Monday, April 26, 2010

The Wright View of Salvation

Two years ago I picked up N.T. Wright's controversial book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. I read through it in preparation for Easter. Since then I've reread many chapters within it, there is much to absorb and contend with.

Essentially Wright is picking apart the common Western Christianity assumptions about salvation, heaven, and the role of the church by comparing it to the writings of the New Testament authors (and the Old Testament ones as well). A main point of contention: what is the Christian hope? Is it that I can go to heaven when I die? Or is it that I will be resurrected and live in the New Heavens and New Earth? This is not two ways of saying the same thing, either.

This theological conversation may strike you as uninteresting or picky or irrelevant. That's okay. I'm going to write down for my sake some of the paragraphs from chapter twelve: Rethinking Salvation - Heaven, Earth, and the Kingdom of God, which initiates part three of the book: Hope in Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church.

We have now reached the point where we must ask: So what? Is all this talk about God's ultimate future, about "life after life after death," simply a matter of tidying up our beliefs about what will happen in the very end, or does it have any practical consequences here and now?

What I want to do is to show what the New Testament says by way of answer to the question, What's the resurrection of Jesus got to do with anything else? and to point to some conclusions from this for the life of the church and of Christians today.

Jesus' bodily resurrection marks a watershed. It may look like only a few steps this way or that to move from one side to the other, but if you accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus, all the streams flow in one direction, and if you don't they all flow in the other direction.

And, to put it kindly but bluntly, if you go in the other direction, away from the bodily resurrection, you may be left with something that looks a bit like Christianity, but it won' be what the New Testament writers were talking about.

Mostly, Jesus got himself a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him saving people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a salvation, the message for which they had longed, that would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere visual aid of the future one or a trick to gain people's attention.

The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God's ultimate purpose - and so they could become colleagues and partners in that larger project.

How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straight-forwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.

Mention salvation, and almost all Western Christians assume that you mean going to heaven when you die. But a moment's though, in the light of all we have said so far, reveals that this simply cannot be right. Salvation means, of course, rescue. But what are we ultimately to be rescued from? The obvious answer is death. but if, when we die, all that happens is that our bodies decompose while our souls go on elsewhere, this doesn't mean we've been rescued from death. It simply means that we've died.

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God's promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality - what I have called life after life after death - then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.

Salvation, then, is not "going to heaven" but "being raised to life in God's new heaven and new earth."

For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God's new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was that this was a proper anticipation of the ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time, and matter.

The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved not as souls, but as wholes.

The point is this. When God saves people in this life, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed - it isn't too strong a word - to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos.

What's more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.

In other words - to sum up where we've to so far - the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.

We have seen at several points in this book that the normal Christian understanding of kingdom, especially of kingdom of heaven, is simply mistaken. "God's kingdom" and "kingdom of heaven" mean the same thing: the sovereign rule of God, which according to Jesus was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth. That is what Jesus taught us to pray for.

This, as we have seen, is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit is all about. They are designed not to take us away from this earth but rather to make us agents of the transformation of this earth, anticipating the day when, as we are promised, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."

When the risen Jesus appears to his followers at the end of Matthew's gospel, he declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. When John the Seer hears the thundering voices in heaven, they are singing, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign for ever and ever."

And the point of the gospels - of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together with Acts - is that this has already begun.

But underneath that again, when we stand back, is the meaning of God's kingdom, to which the hope of Israel was designed to contribute - or, to put it another way, the meaning because of which God called Israel in the first place. Faced with his beautiful and powerful creation in rebellion, God longed to set it right, to rescue it from continuing corruption and impending chaos and to bring it back into order and fruitfulness.

God longed, in other words, to reestablish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue. He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation.

That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God.

But when we reintegrate what should never have been separated - the kingdom-inaugurating public work of Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection - we find that the gospels tell a different story. It isn't just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion. Nor is it just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction. It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives.

It is the story of God's kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus's followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.

Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happen on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God's kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus's saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project.

Heaven's rule, God's rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation that is both for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world. This is the solid basis for the mission of the church.

With these excerpts, I've highlighted thoughts I found to be intriguing, provocative, and illuminating. They have been helpful to me in digging through Scriptures again, putting pieces together, seeking clarity in my understanding of salvation, the kingdom of God, and the work of the church in the world.

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