N.T. Wright and Gospel Confusion
N.T. “Tom” Wright is a leading New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop in the U.K. He has been hailed by Time magazine as “one of the most formidable figures in Christian thought”. I’ve read a number of Wright’s books, and profited from them. Wright, who has a PhD from Oxford, has taught at both Oxford and Cambridge universities. Wright is a titan in the world of New Testament scholarship. He is also a confessing evangelical Christian. Wright argues for Christ’s bodily resurrection and His second coming. Additionally, he has expressed opposition both to the ordination of openly gay Christians and the blessing of same sex partnerships and marriages.
In his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (2008), Wright does a masterful job of describing how Bible-believing Christians often fail to see the bigger picture of the gospel by not appreciating the “good news” aspect of what God is doing through the life and ministry of Jesus to remake and renew our planet. This is needed correction in some ways.
However…while Wright is great in describing the big picture of the gospel, he is notoriously fuzzy on how to be born again and reconciled to God on the individual level. In a word, he is confusing. This is especially clear in his book, Simply Good News: Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good (2017). In his massive work, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), Wright does discuss the concepts of repentance and belief, but does so in largely corporate terms. Wright’s book, Justification (2017[paperback]), is downright confusing when it comes to the gospel. He believes justification has nothing to do with the imputed righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner. Instead, justification is an announcement that we are part of God’s covenant family. He writes, “What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear. It is not ‘how you become a Christian,’ so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’ ” (Pg 122)
Over and over again in his books, Wright attacks the classic Reformed and biblical doctrine that the righteousness of Christ is imputed, or reckoned, to the sinner’s account, and it is on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone that we obtain our righteous standing before God. Wright puts it this way:
“If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant…. If we leave the notion of ‘righteousness’ as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship.” (p98, What St. Paul Really Said).
Wright’s attacks on the imputed righteousness of Christ are troubling and confusing. He never tells us how to be saved. This is a glaring error that causes me regular consternation when I read Wright. This lack of clarity fails to answer the simple question of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 when, in a moment of sheer terror, he cried out “What must I do to be saved?” We need a clear, concise answer to this if we are going to be able to share the gospel with lost people, and disciple them as new believers in Christ.
by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor