N.T. Wright’s main push in a lot of his books is that the traditional definition of Christianity (Jesus died for your sins so that you don’t have to go to hell) is only one slice of a much larger pie, and the problem of Western Christianity is that it made that slice the whole pie.
The Reformation really centred on one main issue: How does the individual get saved? It was necessary to focus on that issue at that time as the Catholic Church had really messed it up. But, over the last 500 years, the Church has never gotten away from focusing on that one issue. N.T. Wright criticizes that problem. The early Christians didn’t focus on that issue, and neither did the pre-Christian Jews.
This is how many, if not most, Christians view their faith:
“God told his human creatures to keep a moral code; their continuing life in the Garden of Eden depended on their keeping that code perfectly. Failure would incur the punishment of death… Humans were therefore heading for hell rather than heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed this moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty on behalf of the rest of the human race… Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and so benefiting from his accomplishment go to heaven… those who don’t, don’t.” (Page 75)
Wright does not deny the truth of that description of Christianity; he just argues that there is much more to the faith that only that. Wright says our biggest problem as humans is not that we are sinners who broke some law, but rather that we are idolators. “The human problem is not so much ‘sin’ seen as the breaking of moral codes–though that, to be sure, is a part of it…– but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces.” (Page 74)
The result of putting anything before God, refusing to worship Him, and refusing to live out our created purpose leads to sin, and sin leads to death, which is separation from God. The Israelites of the Old Testament saw their exile as a form of death. It was when Israel stopped worshipping God and refused to fulfill their role as a kingdom of priests to the nations that God desolated the temple and sent His people into exile.
For Israel, the term “forgiveness of sins” was directly related to being allowed to return from exile. Wright argues that we too need to see that term in the same light as the Jews. Exile for humanity is the being cut off from proper human life: peace, unity, love, being proper image bearers and worshippers of God.
“[L]awbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease… [idolatry]… The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences.” (Page 77)
N.T. Wright suggests “that in the Bible humans are created in order to live as worshipping stewards within God’s heaven-and-earth reality, rather than as beings who, by moral perfection, qualify to leave ‘earth’ and go to ‘heaven’ instead.” (Page 77-78)
Wright uses the term vocational covenant. Our vocation as humans is to image God to creation as caring stewards, and to image creation back to God as thankful worshippers. If we abandon that vocation we corrupt ourselves and creation too. Sin is simply the result of breaking that vocational covenant, which then leads to death and separation from God.
So, notice how Wright’s emphasis is not You broke God’s law and now He’s angry at you and you are going to hell, but rather it’s, We abandoned our vocational covenant by refusing to worship God and refusing to steward creation, and because of that we have corrupted ourselves and are separated from God.
The question then is: How is this problem of us breaking our vocational covenant, and the consequences thereof, fixed?
Wright spends some time writing about the purpose of the nation of Israel. As I mentioned above, Israel was a kingdom of priests to the nations. That means that they were acting as the image bearing mediators between God and the world. They were priests, and as priests they were to work to reconcile creation with God. That of course included being a light to the Gentile nations. This was, as Wright puts it, their vocation.
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth….
Kings shall see and arise,
Princes also shall worship,
Because of the Lord who is faithful,
The Holy One of Israel;
And He has chosen You.
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.
The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
When Israel was faithful to that vocation they were at peace with the nations and the nations would come to them to worship God. But, when they abandoned that covenant, they would be in conflict with God, and thus the nations as well. Continual non-repentance led to exile, when the Israelite people were pushed out of their promised land, their temple was abandoned by God, and they spent a time in “death” separated from the true life that they were supposed to have.
“[H]umans were made for a purpose [and] Israel was made for a purpose, and … humans and Israel alike have turned aside from that purpose, distorted the vision, and abused their vocation.” (Page 99)
The Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark”. Wright points out that sin then is not so much a result of failing to keep a “do/don’t do” list of rules, but rather failing to be proper image bearers, and failing “to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and [failing] to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world.” (Page 99)
If Israel was supposed to reconcile the creation back to the Creator, what would happen if Israel itself was in need of reconciliation? How could they fulfill their vocation if they themselves were just as corrupt as those they were called to help? What could be done if those who had the authority to reconcile had forfeited that authority over to powers which worked for evil and death? Others, or One, would have to come and take back that authority and fulfill the vocation of reconciliation.
When the tabernacle was first complete, the glorious presence of God came down to cover it (Exodus 40:34ff), and again when Solomon’s temple was complete, the glory cloud of God came again (1 Kings 8:10-11). However, after the exile, when the Jews went back to Jerusalem and completed the rebuilding of the temple, there is no mention of God’s glory coming down then (Ezra 6:13ff). What you do see is the presence of God leaving the temple (what would have been Solomon’s temple) in Ezekiel 10 & 11.
In Malachi, a prophet sent to Israel after Ezra’s temple had been built (the second temple), we see that the Jews were neglecting their covenantal responsibilities again. They were doing so because they were disappointed at what the second temple era was: no renewed kingdom of Israel (they were still in a form of exile) and a perception that God’s glory never did return from exile with them to once again fill the temple. But Malachi told the people: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming.” (Malachi 3:1) Now, that messenger sent to prepare the way was John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27), so, “the Lord who will suddenly come to His temple” was Jesus.
“In Jesus’s day, the hope was alive that the Glory would return at last. But nobody knew exactly what that would mean, how it would happen, or what it would look like.” (Page 112) The Jews’ great hope after the exile was not to make it to heaven when they died, but to be restored within the present world, to be forgiven of their sins, and to be a part of the new covenant promised to them by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This new covenant, we know today, would also include the Gentile nations.
Jesus is the One who took the vocational covenant of Israel onto Himself and fulfilled it once and for all in His life, death, and resurrection. But how does that work? What did Jesus really do on the cross?