A younger, more easily shocked David wrote this May 20, 2005. I thought I’d break it out just for kicks. I did edit it a bit. I deleted some of the Haste, inserting a little more Precision in its stead.
I just went to Seattle, this lovely evening, to attend a lecture given by N.T. Wright, a well-known Anglican theologian.
I was encouraged to know that he was speaking on “The Gospel and Cultural Engagement” because I believe we should engage our culture with the gospel. I believe every person in my community should know about the fact that they can be saved from the punishment for their sin, and enter in to a renewed relationship with God through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection which can be OUR resurrection as well, receiving new bodies and inheriting eternity with him. His grace is a glorious subject to talk about and one which is my favorite.
At times, I found Wright’s message to be accurate. He did a great job of summarizing several elements of the social setting of Jesus’ death on the cross.
However, I was grieved by a lot of what he said, as well as what he neglected to say. Overall, I found that, rather than engaging our culture with the gospel, Wright was more interested in telling us how we can engage the gospel with our culture.
He never once talked about God’s grace. He did a weird little semantic trick: instead of calling the forgiveness of God “grace” (unmerited favor), he called it “loving/redemptive justice”. Sadly, this term is only an intellectually hip way of rehashing the undying concept of “Jesus is your grandfather who wouldn’t (and couldn’t) ever do a thing to anyone which wasn’t just the nicest thing in the world”.
What are we to think of the idea of “loving justice”? Frankly, justice isn’t loving. It is God’s justice which is satisfied in punishing sin. It is GRACE which saves us from that punishment by placating it upon the person of Christ rather than ourselves.
Loving justice would have to be something like “God being faithful to love those whom he has redeemed” rather than “God having a utterly indiscriminate loving disposition toward everyone”. When you take something as fearful and awesome as God’s justice and minimize it’s scope by redefining it, you jeopardize a clear understanding of the intensity of the wrath with which God will punish those who do not repent from their sin. By minimizing or eliminating the reality of God’s wrath, one cannot come to an accurate understanding of God’s grace. Ignorance of God’s grace utterly impedes one’s ability to repent and be reconciled to Him.
Quite frankly, unless God would send me to hell for ignoring him, I am damned (literally) to find a reason to repent. Tell me about the bad news of sin and hell before you claim that there’s any good news about salvation and heaven.
Secondly, it never seemed to occur to Wright that people set themselves against God. Nor did he speak a word about the punishment God has in store for such people. In other words, the “gospel” he preaches is toothless.
He spent all his time talking about how we should appeal to our culture by talking about God’s love in light of the problem of evil. He seems to completely neglect to see that one of the main beefs non-Christians have against the Bible and Christ is that both (one being part of the other) claim that unbelievers go to hell! He never talked about that. Those people, according to the bible, are the majority! If we’re going to talk about evil, let’s talk about the most relevant problem our “culture” faces. Who cares about the millions of people dying from AIDS when most of those people, plus most of the rest of people who have ever lived (BILLIONS) are going to go straight to hell after they die. Can’t he explain that? Isn’t that an important question a lot of non-Christians raise when they engage in a discourse about Christianity?
Matt 7:13 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
Luke 12:5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!
These are the passages Jesus said when he wanted to engage HIS culture with the gospel. And from these passages, Jesus presentation of the gospel was made all the more clear, since we need to be saved…saved, that is, FROM judgment! Duh?
Thirdly, and finally, he neglected to ground what he was saying in Scripture. He did make several references to many different parts of Scripture, but not within the context the writer of that particular book meant to convey meaning. As MacArthur says, “A text without a context is merely a pretext”. In Wright’s case, he constantly spoke of his own ideas about engaging the culture with the gospel; but he never found much interest in showing how God would like us to do it.
If we are to know how God would have us engage with our culture, we ought to see the Scripture where we see either descriptions or prescriptions of the gospel and culture both being acknowledged in relation to each other. The best possible example I can think of is when Paul addresses his audience of Greek philosophers and the many gods they worship in Athens (Acts 17:16-33). In this bold and God-exalting presentation of the gospel, Paul also makes a thoughtful appeal to the existing philosophical assumptions of the people to whom he speaks.
Acts 17:27-29 “…that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.”
This is the mark of a man who thoughtfully engages his culture with his presentation of the gospel. He seeks to build a middle ground of agreement with the poets of Athens as he develops his argument in a specific way to compel those people to believe the gospel and repent.
Passages like this were absent from his presentation. Instead, he spent his time telling us how we need to see the sea as a spiritual parallel to chaos and evil. The sea, according to Revelation, will be gone in the final resurrection. But to Wright, this doesn’t mean what it literally says, it means we can live in harmony with each other today. Due to realities of life such as war, which disrupt this world unity, Wright feels it is pertinent for Christians to oppose major world powers such as the USA in order to bring about this “resurrection”. How often did Jesus or Paul critique the Roman Empire, which was one of the most brutal, oppressive, and specifically hostile world powers, especially to many Christians including Paul and Jesus?
Further, not once did he mention the ways the culture itself sets itself against Christianity. As someone who has to deal with anti-Christian liberalism so often in school, I have had to learn a ton about how to present my views in a thoughtful, yet courageous way. I don’t want to make myself unnecessarily offensive, yet I strive to make myself critically conscious of the enormity of importance connected with the gospel as well as whatever problems my particular culture has with it. Nothing was spoken of the opposition Christians face as they seek to engage their culture with the gospel.
In short…big man, little God. I am almost positive I will never have the enormous scope of influence N.T. Wright has; but if I ever do, each one of you ought to email my hard drive to kingdom come if I give a message on the gospel without talking about God’s grace and forgiveness! It is free for anyone who seeks it, and all who ask God for it will receive permanent salvation apart from any works of Law. Your heart will be renewed with love and satisfaction in Christ, and your mind will be enlightened to see your own evil, but your own good as well, as God changes you day to day into a better person, through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts!
I’m done, and I will go to sleep shortly. Thank you for reading.
If you’d like to read an edited version of this lecture, you may do so here .