p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

A conversation with Emi about salvation and mission

Emi is a seventeen year old high school student in the Seattle area. She has posted a couple of lengthy comments on this site in which she expresses the struggle she is going through trying to reconcile the narrative-historical reading of the New Testament, which she understands and summarises remarkably well, with certain deeply held convictions about salvation.

I wrote a piece on the biblical argument about salvation in response to her first comment. Here I’ve tried to answer her second set of questions, which have to do more with the motivation for mission—and indeed for being Christian at all. Hopefully it adds something new to the conversation and I am not just repeating myself.

Emi starts by voicing her bewilderment: “I feel more lost than I ever have before.” I’m not sure to what extent the narrative-historical method is to blame for that. It has considerable explanatory power, but it also cuts at right angles across our traditional readings of the New Testament, and it’s perhaps not surprising that we are left feeling disoriented.

At the heart of her concern, it seems, is the shift of emphasis away from mission as saving people from some dreadful ultimate fate to mission as corporate witness to the sovereignty of God under particular historical conditions, which is sort of what I was getting at here.

You haven’t explained if non-Christians are for sure damned to death at the final judgment, or if there is a possibility that if their actions were good enough, their verdict could be of a kind other than death.

That’s good—at least I’ve made it clear that non-Christians are not damned to eternal conscious torment in hell at the final judgment.

My argument has been that most of what is said about judgment in the New Testament relates to the historical events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, on the one hand, and the overthrow of classical paganism and the conversion of the nations, on the other. It seems to me in this regard that Paul expected righteous Gentiles to have a part in the age to come on account of what they had done—indeed, that they would put many Jews to shame (cf. Rom. 2:27).

Detail from Eustache le Sueur, Preaching of St Paul at Ephesus (1649)

This means that not much is said about the terms of a final judgment. Of course, there are other ways of reading the New Testament, but I don’t have much more to go on than the account in Revelation 20:11-15, which says that the dead will be judged according to what they have done.

The lesson to learn? That from a biblical perspective what goes on in history is of much greater theological and missional significance than what happens at the end of history.

This is absolutely essential to our mission, unless we believe that the salvation of people is not of greatest priority in God’s whole plan.

To be honest with you, Emi, if we take scripture as an account of the historical existence of the people of God through to the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world, I don’t see how we can say that the salvation of people is the “greatest priority in God’s whole plan”.

God’s “plan”—if we must talk in such terms—is to keep a faithful and obedient people for himself throughout history. In the biblical period there are two types or patterns of “salvation”. First, Israel is saved from destruction because of their sins, more than once. Secondly, Gentiles are included in saved Israel as a sign that YHWH is God of the nations and not of Israel only and will soon judge and rule over the nations. Salvation is integral to the story, but it is not the whole story; it is a means to an end.

Today there is an open door for all people to enter and experience the new creation life of the redeemed and transformed people of God. But that is not the mission of God, it merely makes the mission of God possible.

If it is not, then I don’t know how I can believe in Christianity.

That’s interesting. What is the logic that leads you to that conclusion? That God is morally obliged to save every human who has ever lived from a final death, whether they want to be saved or not? That everyone has a right to eternal life? That living after death is more important than knowing, loving, and serving in the world as we know it?

In Paul’s lengthy argument in 1 Corinthians it is not Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel that is the sine qua non of faith but the resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). He is saying, in the first place, that there is no point in them risking their lives for the gospel if there is no prospect of resurrection. But the main story about resurrection is that God has put all things under Jesus’ feet, that he must “reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet”, the last enemy being death (1 Cor. 15:25-26).

Paul’s reason for believing in Christianity was not that it was a way to get as many people as possible saved but that he had been convinced by the revelation on the road to Damascus that God had raised Jesus from the dead and put him in control.

God’s love for people is present throughout the entire Bible, and God repeatedly acts to save His people, so it seems like I can say with confidence that within God’s priorities are the well-being and fates of humans.

I’m not sure that God’s “love for people”—if you mean all people—is so obvious, but it’s certainly true that he “repeatedly acts to save His people”. The second part of your statement is an inference. It may be true, but I think we would struggle to demonstrate it from scripture.

You would be on stronger ground , I think, if you had said “God’s priorities are the well-being and fates of societies or peoples”. Arguably, it is not scripture but the Enlightenment that has taught us to value individuals so highly—and consequently to prioritise personal salvation. The biblical story is about nations, empires and civilisations.

Therefore, if the well-being and fate of those outside of God’s people aren’t important to God, then God (and Christianity) seems exclusive and unfair.

To my way of thinking—and yes, my way of thinking could be wrong—this gets it inside-out. In the modern era the evangelical church in particular has sought to attract people by highlighting the benefits of Christianity—primarily the personal benefits, but more recently also the relational and communal benefits.

There are good reasons for the strategy. Consumerism has got the better of church attendance, so perhaps the decline can be arrested by offering a consumerist version of Christianity: you get all these good things and eternal life after you die—and frankly the cost is minimal.

But the biblical people of God came into existence, and survived the vicissitudes of history, not because God pitched his stall in the market place of the world and offered all-comers prosperity and eternal life.

It is always a people called to resist the world, to take up the very difficult way of faith, faithfulness and obedience, to serve the living God, and to suffer if necessary, on account either of its own sins or of the sins of others. The promise to this people is that God will love and prosper them, he will sustain and vindicate them, but not—contrary to popular opinion—unconditionally.

My answer to your question about the fate of humans is that the world does what it has always done, ever since people settled in a plain in the land of Shinar and began to build a tower to heaven to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:9). The world doesn’t want to serve the living God, so why would it want to be saved?

Those who joined God’s people did so because of literal, specific humans having acted to share Christianity with them, and so God’s lack of concern with anyone who happened to not get that opportunity seems unfair to me.

Yes, this is what we have been doing in the modern era, but I don’t think it’s an accurate account of mission in the New Testament. The “literal, specific humans” who travelled across Asia Minor and Europe in the first century were not simply trying to save as many people as possible. They were telling the nations of the Greek-Roman world that the God of Israel had raised his Son from the dead, had given him all authority and power, and had made him judge and ruler not only of his own people but also of the nations. It was a “political” message with a “political” outcome in view.

Most people dismissed the claims as nonsense. A few believed the good news and began to live as though the rule of Christ over the nations was already established—they lived as though the kingdom of God had already come about, even though it wouldn’t actually happen for another three hundred years.

These “believers” were “saved”—they became part of the redeemed, renewed, transformed, Spirit-empowered people of God, and they became heirs of God’s new future. But it would be a serious distortion of the narrative if we were to assume that it was all about getting as many people as possible into heaven.

It seems that in this case, God would be caring only for those who received the chance to be told about Christianity and cared for so they might choose to join God’s people. Accordingly, God would not be caring for others even though most of the others are only others because they did not receive the same chance.

But if the validity of Christianity depended on it providing a rational and efficient method by which all people get to hear a personal message about Jesus, then we might as well all go home. At no point does the biblical story about the people of God move in this direction.

Look at Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-32. People should have recognised the nature of God just by looking at the world, but they did not honour the creator, they worshipped images of creatures instead. Therefore, God handed them over to dishonourable passions and a debased mind. The point was not that God didn’t care for lost people. It’s that pagan humanity had not cared for God.

…God’s concern seems to be with the goodness of all of Creation, and Christ’s act of salvation enabled the inclusion of as many people as possible into the new creation people.

But we’re not talking about the “goodness of all Creation”. We’re talking about the waywardness and indifference of human societies throughout history. That a covenant people exists at all is exceptional, it’s not normal, it’s unnatural.

Paul would certainly have liked “all Israel” to be saved (Rom. 11:26), but he doesn’t mean every individual Jew; he means Israel as a people.

He also writes to Timothy that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), and on the face of it, that would lend weight to your argument. But the statement belongs to the exhortation to pray “for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).

What Paul has in mind is the situation of the believers in pagan society at large, and I rather think that the “all people” who would be saved are the same “all people… kings and all who are in high positions” for whom he urges supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings.

In other words, the thought is less of lots of individual people being saved (and going to heaven when they die) than of the whole Greek-Roman world abandoning its idols and turning to serve the living God. And so it came to pass.

In historical terms, the conversion of the nations was to be the climax to the biblical narrative about the kingdom of God. I’m not at all sure that we should have the same expectation today. The world has moved on.

My assumption is that the secular West is drifting further and further away from its Christian past, which will make it ever more difficult to sustain a theology that prioritises the salvation of individuals. But—marvellously, I think—it will help us to recover the theological force of the biblical narrative as the story primarily of a people that struggles to maintain its witness to the living God under severe internal and external pressures.

How could it not be a priority in our mission to get as many people as possible to take the chance to become part of the new creation people, which realizes the goodness of all of Creation?

I don’t have a problem with that as far as it goes, but I think we need to move beyond simplistic and naïve models of mission as maximising personal salvation. My argument in the previous post was not that we should abandon either personal evangelism (or something like it) or social activism but that we need to tell a better story about why we are doing these things.

You have often said that we as post-Christendom and post-NT Christians must now find our new purpose and identity in this new context, culture, and historical time period. Does that mean there is no solid, definitive, conclusive answer to my question of what our mission is?

I think that the church is going through a long, difficult, painful and confusing period of reorientation after the collapse of Christendom. The narrative-historical approach, which I think is being broadly driven, defined and sustained by good biblical scholarship, is an invaluable asset in this transition, but it is still a work in progress, and I hesitate to say where it might be taking us in terms of mission.

Having hesitated, though, I would say that it makes a lot of sense to frame the overarching missio Dei in the Western context in the words of the Lord’s prayer: “Hallowed be your name”. Like the exile generation of Israel and the synagogues of Paul’s day, the modern church has done a pretty good job of discrediting the creator, of destroying his reputation, of profaning his name among the nations (cf. Ezek. 36:22-23; Rom. 2:24).

So the question would not be whether we do personal evangelism or seek social justice, but whether in doing these things we cause the name of the living God to be held in esteem, honoured, respected—hallowed in the diverse market places and institutions that constitute Western secularism.

How in the world do we find our new purpose and identity if Scripture as a result of being specific to a specific contextculturehistory does not provide us guidance? Do we wait for a new revelation or addition to Scripture?

It does provide us guidance. It teaches us very clearly that we are a priestly-prophetic new creation people called to serve the living God and to walk in his ways. Our “king” is Jesus. We live by the Spirit, by whose power we seek to serve and live well.

As a narrative, scripture teaches us that we need to work this vocation out under our own peculiar historical circumstances, which demands some improvisation, particularly at times of great upheaval and transition (see “On second thoughts, the five act play model doesn’t work”). But it shouldn’t be beyond us. It’s been done before.

Sorry this got so long.

Happy Christmas, Emi.

Image of Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church (Faith in An Emerging Culture)

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Paternoster (2007), Paperback, 156 pages, $19.99

Comments

This is actually a comment for Emi if she reads this. But, hello, Andrew!

Emi, I just wanted to let you know that I identify very much with the struggle of a more historically-oriented understanding of the Bible and the ramifications that has for our evangelical passions. I’ve had to come to grips with that, myself, over the past few years, and it was rarely pleasant.

I want to encourage you, though. I have found that going through the painful process of reorienting my “core story” if you will has changed both my evangelism and my (more broadly defined) missional efforts in good and powerful ways. One of my atheist friends told me, recently, “I think your version of Christianity is the only survivable one,” and he never would have said that about my generic evangelicalism five years ago. There is a power that comes from calling people into the project of being this new creation community that provides a longetivity and rich meaning to conversion that the other story doesn’t really seem to have.

And this affects everything from baptism to worship to our good works and service. I’m actually writing a small-group curriculum right now for new believers that frames their new journey in these kinds of historical categories, and it not only pulls together a lot of elements of Christian life that seemed disconnected or shallow, but it also unites us to some very ancient currents in the first century while still respecting that we have to walk this out in a 21st century context.

You may come away not agreeing with Andrew’s thoughts, and that’s ok. But I do encourage you to hang in there a little and work with it a bit and see what you think, because as someone on the “other side” of that struggle, there’s a lot of rewards to be had, not only in your personal understand of the Bible and your personal walk, but the impact it can have on the people around you, both believers and non.

Nice. Thank you.

Hi Phillip. I’d welcome sight of your curriculum when completed. Thanks James

Thank you very much Philip!! (I could definitely switch to calling you Mr. Ledgerwood. Let me know.) I really appreciate the empathy and the encouragement. Like the commenter below, I would also like to see that curriculum. Also, feel free to respond to any of my comments, because I would love your thoughts and feedback too. Thank you again. :)

Thank you so much for this post. It helps me a ton. And thank you so so much for the continued individual attention and answers!!!

I really like what you said that the NT’s concern is much more what happens in history rather than at the end, and in another part, challenging the belief “That living after death is more important than knowing, loving, and serving in the world as we know it?” I’ve gotten stuck because I see how the NHP (narrative-historical perspective) fosters this more than the TP (traditional perspective), but then I say, ‘okay but wouldn’t the loving part be getting people to become Christian?’

Maybe it needs to be that our interactions with non-Christians are encouraging them to love and act outwards rather than the popular encouragement to save themselves from hell, which they can do by believing in Christ. Maybe God’s mission and desire isn’t to save all people because 1.) God knows all people will never desire Him and 2.) there’s something more to goodness and God’s mission than individual humans receiving eternal life.

What if our mission were instead to get as much good to happen as possible? But hm, you emphasize that Scripture emphasizes honoring and raising up God in the world and in our specific, current world. This is the definition of good. That makes sense that it’s good because good isn’t only when humans are happiest and most benefited. Maybe the mission is to get as many people as possible to join the new creation people…for the purpose of honoring and bringing the greatest amount of praise and respect to and for God.

What would happen if we were to raise up God’s name and tried with all we had to demonstrate that God is everything He is? Okay, actually, 2 questions with this: what would happen and what’s the point? Would people be drawn to Christianity and faith in God? But again, what’s the point? Because again I see myself slipping into the idea of the purpose being ‘yay many people becoming saved’.

Is it God wanting good, and that can be the good and goodness of many people, just that our motivation and focus isn’t the individual’s salvation? But even then, that (being the mission) feels at odds with the praising and honoring God to the world as the mission. I’m wondering if kindness and selflessness and the like are also up there with witness to the sovereignty of God.

At the heart of it all is Why praise God? It feels really circular right now. Praise God so that good happens so that humans praise God. I’m just thinking, why is it not that witnessing to the sovereignty of God is how we bring a good portion of Creation into connection with the Creator? Why is our ultimate purpose to witness to the sovereignty of God?

Also, I appreciate the lengthiness of your post. Plus my comment is pretty lengthy too, so hopefull now we’re simply balanced. And my comment is written in a diary-like form, so I apologize and thank you for getting through it!

Hey Emi,

Calling me “Philip” or “Phil” is just fine. It’s the Internet, after all.

I want to give feedback on some of your questions, but I want to present the issues in a different way, if I may.

So, going through the first few chapters of Genesis, we see God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He creates man in his image (i.e. reflecting his characteristics) and desires that this image care for and fill the earth He has created. As we move through the opening chapters, we see that a pretty good chunk of the world has no real interest in doing this and is more interested in building empires, increasing their power, and making names for themselves for their own self-exaltation rather than acknowledge the Creator.

God picks Abram (Abraham) to start this project in the middle of a hostile world. Abraham will be the father of many descendants who will be dedicated to the worship and service of God, modeling to the rest of the world what God’s humanity is supposed to look like. In return, God will be their god and ensure their safety and prosperity from age to age.

Israel, then, becomes this community of people who are supposed to do those things. But they are threatened on every side, sometimes from external forces, sometimes from internal forces / their own unfaithfulness. God, for his part, rescues faithful Israel from these forces. Sometimes, it means just preserving a small, faithful chunk of Israel, but God is committed to the promise he made to Abraham, and although their history together has its ups and downs, God does not let Israel perish, even in their worst moments.

The reason I bring all of this up is because, when we read the Old Testament, we see that God’s “mission” is not to save Israel from Hell, nor is Israel’s mission to save anyone from Hell. Israel’s mission is to be a new Creation Community that is faithful to God and model this for the rest of the world. God’s mission is to prosper them, keep them, grow them, love them, and save them from the things that threaten to destroy them, including their own national sins.

In the prophets, we read of a time when even Israel’s traditional enemies like Egypt and Assyria will come to worship Israel’s God (Isaiah 19, for instance). Why will they do this? Because, having seen God’s relationship with Israel, they will also begin to call on God in their times of trouble, and they will worship God and make vows to Him and atonement for their sins, and God will rescue them and treat them as though they were His own people and always had been. They will share in Israel’s special relationship with God, even though in the OT, Egypt is still Egypt, Israel is still Israel, etc. with Israel being portrayed as the head/first/priesthood/preeminent among the nations.

Most of the Old Testament is occupied with this story - Israel being (or failing to be) the faithful people of God in a world that is hostile to them and their God, and God continuing to save them and be faithful to them even in times of wrath.

When we get to Jesus’ mission, this project is still in effect, although at that point in history, Israel was being dominated by the Roman Empire even in the promised land itself. Much of Israel’s leadership, who should have been shepherding the people, comforting them, and calling them to greater faithfulness had themselves become corrupt, being propped up by the Roman Empire and using their position for power, social standing, wealth, etc. They had become just like Israel’s oppressors.

Meanwhile, your average Israelite was suffering under this Empire. According to their own narrative, it was because of their own sins, but it was suffering nonetheless. Many lost heart. Many neglected their God of ages past and just tried to keep their heads above water, surviving it however they could. Many also longed for the day that Israel would be restored. Many had lost hope that could ever happen.

So, God decides to save Israel. First, he will bring judgement to the power structure -within Israel- (which culminates in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.), then He will turn his attention to dealing with the Roman Empire. But, He has to save His faithful from this coming disaster.

Enter Jesus (and John the Baptist - he should get some air time). Jesus comes to save Israel from their sins and be their new king. He seeks them as lost sheep or a lost coin. He forgives their sins, heals them from their afflictions, feeds them and gives them water to drink, and stirs them to repentance and faithfulness so that they might be saved on the day of God’s wrath. But this is all still within the context of the Old Testament project. God is saving a faithful chunk of Israel to be faithful to His promises to them way back with Abraham. He still wants a people for Himself in the world.

Jesus forms his Israel Rebooted crowd, and then he is executed by the Romans (with more than a little help from the corrupt power structure in Jerusalem) for claiming to be King of the Jews. His death moves God to action and turns His heart away from being angry with Israel to being merciful. God raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating that Jesus is indeed God’s chosen king for Israel and that the coming disaster he warned about was coming. God sends the Holy Spirit on the faithful, which was a promise to Israel that would occur just prior to the Day of the Lord.

What surprises everyone, though, is that Gentiles convert in great numbers upon hearing about what God has done in Jesus Christ. Why do they do this? Most of them don’t even live in Jerusalem; what do they care about what happens there? What do they care about Israel’s promises or mission?

Well, like the prophets predicted, they seem to want that same relationship with Israel’s God that Israel’s has. They want to worship and be faithful to a God like that, and they want a God like that looking out for them as well. Israel’s God has demonstrated Himself to be real and powerful and merciful and not in the slightest stopped by the mighty Roman Empire or her gods. So, they sign up. They join the mission of being God’s faithful in the world, living in faith communities all over the Empire modeling what new creation people look like, and when people see the love, the Spirit, the steadfastness, and all the good things these communities exemplify, they want to get on board.

Notice that, at no point, do Heaven and Hell enter that story. The Scriptures (in my opinion) foresee a day when there will be a final judgement and resurrection, and for the faithful, there is confidence that God will bring them safely through that into the ages to come just as He always has. But the mission is to be a people in the here and now who are communities that reflect the faithfulness, mercies, forgiveness, reconciliation, sacrifice, peace, and love of Jesus himself.

If we were doing our jobs right, people would be knocking down the doors of churches to get in. We would be a counter-culture that would be everything that could be right in the world in the midst of a world gone terribly wrong. But that mission has largely been replaced by a different one - one about making converts and saving souls from Hell, and I don’t think that’s the Bible’s story.

Phil,
I like your summary, but I question whether Gentiles wanted the relationship Israel had with Yahweh. Other than the fact that they had been around a long time, Israel didn’t have much to show for her relationship with Yahweh. The Romans were one of many in the list of nations that had conquered them, and in ancient times that meant Israel’s god was weak.

I suspect it had much more to do with a desire to belong to a close-knit community marked by love where members were treated as family.

Hi Phil,

I really like this. Some questions popped up in my mind as I read the last paragraphs. What do you believe God’s communities’ purpose is? I feel like the mission of enticing as many people as possible to join our communities seems too human-centric. What sources and evidence (biblical/extra-/historical) lead you to your belief?

The following is questions about your transition to a narrative-historical (NH) perspective. How did you continue fellowship during your transitional period? Mine has been especially stressful because I don’t feel like I can talk to Christian friends or go to small group, since 1.) there’s so much I would have to explain because I’m trying to operate with NH lenses, and 2.) they’ll likely reject or not know what to do with most of what I share with them. On top of it, I still feel quite lost myself, another primary reason I feel unable to talk to friends (and/or family, and/or any Christians for that matter); how in the world can I explain and start talking about something of which the basics I don’t fully understand? Also, I’ve felt the least connected to God that I have in a long time. I don’t blame God nor do I harbor any resentment or anger towards God, but I just don’t know how to relate to God anymore. I don’t feel like I know how to read or make sense of the Bible until I have the question answered that I asked you above and in my previous comment. The only source of guidance I feel I have is this one website alone, and I can only wait on the responses of selfless discussion participants or the man himself.

Thank you so much Phil, Emi

Hi Andrew,
In your second to last paragraph you mention living by the Spirit, and in several of your earlier posts you’ve mentioned the Spirit’s activity in the modern church. I’ve searched through many of your posts but I can’t find one that explains why you believe the Holy Spirit is still active in the church.

Do you believe the Holy Spirit is active in the church today in a way that is different from how He is active in the world at large (general providence)? It seems to me the miracles and tongues associated with New Testament converts may have been a work of God for a specific people at a specific time for a specific purpose.

Outside of the New Testament, I just don’t see any historical evidence that God has been specially empowering any one group of people.

Thanks!

It’s a good question. In a nutshell, I think it is right to highlight the narrative-contextual significance of the miraculous/pneumatic in the New Testament as a sign of the coming kingdom of God, first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations. But I’m not sure that contextualisation precludes God doing similar things today in a different narrative context and with a different eschaton in view—for example, the renewal of the post-Christendom church, or the final renewal of all things in a new creation.

Here are three posts that may have a bearing, if you haven’t seen them already:

Andrew, I agree that contextualization doesn’t precludes God doing similar things today, but so many in the church just act as though it’s a given that nothing has changed in this regard since the first century.

I would think after two thousand years of Spirit-enpowered sanctification, the church’s moral superiority would be evident, but is it?

I did read the first post you provided the link for and in fact commented in a similar way after it. I don’t feel the second link addresses my question about whether or not God’s Spirit is active today among the church in a way that is different from God’s general providence. I found the third link most interesting because it appears I’m asking some of the same questions Michael Frost is asking.

Faith isn’t certainty, but I believe it should be based on evidence. So when millions of people talk about their Spiritual gifts and the supernatural power they have to put to death the flesh, I’m trying to see it but it sure looks to me like a naked emperor.

Hi Andrew,

I waited to comment anything again, trusting your usual habit of not replying until you surprise me by commenting with a link to an entire article haha. Perhaps I was right in waiting for a post and need to be more patient. Or maybe I need to be more patient by waiting in line after being spoiled for a couple of weeks haha.

Phil’s answers to first my experience of struggle and then my new round of questions helped immensely. (Thank you Phil!!) But I still feel rather lost and I hang on the hope of guidance from your best efforts to answer my questions.

Hope your new year has started off great!

Thanks, Emi