As Christians we confess with our hearts that our salvation is in Christ. More to the point, we acknowledge that God became man in Jesus, lived a sinless life on earth, suffered and died on the cross under the burden of our sins, and rose victorious from the grave. He ascended to the Father and has promised to return to establish his everlasting kingdom in the new heaven and new earth. This is spelt out in the ecumenical creeds of the church and in the evangelical confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. We rejoice in the promise of our salvation and the hope of a renewed creation, purged of the destructive effects of sin.
But then what? How do we live in the meantime? This is hardly an academic question but cuts to the heart of our faith, which, as St. James the Apostle tells us, is dead if it does not bear fruit in works of righteousness (James 2:17, 26). As I’ve read some of the discussion surrounding the Manhattan Declaration, I have been, not exactly confused (as Joe Carter professes to be), but bemused. Bemused enough to ask: if we are saved by grace, exactly what are we saved for? To be sure, we are saved from sin and from the power of death that comes in its wake. But what are the implications of this salvation for the way we live life indeed all of life, including those elements that characterize our social, political, economic and artistic life? Or are these fields of human endeavour exempt from the sinful patterns that produce the need for salvation in the first place?
The answer to the latter question is absolutely not. We human beings have a wilful tendency to embrace idols of our own making in every area of life, not just in our church or devotional life. Redemption in Jesus Christ renews God’s good creation in its totality, and not just abstract individual souls. Redemption reaches into the remote corners of everyday life, renewing the ordinary activities that are a part of our created nature as God’s image-bearers and shapers of culture.
If this is true, then it suggests that gospel and law in the larger sense are not the dialectical polarities that some make them out to be. Jesus never repudiated the law but came to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17):
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-19).
It is true, of course, that the apostles released gentile converts from their obligation to follow all the intricacies of the mosaic law code (Acts 15:1-35). St. Paul condemned those who would impose circumcision on the early Christians and asserted unequivocally that “no one is justified before God by the law” (Galatians 3:11). Nevertheless, Paul could never have argued that Christians are free from the law whereby God governs the cosmos and the norms given to his image-bearers for living. Paul was not an antinomian and took pains to repudiate those who misinterpreted his teachings in such a way. We are by no means free from the central command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Galatians 5:13-14). In fact, Paul goes so far as to write that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
How is this relevant to the debate over the Manhattan Declaration? Its relevance comes in the confession that the gospel does have an impact on the ways we live our lives politically. Politics is not a realm of neutral rationality, as some would have it. Along with the rest of life, it is the setting for a cosmic struggle between competing false gods whether these be the jealous gods of individual rights, the messianic proletariat or the redemptive nation. This is the point I attempt to make in my own Political Visions and Illusions.
There are good reasons to critique the Manhattan Declaration. For example, its treatment of religious freedom contains troubling language concerning the supposedly “unconstrained conscience” of man. To hold that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” appears to downplay the extent to which he uses the communities, including the institutional church, of which we are part to shape our hearts and minds for his service.
Yet if we confess that the gospel changes everything, reorienting the way we live our entire lives, even our lives in community, then the issues addressed by the Declaration can hardly fall outside the scope of the gospel in this sense. Changing laws will not bring anyone to salvation. However, it may well be that efforts at legal reform are among the fruits of that salvation.