I remember later sharing this with someone at the church where my work was based. While we were speaking, someone else overheard me talking about ‘the J-word’ and joined us and said “I couldn’t agree more…justice is so important”.
In my last article, I wrote of the tribal dichotomies which the Church frequently falls into and my search for a synthesis between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ perspectives. I believe that a balance, or synthesis, between these perspectives is fundamental to Christian engagement in the world.
Often, we find it far easier to speak of justice than we do of Jesus. In social action organisations, it is common for faith to be gradually eroded until it becomes just a footnote in the history. Faith can be discarded, like clothes that don’t quite fit anymore. Most of my working life has been spent in organisations grappling with these challenges.
Public faith will not survive when it is just living off the oxygen provided by institutional heritage. And it certainly won’t survive if it followers are actually embarrassed by its doctrines. We need conviction about its truth and confidence about its relevance.
In this article, I want to share the two key theological ideas that have significantly bolstered my conviction and confidence in gospel of Jesus.
Tom Wright: salvation as renewal rather than escape
Tom Wright is a prolific theological author, but the simple bombshell he dropped on me was this: Christianity is not about going to heaven when you die.
What we believe will happen in ‘the final analysis’ is hugely important. A common misconception is that the whole point of Christianity is to get a ‘ticket to heaven’, to qualify through the pearly gates. This idea of salvation is basically an individualistic ‘escape’.
This kind of theology is dualistic, more based on a Greek philosophical split between body and spirit than the holistic concerns of the Bible. It reduces the importance of our bodily lives and the rest of creation and its individualism separates love of God from love of neighbour. It provides no strong basis for making the world a better place.
Wright has powerfully challenged this kind of theology. Instead of whisking people off to heaven, the direction is the other way: God brings his dwelling to Earth. Rather than escape, God will one day fully restore and renew His creation: a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21). What has been broken will be restored, what has been split will be unified.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the turning point in history: the launching of the kingdom of God which transforms, heals and restores. Jesus’ sacrificial death offers forgiveness for all and God’s victory over evil in all its forms and his resurrection is a foretaste of the ‘renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28). The Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, exists to live out this future through concrete expressions of faith, hope and love.
Rather than dualism, the Bible has an integrated vision. The resurrection of human beings in transformed creation affirms the importance of the earth and how we treat each other. The hope in which we are saved is one of restoration and renewal. Our role is to anticipate and bear witness to this hope: fighting poverty and injustice, welcoming the stranger and caring for the planet because this is God’s agenda.
Lesslie Newbigin: chosen for responsibility not reward
Unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, the Christian faith contends that God’s saving act happened in a particular point in history. But how can this revelation be credible – what about all the countless people from countless cultures who could never hear of or understand what Jesus did? Does the Christian faith consign them to some eternal dustbin?
To give coherent and faithful answers to these questions, Christians need to reconcile two key themes in the Bible: the universality of God’s concern and love for all people and his particular and unique revelation in Jesus Christ.
Lesslie Newbigin argues that the key to reconciling the two is God’s way of election which runs as a thread through the whole Bible. The Triune God, a relationship of Father, Spirit and Son, chooses and calls specific people to bear wtiness to Him: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and above all, Jesus. Ultimate meaning is not revealed in ‘timeless truths’ which exist outside of history but is rooted in events revealed to specific people who carry this truth in relationship and community.
The critical point is that this election, this calling, is a responsibility to carry a message. The few are chosen for the sake of the many. As the Bible makes clear that Israel and the followers of Jesus are not morally superior to others. It is by grace that they are chosen and for a purpose: to be a light to the nations.
Newbigin argues that the disaster in missionary theology has been to confuse those called to be carriers of the message with those who ultimately will be saved. Responsibility has been twisted into reward. The book of Jonah is a dramatic parable against such thinking.
This understanding of election has been the single most significant factor in giving me confidence in my faith. I believe that what God did in Jesus is unique, that he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Christians should be confident to share this distinctive truth.
But confidence should never be twisted into judgementalism towards others. No one should claim to know who will ultimately will receive God’s blessing. This is God’s judgement alone. This understanding of election reconciles the exclusive truth of our message with the inclusive behaviour it leads to. Proper Christian confidence is made up of both bold conviction and humility towards others.
As Newbigin puts it ‘The question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people; it is an infinitely serious question addressed to me.’
Faith in action
The most damaging dichotomy in Christianity is one that so easily opens up between our words and our actions.
The reason I have shared these two theological ideas because they have both been significant in helping me put my faith into action. This theology has influenced the way I lead teams and organisations, how I speak and write publicly, the ways I have developed chaplaincy at work, how I run my youth club, how I have interacted with neighbours of other faiths and what I have taught my children.
At the end of the day, the only beliefs that really count are ones that are put into action. ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). This is the synthesis God truly cares about.
For more on Lesslie Newbigin see: Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin
On the application of Tom Wright’s theology :‘Tom Wright for Everyone’ by Stephen Kuhrt (SPCK, 2011)