Trevin Wax: You stress the Christian’s eschatological hope as the new heavens and new earth. You are also very strongly committed to issues relating to social justice as a way of anticipating in the present God’s restoration of the world in the future. Some of your works emphasize social justice and give scant or no attention to evangelism, church planting, discipling, etc. Where does evangelism fit into this task? And how important is it for Christians to actively evangelize unbelieving people?
N.T. Wright: I find it amusing that people have that perception because if you ask people in England where does Tom Wright sit on the theological spectrum, they say, “Well he’s an evangelical of course,” as though, come on, get used to it. And it’s only because, as Stephen Sykes once said, when you’re writing theology, you have to say everything all the time, otherwise people think you’ve deliberately missed something out.
I’ve been speaking from and to a tradition which has traditionally ignored social justice, ecological issues and the plight of the poor, etc. So I’ve banged on about them, but there they are in the Bible! Again, I didn’t invent this stuff! I’ve taken evangelism sometimes for granted, although on other occasions, I’ve been the first up there to say “Come on! We’ve got to do this!”
The new book of mine which is about to appear which is the sequel to Simply Christian called Surprised by Hope- the first main chunk of it is about eschatology: new heavens, new earth, resurrection, etc. But then the last section is about mission. And it’s the missiology which flows from this eschatology.
And I have a chapter there where I’ve done my best to show the full integration of evangelism and what we’ve pleased to call “social action” (that’s a rather clunky term; it’s not a rather good way of saying it). And it goes like this…
As I’ve said before, God is going to fix the whole world. He’s going to put the whole world to rights. But actually, the advance plan for that is to put human beings to rights in advance. And when that happens, which is what happens through the gospel, it isn’t just, Phew! I’m okay now so I’m going to heaven! It’s I am actually being put right, in order that I can be part of that ongoing purpose.In other words, it’s both conversion and call, which as it was for Paul… converted to see that Jesus is the Messiah, which he’d never dreamt of before, called simultaneously ipso facto to be the apostle to the Gentiles. And in the same way, when the gospel reaches an individual, it is so that they can take part in God’s larger kingdom project.
Again, if we’d had the Gospels as our basis rather than simply Paul (and I hope no one will accuse me of downgrading Paul by putting it like that, me of all people), then I think we would not have had this difficulty. But it’s because we’ve shrunk the New Testament to fit these particular, much, much later models that we’ve then allowed ourselves to collapse into the Enlightenment “either-or” of either spirituality or social justice, but not both… and I know the damage that has happened by that division. That’s how I would put it together.
When you announce that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the world, crucified and risen, you are simultaneously saying, “And you need to believe in him for your own present and eternal justification and salvation,” but also “this means that he is claiming the whole creation as his own and wants to renew and restore it and flood it with his justice and his love, and if you’re signing on to believe in him, you’ve got to be part of that project.” If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.
Trevin Wax: So how would you share all of this with an individual in the evangelistic task, if an individual were to come up and to say, “What must I do to be saved?” “How can I become a part of this…”
N.T. Wright: I would want to know a lot about where they were coming from. I mean, if I had two minutes, I would tell very, very simply the story of Jesus.
I once on a train was approached by a Japanese student who saw me reading a book about Jesus. He didn’t know much English. He said, “Can you tell me about Jesus?” I was about to get off the train. I simply told him (he didn’t know the story) that there was this man who was a Jew. He believed that God’s purposes to rescue the whole world were coming to fulfillment. He died to take the weight of evil upon himself. He rose to launch God’s project and to invite the whole world to join in with it and find it for themselves. How long did that take me? 35 seconds? That’s more or less it.
However, when I think of the real people that I meet, I think both of bright university students in Durham University and of unemployed mineworkers in the pit village five miles down the road. Total, total disjunct. And I really believe…
Look at what Paul does in Acts. No two speeches are alike. OK, he will have repeated himself here and there, but he says it the way these people need to hear it.
And though the story is very simple… If someone were to say, “What must I do to be saved?” I’d be inclined to say, “Are we talking about rescuing your mortgage or your marriage or your eternal salvation or what?” because people have layer upon layer upon layer of things to be saved from. We can deal with all of them, but we have to find where the shoe pinches for them and then that’s the point of entry into an authentic grounding of the gospel in their reality.
Continue Reading: >> Wright on Church and State
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