Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 7)

At the end of the last installment, I mentioned the doctrine of election. When we hear that word “election,” our minds immediately turn to the 400 year-old debate between Calvin and Arminius. That debate helps us to wrestle with some of the deepest mysteries of our faith, especially the tension between human freedom and God’s sovereignty. But that debate misses a great deal of what I want to talk about here.

Here I want to focus on some aspects of election found in Romans chapters 9-11. Paul didn’t write those chapters to settle modern theological debates. He was expounding on the relationship between the Gentiles and Jews. He was trying to explain why the nation of Israel, which had been created and chosen by God to receive the gospel and carry it to the world, rejected Christ and failed to carry out its mission. And he was relating that explanation to his teaching that righteousness must always come by faith alone, not by observing the law. I imagine that if we could ask the Apostle Paul about the merits of Calvinism versus Arminianism, he would respond with a very puzzled look, not because he never heard of Calvin or Arminius, but because to him this debate would sound very odd.

As modern evangelicals, we tend to think of salvation in terms of the rescue of individuals. We imagine humanity as an endless parade of souls marching along on a highway to hell, and our mission is to pluck as many souls as we can off that road and set them on the path to heaven. If we follow this thinking to its logical conclusion, the most faithful Christian is the one who asks everyone he meets, “If you were to die this afternoon, do you think you would go to heaven?” The most effective missionary is the one with the highest number of converts. And the overarching goal of discipleship is to change each person into a lean, mean, soul-saving machine. Other aspects of gospel work — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the lonely, and so on — are just for the sake of good public relations, to open people’s hearts and prepare them for the “real” purpose of evangelism, which is to close the deal and get everyone converted and baptized before they die.

I am not saying that this individual-rescue idea of salvation is entirely wrong. I do believe that there is a great deal of truth in it. But this is not the way that the gospel is presented in the New Testament. It is the mindset of a 19th-century tent revivalist, not the language of Jesus, Peter or Paul. One reason why the New Testament doesn’t present the gospel in those terms is that Hebrew people had radically different notions of what it means to be a person.

In our understanding, a person is an autonomous being, one who exercises independence in thought, decision and action. In debates about abortion, for example, one of the key questions is, “When should a fetus be considered a person?” Many have argued that a fetus should be considered a person when it becomes viable and has a reasonable chance of surviving outside the mother’s womb. This modernist notion of persons shows up in that famous statement by Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” His existence as a person is validated when he exercises his own rational thought.

But the Hebrews who wrote the Bible had different ideas about personhood. To the Jewish mind, a person was someone who was had significant relationships with others. At the beginning of Romans 9, Paul wishes that he could be cut off from Christ if only his fellow Israelites would be saved. To us, that desire seems very strange. Who among us would be willing to be condemned for all eternity to save other people, many of whom we have never met? But to Paul it made sense, because he never regarded himself as a lone wolf. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee among Pharisees (Acts 23:6, Php 3:5). His personal identity was so closely bound to his people that he couldn’t imagine himself being separated from them. If being with Christ was going to cut him off from his community, he almost didn’t want to be with Christ.

The other apostles had similar feelings. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) When we read this, we tend to scoff at the disciples: “How could they possibly think that way? Didn’t they realize that Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom, not a political one?” But their question was perfectly legitimate. They couldn’t imagine a gospel message that would personally save them without also restoring their nation. Given all the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament, and given what Paul says in Romans 9-11, their question is defensible and biblically sound. The Hebrew God cares about individuals, but he also cares about the nations and especially about his chosen people. How often do the Old Testament prophets speak God’s word not to individuals but to the nations and to Israel?

In chapter 7 of The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin argues that the idea of persons as relational beings is consistent with Scripture and with orthodox Christian belief. It is rooted in the understanding of God as Father, Son and Spirit – three persons in one God. Human beings created in his image share in his relational nature. The first mention of human beings appears in Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The Trinitarian God spoke and created people as males and females, designed for relationships with one another. This longing for interpersonal relationship is expressed in sexuality. Sexual attraction, which is hardwired by God into our bodies, minds, emotions and personalities, is the magnetism and glue that creates families. The families produce children and become the building blocks of societies. In addition to these relationships with one another, we were also made to be in relationship with the rest of the created world. Our role in that relationship is to rule over the earth, serving as its stewards and managers (Gen 1:28).

When sin enters the world in Genesis chapter 3, it mars all the relationships that define us as persons. Man’s relationship with himself is broken and he experiences shame. He runs and hides, a sign of his broken relationship with God. Marital intimacy is cracked as the man blames his wife, and they cover themselves with fig leaves. Their relationship with the world is broken when the ground is cursed and rebels against them, producing thorns and thistles instead of food. When the destruction spreads through Adam’s family to his descendants and to all of society (chapters 4-6), God decides to scrub the world by a devastating flood. But the flood doesn’t solve the problem, because human beings remain evil from childhood (Gen 8:21). Human efforts to fix up the world are doomed to fail, as evidenced by the Tower of Babel, and the disunity, conflict and chaos continue (Gen 11:1-9).

If sin destroyed the relationships that make the world run as it should, then shouldn’t the gospel be about repairing relationships and restoring the world? Yes; that is how the Bible is structured. World history is a story with four great acts. Act 1 is creation: God made the world and everything in it; then he created people to love him, to love one another, and to take care of the earth. Act 2 is the Fall: sin entered the world and destroyed our relationships with God, with one another, and with the created world. Act 3 is redemption, which began with Abraham and ended at the cross. God paid the price for sin through the death of his son. Act 4 is restoration, when God remakes humanity and the earth. Restoration begins with the resurrection of Christ, his ascension to heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this post-Pentecostal era, the Holy Spirit is working to restore our relationships with God, with one another and with the world. Act 4 will continue until Jesus returns to completely destroy sin and death, to raise our bodies and establish the new heaven and the new earth.

If we see God’s purpose as holistic restoration of mankind and the world, then our understanding of our mission must be broader than saving individual souls so they can go to heaven. The Church must be involved in the healing of relationships at all levels: our relationship with God (evangelism and worship), our relationships to ourselves (physical and psychological healing), our relationships with our spouses and children (healing of families), our relationships with our neighbors and with all society (healing of communities and nations), and even our relationships to the created world (environmental stewardship). No single individual can do all these things effectively, but the Church as a whole can do them by allowing different parts of the Body of Christ to perform their specialized functions. These activities of the Church will not transform the whole earth and usher in the kingdom of God; that will happen when Jesus returns. But the working of the Holy Spirit through the Church serves as a witness, a sign, and a foretaste of the kingdom that is already breaking into the world.

So what does all this have to do with election? That’s a good question…


  1. Joshua Yoon

    Joe, you put a pretty tough question. It made me think hard to get the point of WSGM Part 7. You said that the Church can contribute to the restoration part of a world history and also all the activities of the Church will not transform the whole earth and it will be done when Jesus returns. If this is the case, shouldn’t we seek the return of Christ day and night? What is the meanging of the Church’s engagement in the slow process of restoration even with the work of the Holy Spirit? Romans says that Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in (Rom 11:25) and will receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. (11:31) How many more Gentiles are to be counted before this hardening is gone? What number of God’s goal for the Jews? What if the Gentiles who have been grafted in harden their hearts? I guess that’s the time for the Jews to receive mecy again. It seems that this can run in cycle forever. At what point is God going to stop this process and let Jesus return? I am sure God has a master plan of who will be elected and when the complete restoration will come. I believe all I have to do is to stay humble and obedient to Him and with full trust in God’s sovereign choice and zeal, be engaged in the healing work of the Holy Spirit as a member of the Church. Paul started chap 10-11 with his sorrow and anguish over Israel’s rejection of the gospel but ended with awe and praise of the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord?…(Rom 11:36) I would like to listen to how others will answer Joe’s good and tough question.

    • Joshua Yoon

      correction. Paul started chap 9-11, not 10-11.

  2. Hi Joshua, I think that probably Zechariah 13 as a whole, but especially vs.8-9 describe who the eschatologically saved Israel will be…that is the view of Macarthur, and I asked D.A. Carson in class about what he thought about those verses and he said “maybe!”

    And Joe, I am curious about one of your statements, you said, “Act 4 is restoration, when God remakes humanity and the earth. Restoration begins with the resurrection of Christ, his ascension to heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this post-Pentecostal era, the Holy Spirit is working to restore our relationships with God, with one another and with the world. Act 4 will continue until Jesus returns to completely destroy sin and death, to raise our bodies and establish the new heaven and the new earth.” By this statement I am wondering if you take a “Postmillennial” approach to the end times as opposed to Amil or Premil? Because Postmils believe that the  church will continue to make the world better and better and defeat the forces of Satan more and more right up until the return of Christ, and ofcourse Amils and Premils almost say the opposite ie. that the world will continue to get worse until the Glorious Appearing. Or perhaps I am reading too much into your point that we should help our communities…

    One more thing, we  cannot deny that personal, individual  salvation from Hell and Judgement  plays a huge role in the gospels and the rest of the  New Testament (and not just in 19th century revival meetings). I know that Tom  Wright and others with his theological bent make arguments to the contrary, but there are plenty of verses that are explicit on this point like when Jesus says to the pharisees in Matt 23, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” or, “He who does not believe stands condemned already” or, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Or, “…”Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

    YES we do have to have concern for our communities and promote social justice  and be peacemakers and facilitate restoration etc. However I think that those things count for absolutely nothing without the Gospel also being preached. Otherwise, like Kevin DeYoung said at the Desiring God Conference, “Angelina Jolie does all of those things, without preaching the Gospel of salvation from sin and hell,  and restoration with God, how are we different from her?”

  3. Hi Joshua and David,

    Thank you for these insightful comments. You both understood the point of my article quite well. The work of the Church is paradoxical, isn’t it? We long for Christ’s kingship and we seek to display his rule over every aspect of life, but we know that his rule will not be revealed until his return. We speak and live as though Christ is the victor over death, and yet we die. Missionaries carry the gospel from one nation to another, and  as the church grows on the new mission field, the church on the home front weakens and wanes. To the naked eye, church history, world history and missions do not look like a one-directional march toward victory; it’s more like a step forward, then a step back. Many of our best efforts seem to end in humiliating defeat. But in defeat and failure we may be experiencing the greatest victory, as Jesus did when he went to the cross.

    These paradoxes were found in the earthly ministry of Jesus. He healed lepers but did not wipe out leprosy. He fed the 5,000 but did not wipe out hunger. He raised Lazarus and yet Lazarus eventually died. He preached the gospel to his nation, but his nation rejected and killed him. The good  works of Jesus are called miraculous “signs.” They are not the reality; they are  signs pointing to the reality. The Holy Spirit continues this work in the church. The Spirit is the arrabon, the downpayment and foretaste of the glorious world to come.

    Signs are easily misinterpreted, so the performing of signs must be accompanied by understandable preaching of Christ. Christ is the gospel, and the gospel is Christ. But Christ can be revealed very powerfully by disciples who plainly and clearly love him and love others, even if they are not aggressively proselytizing (Mother Theresa did not). God’s mission is the activity of the whole Church, not of any single part. If Christians are proselytizing in ways that do not involve true worship, in ways that do not show love, in ways that hurt rather than heal, in ways that divide rather then reconcile, in ways that elevate principles over persons, then something has gone very wrong. Too much of that, in my opinion, has resulted from Christians seeing their mission  in terms of  church growth and individual rescue rather then placing it in the great narrative of biblical history. We are supposed to be displaying the image of Christ, not acting like heartless soldiers, pushy salesmen or drive-by evangelists. If we claim to be serving the gospel but are not worshiping God and are disengaged from our spouses, families, and communities, then what are we doing? The gospel is about Christ who came to restore relationships so that persons can become true persons again.

  4. David, in answer to your specific question about the end times: I consider myself a pan-millennialist; I’m just waiting to see how it all pans out.

    More seriously: I believe that Jesus can  return at any time. I am looking for his coming and longing for it. The early Christians believed that Jesus’ return may be imminent, and so should we. When he comes, I think Christians of many eschatological schools will be taken by surprise. And I plan to listen to Family Radio on May 22 to find out what Harold has to say.

  5. Oh yes my friend, I will be listening on that day as well!…I guess my question is, do you think that the world is getting and will get  better or worse or the same  morally?

    • Realistically, I do not see how anyone can deny that things have been getting better and worse at the same time throughout Christian history and both are happening today. American churches are in decline, and as they continue to decline, new doors for the gospel open among people who are disillusioned with churches. When I look at the world today and see the vast numbers of “unreached” people, I don’t think it’s merely because of Christian’s laziness, lack of effort, etc. that the world hasn’t been converted. I do not think that the world hasn’t changed because we have not sent out enough missionaries. Western churches sent out huge numbers of missionaries in previous generations, but the missions didn’t take off as they planned, due in no small part to the mission-station strategy that I blogged about earlier. I think churches began to lose their missionary zeal when they saw ugliness in their own efforts and the cry “Missionary go home!” began to weigh on their consciences. Some turned to a purely social gospel, but that didn’t help either. God is doing interesting things among us, unexpected things, and I have hope that there are great things to come. But I don’t harbor any illusions that the church will triumphalistically conquer the nations and thereby usher in God’s kingdom. The apostles at first believed a similar thing about Israel, and they were wrong.

    • Joshua Yoon

      I did not know what Joe and you talked about. So I researched Family Radio and Harold. I am curious what will happen on May 22. I am not sure about on which position I stand, pre or post or amillennialism. One thing I do believe is that Jesus will come only in response to the outcry and longing of His Bride, “Come, Lord Jesus!” across the globe. If the Church, His Bride has no interest in Jesus the person and no longing and eagerness to spend eternity with the Bridegroom but only pursues numeric increase, I wonder if Jesus will be happy to be back for union (wedding) with the Bride whose heart is on kingdom business, not on Himself. (Rev 19:7-9)

  6. Don’t mean to be uncharitable here, but Harold C@mping from Family Radio has been wrong before:

    • But then again, who am I to deny the man a second chance?
      As Chesterton once said, “There are many, many angles at which one can fall but only one angle at which one can stand straight.”