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Salvation: What about Everything Else?

The first psalm in the Bible focuses on the holy individual. The last one issues a call to all of creation: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”

 

The two Mini-Courses on Salvation so far have focused on God and the individual human being. But doesn’t much of the Bible speak of salvation in many, many other respects?


What about the ill, the disabled, the injured? What about the poor and the victims of prejudice? What about whole systems of injustice, entire regimes of domination?

 

And let’s widen our gaze still further. As my former colleague Loren Wilkinson wonders aloud in his new, fine book, Circles and the Cross (Cascade, 2023), “I knew the gospel was good news for me, but was it good news for the fir trees and the trilliums as well?” (5).

 

Mary’s Magnificat comes immediately to mind as she celebrates God the Saviour, God her Son:

 

He has shown strength with his arm;    

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones    

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things    

and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

 

Christians have long seen Isaiah 53 as prophesying the work of Jesus (whose name means “God saves”): “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4).

 

Luke likewise has Jesus reading from Isaiah (61:1-2) and applying the prophecy to himself:

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,    

because he has anointed me        

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives    

and recovery of sight to the blind,        

to set free those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

 

And the Apostle Paul speaks of the salvation of the whole earth:

 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, for the creation was subjected to futility . . .  in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor. (Romans 8:19-22)

 

Yes, God will make all things new: our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our fellow creatures, our ecosystems, our planet. Shalom is God’s intended goal, and shalom means global flourishing.


God is already working to repair and renew the earth and all of its inhabitants—protecting us, salvaging us, restoring us, improving us—primarily through the human race fulfilling God’s commandments. Human beings obey God’s creation commandment as we cultivate the world (Genesis 1:28). The Church obeys God’s salvation commandment as we make disciples whose lives led in concert with the Spirit of God demonstrate the new life of the age to come. (For more on these themes, see here.)

 

Still, we all recognize that both sin and immaturity persist in the human race across the face of the whole earth and across every individual soul. Good, solid family companies get inherited by dissolute descendants, bought out by indifferent corporations, or simply sidelined by economic change. Successful pastors often get succeeded by unsuccessful hopefuls. A new political administration undoes the good of the previous one. We take steps forward, yes, but also sideways and often backwards.

 

The downward, darkward pull of sin means, as G. K. Chesterton said of smoggy London Town, that if you want to have a white post, you have to paint it white—and keep repainting it white. While the power of the Spirit draws us toward the virtues of the age to come, the spirit of this age fights back on behalf of its own values. And that ugly spirit is everywhere.

 

We all know that a good system cannot make up for bad components, and a good organization cannot fully compensate for bad people. Legislation and coercion and incentive can take us only so far in improving human beings, human groups, and human projects. Sin—along with our sheer immature ignorance and stupidity—keeps interfering with the good, and sometimes overwhelms it in wicked absurdity.

 

Some well-meaning Christians have been so impressed by the shadows of history and the cultural obstacles to positive change today that they counsel merely a “faithful presence.” Christians shouldn’t bother attempting large-scale structural change, because the structures will remain intransigent . . . at least until the Lord returns. Better to concentrate our energies on producing godly families and holy churches—like the New Testament believers seem to have done.

 

Such understandably restricted goals, furthermore, seem both good and challenging enough. Who has the perfect family? Where is the perfect church? Or even a sane, happy family and a healthy, effective church? Not many of either crowding the landscape today, it seems.

 

Still, God has not rescinded the creation mandate. Human beings are made to make shalom, and there is no reason not to continue to do so—with all the vigour we have. God values every good thing: every healed illness through our medicine, every good encouragement through our preaching, every influential lesson in our parenting, and every mutually beneficial transaction in our business—even as each is optimized by cooperating with the Spirit of God, as humans also were created to do.

 

Furthermore, the mission of the Church to witness to, and draw people into, the promised new life is crucially dependent on us actually living that new life. We must demonstrate its power to bring joy and effectiveness and harmony to the world, however partially and fitfully we can.

 

What, then, about the tug-of-war between seeking justice and seeking converts? Between cultivating the world and cultivating disciples?

 

The easy answer, and a correct one, is to just do both. Let’s do it all. And each of us, just do your job.

 

There’s plenty of good to accomplish in the world. So just assess your gifts and opportunities and throw yourself into whatever mode frees you to accomplish the most shalom.

 

Surely some sort of dialectic makes sense here. Creating better structures—better families and churches, yes, but also better neighbourhoods, better economic patterns, better democracies, better entertainment media—not only makes things simply better for everyone but also optimizes the production of better individuals. It is hard to become a saint. And it’s much harder if you’re desperately poor, or chronically ill, or constantly held back because of systemic prejudice. As World Vision used to remind us, “A hungry belly has no ears.”

 

God wants better individuals. God loves each one of us as each one of us. But God wants better everything. Striving for better structures is simply part of obeying the cultural commandments and of living out the new life of the Spirit given to us by Christ.

 

The arc of history in general and especially via the spread of Christian culture—for all the setbacks, and inconsistencies, and hypocrisies, and even outright moral catastrophes apparent along the way—has led to the overall improvement of the world (as noted by observers as different as Stephen Pinker and Tom Holland). And this improvement has come conspicuously to the poor, to women, to children, to ethnic minorities, to slaves, to the disabled—even to the high and mighty, who nonetheless should fear true Christianity and especially its God as finally and fatally subversive of their privilege.

 

It yet remains evident from Scripture that until Jesus returns to govern a human race that is fully sanctified, we cannot hope to realize our greatest aspirations. We won’t realize even relatively modest ones, such as universal peace (Just don’t treat each other badly) and general prosperity (Just don’t let anyone be poor).

 

The core problem is the problem in our core. We need to be deeply saved since we are deeply flawed. No program, no structure, no paradigm shift or revolution in government will make up for corrupt participants. For us.

 

At different times in my academic journey, I enjoyed studying the quite different careers and especially the distinctive utterances of Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr. In the mid-twentieth century, Graham and Niebuhr were often set against each other as polar opposites with one or the other of whom many Christians felt obliged to line up.

 

Often the difference between them was put in terms of evangelism versus justice-seeking. Others saw it in terms of seeking individual conversion versus social change.

 

Graham was often cited as saying that social change would be of no thorough and lasting avail without individual change. And he was right, in the ultimate sense. “You all must be born again,” Jesus told Nicodemus (and, through John’s Gospel, all the rest of us; John 3:3). That’s how radical the change has to be. Your very life has to begin all over.

 

Billy Graham nonetheless wasn’t deaf to the cries of the oppressed, whether racism at home or communism abroad. And Reinhold Niebuhr didn’t dispute the need for the Spirit to do the necessary work of regeneration in each heart.

 

Until the Lord returns, then, let’s be clear that there is a kind of logical order to soteriology. First things first? Each human individual needs to come right with God. Only sanctified human beings can work with God to restore the rest of the world to full working order and go forward into a new era of continual well-being for everyone and everything. The Church must do its distinctive work, empowered by the Spirit, to make disciples of all nations for the good of all creation.

 

Still, most of us most of the time aren’t gifted, called, and positioned to focus on that work, on helping ourselves and others become mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Instead, we are to walk in the Spirit as human beings are supposed to do: in worship of God, in fellowship with each other, and in creative care for God’s beloved creation. Whatever each of us can do to improve worship, fellowship, and the rest of creation, we should do.

 

As Loren Wilkinson points out, the cross has at its centre a sharp focus on a single event: the saving work of Jesus. But as its arms extend infinitely, so its implications embrace the cosmos.

 

Likewise, the cross centres on my own heart. That’s where salvation has to occur fundamentally, sine qua non. But out of that redeemed heart should come a life that extends God’s grace as far and wide as I can share it.

 

Shalom cannot be realized without the conversion of the human heart. But salvation certainly doesn’t stop there. Nor should we.

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