But that’s hardly stopped me before, has it?
First, the observation: many of our gospel presentations — in Bible studies, talks and private conversations — focus on justification by faith not human effort.
Now, there’s lots going for this. We’re rightly keen to maintain that God saves us from beginning to end by his grace. But questions have been raised (and not just on mission) about whether this almost exclusive focus really reflects the biblical emphasis or whether its more indicative of debates current in Sixteenth Century Europe.
Here’s the slightly controversial suggestion: Could it be that we’re fighting the wrong battles? Are we hung up on old debates, while the questions people are asking and thus the sharp edges of the gospel of Jesus as it addresses our culture have shifted? (OK, so Geoff beat me to the punch here by a couple of days.)
Before I’m misheard — if it’s not already too late! — let me be clear about what I’m not saying: The denial of merit theology — the attempt to earn salvation through ethical performance — is definitely an implication of the gospel of salvation by grace alone.
What I’m asking is if it’s quite true that merit and achievement (and ultimately the attempt to earn salvation) is the abiding concern of everyday people today. More significantly, I wonder if it’s the sole — or even the central — concern against which the NT authors carve out the doctrine of salvation in Christ alone. Might not identity perhaps be the more central concern in both contexts?
Take Romans 4 for example — a favourite text at many a Moore College mission because of its apparent contrast between ‘do’ and ‘done’ religion, our efforts to be justified by ‘works’ and God’s gracious achievement for us in Jesus, which we appropriate by faith. Michael Bird (The Saving Righteousness of God, p 73) has some astute and nicely balanced word on this:
It is genuinely tempting to say that these “works” [mentioned towards the start of the passage] refer to acts of personal righteousness completed prior to the giving of the law, rendered plausible by the contrast of gift and debt in vv. 4-5. But that is only half the story. For in Paul’s epistles “law” and “works of the law” ordinarily signifies the Mosaic legislation. Moreover, Paul is refuting the view that Abraham was justified by keeping the law in protological form, constructing his argument along redemptive-historical lines (cf. Gal. 3.17) rather than offering an atemporal treatise [on] why good deeds cannot save.
While it would be going to far to replace ethics with ethnicity, it’s worth recognising how closely linked they are in Paul’s thinking. As Bird goes on to explain (p 74), ‘It is […] the social and soteriological function of the law (which circumcision supremely represents) that Paul confronts as demonstrative of his thesis: justification by faith alone’.
My suggestion is that the trope of identity might best accommodate both these dimensions. What’s more, it may well open up for us some exciting and incisive new ways to proclaim Christ. Isn’t it worth working on how to do this so that his universal claim as Lord — and his gracious promise as Saviour — speaks powerfully and directly into the lives of the practical atheist, the Muslim, the vaguely spiritual multicultural liberal and the angst-ridden emo kid?