– Mark Raja
Many evangelicals today preach “If you believe in Jesus you will be saved.” Basically, what we mean is, we are all sinners and if you accept Jesus he will forgive your sins and save you from hell, and after you die you will ‘go to heaven’. So, the picture here is, Ship is sinking, repent, jump into the lifeboat to go to heaven. Recently I saw a pretty known evangelist in Hyderabad mentioned “ ‘Doctrine of the church’ : The Church is a lifeboat station: a place and people dedicated to saving people from danger.” Dr.Richard Pratt, describes this typical vision we have that Jesus “came to forgive our sin, make our souls sparkle, to sprinkle us with peace and joy so we can sprout wings when we die, grab a harp and join the eternal choir.” There is an element of truth in it, but unfortunately for many Christians today, this is the hope of the Gospel.
This understanding makes us believe that following Jesus in this world is ‘securing your ticket to heaven’, ‘saving souls’ and ‘sin management’. We think work, education, marriage, family, culture, nature, health, business, community, hobbies, sports etc. are just utilitarian without any eternal purpose. Hence, we call this secular life, whereas evangelism and sin management is sacred. We cannot make sense of our ordinary life in the light of the Gospel. (That’s why we have not purposefully prepared the Church in the fields of arts, science, government, justice, business etc. Even in health care and education in India where the Church immensely contributed in the past, has now retreated and given it to the kingdom of darkness.) Our only purpose is to escape from this earth to a disembodied state somewhere above the clouds which we think is heaven. You may have heard this popular line even sung “This world is not my home, I am just a passing through.” Remember “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home…”? Another popular question we ask. “Where will you go if you die tonight”? Unfortunately this gospel boils down to that address.
I was raised in a Christian family, and also in a Church family from early childhood. When I made my decision to follow Jesus at the age of 15, I too had a similar understanding. Though I was sincere, with all my heart I believed that Jesus Christ is God who died for my sins, I confessed my sins, experienced forgiveness and choose to live a ‘clean life’. I too believed that when I die, I will go to heaven. Sadly, the rest of my life did not make much sense. One of my favourite quotes then was “My purpose in life is to go to heaven and take as many people as possible with me”, as told by a well-known evangelical leader. So, I believed that the only worthwhile thing I could do while looking forward to the life after death in heaven is ‘share the gospel’ to make sure others also get to go there. Yes, we ought to proclaim the good news, but do we really know it? What we really mean by ‘share the gospel’? For me it looked more like sharing some information about gospel. We pick few verses like John 3:16, Romans 3:23, 6:23, 10:13 etc. and we say this is gospel. Since this gospel does not make much sense to our secular life in this sinking world, there is nothing much to live it out except ‘sin management’ and ‘share the gospel’. If the person accepts, ‘Praise the lord’ one more soul is saved and got a ticket to heaven. Have we not reduced so great a Gospel of salvation to accepting a mere ticket to an imaginary heaven above the clouds after we die? Is this our only hope?
This gospel has no room for resurrection, no new creation, no marriage of heaven and earth. It does not answer questions like, why am I created? Why am I sinful? What is the point of my salvation? What is my true destiny? You may be thinking that I am a heretic. Am I exaggerating things here? I don’t think so. When we look at the word salvation in the Bible it is in Hebrew, ‘Yeshooaw’ and in Greek ‘Soteria’, which means deliverance, victory, prosperity, healing, to protect, to save, welfare, to make whole etc. This word does not suggest the idea of ‘escape to heaven’. There is very little written in the bible about “going to heaven when you die”. We all agree that sin is an undeniable reality in this world, so salvation is essential, but is this what the bible teaches about salvation? Do we care to ask questions like: What is salvation? What is my salvation for? Did our myopic view blind us to the most beautiful vision of God? Tim Keller points: “Some conservative Christians think of the story of salvation as the fall, redemption and heaven. In this narrative, the purpose of redemption is escape from this world.. If, however, the story of salvation is creation, fall, redemption, restoration, then things look different…the purpose of redemption is not to escape the world but to renew it…It is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew all things.” Paul in his letters to Ephesians, Colossians, Corinthians repeatedly writes about “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Let us explore this mystery of His will by asking those questions I had mentioned before.
God, man, and rest of creation were in perfect unity, peace, and complete flourishing with each other as in the Godhead from the beginning.
Why am I created?
Bible teaches us that, God is love in the community of Godhead from everlasting to everlasting. This love is radical, self-sacrificing, gracious, unmerited, everlasting etc., which we may not completely understand in our present lifetime to describe it well. New Testament writers call this ‘Agape love’. God created everything out of this love for his glory with a purpose. (Isaiah 43:7) He created man in his image and to have dominion over all his creation and care for it. He charged them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. (Gen1:28) This is what it means to be human in God’s sight. God, man, and the rest of creation were in perfect unity, peace, and complete flourishing in harmony with each other just like it is in the Godhead from the beginning. This is beautiful. This is Shalom as old testament prophets call it. This shalom is God’s purpose for all creation. Cornelius Plantinga explains shalom as “…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfilment, and delight…Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Saviour opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” In shalom, we have an invitation to partner with God, to care for, and work the garden as his image bearers. (Gen 2:15) This we call Cultural Mandate.
Why am I sinful?
But, man rebelled against God and choose to become his own god and cut himself from God, the source of all life and love. All created order has turned into chaos because of this separation. Our nature has turned from love, justice and peace to pride, selfishness, and fear. We lost our calling, shalom was broken and we died. The result of this rebellion was death. (Rom 6:23) We are eternally separated from God. This is why I am sinful. That is why the Bible says we have fallen short of the glory of God. His image in us has been marred. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey describe it as, “Every part of God’s handiwork was marred by the human mutiny. At the Fall, every part of creation was plunged into the chaos of sin, and every part cries out for redemption.” In this fallen state, humans are unable to realise the calling that they were made to fulfil. In response to the brokenness and chaos, we and all creation try desperately to break free from the bondage of sin.” (Rom.8:20,21)
Even though we rebelled against God and died, even though God’s beautiful creation as turned into chaos, God is still love.
What is salvation?
Even though we rebelled against God and died, even though God’s beautiful creation as turned into chaos, God is still love. He did not abandon his creation but because of his love he wants his dead creation to be made alive and united with Him again. He desires to redeem and restore what was lost. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1) First he chose Abraham and through him formed His people, spoke with them and tabernacled among them, but in Jesus, He became man and lived among us in flesh and blood and through his death and resurrection to offer us new creation to all fallen creation. “In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” (Eph 1:5). Remember the image, Jesus talks about “I am the true vine and you are the branches”? (John 15). We chose to cut ourselves from the vine, but God through Jesus wants to graft us back to Himself. Today He persuades us to unite with Him again by offering us eternal life and restore our purpose and calling. (Rom. 5:8) (Rom. 6:23) (Eph. 1:3–10) “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom8:30) He restores His image in us. (Gal4:19) He restores our son-ship, priesthood, citizenship. (1 John 3:1) (1 Pet 2:9) Redemption without restoration is incomplete. Here is our problem. We understand redemption as an escape from as it were a sinking ship to heaven. This is not what the Bible teaches. That’s why Paul says that without resurrection (new creation) our faith is worthless, we are still in sin and without hope. (1Cor15:14) (By the way many of us think resurrection mean coming back to life like how Lazarus came back to life. No. Resurrection is not coming back to life but inaguration of new creation.) It is part of God’s plan and His intention to make right the damage of sin by offering new creation, not just redeem and take us to heaven. This redemption and restoration is our great salvation.
What is my salvation for?
So, glorifying does not mean going to heaven beyond the clouds. As Jesus was risen and glorified we too will be like him. “…but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) Paul describes this restoration in Jesus beautifully, “… to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”(Eph 1:9,10) “… to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20). “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:22,23)
There is a great task for the Church in this mission of God. Paul after writing in length about resurrection, he says, Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Cor 15) “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10) “…that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1Pet2:9) This work is not just what we do for evangelism or the Church. Paul is not talking from the sacred secular dichotomy. The “work of the Lord” that Paul refers to is what we as Church are called to do in our workplaces, cities, communities, homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, government, etc. We are called to bring love where there is hate, righteousness and justice where is injustice, shalom where there is conflict, order where there is chaos, beauty where there is brokenness, healing where there is disease, truth where there are lies through the power of the Holy Spirit who is in us. It is not just as individuals but as local believing communities.
To be fully Christian is to be fully human as his image bearers.
Unfortunately we believe the Gospel has no power to change this dark world now. We limit its power to only ‘saving souls’. We ‘saved souls’ believe restoration is God’s responsibility when Christ returns in his “millennium kingdom” but Church has no part in it now, as our only hope is beyond the clouds. So some of us isolate from the world (like putting the lamp under a basket) where as some on the other extreme accommodate the world. How can this be? When our sin lead to the fall of all creation how much more our restoration in Jesus to all of creation? Here I am not saying ‘all of creation’ mean environment alone, it is all of human existence. It is all of life, culture, and nature. Well some other Christians think they can do it by themselves by dominating the world. This has lead to tragic consequences in the past and even today. Hugh Whelchel says “Our duty is not to bring the Kingdom into existence, nor is the Kingdom something we build ourselves. The Kingdom is brought and built by the King – our duty is to serve the King.”
Restoration can happen only in love.
Restoration can happen only in love.(John 3:16) That’s why God commanded us to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. It can only happen through the power of his Spirit in us who enables us to love. Then we can be the light in this dark world. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mat 5:13–16) “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” (Pro11:10) Yes when Christ returns he makes all things new, but the kingdom of God is already in the midst of us. Theologians call it “already but not-yet kingdom”. Don’t we see it? “… unless you are born-again you cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)(This does not mean everything will be perfect now. The Kingdom of God will flourish, so will the kingdom of darkness until Christ returns. (Mat 13:24–30))
So when God restored our life and purpose, he did not cancel our initial human mission; in fact he restored it! Christians have not been given some exemption on the grounds that we have other or better things to do. To be fully Christian is to be fully human as his image bearers. That’s why God makes disciples, and wants us to make disciples who embody this gospel and proclaim his kingdom to all creation in all accepts of life in this world, where as the ‘saving souls’ gospel is only after souls.
The purpose of my salvation is to partner with my Lord and King in his work of redemption and restoration in the posture of love and worship.
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey explains in their book ‘How now shall we live.’ “God cares not only about redeeming souls but also about restoring his creation. He calls us to be agents not only of his saving grace but also of his common grace. Our job is not only to build up the church but also to build a society to the glory of God. As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.” Michael Wittmer says “Grace must restore everything that sin has destroyed. So, every part of our lives and every part of our world must be brought under the lordship of Christ. So, whether we are making a meal, tending our lawn, playing with children, or going to work, it all matters now. God cares just as much about what we watch on television as he does about what we do in church. Why? Because every aspect of creation must be redeemed.” In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, does not exclaim, ‘It’s Mine!’” So what is my salvation for? It is to partner with my Lord and King in his work of redemption and restoration in the posture of love and worship. (Also read 1 Cor 15: 24–28 and Mat 28: 18–20)
What about heaven?
So, what about heaven? Is God not destroying this earth and taking us to heaven? NT Wright in his book Surprised by hope writes “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life — God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth. At the last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21–22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to the disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.” Yes, we will be with our Lord after we die (Rev 6:9) (Phil 1:23) a waiting place — until our “perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:53) to dwell in renewed heaven and earth when Christ returns. C S Lewis in Mere Christianity says, “Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.”
My true destiny lies in God’s perfect Shalom.
What is my true destiny?
This great hope in the Bible that we see from Genesis through Revelation is God’s Shalom. God, and his creation will live in perfect unity, peace, and complete flourishing. (Eze 34:25–29) (Isa 11:6–9) (Lev 26:4–6) (Eph 2:14) (Isa 32:16–17) (Heb 4:1) So our true destiny lies in God’s Shalom – the new heavens and new earth, where “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” (Isa 65:21–25) God’s sovereign rule coming on earth as it is in heaven (Mat 6:10) through Jesus who is the prince of shalom. (Isaiah 9:6) (Rev 22:1–5) Scott Kauffman writes “…shalom characterises the Garden (the way it was supposed to be) and the eternal City (the way it is going to be), and so provides the vision for our existence in between.”
Our hope is in the resurrected Christ who already began the new creation 2000 years back, and is restoring all things in himself. We are already his new creation, (2 Cor 5:17) We are already his temple; and his dwelling place. (Eph 2: 19–22) He abides in us and we in him.(John 15:4) We already have eternal life, because we are children of God, born again by his Holy Spirit. (1 John 5:13) We see his kingdom. (John 3:3) We are already citizens of heaven. (Heb 12:22–24) Though I am stranger now in this perishable body, here on Earth, I labour for my Lord and king, I hope for the coming of the new age, when my Lord returns and completes the work he started, “making all things new”. It is “The world without end” as the Church creed puts it. That is why, I don’t need a gospel that gives me a ticket to an imaginary heaven above the clouds.
What a marvellous hope we have! Let us live it to proclaim it!