Book Review: Christians at the Cross, by N. T. Wright

Review
03.02.2010

This book derives from a series of sermons that N. T. Wright preached at the Church of the Ascension, Easington Colliery, during Holy Week in March 2007. Easington Colliery, a small town in England, has suffered over the years: a devastating underground explosion in 1951 killed 83 people, and then the mines themselves were shut down in 1993. The town has not recovered from that economic blow, and it is still reeling socially, morally, and spiritually.

Wright’s sermons were intended to bring the message of the cross and resurrection to a community that had lost hope. Anyone familiar with Wright’s work would expect the sermons to be creative and fascinating, and Wright does not disappoint. His sermons here have a verve and dynamism that carry the reader along.

THE BOOK’S STRENGTHS

Several things particularly struck me in reading the book. First, Wright captures the theme that the love of God is displayed in the cross. The cross signifies that God in Jesus has come to make things right. Something has gone horribly wrong with the world, but the cross shows us that God loves us and cares about our plight. Wright reminds the church at Easington Colliery—and us—that we can bring our pain and shattered hopes to the cross.

Second, Wright rightfully locates the story of Jesus within the story of Israel. What took place at the cross was not just a transaction. It is part of a grand narrative—part of God’s plan to reclaim the world for his glory.

Third, Wright does not give pat answers. He admits that he does not have a blueprint that can solve the problems of the town. The cross of Christ reminds us that the way is not invariably easy. Sometimes we suffer as Christians in agonizing ways.

Fourth, the sermons offer hope. The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that death is not the last word. We can be sure that we will ultimately triumph. Nor is the resurrection merely a “spiritual” reality. Jesus was truly and physically raised from the dead, and we too will be raised physically with him.

Fifth, Wright emphasizes that the resurrection represents God’s “yes” to creation. As Christians we are not to retreat from the world but work to change it, for we proclaim the joyful news that Jesus is Lord.

AND ITS WEAKNESSES

Are there any weaknesses in the book? Three different things stood out to me, but they are all related to the same issue. First, one of the central themes in Jesus’ preaching was the call to repentance and faith. Wright rightly offers comfort to the church, but Jesus also emphasized the sins of those in Israel (yes, even when speaking to those who were already religious). Hence, he called on Israel to repent, to take up their cross and follow him, to turn away from all other gods, and to believe in the gospel. That theme is quite muted in Wright’s sermons.

The second weakness is related to the first. Wright pays much more attention to our responsibility to further God’s work in this world than he does to the need to put one’s faith in Jesus. He agrees that the latter is necessary, but he stresses the former. Of course the Christian life is about more than “getting saved.” We have work to do in this world after we believe. Nevertheless, it would seem that Easter week sermons would be a prime occasion to call upon one’s hearers to believe in the gospel; and yet a strong call to faith is lacking from this book. Wright seems to assume that all his hearers are already Christians. Wright should emphasize conversion more and call his readers (and hearers) to repentance and faith, especially since the church in England is shrinking and evangelism is such a crying need in Britain.

Third, Wright clearly believes that Jesus bore our sins as our substitute. Still, he scarcely emphasizes the awful judgment and wrath that we deserve as sinners—a wrath that is turned away by the cross of Jesus Christ (Rom 3:25-26; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). Wright focuses on the love of God, but he does not say much about his holiness. Yet it is when we see God’s dazzling holiness that his love shines all the brighter.

We can be grateful for some of the themes sounded in this book. Still, the lack of urgency about our need to repent and believe in the gospel is a blind-spot in Wright. Any pastor who preaches during Easter week must make it a first priority to preach the good news of Christ crucified and risen and call upon sinners to repent and to put their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Wright’s failure to do this during Easter week is something pastors should not imitate.

By:
Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Pastor of Preaching at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @DrTomSchreiner.