NT Wright has stated that evangelicals do not understand the biblical gospel. He feels that evangelicals focus too much on the salvation of individual human beings whereas the biblical gospel is that God is renewing the whole creation. This is another case of Wright taking something that is secondary in the biblical message and making it primary and thus distorting biblical theology.
Let me first affirm Wright. He is correct that evangelicals have often ignored the creational impact of the gospel and God’s saving plan. Romans 8 most certainly teaches that the creation will be redeemed from the fall. This is part of our glorious hope as Christians and certainly informs our attitude toward the creation in the present age. We can thank Wright for bringing this to the attention of the church.
But Wright is wrong to say that the renewal of the creation is part of the core gospel message. The basic gospel message is “repent of you sins and believe in Christ that you might be saved”. This message is found over and over and over again in the Gospels, in Acts and in the epistles. It is directed at human beings, calling on them to respond. The core message is never “the creation is being renewed.”
What about the teaching in Romans 8? It actually affirms the traditional Gospel message. The focus of the passage is the suffering of Christians. To encourage Christians to endure their sufferings in faith, Paul tells them that their present suffering is nothing compared to the glory that awaits them the resurrection at the end of time. It is in this context that Paul brings up the renewal of creation. He says the creation is anxiously awaiting the glorification of the sons of God for then it will be glorified with them.
The back ground of this teaching is that the creation fell with the sin of Adam and Eve. They were rulers of the creation and their sin brought their kingdom under God’s curse. The creation cannot be renewed until its rulers are redeemed. Once the creation’s royal representatives are glorified, then their domain can be renewed with them.
In other words, the focus of Romans 8 is the salvation of God’s people. The effects this will have on creation is a wonderful consequence. The gospel message then is about the salvation of people. Certainly the creation’s renewal is part of this message, but it is a consequence of the gospel, not its core.
Wright’s position has all the right points and it is logically consistent and beautiful in scope. But biblical spirituality is about putting the emphasis in right place and putting the points in the right order. The biblical gospel emphasizes the salvation of humans and rejoices that creation’s renewal will follow. Wright has shifted the core of the gospel to salvation of the material world
Why does he do this and what are the consequences? Wright insists that the gospel is about politics. By shifting the focus of the gospel from the personal salvation of individuals to the more abstract salvation of the world, he is saying the most important thing the Christian does is to take the right position on political issues so that we can renew the world. The effect is to change the church from a mission to reconcile people to God to just another political interest group. I do not see the New Testament teaching this in any shape, form or fashion. The New Testament Christians had no hope of changing the Roman political structure and they put no emphasis upon it. Wright is reading our situation in modern democracies (where we can effect political change) back into the New Testament.
I want to emphasize that individual believers should be involved in politics bringing God’s values to bear on them, but this is not the mission of the church or the core of the gospel. The gospel changes people. Changed people then live out those gospel changes in the world. The changing of the world is the consequence of the gospel, not its essence.
And I again want to say that the teaching of Romans 8 should affect how we view the material creation. The creation is God’s world. God intends to save it. The Christian should be very concerned about caring for the planet as an evidence of God’s future grace already present in us. Nevertheless, that is not the core message of the gospel.