One of my grad students recently attended lectures by NT Wright at Oklahoma Christian University. (Kudos to OCU for getting Wright). These presentations hit my student after a course he took from me this semester, “Gospel and Cultures.” This course is a sea change for most students due to the fact that the default definition of gospel for most people is some view of substitutionary atonement. It’s a little jarring for some to realize that this is not the way Scripture talks about gospel. Instead of the gospel being a theory about how an individual has their sins forgiven, Scripture pretty consistently refers to gospel as an announcement (news) that the coming of Jesus (notably his death and resurrection) marks a dramatic turn of the ages in which the future reign of God is breaking into the present–the Kingdom of God.
Now, again, as I’ve had to caution often in posts like these, this doesn’t mean that the salvation of the individual isn’t important to God. Nor does it mean that the coming of Jesus doesn’t bring forgiveness of sins. It simply means that these are subsumed under a much bigger understanding of salvation–an understanding that is more in keeping with the biblical testimonies. Salvation means ultimately that God is all-in-all, that his glory is restored to all God has created, or as Ephesians says it, “all things, whether in heaven or on earth, will be gathered up into Christ.” It means that there is the possibility of one new human family “in Christ.” It means that creation will be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It means that human lives can live free from the powers that impinge and distort our lives, and live instead by powers that will endure into the eschaton.
So, salvation is not so much a status that we own, but a realm that God owns in which we participate.
Now, I share with my students what I in turn received from others, including NT Wright. I was relieved that my student recognized in Wright’s lectures things that he had read for our class. In an email about his experience, he made the following statement:
So after our gospel discussions in class, hearing NT Wright say that Paul’s central message is not “justification by faith,” and reading your baptism posts on your blog, I have a question that is constantly on my mind. One of the reviewers of Wright’s new Paul book (Dr. Thompson from ACU) asked a great question. Now that we have this new view of Paul and his writings, what does this look like “on the ground” for the church?
So, let me see if I can spend some time on this question. And let me begin with a caveat. We’ve been organizing church around a more individualistic notion of gospel and salvation for quite some time now. It will take us some time to figure out where this impulse will lead. I understand the need for the question, but I’m always a little struck that when encountered with something new we feel the need for a certain mastery over it before we lean into it, i.e. “What does this look like?” Not, “How will we learn to trust God in this time of transition?”
Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.
She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.
Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.
For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).
Now, I won’t take time to dissect the particulars of her story or the problems with his critiques. I want to look at the starting place in her story. Her story had as its center the problem of individual sin. Everything flowed from that premise. As a result, her rhetorical strategy began with isolating him in his sin and warning him of the grave dangers to him personally.
Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole. This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. (There’s lots more, but this is a blog).
Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. I was starting with the young man at the Starbucks. This variety of audiences is one reason the Bible doesn’t tell the story only in one way. If the Bible doesn’t, why should we? And I’m convinced that if we place ourselves inside of a different story, it will change the ways we do things as well. More on that.