When people argue that Jesus was a “representative” for sinners but not a “substitute,” I always find their statements puzzling. Much as I have tried, I have never been able to grasp their point. So I was delighted to read some comments by N. T. Wright this morning, as I read a fine review of Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. (Josh Chatraw, in JETS 56:1 [March 2013]: 162-65).
Wright suggests that, for the Gospels, Jesus “is dying a penal death in place of the guilty, of guilty Israel, of guilty humankind. Through his death, the evangelists are telling their readers there will come the jubilee event, the great redemption, freedom from debts of every kind, which he had earlier announced and which is the central characteristic of the kingdom” (p. 243; cited by Chatraw, 163). However, says Wright, “All this makes the sense it makes not by playing ‘substitution’ off against ‘representation,’ as has so often been done, but through Jesus’ role precisely as Israel’s representative Messiah, through which he is exactly fitted to be the substitute for Israel and thence for the world” (p. 243; cited by Chatraw, 163-64).
Incidentally, this book by Wright sounds like an excellent read. It is apparently written for a general audience, but it is obviously undergirded by the massive works of Gospel scholarship that Wright has previously published. Wright’s primary concern is that, in the Western Christian tradition, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed, let alone integrated into a larger biblical theology in which they claim to belong” (9; cited by Chatraw, 162). As I reflect on my own evangelical education in church and school, I see truth in Wright’s proposal that contemporary Christian readers of the Gospels have frequently ignored the Gospel writers’ purpose of demonstrating that Jesus is the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story, though in an unexpected way. Wright complains that “the implied backstory hasn’t been the story of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets, it’s been the story of Adam and Eve, of ‘Everyman,’ sinning and dying and needing to be redeemed” (67; cited by Chatraw, 162).
I have not read anywhere near as much of Wright’s work as I’d like to, but I have often appreciated his affirmation of the “both/and” in various situations where others set up a contrast or choice. In pushing us to read the Gospels more carefully through the lens of the Old Testament, which was the starting point for the Gospel writers themselves, Wright doesn’t portray conflict between the Gospels and the epistles, but he wisely calls us to hear the Gospels in their own right, not to read them through the lens of the epistles. He does not deny that Jesus is the representative of and substitute for the sins of Adam’s descendants, but he urges us not to ignore the significance of Jesus’ being Israel’s Messiah. In this regard, I find that Wright increases my already great appreciation for the importance of the history of God’s covenantal relationships, first with Israel and then, in Jesus, with the church, where the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down.