N. T. Wright on Why Jesus Died

At the end of his chapter on Jesus’ death in Simply Jesus, Wright has a brilliant summary of God’s triumph over evil–and the evil one–in the death of Jesus.

Somehow, Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established (p. 185).

How is this so?

There is of course much more that could be said on this subject.  But trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this.  In Jesus’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy.  Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin.  The terrible thing is that this charge is true.  All humans have indeed worshipped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’s image into the world.  They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death.  At this level the Accuser is absolutely right.

But the Accuser is wrong to imagine that this is the creator’s last word.  What we see throughout Jesus’s public career is that he himself is being accused—accused of being a blasphemer by the self-appointed thought police, accused of being out of his mind by his own family, even accused by his followers of taking his vocation in the wrong direction.  All the strands of evil throughout human history, throughout the ancient biblical story, come rushing together as the gospels tell the story of Jesus, from the demons shrieking at him in the synagogue to the sneering misunderstanding of the power brokers to the frailty and folly of his own friends and followers.  Finally, of course, and this is the point in the story to which the evangelists are drawing our attention—he is accused in front of the chief priests and the council and in the end by the high priest himself.  He is accused of plotting against the Temple; he is accused of forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar (a standard ploy of revolutionaries); he is accused of claiming to be king of the Jews, a rebel leader; he is accused of blasphemy, of claiming to be God’s son.  Accusations come rushing together from all sides, as the leaders accuse Jesus before Pilate; and Pilate finally does what all the accusations throughout the gospel have been demanding and has him crucified.  Jesus, in other words, has taken the accusations that were outstanding against the world and against the whole human race and has borne them in himself.  That is the point of the story the way the evangelists tell it (p. 186).

This is “the extraordinary story of Israel’s Messiah taking upon himself the Accuser’s sharpest arrow and, dying under its force, robbing the Accuser of any further real power” (p. 188).

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7 responses to “N. T. Wright on Why Jesus Died

  • Matt

    Great post – thanks for this!

  • John Thomson

    Isa 50:5-9 (ESV)
    ​​​​​​​​The Lord God has opened my ear, ​​​​​​​and I was not rebellious; ​​​​​​​I turned not backward. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I gave my back to those who strike, ​​​​​​​and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; ​​​​​​​I hid not my face ​​​​​​​from disgrace and spitting. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​But the Lord God helps me; ​​​​​​​therefore I have not been disgraced; ​​​​​​​therefore I have set my face like a flint, ​​​​​​​and I know that I shall not be put to shame. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​He who vindicates me is near. ​​​​​​​Who will contend with me? ​​​​​​​Let us stand up together. ​​​​​​​Who is my adversary? ​​​​​​​Let him come near to me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Behold, the Lord God helps me; ​​​​​​​who will declare me guilty? ​​​​​​​Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; ​​​​​​​the moth will eat them up. ​​​

    I would wish to nuance the accusations a little. These accusations directed at Christ were Satanic accusations of course but they were all false. The accusations condemned the accusers not the accused.

    For believers through the sin-bearing death of Christ Satan’s accusations against the believer are false too and so Isa 50 refers not simply to Jesus ‘the servant’ but to us as servants (Roms 8).

    However, the cross was not merely an absorbing of Satanic false accusation, it was also the bearing of divine accusation (and this time legitimate satanic accusation) against our sin (Isa 1). The difference between Satanic accusation and Divine accusation seems to get lost in Wright’s passage as does the distinction between right and wrong accusation.

    Having enumerated the many illegitimate accusations of hostile humanity Wright says, Jesus, in other words, has taken the accusations that were outstanding against the world and against the whole human race and has borne them in himself.’. I would take the accusations that were ‘outstanding against the world’ as legitimate accusations that did require being ‘borne’.

    Christ’s enduring of false accusations is, in my view, non-vicarious but part of him suffering for righteousness sake, the kind of suffering that we too are called to experience.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, John. Just briefly: Wright isn’t saying everything that can and should be said here, but just noting how it is that Jesus’ death absorbs the weighty blow of the power of evil, death, sin, and the evil one and exhausts the power of evil. I thought his framing of that aspect of Jesus’ work in terms of accusation was insightful. There are indeed other things to say about Jesus’ death, not least with reference to our sin and being restored to God, as Wright notes at the beginning of the section I cited. And it may be the case that the character of accusations could be parsed out more carefully with reference to other atonement theories. I just thought it was helpful in getting at one major aspect (arguably the major aspect) of Jesus’ death.

      • John Thomson

        Hi Tim

        I should have mentioned my overall enjoyment of the quotation. Belive it or not I actually enjoy much of Wright. I happen to think he is absolutely right about imputed righteosness (though his view was my own before I read Wright).

        Where I may differ from you (perhaps not) is on how Satan is robbed of his accusatory power (indeed any power over a believer). I see this achieved through judicial dealing with sin in the cross. When the penalty is paid the debtor/criminal the prison system (Satan as either accuser or jailor) has no rights over him.

        I would add too when he leaves the prison he steps out not merely as the old person acquitted into the old world but as a new person into a new world. Both person and world beyond the possibility of accusation.

        The penal motif in atonement seems to me to be the basis for understanding the victory motif. This seems to me to be the argument in Col 2.

        Col 2:11-15 (ESV)
        In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

      • timgombis

        I’m just not sure about your connecting the judicial metaphor and Satan’s accusing work. I think Wright’s working from a larger conception of the atonement, one that is broader, though includes, the judicial elements.

    • joey

      John,
      (No sarcasm intended) This is interesting: You take the view that righteousness cannot be imputed from one to another, but, I assume, you believe Sin is imputed/transferred. That’s probably a very unique view. I thought imputed righteousness went hand-in-hand with pen sub. Care to explain? Thanks.

  • John Thomson

    Joey

    I take it that the penal consequences of sin are taken by Christ; he becomes sin in the sense that sins legal penalty/consequence – death, the verdict on our lives – is borne by him. My point is that it is not so much sin that is transferred as an ‘entity’ but sins’ judgement. I take it this is what happens in OT sacrifice atoning blood sacrifice whose meaning is explicated in Isa 53.

    Our righteousness is a more complicated issue. In Christ’s death the legal consequence for sins – death is borne. In effect we die. In death the old is gone. Our new life is found in resurrection and union with a risen Christ who is a new humanity. His legal standing in resurrection is ours. His vindication is ours as those who are now living in him. Of course justification becomes much more than merely a legal standing for it is ‘justification unto life’. We share too in the risen life of Christ through the Spirit and so the justified live righteously.

    My difficulty with some reformed imputed righteousness is that it is not properly construed. Some insist it is the life of Jesus on earth imputed – imputed active obedience. It is this that I object to. We are never told the life of Christ deals with sin only his death. Justification is explained in terms of death and resurrection. In OT modelling a life could not atone – only sacrificial death.

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