Now continuing some notes on the "greatest common denominators" of Scripture in terms of theology. Previous posts were:
The fallen world
Today, I want to think a little about the people of God in Scripture, the church.
1. In the OT, Israel was God's people by election. It would have been easy for them to get the impression that they were the only ones God had chosen, as if God's election is arbitrary and without any human element in the equation. But it is exactly this attitude that Paul undermines in Romans: "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too" (3:29).
So in at least one strand of the OT, there was an openness to outsiders, to strangers who were willing to join Israel. We think of Rahab. We think of Ruth. We think of God's willingness to spare even Nineveh, the city God knew would eventually destroy the northern kingdom.
Job provides a special case. The setting of Job seems to be outside of Israel and is often pictured as patriarchal. Job holds out hope that those who do not know the God of Israel precisely may yet serve him according to what little light they may have.
2. The NT significantly complicates the question of who belongs to the people of God. Parts of the NT sounds like it is a matter of God's arbitrary whim (e.g., Rom. 9) but such an approach makes a mockery not only of the NT's sense that anyone can be saved (e.g., John 3:16) and, indeed, the rest of this part of Romans seems to imply that human choice is involved in our eternal destiny (Rom. 11). The invitation is open to anyone who calls on the name of the Lord (e.g., Rom. 10:9-13).
The best take away from the predestination language of the NT is thus the great mystery of who chooses Christ and who does not, as well as the fact that God is ultimately in control of the universe.
3. It is possible that we should distinguish between those who will be saved in the end and those who are in the people of God. This is a difficult distinction for us. Are babies in the people of God? They have made no confession of faith yet most believe they will be saved.
What of the "Job" of our age, who perhaps do not know of Christ or who live in a context where their understanding of Jesus is bound to be perverted by their culture? Is there no hope that God in love will judge them by the light they have?
Parts of the NT do not seem concerned with Paul's theology of inclusion. Matthew merely passes on that following Jesus, including a compassion toward others as he had compassion, is key to salvation. James similarly looks to the works that come from faith as essential to justification before God (cf. 2:24).
4. In Paul's debates, however, a more refined theology of who is "in" the people of God emerged. The key element in the equation is the Holy Spirit. Acts, Paul, and Hebrews all see having the Spirit, receiving the Spirit, tasting of the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, being baptized with the Holy Spirit as the key element, the "that without which" of being in the people of God.
The Spirit cleanses sins, "cleanses the conscience." This cleansing corresponds with outward baptism in Acts. This cleansing is the "inward" reality that corresponds to the legal justification of a person. A person is declared "not guilty" before God in justification and the cleansing of the Holy Spirit from sins is the actual mechanism that makes such a verdict possible.
Sonship follows. The individuals is "adopted" into the family of God, although the whole human race is God's offspring. The Spirit "regenerates" us, gives us new life. This is a "sanctification" of our past sins with us now set apart to God as his.
5. The NT often speaks of repentance and faith as the precursors to receiving the Spirit and crossing from death to life. Repentance is a turning from a life moving away from God to one that is moving in God's direction. Faith is a commitment to God and his Christ. But it is the Spirit that marks the actual crossing. Repentance and faith are mere precursors to God's work through the Spirit.
6. The NT does not treat being in the people of God as irreversible. God has no desire for anyone to leave but he does not stop any one from leaving. Yet Paul has images of the need to press on like an athlete (1 Cor. 9) and to press on for the prize of the upward call (Phil. 3). Hebrews 3 warns its audience that just because you have left Egypt doesn't automatically mean you will make it to the Promised Land if one does not persist in faith.
7. The church or "assembly" of those "in Christ" is both visible and invisible. It is visible insofar as the "assembly" is a local body of believers who meet together regularly to encourage each other in faithfulness to the end (Heb. 10:25). It is invisible in that it is the collection of all those who have the Holy Spirit, and this group does not exactly correspond to those who visibly meet together. It is a group that crosses all times and places.