After You Believe is an exposition of Christian virtue:
My contention in this book is that the New Testament invites its readers to learn how to be human [in a way] which will both inform our moral judgments and form our characters so that we can live by their guidance. The name for this way of being human, this kind of transformation of character, is virtue. (18)The dominant refrain throughout the book is that Christian virtue is a matter of forming habits, habits that lead to character transformation.
Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become 'second nature.' (21)
This is not a review but three brief comments after reading the book--a strength, a weakness, and a note on Wright more broadly.
First a strength.
N. T. Wright has helped a generation of believers shed an adolescent view of a boring future afterlife floating about in disembodied ethereal existence, and mature into the wonderful biblical vision of God’s coming restoration of Eden and renewal of this world, ruled by a redeemed humanity of incorruptible though fully ('trans'-)physical bodies, of which Jesus himself is the first installment. (Who knew Randy Alcorn and N. T. Wright would find in one another such a vocal ally?) As with much of his writing, Wright helpfully incorporates into this book on virtue the biblical vision of a renewed and restored cosmos, a word in season to us all and a revolution for some.
This clarity on the solid and substantive future awaiting believers is one piece of a larger strength of Wright’s, that of putting the whole Bible together. He reads and expounds all of Scripture with the first two and last two chapters always in mind, connecting the dots for us to see where and how history began and where and how it is headed. Wright clarifies, for example, how God is currently on a mission to restore (not leave behind) this earth (we English-speakers could have gotten this from Bavinck a hundred years ago had we known Dutch!), or how the New Testament fulfills the Old and the Old prepares for the New. Even here, of course, discerning readers will want to exile some of Wright’s intercanonical suggestions; but there is much to gratefully receive.
Second, a weakness.
After You Believe eviscerates the heart of healthy Christian cultivation of virtue. Indeed, large swaths of the book, including the opening chapters, contain nothing specifically Christian. In this book, biblical labels often cover pagan substance.
That's a strong statement, and it is dangerous and difficult to generalize, and I am certainly reading Wright with my own theological framework, and there are undoubtedly out-of-balance elements in my own theological outlook, and I bless God for all Wright has taught me. But his is a castrated view of Christian virtue and will prove correspondingly fruitless. The center, the engine, the key--pick your metaphor, I'm talking about the gospel of grace--is missing.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog that there seems to be something of a gospel recovery currently underway in the Christian West. By this I have in mind not only recovery of what the gospel is doctrinally but also recovery of how the gospel helps us functionally. Wright’s book is a striking example of the kind of thinking that lacks this renewed emphasis (an emphasis being rediscovered, not discovered, today). After You Believe is a good and godly attempt to ignite authentic Christian living that nevertheless fails to provide the crucial resource for such living. Divorced from gospel grace, strenuous moral activity--even when done in an effort to depend on the Spirit, which is imperative--can only make us smug in success or fearful in failure.
To be sure, I have my own very particular view about where virtue comes from. In short, I believe the same Christ-clinging, self-divesting faith that justifies us is the faith that sanctifies us. To speak in Sanders-ese, I believe in covenantal charism: get in by grace, stay in by grace. I believe we have very little awareness how law-marinated our hearts really are, and how our fears and anxieties and short-temperedness and envy are simply the fruit of this, and how the great task of the believer is to re-believe each day the shocking, even scandalous, freeness of God's favor, because of and in communion with his Son. More to say but I move on to keep this brief.
Wright wants his readers to cultivate virtue-producing habits; he expounds the moral triad of faith, hope and love; he reminds us of the ninefold fruit of the Spirit; he helps us recover the neglected significance of the Holy Spirit; he draws on long and venerable ethics traditions tracing back to Aristotle. Well and good. The problem is not what is here but what's not. Nowhere are we exposed to the New Testament’s teaching that the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus, the same gospel that got us off the runway at conversion and which will land us in the pearly gates at death, is the heart of what keeps us moving forward in the air in the meantime—as indicated, for instance, in 2 Peter 1, the very NT passage most transparently concerned with the cultivation of virtue (arete, vv. 3 and 5).
The very title articulates the error: After You Believe. After? Isn't the Christian life the beginning of sustained and ever-deepening belief? I understand--the point of the title is simply to address what happens after conversion. Fair enough. Yet the title does reinforce the false and unhelpful and widespread assumption that one believes in Christ at conversion and then moves on to the hard work of virtue-cultivation.
Third, a general comment.
Wright continues, to his own self-professed dismay, to prove a uniquely polarizing figure. A clump of Christians on one end of evangelicalism have knee-jerk suspicion simply in finding Wright’s name on the cover; a clump on the other end receives the words of Wright as one (very small) step shy of holy writ. There is wisdom, however, in neither overcautiously resisting everything nor greedily gulping down everything but rather (as with any writer) swallowing the meat and spitting out the bones.
Corinthian factionalism is in our blood today no less than the mid-50’s A.D. 'I am of Cephas,' 'I am of Paul,' 'I am of Apollos'--'I am of Wright,' 'I am of Piper,' 'I am of Barth,' 'I am of _______.' But all things are ours. Learn from them all, filter it through Scripture, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, blend humble love with conviction-fueled courage, and emerge helped. Let's be mature in our thinking (1 Cor 14:20).
There is much that is insightful and illuminating in After You Believe. Far better, though, to give a young believer zealous to cultivate character and virtue is Luther’s Treatise on Good Works or Walther Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification or volume 4 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics or Berkouwer’s Faith and Sanctification or Gerhard Forde's Justification by Faith or Mike Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life or Tim Chester’s You Can Change or anything by Jerry Bridges or Bryan Chapell or Paul Tripp.
It is grace that changes us.
Our brother Trevin Wax has a more charitable and more positive response here. Mike Horton also briefly reviewed the book over at CT.