This Easter I’m reflecting on how much ground we Evangelicals still have to recover in connecting our faith to the institutions of human civilization. We make this connection in a few isolated cases, especially marriage (as recent headlines have reminded us). But the empty tomb and the series of events that followed it—the appearances of the resurrected Christ, the Great Commission, the Ascension, Pentecost—stand in my mind as a marker of just how far we have to go. The full reality of the resurrected Christ demands a full transformation of every aspect of our lives, and that cannot happen apart from participation in the social order and even efforts to reform that order itself. The reflections below were generated in the context of my work as part of the “faith and work” movement, reconnecting Christianity to our daily work and to the economy as a whole, but they’re generalizable to other kinds of social institutions as well.
The empty tomb—a new life of victory. If the text of the New Testament says anything at all, it says Christians are not only to repent from sin, but enter into a new and Spirit-transformed life. It seems to me that the resurrection provides the Christological basis for this imperative; it carries us beyond the atonement for sin into the new life of victory over sin. Another way of saying this is that the empty tomb proves sin is not only atoned for but also defeated. This is why Paul says our faith is worthless if we deny the resurrection. In the last century, too many of us Evangelicals have been content to offer a “fire insurance” faith; make your decision for Christ and receive your Get Out of Hell Free card. This problem is not only about achieving an ethical standard in our own lives (“personal holiness”) but also about our influence in society. When we don’t live out the resurrection victory, we don’t manifest the Spirit in the way we live our lives in human civilization. Today it has become commonplace for Evangelical leaders to bemoan this “cheap grace,” but the chorus of voices bemoaning it has not yet translated into an effective solution to the problem.
The appearances—Incarnation as permanent reality. Living out our redemption means overcoming the dualistic thinking that keeps the gospel in a box labeled “church activities, missions, social programs, etc.” The rest of life—our daily work in homes, workplaces and neighborhoods—gets cut off from the gospel. Evangelicals love to challenge “dualism.” We use that term like it’s a swear word. And rightly so! While the Old Testament challenges dualism by teaching the immanence and omnipotent providence of God, that challenge is radically sharpened in the New Testament by the Incarnation—the Christological joining of the material with the divine, the temporal with the eternal. One might have expected the Incarnation to be a temporary measure designed to accomplish redemption, with Christ simply returning to godhood after his death. But Christ’s appearances after the resurrection emphasize his bodily resurrection, forcing us to realize that the Incarnation is a permanent reality. The challenge to dualism implies a perpetual imperative to bring all our lives under Christ’s lordship. If our lives in human civilization do not manifest the Spirit, we’re back to dualism. The resurrected Christ is, no doubt, a transcendent king with radical power over creation (he walks through walls, for example) but he is also the benevolent king who cares for our needs within creation (he gives Peter and friends a huge catch of fish). We should follow suit by living as responsible stewards, fruitful agents of social flourishing, rather than dropping out or going with the flow.
The Great Commission—disciples, not converts. Before the resurrected Christ takes his earthly leave of the church, he commissions it. Today, most Evangelicals think of the Great Commission in terms of making converts. But the actual command is to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). What is the difference between a superficial “convert” and a fully formed “disciple”? The transformation of daily life—which is lived in human civilization. Making auto parts, scrubbing floors, doing spreadsheets and so forth is where the rubber hits the road for discipleship. The social order seems like a huge thing, but it’s really the water we swim in every day as we do our jobs. A growing number of Evangelicals are looking to the Babylonian exile as a model for how Christians should relate to the social order. Certainly the divine command to “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7) should spark a great deal of profitable reflection for us in the post-Christendom context. But so should the Great Commission. The coming of Christ matters! The Old Testament church was sent to Babylon with orders to manifest love and peace within its social life, but it was not sent there for that purpose. By contrast, because Christ’s work has been accomplished, the New Testament church is sent out precisely for the purpose of transforming the way people live their lives in the social order of every society—“make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
The Ascension—Jesus as king of the universe. This commissioning implies we cannot be passive in the face of human culture. Certainly, as champions of religious freedom, Evangelicals are right in their desire to avoid “Christianizing” society using state power. However, this should not become an excuse for describing the social world outside the walls of the church as a place where Satan reigns and King Jesus has no place. While God was always really in charge of the universe, the cosmic kingship of Jesus enters a new and more dramatic phase with the Ascension. Jesus prefaces the Great Commission by declaring that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The Ascension proves it. The empty tomb shows that sin and death have been knocked off their throne; the Ascension shows Jesus has taken his rightful place there. It’s true that Jesus is king of the church in a special way, and we can never erase the boundary between the church and the world. But Jesus is also king of the universe, and that matters. We must be agents of Jesus’ cosmic kingship in addition to being citizens of his special kingdom in the church.
Pentecost—restored for city-building. How can we become agents of Jesus’ cosmic kingship without using state power to “Christianize” society? Pentecost points to an answer. The gift of tongues at Pentecost reverses the confusion of tongues at Babel, so the meaning of Pentecost is partly determined by how we understand Babel. The point of Babel is that sin has ruined human efforts at city-building; after the human race at large is alienated from God, people place their confidence and security not in God but in the development of civilization. God sees that this will end in disaster, so he places a limit on their ability to develop their civilizations by confusing their tongues. But after Christ’s victory over sin, Christians are reconciled to God and no longer require these restraints. The leash is off! We are empowered to build cities again—to manifest the glory of God by carrying out cultural tasks that build up human civilization.
Pentecost is a hopeful place to close. As far as we still have to go, we have the Lord’s promise that the Spirit is always with us and will guide and empower the church. As we live into our vocations—as workers, as family members, as citizens, as members of local communities, etc.—we have amazing opportunities to renew the social expression of Christianity for the coming generation. We are gifted with creative power as stewards in the imago Dei, equipped for work, and with redemptive power as redeemed agents of kingdom vocation. The ultimate victory is already won, but the day-by-day struggle remains. Let’s get to it.