06 October 2010

A Few Thoughts on N. T. Wright's After You Believe

Earlier this year the bishop’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters was released, joining Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope to form a trio of semi-popular pieces straightening out what Wrights deems in need of adjustment in current Protestant Christianity.

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)

Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become 'second nature.' (21)
The dominant refrain throughout the book is that Christian virtue is a matter of forming habits, habits that lead to character transformation.

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.


Anonymous said...

beautiful- :-)

"In short, I believe the same Christ-clinging, self-divesting faith that justifies us is the same kind of faith that sanctifies us. I believe in covenantal charism: get in by grace, stay in by grace."


Jason B. Hood said...


(1) "In this book, biblical labels often cover pagan substance." "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."

NTW clearly thinks he is describing something that is a matter of grace:

“The early Christians did not suppose they were undertaking [the quest for and practice of virtue] in their own strength . . . . Whereas Aristotle’s virtuous man was encouraged to take pride in his self-made character, the classic Christian stance is seen in Paul’s insistence, ‘Yet it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10).” Page 60, even stronger words to same effect elsewhere, including page 95.

(2) Is it possible that grace, like faith, is most alive when it produces effort, work, and joyful, passionate striving in believers? 1 Cor 15:10b, among many other passages.

Is it really that unhelpful to imply that we work hard at virtue after conversion? Doesn't the NT expect us to do so? Is it not very difficult to (say) deny one's self, take up crosses, practice personal and corporate discipline, etc? Doesn't that take effort (fueled by Holy Spirit)? NTW nowhere denies that we also work at belief, and I think some of his statements lean towards affirmation of that notion.

To your list on sanctification, I'd add Graham Tomlin's book on Spiritual Fitness, which treats Luther in a much more healthy way than NTW does in this book.

Charles said...

I'll have to disagree with you there. If you don't see a specific place for the work of the Holy Spirit in Wright's book, it is because he says that grace and the Spirit's activity is "presupposed" and "present at every point" in his description of the "virtuous cycle" of growth. It does not "eviscerate" or "castrate" sanctification any more than a text on fish anatomy castrates water by not saying which of the fish's organs contains the ocean.

Sanctification is another of these "both-and" issues. The Holy Spirit and the believer are both active in sanctification. To emphasize human effort to the exclusion of the Spirit results in legalistic pride, but to emphasize grace to the exclusion of human effort results in passivity.

Anthony Hoekema defines sanctification as "that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him." In Book 3 of Calvin's Institutes, Christians are urged to strive "with continuous effort" toward a life of increasing goodness, while at the same time reminding Christians that "in no respect can works serve as the cause of our holiness." In volume 4 of Church Dogmatics, Bavinck described humans as initially "passive" in our acceptance of salvation, but as sanctification progresses, believers are also "called and equipped to sanctify themselves and devote their whole life to God."

(If you want more, you can email me and I'll send you a copy of my article on this topic that will be published next month in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity)

You point to 2 Peter 1:19. There is also Philippians 2:12-13 ("work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.") Hoekema puts it this way: "God works in us the entire process of our sanctification—both the willing of it and the doing of it. The harder we work, the more sure we may be that God is working in us."

Wright calls us to work hard over the long term. This is a necessary message for our society of comfort and quick fixes.

brad said...

Thanks for your wisdom and love of the gospel of grace, Dane.

I have struggled for YEARS over this very issue.

I see the truth of what you are talking about, but I also see the incredible power of our choices and habits to transform us.

After years of really digging into "Preaching the gospel to yourself," "grace-driven sanctification", "remembering your justification in order to grow in your sanctificatio" etc., I recently have been studying the spiritual disciplines (Dallas Willard, Adele Calhoun, Richard Foster etc.) I have found these resources extremely helpful, almost more helpful than constantly dwelling on the gospel.

I guess I am really confused because I have found that the spiritual disciplines have really helped me with my addictions and attitudes. I guess I would say that consistent obedience is what transforms me and changes my heart and brings great joy and love for God. But I feel like that is a statement that is against grace.

Could you correct me and help me understand my experience?

Also, I was wondering if you could comment on your assessment of a Dallas Willard approach (practicing the spiritual disciplines) to sacntification?

Charles said...

Sorry, I should have said "Reformed Dogmatics" rather than "Church Dogmatics" in connection to the Bavinck quote.

"Bavinck" does not equal "Barth."

Trevin Wax said...


I like this review and your guarding against factionalism. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Wright's proposal is divorced from gospel grace; in fact, I think it's paramount to the whole point he is seeking to make.

Have you come across Michael Horton's review of this book? I thought it was helpful in how he showed the Reformed roots of Wright's thought while pointing out the perplexing swipes Wright takes at Luther. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/30.55.html

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Hi Trevin. Yes, saw Horton's review; linked to it. No, I would not agree that the gospel is 'paramount to the whole point' of Wright's book, but this would need a face to face conversation to flesh out exactly what you and I both mean by gospel-fueled virtue. Hope you are well dude.

Charles, good stuff, lots I agree with. But: actually I expressed gratitude for Wright's good focus on the Spirit. No idea what your fish analogy means. Good quotes, all from men I love and respect; but I think Hoekema's statement that 'the harder we work, the more sure we may be that God is working in us' is extremely anthropologically naive. I refer to 2 Pet 1:9, not 1:19. Bless you.

Brad, thanks for the brotherly comment. I feel the tension you express. You're right, choices and habits are indeed powerfully formative. No question. The issue is: what is driving me every time I make that choice that is slowly becoming a habit? How does it work, psychologically, in any given case? My point is not that we ought not to cultivate habits; my point is that there is a gospel-circumscribed way to form habits and a gospel-vacuous way to form habits, and Wright's book, in my opinion, reinforces the latter. Remember, the religious authorities in the Gospels had some meticulous habits formed, but their pseudo-spirituality is something I want to avoid at all cost. Regarding Willard et al--bless God for them! Such good they have done for the kingdom. Yet I see the spiritual disciplines as the steering wheel, not the engine, to growth. You need both a steering wheel and an engine to drive; but the engine propels, the steering wheel guides. Spiritual disciplines channel sanctification; yet many Christians seem to think the disciplines create sanctification. Put differently: certainly, cultivate the disciplines!--But do so in the conviction that the spiritual discipline beneath all spiritual disciplines is the discipline of relentlessly receiving grace as we look away from self to Christ.

Hi Jason. Thanks for all your thoughtful ongoing work in the kingdom and I hope you are well. Lots of things come to mind, I'll mention a few. It is one thing to use the words 'grace' and 'gospel,' which Wright certainly does; it is another thing for one's writing to be self-consciously founded on and in accord with what these things actually are. Indeed, what strikes me about the places in the NT that call for hard work is that what God has done for us is never far, contextually, from what we are to do. My view of the NT is not that it talks about grace and not hard work; but rather that it talks about grace igniting and fueling and circumscribing hard work. I want to be careful that my understanding of the gospel never encourages moral laxity in me. But in truth, brother, I have found just the opposite to be the case. I find that the more real the gospel becomes to me, the more changed I am and the more fruit is borne. In reading Wright's book, I found him to be too intuitive and not counterintuitive enough; he doesn't show how not only the Third Person in us but the Second Person for us generates virtue. You are right that Wright 'thinks he is describing something that is a matter of grace'; but I think he does not yet see what it really means for grace to fuel virtue. There is undeniably effort involved, hard effort, teeth gritting, spiritual sweat, in sanctification. But nowhere does Wright deconstruct our fallen human intuitions that whisper to us every day that the sweat is *unto* our standing before him, showing us instead, as is the NT pattern, that the sweat is *from* our standing. Bless you my friend.

Beat Attitude said...

Dane, I've not read the book so I won't comment on it specifically, but your post inspires the following thoughts in response:

Christians who experience the grace of the gospel will already desire virtue, and it is the job of the Christian teacher to identify those who have that hunger, and show them how to be that which they already desire to be.

Of course we also desire virtue in order that we *appear* virtuous, to others and to ourselves. One can by no means demonstrate to someone in this mindset how to become truly virtuous because the foundational motive is self-interest, not gratitude. Because of the conspicuous absence of *gospel* righteousness, *self* righteousness finds its foothold.

So the discerning teacher learns when his audience needs their appetite stirred by the gospel, and when they are hungry for ways to respond, for instruction in virtue.

This cycle reflects the upward trajectory of Christian life: gospel-faith and virtue-works as loving partners, calling out to one another and spurring one another on to new heights.

Faith in the gospel and transformative works of virtue ought never to be found far apart from each other. They are one flesh.

Charles said...

"No idea what your fish analogy means."

Okay, maybe that wasn't the best simile I've ever constructed.

Orrey said...

FYI - the title, 'After You Believe', came from the publishers, not Wright. In England the book's title is 'Virtue Reborn', which is the title Wright chose. Wright himself has said that he doesn't like the American title.

Jason B. Hood said...

"I have found just the opposite to be the case. I find that the more real the gospel becomes to me, the more changed I am and the more fruit is borne."

Very, very glad that this is the case for you, and I suspect it's true to some degree in us all. I wonder if part of the difference is that it's not entirely this way for all of us? James tells us that it is not axiomatic for belief to result in change, and many of the commands and models ("walking in the Spirit") given in the NT seem to imply the same. NT uses so many dift motives, etc.

I've often wondered if personality is in play here--not least since my friends and family, and those to whom I minister, variously seem prone to certain sins more than others, are inspired by certain motivators and not as much by others, are encouraged by some truths more than others, etc.

"But nowhere does Wright deconstruct our fallen human intuitions that whisper to us every day that the sweat is *unto* our standing before him, showing us instead, as is the NT pattern, that the sweat is *from* our standing."

That's a good way of putting it. (I do note again that NTW disavows that our standing consists in the work we do on our Aristotelian bootstraps.) Here's one example of the "personality" phenomenon: I grew up knowing about grace and forgiveness, and that I didn't have to prove something to God. I don't hear that "whispering voice" every day--in fact I'm not sure I ever hear it. Instead, I find I really need the voice that tells me not to be lazy and undisciplined (my own personal proclivities as I see them, to give the short version here in public!)

You're right that this is a very involved conversation, very thought-provoking. One can't touch on all things in a blog post or comments, for sure. I'd love to know what you thought of Sinclair Ferguson's response to Forde in Christian Spirituality: 5 Views of Sanctification.

Would also love to simply say hello at ETS/SBL if you go to such things! Cheers

jonathan dodson said...

I'd have to disagree also, Dane. In addition to being interesting and insightful, Wright presses the gospel home in this volume. Though his description of the gospel isnt laden with the "gospel-centered" garb of Reformed Evangelicals, there's plenty of gospel to be found.

He basically sets up three options for cultivating character:

1. Be true to yourself
2. Be all you can be
3. Be who you already are in Christ

The first is postmodern "authenticity" ethics. The second is religious "works" ethics. The third is a gospel ethic. In particular, Wright builds this out with his emphasis on the hope of the gospel/resurrection by arguing that we should "anticipate" who we already are in Christ, like we anticipate the rain by putting on a rain jacket before it rains. Eschatological, gospel indicative informing ethical imperative.

Although he could have stated it more clearly, he is certainly leaning on the eschatological hope of the gospel to produce Christlikeness. I tweaked his language bit to reflect this more:

Christian virtue is an anticipation of who we will be, and who we will be is who we already are in Christ.

Dane Ortlund said...

Hi Jonathan. So grateful for you brother.

If only this was what Wright said!

But his #3 is not, essentially, 'Be who you already are in Christ.' The thrust of his third way is 'cultivate habits so that eventually virtue becomes second nature.' A world of difference. I should add that I say this in light of 1) deep appreciation for all Wright has taught me and 2) glad agreement with his emphasis on the eschatological inbreaking of the new age informing our present lives.

Hope you are well my friend.

Jason - interesting thoughts. Hope to see you in Atl in Nov.

nancyguthrie said...


As I began reading this review I was thinking to myself, "I will have to contact Dane and ask for some recommendations on what to read to understand sanctification by grace more clearly—and then you gave us a list at the end. Thanks! I have much re-training to do of my natural orientation in this matter.


jonathan dodson said...

Hi Dane,

I'm speaking on this topic today in Omaha and thought I'd reproduce some quotes from Wright that reflect his grace-driven approach to sanctification to balance the critique a bit:

“Everything I'm going to say about the moral life, about moral effort, about the conscious shaping of our patterns of behavior, takes place simply and solely within the framework of grace—the grace which was embodied in Jesus and his death and resurrection, the grace which is active in the Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel, the grace which continues to be active by the Spirit in the lives of believers.” P, 60

Grace meets us where we are but is not content to let us remain where we are…” 63

He certainly emphasizes the role of the Spirit more than that of Christ, but he is in no way dismissing Christ or grace as central to our sanctification.

Hope to meet you sometime. Enjoy grace, brother.

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