Martin Foord continues his review of Tom Wright’s Simply Good News (see first part here) with a critical appreciation.
Tom Wright’s book Simply Good News has much that is excellent.
First, his emphasis on the gospel as the announcement of an event rather than some good advice (or moral instruction) is wonderfully refreshing. God in Christ has intervened into his world and has done something truly momentous. This helps keep Christ at the front and centre of the gospel like the gospel summaries found in Scripture (Romans 1:2-4; 2 Timothy 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Moreover, it encourages the best gospel tracts to be the four Gospels themselves.
Second, Wright’s desire to place Christ’s work in an overarching Scriptural story is an excellent corrective. Christians simply don’t have a Gospel without the OT back-story. Christ’s fulfilment of the OT narrative is essential to the Gospel message:
… Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15, ESV)
… the gospel of God, which [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures … (Romans 1:1–2, ESV)
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel … (2 Timothy 2:8, ESV)
Unlike so much biblical scholarship that treats Scripture as a random collection of jigsaw pieces, Wright courageously attempts to put the pieces together into a grand whole. He reminds us that the gospel is the culmination of a story and the foundation of a worldview. This is exactly what we need if we hope to demonstrate the gospel’s superiority over other cultural narratives.
Third, Wright’s emphasis on the resurrection in the Gospel is magnificent. Too often gospel presentations amount to an explanation of what Christ’s death achieved, ignoring the crucial function of the resurrection as Christ’s coronation inaugurating God’s kingdom and new creation.
The chief concern I have with Wright’s gospel is emphasis: critical issues that should be in the gospel’s foreground shift to the background, and background concerns inhabit the foreground. This shift arises from Wright’s account of the fundamental problem the gospel solves. He identifies it as evil, sin, and Satan (with his principalities and powers). These are certainly important problems that the gospel addresses.
But the fundamental problem humans have is not sin, evil, or Satan. It’s God. God is offended at our sin, his anger is aroused, and his judgment (or “curse”) hangs over us. This is an essential theme in Scripture’s narrative starting at the fall, through Cain, the flood, Babel, and so on to Israel’s exile. And the horrendous news is that one day we sinners will have to face God on judgment day (Matthew 25:2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:28). There is no problem as serious as this. Israel’s exile, an act of God’s judgment on her sin, is but a shadow of the future reality that is the Day of Judgment. Wright believes in a final judgment day, but he makes almost nothing of it in his book—a book on the Gospel!
Wright’s failure to identify the fundamental problem affects his presentation of the gospel in three vital areas (amongst others). The first is Christ’s death. By failing to identify the principal problem of a wrathful God, Wright misses the heart of Christ’s death. Wright believes the primary (but not sole) reason for Christ’s death was to defeat the devil and his demonic minions:
As the four Gospels indicate, it comes down in the last analysis to a battle between Jesus, as the pioneer of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, and the accuser, the satan, the dark quasi-personal force bent on destroying God’s work, God’s kingdom, God’s world. And now God’s son. The satan does its worst, piling up false accusations, betrayals, and unjust judgments against Jesus. (44)
This is perplexing. The most explicit Scripture that links Christ’s death to the devil’s defeat is Hebrews 2:14-15. It identifies the devil’s power making humans fear “death” (being guilty before God’s judgment seat). The word “Satan” after all does mean “accuser”. The devil causes us distress by reminding people of their guilt. This power of accusation is lost when there is no guilt. And this is precisely what Christ did when he came as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). In other words, Satan is defeated as accuser only first when God’s wrath is appeased (propitiation). Satan can’t be defeated until firstly God’s anger and “curse” have been removed. That is why John speaks of believers overcoming the devil who “accuses them day and night” by the “blood [i.e. death] of the lamb” (Rev. 12:10-11).
The only other part of Scripture that speaks of Christ defeating the “principalities and powers” in Christ’s death is Colossians 2:15. But in context, these demonic powers are only conquered once human guilt is first removed, when God cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). In short, Christ’s defeat of Satan relies on Christ’s more important work of appeasing God’s wrath. Certainly Jesus conquers Satan as a ruler. But this is a result not of Christ’s death but his resurrection (Ephesians 1:20-21).
These are serious shortcomings. Next week, as we wrap up this review, we’ll take a look at two other problems.
Picture: “Last Judgment Triptych,” Hans Memling (c. 1467–71), Wikipedia.