In this post, I want to offer some preliminary remarks about one of the prevailing views regarding Christian mission and witness, and why I think it is inadequate. I then want to discuss – in very general terms at this point – about the way in which a comprehensive biblical picture of God’s creation and its destiny can actually broaden the scope of our witness in this world. It is an introductory post, and sets my view within a broad creational context that takes account of the prophetic and eschatological significance of what we are called to do, as well as the way in which our work fits into the God’s redemptive “big picture”. But let’s move on.
First of all, I want to critique the narrow view I have characterized – with the important caveat that in no way do I want to diminish the centrality of evangelism. In any case, I would argue that an exclusive commitment to evangelism (which rules out other forms of witness and engagement with this world) rests on a faulty assumption. Of course, there are many reasons for adopting any view in life, whether it’s one’s political persuasion or one’s choice of spouse. This view is no different, and I shall perhaps engage with other reasons for its persistence in later posts. For now, I want to concentrate on the poor theology that undergirds this narrow approach to Christian witness. Those who adhere to such a view adopt what I want to call a “sinking ship” mentality when they think about the world and its destiny. According to such a view, the world – much like the Titanic – is sinking slowly into the miry depths; it is only a matter of time before it disappears completely. All we can hope to do is to rescue a few souls from the doomed vessel, so that they may enjoy salvation in a place far from here; anything else – helping the poor, engaging in the political arena, taking part in public debates from a robustly Christian position – is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs after the great ship struck the iceberg.
Unfortunately, this is a deeply dualistic mentality that sees salvation in purely escapist terms. Quite where it comes from is still unclear (though I would hazard a guess and say that the Enlightenment split between the sacred and the secular probably has something to do with it), but what is clear is that it shifts attention away from this world. Moreover, it is unbiblical. The fact is, this world is corrupt; it is mired in sin. That much is true. But it is also true to say that God, far from destroying it, will in fact redeem it. His world is not irrevocably lost; neither is it inherently evil (despite being corrupted by sin), and therefore to be repudiated. One cannot read passages such as Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, which speak about redemption in creational and personal terms, respectively, and not be struck by the way in which God is actually for this world. This does not exclude the necessity of judgment, but it certainly does include the notion that God is in the business of doing something redemptive in this world. Indeed, we should not be surprised by such a commitment, for even the Incarnation, where the Creator entered into the flow of his creation in the most radical of ways (see John 1:14 for example), points to God’s overarching faithfulness to his creation. And if that is true, then I think it also true to say that we are meant to act as agents of redemption – as agents of new creation – in the world in the present. In doing so, we anticipate and reveal (at least in a measure) the fuller redemption that will occur when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness.
The space created by the aforementioned attitude allows for the kind of witness about which I am talking. If we are acting and living in a prophetic manner, then it seems good and proper to effect change in the present as a way of anticipating, to some extent at least, the universal application of God’s redemptive rule throughout the entirety of his creation. This can include the influence of governments, ministry to the poor and the exploited, and engagement with the ideas of this world in order to transform the thinking of individuals and to challenge the intellectual and philosophical structures of, hopefully, entire societies. None of this can replace what God is going to do to consummate history and creation; he alone will completely erase the effects of sin from this world. But what we do in the present, whether it’s evangelism or challenging governments or ministering to the poor, ought to be set in a creational, rather than an escapist, context. It manifests the judging, saving, redemptive work of God in this world, rather than wooing people away from it.
Such a context applies to individuals as much as it does to societies and institutions. Just as God is going to actually redeem – as opposed to destroy – this world, so too is he in the business of redeeming the whole person. Again, we may point to 1 Corinthians 15 (not to mention Romans 8:23) as a warrant for this approach. When we read those portions of scripture, we ought to recognize the fact that our ultimate destiny is not some disembodied state, but resurrection – renewed, transformed, bodily life, of which Jesus is the firstfruits and the template (1 Cor. 15:23). Both his incarnation and his resurrection give us a powerful warrant for believing that our ultimate hope pertains to renewed bodily life. And given that our final hope is a new kind of bodily life, it makes sense to minister to the whole person. We have been created as people – physical and spiritual unities – and we will be redeemed as people. Christian witness needs to reflect this truer understanding of a person’s nature. To be sure, evangelism is vital, for no one can enter into God’s new world without first having received the gospel. Only the reception of the gospel will see someone receive eternal life. But, as noted, we are not attempting to save disembodied souls; we are attempting to save people. Anything less is a denial of the biblical witness, which defines personhood in a comprehensive physical-spiritual sense. That is why our witness needs to be manifold in nature, integrating evangelism, spiritual renewal, intellectual challenge, physical service and faithful ministry to the various manifestations of unrighteousness and brokenness – both spiritual and material – that we witness in our societies and our communities.
Despite the criticisms I have made, my hope is that this essay will be read in the conciliatory manner in which it has been written. In that spirit, I want to offer an encouragement to all who “labour in the Lord” – regardless of what that labour looks like. Read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58, which come at the end of his lengthy exposition of the meaning and significance of resurrection. Interestingly, Paul connects the present work of the Corinthians with the resurrection of Christ in the past, and the guarantee of the general resurrection in the future: “Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
And so it is with us. Amen.