Monthly Archives: November 2010





Trevin Wax|3:37 am CT

Small Faith, Great God: Wright's Early View of the Atonement

N.T. Wright in 1980

Yesterday, I began a thematic series through N.T. Wright’s new (and old) book Small Faith, Great God, analyzing the development of Wright’s theology since the original release of this book in 1978. In the preface, Wright affirms that he is in substantial agreement today with what he wrote back in the 1970′s. That said, the careful reader can detect a number of different emphases in Wright’s early work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wright’s treatment of the atonement of Christ.

Transaction Language

One of the interesting observations regarding Wright’s early explanation of the cross of Christ is the ease with which he utilizes the language of “purchase” when speaking of Christ’s work. Here are a few examples:

Christ purchased humans for God. That is, he came into the slave market where his people were standing in chains, and he paid the cost of setting them free. (20)

There is no nation or people – no tribe or language – from which Christ did not buy himself people for his own possession. (21)

Christ purchased humans first and foremost for God, to be kings and priests to serve him. Realize the full impact of this. When Christ bought us at the cost of his own blood, it wasn’t first and foremost for our happiness – though to be saved by him will mean happiness itself. He bought us for God. (21)

I don’t recall Wright ever disavowing this kind of terminology, but this language is not characteristic of his later writings. Wright has a strong aversion to a view of salvation that could be misconstrued as a mere “transaction,” which may be why he refrains from “purchase” language today. Instead, when Wright speaks of “redemption”, he almost always links Christ’s purchase of the church to the Exodus event. Notice this reference to “redemption” in his commentary on Romans 3:

Israel could scarcely hear the word [redemption] without thinking of Egypt, of Passover, of the Red Sea, the wilderness wanderings, and the promised land. Paul has already hinted that the whole human race languishes in the Egypt of sin. What such people need is a new exodus, the cosmic equivalent of what God did for Israel long ago… This redemption happens in the Messiah, Jesus. (471)

Charting Wright’s treatment of “purchase” and “redemption” language underscores a more prominent development of Wright’s theology: a desire to ground his theological reflection in historical realities. Today, when Wright speaks of redemption, he ties this language to concrete, historical events in the history of Israel. He has also moved away from explaining what Jesus’ death means for me to the broader discussion of what the cross means for history.

The Wrath of God and Penal Substitution

This tendency toward historicized theology and cosmic redemption is also true of Wright’s description of God’s wrath. In Small Faith, Great God, he writes:

On the cross [Jesus] took on himself that separation from God which all others know. He did not deserve it: he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God, but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment that sinful humanity deserved was laid squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the “cup” offered to him: he knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it.

He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually. And that turned his last cry into a shout of triumph: It is finished!… It is the word that would be written on a bill when it had been paid, like a rubber stamp for a receipt. Here is the bill, and on it the word “Finished” – “Paid in full.” The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished. (70)

Wright has always said he believes in penal substitution, and if this passage is any indication, one can be quite certain that he does. (I should also mention chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God, where Wright argues that Isaiah 53 is at the heart of Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross.)

Critics of Wright are wrong to charge him with denying penal substitution. There is however a place where a thoughtful critique may be warranted, and that is in terms of the emphasis Wright places upon penal substitution today. In this early (and brief book), one finds multiple references to the substitutionary atonement. Wright’s later devotional works (such as Christians at the Cross, a collection of Lenten and Easter homilies) include nary a reference to this view of the atonement.

Tracking the theological progression, I observe that as Wright’s view of penal substitution has become more historicized, it has also become less central to understanding the meaning of the cross. I don’t want to blow the distinctions out of proportion. Early Wright also sets his atonement theology in historical context. Never does Wright describe the atonement in ahistorical, abstract terms. Even in Small Faith, Great God, we find historical connection points like this:

By applying [Isaiah 6] to himself Jesus shows how he understands his own death. He sees himself as the last remnant of Israel, bearing in himself the purging and purifying of the nation. Israel is cut down to one man, and that one man is put to death; and from that point on God begins to restore his people. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s new start for his true people. (57)

But it’s clear to me that as Wright’s theology has developed, his emphasis on the historical nature of penal substitution increases while his emphasis on the centrality of substitution diminishes. In 1992, he writes:

So many popular presentations are far too abstract. They take the whole event out of its context in history, in the story of God and his people, and imagine it simply as a nonhistorical transaction between God and Jesus into which we can somehow be slotted. But the New Testament always insists on seeing the cross as what it was – a horrible and bitter event within history; and it insists that we understand its significance within, not outside, that context.

Wright insists that we not interpret the meaning of the substitutionary atonement in a way that sounds like a nonhistorical transaction between the individual and God. For Wright, the doctrine of the atonement involves the very events that transpired to put Jesus on the cross. Furthermore, if one does not understand Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Old Testament history and prophecy, one has not correctly understood the atonement. The judgment that Jesus pronounces upon Israel is precisely the judgment that he himself will endure at the cross. Wright elaborates in his commentary on Luke:

Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself. His own death would enable his people to escape… In the strange justice of God, which overrules the unjust “justice” of Rome and every human system, God’s mercy reaches out where human mercy could not, not only sharing, but in this case substituting for, the sinner’s fate. (280)

The problem I see with the development of Wright’s view of the substutionary atonement is not that Wright now denies what he wrote in 1978. It’s that he no longer emphasizes this view as central to our understanding of the cross. Though he still affirms penal substitution, he compares it to one note in a chord. Play only that note and you distort the music. That’s a good reminder to those of us who may be tempted to affirm penal substitution to the exclusion of the other atonement metaphors.

Still, I believe the biblical writers view penal substitution as the melody, with the other atonement views harmonizing in a way that enhances substitution as the central metaphor of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross. In Wright’s later work, I hear the harmony well, but I often can’t hear the melody. As Wright has emphasized the historical understanding of penal substitution (which most of us would do well to remember), he has simultaneously de-emphasized the pervasive nature of penal substitution in his understanding of the cross.

It’s one thing to continue to affirm a doctrine; it’s another thing altogether to celebrate it the way the Scriptures seem to. Wright still affirms penal substitution, but in contrast to his early books, his later works do not emphasize this doctrine.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at Wright’s early view of heaven in contrast to his later preference for “new heavens and new earth” terminology.





Trevin Wax|2:32 am CT

Worth a Look 11.30.10

A fascinating profile of Moldova, an important, but little-known country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine:

Moldova is caught between its Romanian roots and its Soviet past. It has not developed a national identity independent of these two poles. Moldova is a borderland-within-a-borderland. It is a place of foreign influences from all sides. But it is a place without a clear center. On one side, there is nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Union — which gives you a sense of how bad things are now for many Moldovans. On the other side is hope that the European Union and NATO will create and defend a nation that doesn’t exist.

I don’t agree with Ross Douthat on the TSA scanners, but I think his op-ed about partisanship is very needed in American society today. Don’t just read the snippet. Read the whole thing:

Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

How, or if, you give thanks speaks volumes:

These days, 44 percent of Americans report saying grace or a similar blessing almost every day before eating; 46 percent almost never say it, leaving just a statistical sliver in between, Putnam and Campbell report in their recently published book, “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us.” ”We are hard-pressed to think of many other behaviors that are so common among one half the population and rare among the other half—maybe carrying a purse,” Putnam and Campbell write.

Clayton King: “What Do You Do When Your Mother Dies?”

What do you do when your mother dies?  You weep and wail.  You rejoice.  You open your Bible and read it.  You call out to God.  You lay in the floor and double over in pain.  You call your friends and family.  You hurt deeply.  You celebrate.  You remember.  You pray and plead.  You hug and kiss the people you love.  You reflect on your life and make corrections and changes.  And you look ahead to better days.  Somehow, by God’s grace, you get through it.





Trevin Wax|3:28 am CT

A Deeper Look at N.T. Wright's "Small Faith, Great God"

Preface: Tracing an Author’s Thought Development

The longer I blog, the more I am aware that what I think (and write) today may not line up with what I thought a few years ago or, for that matter, what I will think a few years from now. Views change. Even if we hold fast to certain rock-solid convictions that stay the same, our views on a number of other issues may shift over time.

Not long ago, a reader asked me what I would change in Holy Subversion if I were to write it today. Thankfully, I could say that I am still in agreement with everything in the book. But after some thought, I mentioned a couple sections I might tweak, adding or deleting particular points of emphasis. As we grow in wisdom and maturity, our views and the way we express those views may change.

I am fascinated by books and biographies that chart a person’s development of thought over time. Good historians take thought development into consideration. A recent book by Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, traces Lincoln’s views on race, slavery, and emancipation, demonstrating the clash between Lincoln’s early beliefs and his later conclusions.

Literary experts consider the progression of thought in the works of famous authors. Recently, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s early Notes from Underground back to back with his final (and greatest) novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The connections between the two works are fascinating.

Theologians must consider thought development too. John Calvin’s 1536 Edition of Institutes differs substantially in a number of places from the standard 1559 Edition, not least in the brevity of the first compared to the length of the second.

Approaching N.T. Wright’s Small Faith, Great God

It’s from a theological perspective that I come to N.T. Wright’s newest book, which is actually one of his oldest. InterVarsity Press has recently released Small Faith, Great God, a collection of homilies delivered by Wright early in his ministry. This book was first published in 1978, but at least one of the chapters was written as far back as 1972.

At the popular level, readers will appreciate this book for the beauty and depth of Wright’s devotional thoughts. Because he has maintained a presence both in the academy and the local church, Wright is able to be robustly theological while also accessible to laypeople.

But I approach Small Faith, Great God at another level. Since I am familiar with Wright’s theology today (having read almost everything he has written since 1992), I can’t help but read this early book with an eye to the later development of Wright’s thought. In the preface, Wright even encourages us to look at his work this way:

I was… surprised to discover that quite a few themes which I had thought were more recent additions to my thinking were already there in embryo… There are several other connections which the curious reader of my work might tease out. (9, 10)

That’s me – the “curious reader” ready to tease out some of the connections. This week, I will compare and contrast Wright’s early thought and his later works. Wright claims to be in substantial agreement with the themes found in this early book, but there are a couple areas where Wright’s more recent works call into question his earlier writing.

A Quick Overview

First, let me offer a quick overview of the book itself. Small Faith, Great God is about the contrast between our little faith and our magnificent God. Wright intends to magnify the wisdom and power of God most clearly manifested in Christ’s saving actions on our behalf. Once we capture a vision of this awesome God, we will rest in his goodness and grace. He writes:

This book is about faith: and the way to faith is always down the road of an enlarged view of God, a view constantly checked and revised in light of the Bible. Without this, the God we worship shrinks into an idol, formed by our own imagination. Faith in an idol is no faith worth having. (17)

Throughout the book, Wright exhorts us to worship the true God of the Bible and not settle for the misconceptions of God that many people in our day would like to be true. We are called to worship God as he is, not manufacture a god of our choosing:

The God of the Bible is not necessarily the God I want: my confused desires almost certainly don’t fit in with who he actually is, and just as well. What matters much more is the God who actually made me, the God with whom (whether I want to or not) I have to do business. And he is so much bigger and greater than anything that I could imagine that I must never imagine that I have got him tied down and pigeonholed. We need to be constantly looking harder at the God of the Bible. Otherwise we shall discover that gradually the picture we have of him gets domesticated, whittled down to something we can live with. And gods that we live with comfortably are idols. (28)

And again:

The God of the Bible refuses to be fitted into our blanks: we have to reshape our lives around him. (76)

These warnings against idolatry seem remarkably contemporary, as books that make similar points (for example, Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods) are popular in evangelical circles today. Wright’s early emphasis on idolatry reminds us that every generation needs to recapture the biblical vision of God over against the idols of the age.

The reason Wright encourages us to deeper our understanding of the character of God is so that our faith will be strengthened. He writes:

Faith in the Bible is always determined by its object… What matters is not so much the faith itself as what it is faith in. Faith, as we shall see, is like a window. It is not there because we happen to want one wall of the room to be made of glass. It is there for the sake of what we can see through it – and in order to let light into the room. (25)

The Justification Debate (in Embryo)

According to Wright, Christian faith is tied inextricably to the character of God and what he has done on our behalf. Faith is “looking at our situation and our own frailty in light of who God is and what he has done for us.” (31) He goes further:

Faith means totally relying on God and committing ourselves to God for time and for eternity, trusting his promises, obeying his commands, not trying to make ourselves good enough for him but trusting in the fact that he accepts us as we are because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. (37)

In a nutshell, here you have N.T. Wright’s view of faith. I think Wright would define faith in much the same way today. But even here, one can see the embryo of what will eventually grow into the big justification debate.

Notice how classically Protestant this statement is: “Faith means totally relying on God.” Next, take a look at Wright’s inclusion of “obeying his commands” right after “trusting his promises.” Taken in context, Wright places the emphasis (both before and after this phrase about obedience) on the fact that Christian faith is not trying to earn merit before God but resting solely on the work of Christ. But that inclusion of obedience – the idea that saving faith works itself out through love – is key to Wright’s theology, and it sets the stage for his later controversy over justification, particularly the idea that future justification is based upon or according to works.

Whether Wright is solidly Protestant in the way he formulates this definition is up for discussion. Personally, I think Luther, Calvin (and most importantly Paul) would be fine with the way early Wright made this point. He appears to be saying what all Protestants would say: saving faith works itself out in obedience (“the obedience of faith”). But even here in a book released in 1978, I’m fascinated to see a Wrightian emphasis upon works, an emphasis which eventually will evolve into a full-blown controversy over the nature of justification.

Tomorrow, I plan to look at Wright’s view of the atonement.





Trevin Wax|3:06 am CT

Worth a Look 11.29.10

Top 10 Important Blunders of Ancient Science:

One of the most tempting mistakes in studying history is to judge the past by modern standards. Nowhere is this more easily seen than in the contributions of ancient science. When we laugh at geocentric cosmology, or the theory of four elements, we fail to realize that, while the theories were certainly wrong, they still advanced scientific knowledge. This list explores 10 such contributions.

Tim Challies collects some helpful quotes on Scripture:

  • “One of the many divine qualities of the Bible is that it does not yield its secrets to the irreverent and the censorious.” —J.I. Packer
  • “God sometimes blesses a poor exegesis of a bad translation of a doubtful reading of an obscure verse of a minor prophet.” —Alan Cole

Andrew Cowan’s explanation of the dust-up over N.T. Wright’s shifting from “basis” terminology to “according to” is correct. Here’s the most important quote:

Wright is denying the interpretation of his writings that insists that he equates the believer’s righteousness in final justification with Spirit-inspired works… Basically, Wright’s shift in language simply means that he is using new wording to express what he has always been saying, but in a way that is less apt to be misunderstood than his previous statements.  He still holds that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one is truly a member of God’s covenant people in final justification, and this corresponds to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification.  He has not changed his view at all, but he has finally offered the clarification for which Piper hoped by denying that he understands works to be the “basis” of final justification in the way that Piper understands Christ’s righteousness to be the “basis” of final justification.

Doug Wilson responds to Cowan’s post here:

This seems a quite reasonable summary to me, and it means that Wright is not a stalking horse for some kind of Romanist self-righteousness. But this means, in its turn, that Wright’s blunders are genuinely Protestant blunders. But blunders they are, and we really need to address them.





Trevin Wax|3:07 am CT

Pour Your Love into Our Souls

O God,
Fountain of love,
pour your love into our souls,
that we may love those whom you love
with the love you have given us,
and think and speak of them tenderly, meekly, lovingly;
and so loving our brothers and sisters for your sake,
may grow in your love,
and dwelling in your love may dwell in you;
for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

- E.B. Pusey, 1800-1882





Trevin Wax|3:02 am CT

Drink from the Fountain

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else.

If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is of him.

If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing.

If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion;

  • if purity, in his conception;
  • if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects, that he might learn to feel our pain.
  • If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion;
  • if acquittal, in his condemnation;
  • if remission of the curse, in his cross;
  • if satisfaction, in his sacrifice;
  • if purification, in his blood;
  • if reconciliation, in his descent into hell;
  • if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb;
  • if newness of life, in his resurrection;
  • if immortality, in the same;
  • if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven;
  • if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom;
  • if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge.

In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.”

- John Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.19. (HT: Ray Ortlund)





Trevin Wax|3:29 am CT

Trevin's Seven

Links for your weekend reading:

1. There are only a few more days to take advantage of the early bird discount for The Gospel Coalition in April. Justin Taylor lists some of the supplementary events that will be held in Chicago that week.

2. The Hole in our Holiness

3. The 50 most hated characters in literary history (Fyodor Karamazov should have made this list.)

4. Russell Moore: Why I’m Ungrateful

5. Those of us who couldn’t attend ETS will be interested in the text of Tom Schreiner’s response to Thielman and his response to Wright.

6. James K.A. Smith picks apart Barna’s research on the lack of resurgent Calvinism.

7. Seth Godin: Where do ideas come from?





Trevin Wax|3:14 am CT

Give Thanks… Always?

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thess. 5:16-18)

Really, Paul? Give thanks in everything? No matter the circumstance?

Already, you’ve rocked my world. You’ve told me to rejoice always – not just when life is going well. That means that even though I’m tempted to rejoice only in the good times, you want me to rejoice in the bad times too.

You’ve told me to pray constantly – not just when life is going badly. Here, you’ve dealt with the opposite temptation. Even though I’m tempted to pray only in the bad times (when I sense I need something), you want me to pray constantly – in the good times too.

Paul, you’re calling me to a way of life that doesn’t depend on my circumstances. And what bugs me about this call is that you aren’t some idealistic pastor asking me to do the impossible. You are doing this yourself. You’re writing from a prison cell. Your happiest, sunniest letter (Philippians) is written when your circumstances are terrible.

And now, you’re telling us to give thanks in everything. But how? I want to be thankful, but come on… even for bad things? Even for trials?

That’s when I notice you’ve provided the key to thankfulness in all circumstances. You talk about the will of God in Christ Jesus. Everything that comes at us in life comes through the filter of God’s love to us through his Son. Once we see the victory achieved in the worst of places (the cross), our view of our circumstances is turned upside down.

Paul, your gospel upsets all my expectations. I can no longer define good and bad circumstances the way the world does. The cross messes with me. There, the worst of circumstances brings the best of blessing.

Your command to thanksgiving reminds me of a story I heard about interpreting good and bad events:

A Chinese man lived on the border of China and Mongolia. In that time, there were battles and wars between the two countries. This Chinese man had a beautiful mare. But one day, that mare jumped over the fence and went over the border into Mongolia. The Mongolians stole the horse. The Chinese man’s friends came to him to console him, “O what terrible news!” they said.”Why do you think it’s bad news?” the Chinese man asked. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”

After a couple of days, the mare came back to the man, together with a stallion. The friends of this man came around him and said, “What great news!” ”Why do you think it’s good news?” the man asked. “Maybe it’s bad news.”

Later, while the Chinese man’s son was riding the stallion, trying to tame him, he fell and broke his leg. The friends came again, “O what terrible news!” Again, the Chinese man said, “Why do you think it’s bad news? Maybe it’s a good thing.”

After a week, another big war broke out between China and Mongolia. A Chinese general came into the town and took all the young men with him to fight in the war. All those young men died, except for the son of the Chinese man. He couldn’t go to war because he had broken his leg. The Chinese man told his friends, “See? The things you thought were bad were actually good, and the things you thought were good were bad.”

So now, Paul, I’m starting to understand how little I understand. I’m starting to figure out that I haven’t got God figured out. I’m starting to see that resting in the providence of God brings comfort.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace,
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

Ultimately, I have two responses to trials. Genesis 42:36 or Romans 8:28. In Genesis 42:36, Jacob is going through a great trial, and he says, “All this has come against me!” It’s a self-centered view. I’m in the center of the universe and everything is happening to me.

But Romans 8:28 says that everything works together for good for those who love God. That picture puts God in the center, so somehow I know that even the bad things are working out for his glory and my ultimate joy in him.

The choice is now clear. I can look at my situation and see bad things that are against me or I can see them as things working for my good. Decision: Despair or Thankfulness. Thanks, Paul. You’re right. The gospel takes my despair and transforms it into thanksgiving.





Trevin Wax|2:07 am CT

Worth a Look 11.24.10

Peter Singer claims children do not possess full moral status until past two years old. Frightening implications of the pro-choice view taken to its logical conclusion.

Chris Armstrong reviews a book about the making of the King James Bible:

Nicolson tries to make modern readers understand the deep, bedrock reverence of the Jacobeans for tradition and hierarchical authority (and he may even succeed in this difficult task!). For all the Jacobeans’ faults, it is this theologically grounded conservatism-really primitivism-that Nicolson concludes made the KJV the treasure it is. The makers of the KJV saw themselves not as authors, but as secretaries, discharging their obligation to both the church and the Holy Writ that God had created.

Speaking of the KJV, more than half of Brits don’t know what it is:

A spokesman for the King James Bible Trust, which commissioned the poll, said: ‘There has been a dramatic drop in knowledge in a generation. Yet this is a work which was far more influential than Shakespeare in the development and spread of English.’

“Youth Groups Destroy Children’s Lives”: Nothing like a shocking title to get you reading David Fitch’s post about youth ministry.

I believe the youth ministry of a church is vitally important. But we must discern carefully what we are doing. Whether we have three youth or fifty, we need youth leaders to do things to foster authentic adult relationships with the youth. Let us make the community aware that we ARE A COMMUNITY and we have to treat our youth as among us and indeed take responsibility to love them, pray for them,  watch over them, initiate them and model Christ before them and with them.





Trevin Wax|3:27 am CT

A Vision for New Small Group Curriculum

Most of my readers know that my family and I have made a major life change in the past few weeks. On November 1, I started a new job as editor of a new curriculum being developed by LifeWay. I want to take this space to thank those of you who have written us emails and assured us of your prayers during this time of transition.

Some of you have asked for specific information about the new curriculum line. Last week, Ed Stetzer invited me to take part in his “Thursday is for Thinkers” weekly feature. There, I laid out my vision for this exciting venture. I am re-posting those thoughts here, in hopes that I’ll receive additional feedback from Kingdom People readers.

A Vision for Small Group Curriculum

Think about your best small group or Sunday School class experience. What made it work? Most of the time, people will talk about the fellowship and Bible Study. Both of these are vital components for successful small groups. As an editor, I want the Bible Study component to be the very best it can be for Sunday School classes, and that’s why I’m excited to help develop a new curriculum for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Here’s what I envision (and I’d love to get your feedback!):

1. Deep, but not Dry

The term that has been used to describe this new curriculum is “theologically driven.” That’s not to say that other curriculum options aren’t theological, only that these weekly lessons will be known primarily for digging deep into biblical theology.

I think it’s best to expect a lot out of those who attend a small group or Sunday School class. We need not adopt a “No Child Left Behind” mentality, as if we can and should go only as deep as the least knowledgeable person in the group. We don’t think this way in real life. When our son was still on baby food, we didn’t stop eating steak and potatoes. Neither did we stop feeding our son solid food when our daughter came along. Instead, we gathered as a family and ate together (some of us more than others!).

As a teacher, I want to provide a feast and let people draw the sustenance they need. We may have to “cut up the meat” for new believers and make sure that the truth is accessible. But the key is to put the biblical ingredients together and provide the meal. Fill up the plate! The important thing is that everyone has been fed and is sufficiently nourished when we finish.

2. Christ-Centered

I don’t want a week to go by without Jesus being present in our lesson. Jesus is the hero of every Bible story. He’s present in all its pages. The Scriptures are His word to our churches.

Tying everything to the gospel doesn’t mean that every lesson will end with a bullet-point presentation and the Sinner’s Prayer. But a Christ-centered lesson is drenched in gospel truth. Everything revolves around Christ’s death and resurrection and our need to repent and believe.

Sunday School and small groups are – at their best – evangelistic. We invite newcomers to our small groups and welcome them to our fellowship.

But being evangelistic does not mean staying superficial. A gospel-centered curriculum leads us Christians deeper into gospel truth, but never past the gospel. We never stop needing to repent and believe. There is a way to be theologically driven and still accessible to non-Christians, and that’s by massaging the gospel into every lesson.

3. Story-focused

Being Christ-centered naturally brings our focus to the overarching Story that the Bible tells in four parts:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Redemption
  • Restoration

In my experience teaching Christians in their twenties and thirties (some who grew up in church, and others who did not), I have discovered that though they may be familiar with certain Bible stories, they are not always sure how the stories fit together into the Bible as a whole. By focusing on the grand narrative of Scripture, I hope that our curriculum will help us connect the dots and think as Christians formed by the great Story that tells the truth about our world.

4. Mission-driven

Telling the story of the Bible is impossible without leading to mission, as the story of the gospel reveals the heart of our missionary God and his desire to save people of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Too many of our Sunday School classes and small groups view our weekly meetings in terms of consumerist expectations. We come; we sit; we receive teaching; we leave. Even groups that prize participation can fall prey to the same temptation. We come; we sit; we talk; we leave.

A gospel-centered curriculum should be driven by the character of our missionary God seen most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. Our weekly gatherings are not the goal of the mission; they are the means by which we connect with one another and learn God’s Word in order that we might be equipped to love God and neighbor while spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

The goal is not to fill our heads with theological truth but to fuel our hearts with passion to join God on his mission to bring people to himself. Keeping a focus on how the gospel leads us to mission is a crucial aspect of how we apply the Bible to our lives.