Book Review, After You Believe, by N. T. Wright
N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2012. 320 pp. $24.99.
N.T. Wright’s book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, tackles a topic that deserves careful attention in the church today: sanctification. He addresses questions such as, What is Christian holiness? How is it formed? What does it do? He tries to answer these questions by diving deep into the biblical story and with careful consideration of human behavior. The discerning reader can benefit from this work, but only after Wright’s theology is sufficiently critiqued.
Wright opens his book by describing the confusion some Christians experience after they believe. While waiting for heaven, some look to rules to provide structure and direction. Others, however, reject rules, thinking their actions inauthentic unless they flow spontaneously from the heart.
Of course, neither approach can be carried out consistently, so Christians often find themselves trapped, unsure of what will guide them. But Wright has a solution: character formation, also known as virtue. It’s the rigorous process whereby a Christian becomes a new kind of person, one who will—by second nature—live the kind of life that rules aim to proscribe.
In spite of Wright’s admiral goals and the insights into ethical transformation he deposits along the way, After You Believe betrays a human-centered approach to sanctification that fails to capture the God-centeredness of biblical holiness. Wright is about 30 degrees off at various critical junctures, and with each turn he veers further from the biblical center, arriving at a sub-biblical doctrine of sanctification.
Wright follows Aristotle’s three-step approach to ethics: (1) aim at the right goal, (2) know how to get there, and (3) do those steps long enough until they become habits. He believes this method of ethical transformation can be applied to any set of ethical goals, including those we see in the New Testament.
Let’s analyze Wright’s use of Aristotle to identify both his helpful insights and where he goes wrong.
AIM AT THE RIGHT GOAL
Wright explains the goal of the Christian life is to be shaped by its end. He debunks the notion that this end is disembodied immortality, a “playing harps in the clouds.” Rather, we’re redeemed to be priests and kings over God’s new creation, representing God’s love to the world in our righteous reign and mediating creation’s praise back to God. Unfortunately, sin has distorted how we view and use creation; we typically aim to reflect our own glory and use creation for our own selfish ends. The goal of sanctification, therefore, is to change our posture toward creation so we begin to act now according to our future roles.
With this formulation, Wright correctly admonishes Christians to understand the embodied character of heaven and to recognize that salvation involves a right relationship with renewed creation. This confronts the latent Gnosticism that infects some branches of the Christian faith.
However, our author leaves solid biblical ground when he sees the goal of humanity chiefly in terms of our work in creation. Wright actually faults the answer to Westminster Catechism’s first question—“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”—for not being oriented to creation enough. Because he sees humanity’s goal as making creation flourish, this leads him to see the problem of sin in terms of how humans have distorted creation. And this, in turn, leads him to understand sanctification simply as reorienting ourselves toward creation such that it will flourish. The song of creation, fall, and redemption is written in a human key.
Scripture runs in the opposite direction: God created humans for his glory—“For from him and through him and to him are all things . . .” (Rom 11:36). Sin, therefore, is first a rebellion against God, which then results in a broken and distorted relationship with creation. Thus, our first goal of renewal must be to order our lives rightly to God: loving him, obeying him, worshiping him. Only then can we be relate rightly to creation.
This God-ward orientation is evident when Paul explains that the goal for the church in sanctification is to be presented to Christ “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27). The goal of humanity is covenantal consummation in Christ. Indeed, relating rightly to the creation is an important ramification of our holiness to God, but it’s not the hinge upon which our sanctification turns. We don’t change our relationship with God by changing how we relate to creation; we change how we relate to creation by being reconciled to God in Christ, who, as it turns out, is the summation and source of the New Creation.
KNOW HOW TO GET THERE
The means by which Wright would have us reach the goal is the Pauline process of mind renewal. We must change our thinking to reflect the fact that Jesus is the true king, and we must embrace our role in his coming kingdom. We do that, according to Wright, by positioning ourselves in the story of God’s salvation through the Messiah. This is another way to describe the biblical idea of “walking by faith.”
This is spot-on as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Wright understands well the idea that we must look at creation through the lens of Jesus’ lordship. But we can’t proceed to creation without a thoroughgoing understanding of ourselves as reconciled new creations in Christ.
I suspect the disagreement here can be traced back to Wright’s views on justification. Wright would say he does begin with believers being reconciled to God in Christ. According to Wright, faith in Christ marks one off as being “in the right” in the sense that one is among the right group of people, namely, Jesus-followers. This is Wright’s understanding of justification. The problem, however, is that this reconciliation is only previsionary. Jesus’ faithfulness paves the way for us to follow, but one’s standing before God ultimately depends upon one’s own faithfulness. Moreover, this “justification” is only with a view toward orienting humans toward creation so that they can be faithful in ruling over it. According to Wright, salvation is not about what we are saved “from” but saved “for.”
But—as we’ve been trying to say—real holiness in Scripture is not simply about being oriented rightly to creation, but being oriented rightly to God. And here, what we’re saved from cannot be separated from what we’re saved for. If God’s wrath is against us, we have no solid foundation to move toward God in love. We flee, just like Adam and Eve in the garden. We need a platform whereby we can relate rightly to God, something much harder to obtain in light of human rebellion against him.
This is where justification comes in. Justification occurs at the very beginning of the Christian life: “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). Yet justification is also of the ungodly (Rom 4:5), and therefore creates space for those who were formerly rebels to now move toward God in love, with confidence that he will be for them, not against them.
This is why in Scripture we see virtue flowing out of a relationship with God. “Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ” (Rom 6:11), which leads to “present yourself to God, as those alive from the dead” (Rom 6:13). Or: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4;19). Every aspect of our holiness is a move toward God in response to his move toward us. God’s move toward us changes us at the core of our being so that in Christ we have a new status and a new nature.
Is renewing our minds important? You bet. But because the goal of holiness is a relational orientation to God, much more is demanded of this mind-renewal than Wright allows. Not only must we have a proper confidence to go boldly into creation, but we must also go boldly before the throne of God. If we jettison justification, we have no means of sanctification.
DO THOSE STEPS LONG ENOUGH UNTIL THEY BECOME HABITS.
Finally, Wright insists on the need to practice and train in order to develop virtue. The whole idea of “putting on” virtues means they might feel unnatural at first. But over time, they become habits. Wright critiques the idea that true holiness is achieved through either the knowledge of rules or a spontaneous Spirit-filled response.
Instead, sanctification involves the hard work of forming habits. He points out that the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians includes self-control. Thus, the Spirit-filled life cannot be set against rigorous effort. Our job, says Wright, is that of the farmer, tilling and fertilizing the ground of our lives so fruit will grow. Christian virtue is formed by making thousands of little, seemingly insignificant choices, so that we will do the right thing, “when it really matters.”
But aren’t all of our choices coram Deo—before the face of God—and, therefore, don’t they all really matter? If we look at holiness chiefly in terms of moving toward God, then we don’t have to wait for the world to be watching us for our action to really count. Any time a Christian seeks refuge in Christ instead of entertaining a lustful thought or says no to gluttony because God is their primary source of pleasure, it matters to God. True, these choices may also form habits, which will make it easier to be holy next time, and these actions do have tremendous ramifications—but these are secondary factors. Nowhere in Scripture is habit formation presented as the primary motivation for obedience.
I’m also concerned that the emphasis Wright places on character formation through habits could lead us to think that our habits form the basic foundation for all our holy actions. As it turns out, the real foundation for holiness is not actually something we construct at all, but our holiness is built on our real and vital union with Christ (Rom 6:1-11), which enacts a powerful change in our nature. We must put forth much effort, to be sure. But it flows from the change that God has made to our nature. It doesn’t cause it. We work from new life in Christ, not for life.
If Wright’s habit training is taken to be foundational, it leaves the reader with no recourse for dealing with the depth of his or her depravity and promises no more than mere “perfecting the flesh.”
Let me conclude with another way to explain what I think Wright misses. A successful marriage requires the formation of many virtues—listening, sensitivity, dependability. Yet to develop these virtues, one rarely seeks them in and of themselves. Rather, one seeks to listen, be sensitive, and be dependable for the sake of knowing and loving one’s spouse, and out of that pursuit comes those virtues.
How much more is this the case when the object of our pursuit is the being whose very essence is holiness? As David Powlison reminds us, the most persistent theme in Psalm 119 is neither the many virtues the Psalmist seeks, nor even the Word of God that prescribes them, but the “I-you” dynamic that forms the context in which they’re produced. This same dynamic must be at the heart of how we experience sanctification.
Wright majors on the skills one must develop to perform acts of holiness, but misses the relational heart of Christian obedience. This creates a false dichotomy between holiness as either disembodied immortality or striving to help creation flourish. But what about a third alternative: the movement of one’s whole life toward God in trust, submission, love, and adoration, which then affects the way one interacts with everything else.
Wright’s book provides us with an occasion to comment on the state of Christian ethics generally. Aristotelian virtue-ethics have been popular in the last few decades in some Christian circles. As a mere response to something more Kantian and de-ontological, this makes sense. For our Christian purposes, however, it’s worth remembering that no non-Christian paradigm can be adopted wholesale. A gospel ethics must recognizes at the very outset that we stand before God by the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and that ethical transformation is grounded in our death and resurrection in Christ. This gospel-indicative of what Christ has done must precede the gospel-imperative of what we must do. Apart from this strict ordering, Aristotelian virtue ethics, like every other ethical system, is finally moralistic. That’s not to say we cannot adopt certain categories and insights from thinkers like Aristotle, but it is to say that a genuinely gospel ethic cannot begin where any philosopher begins (see 1 Cor. 1:18f). To whatever extent Wright or any other scholar denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we can expect his ethics or sanctification program to be misdirected to that same extent.
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 David Powlison, “Psalm 119 and Suffering.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. 22 no. 4 (Fall 2004).