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N. T. Wright and the Understanding of Salvation

June 10, 2007

In my most previous post I mentioned the forum presented by Newsweek/Washington Post on faith and works. I read through most of the panel’s contributions and a lot of the comments responding to them (the ones that I could tolerate). I wanted to mention something about N. T. Wright’s remark on the forum, but before I do that I wanted to say something of Charles Colson’s. Colson has written many books, spoken on many occasions, and have passionately help transform lives through the work of God in his life. But I have say that his contribution to this forum was disappointing. Colson stated truth and probably with conviction in his heart. But I have read enough of Colson to know that there is spirit, enthusiasm, and creativity in his faith and his ability to write. These characteristics, however, did not show in his statement on faith and works, and that is a shame since he was the token evangelical contributor (I’m not quick to label Randall Balmer an evangelical).

Now, on to Wright’s contribution. I don’t think Wright was completely honest in his forum. He said a lot of good things that reformed evangelicals, like me, would naturally give a hearty ‘Amen’ to. Yet, I have read and listened to Wright enough to know that his meaning and intentions are quite cryptic.

N. T.Wright, in his statement, wanted to have a clear understanding of salvation before understanding, both, faith and works. He gives this definition: “Salvation in the New Testament… is all about God rescuing humans and creation as well from death – in other words, the redemption and renewal of creation, and of human beings within that, into a newly embodied world of which the present world is simply the foretaste.” This is certainly true! Romans 8:20-25 shows the awful reality that our world is subjected to because of sin and, not only believers, but all of creation groans as with labor pains of child birth for redemption. Yet, this is only a half-truth set as a full-truth. While salvation includes being “saved from death” (1 Cor. 15:55), but we have also been saved from the wrath of God through the cross of Christ, which is the only basis for which we will some day be in a redeemed body. This is the critical point of salvation. Part of the glory and exaltation in the Person of Christ was his death on the cross, which cleansed fus rom our sin and granted us his righteousness. The cross and Christ are not mentioned once throughout Wright’s entire statement, only the argument for a future community of faith (or covenantal community as Wright would call it in other writings). Since this definition of salvation is absent in this work, it affects how he describes the relationship between faith and works, which was the content of the last part of his statement.

Based on Ephesians 1:10 and Ephesians 2:10 Wright writes:

we are saved by grace through faith FOR GOOD WORKS PREPARED BEFOREHAND for us to walk in. Separating the two is like saying ‘which is more important, breathing or eating?’ Obviously, if you stop breathing you don’t do much eating, but equally if you never eat you will find your breathing eventually in trouble. Not a perfect anology, but the ‘salvation’ which is ‘by grace through faith’ is precisely the rescue of our humanness from all that corrupts it, including ultimately death, and sin which anticipates death….We aren’t saved BY good works but we are save FOR good works.

I would have to say, that Wright’s contemporary Biblical Theologians would be disappointed in him. There are, in my opinion, some errors in Wright’s statement here. First of all, I do believe that this statement mis-interprets Ephesians 2 for an understanding of works and faith. Ephesians 2:10 does not say “we are saved by grace through faith for good works prepared beforehand.’ That is a mix between Ephesians 2:8 and 2:10. And I believe Wright does not interpret the flow of thought Paul is putting forth. Ephesians 2:8-9 show that our salvation (everything that is included) is not by works, but is a gift of God so that no one may be able to boast. Meaning: we will never be able to present before God any reason that we should be saved other than to boast in “his workmanship.” What is his workmanship? That is found in verses 4-6. He made alive from our deadness in sin, raised us up and seated us with Christ. This redeemed, new creation that Wright says is our salvation has happened already in Christ. But to understand what Paul means when he says we are a new creation “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”, we must look at the entire line of reasoning, starting with 2:1.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath.

Paul uses the same word for “walk” in both verse 2 and verse 10 to represent a lifestyle. We walked in the course of this world, passions of our flesh, and evil desires (v. 2) and we now walk in good works prepared by God (v. 10). Verse 2 and 10 both speak of walking that is compelled by either our evil human flesh and sin (v. 2) or now the Holy Spirit of our new creation (v. 10). We, as born-again Christians, have the Spirit in us, enabling us to hate sin and love what glorifies God. This, however, is not the purpose of our salvation, which Wright seems to imply. The purpose of our salvation is found in verse 7, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” The purpose of our salvation is not do good works in a better and redeemed world where we all love and live for one another. But to boast in the work of God in Jesus Christ. Forever, we will proclaim his mercy and grace. We will be met with joy for eternity. The face of God in Christ will always be our greatest enjoyment.

Faith is best understood as “means” and works as “proof of means.” This is not to say that faith relies on works, but that good works rely on faith. They are not equals, as Wright puts them. We will never be able to please or glorify God apart from faith, therefore everything we do apart from faith or without faith cannot please God (Heb. 11:6). But, compelled by the Holy Spirit, the seal of our new creation, we now have the mind of Christ, to do good works in faith.

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