Wrightsaid Q&A – March, 2004

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions occasionally from the Wrightsaid email list.  I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page.  These are his responses for March, 2004.


Would you address the following question in the light of the following two points:

  • The gospel is an announcement that the God of Israel has made Jesus both the Savior and the King of the planet;
  • The crucifixion and resurrection have decisively spoiled all political, economic, and all other power systems, bringing them into his service;

With those points in mind, would you role play (or define) how you would lead a person into an ongoing, love relationship with Jesus?  I’m asking you to be very practical and down to earth here.

I know there is a LOT of variables which this large question doesn’t address.  I apologize for the indefinite nature of it.  What I’m looking for, however, is some definition regarding the characteristics of an evangelistic encounter with an unbeliever.  In other words, given the above features of the message the Church is to carry to the world, what does an evangelistic conversation look like within the 21st century, Western, pagan world view (as somewhat distinct from the 1st century one)?

Or, to come at the question a little differently, how do we train the average Christian to evangelize the people with whom they rub shoulders given a New Perspective on Paul definition of the gospel?  What are the key points they are to learn and they need to focus on in their witness to others?


As the questioner knows, there are as many ways of leading someone to a living, saving relationship with God through Jesus the Messiah and in the power of the Holy Spirit as there are people . . . one of the old Puritans (Baxter?) said, wisely, that ‘the Almighty breaketh not all hearts alike’. As far back as the Acts of the Apostles we can see people being converted in a variety of ways, from the gentle heart-opening of Lydia to the earthquake etc of the Philippian gaoler.  That’s where I start.

Having said that, there are of course constant features, which include the recognition

a. that God is God, the creator, calling us to worship, love and adoration;

b. that the crucified and risen Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, is the world’s true Lord, and hence MY Lord, calling me to gratitude (‘the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’) and submission (‘the obedience of faith’);

c. that this God, and this Jesus, promise to send the Holy Spirit to live within us to enable faith, hope and love;

d. that this extraordinary and wonderful message finds us unready, unprepared, and, worse than that, in a state of idolatry (worshipping false gods), rebellion (submitting to other lords), and that fractured humanness (for which the biblical shorthand is hamartia, sin) which is the very opposite of the genuine humanness the Spirit longs to create in us, so that the appropriate response to the good news about God, Jesus and the Spirit is contrition, recognition of sin and guilt, repentance with intention of amendment of life, in gratitude for that full dealing with sin which has been effected through Jesus’ death;

e. that in the Messiah and by the Spirit God has created and is creating a worldwide community of those now commissioned to shine his light in the world, and that this community, defined by the faith professed in baptism (Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead) is the true home of all, equally, who share this faith and who together take forward God’s mission to and in the world, the mission through which the Lordship of Jesus as the world’s true sovereign (‘all authority’, he said, ‘in heaven AND ON EARTH’) is put into effect. Any and every ‘seeker’ needs at some point to be confronted with the challenge that if Jesus isn’t Lord of all (including our social, cultural and political lives) he isn’t Lord at all.

That’s already quite a mouthful, but if I were today leading a serious seeker towards full faith and commitment that’s what I would be aiming at.  One way of doing it would be to read a gospel with them, perhaps (but not necessarily) John.  Another way would be to talk through what it would mean to pray the Lord’s Prayer with each clause full of meaning.  Another way would be to meditate prayerfully on the death and resurrection of Jesus (I have a friend who was converted from a liberal Judaism in his teens through a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion).  I take it for granted that at some point (d) above would need gentle exploration to see what repentance might mean in this case, and that at some point (e) would be introduced to see what appropriate church context this person could make their own, with a view to sharing the life of a community dedicated to glad worship of God in Jesus and to following him in mission in the world.  Far more important, though, would be gently and steadily exploring (a), (b) and (c), stressing particularly that all our ideas about who ‘God’ actually is need to be brought into line with who we discover Jesus to be through reading the gospels and through prayer (John 1.18).  But depending on whether the person was ten years old or seventy, was male or female, rich or poor, well educated or uneducated, from a happy family or an unhappy one, all this would take a very different course.  I have sat with some enquirers for whom (in Oxford!) it was natural to get out a Greek New Testament; and of course with others for whom that would be, well, all Greek to them.  And, again of course, everything, but everything, needs to be soaked in prayer, the prayer of love which will give these people into the care of God himself, who is a far, far better evangelist and pastor than we ever will be.

I shall stop here before I feel another book coming on.


Bishop Wright, many have criticized you for failing to use the term “imputation” even though you are willing to use the term “reckon” (e.g., in Climax of the Covenant ).  What is the difference between reckoning and imputing?  What exactly is reckoned to us – Christ’s status as the vindicated one, or his death and resurrection, or something else? How does imputation differ from union with Christ?  And what of those theologians who see a kind of imputation in the Old Covenant sin offering (an OT category you use in Rom. 8 and 2 Cor. 5)?  Some have argued that when hands are laid on the animal, a kind of imputation takes place. Would you understand the Old Covenant ritual differently?


The second question concerns ‘imputation’.  Let’s first deal with sacrificial imputation.  I think it’s probably a misuse of language there; I’m not sure that any of the basic texts e.g. in Leviticus or Numbers use that terminology.  I’m also aware that there has been a lot of serious debate about what precisely people in ancient Israel, or in Jesus’ own day, thought was going on when a worshipper laid hands on the animal; I note that in the one case where it really does seem as though sin is being symbolically transferred to the animal, that animal is then specifically NOT sacrificed but sent off into the wilderness (the scapegoat, of course).  Much more thought is needed here; we cannot assume (as previous generations did) that all sacrificial ritual was simply about the transfer of sin from worshipper to animal. PLEASE NOTE, here as elsewhere my main concern is lest we impose upon scripture a scheme of thought taken from somewhere else.

That applies to the main question too.  My sense is that within certain sub-traditions of Protestantism the word ‘imputation’ has been made to carry far, far more baggage than it even begins to in the NT, and that’s a warning sign to me.  As far as I can see, Paul’s central statements of something that I might be prepared to say ‘imputation’ about are in a passage like Romans 6, where the logic runs: by baptism, you are ‘in Christ’; therefore what is true of Christ is true of you; therefore, specifically, his death and resurrection are true of you; therefore you must calculate this, do the sums, work out who you actually are – and then live accordingly. But I think this provides a somewhat different grid of understanding to normal ‘imputation’ theology.  The ‘reckoning’ thus takes place within, and as part of, incorporation into the people of the Messiah.

Conversely, I have argued for a number of reasons to do with strict attention to the text of the inspired scripture that 2 Corinthians 5.21 does not envisage the sort of imputation that is normally read into it.  When Paul uses the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ he does not mean a quality or status which is attributed to human beings, but God’s own faithfulness to the covenant and thereby to putting the whole world to rights (with human beings as the pilot project).  2 Cor. 3, 4, 5 and 6 are basically about the new covenant and Paul’s specific ministry within it, and that’s the context for 5.21.

I recognize (a) that this issue is hugely controversial, (b) that there’s a lot more to say on it, and (c) that I have tried to say some of that extra material in the paper I gave in Rutherford House last September, which I think is on the Wrightsaid website and which will be published, DV, in the collection of essays from that conference.  And I would request my critics on this topic to read, as well, the commentary on Romans in the New Interpreters Bible vol 10 where I have set my views out in proper exegetical context.  I believe passionately that scripture must be the judge of all our traditions, no matter how venerable, and that the way ‘imputation’ has developed as a particular major theme in some protestant theology may be one of those traditions that needs reassessing in the light of scripture itself (not just of what our traditions traditionally tell us that scripture says!).


Don Garlington has criticized your view of justification by pointing out that your lawcourt metaphor does not leave adequate room for union with Christ.  How would you respond to this?

It seems odd to be addressing this question after the last one! Don Garlington hasn’t expressed this objection to me (that the lawcourt metaphor doesn’t leave adequate room for union with Christ).  I confess I hardly understand the objection.  The two are not the same sort of thing; they don’t occupy the same theological space, and the idea of the one crowding the other out just doesn’t make sense to me.  Again, read the Romans commentary where the issues are met one by one in their proper exegetical context.  To put it very briefly and at the risk, therefore, of starting more hares: ‘Justification’ speaks of how God declares that people are in the right; this will take place in the future when he raises them from the dead, saving them from eternal death and giving them the same kind of glorious body that Jesus already has; this announcement, and this event, is anticipated in the present when someone believes, as a result of the preaching of the gospel, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead; ‘justification by faith’ is thus God’s declaration in the present time that all who believe this message are already forgiven their sins and delivered from death, and that they are thereby constituted as the single worldwide eschatological family of God, transcending the former Jew/Greek distinction.  But this justification, too, is already anticipated when God raised Jesus himself from the dead and declared that he was truly his son (Romans 1.3f. etc), so that the basis of justification is God’s covenant-faithful action in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus BOTH as Israel’s Messiah AND as the incarnation of the one true God. Since what is true of the Messiah is true of his people (see above), all those who are ‘in the Messiah’ by baptism and faith have his death and resurrection reckoned to them so that when God looks at them he sees Calvary and Easter – and so that when they look at themselves they must learn to see those events as well, and to live accordingly.  This being-in-Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, is the means by which the PRESENT declaration of ‘in the right’ truly anticipates the future one (Romans 8 etc).

I have to say, to anyone out there who may be interested, that since (a) I think this is basically good protestant theology, albeit not necessarily in the traditional terms (but certainly in scriptural ones), and (b) since I have never consciously taught anything else, I am genuinely puzzled as to why the fuss about my views on justification has become as huge (in some quarters!) as apparently it has.  May we, those of us concerned about learning from Paul and from one another, agree at least to pray for one another as we genuinely go about this task seeking God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Spirit on the text which that same Spirit inspired?

Many greetings to all who read this!

+Tom Wright
Auckland Castle
Co. Durham DL14 7NR