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

No other name by which we should be saved

I am not a universalist. I do not think that the New Testament teaches that everybody will be “saved”, though it appears that the political landscape of the new creation will be more complex than we may have thought. The framing soteriological argument in the New Testament is not that humanity needs to be saved (in a universal present) but that Israel needed to be saved (in a particular past). Individuals, whether Jews or Gentiles, were “saved” insofar as they participated in a community that would survive the wrath of God both against Israel and against the pagan world. Jesus clearly thought that few Jews would be saved. Paul presumably believed that most Gentiles were “perishing” (cf. 2 Cor. 2:15).

The nations would come and acknowledge the sovereignty and glory of YHWH’s beloved King, but the thought is never entertained that the whole of humanity would join the church in the course of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament. Salvation is what happens to that limited community that God has called apart to be a kingdom of priests and prophets in the midst of the nations.

Strictly speaking, then, I’m not sure that it makes biblical sense to say that people are saved today. I would say rather that people are called by God to participate in his new creation, for the sake of his glory, and so must be “born again” into a new cosmos. We must leave behind the old world, with its idolatrous, corrupting ways and practices, and assume the ways and practices of God’s new world, under Jesus as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject to grace. What we misleadingly call “Christianity” is not a religion of salvation. It is a religion of enactment or embodiment—God’s people enact or embody the full potential of a loyal, obedient, faithful humanity before the eyes of the world. It is, in current parlance, “missional”. Such a people exists at all today only because Jesus gave his life for the sins of Israel out of obedience to his Father.

So when people insist on the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus and cite as evidence, among other texts (eg. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”), Peter’s words to the rulers of the people and the elders of Israel, they have got it both right and wrong:

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

Taken out of context, of course, this statement can easily be given a universal frame of reference, and if we think that scripture is merely a collection of “divine logia” (I got that phrase from Luke Timothy Johnson), a compendium of discrete truths to be picked like sweets from a jar, that’s fine. But if we think that scripture tells a story, especially a historical story, then it is a different matter….

The disciples of the crucified Jesus have emerged as a dynamic charismatic community prophesying, exactly as Jesus did, calamitous judgment on Israel (Acts 2:1-21) and calling Jews in the city to save themselves from this “corrupt generation” (2:40). The transformation has come about because God raised Jesus from the dead, who then poured out the Spirit on his followers, empowering and emboldening them (2:24-33). The proper response is for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to repent and be baptized into this movement of renewal and survival, in the belief that God will soon “send” Jesus to overthrow the unrighteous rulers and re-establish the kingdom (2:38; 3:19-21). Those who oppose this divine coup will be destroyed (3:23).

This is the context for Peter’s words to the leaders of the people: they have rejected God’s prophet, but he will become the cornerstone of a renewed “Israel”. God has provided no other saviour for his people. It’s an exclusive message, and many will be excluded from this “salvation”. But it misses the point of the narrative if we then uncritically reformulate this as a universal soteriology. Certainly, individuals today still have to work out what their response should be to the God who dealt with his people in this way. Are we for him or against him? But we do not do justice to scripture and we greatly diminish the scope of the church’s mission if we absolutize the “message” as one of personal salvation through faith in Jesus alone. 

Comments

I like what you’re saying, but have some question. Is there not still a future judgment from which Israel and us gentiles need to be saved? Isn’t that part of the narrative of Scripture? Doesn’t the Church, acting as a preview of the restored creation God’s Kingdom, call people into that kingdom thus being saved from judgment?

Yes, indeed. There will be, according to Revelation 20, a final judgment of all the dead, and those whose names are not written in the book of life will be destroyed by a second death. That seems to me to represent God’s final word on human sinfulness in the universal sense. But this is not really construed as a matter of salvation, and where the New Testament does speak of salvation, it is always, I think, with respect to the crisis of historical-eschatological transition.

Having said that, I recognize that we may still find good reason to speak of people being saved today. My concern is less to dictate how we speak of our own context than to safeguard the historical particularity of the New Testament narrative.

Andrew,

I am struggling to understand your position. Would you mind clarifying these points please:

You believe some people’s names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life while others are not. Do you think you and I can influence the inclusion/exclusion or has the die already been cast and there’s nothing we can do to change it?

If we can determine our own destiny, isn’t it reasonable to speak of that as a matter of salvation, whatever the NT may have meant by that word? And instead of being concerned about safeguarding a particular usage of words, isn’t it more urgent to try to get our names into the Lamb’s Book of Life and warn & encourage other people to do likewise?

Please don’t interpret my words as facetious sniping. I am merely asking questions to help me see what you are saying. Thanks.

You believe some people’s names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life while others are not.  Do you think you and I can influence the inclusion/exclusion or has the die already been cast and there’s nothing we can do to change it?

I’m not sure what John is doing in Revelation 20:11-15. He describes a judgment of all the dead, small and great. There’s a set of books recording what they have done; and there’s a book of life. Presumably, the names of those who have done good works are written in the book of life; those whose names are not written in the book of life, who have done evil works, are consigned to the second death.

This suggests to me that the book of life is not deterministic: it reflects how people have behaved. So as far as this paragraph goes, the way to get a person’s name into the book of life is to encourage them to act righteously!

If we can determine our own destiny, isn’t it reasonable to speak of that as a matter of salvation, whatever the NT may have meant by that word?

I suppose so, though “salvation” is not a word that we would normally use in a court situation. John describes a final judgment before the throne of God. The righteous are not saved, they are exonerated, exculpated, justified, or something along those lines.

…instead of being concerned about safeguarding a particular usage of words…

It’s not about safeguarding a particular use of words. It’s about safeguarding a reading of the New Testament. That, in my view, is a matter of great importance, but it is the backdrop to life and mission of the church. The task is not to devote all our time any energy to New Testament exegesis, but our understanding of the New Testament should frame and inform  what we do.

Hi again Andrew,

I am wondering if you would clarify for me how you understand the term “born again”. From your reference to it in the article itself and in your comments here, I am not sure I understand your “take” on this issue.

Do you believe that to be “born again” means the traditional Evangelical thought of being given a new nature by the Holy Spirit and having the Spirit actually dwelling within us, an event that entails our sins being forgiven and that makes us capable of “living righteously” from the heart? An event that gives us the very life of God and fits us for an eternity with Him? Or do you think of it somewhat differently?

Hi Cherylu, nice to know you’re still around!

The “born again” idea would be worth exploring properly some time. For now, I would probably say that Jesus uses the language in a quite specific sense in his conversation with Nicodemus, but the general idea is to be found widely in the New Testament.

I would agree with your account of what it means, but would emphasize the broader social-creational implications. Being born again is not something that happens to an isolated individual. It is the transfer of an individual from one world to another: we are born into a new creation, meaning that social, “political” (not in our modern, partisan democratic sense), and environmental issues are just as important as the internal transformation through the indwelling of God’s re-creative Spirit.

Andrew,

Thanks for your clarification on that issue.

It seems to me that there are so many different understandings on so many issues these days that it is often hard to really know what a person means by some term unless it is clarified.

Davo,

I’ve read that article. And agree, it is very good. Thanks for sharing. If I would have thought about it I would have suggested it too.

Andrew -

Have you ever provided a list here on your site that lays out some of the works that both a) helped you move towards a more historical-narrative hermeneutic and b) have been written since you move in this direction yourself? If not, could you provide some?

I know you think people like NT Wright, James Dunn, other new perspective proponents, Scot McKnight and others have only gone so far, but not the full path that you believe represents a good biblical hermeneutic. I think you have appreciated the writings of Douglas Campbell and Daniel Kirk?

Thanks.

“The framing soteriological argument in the New Testament is not that humanity needs to be saved (in a universal present)”

Andrew,

I think I agree with the overall approach here, but I wonder if this statement is overstated. Particularly, I’m wondering how you understand John who does seem to me to place the work of Christ in a more universal and “humanity wide” context (1:29; 1 John 2:2, etc).

1. It wouldn’t surprise me too much if the argument turned out to be overstated in places.

2. I don’t think John really determines the “framing soteriological argument in the New Testament”. John is an outlier to a consistent narrative-historical trajectory running from the Synoptics through Acts, Paul, Hebrews, to Revelation.

3. John has to be regarded as in some sense and to whatever degree a re-interpretation of that narrative.

4. Actually, John may be less anomalous than appears at first sight. Consider, for example, The Word became flesh: John and the historical Jesus, and the essay by Derrick Offilli which davo recently mentioned, though I’m not fully persuaded by it.

5. Arguably John shares the same basic eschatology as the rest of the New Testament (cf. John 12:31; 16:11).

I don’t have a problem with the “narrative historical trajectory,” or even that to some extent John is “re-interpreting” it. My question really (perhaps it was unclear) was about how you understand statements like Jesus “taking away the sin of the world” or being the propitiation “not for our sins only, but also for the sin of the world.” If he is “re-interpreting” the mainline of the NT, what is he interpreting it to mean?

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
(John 15:18-19 ESV)

Seems the world is what exists in this age, and there will be many in the world who hate the kingdom of God, even though Jesus came to save the world, which He did, but only those whom He and His Father had chosen before the foundation of the world.

It’s a deep subject when one studies the meaning of what God’s Word says about the world.

G’day Daniel, just my two bob’s worth…

I’m inclined to think the “the world” in view was likely “Israel” – but that said always with implications beyond Israel, similar to Paul’s “to the Jew first and then…”. Israel was God’s primary means the God’s ends i.e., the blessing of the world beyond – so in that sense ‘world’ has applicability in general beyond its specific Israel-centric focus. IOW… if it wasn’t going to happen for Israel then there was no way it could happen for any beyond – hence Jesus coming as true [faithful] Israel to establish and ratify the Kingdom.

I love Paul’s words to us, those of us who now love and serve Christ, in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—”-Paul

I was personally loved by God, (though I’ll never understand why), and so He saved me from His wrath. What a Gospel! Jesus ransomed, redeemed, and reconciled me to His Abba Father, when I was so very unworthy, and still am, but for His grace and mercy and the Cross.