Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Review: Salvation Belongs to Our God by Christopher J. H. Wright

Wright, Christopher J. H. Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2007. Paperback, 202 pp. $16.00

(Review copies courtesy of IVP Academic.)

Reviewed by Jason Button.

Purchase:

Series: Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective series, edited by David Smith and John Stott.

ISBNs: 0830833064 / 9780830833061

Features: Questions for Reflection or Discussion (at the end of each chapter), Endnotes, and Scripture Index

Excerpt: Table of Contents

Subjects: Biblical Theology, Soteriology

Christopher J. H Wright (Ph.D., Cambridge) is International Director of the Langham Partnership International (aka John Stott Ministries) and serves on the staff of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, England. His doctorate was in Old Testament ethics. He was formerly Principal of All Nations Christian College (1993-2001), and taught Old Testament at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India (1983-88). His books include The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (forthcoming, Zondervan, 2009), Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament (IVP, 2007), Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (IVP, 2006), The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP, 2006), Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP, 2004), The Message of Ezekiel: A New Heart and a New Spirit (The Bible Speaks Today. IVP, 2001), The Uniqueness of Jesus (Mill Hill, 1997), the New International Biblical Commentary on Deuteronomy (Hendrickson, 1996), Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament (IVP, 1995), Tested by Fire: Daniel 1-6—Solid Faith in Today’s World (Scripture Union, 1993), Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (IVP, 1992), God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), User’s Guide to the Bible (Lion Hudson Plc, 1984), and Living as the People of God (IVP, 1983).

Is your understanding of salvation large enough? Is it holistic or segmented and fractional? What is salvation in all its fullness? Specifically, how does the Old Testament present the doctrine of salvation, and is its message consistent with that of the New Testament? These are the types of questions Christopher J. H. Wright addresses in Salvation Belongs to Our God (SBOG), and I will spill the beans by saying that he has done a masterful job at this.

A Word about the Series

The aim of this series is to offer “intercultural exposition[s] of key tenets of Christian belief (from the back cover) written by non-Western writers that are “biblically faithful and culturally relevant” (p. 9) for both non-Western and also Western readers. This series is a collaborative effort between Langham Literature (a program of the Langham Partnership International) and InterVarsity Press, and SBOG is the sixth title to appear to date. This series is edited by David Smith, a Baptist minister and lecturer in urban mission and world Christianity at the International Christian College in Glasgow, Scotland. John Stott, a worldwide known and respected evangelical leader, serves as the series’ consulting editor. In comparison with IVP’s New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) series, the CDGP series is written by scholars of similar caliber, but for a more popular audience. Whereas the NSBT series is a bit more technical in nature, including thorough footnotes, a bibliography, an index of Scripture references, and other pertinent indices; the CDGP series is more reader friendly, utilizing endnotes and a Scripture index and dispensing with a bibliography and other indices.

About This Book

I have taken pains to provide a listing of the major books written by Chris Wright (see above) so you can see how extensively he has dealt with issues of hermeneutics, ethics, and missions; and all primarily from an Old Testament perspective. In fact, his previous book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP, 2006), is an important companion to this much smaller work. In SBOG, Wright presents a survey of biblical perspectives on salvation: a key element in the mission of God (to say the least). He chooses as his controlling text the “climactic final chorus” which “[t]he whole of creation will sing” (p. 15):

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,

and to the Lamb (Revelation 7:10, NIV)

Wright identifies the phrase “Salvation belongs to our God” as a summation of the Bible’s entire message; and in the seven chapters that make up the body of this book, he unpacks this phrase piece by piece.

I will admit that, for a long time, I thought of salvation only in terms of the forgiveness of sins and a promise of heaven. It wasn’t until my first year of Hebrew that I was forced to consider the multifaceted definition of this term. My professor lamented the frequent and naively ignorant abuses of texts such as Jonah 2:9 (ESV), “Salvation belongs to the Lord” and Ruth 1:16 (ESV), “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.” The first text is often used in evangelism although the context refers to deliverance from a great fish. The second text is often used as a part of wedding ceremonies although the context refers to an abiding commitment to a mother-in-law. The point is this: context is king.

Wright effectively presents for us a biblical theology of salvation by paying close attention to the contexts in which this term is found and by considering other corollary terms, such as forgive(-ness), cleanse, etc., and concepts such as the mission of God, the covenant of God, and the blessings of God’s covenant. While many current discussions and articles fall short by looking at the basic Hebrew and/or Greek terms for salvation (Heb. yasha’, Gr. sṓzō ), Wright seeks to present a holistic view of the topic.

To begin, Wright appropriately prefaces this book with a brief narrative account of the development of this study, which concludes with a dedication to his older brother, Paul, and a testimony of how Paul led him to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.

Chapter 1 introduces this study on salvation with a general overview of the biblical perspectives of salvation. By way of preparing the reader for what may be surprising concerning the biblical uses of the terms for salvation, Wright warns,

The range of context in which the Bible speaks about God’s salvation is very wide indeed. We ought to resist the temptation immediately to discount and set aside what we might regard as ordinary or material or earthly instances of the biblical language of salvation and then to isolate only those we might deem theological or transcendental or eternal. That is a form of unbiblical dualism that Christians very quickly fall into. (p. 17)

However, Wright concedes (where many modern scholars refuse),

There are things that we need to be saved from that are more ultimately fatal and destructive than other things. The Bible itself shows that being saved from the wrath of God matters a lot more in the end than being saved from illness or injustice. But the Bible also talks emphatically about both as being parts of the saving work of God. (pp. 17-18, original emphasis)

Upon showing that the biblical terms for salvation and deliverance refer most frequently to physical matters, Wright clearly argues that “the Bible recognizes that all those proximate evils from which God saves his people are manifestations of the far deeper disorder in human life” (p. 24). Herein, Wright identifies the ultimate need of humankind: “The biblical God who saves is the God who deals with sin” (p. 25, original emphasis). With full quotations of key Scripture texts (a welcome feature throughout this book!), Wright shows that salvation from sin is not just a New Testament perspective.

With this holistic view of salvation in mind, Wright proceeds to deal with the individual parts of the control text (Rev. 7:10). Chapter 2 addresses the theocentric dimension of biblical salvation: “belongs to . . . God” and “our God.” Wright argues that salvation is God’s property: “Religions in themselves are no answer to our deepest problems” (p. 40), and “Nobody else deserves even the vocabulary of salvation, let alone the reality of it” (p. 43). The greater part of this chapter is dedicated to exploring salvation as the identity of God. Wright clearly and carefully argues that “biblical salvation comes from encountering the biblical God” (p. 47). That there is salvation in no other is passionately proclaimed.

Chapter 3 takes a look at the covenantal dimension of biblical salvation: “our God.” More specifically, Wright follows the theme of blessing associated with God’s covenant. Here is a fine example of how a careful biblical-theological study must move beyond a simple word study. Blessing has everything to do with salvation: salvation is the greatest blessing humans can know. Blessing, just as salvation, includes both physical and spiritual aspects. Wright identifies the various aspects of biblical blessing as creational, relational, missional, historical, covenantal, ethical, multinational, and Christological. Of particular note in this chapter is Wright’s critique of prosperity theology’s “perversion and distortion of this biblical teaching (p. 64).

Chapter 4 continues the discussion of God’s covenant story by focusing on the historical dimension of biblical salvation. Wright walks the reader through the biblical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) to show God’s gracious concern for the earth and humanity from the beginning to the end of time, which is motivated by his own guiding mission. Wright argues that “the Bible is fundamentally a grand narrative with four major parts or sections: creation—fall—redemption in history—new creation” (p. 96). Salvation is involvement in the latter two sections. “The story of salvation is what fills the gap between the scattering of the nations in Genesis 11 and the healing of the nations in Revelation 22″ (p. 96). Similar to a story, salvation covers all three aspects of time: past, present, and future (see pp. 98-106). Wright argues convincingly that salvation is a unique story no other religion can tell. Moving the focus from other religions to Christianity in general, Wright forthrightly states that “salvation is contained not in Christianity as a religion…, but in the story that Christians tell—in bearing witness to the biblical God and what God has done in history for our salvation. Salvation is guaranteed by and because of what God has done, not by our religious beliefs or practices” (p. 110). Wright concludes with a section that was very helpful to my understanding of the call to be a witness (see pp. 110-115).

In Chapter 5, Wright addresses the experience of biblical salvation. First, Wright notes that salvation is a matter of faith in God. The emphasis here is on trust as opposed to effort. Equally important to faith is community.

So our experience of salvation is not just a private ticket to heaven. We are not saved by being picked off one by one by God and whisked off to our private paradise. We are saved by entering into the story of salvation along with all God’s people, knowing ourselves to be among the people whom God has chosen, called, redeemed and covenanted. (p. 122)

Second, Wright addresses the ways in which salvation is mediated. In this section only do we see the influence of Wright’s Anglicanism shine throughout; but only in a moderate way. First and foremost, Wright identifies the Bible as “the prime means by which God brings people to salvation” (pp. 124-125). The secondary means of communicating the message of salvation are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Third, Wright soundly addresses the oft-neglected doctrine of the assurance of salvation.

Chapter 6 takes up the next phrase in the control text: “who sits on the throne.” This is one of the best discussions of the subject I have read. Wright argues that we need to hold in careful balance our relationship with God and his rule over all. In light of God’s ownership of the cosmos, Wright sees a distinct ethical implication; namely, if “the earth is God’s property, we need to be careful how we treat the property of the divine power” (p. 141). He also sees a distinct missiological implication; namely, since all creation belongs to Christ, “[w]hatever power or influence Satan and his demonic host exert over places or people is usurped, illegitimate, bogus and ultimately doomed” (p. 141).

In this chapter, Wright includes a section he deals with more fully in The Mission of God; this section is titled “God’s Sovereignty and the Destiny of the Nations.” Wright notes that much of biblical scholarship minimizes this major biblical theme. This is a very helpful and exciting section.

The final section of this chapter, “God’s Sovereignty and the Extent of Salvation,” will probably arouse the most disagreement. Wright addresses the question “But what about those who never hear the story?” (p. 157ff). The Scriptures give us plenty to work with here, but the issue is often clouded by numerous emotional ties. The best quote I can find to share with you without giving away too much of his argument is this:

[W]hile I strongly affirm that people can only be saved by Christ, and that the normal way that God brings salvation is through those who know Christ witnessing to those who do not yet and leading them to repentance and faith…, I cannot take the further step of saying that God is somehow unable or unwilling to save anybody at any time in human history, unless and until a Christian reaches them with an intelligible explanation of the story of the gospel. (p. 168)

Certainly this is a difficult question to answer, and simple answers do not suffice. The way Wright handles this issue is exemplary, even if readers remain unconvinced of his position.

Finally, Chapter 7 ties up this study with a view of the Christocentric dimension of biblical salvation: “and to the Lamb.” Jesus “is the one through whom God has accomplished his sovereign saving will” (p. 178). Here is a truly cross-centered grande finale to this biblical survey of salvation. In this final chapter, Wright concludes,

When we list all of those other dimensions of God’s redemptive plan…, we are not watering down the gospel of personal salvation, but rather setting it affirmatively within its full biblical context of all that God has achieved and will finally complete, through the cross of Christ. (p. 188)

Wright finishes this study with a useful two-page summarizing conclusion.

In reading this book I have gained an even deeper understanding of and appreciation for the biblical perspectives of salvation. It is as if blinders have been removed from around my eyes, and now I can see what God has done through Jesus Christ for me in light of what He is doing in all of creation. I heartily recommend this book!

Hallelujah! What a Savior!


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