side-lining “Christ died for our sins”
Wright points out that although the gospels do indeed include passages which specifically mention Messiah having to die for our sins, he concludes that the gospels don’t really make this their main theme (pg 7).
Surprisingly, he only mentions a couple of passages including Mark 10:45 which quotes Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53 (pg 7) and which clearly explains that Messiah came as the “servant of the LORD” “to give his life as a ransom for many”.
“For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister (serve), and to give his life a ransom for many.” See Isa 53:10,11.
A bit of a “give away” clue! It is therefore extremely clear from this Scripture why Messiah came. He came to die for our sins. It says so explicitly.
Note that in the above passage it is Jesus Himself who is interpreting his death as the death of the servant in Isaiah who took upon Himself our sins and was punished for them.
In contrast, He and Scripture never state that He died to become King.
Wright, however, sets aside such explicit Biblical teaching, by Messiah Himself, and somehow concludes that there is a “problem” with this passage/conclusion as, .... wait for it ..., Luke in his Gospel leaves out the phrase “to give his life as a ransom for many” when he mentions that Jesus referred to Himself (on a separate occasion) as a “servant” (22:27).
Apparently, in Wright’s logic, if “Christ’s dying as a ransom for many” was really that important, Luke would have also mentioned it in his Gospel on “this” occasion. As he did not (according to Wright), Wright can conclude that it is not that important!!
[Does he apply the same logic when searching in vain for a(ny) passage which explicitly states “Christ died for God to become King”? .. Not that I can see]
But let’s look more closely at the passage that Wright uses to punt “Christ died for our sins” out of the ball park – well, out of his book.
First of all, Luke 22 mentions Jesus describing Himself as a “servant” within a totally different context, in a different location and at a different time. So you would not necessarily expect the same quotation.
However, even in Luke 22, where Messiah is describing His impending death and is presiding at the “last supper”, He DOES describe how *His body will be given for us* (verse 19) – Isaiah 53 again!!!.
So, Yes, Messiah is indeed, once again (in Luke’s Gospel as well) alluding to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. The fact that He will “give his life as a ransom for many” is made crystal clear in the preceding verses.
Where therefore is the claimed “problem”?
It gets even better! Luke further quotes from Isa 53:12 in this same passage to drive the point home, hopefully for good.
“For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, ‘And he was *reckoned among the transgressors*’” Luke 22:37.
And now for the source of this quote
“After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my RIGHTEOUS SERVANT WILL MAKE MANY RIGHTEOUS, AND HE WILL BEAR THEIR INIQUITIES. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was *numbered with the transgressors*. FOR HE BORE THE SIN OF MANY, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Isa 53:11, 12
I suggest that that is clear.
I suggest that Wright has set aside the explicit teaching of Messiah Himself on the grounds of an imaginary problem he has with Luke’s account.
Wright, however, in an intriguing example of foresight, presents a fall-back argument in case his above claim is somehow not found convincing.
“Even if Luke had reproduced Mark’s phrase exactly, it doesn’t look as though the gospels really make ‘atonement’, in the sense the church has come to use that word, their main theme” (pg 7).
OK, let’s stick with Luke and see how Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, summed up His mission and the message we should preach
“Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that REPENTANCE AND REMISSION OF SINS SHOULD BE PREACHED IN HIS NAME among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Luke 24: 45-47.
Note: We don’t have to preach “God is King” but “Repentance and Remission of Sins in Jesus’ Name”
Bit of a “slam dunk”?
However, Wright alleges on Pg 8 that such passages have to be “prised out of their context” to get them to refer to the saving death of Jesus and the Pauline doctrine of justification!
• Some other early “clues” to the purpose of Christ’s coming and Death
- Mat 1:21.
Imagine going to a film called “The murder of Joe Bloggs”. I suggest that you would not be altogether caught by surprise if Joe Bloggs gets murdered in the film.
Similarly, the person we call Messiah has had many titles (Word, Emmanuel, Son of man, Lamb, etc..) which in effect describe His role in the Godhead at different periods as He has acted as the interface between the Godhead and mankind.
God is Spirit and invisible, one cannot see Him. Everywhere in the OT where God is seen the passages are in effect describing the pre-incarnate “Jesus”.
The name “Jesus” was given to this member of the Godhead when He came to Earth as it describes the role he was to play; it was in effect the title of His Earthly mission.
Jesus (meaning “Jehovah the Saviour”) is Jehovah who came in human form to Earth to die to save us from our sins
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: *for* he shall save his people from their sins” Mat 1:21.
I was very surprised that Wright records his contempt for one of his colleagues who was so ignorant as to use this text in his Christmas sermon (pg 23)!
In Wright’s opinion, this ignoramus did not know “what the gospels are there for” – they are certainly not there to tell us that Jesus died to save us from our sins. Wright claims his colleague was using “random material in Scripture” (pg 23), “prised out of context” (pg 8), to illustrate the idiot’s fixation with the “saving death and resurrection of the divine Saviour”.
However, the colleague appears to be in very good company as, according to Wright, the Church has apparently got it similarly wrong from the very earliest times, from before the creeds, to the reformation, to the present day (pg 38).
In two thousand years, only Wright has correctly understood the message (pg 37).
A lesser man would hesitate faced with such a statistic.
On page 71, Wright re-interprets this passage (Mat 1:21), with the assistance of his special “1st Century Jewish” view point.
As Judah was sent into exile in Babylon as a result of sin, therefore when the angel told Joseph that Jesus would save “His people from their sins” this MUST mean that “Israel’s exile”, i.e. Roman occupation, will end. It is not principally talking about individuals obtaining personal forgiveness.
In, what I consider, a breath-taking example of a non sequitur argument, Wright concludes “Exile is the payment for sin, SO forgiveness of sins means the end of exile”
[Wright uses the same “save from sin” = “save from exile” argument on pg 96 ]
Note #1: In the passages cited by Wright, Isaiah 40:1-2 and Lam 4:22, it is stated that JUDAH (i.e. the two southern tribes) paid in full the penalty for these exile-resulting sins, NOT Messiah.
Messiah did not die to rescue Judah from exile.
Judah went into exile for not keeping the Sabbath and Jubilees years’ rests (Lev 26:27-35.). God exiled them and enabled the land to rest for the seventy missing years (2 Chronicles 36:15-21). Judah indeed paid the price for their sin.
Note #2: When Jesus sends His disciples into all the nations to preach the gospel (Mark 16: 15-16), in a parallel passage in Luke 24:47 He states that
“..repentance and FORGIVENESS OF SINS will be preached in His name to all the nations”.
Given the context, “to all nations”, it is obvious that “forgiveness of sins” is not referring to the ending of Judah’s supposed exile. It means “forgiveness of sins”
[Nor is "repentance" referring to "abandoning your dreams of nationalist revolution"; nor is "Gospel" referring to "an announcement of a royal enthronement" - as Wright has claimed elsewhere.
I now believe that Wright has a very powerful arsenal of "dodgy definitions" with which, once uncritically accepted (as appears to be generally the case), he can use to great effect to reinterpret the meaning of any Scriptural passage]
Note #3: In introducing the subject of Messiah’s promised coming, Wright cites, but then ignores the awesome passage Dan 9:24 (pg 69-70): “Seventy weeks (i.e. 490 years) are decreed upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy.”
It’s more than an end of Judah’s imagined exile. It is dealing with their ongoing inability to keep the first covenant - by dealing with their sin problem, once and for all, and by bringing in the New Covenant which would in effect keep them. All this was prophesied at the time of their earlier (real) exile.
Note #4: The same passage, Dan 9 vs 26, states that, far from the Roman occupation coming to an end, Messiah would be killed and Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed – as happened!
“And after threescore and two weeks shall MESSIAH BE CUT OFF, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall DESTROY THE CITY AND THE SANCTUARY…”
Note #5: Did Judah’s Roman occupation end? NO. Was the angel therefore lying?
Or, instead, did Messiah die for our sins as attested by the whole NT?
- John 1:29
Another early, rather explicit clue was John the Baptist’s prophesy that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29, 36; see also 1 Pet 1:18-20).
[Once again the "taking away of sin" is not referring to the ending of the imagined exile of Judah]
However, even John himself did not fully grasp the significance of what he was prophesying and evidently expected Jesus to reign as King (Jn 11:2-3), not die on a cross.
Note that when it was prophesied that John would prepare the way for Messiah (Mal 3:1-3), the way he did this was by getting the people to come repent and confess their sins in order to obtain forgiveness (Matt 3:2,6,8,10; Mk 1:4,5; Luke 1:16, 17; 3:3,7-9, 17) because the Kingdom was at hand and judgement was coming (see also the context of Mal 3 “Where is the God of judgment?”).
I note that Wright stresses the coming Kingdom in this passage (pg 74-75) but ignores the judgement, sin and the requirement for confession and repentance. He simply “cherry picks” the phrase “the time is fulfilled” out of its context.
Another interesting point was made by Messiah Himself when He asked, given that John/Elijah had prepared the people in this manner for His coming, why was it prophesied (referring to Isaiah 53 etc) that Messiah had to be rejected and suffer rather than be crowned King? (Mark 9:12, see also Mat 17:12).
People had to confess their sin to enter the Kingdom; however Messiah still had to suffer and pay for their sins as prophesied.
• Israel Suffering for our sins?
In the present book, Wright appears to believe that Israel’s role or “servant vocation” (Isaiah 53) was to suffer and that Christ simply took over that role on their behalf (pg179).
“IF, then the gospel writers are, as WE SUGGESTED earlier, offering the story of Jesus as the completion of the story Israel, in what sense is it now complete? .. The answer SEEMS to lie .. in the dark strand that emerges at various stages of the tradition of ancient Israel. .. there emerges a strange and initially perplexing theme: Israel itself will have to enter that darkness. .. ISRAEL’S OWN SUFFERING WILL not simply be a dark passage through which the people have to pass, but ACTUALLY PART OF THE MEANS WHEREBY THEY WILL — perhaps despite themselves! — FULFIL THE ORIGINAL DIVINE VOCATION” Pg 179. See also pgs 183,
May I suggest that that is total Baloney?
Israel’s vocation, as presented clearly in Scripture, was to be a Kingdom of Priests (Exodus 19:6). Through them He would bless the entire world (Gen.18:18). Any suffering for sin involved the animals which were sacrificed, not the people of Israel!!
Israel was to be God’s special nation. If they lived up to the contract they would be abundantly blessed, if they did not, they would be cursed and suffer the consequences, including exile (Deut 28)
Hence Israel’s vocation was to be a Kingdom of Priests and to be greatly blessed by God – NOT to suffer, that was the consequence of their sin.
Although Wright then tries to play down the importance of this issue, it is of paramount importance in highlighting and understanding the role of Jesus the Messiah and how God laid on him the iniquity of us all so that we might go free – i.e. penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, which is apparently a bit of a taboo subject for Wright.
In the NT this OT passage is key in proving that Messiah had to die for our sins. Acts 8 clearly states that it IS indeed Jesus who is described in Isa 53 and several passages in the New Testament refer to parts of Isaiah 53 when referring to Jesus, even by Jesus Himself (e.g., Matthew 8:17; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:37;1 Peter 2:24).
The church fathers also took Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.
Even many Rabbis before the time of Jesus, and some much later, believed that this passage referred to Messiah (The Messiah Texts, by Raphael Patai (a Jewish scholar), Avon Books, 1979).
The present Jewish view is that the passage refers to the suffering of the nation of Israel, obviously it can’t be about Jesus.
It is somewhat surprising that an eminent Christian scholar, in spite of Jesus’s own teaching on the passage, shares the view of, for example, Jewish “anti-missionaries” virulently opposed to Jesus as the Messiah.
Christ crucified is indeed still a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (i.e. scholars)
Although Wright concedes somewhat half-heartedly that “the suffering SEEMS to be focused on A PARTICULAR FIGURE” (pg 179), he stresses that this is not really that important (it is!) and, wait for it, then continues to build on his “Israel’s-vocation-is-to-suffer-claim”
“It is ultimately futile to enquire whether the ‘servant’ is Israel or Israel’s representative. In all sorts of ways it is both, EVEN THOUGH in the end it APPEARS that THE SUFFERER IS ONE upon whom the faithful in Israel .. gaze in a mixture of horror and gratitude” pg181
No, it’s not that Wright is trying to deny that Jesus is the Messiah. He does however appear to want to play down the importance of what Messiah’s death achieved on our behalf by setting Israel’s suffering (for their own sins), and our persecution as Christians, on a par with Messiah’s atoning death. He appears to believe that we share in Christ’s vocation, in His redemptive suffering (pgs 198-9; 201; 203).
By being very vague about what Jesus actually accomplished on the cross, and thus undervaluing it, Wright can side-line the importance of “Christ died for our sins”.
Observe what he says on Page 244.
“*IF* the cross is to be interpreted as the coming of the kingdom on earth as in heaven, centering on SOME KIND of messianic victory, with SOME KIND of substitution at its heart, making some sense through SOME KIND of representation, THEN the four gospels leave us with the PRIMARY application of the cross NOT in abstract preaching about ‘how to have your sins forgiven’ or ‘how to go to heaven’, BUT in an agenda in which forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary” (Pg 244).
Note the “SOME KIND of messianic victory, with SOME KIND of substitution at its heart, making some sense through SOME KIND of representation”. Rather vague.
Anyway, as a result, it is not of primary importance.
Note also the “IF” and “THEN” in the statement. The conclusion is based on the initial assumption. Effectively he is saying “IF the cross is about the coming of the kingdom on earth, THEN the cross is primarily about the coming of the kingdom on earth and the Kingdom work we have to do – and, of course, NOT about Christ dying for our sins”.
This is termed “begging the question”, a form of circular reasoning where one assumes what one is supposed to be proving while stating the premise.
Further note that Wright sets aside the clear and repeated Biblical teaching that Christ died for our sins. According to Wright, based on his questionable reasoning, that is NOT the primary purpose of the cross.
As pointed out previously, Christ Himself, after His resurrection, stressed “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. And REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS OF SINS WILL BE PREACHED IN HIS NAME to all the nations” (Luke 24:46, 47).
Note: He died not to become King but for our sins and this is what we should preach!
It would appear that Wright disparages even Christ’s own teaching on the subject and describes it as “abstract preaching about ‘how to have your sins forgiven’” pg 244
Wright then delivers the ultimate put down for those who are simple enough to believe the Gospel message that Christ came to die for our sins – according to the Scriptures – to enable us to get back into the Kingdom
“‘Yes, God made the world, but we are sinners, and so God sent Jesus to save us from our sins’. Creation, sin, Jesus. That is the implicit narrative of millions of Christians today – and it GUARANTEES THAT THEY WILL NEVER, EVER UNDERSTAND EITHER THE OLD TESTAMENT OR THE NEW” (pg 260-1)
Is it possible, perhaps, that it is the world’s leading New Testament scholar who has a massive gaping hole in his understanding of the Old (and New) Testament?
Surprisingly, he appears unaware of the major theme running through Scripture of our sin which got us expelled from God’s Kingdom in the first place; the means God provided in the Tabernacle and Temple, models of the Garden of Eden, for man to approach Him once again via the sacrifices and the necessity for the shedding of blood for our sins and how these all illustrated how Messiah was eventually going to solve our Kingdom-excluding-sin problem by being both High Priest and the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
Oh, and all the passages in the OT that Jesus and the Apostles referred to which stress the need for Messiah to suffer for our sins.
Wright seems to only note in the OT the promise, quite late in the story, once Israel rejected God as their King, that the promised Saviour would be a descendent of David and would sit as King on David’s throne and rule in the midst of His people Israel in Zion – still to occur.
It is indeed important that “forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary” (Pg 244) – BUT FIRST THEY HAVE TO BE FORGIVEN! That is the “the PRIMARY application of the cross”.
• Conclusion of Part 1
The message we are to preach, from the mouth of Messiah Himself after His resurrection.
“And REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS OF SINS WILL BE PREACHED IN HIS NAME to all the nations” (Luke 24:47).
Note context “to all nations” - “forgiveness of sins” is not referring to Judah’s supposed exile.
“He said to them, “Go into all the world and PREACH THE GOSPEL to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be SAVED, but whoever does not believe will be CONDEMNED.” (Mark 16: 15-16)
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. Matt 28: 19-20
To be continued