The Basis of Christian Unity

cross1In Western culture, where the strength and influence of the church is declining, there is more need than ever for Christian unity. It’s a great sadness to actually see that whilst the church in Scotland faces challenges from without and within, unity seems to be somewhere near the bottom of the agenda. The moves in the Church of Scotland towards sanctioning the ordination of active homosexuals are testing our calling to unity as Scottish Christians. Some see schism as the answer (the antithesis of unity) and, sadly, some see the problems of others as an opportunity for growth.
Recently, I read again Professor Donald Macleod’s article ‘The Basis of Christian Unity’ published in Evangel in 1985. It is reproduced in the Christian Focus publication Priorities for the Church (which, if you haven’t got it, you should get). The opening of the article is striking:
It is very tempting to regard doctrinal agreement as the basis of Christian unity. We must resist the temptation, however. The basis lies much deeper. The real foundation of our oneness is our common membership of the body of Christ.
I would guess that after these opening four sentences, some readers would be dismissing the entire article. If that is true, it just illustrates how far we have drifted from the historic, Reformed understanding of the church and of Christian unity. Macleod quotes from Calvin, Owen and Hodge to back up his case. He summarises:
This is the clear New Testament position: we are one not because of a common polity or a common belief but because we are all Christians.
I’m glad Macleod puts it like that. The Reformed view of the church is not primarily political, or cultural, but is the most serious attempt to do justice to the New Testament scriptures themselves. For Presbyterians, their Reformed heritage provides an anchor to the NT whose chain runs through the Apostles, Church Fathers and the Reformers themselves.
Macleod continues:
Because we are united at this level, we owe one another, simply as Christians, recognition, love and co-operation. We have no right to insist on some other condition. We are one in Christ.
This unity operates on an objective level. We are so keen to turn to the idea of the ‘invisible’ church to justify our lack of unity, but as Macleod pointedly writes:
The believer is not an idea but flesh and blood. The Church is not an idea but flesh and blood. The unity of the church must have the same visible, concrete reality.
The unity of the church must be given practical, structural expression. In recognition, love and co-operation. It’s no good just to talk about it. And that’s why schism is not the answer. Schism disunites, and denies the unity of those who are Christians. And it’s also why inactivity in ecumenism, whether because of fear (usually of what others might think) or distrust, is inexcusable.

Just Forgiven Sinners

confessionalWe’ve all heard it said from time to time:

Christians are not saying they’re better than anyone else, just that they’re forgiven.

I heard something very similar not so long ago: Everyone is a sinner; the only difference is that Christians are forgiven. To recognise that, so this particular argument went, is to give glory to God. Our continuing sinfulness shows that a Christian’s salvation must all be of God through the blood of Christ, because we, as sinners, can contribute nothing good.
It sounds so plausible, even obviously correct. But it’s not correct – something very important is being left out. And the end result is not good, and is damaging the church. What’s true in the statements are the following:

  1. Everyone is a sinner by nature. No-one is born with any fundamental difference in terms of how alienated they are from God. No-one is born without the moral problem that results from that alienation – they are unable to know and serve God.
  2. Christians are forgiven. God’s love for the world, for humanity, has led him to bring salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven for our sins, which is just one part of what salvation means.
  3. We can contribute nothing to this salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace only – we don’t (and can’t) do anything to help us merit it in any way. In fact, no-one can merit salvation, because it doesn’t work on merit.
  4. Salvation is through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus Christ died to take away sin – to bring forgiveness. His death was an atoning death and, when we believe, we are put right with God on the basis of what Jesus has done.

So, what’s left out?

What’s left out is that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, our lives change. It’s called repentance. When we begin to follow Jesus, we become disciples; we start to think, speak and act in a different way. But how does that work, when we are unable to serve God? Because, most importantly of all, when we put our faith in Jesus, we receive the reality of the presence of Jesus in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This transforming presence is what enables us to follow, and what effects a change in our lives (meaning our lives, not just the way we think about ourselves). Our actions change. We no longer do things that we did before we became disciples of Christ. Our whole worldview changes. We think in a different way. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight, but the culture of the church in which we live ought to make the goal abundantly clear, and equip us to move towards it.

The radical change that attends our faith in Jesus Christ is expressed by Paul:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17)
So, there is a fundamental difference between sinners and Christians – it is most definitely not true that that the only difference is that we’re forgiven. When we read Romans chapter 6, we find Paul writing about this total realignment of our lives. And indeed there are so many places where this is so clear, it’s a wonder how it can be lost (Rom 12, 13; Eph 4, 5; Col 3; 1 Pet 4; 1 Jo 2…etc. etc.).
The results of this omission are serious. If Christians believe that they are still essentially sinners and that the only difference between them and non-Christians is that they are forgiven, then they carry the same expectations of falling into temptation and sin that they had before. They also sometimes adopt a twisted view of what’s called Christian liberty and live in compromise with the world. This is one of the reasons why some Christians seem so ill-equipped in their interactions with culture. They feel able to listen uncritically to the same music, drink in the same subliminal messages of the advertisers, watch the same TV comedies – all of which function as vehicles for a worldview with little in common with the Christian worldview. They incubate the same life-aspirations as others. They can do what everyone else does because, in the end, we are all sinners, but Christians are forgiven. So, after a dutiful feeling of remorse (often mistaken for repentance), at least they can sleep soundly at night. I’m not saying that these Christians are living debauched lives – but I am saying that this version of the Gospel is propagating low expectations for holy living, and hinders the development of a truly counter-cultural Christianity.

Our good works must follow our faith. To say that our sinfulness as Christians shows that salvation is all of God is a total confusion. Our good works do not negate the fact that salvation is from God alone. We are not saved by our good works, but we certainly won’t be saved without them.
Shall we sin, so that grace may increase (Rom 6:1)? No-one’s saying it so starkly, but some are coming pretty close to it. Sinners won’t inherit the kingdom of God…

And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

More Thoughts on the New Covenant

angelsonapinI’m aware that some might see my thoughts on the New Covenant as mere doctrinal pin-dancing. I strongly disagree.
This is important for a number of reasons. Briefly (and not exhaustively):
  • There are important connections between God’s promises given to Abraham and the Genesis prologue, which are crucial for a correct appreciation of creation theology. Indeed, much foundational theology orbits around these promises. If the church sees a radical disjuncture between OT and NT, then a lot of this foundational theology is neglected and we cease to correctly understand the gospel itself. I would argue that the neglect of creation theology in the church, and the tendency to dissociate creation from redemption in eschatology is partly down to this kind of problem.
  • If the foundational links between the gospel of Christ and the promises given to Abraham are not recognised, God’s covenant dealings with human beings are not adequately reflected in the church’s life. This is especially true in the sacraments, and specifically baptism, where God’s covenant commitment to the children of his people ought to be recognised. This spins out in how our young people relate to the church into which they are born. So, it gets very practical indeed.
  • Paul makes clear in Ephesians that the maturity to which Christians ought to aspire involves understanding God’s historical acts through the OT nation of Israel, and his revelation to Israel. Whereas some Christians think that a 2-minute 5-point gospel presentation is what the world needs, it is in fact this rich view of God’s historical dealing with humans that we need to grasp and express. The gospel of Jesus embraces an expansive, comprehensive explanation of both the history and future of the world. This is the gospel that people need to hear, if they are to understand why God became a human being in order to redeem them. It’s the gospel that people want to hear, as they struggle to understand the world and their place in it. That’s Paul’s approach, and it ought to be ours.

Some Thoughts on the New Covenant

Jeremiah MichelangeloWhen Jesus took the cup at the Last Supper, he said ‘this cup is the New Covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22:20). Understanding the nature of the New Covenant is critical to understanding the Church. Somewhat surprisingly, the language of New Covenant is explicitly found in the OT only in Jeremiah 31. The New Covenant language in the chapter deserves careful study, but there’s one aspect specifically I want to reflect on:
‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…’ Jer 31:31
According the Jeremiah’s prophecy, the new covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The New Covenant is not made with the Gentiles, but is made with the Jewish people, and the words of the prophecy express the hope of tribal reunification. Where do we find this prophecy fulfilled in the NT?
First, Luke’s description of Pentecost evokes tribal reunification.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven… Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs… Acts 2:5,9-11
True, Luke reports that Peter immediately identifies the events of Pentecost as fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, but in the terms of Luke’s portrayal in Acts, the words must be seen in the context of the programmatic utterance of Jesus that the disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ (1:8). The initial movements of Acts take place in the context of a reunification of Israel, they are movements towards Judeans, and towards the lost tribes of Samaria (and the Diaspora at Pentecost and later in Acts). The events of Luke 8 can be understood as demonstrating a particular stage in the fulfilment of Jesus words. And, in Acts 9, we find that it is the church on Judea, Samaria and Galilee that enjoys peace.
Second, when we come to Luke’s associate Paul, it’s clear that Paul understands the absorption of Gentiles into a covenant that’s been made with the Jews. The locus classicus of this is in Romans 11, where Paul uses the imagery of Gentiles (as branches from a wild olive tree) being grafted into an existing, cultivated olive tree.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree do not be arrogant toward the branches… For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? Rom 11:17,24
Third, the opening chapter of Ephesians shows the same pattern. The ‘us’ of the Jewish believers, to whom God had made known the mystery of his will (1:8-9) and who were the first to ‘hope in Christ’, is followed by the ‘you also’ (1:13) of the Gentile believers, who were dead in sins, amongst the sons of disobedience (2:1). The Jews were no better off, being themselves ‘children of wrath’ (2:3) because of their unfaithfulness. But God made them alive together with Christ (2:5) at a time when the Gentiles were still separate from Christ (2:12). Only subsequently (through the preaching of the gospel) have the Gentiles been brought near (2:13). A similar pattern is seen in Galatians 4, where Christ’s redemption of those under the Law (‘we’ in 4:5, although both here and in Ephesians Paul uses ‘we’ inclusively as well as exclusively) leads to their adoption (4:5) at a time when the Gentiles did not know God (4:8). Although Paul only uses the language of New Covenant explicitly once (in 2 Cor 3:6 – he also recalls Jesus’ words in 1 Cor 11:25), his understanding of how that New Covenant has come to incorporate Gentiles seems to reflect the perspective of Jeremiah.
Richard Hays gives an excellent summary of Paul’s conception of how the blessing of God has come to the Gentiles:
It is no accident that Paul never uses expressions such as “new Israel” or “spiritual Israel”. There always has been and always will be only one Israel. Into that one Israel Gentile Christians such as the Corinthians have now been absorbed. Echoes of Scripture on the Letters of Paul, 96-7.

Paul’s understanding is that Israel has been renewed under the rubric of the New Covenant, which has been instituted by Jesus Christ through his life, death and resurrection. Into that reconfigured and renewed Israel Gentiles are now being incorporated through faith in Christ.