Living in a bigger story than justification by faith: how hospitality and witness go together

So, one of the points I’ve tried to make in this series is that if you think the driving question of Scripture is, “how can an individuals be forgiven for their sins?”, then relationships with individuals tend to be instrumentalized. That is, others become prospects defined around an abstract identity, “sinner.” We become salespeople, who at some point, to be effective, must isolate the other in their status as sinner. This introduces another problematic in that often the people we are trying to convert are good people, as good as we are, and even if we convince them they are sinners, its not obvious that we are any better off than they are. So, all we have then is the heaven/hell card. And from my perspective, this might get you responses (though not as many as you would think), but not that many converts.

I’ve also pointed out that the rhythm of proclamation related to the good news of the Kingdom of God might have something of the order of Luke 10: eat, heal, proclaim. That eating and healing are the opposite of instrumentalizing relationships, and that through these acts of care and recognition, its possible that the Kingdom of God can occur, become visible, between people.

I know congregations that have developed capacity in forming relationships around these kinds of gestures of hospitality, but they don’t know now what and when to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. They don’t want to suddenly shift the terms of the relationship, turn “people of peace” into prospects. They can’t quite figure out how to fit penal substitutionary atonement into a conversation. In other words, they’ve formed relationships around a certain set of practices that our traditional understandings of evangelism would undo. To switch at this point would feel like a betrayal of the very things that created the relationship. The old bait-and-switch in long form. 

So, how can witness emerge from practices of hospitality without betraying those very practices?

1. Change the focus of your evangelistic message. Proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God, not penal substitutionary atonement. Proclaim life under the new ordering of God’s reign, not a theory of atonement. Proclaim the Kingdom, part of which is creating new relationships around the peace and hospitality of God. If this is the focal point of proclamation, then your proclamation is an extension of relationships created through hospitality, not an add on. In fact, the very existence of new relationships between people of peace may very well be a sign of God’s work to be proclaimed, even if these persons are not yet Christian. 

I think the idea of witness or testimony in the NT is to point to what God is accomplishing–to explain, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, what people are experiencing. Witness is not a canned approach around a fixed message (penal substitutionary atonement). Rather, the deal is to live in the rhythms of the Kingdom and to proclaim a Christian understanding of those events.

If this is the case, then the other may actually become a positive contributor to the content of one’s proclamation. A school principle who is not a Christian, and who may have been initially wary of Christian participation in her school, but now is a partner in Kingdom ministry, has become part of what you believe God has been up to. She might even provide testimony, even as an unbeliever, to the Kingdom you are embodying and proclaiming.

2. Proclaim your own salvation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of yourself as the one who has all the good stuff, and you are simply bringing the good stuff to the world. But, the truth is, God is active in the world and you engage the world to experience your own salvation in newer and deeper ways. In fact, the very activities related to finding people of peace will change you and your perspectives on the world. It’s not just the hope that the “other” will be saved, but also that you will be saved by living in God’s hospitality. Make the reflection on your own experience the basis for proclaiming the salvation of God. We will know more how sin’s power is being overcome in our lives when we are living in the patterns of repentance necessary for the coming Kingdom of God.

3. Live in such a way that its clear that you are living out the particularities of the Christian story. You garden because you are convinced that the earth is good and a part of God’s ultimate desire for a renewed creation. You garden because you want to share food with others and to experience with others the blessings of God. You paint a school because you believe the Kingdom of God always includes welcoming children to safe and nurturing places, and because you believe the Kingdom is always visible when “parents turn their hearts to their children.” You eat, play, and work in the same place because you believe that faithfulness and constancy (neighborliness) build patterns of trust that overcome the debilitating effects of sin–isolation, loneliness, despair. You live in openhanded ways because Christ supplies all you need. Your words bless others, rather than tear down, because you’ve learned the way of Jesus in worship. You’re real, not a poser or pretender, because you believe your life is based in grace and not performance, in gift and not reward. Live and speak so that people are clear about what story you are living. This doesn’t mean you are constantly explaining each action. But you are living out of the intrinsic beauty of the Christian story over time and that has a way of coming to the surface.

4. Pray. Ultimately, this is God’s work. Ultimately, people become Christian because they experience the presence of the Spirit of God. Prayer is the work. Prayer reminds us of this fact and allows us to move in sync with what God is doing, making his presence visible and available.

5. Reflect and articulate. I’m convinced that the canned nature of the evangelistic message related to explaining theories of atonement has stunted our ability to reflect on God’s activity in our lives and contexts. Time must be spent reflecting on the church’s experience with its neighbors, bringing Christian vocabulary and concepts to name that experience, and learning to say something meaningful about that experience publicly. 

There is much to say about each of these things. My main point here is that we have learned what it means to proclaim the gospel within the limits of justification by faith. Learning a witness that comes from a larger story will take cultivating practices of proclamation that come from a larger way of life.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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9 Responses to Living in a bigger story than justification by faith: how hospitality and witness go together

  1. kentfaver says:

    Good stuff Mark! Henri Nouwen on hospitality (which relates) – “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

  2. Bruce Logue says:

    Mark, I am so inspired and heartened by this. Thanks for doing such a fine job of articulating a better way for us to be in the world.

  3. Cathy Moore says:

    Thank you, Mark. This series of posts has addressed so many issues I have struggled with for years. I’ve felt for such a long time that much of what we have heard in evangelical churches a) did not sound like great news, b) just was not very logical, and c) did not feel like it matched up with how Jesus lived. Your suggestions and explanations, along with what your friend Dr. Beck has written about Universalism in his blog, have made so much sense to me, and truly helped me hang on to faith and hope. Thank you.

  4. Sean Niestrath says:

    Thanks Mark. You have articulated a shift we have been implementing here. I can use this immediately. The basic question I posed to a group here that organized food baskets during Thanksgiving and Christmas was, “How do we move from food to faith?” It stopped some of the comments at that time of year about “those people” who are always taking, and shifted it to solving a problem in a area of ministry we believed important, but never expected to go beyond “charity.” We now have a regular meal and life skiils class followed by a Bible study. The congregation has responded well, and the evangelism paradigm shift has been ineresting to watch as we process this.

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