The Church and the Better Place

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 7.53.41 AMJohn Nugent, in his book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, comes now to a decisive point in  his proposal: how does the church related to God’s vision of the “better place”? Recall that Nugent sketches three views, none of which is as robustly biblical as the proposal he offers (and I agree with Nugent in many ways):

1. The Heaven-Centered View

For almost two millennia, most Christians have hoped to leave behind all the pain of bodily existence in a fallen world and go to heaven after they die. Such people are realistic about sin’s destructive consequences and skeptical that much good will come from the mess that sin has made of God’s good creation. So God sent Jesus to provide a way out. Some people believe this happens immediately after we die. Others associate it with the second coming of Jesus. Either way, their conviction is that Jesus will raise his people from the dust of the earth and take them to be where he has been since ascending to heaven to prepare a better place for them. According to this view, God’s kingdom is not here and not yet. It is in the future and in heaven (9).

Though most believers and a good number of unbelievers once adhered to the heaven-centered view, it is rapidly losing ground—so much so that it is no more likely to make a comeback than flat earth or geocentric universe theories (10).

2. The Human-Centered View

Believers who abandon all hope of someday going to heaven typically embrace an earth-oriented view. 1 It affirms that when Jesus came and preached the kingdom of God, he was establishing a charter for how God’s will could be done on earth as in heaven. He was casting a world-transforming vision of social and economic justice. When people of faith embrace this vision and put it into action, they advance God’s kingdom and make this world better. Jesus began making this world a better place. It is the church’s responsibility to finish the job. I call this view “human centered” because it is pretty much up to humans to make this world a better place (10).

Things will progressively improve only as humans embrace and implement God’s vision on a global scale (10).

The most important and central idea is this: history progresses in stages toward the kingdom of God through human effort (11).

The strongest criticism of this view is its optimistic take on what humans can and will accomplish in this world (11).

It has become increasingly difficult to imagine this world getting significantly better without some sort of dramatic divine intervention (11).

3. The World-Centered View

The fastest growing Christian view of a better place is world centered. It is most critical of the heaven-centered view. In keeping with the spirit of our age, its proponents tend to be ecologically sensitive. God made this world, he cares about this world, his people should care about this world, and he will indeed redeem this world (11).

Nugent thinks this view takes the best of the previous two and combines them.

It focuses on this world. It denies that humans will bring the kingdom. It acknowledges that the kingdom has already begun in Jesus. It insists that Jesus will return to finalize God’s kingdom and raise the faithfully departed to enjoy that kingdom forever (15).

But, is this the Bible’s view? He thinks not. “What I find lacking is its ecclesiology—how it presents the church’s nature and mission. Though it recognizes the uniqueness of God’s set apart people, it does not properly distinguish between the specific calling of God’s people and the generic calling of all people. It presumes that because God will ultimately restore all things, it is the church’s job to begin restoring all things. Though we will not bring God’s kingdom, we are still responsible for striving to make the world a better place” (15).

In chp 10 he discusses finally how the church is related to God’s vision of the better place.

God is making the world a better place, which is to say, God’s work is “new creation.” The church is the citizenship of that new creation and at the same time called to be God’s ambassadors to summon the world into the better place, into reconciliation with God and others. Eg 2 Cor 5:17-21 and Romans 10:14-15.

How so?

1. The church is to embrace the kingdom
2. The church is to embody the kingdom
3. The church is to proclaim that kingdom

Notice this features of a NT kingdom theology that brings to the surface what #1 (embrace the kingdom) means, and in our next two posts we’ll dip into #2 and #3:

1. We have entered into a new era in world history: Matt 4:17
2. We have entered into a new world reality: 2 Cor 5:17
3. We have entered into a new life: Col 2:12; 3:1

4. We have entered into a new social reality and set of relationships: 2 Cor 5:16; Gal 3:28; Eph 1:13-15; 2:21-22
5. We have entered into a new way of living: Col 2:10; 1 John 1:7; 1 Thess 5:4-5
6. We have entered into a new status: Phil 3:20
7. We have entered into God’s abundant blessings: Mark 10:29-30; Gal 1:4

“We cannot accept forgiveness of sins and an eternal afterlife without embracing the abundant life and new world that God has called us into even now in the body of Christ” (84).

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