N.T. Wright

The Mission of God

My sermon series on the Mission of God has provided me with plenty of opportunities to meditate on redemptive history. What follows is a large portion of my Sunday homily largely dependent on Christopher Wright’s massive tome, The Mission of God’s People:

The Bible does not begin with the Fall of man in Genesis 3 nor the restoration of man in Revelation 20. To put it simply, the Bible is not just about solving our sin problem. It has a more foundational beginning. It begins with the creation account. “Well, of course it does you may say!” But remarkably the creation account is rarely mentioned in conversations about mission. Creation is the fundamental starting point of mission. In the creation we learn to answer the questions, “Who owns this world?” and “What is our mission in it?” These questions only find an answer in the creation account.

If you skip this part, everything about the way you view the world will be thwarted. You can’t begin with creation fallen. You must begin with creation as it was intended, and then move from there.

Only then can you move into the second stage of God’s history, which is the Fall. Creation was united under the cause of seeing God’s world prosper in grace and truth. This was the mission of God, but men decided to go on their own mission; to take their own journey apart from God. This, of course, did not catch God by surprise. Evil and sin weave their way into every aspect of human society. Intellectually, we use our mental powers to justify our sins, rather then confess them. Socially, our relationships are fractured: sexual, parental, familial, societal, ethic and on and on. So, if all of creation is broken down, then all of creation needs to be restored. How much of creation was damaged by the fall? All. How much of it needs to be restored? All.

The third part of this narrative is the element of redemption. Creation, Fall, Redemption in history. But here’s where we need to see things aright, because we are not talking simply about redemption in an abstract fashion, nor are we speaking about redemption only of individual souls, we are talking about redemption in history. The mission of God is to redeem creation within history through persons and events that run from the call of Abraham to the return of Christ. By Genesis 11 the human race faced two major problems: the sinfulness of every human heart and the fracturing and confusion of the nations of humanity. What did God do to begin to fix these catastrophic problems? He called and elected Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. We can say that the first Great Commission was given to Abraham. Genesis 12 says: “Go…be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” In Exodus God came as redeemer showing simultaneous his mercy, love, and justice. At Sinai God entered into covenant with his people calling Israel to be his representatives and to be distinctive. Why would God ask Israel of these things? Why would God ask Israel to be holy? Was it so that Israel could grow up to be a good role model to her father? Well, certainly, but any sane reader will know that there is much more at stake. Israel was to be a light to the nations. By serving one another, obeying Yahweh’s commandments, Israel was teaching the nations how to be faithful children. We always tell our children: be faithful, be obedient because others are watching. In Israel’s case, God knew that Israel’s testimony would influence the nations. But we know the rest of the story. Like their father Adam, Israel failed. She was blind to God’s ways, so God sent His Son in the fullness of time to do what Israel could not do.

In Jesus, the reign of God entered human history in a way not previously experienced. With Jesus’ arrival we are asserting that He is Lord and Caesar and his ancestors have no right to rule. That is a fantastic missional mandate in itself.

The Gospel presents us with an accomplished victory that will ultimately be universally visible and vindicated.[1] And as we see this beautiful image emerging we see the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is the proof that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The Church exists to carry out this mission faithfully locally and also to the ends of the earth. For the Church is nothing less than the multinational fulfillment of the hope of Israel, that all the nations will be blessed through the people of Abraham.[2]

If this redemption occurs in history, then the only thing that is left in this grand mission is the New Creation. The mission of God will inaugurate at the end of history the renewal of God’s whole creation. God is going to tear down whatever evil is left on earth, judge the wicked, and usher in eternity. As John says in Revelation 21: “He who was seated on the throne said: Behold, I make all things new!”

We see then that the entire panorama of history from creation to new creation echoes the mission of God to restore and renew his earth.

This is then the way God intends to put his world right again.

What is mission? Mission is the overflowing of the love of God towards his creation. This overflowing of love lavishes us as his children and calls us to participate in God’s mission to turn the world upside down as the saints did in the first century.

Evil and sin will always be with us, but the Church has a responsibility to turn away from these things and push against it whenever required.

How Now Shall We Then Live?

This story composed of creation, fall, redemption in history, and new creation is your story. The first century church understood it, which is why they always alluded to it. You can’t understand your role in the story unless you know the story. And creation provides us with a little sample of the whole story. It is there where we get our values and principles. It is there where we get the introduction to God’s missional manual. I don’t know if you have this habit, but every new book I receive the first thing I do is to read the acknowledgments. It’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s usually the most intimate part of the book. It’s there where authors thank their friends, their children and spouse.. It’s there where the authors describe the process of writing the book, the hardships involved, etc. It’s an intimate section. The Bible is very similar. The Bible is God’s intimate self-description. It’s his revelation of how the world was made and what he plans to accomplish through his creation. Yes, of course, you can open up to the last chapter or page, but then you wouldn’t know how we got to where we are. We need the acknowledgement section of the Bible. We need Genesis 1 to acknowledge God’s purposes not only in creating, but in restoring his creation.

The way we look at the world and people is shaped very much by how we understand the initial creation account. If we begin in Genesis –where we should– we will have a view of restoration that is more beautiful; we will have a view of reconciliation that is more lovely in God’s eyes and we will have a view of the restoration of creation that is more in accord with God’s self-revelation.

Finally, we need to see that our roles are redemptive as human beings. Everything we do and everything we say needs to be in line with answering the question, “How can I participate in God’s story in a way that builds the body, rather than tear it down?” How can I communicate in the way I worship redemption to my children and those around me?” Does my demeanor communicate truth, grace, gospel rest to those around me? Is my life a story of redemption? Can those around me say that as they contemplate past and present interactions with me that I have been a source of redemption to them? If not, it is never too late to start.

The story of God’s mission began with a purpose: to save humanity and to restore human beings from their own self-destructive mission. We create missionary agendas that have nothing to do with God’s agenda. We see our places in the world like alien visitors taking a little same of dirt here and there, as opposed to resident aliens actually taking the dirt with us. Because believe me: everything you see here: dirt, trees, birds will most certainly be a part of your reality in the new creation. You are here to stay whether you like it or not. When you die, your body will be buried on earth only to be raised again in a new earth, just like this one, except with no pain, sorrow, or sin. On that day you will acknowledge that God’s mission was perfect and redeemed humanity will feast in his eternal presence.

[1] Wright, 43.

[2] Ibid.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Reflection on Good Friday by N.T. Wright

Reflection on Good Friday by N.T. Wright

For reflection on Good Friday, here’s an excerpt from Christians at the Cross by N.T. Wright:

“Finished.” “Accomplished.” “Completed.” Jesus’ last word, which sums it all up. Part of its meaning is that everything that had gone before . . . has now come together. This is where it was all going; this is what it was all about.

Part of its meaning is that in Jesus’ world that word “finished” was what you wrote on a bill when it had been settled: “Paid in full!” But underneath these is the meaning John intends, I believe, most deeply. When God the Creator made his wonderful world, at the end of the sixth day he finished it. He completed his work. Now, on the Friday, the sixth day of the week, Jesus has completed the work of redeeming the world. With his shameful, chaotic, horrible death he has gone to the very bottom, to the darkest and deepest place of the ruin, and has planted there the sign that says “Rescued.” It is the sign of love, the love of the creator for his ruined creation, the love of the saviour for his ruined people. Yes, of course, it all has to be worked out. The victory has to be implemented. But it’s done; it’s completed; it’s finished . . .

Now here in this community, and in this church, there are plenty of Marys and Johns, plenty of people for whom life isn’t going to be the same again. Our job is to stand and wait at the foot of the cross, and to see what fresh word may come to us concerning the way forward, the way of becoming a community again . . .

Good Friday is the point at which God comes into our chaos, to be there with us in the middle of it and to bring us his new creation. Let us pause and give thanks, and listen for his words of love and healing.

N.T. Wright, Christians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus (Ijamsville, Md.: The Word Among Us Press, 2007), 57–58.

N.T. Wright, Paul, and Mike Bird

N.T. Wright, Paul, and Mike Bird

Two of my favorite theologians talk about Paul. Mike Bird interviews Wright on his latest work.

 

Not a Collection of Isolated Individuals

Not a Collection of Isolated Individuals

“The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals … we need to learn again the lesson that a hand is no less a hand for being part of a larger whole, an entire body. The foot is not diminished in its freedom to be a foot by being part of a body which also contains eyes and ears. In fact, hands and feet are most free to be themselves when they coordinate properly with eyes, ears, and everything else. Cutting them off in an effort to make them truly free, truly themselves, would be truly disastrous.”
― N.T. WrightSimply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

Eschatology, Poythress, and the Hallelujah Chorus

I hope to write in the next 18 months a short booklet on eschatology. I have written some papers in the past, but have not been able to provide a general outline, specifically of the postmillennial hope, and its contrast with other millennial positions.

Obviously, there are many wonderful works out there. From John Jefferson Davis to Keith Mathison, and the multitude of theonomic works from the 70’s and 80’s, namely, many of David Chilton’s work (especially his Revelation commentary).

At the same time, there still seems to be a dearth of introductory works at a more layman level. The typical parishioner who has sat under postmillennial preaching for years still finds himself confused by all the labels used. If he has not been immersed in a reformational vocabulary, he is bound to confuse categories and chronology. Naturally, they find themselves incapable of articulating why this optimistic vision contains a progression beginning in Genesis and flowing throughout the New Covenant writings.

Panel Discussion on Eschatology

I listened recently to a panel discussion on eschatology at ETS held some years ago. The postmil advocate (a conspicuous minority in that room) offered a helpful treatment of the chronology of I Corinthians 15:22-26. While helpful, that type of assessment needs to be incorporated into the broader corpus of the Scriptures. For instance, I find it unfathomable to begin a conversation on eschatology without considering the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the motif that is unfolded throughout the other books, namely Judges with its five-fold illustrations of head-crushing.

Poythress, a noble advocate of the Amillennial view, sees the postmil vision more adequately than most, but still does not see why the vision of the Puritans, for example, is a vision of a christianized society.  He argues, in this panel discussion, that if postmil advocates were to focus more on the Second Coming then he would have more in common with them. Well, there is no doubt we focus on the Second Coming, the final parousia, but history is a progression. We look to the coming of Christ at the end of history while not discounting the purposes of Christ throughout history and in history.

The famous Hallelujah chorus grasped this already-ness of the kingdom:

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

We are in full agreement concerning the restoration of the world. And to quote Poythress, we are not waiting for the dissolving of the cosmos, but its restoration, while at the same time we need to believe and trust that the enthronement of King Jesus means the de-thronement of Christ’s enemies. If it is true that he must reign until all his enemies are under his feet, then this reign is quantitative, not just merely spiritualized.

The Gospel promises a discipled world (Mat. 20:18-20) and discipleship and baptism imply a qualitative and quantitative narrative of history. This tangibility of the Gospel vision is the hope of the consistent eschatology of the Scriptures.

Not something to be exploited…

The well known hymn of Philippians two has been the source of great consternation to the Pauline scholars. What precisely is Paul saying when he says –as our ESV renders– “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” N.T. Wright notes in the Climax of the Covenant that Jesus did not abandon his divinity in order to become human, rather that verse six should be translated as “who, being in the form of God, did not regard this divine equality as something to be used for his own advantage, but rather emptied himself… (83)”

The Fundamental Mission (N.T. Wright)

His (Jesus) fundamental mission–the reason for his coming into the world–was to accomplish the task which was marked out for Israel, namely, to undo the sin of Adam. In order to achieve this goal, he became human. –N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 61

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. To me and many others, I take his project to be fruitful, though not always agreeing. I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some skeptical theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), however, his theological vision will be widely narrow and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe, while we prefer to open it up and see Narnia in all its beauty.

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Sermon: Prayer, Liturgy, and Time, I Timothy 2:1-2, Part I

People of God, we are coming to the end of the Church Year. In two weeks we begin the journey of Advent. Advent is a season of expectation and hope for the Christian. We will walk through the expectations of the First Century saints and see the glory of that expectation fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that many of you who grew up in broadly evangelical churches will find this idea of a church calendar strange. Why the changes in liturgical colors? Why is a calendar even needed? Or why shouldn’t we just allow the pastor to preach whatever he is comfortable with, and allow that to form our themes for the year? These are important questions to consider. And let me say up-front that there is nothing sinful or erroneous about preaching about the crucifixion during Christmas. Or about the resurrection during Lent. But one of the questions I think is worth considering is “what is the nature and purpose of time?” Why is time important?” Is there wisdom is being shaped by a historically driven calendar, rather than a calendar of our own making? I believe there is much wisdom in it, and I think the Church has been wise in following this calendar throughout the centuries. So why is time important?  First, time is important because it shapes us as a people. We are a time-oriented people. Everyone of us has 24 hours in a day. The way we choose to use this time is crucial in developing our character and personality. If we are always late to events we are telling the world that order does not matter. If we seldom meet deadlines we are telling the world that discipline does not matter. And the examples abound. Time is important. Time is ethically and sociologically important. Jesus believed this was the case. He said things like “The time is at hand.” The kingdom was near when he arrived in the first century. Later in Mark 13 he says “these things shall come upon this generation.” If time didn’t matter to Jesus he would have said, “these things will happen upon a non-specified generation.” But Jesus was very clear to his first century audience.

But another reason time is important is because it belongs to Christ and His Church. Jesus is the Creator of time. Before the world began there was no need for time, but when Jesus set the world into motion with His words time began to tick cosmically.

We are part of a culture that sees time as individualistic. As Christians, many times we isolate ourselves from others. We like to do things our own on our own times. So we rationalize that time for us is not the same as time for them. The reality, however, is that time is God’s, and He has specifically given time to His Son, and His Son beautifies, glorifies His Bride by giving her time.

To use a marital dialogue, Jesus is saying: “Beloved, I want to help you to use your time wisely.”

So over the centuries, the Church has listened to her Bridegroom and fashioned herself around a Calendar. There are feast or holy days that we as a Church in Pensacola, Florida celebrate together with other little underground churches in Iran and in China. We share Fourth of July only other fellow Americans, but we share Easter with the whole Christian world. And this is no trivial thing.

I also want to say that it is a good thing to honor our national holidays. God has been good to this country, though this country has in many ways failed to live as God desires. One crucial feature of a Christian is that he possess a heart of gratitude for those things God has given him. Here is my point: We need to honor special days in our Calendar, but ultimately national holidays are to be submissive to ecclesiastical holy days. The work of the Church will carry a place of greater importance in God’s plans. Nations will come and go, but the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.

I say all these things as we come to the end of the Church Year. But within that Church Year we can take some time to reflect on certain American holidays. We have the opportunity to consider these holidays and use them in a way that mirrors  the Christian gospel. And I can think of no better opportunity to do this than with Thanksgiving. I Chronicles 16: 8: “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!”

We are entering a brief season of thanksgiving. Of course, we must always give thanks, but when a holiday comes along that stresses thanksgiving we think it is a great time to consider this topic. But as we know we tend to replace the important thing for the less important. And we do as a people in this season need to prioritize Thanksgiving over turkeys and touchdowns.[1] Though many of you testify that Thanksgiving with turkey and touchdowns is an even better combination.

So time is of the essence! It helps shape us and it reminds us of our allegiance to Christ and the Church. Liturgy and time go together. One cannot exist without the other.

N.T. Wright says the following:

“Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action… the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared — an ultimately better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about.”[2] More