Reading: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Chapter 12.
One of the most powerful ways that N.T. Wright helps us as Adventists see more deeply into the riches of our heritage is through a re-framing of the questions guiding inquiry about the Christian hope. Among the most valuable elements of our heritage has been recovery of a biblically-based understanding of “conditional immortality” and rejection of the popular Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul, detachable from the body, a concept foreign to the Bible that has underwritten the abuse of power in the Christian church for many centuries. Salvation as the individual soul’s entry into heaven at death fit much more comfortably with Roman imperialism than an imminent return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment sweeping away all earthly powers.
Yet, in our preoccupation with salvation as a vertical transaction between the divine and the individual soul, we remain subject to some of the problems Wright attributes to those who conceive of salvation as the disembodied soul’s entrance into heaven at death. As Wright points out at the conclusion of Chapter 11, the matter boils down to which questions receive priority. The focus, he proposes, should not be on “the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it.” Rather, it should be on the questions, “How will God’s new creation come? and then, How will we human beings contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator will launch in his new world?” (185).
This re-framing encourages us to think about salvation in the context of a long story, a controlling narrative – the story of redemption, and as involving ongoing human cooperation with divine power, rather than as mainly a matter of getting our individual debts of sin cleared from the books of heaven....
In the third and final part of Surprised by Hope, Wright turns to what hope means for Christian practice – what does a “hope-shaped mission” look like? But in Chapter 12, he begins Part III with further theological ground-clearing on the great themes of salvation and the Kingdom of God.
Since the 1970s at least, perhaps since 1888, popular Adventist preaching and writing has been preoccupied with the dynamics of individual salvation. How do we avoid legalism and find Christian assurance while still upholding the binding claims of the law of God and the scrutiny of the investigative judgment? How do we define and breakdown justification and sanctification and their relationship? How can I get all this right so I can go to heaven? As vital as these matters are, fixation on them and their irresolvable tensions as the be all and end all makes for rather insipid and under-nourishing spiritual gruel, it seems to me.
But what if, with Wright’s encouragement, we think of salvation, not as “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth”? Those “who have been saved, are being saved, and will one day fully be saved,” he proposes, should “realize that they are not saved as souls but as wholes and not for themselves alone but for what God now longs to do through them” (198-200). We are saved, or rescued, by “that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose,” so that we might “become colleagues and partners in that larger project” (192).
Salvation then opens the door to participation in God’s plan of redemption. It is a matter of sheer grace from start to finish. Nothing can be done to earn it but at the same time it calls forth my highest aspiration, commitment and effort. Glen Stassen and David Gushee put it well in their commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in the book Kingdom Ethics (Eerdmans, 2003):
The Beatitudes are not about high ideals, but about God’s gracious deliverance and our joyous participation. . . .We participate by answering Jesus’ gracious call: come follow me. This is not cheap grace, nor is it works-righteousness, in which we try to earn our way into the kingdom by our righteous deeds. This grace is a gift of deliverance, given only by God in his only Son, Jesus Christ, fully Lord and fully Savior. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ, worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It is Spirit-led, participative, Christomorphic grace (35-36).
And that participation involves doing the work of the kingdom of God, already inaugurated by Jesus, according to the four gospels. Adventists have been somewhat skittish calls to action for peace and social justice to bring the kingdom of God. And Wright puts his finger on one important reason: “kingdom of God has been a flag of convenience under which all sorts of ships have sailed” (203). Adventists have long resisted a sort of messianic American nationalism – both liberal and conservative varieties – in which the nation’s might becomes a vehicle for the God’s kingdom.
But that resistance may cause us to overcompensate by screening out the biblical message that Wright helps us see. With space and time for this post already far overrun, we can only offer, as a taste of what the chapter (and book) serves up, a quote on the story that the gospels tell about Jesus and the kingdom:
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 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 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 in another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project (204-205).
And, finally, another quotation, this from the book Christ’s Object Lessons, to suggest the existence of evidence to support my proposal that all of this helps us clarify and appropriate for today the best insights of our Adventist heritage:
It is the privilege of every soul to be a living channel through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is nothing that Christ desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and character. There is nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Saviour's love. All heaven is waiting for channels through which can be poured the holy oil to be a joy and blessing to human hearts…
The Sun of Righteousness has “healing in His wings.” Mal. 4:2. So from every true disciple is to be diffused an influence for life, courage, helpfulness, and true healing….
The revelation of His own glory in the form of humanity will bring heaven so near to men that the beauty adorning the inner temple will be seen in every soul in whom the Saviour dwells. Men will be captivated by the glory of an abiding Christ. And in currents of praise and thanksgiving from the many souls thus won to God, glory will flow back to the great Giver.
…To His faithful followers Christ has been a daily companion and familiar friend. They have lived in close contact, in constant communion with God. Upon them the glory of the Lord has risen. In them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ has been reflected. Now [at His second appearing] they rejoice in the undimmed rays of the brightness and glory of the King in His majesty. They are prepared for the communion of heaven; for they have heaven in their hearts (419-420).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1509