If the only way to really love sinners is to stop treating their sin as sin, we could probably quit wasting our time with the whole salvation thing as well.
Category: Gospel and Kingdom
The disjunction of hearing and doing, or of reason and will, is sin. It is the failure of man to make the response that is appropriate to him as a free rational agent. In such a failure man himself seems to disintegrate into dissociated powers, into a rational self on the one hand, which has a cognitive relation to reality, and a voluntative self on the other, which consists of affections, emotions and decisions. This is the psychological aspect of the alienation of freedom. In the effective operation of the Spirit, to know is once again to will, or, to speak more theologically, to believe is to love. That is why we can speak of the work of the Spirit as witness and life-giver, his ministry to the reason and to the affections, as complementary aspects of one work and not as two. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 111)
The sin by which man has bound himself is the determination to live fantastically, in pursuit of unreality. But freedom can be exercised only in relation to real possibility. Fallen man remains, of course, a being who goes through the motions of free decision, but he lacks that relation to the realities of the universe which could make such decisions effective for ‘perfect liberty’. Clearly the restoring of man’s freedom must involve his awakening once again to the reality of God’s creation as it is revealed in Christ. The work of the Spirit as ‘witness’ to the objective deed of God in Christ, and his work as ‘life-giver’ who restores freedom and power to mankind enthralled, are not two distinct works but one. For man’s thrall is precisely that he has lost touch with reality. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 109)
What on earth is the church of Jesus Christ doing? What’s our mission here in the world? What’s the end game of all our Christian ministries under the sun?
I’ve observed two dominant approaches to answering this question. One says our mission is to rescue people (perhaps more precisely, to be instruments through which God rescues people) from everlasting destruction. We want to see people saved. We want to see them enter God’s kingdom. That’s not the end of the story, by any means. But it’s the main storyline: people being saved from hell and put on their way to heaven. It’s the Pilgrim’s Progress story: everything is about getting on the right road, and then not getting distracted from the pearly gate at the end.
The other approach says our mission is restorative. Rescue is important, but it’s just a beginning. If it’s big news that God is emptying the kingdom of darkness, it’s perhaps even bigger news that He’s filling His kingdom of light – and there’s an awful lot going on in here! It’s good news that we’re no longer God’s enemies, but in a sense that pales in comparison with the news that we get to live as His children, that we get to become a holy people, a nation of disciples.
Now both of these emphases are important, but what I want to suggest is that the first can (and often does) function almost to the exclusion of the second, resulting in all manner of distortions; while the second cannot but include the first, while bringing it to its divinely intended fruition. Let me explain.
I’ve been a part of church ministries that were all about people getting saved. Are you in Christ? Are you in the door of the kingdom? That’s the thundering question that gets all the attention. What’s interesting is that I’ve seen two very different sorts of church ministries grow out of this underlying emphasis. On one hand are the churches that immediately strike you as being very different from the world. The tone of the pulpit ministry is heraldic, authoritative, even oracular. Sinners outside of Christ (whether visitors or longtime members) are warned, threatened, and commanded to repent. Along with this comes a veritable horror of ever “looking back” once one has left the city of destruction; one’s entire previous life must be forsaken, lest one be like Lot’s wife, and so all things cultural are viewed with suspicion at best. Separation from the world is explicitly or implicitly identified with separation from culture. What is certainly absent is any positive program for culture. Who hath time for culture when there are souls to be saved?
The second type of church growing out of a rescue emphasis is much more easygoing. That may seem strange at first, but it makes sense when you think about it. Here also the great goal is to get people saved, only this type of church does everything in its power to “contextualize” the gospel so people will come and hear the message of salvation. Surrounding culture here is not an enemy – it is not the city of destruction – it is the friend of the gospel, since if one can use popular stuff from the culture to get people into church, the chances of their getting saved are vastly improved. Hence, the immediate “feel” when you walk into this type of church is that you haven’t walked far from the culture. This also affects the way the church talks to its members. If the first type of church spends a lot of time warning members that they may not be “really saved” after all (one can’t be too careful of thinking one is in when one is really out), or warning them against looking back (Lot’s wife again), the second type spends a lot of time assuring its members that they are really saved (it talks constantly about justification, for example, and resists anything that could make hearers feel unsafe, ashamed, or insecure), and it pretty much leaves the personal lives of its people alone. Indeed, how could it do otherwise, since its various methods of drawing people in to hear the gospel message assume that the life forms of the surrounding culture are kingdom-neutral, if not a positive good?
What one finds in both types of rescue church is a kind of cluelessness among its members about how to connect everyday life to the gospel. In the first type of church, there’s a lot of fear, and a lot of people tend to keep their personal lives as separate from the churchy life of the church as possible. In the second type, there’s often a lot of passion to help the church get people saved; but beyond that, apart from the most basic elements of morality, and of course personal “devos,” there’s virtually no imprint of the gospel in everyday life. Church life is one spoke in the wheel of life; it certainly doesn’t dominate the whole. And how could it? It really has almost nothing to say to the whole. The real program, after all, is getting (others) saved.
But let us imagine a different kind of church altogether. Here the basic understanding is that in the gospel God gives us our life back. The gospel is about the grace of God restoring nature in Christ, so that we can once again, under His fatherly kingship and in fellowship with His people and our neighbors more generally, live well. The good Shepherd has come that we might have life more abundantly. To be reconciled to God through Him is just the beginning of this.
This church believes that “the gospel of the kingdom” is just that: good news about the restored kingdom of God on earth, and restoration of human life in that kingdom. The work of this church is, therefore, nothing less than making disciples. It isn’t interested in people simply believing certain truths and getting through the pearly gate (being suitably moral and undistracted along the way); it is interested in whole ways of life being renewed and transformed by the Word of the Lord, who is King over every square inch of life and whose covenant is comprehensive in its outworkings. Moreover, this church has little use for “Jesus and me” Christianity, because if there is anything the Bible makes clear about restored human life, it is that this life is enunciated in the first person plural: we are the children of God, we are the people of God, we are a peculiar people and a holy nation. The kingdom is not just about me; it’s about us.
The tone of the ministry of this church, then, will be calmly instructive. It will turn a critical eye on the ways of human life outside of Christ, it will be able to show those still lost in their sins the emptiness and foolishness of life without God, and to its own people it will speak with the aim of cultivating discernment between what in surrounding cultures expresses the goodness of creation and what in culture expresses a profound falling short of the glory of God. It will warn without fear mongering; it will have an appreciation of the difficulty of certain questions, and the reality of “gray areas.” It will certainly speak forth the law of God and warn those who break it; but its aim, both in the conversion of the lost and in the sanctifying of its own people, will be maturity, the flourishing that can come only through costly discipleship.
An enormous amount of time will be spent in this church neither issuing screeds against culture, nor commandeering all sorts of cultural forms for the purpose of packaging the gospel, but rather developing a positive biblical program (grounded in creational norms) for human flourishing. It will be deeply interested both in the formation of culture by humans and in the formative power exerted by culture upon humans. It will thus be cautious in its engagement of existing cultures (it will certainly not hop on the bandwagon of every cultural fad), even while it is enthusiastic about doing all things well to the glory of God.
A great practical difference, I think, between the rescue church model and the restoration church model will be that you can’t be long in the latter without discovering the gospel has everything to do with your everyday life. You may not like it (!), but you won’t be able to persist in the notion that church is one spoke in the wheel of life. No, life in the kingdom is all of life. The King rules it all. And while this certainly won’t answer every hard question, it will make you feel the call of saving grace all the time, everywhere you are, whatever you’re doing. And that’s great salvation.
“The Bible and God are relevant in this culture and in every other culture. He and His gospel are relevant. Always. We are the roadblocks to relevancy, not the Bible. We live in a way that makes God seem irrelevant, but He is not to blame.” Ed Stetzer, “Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission”
Following Jesus means:
- Hungering so others may eat
- Being empty so others may be fulfilled
- Hurting so others may heal
- Being weakened so others may be strengthened
- Weeping so others may laugh
- Being made low so others may be raised up
- Laboring so others may rest
- Being humbled so others may be honored
- Dying so others may live
If this isn’t a road you’re willing to walk, you’re looking for a messiah other than Jesus.
A minister of the gospel in himself has no authority to forgive sins; but he is authorized authoritatively to proclaim and pronounce to God’s people the forgiveness their God has already proclaimed and pronounced in the gospel.
Jamie Smith on the “liturgy” of the shopping mall:
“What the liturgy of the mall trains us to desire as the good life and ‘the American way’ requires such massive consumption of natural resources and cheap (exploitive) labor that there is no possible way for this way of life to be universalized. . . . The liturgy of consumption births in us a desire for a way of life that is destructive of creation itself; moreover, it births in us a desire for a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. In short, the only way for this vision of this kingdom to be a reality is if we keep it to ourselves. The mall’s liturgy fosters habits and practices that are unjust, so it does everything it can to prevent us from asking such questions. Don’t ask; don’t tell; just consume.” (James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, p. 101)
“Certain forms of belief in natural law or in the opposition of law and gospel make a virtue of denying that ‘Christian ethics’ in the strict sense can exist. Such theories may allow that Christian faith has a bearing on ethics indirectly, in that Christian spirituality promotes a heightened concern for the moral dimension of life and a strengthened ability to cope with it. But the substance of ethical questions, they hold, is not open to special illumination from the gospel; the believer is in no more favoured a position than the unbeliever when it comes to discerning the difference between good and evil. But we must observe what follows from separating faith and morality in this fashion: we become either moralists or antinomians. By ‘moralism’ we mean the holding of moral convictions unevangelically, so that they are no longer part of the Christian good news, and can, therefore, have the effect only of qualifying it, whether as praeparatio evangelica, as a ‘ministry of condemnation’ (as Saint Paul said of the Mosaic Law, 2 Cor. 3:9), or as a rule which is supposed to govern an area of life which Christ has not touched or transformed. By ‘antinomianism’ we mean the holding of the Christian faith in a way that expresses disregard, or insufficient regard, for moral questions. Once it is decided that morality is not part of the good news that Christians welcome and proclaim, believers will have to choose between being thoroughly evangelical and ignoring it, and respecting it at the cost of being only half evangelical. A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgments belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 11–12)
“The Son of God was the new Adam. He was both the actual presence and the harbinger of a new kingdom. Everything about his life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power – not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, p. 193)