This is the third installment of Martin Foord’s review of Tom Wright’s Simply Good News (see first and second posts). In this post, having already questioned whether the book gives us a sufficiently serious vision of God’s wrath, he asks whether it gives us a big enough vision of God’s love.
Another area lacking in Wright’s gospel, which arises from the first, is God’s love. Wright certainly talks much about God’s love. But we can’t discover the true heights of God’s love without grasping the depths of Christ’s atoning death:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
(1 John 4:10, ESV)
The resurrection is God’s supreme display of power but Christ’s death is the supreme display of God’s love. Why? Because the cross powerfully demonstrates how God forgives. A critical theme lacking in Wright’s presentation is how Christ’s death is the means of forgiveness. God in his love chooses to absorb his own anger in Christ’s (willing) death:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:7–8)
19 in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)
This is how forgiveness works, choosing to soak up the anger, hurt, and injustice rather than take it out on the guilty party:
… God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Rom. 3:25)
God is both loving and angry in just the same way a human parent can be both loving and angry towards a rebellious child. Indeed, God’s anger arises from his love. It’s a little bit like when anger wells up in a human Father when his Child rebels child precisely because he loves his child.
Wright explicitly denies that God punishes his Son as an “oversimplification” (45). This might be so if we simply imagine an angry God appeased by a loving Son. But the question remains, where does God’s righteous anger go when he forgives sinners? The answer must be that it was directed against Christ (Rom 3:25-26; 1 Pet 2:24). That’s why Christ sweated profusely in Gethsemane at the prospect of drinking the cup of God’s wrath. That’s why darkness came upon the land from sixth to the ninth hour. That’s why he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”; and why the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom.
The Church’s Mission
Wright’s lack of emphasis on the final judgment day shifts the focus for a life worthy of the gospel. He believes that if the “good news” is about the inauguration of a new creation then believers are to produce signs of this new creation now. As he writes:
And if anyone tries to say that the good news is not about all these things – about freeing slaves, about helping the poor, about reconciling warring factions, ethnic groupings, and whole nations, about looking after the blessed world we live on and in – but instead is only about coming to faith in the present and going to heaven in the future, then we must reply that something has gone very, very wrong in their thinking. (116)
Of course Christians are to care for the poor, feed the hungry, and work for social justice (James 1:27; Galatians 6:10). But what about the coming day of judgment? If the worst that can happen to a person is to be guilty before God on judgment day, then surely most pressing need now is to see people saved from it. I’m sure Wright believes this. Why doesn’t he say it loud and clear? When Paul evangelised the pagan Athenians he explicitly said:
“… but now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)
Christ said that because “all authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me” the obvious implication was “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18-20). Is this not the supreme sign of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven?
Tom Wright’s book Simply Good News is insightful, and challenging. However, there is a worrying imbalance in what he presents and neglects. The problem is quite simply, emphasis. I guess this why the word “grace” appears once in a book about the Gospel.
 For an example of how this portrayed in Mark, for example, see Peter Bolt, “‘…With a View to the Forgiveness of Sins’: Jesus and Forgiveness in Mark’s Gospel,” The Reformed Theological Review 57, no. 2 (1998): 53–69.
Picture: “The Three Crosses,” Rembrandt (1643), Wikipedia.