Dr. Timothy Keller, author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, once said that his church’s mission is not to create a great church but to create a great city. This is borne out by the church’s tagline on its website: Seeking to renew the City Socially, Spiritually and Culturally. These three foci align very nicely with my three-dimensional gospel, by the way. I am beginning to lean towards naming the three dimensions of the 3D gospel as the communal, confessional and creational/cultural dimensions. (See my post on the Total 3D Gospel.) But the point I am making here is that I think Keller has it right. I believe that God’s mission or plan of salvation is not to create a great universal church but to create a great world.
Our popular conventional view of salvation is that God saves souls from damnation in hell. God is on a mission to save souls and the point of salvation is to get to heaven after you die. This popular other-worldly salvation is really an unbiblical concept – one that owes its roots more to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy/spirituality and Gnosticism than to what the Bible actually says. Salvation is not about going to heaven after you die, it’s not about our souls being saved or rescued from this doomed material world and/or existence; salvation is not having a right relationship with God in the present and in the future escape from planet earth to live in a disembodied existence in heaven, eventually to repopulate in a brand new heaven and earth. This view is captured in an old hymn: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through; My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door; Lord, I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
Theologian N.T. Wright perfectly highlights the problem of this conventional Christian view of salvation: “Life before death is what is threatened, called into question, by the idea that salvation is merely life after death. If we’re heading for a timeless, bodiless eternity, then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, HarperCollins 2008, p.197)
How, then, should we think of salvation? Biblical salvation is:
- Cosmic – “all things” will be renewed, reconciled, and rescued from the death-inducing effects of sin and evil (Colossians 1:15-23). The whole planet earth and all things that inhabit it will be saved from this broken world order that fosters injustice, oppression, alienation and domination or in biblical short-hand, “death”. God intends to usher in a new world order or the originally designed world order, depending on how you look at it, in the new heaven and earth. About salvation as involving planet earth, see my previous post: Same Planet, Different Worlds.
- Wholistic or in 3D – human beings are “saved not as souls but as wholes” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 199), i.e. our space, time and matter matters to God, as do our thoughts, our emotions, our sexuality, our relationships, our bodies, our whole beings and lives – or as I like to call it, our whole 3D lives. Biblical salvation is in 3D. (Again, see my post The Total 3D Gospel for more on this idea.) Our whole beings will be resurrected for God’s new heaven and earth.
- About the present as it is about the future – the life of God’s new world order for this planet earth begins, albeit partially, in the here and now but only comes to complete fruition in the new world order of the future. If biblical salvation is not about life after death but rather about life in God’s new world order, then life before death can share, participate, and be a foretaste of that new world life on this same planet.
- “About what God does through us as much as it is about what God does in and for us” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 200) – God works through each and every one of us in his cosmic plan of salvation. All our acts that reflect God’s new world order in the here and now, no matter how big or small, contributes to this cosmic redemption. Again, I quote N.T. Wright: “what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. … You are … accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beatuy of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 208-209)
- About universal flourishing or “shalom” – I will let theologian Neal Plantinga explain shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts are fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Eerdmans, 1995, p.10) Shalom is the state of affairs in God’s new world order – the new heaven and earth – on this planet earth. When Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer – beginning with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10 NRSV) – they are really praying for God’s new world order, a.k.a. God’s kingdom, to become a reality here on this planet earth – “your will be done earth as it is in heaven,” meaning God’s plans become as real as they already are in heaven.
Hence, every act of love, kindness and justice contributes to God’s new world order to come on this planet. What we do now, in the here and now of life before death, even the little that we do are not insignificant and are not in vain. Hence, anyone – whether you have mental or physical disabilities or whether you are a little child or an old man or woman – can contribute to God’s mission of cosmic salvation! My daughter with Down Syndrome can and will contribute to God’s new world order just as I do (who knows, maybe even more than me), if nothing else through her hugs and smiles, which she already does in her young age to so many. People with disabilities are no longer impotent when it comes to joining God’s mission. They are not just to sit around and wait for God’s healing or future resurrection. Likewise, for people who are ailing or even dying – their lives are not meaningless moments of suffering – even the little smile, handshake, words of hope, courage and wisdom exchanged between them and caregivers contribute to that new world order. They, like all of us, are active participants, contributors, servants and leaders in God’s ongoing cosmic mission. Since God’s mission is not narrowly restricted to preaching the good news and converting individuals so that souls are saved but cosmic in bringing about universal flourishing – shalom – for all things in creation, anyone, including people with disabilities, can join in God’s mission according to their own giftedness.
Contrast this to the conventional view of salvation and God’ s mission as saving souls for a blissful, bodiless and material-less existence. It is not only that salvation and mission are reduced to saving souls, this mission is often further narrowly reduced to getting individuals to cognitively grasp and assent to a formulaic articulation of God’s gospel truth (e.g. see the Four Spiritual Laws) and then respond with the proper changes in attitude (repentance) and decision/choice often initially expressed in a conversion prayer. After such a conversion, the convert’s goals in this life (the here and now) is to have a good personal relationship with God, often boiled down to regularly praying, worshipping, reading the Bible, obeying God’s commands/rules and witnessing or evangelizing to others so that other individuals can be saved too. This final activity, evangelism, is often viewed as joining God’s mission, hence the term, “missionary”. We cooperate in God’s mission of saving souls. So, the Christian’s life in the here and now is all about preparing ourselves for the life hereafter in heaven – where presumably, we will have a personal relationship with God and worshipping him 24/7 – and of helping God recruit more Christians to do the same.
This conventional view creates a great deal of problems for people with mental disabilities in particular. If being converted, and hence, to be saved, depends on a cognitive or rational (and presumably correct) intellectual understanding and assent to a summary of gospel truth, how do we measure that for a person with mental disabilities? How do we know if a person with Down Syndrome correctly intellectually grasps God’s truth about salvation? For that matter, at what age would children be considered as “conversion material”? If joining God’s mission is reduced to presenting or articulating this intellectual content of gospel truth and to get others to convert, how do people with mental disabilities – those with autism, with Down Syndrome, etc. – or how do children, for that matter, join in on this mission? In practice, this has often created a two-tier class of Christians – those who are fully devoted to God’s mission or Christian full-time ministry and those of us who are less gifted in evangelism who act primarily as cheer-leaders, support workers, financial backers and assistants to those who are, and maybe, for some of us, we can dabble part-time in Christian ministry as either a Sunday School teacher, or adult bible study class leader and evangelize to our friends and neighbors. And, more often than not, it is males who are allowed into the upper tier of full-time ministry and women, children, and people with disabilities (especially mental disabilities) are relegated to the lower tier of supporting cast.
In contrast, the biblical view of salvation and God’s mission I am presenting here asks not for intellectual assent as such as the primary means of conversion. Rather, I think conversion is more about whole life realignment to God’s way of life in God’s new world order/kingdom. It is more about realigning our 3D lives – our thinking, feeling, valuing, acting and choosing in confessional, communal and cultural ways – to reflect and, hence, promote/contribute to God’s 3D world order of shalom/universal flourishing. Seen this way, there are no barriers to people with disabilities or children or anyone else for that matter to align their lives, to convert – repent or turn away from the broken world order of things, from evil, and commit to God’s world order of justice, love, grace and beauty – as each person aligns or redirects their lives accordingly to their strengths, weaknesses, knowledge and abilities. Even when people do not fully understand or correctly grasp gospel truth, if they align their lives and actions intuitively or according to their best knowledge and ability, they are still joining God’s mission. And let’s be honest here, who among us will be arrogant enough to say that we actually have grasped the gospel truth absolutely for all time? Aren’t we all conditioned and limited by our historical and social contexts, as well as our own personal limitations, in how we interpret the gospel?
The role of clergy or church leaders in this view, therefore, is educating, equipping, empowering and encouraging all of us in our whole life re-alignment process. Or, in other words, clergy are our coaches as we are all active players in God’s mission, not just them. Does this involve articulating an intellectual summary of the gospel? Well, yes, of course, but it won’t be reduced to only that. It means no cookie-cutter-one-size-fits-all approach to educating and equipping people or in carrying out God’s mission. For some, an intellectual summary might be a good starting point, while for others, a helping hand in a social justice cause might work better. And still for others, a gesture of genuine hospitality. “Proclaiming the gospel” becomes as varied and as comprehensive as God’s mission and salvation itself.
There are probably lots more implications from rethinking salvation and God’s mission in this biblical way. You can probably think of a few more and post them in the comments (I would like to hear what others think). But I will end with this challenge or encouragement: what is your contribution today, however small, to God’s mission of salvation, of bringing the new world order to this planet earth?