Is Our View of Salvation Too Small?
I see now more clearly what it is that J. Richard Middleton is doing in his book A New Heaven and A New Earth. As he goes through the Bible section by section, he is showing how holistic eschatology connects to other theological doctrines such as such as mission and salvation. This makes for a more convincing argument.
Too many of us minimize salvation to nothing more than a spiritual matter. Middleton challenges us to broaden salvation to a move of God that affects all areas of life. Just as eschatology is holistic for Middleton, salvation also must be holistic.
An illustration I often use with my students is that of a clearly homeless, impoverished single mother of small children who arrives at the doorstep of a church. There can be no doubt, this is a woman in need, but what does she need? Does she have spiritual needs they can only be met by the death of Jesus? Of course! Does she need the blood of Christ to wash away her sins? We all do. Does she need to put on Jesus in baptism? Definitely. But when our Bible study is over and her soul has been added to the kingdom what will we do next? Are we to simply send this woman back out to the streets with her children, thinking we have fulfilled our greatest mission? Do we say, “Go, be warm and well filled”?
We all know there is far more this woman needs than the spiritual. In its fullest sense, salvation means to bring wholeness, peace of mind, and restoration of life as it was meant to be to a person. In a word, this is shalom. This woman needs to be delivered from her sins but she needs deliverance of the mind and the heart and the body as well. She needs a job, shelter, food, love, acceptance, mentoring examples, job training, babysitting, and so much more. She has needs in every aspect of her life. Her deliverance must be full-bodied, affecting both the hereafter and the here and now.
Once again, for Middleton, the issue is not that we misunderstand salvation rather that we have limited salvation and made it far smaller than what God has intended it to be.
Middleton points to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt as the “paradigm for salvation” (77). Instead of reading backwards from the New Testament to the Old, we ought to let the Old Testament shape our understanding of the New. Salvation in the Exodus was a full-bodied, this-worldly one and we should let this guide our understanding of the work of Jesus too. The “salvation pattern” found in Exodus is as follows:
- There is first always an impediment to flourishing and well-being. Pharaoh, foreign oppression int he time of the Judges, the infertility of the Patriarchal mothers, Exile, Herod, Rome, sin – each keeps God’s people from life as it was intended to be. Each operates with anti-creational power.
- This provokes a cry for help from those in need. This cry, right there in Exodus and Judges and the Prophets, becomes the basis for much of Israel’s hymnody in the Psalms. Jesus so often responded to the cry of the sick and harassed. The Church started on Pentecost when people cried out under the weight of their sins (Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13).
- The cry of people in need provokes God to enter into those concrete, historical situations. God does not stay detached and uninvolved. God moved through Egypt in a way that made it clear that He was delivering Israel, not Moses. God did not show up for a long weekend to die for sin, Jesus lived a full human life, walking alongside the sinful, laying hands on the sick, and passing baskets of food to the hungry.
- God as the divine King fights for those in need and removes the impediment to flourishing. God’s battle in Egypt had to involve real power and death, because Pharaoh’s threat was real and physical. Sin did not require a metaphorical sacrifice; real blood was spilt.
- While victory always clearly comes from God, He does use creaturely agents in His salvific work as well. Moses confronted Pharaoh. Jesus took on flesh. The future of the Church came through the work of the apostles.
- Now God restores the once-needy to a place of blessing and potential. The Promised Land follows the Exodus. The Exiles return to the land. Likewise Christians long for the New Jerusalem, a place of blessing.
- Salvation is only made complete through obedience to God’s Law. From the Sea, Israel goes directly to Sinai. Let there be no mistake, grace precedes law, but law is what maintains the blessing of flourishing and expands shalom to others. Christians are freed from sin, but certainly not freed to sin. Slavery begins again when grace becomes an excuse to sin.
- Finally, salvation is made complete by God dwelling with the redeemed in a concrete, historical sense. God was physically present to the Israelites of Exodus in a pillar of cloud and fire. Later he dwelt in the Temple. Jesus becomes the ultimate “God-come-near.” And the final move of God brings Him down to dwell with us again in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:3).
With this paradigm in mind, it seems to me that Middleton would have us see salvation from sin is a kind of salvation, not the only definition of that word.
While sound in theory, Middleton seems to press continuity between the way God works in both testaments more than many others would. He does not allow room for the Old Testament to be a physical archetype for the spiritual truths of the New Covenant, as was argued repeatedly by the Hebrews writer. He does not explain how the move from a historical, national country to a transnational, universal Church impacts our understanding of God’s work. I don’t think this negates his bigger point that salvation is broader in effect than the spiritual, but it does make his appeal to the Exodus as a “paradigm” weaker.