Top Five Books of 2017: #1

And now for #1. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, so feel free to comment!

#1 The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion by N. T. Wright

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Of all the books I read this year, this one has challenged, blessed, and shaped my thinking the most. It is a book about the cross of Christ written by a leading New Testament scholar. While Wright can be a bit repetitive and there are some portions of this book that were dry as dust, the content has led to some shifts inside me that I still don't think are quite settled. While it's impossible to summarize everything in this book in a few paragraphs, it has been very helpful in getting a deeper understanding of what Scripture says about Jesus' crucifixion. To examine the cross, you have to get down to the fundamentals of the Christian religion. What is the problem with our world and with humanity? How is the cross of Jesus an answer to that problem?

Many conceptions of the cross I hear and undoubtedly have said myself at one time or another make an angry God the main problem we need to be rescued from. The common line of thinking goes like this: God made the world good and made it with some random rules for his humans to follow. Sin is breaking those rules. Sin is bad because God gets really angry with us when we break the rules. In order to rescue us from this angry God who would blast us into oblivion if he could, the loving Jesus steps in and takes God's wrath upon himself, so God can blow off some steam. Now we can live at peace with a placated God if we trust in Jesus. 

Wright believes in substitutionary atonement (it's biblical), but the above conception of substitutionary atonement is a bit simplistic and, to be honest, a little problematic. I'm not sure if I'd trust my cat with a God whose primary characteristic involves blowing up in fits of rage over people breaking arbitrary rules. Don't get me wrong, sin does make God angry, but Wright has helped me see that an angry God isn't the principal problem we need to be rescued from according to Scripture. Rather, we need to be rescued from sin and the devil, the real culprits of evil in our world, and sin is something worse than breaking random rules that tick God off. Sin, in and of itself, is destructive and deformative. Sin is choosing to go against the grain of the universe, against the very fabric of how we are made to live, and there are natural consequences that arise from doing that. Take, for example, Genesis 3. Before God's punishment ever comes in, you see that the man and the woman give power over to the devil to define their world (scary!), they start trusting something other than God, they are filled with shame and fear, and they start blaming and arguing with each other over who's at fault. God disciplined them in wrath after that, but the damaging effects of sin were already at work. Or look at Romans 1:24, 26, and 28, where God displays his wrath, not by adding in some external punishment, but by simply giving people over to the natural consequences of sin. It's like he's saying, "You want this? OK, see how that works for ya." Sin isn't bad just because God punishes it. Sin by it's very nature is damaging to us, to the created world, and to God. This has helped me see that God's wrath and punishment are loving responses of a holy God to limit the spread of the cancer that is sin. The Father's discipline is meant to woo us toward the love, life, and light we can enjoy in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It's like a parent disciplining a child so they know not to go play in the street. The salvation we need isn't just getting God to take a chill pill. We need liberation from the enslaving, degenerating, and wounding powers of sin and the devil. 

The cross of Christ is God's ultimate answer to evil. It is Christ being our representative, facing the worst schemes of the devil and bearing our sins and the natural consequences they bring about–namely pain, isolation, betrayal, and death, all that we might have God's unending, joyful life. The cross showcases the power of love against the power of violence, lies, and shame. Further, Wright helped me see that most of the time people neglect the atonement theology of the Gospels and instead frame the conversation about the cross around what Paul says. The Gospels do have atonement theology, but, unlike Paul, it is more implicit rather than explicit. The Gospel writers set us up to understand Jesus' crucifixion in terms of the Passover. The Passover was God's final plague on Egypt (Exodus 12), the time when God delivered Israel in a mighty way from the evil, enslaving power of Pharaoh. In the cross of Christ, God has worked an even greater Passover, overthrowing a greater Pharaoh (the devil), and freeing all who trust in our sacrificial lamb, Jesus, into a greater Exodus from the enslaving power of sin, that we might live as we are meant to live. This revolution, this victory of God, this freedom from sin to live a life of cross-bearing love, is offered to all who would trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Of course, there's much, much more to the book, but this is the heart of what I took away from Wright. There are not many books I would read twice, but this is one of them. 

Stephen Fincher

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.