Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Epilog: Good News versus Soterian

It seemed appropriate to sit back and reflect a little after finishing Scot McKnight's book, King Jesus Gospel.  I had a sense of where I thought Scot would go with the book and in my mind he went half there.  I suppose it has a lot to do with the question he was posing.  What would a fuller sense of the gospel look like in contrast to what happens in an awful lot of American churches?

His answer is that the meaning of "gospel" is something much bigger than what he calls a "soterian" approach.  Since he has invented the word, it is completely appropriate.  A "soterian," as he defines it, is someone whose overwhelming focus is on getting people "saved."  He has made it clear elsewhere that he doesn't actually think the word "salvation" is this narrow in the NT.  What he is targeting is practices associated with a very narrow way of thinking about salvation.

To put it in my own way (which is much the same as Scot's), the gospel is, in the first instance, the good news about the inaugurated kingship of Jesus and the kingdom of God that he inaugurates.  I'm not too sure why this is so controversial in some circles.  People like Scot and Wright might debate some of the details, but it really isn't debatable.  End of story.

This original sense of the gospel is not "me" focused.  It doesn't center on me getting saved.  It is much bigger, much more important than me and my individual salvation.  I think what's really bugging McKnight (and Tom Wright before him) is the all-too-typical, shallow, self-centered focus of so much American Christianity, as if the center of the good news is me and what's in it for me.

Further, Scot is rightly concerned that so many Christians act like the whole deal is done once they "say the magic words."  There are many who believe in eternal security and go on to take very seriously the lordship of Jesus for the rest of their lives.  And there are some who act like once they've read the words on the card, they're done.  Eternal oops there.

Here are two further thoughts upon reflection:
1. God's creational good news
Scot says in the early chapters that the gospel relates to the "Story of Jesus" part of the overall Christian story.  I've hinted before that he is doing a dance between wanting to define words the way the NT does and doing theology, which almost always has to move beyond the specific words of specific biblical authors to formulate an integrated perspective.

The word "missional" does some of that.  I wonder what this book would have looked like if Scot had posed the question "missional versus soterian."  Then it would have more easily looked at a bigger version of the story.  It would have allowed us to talk not only of good news for humanity but about good news for the creation as well.  The NT doesn't actually use the word "gospel" in this way, but it is a valid theological broadening of the implications of the way the NT uses the word "gospel."

Missional has been somewhat of a buzz word, but it still seems to narrow God's purposes for the world to the area of saving.  I personally believe that beauty remains in the world, even after the Fall.  I find it hard to believe that every last bit of goodness flew out of the creation with Adam's sin, and the Bible certainly does not require us to believe that.

God thus has intentions for the creation that do not involve human beings and that are in addition to saving it.  The biggest story we can comprehend is the "creational" story.  I knew a student who pretty much lost his faith traveling the world after college (I've lost track of him).  It seems to me there is a faith crisis waiting to happen if we must limit God's walk with the world to the incredibly narrow story of Israel and story of the church.

I don't think most people have a sense of how few people God must care about if this is it.  We are so surrounded by Christianity that it is easy to assume that most people should know better.  Take a few months and travel through Asia.  Look at a map and compare the size of Judah to the rest of the ancient world.  Then read the book of Jonah. There is at least a potential difference between what Christ has done for the world and what the world knows about Christ.

2. A full switch to what God has done
I came to an ironic realization this morning.  In his chapter on salvation taking over the gospel, Scot pinpoints the Reformation as the point where salvation started on a trajectory to become more important than the gospel.  He says there that it did not happen at once--not with Luther and Calvin--but that it took a while.  It occurred to me where it most took place--with the Anabaptists!

It is the Anabaptist tradition that has been most influential on American Christianity and it is the Anabaptist tradition that has most focused on an event of faith once a person has reached an age of understanding.  With deep respect, I believe this is why I ended the book feeling like it had only gone half way.  As long as we are so focused on this event as the be-all-and-end-all of salvation, we will still ultimately be soterians.

Wesley was of course influenced by the Anabaptist tradition.  But we are not hindered as Wesleyans from recognizing that for Paul, the most important moment of justification and salvation is the final one.  Paul rarely--if even once--uses the word "salvation" in relation to anything but the final escape from God's judgment.  Ephesians 2:8 is the only possible exception I can think of, and even it may speak proleptically (poetically speaking of something that is still to happen but is so certain to happen that we can speak of it as already happened).

It is true that Paul predominantly speaks of justification in the past tense.  We can be justified now and this is incredibly important.  BUT the most important thing is that we are justified when we stand in the judgment.  "It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13).  More important is the "day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.  For he will repay according to each one's deeds" (Rom. 2:5-6).  And this includes believers: "the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done" (1 Cor. 3:13).

Paul's theology was not focused on a justification event in mid-life.  I personally don't think justification was the centerpiece of his theology overall--it was an issue that stood at the center of his debates with Judaizing believers and thus it comes up in Galatians and Romans.  I believe the central focus of Paul's preaching was the cross and what Christ had done.

But even when Paul argued over justification, his concern was with ultimate justification before God, not with a mid-life crisis event.  Certainly we should by all means seek God's justification ASAP.  We can and should be justified now.  But Paul was not arguing over the timing.  He was arguing over the basis.

The role of Acts in our thinking is significant here.  Scot takes the pattern "repent, believe, be baptized" as normative.  An important question is the context of Acts.  For example, these conversions are "first wave."  They refer to places where the tsunami of the gospel is reaching for the first time.  How might the process look different in a place where the wave is retreating?  It is an unexamined assumption that it would look exactly the same.

Even more crucial is the most important element of Acts' equation and one I find that an awful lot of people miss, namely, the Holy Spirit.  Repentance is incredibly important.  Faith is incredibly important.  Baptism is very significant.  But the sine qua non, the most crucial ingredient of all, is the Holy Spirit.  And here we have the precedent of John the Baptist to know that a child can have the Spirit long before they understand the gospel.  These are at least things worth some reflection.

I'll end with a reflection my colleague Keith Drury once made.  "There is no point in my life," he concluded, "at which I would have gone to hell."  His reasoning was thus, put in my own words.

"When I was a child, I did not know what it meant to have faith in God or confess Jesus as Lord.  If I had died at that point or if Christ had returned, God would have accepted me.  The first time I half way understood my need for Christ, I accepted his death for me.  I affirmed him as my king.  If I had died then or Christ had returned, God would have accepted me.  Although I have sinned since then, I have also confessed my sins without undue delay and asked God for forgiveness.  I do not believe there has ever been a time since I confessed Jesus as Lord that God would not have received me if I had died or if Christ had returned."

I could muse more, but I'll stop there (I'll put in a shameless plug for my life reflections on Romans book if you want more ;-). Let me only say that we, and Wesleyans in particular, should do some significant reflection before we conclude the "soterian" path within broader evangelicalism is the right one for us.

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