“The God whose grace Paul proclaimed is the God who alone does great wonders. He creates the universe from nothing; he calls the dead to life; he justifies the ungodly. This third is the greatest wonder of all: creation and resurrection are consistent with the power of the living and life-giving God, but the justifying of the ungodly isprima facie a contradiction of his character as the righteous God, the Judge of all the earth, who by his own declaration “will not justify the ungodly” (Exodus 23:7). Yet such is the quality of divine grace that in the very act of extending it to the undeserving God demonstrates “that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).”
F.F. Bruce – Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 18-19
Tom Wright is one of the most influential figures in contemporary theology. He has three books coming out on Paul. I had the opportunity to interview him and here is the interview:
You are coming with three different book on Paul and his theology. What are you trying to achieve in each book?
The first book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is actually two volumes and is the major work on Paul. The second, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, is the story of recent Pauline scholarship which explains in effect what the debates are to which the book is contributing. The third, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013, is a collection of all the articles I’ve written about Paul over the last 35 years except for those which are in Climax of the Covenant: Christ And The Law In Pauline Theology (1991).
How do the three books compliment each other?
They complement one another because the articles offer detailed back-up for the major exposition (e.g. there’s no room in the big book for a 50-page article on Abraham in Romans 4 and Galatians 3!) and explain where the discipline of Pauline studies has come from.
What do you hope that readers get out of the books?
I hope and pray that readers gain a big, big picture of who Paul actually was in his full and wider culture – Jewish, Greek, Roman, religious, philosophical, cultural, political and above all spiritual – and will be stimulated to get stuck into fresh readings of his letters for themselves.
How has writing these three books impacted you spiritually?
It has been a major and wonderful task of prayer as much as thought. Several friends have been praying for me all the way and their prayers have really helped as I have wrestled with huge issues and tried to make them clear. Again and again the insights I’ve needed to take the book forward have been as much a matter of prayer as of study. That doesn’t mean they’re right, of course . . .
Some of your perspectives on Paul has been have been critiqued quite strongly, in what ways will these books help you answer some of your critics objections to your work?
These books will set my perspectives on Paul in a MUCH larger context than before so that the controversial issues will be approached from many different converging angles. For instance: ‘justification’ and ‘the law’ are set where they belong in Paul’s wider world, which is the revision, through Messiah and spirit, of the Jewish doctrine of God’s people (= ‘election’).
Whose critique of your work have you most profited from and why?
That’s difficult. I covet good criticism but many conservative critics haven’t really taken the trouble to understand what I’m saying and most of the more liberal critics have hardly noticed my work! I hope this will make a difference.
What do you see lacking in the contemporary reformed position on justification and how do you outline justification in these books?
Justification is the hugely important central feature of Romans and Galatians, two of the most stunning letters ever written. When we place it – as Paul does – within the story of Israel, and the inclusion into that story of believing Gentiles, we discover how many-sided it really is. It all depends of course on the utter free grace of God given in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and made effective through the spirit: placing chapter 10 of my book (election, including justification) right after chapter 9 (the revision of monotheism through Messiah and spirit) enables Paul’s fully Trinitarian framework to be seen as the framework for justification too; and then chapter 11 (eschatology) shows that likewise you need the full story, right through to the end, to understand what justification is. Within that larger framework, justification is God’s declaration that his people are ‘in the right’. God made that declaration over Jesus the Messiah when he raised him from the dead; he will make that declaration over all his people at the last when he raises us from the dead. Present justification is held between those two events, founded on the first and anticipating the second. To believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus as ‘for me’ is to believe that God is already saying, over ‘me’, what he said over Jesus in his baptism: ‘this is my beloved child’. This is the ground of Christian assurance and also of all ecumenical work, since justification is the same for all of us. That’s one of the main points Paul is making.
You have written a quite vastly, if someone has heard of you but never has read one of your books what would be the best book for them to start with?
Depends entirely on where they are coming from! For someone who likes good big chunky books, I’d say, start with The New Testament and the People of God Volume 1 . For someone who reads shorter books, start with either Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense or How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. For someone facing bereavement or puzzled about the’rapture’ and all that – read Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church…
How many books are there still to write in the Christian Origins and The Question of God series and what will they be on?
Supposedly, two more: one on the gospels and one on the early Christian mission as a whole. Don’t hold your breath, though!
Thanks again for your time, I really appreciate it!
One of my greatest heroes is Paul. He was a man who loved
his people with great passion and intensity and he was a great pastor. In 1 Thessalonians 2 we get a glimpse of ‘Paul the pastor’ as he reminded the Thessalonians of how he cared for them. Therefore 1 Thessalonians 2 is great food for thought and it is a passage that we come back to again and again to learn how Paul did and how we should do our ministry. Here are some of the things Paul did that wecan do:
- Paul cared for and loved his people and shared his life with them. 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 says “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” The question is do we love our people like that? Are we sharing our lives with our people or loving and caring for them like a mother?
- Paul had courage. He says he preached in spite of strong opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:2). How could he keep preaching in spite of strong opposition? I think it was his confidence in God and who he is.
- Paul’s holiness was apparent to everyone. Paul can say “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.” (1 Thessalonians 2:10.) If you got up in front
of the people you lead could you say that? Are you growing in holiness each day in a way that is obvious to those you lead/pastor?
- Paul worked his butt off. Paul says “Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9. Pastoral work is very flexible in the hours we can keep. We can coast and cruise through our pastoral ministry and collect a cheque or we can work hard for his glory. We don’t want to be workaholics to be sure but we also don’t want to be lazy. No, we should be like Paul who consistently worked hard for God’s glory for the benefit of those he pastored.
- Paul was himself. He didn’t seek to put on a mask so other’s would be more impressed with him (1 Thessalonians 2:5). I have to keep asking myself; is that what I am doing? Or am I trying to be the next Piper, Chandler, Dever, Driscoll etc.
- He didn’t seek to please men but God. “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed —God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people,
not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority.” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-6). Paul was all about pleasing God first and foremost, he didn’t fear man nor did he seek to please everyone. He never sucked up to people; he always used straight talk (see Galatians 2 if you don’t believe me!). Pastors, who are you seeking to please?
Other men or God. Are you withholding confrontational sin just to keep people happy? Are you not going to have the hard conversation just because it will be awkward? Do you not preach on some topics because poor culture will hate them? Do you not lead strongly because you are afraid of people getting their noses bent out of shape? Do you suck up to pastors or leaders so you can be in their inner ring or to be getting a bunch of speaking gigs? Paul didn’t seek to please men but God. And as pastors or leaders we should do the same!
I Love the apostle Paul and I love 1 Thessalonians 2. It is always a challenging read for me as a pastor. How else do you think we can learn from Paul’s example?
God has given you this life.
You only have one life.
You only have the time has given you.
The time it takes you to read this blog you will never get back.
So what is your attitude to your life? Are you coasting through life or are you driven?
When I read the apostle Paul I read a man who was extremely driven:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
“I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul pressed onto his goal. He wanted to be at the end of his life and given his life to the service of the lord Jesus and the spreading of the gospel. He wanted to be faithful to the end.
When I read the book of Acts I see this picture in narrative form. Paul was a man who was driven to glorify God. He was a man who wanted every moment of every day to be spent in the service of Jesus.
I want that for my life.
I have only one life to live
I only have so many minutes in this life
I don’t want to waste it
I want to be driven
Driven to be successful in what counts
I think N.T Wright is a genius. The first book of his I ever read was Who was Jesus and it still is, in my opinion, a fantastic book. I have read many of Wright’s books on Paul and Jesus as well as numerous articles by the man and I have found that many times Wright illuminates the text where I can see what Paul or Jesus was saying in a way I haven’t been able to see before. But this is not always the case. I do think that Wrights construal of Paul, the gospel and justification distorts the gospel itself. Here is what Wright says the gospel is and is not:
‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense. It is the announcement
1. that the God of Israel is the one true God, and that the pagan deities are mere idols;
2. that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one, is not merely ‘Lord’ in some cosmic sense, but is actually King—King of Israel, and hence (on the Davidic model of passages such as Psalm 89) the King before whom all the kings of the earth shall bow;
3. that Israel’s destiny has been fulfilled, her exile finished, her salvation won, but in a manner which undermines the Jewish ethnic and nationalistic hope that Paul had formerly espoused; and
4. that the rule of the pagan idols, which have kept the pagan nations in their iron
grip has been broken, and that those who follow and serve them are now summoned to share in the blessings of Israel’s ‘age to come’.
Now let’s be clear, I do believe that Wright has given some implications of the gospel here that are true. For example, I do believe that the gospel shows “that the God of Israel is the one true God, and that the pagan deities are mere idols”. But the questions is not whether Wright has outlined some implications of the gospel, the questions is whether or not Wright has been faithful to what Paul (and the Bible) says the gospel is? I don’t think so.
When we look at two places where Paul gives potted summary of the gospel we read:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Galatians 1:3-5
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Romans 1:16
Notice how in both of these potted summaries salvation is front and centre. In Galatians it is Jesus giving himself for our sins. (Notice also how sin is not mentioned in Wrights outline of the gospel!). The gospel and salvation is expressed as rescuing us from the present evil age. So the gospel is to do with salvation.
In the Romans passage, Paul talks about the gospel being salvation and for both the Jew and the Greek. He does not say that the gospel is about breaking down walls that divide the two groups. Now of course the breaking down of racial barriers is an implication of the gospel (see Ephesians 2:11-22) but, for Paul, it is not the heart of the gospel. For Paul the heart of the gospel is salvation.
Here is the issue; to make things that are implications of the gospel (i.e. Jews and Gentiles being together in Christ) the centre of the gospel and to make the centre of the gospel an implication (i.e. an individual’s salvation) is to massively distort the gospel. I do think N.T Wright is a genius and we are in his debt for so much of what he has written but in subtle ways he distorts the gospel and we need to be careful when we read him (as we do when we read others also) to make sure we are not letting our view of the gospel be muddied.
You may also like:
 N.T Wright Gospel and Theology in Galatians in Gospel in Paul (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement), eds. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, 1994. Pgs. 232-233
 If you want to read a robust, thoughtful and generous engagement with Wright on Paul see Peter T. O’Brien, ‘Was Paul a Covenantal Nomists?’ in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, eds. D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 283-295