God can be found in…

Seven Spirits of God… so John writes about, some suggest that this represents the seven archangels that come up in some Jewish literature, however I take it to be a way of speaking about the full manifestation of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. In Jewish monotheism the Spirit was a way of speaking about the presence and activity of the one true God, into Christian theology the Spirit became personal, with the Spirit being God, but distinct from the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’.

Irenaeus (130-200AD approx, bishop in Lyon) is the probable originator of the term ‘the two hands of God’: the Spirit being the universal ‘hand’ that was present everywhere and the Son being the particular hand that brought people to the Father. Thus we have the presence of God everywhere and yet it is through the Son that people come to the Father. The Spirit is present everywhere and it is that Spirit that believers receive, at which point we can name that one Spirit ‘the Spirit of Jesus’.

‘Universalism’ refers to a belief that ‘all will be saved’ but there certainly is a Universalism that relates to God in and through all things. Paul wonderfully affirms this (in a pagan context of idols to many gods)

[God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’

Paul’s suggests the unique claim for what he was proclaiming (call it the Christian faith) was that ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ If I update his words, he did not say that ‘Christians know God’, but that they know who this one God is, that there is a relationship, an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. This was what set Jesus apart, and also set him apart from Judaism, he was the way not to God, but to the Father, to a familial relationship to the one true God. That is an astounding claim! To seek to make an image of this God is futile as it holds that we can draw lines around God and present God… maybe some of our theology does just that? The invitation from Jesus means we expand, with all our ignorance, into the knowledge of God. Idolatry does just the opposite… maybe why Paul was (strangely) non-confrontational in Athens is that at least one of their altars seemed to represent that God was beyond their knowledge (‘the unknown god’).

I am going somewhere in this post!!

‘Saved from their sins’. That was according to Matthew what Jesus was going to do for the Jewish people. Not ‘saved from hell’. I think we focus too much on what we consider will happen ‘then’ rather than what is promised ‘now’. There is some talk of ‘wrath to come’ but some (most?) of it seems to historically fit with a context of earthly trouble… the real issue is being set free from the slavery and bondage of ‘sin’ which is represented as a dominating power (alongside its partner ‘death’).

Not a very full post this one, but when it comes to beliefs, I do not believe we are justified in ‘God is not present in…’ and we can fill in the blank. Maybe making it more concrete, if we ask the question is ‘Allah God?’ we can’t (OK, I can’t) come back with an automatic ‘yes / no’ answer. Let me go a roundabout path first – ‘is the Christian God God?’ That depends what you mean by the word ‘Christian’. Or to make it very personal – ‘is Martin’s God God?’ The answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The grace of God / that universalistic hand means even for Martin God is present, and the particular hand of God (through Jesus) there should be some evidence of a growing into the intimate knowledge of God in my life.

God can be present where we do not think any ‘decent God’ (one in my image!) should travel. This does not mean that ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ is found there. Truth is in the final analysis, and always will be, personal not propositional.

God is present with those who are not ‘believers’ (to what extent?) but I wish that there is a fullness, a knowing the unknown God that is on offer to them, a true being saved from their sins. The proclamation of the Gospel is a proclamation of freedom from captivity and an invitation to an adventure with the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus through the One Spirit.

Now that is a smart revelation

Ever wake up where things become clear, like ‘that really makes sense’? I did this morning. Some really smart revelation… feel quite good about that.

Be yourself, everyone else is taken.

A really insightful quote from Oscar Wilde. One we can all agree with and nod to, probably not so easy to live out. And given that salvation is freedom from all hostile powers (including that central one of (singular) sin) so that we can fly to be truly ‘us’ we should really not only nod but give it a big thumbs up.

Part of the journey toward maturity (I think!) is to discover the baggage we have carried with us. So, my revelation, not quite a new one, but one that crystalised and made sense. A VERY smart revelation was I am really not very smart.

Back in the UK I had a wonderful library of books, maybe around 5000 or so. The latest (then) on the Dead Sea Scrolls, maybe a minimum of 3 commentaries on every NT book, all the main OT ones covered, articles, subscribing to three theological journals. How I have missed them. Then I realised I did not have the ability to read them! So better they have gone. I enjoy running some zoom groups, and I think most people have enjoyed them; there was one group though that I pulled out of. They were far too smart for me. Someone asked if they were trained theologians… no, they simply understood the English language and were able to read. I used to run the group in our lounge and Gayle was sitting on the settee, as the discussion progressed I had to ask Gayle constantly ‘what does that mean?’, either related to a word being used (and I am sure a common word for the majority of people) or a concept that I had no idea what it was. That was perhaps the best group yet for me. It helped me see that the ‘not so smart’ qualification was something I was excelling at.

Gayle is a lot of fun to be with. She is smart and knows how to fly (figuratively). I said to her this morning that in the years we have been together I have so enjoyed it and also like never before discovered how ‘not smart’ (trying to avoid using the ‘stupid’ word) I am. It is only coincidental that my discovery connects with the years we have been married, she certainly has not caused it!

Through those reflections it is possible to come to ‘silver and gold I do not have…’ which is quite good. Of course we have to get to the ‘but what I do have…’; yet the two halves seem to be good to have in place.

Expectations… from within, from others. Perceptions of others. Probably none of them too helpful. Be yourself… not impressive… limitations…

Limitations. Yes that is really important. I remember years ago hearing someone give a critique of Christian TV (it could have been a critique of anything). He explained that so often the money raising was because they are reaching xxx million people; this person then went on to say, ‘not really true’. The transmission might indeed cover that number of people, cover that percentage of the globe, but when we talk ‘reaching’ there is an element where that is shaped by who turns the ‘on’ button on and then engages with it. Potential (and sometimes that is unrealistic potential) is something that can fool us. Realistic limitations (that can be pushed back) are part of discovering what the true potential is. We should not be frightened about discovering limitations. Once we do, then we can begin to exercise who we are within those limitations.

Wisdom. As one gets older one is supposed to get more wisdom. But I am not sure I understand what is true wisdom. The Queen of Sheba was impressed with Solomon, with the ‘half having not even been told’. Impressed with what? That a young humble guy was fast developing a path that would enable the Pharaonic system to embed itself in the nation is an example of great wisdom? Maybe the younger Solomon with his crazy suggestion of ‘cut the baby in two’ was the one who really had captured the heart of wisdom.

I thank God for smart people. We need them.

I am looking for a new level of ‘hiddenness’ , one that is deeper than the past 12 years. Drop down a level, count the number of ears, rather than try to expand the mouth. Be at home with encounters with the demonic. Now that one makes me smile and brings me energy. Theologically I am really not sure about the world of the demonic, too much seems to be made of it from mythical passages, and if truth be out I have no real insight as to whether the Scriptures suggest we should believe in a personal devil or not. Probably, as far as my view goes, theologically I have no Scriptures in my favour; maybe evolution and what I think the trajectory of the biblical story pushes for might be something that at least gives me 1 out of 10 in any exam I was to sit. I smile cos I enjoy a good bruising with that realm!

‘Silver and gold’… ‘No smart answers coming from this source; sorry I simply do not have the ability to engage with that cos I don’t understand it’…

So there you have it, my revelation this morning, and ever so liberating. I thought I would put it down here as it helps me, and maybe there is a reader or two who is meeting the limitations of ‘I am not very…’ But what I do have, the uniqueness of me – rest in that, for your ‘you’ and my ‘me’ will be so small, so like a couple of drops in that big ocean. I kinda think that is where this whole thing started way back in the day of the impressive Roman rule. And I kinda think we are increasingly coming back to it… the multiplicity of the small, and the richness of diversity.

Reframing Salvation

The from and the for elements

First a little unfair summary of what I grew up with (though pretty much reflecting the image above the post… OUCH!!):

1) We are all sinners and therefore justifiably will be punished forever. 2) Jesus dies for our sins. 3) All who repent are forgiven, they will live forever in heaven… They are saved from future punishment.

Of course the above will be (thankfully) nuanced, but I think we get the gist.

A central NT text about the ministry of Jesus in the context of Israel is Matt. 1:21

She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

His people from their sins. In the framework of the earlier verses (Matt. 1), where we read that Jesus is the ‘son of David’, ‘son of Abraham’, and has come to bring the exile to an end, salvation expectation is very historical and concrete. Israel needs saving, they need a deliverer to set them free, set them free from Rome’s rule. The promise is that in Jesus God is returning to Zion (Emmanuel = God with us), and the result will be salvation. The texts such as Isaiah 52 would seem to be echoed here:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Truly for Israel the ‘kingdom of God was at hand’. Freedom was just round the corner. This kind of salvation is common place in the OT texts, indeed that is salvation in the OT texts. A text then like this in the Gospels is about concrete and historical salvation, it is escaping the ‘wrath that is to come’ (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7). We force Scripture if we try and make this a universally time-unrestricted text, I cannot make it in to a text that says ‘he will save ‘Martin Scott’ from his sins’ (leave that to other texts).

Likewise as I have pointed out in other posts we cannot do this with early texts in Acts – the context is Jerusalem and the Jews, who were warned to flee from this current generation – so many echoes here of the generation leaving Egypt, and of course resonating with Jesus’ prophetic discourse on ‘all these things taking place within a generation’, leading up to AD70 and the sacking of Jerusalem, the end of ‘that age’ (we should avoid conflating ‘end of the world’ with ‘end of the age’. The latter is used, the former not.)

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

This is a Jewish-oriented message; salvation is not in the name of Abraham, nor David, nor anyone else, but solely through the name of Jesus. The crucified Messiah – the one condemned by Israel, God has raised up as Saviour and Lord – and only in him will salvation be found.

Salvation then does not have a ‘save me from hell’ angle, not in the NT nor in the OT. We can have (OT) an individual who prays to be saved from the hand of their enemy (not ‘get me to heaven when I die’); Israel needs salvation from Egypt’s bondage, from practical situations such as a lack of food in the wilderness; from the attack of the Assyrians; the domination of Babylon; and likewise in the post-OT period salvation from the Greek domination, particularly the religious persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiochus_IV_Epiphanes)… and so on.

There is a consistency of salvation being concrete and historic and is needed in order for Israel to be who they are meant to be. They are forgiven of their sins (released from the effects of their disobedience, the ultimate result being that of exile and coming under foreign dominion).

Now jumping forward the Gentiles did not have the same calling of God as did Israel, but the dividing wall was removed at the cross. The ‘good news of the kingdom’ was proclaimed also to them, and the gift of life also was granted to them. They were now offered on the same basis as Jews entry into the ‘people of God’ – via Jesus. Like the Jews they also needed to be saved, delivered. There is, not surprisingly, a historic and concrete context to this salvation also for them.

In the NT era the salvation was very sharply focused, so before jumping to my situation we should focus there. For the Gentiles also there was salvation in no other name… not the name of the one who claimed to be the saviour, whose kingdom (basileia) of peace (pax romana) extended throughout the entire civilised world (oikoumene); to be saved they had to repent (change of mind, metanoia used to mean a change of political approach by Josephus!), as a result they turned from idols, to be set free from the powers of this age. Scriptures such as:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age (Gal. 1:3-4).

extend the death on the cross to not simply deal Jewish sin, but Gentile sin, and with the same result, salvation, the result of salvation being set free. This was necessary for in the former era there was an enslavement:

you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods (Gal 4:8).

Freedom. Freedom from the divide of the law. Not now two peoples but one. Freedom from ruling powers, (not now Egypt nor Babylon, and more than simply freedom from Rome, but freedom from the very real spiritual powers that Rome / the world enforce. It was for ‘freedom that Christ has set you free’).

The powers of sin and death. The powers of Imperial domination that demand conformity, hence we are no longer to be conformed to the powers of this age (Rom. 12:2 – again the word is ‘age’, not ‘world’, though in this context ‘world’ could be an acceptable translation). Through salvation the mind of Christ is that which we have and are to be shaped by.

In the immediate the powers continue, sin and death continue but salvation is in the name of Jesus, repent, be forgiven (be released – we need to avoid putting our ‘getting over an offence’ into the meaning of forgiveness when we think of God as I am not sure forgiveness can be reduced to something personal when applied to God… the same word was used of releasing a ship to sail on the sea, the ship being released to her ‘destiny’), and to be joined by the Spirit of God to the shaping culture of heaven. That seems to be the salvation on offer, now offered to Gentiles and Jews alike. Yes there is a future – post-parousia (more than post-death) – aspect to this, but there is a very real present, historic and concrete element to it. Saved from… (but we should not quickly put the word ‘hell’ in there) and saved for, by being incorporated into the subversive-to-all-dominating-powers people of God.

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (1 Thess 1: 9-10).

The wrath that is coming is the judgement on all that opposes God… We are set free through our new allegiance. Set free now, justified (marked out as being in the right), and when these hostile dominating powers, including the final power of death are abolished, that justified verdict will sound so sweet. Saved through no other name to sail to her / his destiny.

The location of righteousness

Reconciliation... the manifestation of righteousness

Following on from yesterday’s post where God and Jesus are one, they are kenotic, self-emptying; Jesus never acts in a way that is ‘although’ he was God but because he was God, I am coming today with a quick look at the cross and one of the central passages that suggests that righteousness is ‘imputed’ to us (so central to Reformed theology).

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

Lest one think I understand all this, let me return that I had feedback that the chapter on the cross in Humanising the Divine was the ‘most disappointing chapter’. Ah well!! So with that as background you now will have to take what I write seriously, pressing on…

  • Two locations: Jesus at the Cross, and ‘we’ in Jesus.
  • Two contrasts: ‘sin’ and ‘righteousness’.

I will try and hold those two in the forefront.

The wider passage is about the ministry of reconciliation given to Paul / the apostles / and I think by implication to the body of Christ. The message of reconciliation is based on God’s act in Christ – he was ‘in Christ’ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). There is no sense that at the cross God turned away from Jesus, forsook him, could not look on ‘sin’. He was present there, the cross is not about the separation of the Trinity but about an incredible expression of the unity of the Trinity. (And to push it home Jesus was not reconciling God to the world!)

I think to gain some understanding of what takes place at the cross it is helpful to quote the same writer (Paul) in one of his other letters, Romans 8:3,

by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.

Sin is condemned, has its final judgement at the cross. It is not that Jesus became ‘a sinner’, or that something was imputed to him (Reformation theology) and then on the other side something is imputed to us. Jesus is not condemned, sin is condemned.

Sin (singular – as a power, a dominating ruling force) is condemned at the cross, it is dealt with. As a result we can be released from that power (release being the root of forgiveness, and I do not think we should project from us to God our understanding of forgiveness… that he holds something against us until… another discussion). It is for this reason I think the ‘made to be sin’ is using the word ‘sin’ in the (not uncommon way) to mean ‘sin-offering’, a way the word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. I appreciate there is a lot of discussion around this, so this is not convincing to all. However…

Add in the second part of the verse, the part where we have the result of the cross, the contrast of ‘righteousness’ and ‘sin’. It does not say that we will understand righteousness, we will receive righteousness or that we will be declared righteous, with it being imputed to us, or something of that order. It says so that we might become (in him) the righteousness of God.

  • The location: ‘in him’.
  • The people: ‘we’.
  • The manifestation (not the status): righteousness.

The cross brought an end to the rule of sin, so that a new people could be formed. And here is the challenge. A new people where the righteousness of God could be made visible. God is righteous? How do we know that? Look here at these people! That is somewhat beyond imputation. And a most provocative challenge indeed. Talk of a high calling!

In contrast to this we declare that sin has been judged. How do we know? Look at the cross. The one who knew no sin, who was not ever under its power, became the location where it was judged.

  • He became the place where it was judged / the sin-offering.
  • So that there might be a place where righteousness is manifest.

What does that righteousness look like? Well at the heart of this passage is reconciliation, bringing together what has been divided. If righteousness is revealed then reconciliation will be there fruit. How can there be a people who carry out this work, that proclaim this message, that embody this message? There has to be a people who know that an old system (the domination of sin) has gone and that they know / see that there is a new creation, that something has appeared before their eyes that has totally changed the labels, indeed the labels have gone:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

A response to ‘So how do we share the gospel?’

Simon Scott (no relation, but great choice of last name!) responded to my post of a few days ago, and I asked him to post something here.

Reflecting on Martin’s ‘So how do we share the gospel?’

Martin’s post suggested the intriguing possibility that salvation may mean we are saved ‘for’ rather than ‘from’ something and that something could be the revealing of a new creation or a new kingdom if you prefer that language. Great suggestion. So, we are all a part of something a little larger than our own selves which I have to say is a bit of a relief really! I mean, what kind of world would we be in if it were all about us? The thing is that we, humanity, are rather important at least on a couple of levels. From a faith perspective we are made in the image of God, we have God’s breath intimately given. Personally, I find this inspiring and humbling and my identity is certainly there- at least in those moments when I am not preoccupied with my identity in various (minor) successes and failures and so on. What would a grown-up version of me look like if I could live in that image? Back to that in a minute. The other reason humanity is important is the influence we have as the dominant species on our planet.  A worldview that doesn’t think firstly that we are in God’s image, asks us to see ourselves as one species among many, to get over ourselves and realise we share the planet with all life forms that deserve a future-and whilst it shouldn’t need saying that does include all people. Humanity’s (ab)use of the planet is increasingly evident in human and non-human suffering.

So, I have been pondering the idea of salvation being a reciprocal kind of deal, between each person and between us and the planet. (Romans 8.18-23 is the go-to passage linking creation, humanity and salvation/liberation). That in some way the depth of salvation and transformation we experience is connected to our part in the liberation of others. Have to be careful with language of course as suggesting salvation is achieved by doing things has a long history of not doing well!  I’ve certainly been influenced by Liberation Theology for which the defining question is ‘what does Christian salvation have to do with physical liberation in the present?’ The genuine concern and criticism is that salvation becomes reduced to freedom from social oppression and loses the inner freedom of a spiritual transformation. But then isn’t the Christian hope to see the removal of this either/or scenario so that spiritual and physical liberation are joined? And even that the cross and resurrection have already accomplished just that.  Often this is (only/mostly) a future post-parousia hope and less of a now hope? Liberation theology in all its guises says that salvation starts now, whatever the future brings.  

Back to ‘the image’. I am discovering the Eastern Orthodox idea of salvation as theosis, becoming like God (not becoming God), which is similar to the West’s sanctification. Salvation is an invitation into union with God and the ongoing transformation through the Spirit and a sense in which salvation becomes an individual and a shared experience in embodied reality. Bodies are important, reading only the smallest amount of black or feminist liberation theology seriously challenges this white male to see in a new light and the incumbent responsibility to ask, ‘how should I be?’ and how haven’t I seen?

Sharing the gospel then becomes an invitation to relationship with God and others that is tangible and experienced. Maybe it means planting gardens and businesses before churches or joining in with the things that people care about. Maybe it’s about recognising the other person before anything else because God was there first, the Spirit is present and it’s not about us. Lots of maybes lots of questions!

Another one. Maybe our idea of salvation, of being human, is evolving and maturing. Maturity not being even more certain of what I always knew but growing into the likeness of the one I am still getting to know.

So how now do I share the Gospel?

I am just finishing up zooms with the first three books and last night we threw around a question that hangs around. Let me try and present the scenario first. The books present a shift in emphasis that might be summarised along these lines:

  • We move from everything being personalised, personal salvation to a bigger concept of salvation of a people. (Oh and why do we pick out the required path to one person ‘you must be born again’ over and above the required path to another person ‘go and sell all you have’?)
  • We shift from a salvation ‘from‘ to a salvation ‘for‘. (And, if like me, on reading the Scriptures there is a conviction that eternal punishing is not taught, that can be seen as one more element to slow down the urgency in our proclamation.)
  • The cross is not an event in history that deals with God’s ‘wrath’; the cross being essential for us, but perhaps not essential for God (in the sense of forgiveness), though given the kenotic Being that God is, the necessity in God is due to that kenoticism, not issues centred around ‘righteousness’.
  • An older and established paradigm is ‘all guilty, under judgement / wrath… only one path of escape… hence personal forgiveness and salvation.’ If that shifts with the nature of the Gospel being a universal proclamation regarding the birth of new creation, what does this mean at a personal level… ‘and how do we present the Gospel?’

This is certainly a journey I am on, and have been on for a while, so here are my very few pointers.

There is a core that has not changed. To bring someone to faith is not something we can do. That is done by the Holy Spirit. So shouting louder ‘you are a guilty sinner’ does not do that work! However, a lack of integrity in our lives might well make the probability of a person we know coming to faith less likely.

Guilt is not the only door that people come through (more on forgiveness below). The eastern world view would emphasise shame much more than guilt, and I guess the Orthodox world would highlight inner sickness that needs healing. In adding these elements to the scene does not change the core issue: there still is the need for connection, in the sense of the person has to connect with whatever ‘door’ as a very real need that cannot be self-solved, and for that the conviction of the Spirit is still necessary.

Jesus’ teaching, and the outworking in the Pauline Gospel, remain ‘politically’ world transforming. We cannot and should not short-change people on being exposed to that content, although I for one cannot claim to have a handle on the fullness of that! The content can be received at that level (as per the Asiarchs in Acts 19?), but there is a dimension that goes beyond the teaching, that takes us beyond the most remarkable earthly wisdom and world-view to experience the transcendent heavenly aspect in the context of relationship. That is where our personal testimony kicks in.

Yes people can follow the teachings of Jesus, but on ‘offer’ is the promise of the Spirit, to empower, transform and open up the heavens to us.

Now to forgiveness. I am considering that in the same way as we wrongly interpret wrath through a projection of human anger on to God, maybe we do the same with forgiveness. (On wrath: human anger is never described as righteous, even the term ‘righteous indignation’ does not occur in Scripture. We have an anger issue we have to learn to deal with; God’s anger is not personal, hence we make a mistake when we extrapolate from the human side to the divine and then suggest that Jesus’ bore the wrath of God for us…) With forgiveness we have all experienced it from both sides. I have done wrong to someone; I go apologise and they then have a choice to release me or not. The term ‘release’ being the underlying significance of the ‘forgiveness’ words. Those words certainly can carry that legal sense of being released from an obligation, but it can also be used of (e.g.) releasing a ship to its journey, and Josephus even uses it of (the release of) death. The root is ‘release’, but the point I am considering is not simply to do with the root meaning, but concerning the danger of simply projecting on to God our human experience. Until I am forgiven I am ‘held’ by the person I have wronged. Perhaps forgiveness should carry a broader range of meanings and that God’s forgiveness might primarily be a release from whatever could be holding us. That could be ‘guilt’, past / family bondages, mind-sets, and that overarching power known as ‘sin’ (in the singular, not being a collection of all my ‘sins, but a corporate, cosmic power). Certainly ‘forgiveness of sins’ for the Jews of the NT era was a promise of release from their captivity, and as they experienced that they would experience God’s favour.

So putting all this together, I suggest that our presentation is bigger but continues to be personal. And what an invitation, to be saved for a purpose, a purpose that connects us to our true core being, causes us to interact with heaven, and become in greater measure agents for transformation. I do not think we have ‘lost’ the Gospel but are on a process to discovering what it might be. Deeply relevant to the former worlds of Jew and Gentile, and the only lasting hope for the world(s) that exist(s) today.

Evangelise or bear witness?

(Modified, originally posted in August, 2016).

A while back I read a blog post from Scot McKight on Rethinking: Evangelism, and alongside reading Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Water to wine’ of his own journey of faith beyond the narrow approach of ‘in / out’.

McKnight asks the question of how we should evangelise:

so now then how do we evangelise… what do we say in that 3-5 minutes when that might be the only conversation we have.

This is a poignant question when we think beyond a person ‘going to heaven and needed the entry ticket’ – what then is evangelism?

Zahnd’s book is deeply moving as it is his personal journey of integrity. I cannot make the journey he has made where he appears to me to be deeply sacramental and (in my perspective) a staunch believer in the institution and liturgy of church, and although he seems to come at it by a different route his journey likewise challenges the traditional understanding of what it means to evangelise.

Both carry the label of ‘evangelical’, and although I sometimes question the validity of that label, in as much as it means having a centre in Jesus, salvation through his atoning death as revealed through the authority of Scripture then I too am probably happy with the label. The label describes some core beliefs for us all, and it is in that context the question of ‘then what about evangelism’ becomes important. The question becomes a relevant question when the Gospel is seen as broader than the four spiritual laws. And it becomes harder and harder to reduce the Gospel to those (or similar) kinds of laws / statements. The 3-5 minutes under the former viewpoint was easy, now what?

For Gayle and I we live deliberately missionally. In our opinion the call to follow Jesus necessitates that. I appreciate that the first call of Jesus to the apostolic band was to be with him (Mk. 3:13), the apostles were those who ate and drank with Jesus (Acts 10:41), so maybe I miss something in all this. Being (with) before doing and acting. However, I confess that we think purpose. We think that way because we think all believers are called to live that way. However, we have stopped using that (missional) language because far from seeming to help others find purpose two things happened. A view that it is different for us – ‘you live in Spain’, as if an address makes a difference? (And it does at times – try living in Saudi Arabia, Syria etc… or in some Western nations that have all-but sold out to materialism.) And secondly, it seemed to carry an expectation that because we are living in Spain there are certain things we are / should be doing. So we use the phrase ‘living life’. This might become a less than useful phrase too. What we mean by the phrase is life centred on the values, teaching and person of Jesus, so the whole of life is shaped by that viewpoint, and I hasten to add ‘imperfectly’. Now we all live life – whatever our address, but a follower of Jesus has to be ‘guilty’ of living life shaped by the One who died for their redemption.

Long paragraph there, but the reason is, McKnight, Zahnd or Scotts, who all see the Gospel as broader than the four spiritual laws have to answer the question of evangelism. I am not a Universalist (too many Scriptures there for me), but neither do I automatically submit to all are off to hell at death except for the born-again ones, and partly as I see the ‘hell’ Scriptures as both having an AD70 application and that where they do not the issue is eternal punishment not eternal punishing. So maybe there is an easier, softer-edged approach to my theology, that avoids me living with the imagery that all are in a burning building and our task is to get as many out as possible by whatever means (evangelism that treats people as objects therefore is not too objectionable under that imagery). I still hold to ‘those who receive Jesus are saved’, so I want the whole world to receive Jesus. What then about evangelism?

McKnight used the word ‘witness‘ in his post. I found a resonance in that. We are called to be witnesses to Jesus – we read this of course regarding the promise upon reception of the Spirit, where Jesus explicitly harnesses the Israel calling to the nations, as in Isaiah, conferring that on the disciples (Acts 1:8). The Acts 10:41 scripture I referred to above says:

but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

We are witnesses and perhaps all the better witnesses if we eat and drink with him. Lifestyle witnesses. That was why when the bank assistant swore at a reasonably high volume asking me to make some kind of monetary response, I had made a witness. She then said to me ‘I know money is not important to you’. Did I evangelise her, rebuke her for her use of the well known ‘-er’ verb? No, but I bore witness. Off the back of that one day, maybe… But I am not about to exploit the situation.

Witnesses to values, based on following Jesus. He is the centre, not some facts about sinfulness and ‘wrath’. We can connect with people, we can confront racism, sexism, abuse, unfettered capitalism (note ‘unfettered’) all on the basis of our Jesus’ discipleship. We can resonate with activist groups that care for the poor, and when there is an opportunity we can explain the reason is that ‘this so closely resonates with what our teacher instructed us‘. The witness is to him.

The language of ‘witness’ gives us some language that we find helpful. Living life is missional, witnessing is evangelism (good news-ing). Living life is eating and drinking with Jesus. If he is important the occasions when we encounter the restricted 3-5 minutes might contain some verbal communication in summarised form about sin and the cross, but more likely the challenge will remain as to how we live life. That is the core element of witnessing, and the only way to effectively plant seeds where people can ‘hear him’ and not simply some approximate truths about him.

A little theology

I do not believe the Bible teaches the eternal punishing of ‘sinners’. In summary: the soul is not immortal; God alone has immortality; the tree of life was barred to humanity so that ‘they might not live forever’; the imagery drawn is from Sodom and Gomorrah, they being destroyed by eternal fire and all that remained was the smoke of their torment, and from the closing verses of Isaiah where ‘their worm did not die’, the fire was not quenched but the result was non-existence. This is the difference between eternal punishing and eternal punishment. One is unending and ongoing, the other (at some stage) final and irreversible. I also consider that many of the warnings in the Gospel are concerning the ‘hell’ of AD70, so not relevant to the issue of eternal destiny.

I also lean to the blurred line position of ‘all who receive Christ’ are saved (we then have to wait to see what it means to receive Christ – what about those who received an image of Christ, and how perverted is an image until it is no longer a Christ but an anti-(replacing the authentic) Christ?), and all who ‘reject Jesus are lost’ (again what does it mean to ‘reject’ Christ). This is not a Universalist position but holds solidly to the universal inclusion through the Cross. This gives room for those to be included in the age to come who have not come through the narrow door that those from an evangelical / fundamentalist background have been (implicitly) taught to work with. Though it needs to be noted that the above is well within the boundaries of evangelical faith.

[Side note: the narrow path, flee the wrath to come type of Scriptures fit totally the coming judgement of AD70… We have to read the Scriptures narratively first, not as a set of doctrines.]

I consider that such theology takes some of the angst out of the ‘one opportunity so quickly discharge your responsibility’. Other issues I have with the hard line ‘one opportunity’ scenario is that we can treat people as objects to be saved, preached to, or whatever. Something I think is far from the scenarios we find in the Gospels with Jesus or in the Acts with the Gospel mission. There was a ‘I-Thou’ relationship (to take out of context a quote) that seems to me to be about the encounters we read there. In many of the scenarios a giving in relationship was the context, and that takes time.

The Pauline Gospel has at the centre a belief concerning the death and resurrection that proclaimed a new foundation for the world. A new creation is on its way because he is the ‘firstborn of all creation’, and (I think) by implication there was a new way to be society in the light of that. Paul could proclaim this in the market place alongside the other philosophers. The huge added dimension was a transcendent one, witnessed to by the inbreaking of heaven’s realities with miracles and the expulsion of demons. Immediate signs of another dimension, and subsequent signs of a different dimension evidenced socially if someone took a focus on the transformation among the marginalised.

For me then the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God’ is not a three step:

  • all sinned
  • Jesus died for all
  • receive him and you are saved.

Hence I think our call and Paul’s preaching was ‘to bear witness’. This seems to accord with his desire to come to the Roman church to proclaim the Gospel, not to reduce this to work with them to ‘evangelise’. His desire was to preach the Gospel to ‘them’ (the church).

Now the flip side. There is wonderfully more than enough evidence throughout the letters that personal salvation is a reality. Paul spoke of wanting all to be in his situation (minus the chains) when addressing the royal court. He wished for them to be as he was personally bonded to Christ.

This is why we need to be very sensitive to the ‘in the next five minutes I need to get across the deeply core aspect of the cross that Jesus was present to reconcile all to God’. If we call that evangelism, then let’s be very sensitive to evangelise. I simply think that is one aspect of bearing witness, and an aspect that if forced in another situation might not be a bearing of witness.

Praying for a sick person without explaining the four spiritual laws, digging someone’s garden or whatever might be the most powerful witness we can bring at a given time. Our witness is not to how good we are, nor to how bad someone is who is not a ‘believer’ but our witness is to Jesus, that there is a new creation here and coming.

So my tentative position is that we are to bear witness. We must resist the temptation to evangelise at all costs. We have to be passionate about Jesus so that we see people as he saw them. Perhaps to the religious person we might have to insist that without them being born again they will not even perceive the kingdom; maybe to the rich person we might need to exhort them to sell everything for without it they can never be free to enter bondship to Jesus; perhaps to the financial cheat we should go eat with them and only when they look to put right what they have done do we take the liberty to proclaim that salvation has come to their household; maybe… Yes all gospel stories and ones centred in on Jesus’ ministry to Israel so they have their limitation, but maybe they also have enough provocation to bring me to repentance over the situations where I have opted to evangelise when I should have born witness, or have missed on out on that specific opportunity to ‘evangelise’ when I opted to avoid it.


Post PermaLink