One of the more controversial aspects of the teaching of Bishop Tom Wright is his understanding of the Christian gospel, and of the task of proclaiming that gospel.
He notes that much ‘evangelism’ has consisted of
taking the traditional framework of heaven-and-hell expectation and persuading people that it’s time they considered the ‘heaven’ option and grabbed it which they had the chance. What’s stopping them getting there is sin; the solution is provided in Jesus Christ; all they have to do is to accept it!
Now, says Wright, this presentation may not be entirely mistaken, but it is certainly lopsided. In Wright’s understanding,
‘the gospel’, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king, and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true Lord…The power of the gospel lies…in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun.
Once this gospel is announced, it will mean that
all people everywhere are gladly invited to come in, to join the party, to discover forgiveness for the past, an astonishing destiny in God’s future, and a vocation in the present.
And if the church’s announcement of this gospel seems laughable in the present nature of things, then it suddenly makes a lot of sense
if a church is…actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and it it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation, and its rescue from corruption, in art and music, and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community.
When this gospel ‘takes root’ – i.e. when people experience ‘conversion’, ‘regeneration’, ‘the new birth’ – then they will find
that the presence of Jesus is suddenly a reality for them, that reading the Bible becomes exciting, that they can’t get enough of Christian worship and fellowship…Such a person is a living, breathing little bit of ‘new creation’ – that new creation which has already begun to happen in Jesus’ resurrection, and which will be complete when God finally makes his new heavens and new earth and raises us to share in that new world.
Putting it like this avoids three problems into which evangelism can run:-
First, ‘it makes it clear that to become a Christian is not to say “no” to the world.’
Second, it ‘avoids from the start any suggestion that the main or central thing that has happened is that the new Christian has entered into a private relationship with God or with Jesus.’
Third, it stresses that Christian behaviour is not an optional extra, but it part and parcel of ‘following Jesus’, of placing oneself under his lordship.
Comment: The big question here is whether Wright’s version of the gospel and its proclamation is any improvement on the caricature that it seeks to correct. I have my doubts. It is not at all clear, for example, that the announcement that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is ‘good news’. In fact, it is not good news at all, but rather very bad news unless and until one finds a way from rebellion against to loving subjection to, Christ’s lordship. And that way runs through a place called Calvary, a place that receives too little emphasis in the gospel according to Tom Wright.
Wright, Surprised by hope (SPCK, 2007), 236-242.