A Review of “Following Jesus” by N.T. Wright

Following-Jesus-9780802841322Are you a disciple of the real Jesus? “Plenty of people in the church and outside it have made up a ‘Jesus’ for themselves, and have found that this invented character makes few real demands on them” (ix). To counter such tendencies N.T. Wright has compiled twelve insightful reflections in this little book that help us both see Jesus more clearly and learn more precisely what it means to follow Him. Following Jesus is a beautiful devotional book aimed at cultivating a life of discipleship by presenting us the true Jesus of Scripture.

Wright’s work is unique because, for a book on discipleship, it actually focuses less on the patterns and process of discipleship and more on the character of Christ. In fact, it is his contention that “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in his world” (ix). So it is on Jesus that Wright focuses his attention. The book is broken down into two parts, each taking their turn to highlight the character of Christ. Part one examines six books of the New Testament from a bird’s-eye view. Here the author attempts to give us a big picture look at the whole book, exploring how it describes the person of Christ to its readers. So Wright examines Hebrews, Colossians, Matthew, John, Mark, and Revelation. Part two explores a series of themes, setting a context for the Bible’s model of discipleship. So in chapter 7 he writes of resurrection as the necessary motivation needed to obey Christ’s most often repeated command: don’t be afraid. In part two he addresses five other topics that help shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus: renewal of the mind, temptation, hell, heaven, and new life. In each topic he is exposing us to more of the character and power of Christ, not simply to ideas of following. It is always the call to follow drawn from the identity of the one we follow.

The six chapters all started as sermons, and they reflect a pastoral and devotional heart. They are meditations on following Jesus. They bridge beautifully, however, the realms of the church and the academy. Wright is a brilliant scholar and it is evidenced throughout the work. His grasp on the various books of the New Testament is firm, his depth of knowledge wide, and his interpretations insightful. He is a gifted theologian as well, applying God’s Word with great accuracy to the contemporary setting. In some ways this little book reads a lot like C.S. Lewis, if Lewis were a bit more of a New Testament scholar. There’s much to appreciate in these twelve reflections.

I do, nonetheless, have some theological issues with the book. Wright does an excellent job of reminding us that discipleship must first start with a long look at Christ himself. He demonstrates how discipleship flows most naturally from reflecting on Jesus, we follow better when we know the one we are following better. But noticeably absent from his discussions is any idea of Christ paying the debt of our sins and reconciling us to the Father. For those who are familiar with Wright’s work that won’t be much of a surprise, but for those who read the New Testament it is. Wright tends to focus on the cross of Christ from a purely Christus Victor perspective. This reductionist approach not only short changes the Biblical witness on the cross, but it shortchanges our discussion of Biblical discipleship. His chapter on hell was also disappointing, as it sweeps all belief in a literal place of eternal punishment aside, assuming such belief to be nothing more than a sick delight in the punishment of others. This chapter has significantly less reflections on Scripture than any of the rest. There’s much to love and appreciate in this book. His chapter on Matthew was particularly helpful to me in studying that book. These theological errors, however, are definitely gaping wholes in an otherwise beautifully written devotional reflection on the Christ of our discipleship.

I might still recommend this book to discerning readers. The value of it lies primarily in its emphasis on the character of Christ. The more we focus on him the healthier our discipleship will be. Wright, however, doesn’t always escape his own warning at the outset of the book. There are parts of this theology where he is still not hearing Jesus, but is rather inventing a theology apart from Christ’s own testimony. There’s much to love in Following Jesus, but read it with a keen eye towards the real Jesus of Scripture.

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