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

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The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what's in it for me? Part 2

In the first part of this three-part post I outlined i) what I understand by a narrative-historical hermeneutic, ii) why it cuts across the grain of mainstream evangelical thinking, and iii) in general terms how I think it can be shown that this way of reading the New Testament may still be instructive for the church today—namely that we live with the consequences of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament. Here, and in the third part, I will set out the main practical implications of this, at least as regards the central narrative of transformation.

We still have to deal with the legacy of personal sin

From Abraham onwards the people of God is a community of new creation in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. That is, it seeks to express in its corporate life how the one creator God originally intended the world to be, not for its own benefit only but for the benefit of the world. Anyone who enters this new creation does so on the understanding that he or she must adopt a radically different way of living. As Paul would put it, he or she must put off the old person and put on a new person (cf. Eph. 4:22-24). That remains a direct practical consequence of the biblical narrative. The question then is: What has made it possible for someone today to do that? Or perhaps better, bearing in mind Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”: What has made it possible for us to be members of a new creation people without our sinfulness ruining it?

We still have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God

This is obviously the critical issue for evangelicals and needs to be considered at some length. My argument is that salvation in the New Testament needs to be understood primarily in terms of a “political” or “public” or “corporate” narrative roughly along these lines.

  • Salvation is a response not simply to the problem of human sin, which is where the Romans Road misses the point of Romans. It is a response to the problem of “wrath”, which in the context of the New Testament has to be understood as divine judgment in the arena of history, against the Jews first, then against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, against pagan empire. The disobedience of Israel and the idolatry of the Greeks are, of course, particular manifestations of the universal sinful condition.
  • The good news, then, is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel in order that a remnant might escape the coming destruction and experience new life, in the Spirit, in the age to come.
  • Redemption, therefore, is not a personal event but a corporate and historical event: redemption is when God’s people get through the coming crisis of God’s judgment of the ancient world: they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit for an impending “day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
  • Because this future redemption was secured outside the Law, through the faithfulness of Jesus, membership of redeemed Israel was thrown open to Gentiles, which is a crucial factor in how YHWH shows himself to be God of the whole world and not of Israel only (cf. Rom. 3:21-22, 28-30; Eph. 2:11-22).
  • So Gentiles who came to believe that YHWH had done this (and more) for Israel so that his name would be hallowed among the nations, could then be incorporated into this saved people, meaning that they in turn were delivered from the wrath of God against the idolatrous, immoral and unrighteous pagan world, to share in the life of the age to come.

If we compress this historical narrative, we may say—as the New Testament occasionally does—that Jesus died not only for the Jews but also for the world. But the New Testament is otherwise not much concerned to assert that Jesus died for any particular person’s sins. The point is not made with regard to any particular Jew in the Gospels or any particular Gentile in Acts. Neither Cornelius nor the Philippian jailer are “saved” by believing that Jesus died for their sins; they are saved by believing that God had made Jesus Lord and judge (Acts 10:42-45; 16:31). The pagans of Antioch in Pisidia are “saved” because they believed that God had brought a saviour to Israel (Acts 13:23, 38-39, 48).

Nowhere in Acts are Gentiles told to believe that Jesus died for their sins. What mattered to the Gentiles was that God had made him judge and Lord of the nations (cf. Rom. 10:9, 13). When they came to believe that, they repented of their idolatry and its associated “sins”—in effect, they repented of their culture—and were forgiven. They received the Spirit, and so were incorporated into the redeemed people of God.

So, from a narrative-historical point of view, Jesus’ death is a corporate, political, and eschatological event; the personal is always a corollary of the political. The traditional evangelical view, which developed largely as a reaction to the decay of public Christian identity, gets this quite back to front, and has a hard time now swimming in the direction of public understanding and practice against the powerful currents of western individualism.

Today we, too, have become part of a historical community that has been saved by Jesus’ death, and we enjoy the benefits—just as proselytes to Judaism enjoyed the benefits of the exodus. We are forgiven because we believe that Jesus has been made Lord, we are no longer under condemnation for the sin that continues to plague us, we share in the transforming and liberating life of the Spirit, and we have the hope of being part of God’s final new creation. None of this would have been possible if Jesus had not died for the sins of Israel. There would be no club to join. I would still be faced with the grim prospect of final death. So I have every reason, even under a strict narrative-historical reading, to be thankful to God for Jesus’ saving death.

This seems to me the only way to speak of my own personal “salvation” without collapsing the historical-eschatological narrative, which dominates the New Testament, into abstract metaphysics. Practically speaking, the shorthand “Jesus died for my sins” is not wrong and can be very powerful, but I think that we need to be very careful not to assert it at the expense of the much more important political narrative.