This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright. I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.
Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world. By six o’clock on that day, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier. In the section we will look at this week, Wright looks at the statement “Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture”, a well-known summary statement from the writings of Paul, and unpacks what it would have meant in the context of the Old Testament story.
Unfortunately, most of Christianity and evangelicalism in particular has got the wrong idea. So much of what you hear in modern Christianity is all about individuals going to heaven when they die, provided they are in a right relationship with Jesus. Wright likens this to three Boy Scouts helping an old lady across the street (it took three of them because she did not want to go), and also to a teenage girl who was suffering from a bewildering variety of strange symptoms that her doctor couldn’t figure out, but when she went to a different clinic and they ran some different tests, they found the true condition and were able to begin appropriate treatment.
Like the three Boy Scouts trying to help the old lady across the street, modern Christianity insists that humanity needs help getting to “heaven” when they die when all along the New Testament insists that the divine plan is to bring everything together in a new heaven and a new earth. Like the doctor who couldn’t diagnose the girl’s condition, modern Christianity insists on a particular diagnosis of the human plight and on treating that instead of the actual disease.
These two errors coexist and reinforce each other: in modern Christianity “heaven” is seen as the goal (along with fellowship with God in the present) and “sin” as the problem, where “sin” is defined as misbehavior which deserves punishment. Thus, as Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (making “heaven” the goal) and we have moralized our anthropology (making “sin” the problem), with the end result that we have paganized our soteriology with the picture of an angry deity who is pacified by human sacrifice (in our case, the sacrifice of Jesus).
At this point Wright introduces the idea of the “works contract”: God gave his creatures a moral code to live by; failure to keep it perfectly meant expulsion from the garden of Eden and death. This moral code was sharpened and expanded when Israel came along, with a similar result. Thus all humanity was bound for hell rather than heaven. But Jesus came along; he obeyed the moral code perfectly and, in his death, paid the penalty for the rest of the human race. Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and benefiting from his accomplishment will go to heaven; those who don’t, will not. The works contract remains fully intact throughout.
But this insists on taking humanity to a goal very different from what is offered in Scripture. It ignores the story of Israel’s Scriptures, both in themselves and as understood by the early Christians. And it insists on a diagnosis of the human plight which is trivial compared to our actual plight.
What the Bible offers is not a “works contract” but a covenant of vocation, where our vocation is to be genuine human beings with genuinely human tasks to perform, chief among which is being God’s image bearers and reflecting His image into all of creation and reflecting the praises of all creation back to God. Those who do this are a “royal priesthood”; they get to stand at that dangerous yet exhilarating place where heaven and earth meet. This is a far cry from keeping a moral code in order to enjoy fellowship with God here and in the hereafter. Our actual plight is much worse than the “works contract” view lets on: We have turned our vocation upside down by giving worship to things in the world which we ought to be ruling over. The name for this is idolatry, and the result is slavery and death, not as an arbitrary punishment but as a natural and inevitable consequence. The created things which we worship are more than happy to usurp the power which we ought to have been using; these powers are then let loose to run amuck in the world and turn it into a hell from which it is understandable that people would want to escape.
With the death of Jesus, the original human vocation was reestablished; redeemed humans are now a “royal priesthood” or a “kingdom of priests”. When the early Christians said this they meant that at last the original project of creation is back on track. Also, the purpose for which God called Israel is back on track.
The Old Testament–what we know as the Old Testament but what the Jews knew as their Scripture–is actually a single story. It is a story shot through and through with the theme of exile, with several instances of exile along the way that lead the eye directly to the big one: the exile in Babylon. The exile in Babylon continued long after the Jews returned to their homeland; though they were home they were still oppressed by pagan superpowers and except for a few brief snatches they never caught even a whiff of independence. Moreover there was the sense that though the exiles had returned to the land God had not. The prophets of that postexilic period (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), gave the sense that all was not well. The grand prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel about the Lord returning remained unfulfilled. The people realized that a fresh act of deliverance would be needed to undo the present state of slavery. And that is where the Old Testament ends.
The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis and the story of Israel follow parallel tracks, explaining and amplifying each other. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of Israel in microcosm: failure to live up to their vocation and consequent exile from God’s land. The story of Israel is the story of Adam and Eve and the plight of the human condition worked out in great and tragic detail. But it was not intended simply as a parallel and an illustration; instead the call of Abraham which led up to the nation of Israel was intended to be the means by which God would get humanity and creation back on track after the failure of Adam and Eve to live out their vocation. That is, Israel would be the means by which the plight of humanity is resolved. The Promised Land would take the place of Eden, becoming the place of life, the place of God’s presence, and the base from which God’s presence would extend out into all of creation, restoring all things and bringing them all together under His rule. All that went off the rails when Israel failed to live up to its much amplified vocation and wound up in exile. But surely that was not the end of the story, or else chaos would have returned for good. Surely, just as God chose the covenant people of Israel to be the means of rescuing humanity, He would choose a remnant from within Israel as the means of rescuing Israel. But what that would look like, no one in postexilic Israel had any idea.
All that came to a head in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. Surely God would not just leave Israel to its fate; He had made a covenant with Israel and He would surely keep it. The early Christians believed that this is exactly what happened when Jesus died on the cross.
But what about the forgiveness of sins? Recall that sin is not just failure to keep the moral code, bad behavior deserving of punishment. Sin is much bigger than that. Humans were made for a purpose, Israel was made for a purpose, and both have turned aside and abandoned their vocation. Underlying that is a failure of worship. We were intended to worship God but instead have turned aside and worshiped created things in the world. In the process we have given them the power and authority which we ought to have exercised. Nondivine forces have taken on a power and authority they were never supposed to have. This is why sins have to be dealt with as part and parcel of any plan God might have to rescue creation with humans as His active agents. When sins are dealt with, these nondivine forces will be deprived of their power and put back into their proper place. Israel’s sins must be dealt with so that the project of global reconciliation, including dealing with the sins of all humanity, can go forward. Israel’s sins were responsible for their exile, so the end of exile and the forgiveness of sins would be one and the same thing. This end of exile would be a great and final Exodus, with the victory over Babylon recapitulating the victory over Egypt. And when it comes, it will come through the personal and powerful work of God Himself.
Though the Jews had a very limited framework for the notion of heroes taking the divine wrath upon themselves by their own suffering and death, they saw the whole thing through the lens of love: the powerful and unchangeable love of God for His people. This was the driving force for everything, the new Exodus, the forgiveness of sins, and the return of God to be with His people. This all came to a head in Jesus Christ: By the end of the day on Good Friday, sins had been dealt with and the powers defeated in accordance with all that God had promised Israel. Christ had died for our sins in accordance with the Bible.