Has anyone seen N.T. Wright sleep? It seems like no week can end before the Anglican bishop of Durham publishes yet another groundbreaking book. Christianity Today recently excerpted his latest effort, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

As with his other works, Wright has encouraged his many fans on both sides of the Atlantic even as he has provoked some critics. Wright's position as a leader in the Church of England exposes him to jabs from all sides. But this role also makes him quite influential. He wants to hold out the gospel for a largely post-Christian United Kingdom, in part by refuting the faulty scholarship of biblical critics. But he also wants to challenge Christians to see the gospel in a new way. Thus, he takes issue with Luther's view on justification by faith alone. He also worries that many Christians have unbiblically privatized the gospel, stripping the Good News of its public imperative.

This last point has renewed a vigorous theological debate. Wright argues in Surprised By Hope that the "mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made."

Echoing the long-standing concerns of evangelical leaders such as John Stott, Wright goes on to explain that Christians must never choose between saving souls and doing good works.

"Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources," he writes.

"If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God's holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church's mission. It is central."

Now here's where the controversy really begins. How, then, should Christians lobby? How can we know what issues to prioritize? Wright says the "number one moral issue of our day" is relieving Third World debt.

"I've studied the problem of global debt quite intensively," Wright told blogger Trevin Wax. "In fact, I've read probably more books about contemporary economics recently than I have contemporary biblical studies. Curiously, I find myself drawn into that world, and it's quite likely that I'm getting a lot of things wrong."

Article continues below

Idaho pastor and blogger Douglas Wilson sure thinks so. He believes relieving Third World debt could only end in "horrific humanitarian disaster" or "resurgent neo-colonialism." In typically pointed fashion, he says Wright is inadvertently "insisting on the humanitarian disaster option … in the name of Jesus." In response, Wright says he is calling for mercy, not a complicated debate over the effect of debt on national economies.

In his talk two weeks ago at the Together for the Gospel conference, pastor Mark Dever also criticized Wright. Dever's lecture, "Exercises in Unbiblical Theology," (mp3) became the meeting's hot topic. Unlike Wilson, Dever did not engage Wright's politics. In fact, he wondered whether church leaders should enter such discussions at all. 

"As I read the New Testament, I do not see any example of the church understanding its gospel or its mission to be the direct shaping of the laws of the land or the improving of its structures," said Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "Certainly, the apostle Paul never tells the church to spend its time explicitly instructing the Roman emperor or shaping the pagans' view of culture."

According to Dever, Christians must never confuse implications of the gospel with the gospel itself. "The gospel that has been committed to us is the Christian message that Jesus has died in the place of sinners in order to reconcile them to God," Dever said. "That gospel has been uniquely entrusted to the church, and thus it must remain the center of our message and our mission."

It is no coincidence that leading pastor/scholars have taken up this question about the gospel's public implications. How you answer the question affects how you lead your church. Wright praises God when Christians in the churches he oversees go "straight from worshiping Jesus in church to making a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street." Dever makes frequent evangelistic appeals in his preaching, and he encourages church members to seek opportunities for personal evangelism.

Tim Keller and his Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City fall somewhere between Wright and Dever. Writing for Leadership, Keller answered this year's question for the Christian Vision Project, "Is our gospel too small?" (The article is not yet available online.) In so doing he took a stab at defining the gospel. "Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from the judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever."

Article continues below

It's the last clause of this sentence that makes the difference. Is God's plan to renew creation part of the gospel message? If so, is it the center of the gospel or a peripheral component of the Good News? Again, how you answer these questions affects how you will live, and how you will expect fellow church members to act.

"When the third, 'eschatological' element is left out, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters," Keller wrote. "Theoretically, grasping the full outline should make Christians interested in both evangelistic conversions as well as service to our neighbor and working for peace and justice in the world."

Since at least the late 19th century, evangelicals have struggled to strike this balance. Fundamentalists blamed modernists for shrouding the gospel in social garb. Carl Henry led an evangelical movement by calling for renewed application of the gospel to the world's social ills. Billy Graham and John Stott disagreed over the proper balance. We may not solve these questions in our day, either. But to ask them is to engage in a defining evangelical practice.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

Related elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.