There is much to say about N. T. Wright’s claim that evangelicals, among other Christian groups, misread the Gospels.
It seems to me that one factor that fosters such a misreading is that the gospel as entrance formula orients evangelical culture and theology. Evangelicals are all about personal conversion—that transaction whereby someone becomes a Christian person.
Evangelicals historically have emphasized that transaction’s importance more than anything else—in popular preaching, training for participation in ministry, teaching on discipleship relationships, and even theological reflection.
We read Scripture, therefore, through the lens of that central concern, emphasizing passages that seem to speak about that transaction.
Over the decades, that focus and those discussions shape our vision so that we tend to see only these things in Scripture. We imagine that personal conversion is the central thrust of the Bible—its main topic. We might say that “this is what the Bible is all about,” and we regard the material in the Bible as more or less important depending on its relation to “the most important decision you’ll ever make.”
My point here is simply that this historic evangelical emphasis is one reason we have misread the Gospels. We have turned them into something that they are not. We encounter them with expectations of what we should find there and we thereby fail to hear them for what they are actually saying.
The Gospels tell the story—in four wonderfully distinct ways—of Jesus in relation to Israel and the nations, how he redeems and completes the story of Israel, fulfilling its hopes and expectations.
The Gospels most definitely address the question of how individuals and communities can participate in the God of Israel’s redemptive move in Jesus. But personal conversion and entrance transactions are not the Gospels’ main concern.
There are good historical reasons for this evangelical emphasis, but we would do well to understand the meaning and importance of conversion within the context of the larger story of Scripture. That includes first understanding the Gospels on their terms and only then reflecting on how we regard personal conversion.