Note: if you already “know” what happened on the Cross—that is, you are already certain how it works, perhaps even concerned about inaccuracies in how it is communicated—please read this review pretending that you do not know and are seeking the truth. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Wright is your concern, but please do not write off his ideas simply because they do match your existing ideas. So many Christians say “the Bible says...” when they should more humbly and accurately say “my tradition interprets the Bible to say...”, and traditions are not necessarily Inspired.

Ever since Luther and Calvin, Protestants have understood what happened on the cross to be what Wright calls the “works-contract”. Essentially this says that God requires perfect obedience to his commands and failure to do so is known as “sin”. In the Garden of Eden we sinned, and were exiled, and we have sinned ever since. Because God cannot tolerate sin we are blocked from going to heaven when we die. But God sent Jesus in our place, and God poured his anger and wrath and punishment for our sins on Jesus, and thus the sin is paid for (but not by us) and by his grace we can repent and be forgiven and go to heaven.

Wright argues that this is essentially a platonic view of the world (“heaven” is an abstract concept akin the Forms) and a pagan/epicurean view of God (he is angry, but Jesus gets in the way and God’s wrath spends itself on him instead of us). Biblically our future destination is not a spiritual “heaven” but physical, resurrected bodies on the new earth. But it gets worse: Jesus getting in the way of God’s anger is the sort of thing that happens in human relationships, and it turns John 3:16 into “for God so loved the world that he hated his only son”. And if sin is not breaking the rules, then the Christian life is trying to perform to a standard that even we admit up front that we cannot meet. In this model, there is always grace, but it is not exactly “good news” that you are expected to live up to an impossible standard, even if there is no longer any punishment for it.

The works-contract view was a biblical answer to medieval questions, but not an answer to the biblical question. Luther and the Reformers were adamant that Purgatory was unbiblical because we are not sinful when we die, because our sin was paid for once and for all by Jesus. (Furthermore, we did not re-sacrifice Jesus, because his one sacrifice was sufficient.) The works-contract is an extension of Anselm’s theory of the atonement, and a solution to the medieval need for Purgatory. But the issue of our sinfulness when we die was not an issue that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which was the entirety of the Bible in Jesus’ day, was even asking.

Instead, Wright argues that the biblical view is much richer: we are called to a vocation. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden represents a temple and the image of the god in the temple is humanity, created in the image of God and living at the boundary between heaven and earth as a royal priesthood, reflecting God’s wisdom to creation (and his pushing back of chaos) and bring creation’s praises back to God. The problem, the Old Testament says, is that humanity chose idolatry. This led to exile from the Garden, and enslavement to “powers and principalities” and to sin. Sin is what happens as a result of idolatry; sin is not the problem, idolatry and the lack of worship is the problem.

God chose Abraham to bring blessing to the world, and specifically Israel. Like humanity, Israel was called to be a nation of priests. But, like humanity, Israel also chose idolatry and was exiled from the presence of God, which Ezekiel saw leaving the Temple. The rabbis of Jesus’ day did think that God had returned to the new Temple, so they were still in exile because of their sins—indeed, except for a brief interlude, they had ruled by pagan nations since the destruction of Solomon’s temple. The Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) were a story without a conclusion. In fact, there was an impossible problem: the promise to Abraham could not be fulfilled because Israel was to be the fulfillment of the promise and Israel was in exile. The rabbis thought that fulfillment of the Scriptures would require three things: deliverance from pagan rulers in a new Passover, God becoming ruler of his earth, and forgiveness for the sins of Israel so that God’ Presence could return and true worship restored.

When the New Testament says that Jesus died for our sins “according to the Scriptures”, they mean that he fulfilled the incomplete story promised by the Scriptures. It happened in a form that no one expected, but after Jesus’ death the Christians saw that Jesus had indeed fulfilled the three requirements. First, Jesus made clear that his death represented a new Passover, because timed his death with Passover (not the Day of Atonement) and the Last Supper (and the Chrisitian sacrament of communion) is a Passover supper. The deliverance—the new Exodus—was delivery from enslavement to sin and death, or which Paul describes as disarming the powers. Second, after his resurrection Jesus asserted that he had been given all authority, so God was now ruler of the earth again. Third, Jesus death provided forgiveness for sins, thus ending the exile. God’s Presence indeed returned, in the form of the Holy Spirit, to his people, which now expanded from the nation of Israel to the whole world through the universal forgiveness of sins that Jesus’ death purchased. God solved the problem of Israel’s sin through the death of the Messiah, fulfilling his promise to Abraham and restoring humanity to our vocation as a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth.

So how did the Cross accomplish this? Wright is clear that Jesus’ death was not that of an atoning sacrifice. The only time that sin was transferred to a sacrificial animal was on the Day of Atonement, when it was transferred onto a goat which was not sacrificed (it would be an ineligible sacrifice at that point), but driven out into the desert away from the people. But Jesus died on Passover, as the Passover lamb, not as the scapegoat. In the regular sacrifice, its throat was cut and the blood—the life—was drained. I find Wright a little fuzzy on this point but my understanding is that since our problem is idolatry not sin, Jesus’ death did not need to “pay” for our sin in a works-contract fashion, but instead his death freed us from the slavery to sin and death (the effects of our idolatry), thus restoring our ability to worship.

At this point Wright spends several chapters showing that passages used to justify the works-contract, such as the “Romans road”, are misinterpreting the text by what I call “endogesis” or reading meaning into the text. (Since “exegesis” means deriving the meaning “from the text”; since “exe-"/"exo-" means “out”, the opposite must be “endo-" [e.g. “endothermic” reaction pulling heat into the chemical reaction], so pulling the meaning “into the text” must be “endogesis”.) Wright argues that the works-contract interpretation assumes that Jesus is solving the problem of humanity being unable to get to heaven because of our sin. Since that starting assumption is incorrect—our final destination is the physical New Jerusalem on the New Earth—that interpretation cannot be what Paul means in his letters. He wryly notes that the reason commentators find Romans 6 a “difficult” passage, is because it does not support their interpretation. When approached from the perspective of Jesus restoring humanity’s vocation of a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth, he shows that Paul’s assertions line up easily with that line of thinking. Unfortunately, his arguments are too detailed to effectively summarize, and I refer you to the notes below.

Since Jesus’ death “in accordance with the Scriptures” fulfills through God’s lovingkindness his promise to Abraham, our life as Christians is to live out our restored vocation as a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth. Our role is to be the bring about—through God’s power through the Holy Spirit—"on earth as it is in heaven”. This is so much richer than simply endeavoring to have a righteousness through obedience to the commandments (“the law”) and relying on God’s grace for the gap. We have the privilege and responsibility of bring heaven to earth, to bring God’s wisdom in our stewardship and cultivation of the earth, and to push back the chaos of creation just as God created the earth out of the chaos. We have the privilege and responsibility of reflecting worship back to God.

There is even more richness: the means that we live out our vocation as a royal priesthood is the same as Jesus lived it. Jesus brought this about through giving his life self-sacrificially, and this is how the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about in the Gospels comes about. Paul is clear that the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and to Israel (and to humanity in Genesis after the Fall) is the expression of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus showed the disciples “the full extent of his love” by taking the form of a servant and washing their feet, as a physical parable of his life, which took the form of a servant, not considering equality with God something to be held on to. As citizens of the inaugurated Kingdom of God, we too build the kingdom by lovingly taking the form of a servant.

The Day the Revolution Began is a thorough examination of what the early Christians meant by “in accordance with the Scripture”. I read the book because I had lived past the point at which the works-contract is sufficient to live a fulfilling Christian life. The works-contract does not offer meaning for this life. It simply offers an unachievable standard and an abstract paradise after death; so what do we do until then? Is the only acceptable activity for believers singing worship songs and evangelizing? How does the Christian deal with times where our physical or relational needs are not met? Just white-knuckle through the pain until we die or it gets better? What do we really have to offer the world if the world is temporary existence in an inferior physicality until we die into the superior abstract spiritual existence?

I was not disappointed in my hope that Wright would offer a richer, more purposeful Christianity. Not only does the Bible become a story with a tragic beginning (humanity’s embrace of idolatry and subsequent exile from God’s Presence), a hopeful promise but more tragic choices (Israel’s embrace of idolatry and subsequent exile from God’s Presence), to a stunning conclusion where God’s love fulfills his promises despite our failure and restores humanity to it’s original place as the image of God in the temple at the intersection of heaven and earth. It gives us a magnificent vocation: the world is good (God even said so in Genesis!) and we get to embrace God’s creation and cultivate it. We get to build God’s Kingdom! So gardening is part of building the Kingdom, learning (and teaching) is part of building the Kingdom, creating things is part of building the Kingdom; art and music and Beauty are part of building the Kingdom. Early Christians embraced martyrdom because they wanted to be like their master. We can copy Jesus less literally by becoming people who love with the same intense quality of love that builds the Kingdom through self-sacrifice as we host God’s Presence in the Temple, letting his love become our love, and showing the world the full extent of God’s love by taking the form of a servant.

This book is a through, accessibly academic meditation of Jesus’ death “in accordance with the Scriptures”. We see the paucity of the works-contract all around the West, where people realize that the works-contract is not rich enough to hold the weight of life, and therefore abandon Christianity. Wright has articulated the fulfillment of God’s vision for humanity in a way that is both academically rigorous and rich enough to be “good news” to a society desperately searching for a meaning for this life (among other things). This is definitely one of the most influential books I have read, and rigorous enough to have a confidence that this is not just an interesting idea. This summary hardly does his argument justice, so I recommend reading the notes, and if you are intrigued, the full book.

Review: 10
This is a rich analysis of the Bible, thoroughly argued. Wright not only has a thorough argument for his position, but he also thoroughly addresses the prevailing works-contract arguments.