One of the more peculiar objections that John Piper raises against Wright’s understanding of Paul’s ‘gospel’ is that the announcement that Jesus is Lord ‘is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Piper, The Future of Justification, 86-87). It is, therefore, not good news at all.
He quotes Wright’s summary of Paul’s mission: ‘He was to declare to the pagan world that YHWH, the God of Israel, was the one true God of the whole world, and that in Jesus of Nazareth he had overcome evil and was creating a new world in which justice and peace should reign supreme.’ Then he argues that while this is not false, it is ‘unrealistically intellectualistic… mainly conceptual and minimally experiential’. Surely, he says, when Saul ‘fell to the ground under the absolute, sovereign authority of the irresistible brightness of the living Jesus,’ his first thoughts would not have been about intellectualistic concepts such as ‘a new worldview and a new vocation’ but about whether, as a persecutor of the church, he would survive the encounter.
I’m not sure if Wright addresses this objection directly in his response to Piper (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision), but I have five observations to make.
1. Wright poses the question historically but Piper answers it existentially. Wright expresses considerable frustration throughout his book with the fact that his critics keep missing the point.
2. The announcement that Jesus is Lord would certainly have come as bad news for unrepentant Israel (eg. Acts 3:23) and eventually for the pagan world (Acts 17:22-31); but it was unquestionably good news for those Jews who sought the vindication or justification of Israel and of YHWH and for those Gentiles who found in the emerging Christian movement a compelling alternative to a morally and spiritually bankrupt paganism.
3. I’m not persuaded by Wright’s argument that in Jesus God was ‘creating a new world in which justice and peace should reign supreme’ – if nothing else, the ‘should’ in that statement seems to bring the whole proposition into question. But to dismiss Wright’s formulation as intellectualistic, conceptual and ‘minimally experiential’ is absurd. What Piper means, of course, is that it appears not to support or make room for the Reformation and evangelical preoccupation with personal salvation. But for the early church the confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’, in defiance of both the Herodians and Caesar, inspired by the intense and often ecstatic activity of the prophetic Spirit of God, was nothing if not experiential. Paul’s gospel was that God was vindicating or justifying his people under the present ‘eschatological’ conditions through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even in itself that was not merely conceptual: it was a proclamation of what YHWH was doing. But it was an announcement that would have massive practical implications for individuals, communities and whole societies. It is astonishing that Piper should miss the point of that in his anxiety to safeguard a reduced narrative about sinners who find mercy.
4. The argument from Paul’s conversion also misses the point. Of course, it was bad news at that moment for Paul that Jesus had been raised from the dead (87) and good news that he was not destroyed for having hated Jesus and his followers. But that was not his ‘gospel’. The announcement that he was commissioned to make throughout the Greek-Roman world was that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ (Acts 9:20; cf. Rom. 1:4), or that he is Lord. That appointment or enthronement then becomes the basis for the call to repentance and a change of spiritual (and indeed political) allegiance; it becomes the basis for the transformation that accompanies that change of allegiance. But we should not suppose that personal salvation is simply the fruit that is picked from the tree of the narrative about Israel, packed into boxes, and shipped for global consumption. We are like modern urban consumers who have lost all appreciation of the fact that the plastic-wrapped plums they purchase from the supermarket once hung from the branches of a tree.
5. Piper argues from Acts 13:39 that it is only when ‘the gospel preacher tells the listener what Jesus offers him personally and freely’ that the proclamation has the quality of ‘good news’ (86). But again the modern practice of gospel-preaching is being superimposed on the text. The issue is not whether the announcement that God has made Jesus Son of God or Lord or coming judge has positive implications for people that could be classified as ‘good news’. It is whether we preserve the essential narrative structure of New Testament teaching or collapse it to the level of personal conversion. Piper blithely overlooks the fact that the invitation to believe in Acts 13:39 forms part of a narrative about the salvation of the family of Abraham, in which Paul clearly states what he understands by ‘good news’, which is that God has fulfilled his promise to the fathers by raising Jesus from the dead and making him Israel’s king (13:32-33). It is on that basis that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel.